The Biggest Animated Moments of Winter 2017by Kevin Cirugeda,
It's been a few weeks since most winter 2017 TV anime offerings came to an end. And that means we're due a rundown of the titles that stood out from an animation standpoint – not just the series with the most movement, but the most effective usages of it. Which were the most robust productions? The strongest usages of the tools only available in this medium? Whose directors had a solid vision and the means to execute it? Let's see!
Miss Kobayashi's Maid Dragon: The Range of Animation
There could be an entire essay exclusively on the nuanced character animation in this show. You could also write about the more isolated yet also thoroughly solid pieces of action. And through a colder analytic lens, you could try to dissect the many approaches to motion and drawings that are present in the series. However, I feel like the defining aspect of Maidragon’s craft isn't any of those individual parts, but the convergence of all those registers and then some more. As outrageous as its premise is, the series is at heart an unlikely family tale that lovingly depicts their everyday life. It's understandable then that the notoriously articulate way in which mundane actions are depicted isn't flourish, but rather an integral part of this story. Similar care is put onto the more overt acting moments, whether they are restrained scenes or high tension ones, with a consistent finesse that only a studio filled to the brim with capable character animators can pull off; the fact that this is far from their strongest accomplishment is only further testament to their skill. For a standard series, achieving that level of expression would be a feat already, especially taking into account the level of polish that is always maintained.
That was clearly not enough for the director Yasuhiro Takemoto and the rest of the crew, though. While nailing the warm household was important, there was an important detail: these girls are dragons. And as it turns out, playtime for massive winged lizards entails quite a bit of chaos. The series featured the final steps in the promotion of the young Shinpei Sawa to the role of episode director, which had an appreciable effect in this regard; Sawa's entire career has been tied to Kyoto Animation, as he first graduated from their animator training course and then went on to join the studio that he's exclusively worked for all this time. He happens to be a fan of imposing creatures, robots, action and effects, so it's no surprise that he was first trusted with the second episode of this series. The hectic movement was at its most abundant there, and Sawa decided to personally animate a big chunk of it despite his directional workload. Alongside other action specialists at the studio like Yoshiji Kigami and Kunihiro Hane, they made sure that those moments were genuinely well put together, even for a simple gag.
And that is something that applies to the entire production, which nonchalantly cycles through different styles but treats them all with due respect. The levels of stylization constantly fluctuate. Realistic movement coexists with cartoony exaggeration. There's paper cut-outs, hidden impact frames and FX shapes, rose-tinted shoujo manga fantasies, restricted palettes on both important memories and traumatic nightmares, even breath-taking fantasy lands. The series doesn't reach all-time production heights by any stretch, but all episodes are an endless parade of new approaches. Changes that sometimes occur for a mere scene, be it a silly joke or a surprisingly poignant dramatic beat, but are still genuinely strong executions of that particular idea. With its resourcefulness alone, Maidragon would stand out from any other series this season. The fact that it can brilliantly execute the many things it does makes it an easy favorite.
While the first title I chose to highlight is generally perceived as a high profile production thanks to its thorough polish, series like this have a harder time gaining appreciation within the fandom. Neither KONOSUBA nor Akiba's Trip are consistently well crafted shows – a rarity amongst TV anime to begin with – and their highlights are often at odds with what viewers hold in high esteem. What many fans perceive as good animation has little to do with well executed drawings, let alone effective motion; a fancy coat of postproduction (which is a genuine asset, don't get me wrong) and consistently on-model character art are what tends to do the trick. Titles like these two can't afford either, and if they could they might spit on the concept anyway. There's an inherent disrespect towards stiff consistency in Koichi Kikuta's design sheets for KONOSUBA. He conceived characters with loose forms and slovenly looks, which is rather appropriate for a cast full of misfit heroes, and achieved unusually high levels of expression thanks to the lack of restraint. Even when it comes to its fanservice, the show can be amusingly self-indulgent; the obscene exaggeration of any titillating scene and yet unusual consideration of the sagginess of breasts purely comes down to Kikuta's preferences, rather than trying to make attractive for as many viewers as possible. I can't blame anyone for being put off by any of these choices, but it's weirdly refreshing to see a series defying the norm in favor of interesting craft, even when it comes to obscenely exaggerated cartoon breasts.
There's a catch to this all, of course. It's only at its best that KONOSUBA abandons its character models for a good cause, rather than simply featuring awkwardly uncorrected footage. Loose art can quickly degrade into sloppy drawings. While the series gets away with it to some degree thanks to its solid fundamentals, during some outsourced and rushed episodes it's restricted by the stiffness it so wanted to escape, on top of no character looking quite right. Learning to differentiate between deliberate departures from the models and flat-out weak drawings is no exact science, but it's an important step when it comes to gaining visual literacy for anime. And shows like KONOSUBA embody that distinction, sometimes to a fault.
Akiba's Trip is in a similar position, as it also sits far away from what anime fans embrace as good craft. Its director Hiroshi “ahoboy” Ikehata has a passionate, irreverent stance towards animation; his hectic episodes nurturing young talent on shows like Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood and Zettai Karen Children are still beloved, but whenever he was allowed more freedom you would get an episode as wild and polarizing as Hayate's Combat Butler #39. Projects he has full control over, like Toei's eccentric Robot Girls Z series, are a perfect example of what he feels animation is capable of. Akiba's Trip follows a similar path, and his best allies within the production embody this spirit. Tamotsu Ogawa has been collaborating with him very often as of late, and he's definitely one of the most idiosyncratic animators in the industry. He toys with perspective not because he lacks artistic fundamentals, but because that can have an impact rational compositions can't achieve. He'll distort the drawings themselves to the point they appear like rough pencil drafts, conveying very raw energy in the process. Even his morphing sequences are likely to trigger ‘this is poorly drawn’ responses from many viewers. The young Takayuki Kitagawa, who key animated the entirety of episode #5 and still got to show up some more, subverts expectations in a different way – it's all in the timing for him. Good animation is also often linked to fluidity, and yes he often discards that smoothness (which he's capable of) to convey more character through snappy movements. Much like KONOSUBA however, the overall production is still very uneven; there's rarely middle ground after the first episode, so whenever it's not exploiting these fascinating tools unique to animation, it's just a rather mediocre TV production. A disclaimer that sadly needs to be attached to most TV anime, but one that doesn't invalidate its strong points.
ACCA: Stiff Elegance
ACCA's final placement in this rundown is not arbitrary, since it does pale in comparison to the more spectacular titles supported by rich movement. This doesn't mean that flashy equals good when it comes to animation, but ACCA goes beyond low-key into simply stiff territory. There is a clear pattern for the series; about half the show was fully outsourced, and there's quite the gap between those subcontracted episodes and the in-house material. The small core crew put off beautifully polished work with some room for character animation, whereas the outsourced episodes had to sacrifice any complex acting or even ambitious layouts just to keep the drawings on-model. It's not an ideal outcome for sure, but this approach allowed them to maintain something very important: the sense of elegance. ACCA is disguised as a political thriller, but it's a series without many developments that will likely not grab you if you're looking for an eventful tale. Its appeal is instead its engrossing atmosphere, always appealing in a delicate way. This is a mix of the understated yet not barebones direction, Studio Pablo's gorgeous settings, and even Norifumi Kugai's handsome recreation of Natsume Ono's designs. They're rare instances, but sometimes the motion itself also embodies that refined appeal. The term is thrown around whenever there's an anime with an unusual aesthetic, but ACCA is genuinely stylish.
I imagine some animation fans might be disappointed with how the series turned out to be – despite the production featuring names that tend to be synonymous with excellent animation, there isn't all that much movement in the show. And yes, as a character story it could have greatly benefited from having way more moments with thorough character acting. But I've got to praise the show for its smart management and effective execution of their goals; the team prioritized maintaining its dignified feel, and the result was an ACCA adaptation that seems as good as the project could realistically be. Ambition is laudable, but so is being aware of your limitations. Rather than a version of this series that started off with luxurious movement then came crashing down, I'm glad we got one that stayed relatively graceful all the way through.
These are the titles I chose to highlight, but that's of course not all the good craft that last season had to offer. I don't want to ruin the surprise since Netflix still isn't streaming Little Witch Academia TV outside of Japan, but that is a fine display of animation as well. The switch to TV format has been more taxing on the production than its spectacular beginning seemed to hint at, but its cartoony heart and the rare strong gatherings of creators like episodes #3 and #8 are delightful. Tales of Zestiria was quite the rushed production by ufotable standards, but even a weak project can shine under their intricate composite, especially when artists like Masayuki Kunihiro and Go Kimura show up. Similarly, Gabriel DropOut also but some of the best assets tied to studio Dogakobo to good use now and then, despite not being impressive overall; the first episode was particularly strong, as one third of it was animated by the ace Nobuyuki Mitani. The moments where he departed from the original storyboard to add extra character flair left the strongest impression. He has sadly left the industry after this project, but hopefully he'll eventually recover and return to his post. A bit of a sad note to end this piece, but tragedy is inescapable in the current anime industry, even if you're highlighting its best work.
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