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This Week in Anime
The Dynamic Direction of Mamoru Hatakeyama

Mamoru Hatakeyama, the director of Undead Murder Farce has a career as colorful as the anime. Steve and Chris invite us to take a look at his other amazing and stylish works.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by the participants in this chatlog are not the views of Anime News Network.
Spoiler Warning for discussion of the series ahead.

All the anime included in this column are streaming on Crunchyroll, except Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen, which is on HiDive

@Lossthief @BeeDubsProwl @NickyEnchilada @vestenet

Steve, it's that time again. Hayao Miyazaki's latest (but still not last) film is getting ready to make its way west. That means it's time for a whole bunch of English-language film/TV journalists to act like he's still the only anime director worth knowing, with maybe a spot on the side open for Makoto Shinkai. This stems from my claims as someone who keeps up with anime as an art form since I know there is many a director in the industry today who deserves to be a household name!

Some of them, like Shinichi Omata/Mamoru Hatakeyama, even have a couple of names, if they're lucky.
As a pair of professional anime snobs, we've accumulated bags full of directors, artists, animators, and all kinds of creators who contribute to the medium and deserve tons more recognition. It's the fate of nerds who care about stuff. But let's ignore the larger media environment: some people have managed to break into mainstream success within the comfortable confines of the anime sphere, yet may not be as well known or renowned as they should be amongst our fellow weebs. Hatakeyama has risen from obscurity to deliver some stone-cold stunners as of late, so I think he fits the bill quite nicely. Plus, this gives me another chance to talk about how good Undead Murder Farce is.
Yes, we're heading back to the Murder Farce mines again, at least to start. With Nick and Nicky having discussed the series earlier this season, and with you writing weekly reviews of it, that means much of the conversational coverage of the show has been handled (to say nothing of exhausting all the head-based puns). However, it does provide us the opportunity to springboard into discussing its director and his overall approach. Because Hatakeyama's involvement was pretty much the defining element that put Murder Farce on anyone's radar going into this season!
He's become a showrunner who can sell me on an anime by his presence alone. Doesn't necessarily mean I'll stick with it (as we'll get into), but it's enough to guarantee I'll give it a shot, irrespective of anything else. While I can only speak for myself, of course, that's a pretty exclusive club to be in!
Hatakeyama's penchant for arresting visual direction gives him a knack for drawing viewers in at the start of a series (to say nothing of the often outlandish bangers of OPs his shows tend to have). And it makes sense if you're familiar with where he comes from. While the notoriety of his show-running sensibilities feels comparatively recent (with his big mainstream hit Kaguya-sama: Love Is War coming out just in 2019), he's been around for well over a decade. Particularly, he started coming up in studio SHAFT in 2009, doing storyboards and directing episodes for them under his Shinichi Omata name.
SHAFT is the guiding star of his current style and the road to its formation, but I'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention his other handful of credits in the mid-'90s through the turn of the century. And yes, most were hentai OVAs he's credited as an animation producer on. It's a perfectly cromulent way to start a career! Take a gander at the resumes of the most renowned and respected artists, and you'll find porno.
Going by many of my favorite manga artists, I agree with that sentiment. This era even net Omata his first directing credit, according to our encyclopedia, on something called (checks notes) Campus.

I am pretty sure this one is not available on any official streaming sites, meaning I wasn't able to sample it for this column and see how it compares to the auteur-esque highs of Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, but at least that also means editorial won't have to contend with me submitting any uncouth screenshots.

Yeah, it's a darn shame most of these new-fangled streaming sites seem so averse to hosting hentai on their servers. Just goes to show how little they care about preserving art for future generations. Weirdly enough, though, we do have a review for one of the OVAs he worked on, Office Affairs, here at ANN. It's so old it doesn't even have a byline.

Office Affairs Sounds kind of interesting! How much of that interest we can chalk up to Omata's involvement, who knows? But every narrative needs a little mystery.

Another mystery is that his credits dropped off around 2001, and only returned in 2009 when he began storyboarding for SHAFT. This is why I'd love to interview him. What did he do during that gap? Was he disillusioned with the job? Did he work under a third unknown alias? Are we wrong and that was a different Shinichi Omata who worked on the low-budget porno tapes?

There's a story there.

Filling in those gaps might expand on the sheer range the director-now-known-as-Hatakeyama has developed up to now. He cultivated plenty of SHAFT-y sensibilities working under their house directors like Akiyuki Simbo and Yukihiro Miyamoto. But as his career has gone on he's proven himself eminently adaptable, equally at home in more straightforward serious serials as he is in madcap comedies.
I do think it's worth emphasizing that he began the current leg of his career storyboarding, and that's remained constant ever since. You hardly see any animation credits out of him, but he storyboards multiple episodes on every series he directs—sometimes over half! It's his forte, and he's damn good at it. The man is a storyboarder among storyboarders. SHAFT's "house style," with its emphasis on pop art, referential humor, hard match cuts, and environmental geometry, among other idiosyncrasies, was a fitting place to hone his distinctive style. Like, you can trace Hidamari Sketch's weirdness through to Kaguya-sama's.

It is funny that so much of what we think of as Hatakeyama's style when watching one of his shows may have evolved out of something in that SHAFT "house style". His regular inclusion of mixing media styles is a trademark but has been around at least since he was directing individual episodes of Arakawa Under the Bridge or Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

You can take the Hatakeyama out of the SHAFT, but you can never take the SHAFT out of Hatakeyama.
...okay that sounded better in my head.
Lest we peg the man too forcefully to one studio, while his roots are important, his growth after SHAFT, like you mentioned previously, proves him to be no one-trick pony. Whether it was deserved or not, Studio Deen became the butt of a lot of jokes around the early 2010s. But then Hatakeyama showed up with a new name and something to prove. And you can feel that passion in the first MINUTE of his (non-porn) directorial debut, Sankarea.

So full disclosure: despite my stated appreciation for Hatakeyama on account of his more recent hits and being aware of his experience, I hadn't gotten around to Sankarea yet. But as we've said, the man's name is encouraging enough to go on, and even then I was still kind of unprepared for just how hard this series goes.

If directing us to this topic was just part of a long con by Nick to get some of his co-writers to finally appreciate this show, then mission accomplished.
He finally got our asses. I only had time to watch the premiere, but there are enough stunning scenes packed into that one episode to fill a normal anime season. The shapes. The layouts. The emotions. The red stain from Shaun of the Dead. It's all here, and it's all so good.

Having made space until recording time now for the first half of the series, I can confirm for you that he just keeps cooking. So many of the Hatakeyama hallmarks are here being honed into their recognizable forms. This includes stuff like the anxiety-inducing aerial angles, seen in several of the pics you already posted. As well there's also stuff like drenched lighting and stark silhouettes. It's in service of something that has a lot of the calculated haphazardness of those SHAFT shows or the coming Kaguya-sama, but isn't wholly a crazy comedy nor does it double down on darkness.

That is to say, it may have an Undead Girl, but it's not quite a Murder Farce.
Horror and comedy are surprisingly similar genres, so little wonder that someone as talented as Hatakeyama can translate proficiency with one into the other. He also has quite the flair for the theatrical, both in the descriptive and literal senses. And both of those senses helped a lot when he tackled Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju.
Compared to Sankarea, which comes off like a buried gem waiting to be rediscovered these days, Rakugo Shinju is the series fans regularly beg people to go back and check out in the wake of Hatakeyama's increased notoriety. An understandable position, given that it's a dense multigenerational historical epic about an inherently classical, inherently Japanese art form that your more casual anime fan might not have a lot of interest in.

But it also means that selling Rakugo Shinju on the back of Hatakeyama's involvement makes a ton of sense, since it's his abilities in directing the show that allow it to necessarily communicate the core appeal of rakugo itself!
Rakugo is about as minimalist as theater can get: one seated performer, like two props, and a standard set of stories where the appeal is what each individual brings to their interpretation. Doesn't sound like the kind of thing that would make for a visually exciting anime, does it? And Rakugo Shinju's presentation is indeed muted compared to the rest of Hatakeyama's oeuvre, but appropriately so. It feels like a mature production that matches the more somber and inquisitive tone of the plot and characters.
Much as the minimalist presentation of Rakugo itself allows the performers to show their raw ability, the act of translating it to engaging anime lets Hatakeyama flex the full power of his storyboarding/director combo.

Revisiting the first couple of episodes for this column just let me be struck all over again by how Hatakeyama can have the performances speak for themselves, with only a few more fanciful directorial flourishes. This includes instances of needing to properly communicate bad performances, something ironically not always easy to do!
I also love to see Hatakeyama get more baroque outside the performances, as we see these characters deal with their personal dramas. Take this one scene from the second season, where we see an older Yakumo evolve from a humorously reluctant caregiver to a sad yet willing caregiver, to a pathetic old man begging for death. His body language, the brief departure into ghostly symbolism, and then that final suffocating close-up on his face all communicate these emotional turns and foreshadow what his arc for the season will be.

This is what I mean when I talk about the range the guy cultivated. Rakugo Shinju is the sort of thing you just wouldn't get (at least not in this form) from SHAFT in the era he served in. Getting to adapt a series like this wholly his way let him show he could communicate emotion and the complex acting of character connections outside of entirely leaning on those earlier, wackier sensibilities. Not that Rakugo Shinju is above deploying some occasional artsier indulgences for impact.
It's one of my favorite anime of the past decade. If you only hopped on the Hatakeyama train at Kaguya-sama or Undead Murder Farce, I highly suggest you go back and give Rakugo Shinju a whirl. Compared to severed heads and lovesick teens, it might seem more boring—because it is—but it's a good, enrapturing, and heart-rending kind of boring.
It is Anime For Grown-Ups in the best way I can pay anything that compliments it, and the success of its subject matter serves as a true showcase of the skills of the director we're discussing here. And that's something that the industry seemed to be taking note of by this point, given how less than a year after he wrapped up the second season of Rakugo Shinju, A-1 Pictures brought Hatakeyama on as the series director for Record of Grancrest War, a (sigh) fantasy light-novel adaptation.
While prepping for this column, I was shocked to discover I already had a folder full of screencaps for this series. I was then even more shocked to find out I had watched SEVEN EPISODES of this back in 2018 and had co-written an entire dang TWIA about it. That should tell you how much of an impact this anime had on me. Not even Hatakeyama could make my brain retain whatever the hell a Grancrest is. But you can see that, even here, he was cooking.

Despite serving as the overall series director, Hatakeyama only personally directed the first and last episodes of the show (though he did, naturally, storyboard a whole bunch of them). The result is pretty much the definition of a middling, generic premise bumped up by above-average execution. Plenty of his pet stylistic choices are present, and the premiere is particularly nice to look at. But it's the sort of thing I found more interesting in that Hatakeyama historical context than the baseline fantasy story it was selling here.

The man can successfully translate Rakugo to animation, but even he's not a miracle worker.
Should also mention that he did a reboot(?) of Rozen Maiden in between Sankarea and Rakugo Shinju, but I still haven't taken the Rozen Maiden plunge, so I can't speak directly on that. It's probably good. Seems like a weird story about living dolls would be up his alley.
That's one I haven't made time for either, for basically the same reason. Though I think Rozen Maiden: Zurückspulen's presence in his catalog can at least be said to speak to Hatakeyama's chameleon-like ability to match his abilities to any given adaptation. That one, Rakugo Shinju, and Grancrest War could not be more different in terms of material, yet he tackled the projects with aplomb regardless.
And a hearty helping of that aplomb certainly went to Kaguya-sama, which is his most mainstream hit, his longest commitment to a single series to date, and also in the running for funniest anime comedy of all time. He applies every single lesson from SHAFT about presenting and editing your comedies as ostentatiously as possible, and the results are glorious. A smorgasbord of styles and laughs.

Going down the timeline for this retrospective, it was only a little jarring to be reminded that the Kaguya-sama anime, and the most visible version of Hatakeyama's sensibilities, has only barely been in our lives for five years now. This series has come to feel like an institution of anime comedy, to the point that, for me, at least, all other anime that premiere in a season with Kaguya-sama are immediately competing with Kaguya-sama.
It's one of the exceedingly rare comedies that only gets funnier as it progresses, and I'd chalk some of that up to Hatakeyama and his team getting bolder and wilder with each cours. Hell, the third season had an ED spoofing Starship Troopers and a rap battle that Hatakeyama himself storyboarded. That's not even a joke anymore. That's art.
The artistry of the series is a big contributor to its effectiveness, in the way Hatakeyama can use his evolved takes on those SHAFT-style mixed-media insertions to perfectly enhance so many of the punchlines. That's to say nothing of how whip-smart direction is a necessity for getting comedy to land, period. But then those other talents he's built up make things work, as you said, when there's not even jokes. This is a show that got me to feel feelings for Ishi-friggin'-gami by the end of its second season.

They then went on to make Ishigami the absolute funniest member of the cast for the third season, because Hatakeyama knows precisely how to keep these things rolling.
Yeah, if we're talking about his strengths specifically as a series director, I think he can pull everyone else into his madness. Doing the lion's share of the storyboarding work certainly helps establish an anime's tone and identity, but he seems to be very good at getting people—and getting the right people—to engage in his brand of chicanery. And Undead Murder Farce is turning into yet another great example of that. With so many questions. Why did he want to recreate a shitty chroma-key effect in a medium that can completely sidestep it?

Did he tell people to try to do a split diopter shot even though it looks jank as heck in a cartoon?

I don't know, but I love that he's getting even weirder and uglier with it. It feels like he's stretching out, testing the limits, going beyond even SHAFT's heaviest indulgences. Godspeed.
It feels like a successful extension of what he proved he could make work going hog-wild in Kaguya-sama. And it's only enhanced in how it draws out the anachronistic aspects of including stuff like that in the (extremely loose) literary historical setting of Murder Farce. Of course then the director also happily uses it as an opportunity to entertain stuff like oblique homages to his prior work with Rakugo.

It's cool; While Murder Farce's source text is a melting pot of all these classic characters of literature, this anime version sees Hatakeyama gleefully borrowing and boosting concepts he honed getting to this adaptation.
Selling him on directing this had to be the easiest job ever. And it's so eye-popping fun to watch. You could almost call it a victory lap, but I don't foresee Hatakeyama slowing down, let alone stopping anytime soon.

That's for sure, and it does keep me all too curious about what he'll wind up doing next. Beyond the always-present hope for more Kaguya-sama (as well as for ongoing extensions of Murder Farce itself now), it makes me wonder how Hatakeyama might handle, at this point, stepping out of the realm of adaptation and tackling directing an original series. He should be able to write his own ticket by this point, and it's at least cool to have the confidence that no matter what, he'll never stop putting his entire ass into the projects he's on.
One cool thing about Murder Farce is that its production at Lapin Track has had him working with Ikuhara collaborators like Nobuyuki Takeuchi (also another SHAFT alum) and Shingo Kaneko. It's easy to imagine Hatakeyama going full arthouse and doing an Ikuhara-esque anime as divisive as it is unforgettable. But he also certainly seems comfortable with his avant-garde approach to adaptations. As long as his storyboarding eye never dulls, I think our brief survey here supports his ability to apply his talents pretty much anywhere. He's a mountain of a figure in this art form, and a beacon to the two of us—and, I hope, to more of you now.
I don't think I could have ended tonight's little journey any better myself. So to you, and the fine viewers I hope we've convinced you to check out the likes of Sankarea or Rakugo Shinju, I can only say thank you, and good night!

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