I’ve talked throughout this blog about Yamada Naoko — Kyoani’s poster director. Throughout the years of watching anime or media in general, I’ve come to grow immensely attached to this relatively young director’s work. Through an explanation of Kyoani, Yamada Naoko, her style, and her masterful works, I will attempt to briefly fill in the gaps about why I mention Yamada Naoko pretty much every time I mention something positive. While this won’t be a detailed analysis of all of her shows unlike the lengthy Liz and the Blue Bird analysis that I did before, it will try to draw a timeline of how Yamada Naoko came to be the director she is at the moment. I’ll start with K-on then move to Tamako Market, then to her films. 

6 Kanji (Director Yamada Naoko) that gives me more joy that anything else in the world

In the 2000s, Kyoani was going through its first golden years. Following the success of Air in 2003, Clannad in 2007 and 2008, and especially with Haruhi in 2006, Kyoani quickly became one of the most prominent studios around. However, as such shows ran alongside Munto, a relatively low quality, earlier work from the studio, combined with the infamous endless eight of the Haruhi sequel created a voice of worry about the studio. 

The director that killed all such worries was Yamada Naoko, a young, new director who’s only prior directing experience was as an episode director of Clannad after story.

As many know, Yamada Naoko’s first series directing role came from K-on — the legendary, one of the highest selling anime of all time. However, unlike what many may imagine, Yamada Naoko’s style is not very prominent throughout the first season of K-on. None of the reasons which makes all of her other shows great, which is to be described later, is really too prominent in the first season of K-on. That isn’t to say K-on isn’t great; in fact, it is one of my all time favorite shows. K-on’s key selling points — the fun characters — build one of the most enjoyable atmospheres to just be around. However, this isn’t necessarily because of Yamada Naoko. While it is definitely true that there are specific directing choices influenced by Yamada Naoko — the legs to express emotion and characters that we will see more in the future, the fun poses like the jazz hands, live action like use of focus, or the use of really fluid character designs — they are not as stylistic or symbolistic of Yamada Naoko as they will be in the future. In fact, most of the directing choices in the show resemble that of other comedy animes; the zoom into characters as they walk towards the camera, the tsukkomis that end with huge bumps on characters, showing expressions in the manga-like manner through lines and signs like sweat  — common choices made to emphasize the comedic moments. 

It isn’t as though these “common” choices are a problem, and as mentioned, there were sprinkles of her stylistic features throughout the show. In fact, choices are some of what made K-on one of the highest selling and, in my opinion, one of the most enjoyable anime series of all time. 

It’s also not wrong to say that K-on is visually great. The character designs are made perfectly for animation to create a lot of different fluid effects for comedic situations, the setting and background is so filled every moment, the colors look so soft and relaxing to watch, and the camera captures what it needs to capture at every moment with no weird pacing issues with cuts.

But visually, when we compare K-on to the ending visuals, Storyboarded solely by Yamada Naoko, or any of her future works, none of these choices weren’t as aesthetically shocking or stylized as you would expect it to be. A lot of the moments, as mentioned, are like the photo above — facial expression focused shots to portray situations or emotions. Nothing close to her use of objects and action we see in the future.

Rather than the visuals, what made Yamada Naoko’s directorial debut so great in the first season was Yoshida Reiko — script writer of many different slice of life, or coming of age shows. Aria, a prominent example of her work, really shows where she shines when it comes to relaxing girls talk moments. And of course, what really makes the first season shine is no other than the slow, relaxing portrayal of everyday life through the dialogue choices. I’m not an expert in script writing so I can’t tell you exactly what is happening throughout the scripts but it’s easy to get a sense of comfort because of the pace that the character talks with. There’s a nice back and forth between the characters that create naturally funny moments, and each dialogue feels like they belong to the characters. The way that the scripts created the pacing of the dialogue may be what made these characters start off as great as they are. 

However, just from this first season, it felt more like Yamada Naoko was going to become a great anime director, but nothing like what she is at the moment.

All this really changed with K-on season 2 and more prominently, the K-on movie. 

Season two of K-on was when these characters started to come alive. Throughout the 24 episodes of K-on’s second season, Yamada Naoko starts to lessen the anime style choices that we saw and starts to move more towards directing techniques that you see in live action films. And these choices may have been ones that Yamada Naoko was more comfortable with. After all, she stated in interviews that she wanted to work in live action film and major in film before she decided to join kyoani because of advertisement posters that she saw. 

As the second season continues, she builds characters of K-on as real characters rather than anime characters even more than what just the dialogue and interaction was able to achieve in the first season. With everything from animation quality to the camera choices, everything in season two jumps in both quality and creativity.

One example of this is immediately from the first scenes of the second season. As we get introduced back to our characters, the camera captures the school with a series of long shots. As we are welcoming the characters back from break, we get to see the hallways, with low saturation creating this dark atmosphere. 

Dark low saturation shots like this are more prominent in films that use location’s natural light to create atmosphere like this shot below from Josee, the Tiger, and the Fish. This type of lighting is rarely seen in anime that uses bright colors to emphasize characters.

This dark atmosphere is then contrasted as we get our characters. As they enter the room, the darkness that was reflected in the lack of saturation in our characters goes away and they return to their normal bright color palettes. The perfect way to introduce us and the characters back to the brightness of their clubroom.

Here, rather than giving us a focused shot of character, Yamada naoko uses longshots to give us a sense that we are traveling along with the characters towards the club room. Long shots like this that emphasize locations are so uncommon in anime that primarily use close shots to highlight emotions with facial expressions. This will be one of the dimensions for shots that I will be mentioning quite a bit throughout this series as it later becomes one of the most used shots in Yamada Naoko’s works.

Of course, these shots that draw contrast are a lot tougher to make when we compare this to normal flat color drawings that were more prominent in the first season. Naturally, a part of this is due to the success of K-on. I’m sure the huge success allowed Yamada Naoko to gain a more prominent standing in the company which made it easier for her to show off the stylistic features that made the endings all shine.

Other than this, here is an example from one of the saddest scenes of anime. Here, after their final performance, the band gather together thinking back about their highschool lives with a sense of happiness yet with a touch of disappointment to what’s come to an end. Here, Yamada Naoko yet again uses natural sunlight again. Here, the sunlight is used almost like a backlight, as the camera is facing towards the window. This creates natural shadows overlapping towards the characters — again using natural surroundings to create mood.

This isn’t a full scope of all the different things that K-on has done throughout its second season to make it stand out so much more than its first season, but the addition of Yamada Naoko’s stylistic additions from her filmmaking experience makes the season all that much better. 

The K-on movie is basically a similar experience with these little touches of Yamada Naoko magnified as much as possible.

Most prominently is the use of focus in Yamada Naoko’s works or specifically the use of Bokeh. Bokeh is a photography term used to describe background blur and in film is used to describe changes of focus that lead to changes in blur in background and foreground. Bokeh, as it actually comes from a Japanese term for blur, is quite a common technique used throughout Japanese film. In Anime, it is frequently used to make the films feel more real-lifelike in action, scifi, or cyberpunk shows. However, the K-on movie is extremely unique in the fact that it is a slice of life show doing all this. And of course, it makes perfect sense. We saw that with K-on season one and two, Yamada Naoko and Yoshida Reiko were trying to make these girls feel like non-anime, relatively real characters, normal high schoolers that you would see. It makes absolutely perfect sense for Yamada Naoko to use live action techniques to make these characters come alive and move in front of us as non just anime characters but as four high schoolers travelling London.

A few examples of this, below, are when the group arrives in London and is waiting for the subways and second is when the seniors gather on the rooftop before they present their song to Azusa.

The latter is especially great as we see wind push away the camera to change the focus of the shot followed by birds which fly directly on top of the lens. Such simple blurs in a scene like this takes a scene from a normal scene with cliche symbolism to a realistic, hopeful scene with a touch of the feel of coincidence happening all together. Such a simple change is able to make so much difference to how we see scenes like this. 

The long shots or the low saturation shots that I mentioned previously are also executed a lot better. There’s a lot more focus into the contrast of the lighting like in this scene here which almost looks close to black and white movies using only the lighting of the sun. It perfectly presents the atmosphere by capturing the emptiness with the surrounding light — different from animation choices which focus on characters’ expressions or actions to present such an atmosphere. 

Other than this, it’s also hard not to mention legs when we are talking about Yamada Naoko. I don’t actually really like mentioning this too much because I feel like this is already well known to the point where people are making memes about it. 

However, it’s actually not as simple as you think. The point here from a directing view point isn’t just the use of legs, but it’s rather the use of non facial parts to show expressions. But of course, if I am to analyze the style of Yamada Naoko, I have to mention legs once somewhere. And I think the legendary almost 60 seconds long scene of legs is the perfect place to do so.

As you can see from the images above (from left to right, Mugi, Mio, Ritsu, and Yui) there’s a lot of legs. But as someone who said that “legs show emotions more than any parts of the body,” Yamada Naoko’s scene here shows almost everything you need to know about the characters and the situation. We see Mio, who is walking slowly due to the sad atmosphere, move forward with energy after Ritsu teases her. Ritsu, who seems like she wants to make fun of the situation, walks with pace with mio and helps her move forward. Tsumugi, who tries to bring up the situation with Ritsu. And Yui, who cheerfully leads the group and the front, with excitement brimming in the steps that she is taking. This is really a masterful scene that only uses dialogue and legs to flesh out the characters and their personalities so perfectly. 

As we see Yamada Naoko’s work, we will see that she evolves to show emotions not just through legs but also through different objects that surround character or other body parts as well. The legs in K-on really are only the start of the journey to Yamada Naoko’s expression of emotions.

Despite being offered to make a sequel for K-on, Yamada Naoko declines. This was to make another great work I am in love with: Tamako Market. 

Tamako Market is not as high budget as the K-on movie but it definitely pushes on making the characters as realistic as possible. In fact, I would argue that the characters of Tamako market feel more real than any of the characters in K-on. This is because some of these directorial choices that I mentioned here become more prominent. This is immediately apparent in the first episode of Tamako Market.

Continued in part two….

This ended up being way longer than I expected it would be even though it is supposed to be like a fourth of what I have planned for this series. I also think I’ll probably do a K-on movie analysis kind of like what I did with Liz and here but with more detail for each scene. Next part will be on Tamako Market and Tamako Love Story, the latter of which is currently looking like my favorite film of all time. That will follow up with A Silent Voice and I wrap up with different things that I wasn’t able to say in my Liz and the Blue Bird analysis that I did a while back. Hopefully, this is interesting enough since I definitely enjoyed writing this.

Thanks for reading!

One thought on “Why Kyoani’s Yamada Naoko is the greatest director of our time: Part 1 — K-On

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