On one hand, I’m glad to see that arguably my favorite director is not just anime but cinema returning with a new show. On the other hand, I am extremely disappointed to see her departure from a studio that has her marks left all over their shows.
For those of you who don’t know yet, on September 3rd, Studio Science SARU— the studio associated mainly with works of Masaaki Yuasa — announced their next project for January 2022: Heike Monogatari.
The director? Yamada Naoko.
I had around a week to rest my anger enough to think straight about the implications of this. As someone who has tirelessly waited for her new project ever since 2019 with Liz and the Blue Bird, I can’t be more excited to see Yamada Naoko’s works again especially in a historical show starring Yuuki Aoi. But it’s still so odd to see her name attached to any work of a studio that’s not KyoAni. The past week or so, I’ve basically been almost as shocked as when I heard KyoAni lose Takemoto to the arson attack (maybe not that much since I still get to see her works but you know what I mean).
I’ve heard some say that this isn’t official and that this may just be a one-time project while KyoAni is still recovering from the attack. But let’s face it; this is probably not true. Most Kyoani personnel who left in the past basically don’t say or announce anything to the public. The most they will do is to write something on their social media — something that Yamada doesn’t have.
This post isn’t going to be some deep analysis on what this means for the studios; there’s already posts like that on Sakuga Blog or some other website. This post is going to be more personal; more of a short blurb on what I think Yamada’s future works will look like and why I’m so disappointed Yamada left KyoAni.
The first point I want to bring up is Yamada’s style of films. Throughout her works, as I have pointed out or will be pointing out in the series of posts I have made on her, mostly feature complex relationships and emotions that arise from them. Her style is geared towards the intricate portrayal of these different emotions that travels to the audience ever-so-calmingly. These films are usually not about some huge drama but rather something closer to what we face in our normal lives or characters that aren’t completely different from us. The problem is, however, Science SARU — or in fact any of Masaaki’s works — are so different from hers. They are, to say the least, a bit more crazy.
Yeah I know. Night is Short, Walk on Girl is one of the best animated movies, Devilman Crybaby is a lot of fun, and Eizouken is one of the best animated series in a while. But do any of these shows triumph the intricacy of emotions in Liz and the Blue Bird, the intensity of Koe no Katachi, the healingness of Tamako Market, heart fluttering romance of Tamako Love Story, or nostalgic character interactions of K-On? Some might think so but I certainly disagree. Clearly, these shows by Yamada have the same type of theme and can be grouped into slice of life, drama, character interaction type shows. Heike Monogatari is not one of these types of shows.
Despite what it may seem like, I am pretty excited for Heike monogatari. My bigger problem lies with what might be ahead. From what I can see, Heike monogatari is a historical action type show filled with a lot of drama. While this is great and all, I strongly think that these types of shows are harder to get “right.” The shows that Yamada has been working with in the past were mostly slice of life type shows. To be honest, most of the time, these shows don’t have to focus on anything like choreography, world building, or action pacing to be great. Of course, these shows have to focus more on building the characters since they normally become the main focus with all these other parts missing, but Yamada Naoko seems to have already mastered that. And a lot of shows without the intricacy of directing and cinematography that Yamada brings, seems to fill my bar for what I want in character interactions a lot more easily.
Generally, there’s definitely a lot more to focus on cinematography-wise (to build tension with action, cutting between movements, a lot more establishing shots to show the setting, etc) compared to what you would do when everything except ways to portray character relationship stays relatively the same. I’m sure the same applies when writing action since you have to navigate different story elements on top of building character relationships.
A lot of the times, these action shows like Demon Slayer feel like they were spreading so thin trying to juggle all the action mechanics and art that the way that they fleshed out the characters or paced the story, specifically narrations between fights, felt a bit lackluster. Interestingly enough, I feel as though these individual parts, even though there are more of them than slice of life shows, have a harder time making up for mistakes in one area. For example, if an action show has either lackluster action choreography or uninteresting writing, it never is really able to make it up with good art or interesting characters. In slice of life shows, however, it normally feels like you can cover up things like bad dialogue or boring plot elements if you have good characters or interesting artistic/cinematographic choices. Maybe that’s just me and and I just have a lower bar for slice of life shows but it makes these kinds of action shows a bit hard to watch if they are missing something compared to when a slice of life show is missing something.
But the thing is, even when a show gets all of these pretty near perfect, like how I think of Hunter x Hunter, they have never been able to exceed what these other shows that build on character relationships like K-On! or Koe no Katachi were able to do for me. I guess aside from the technical side, most of this is personal preference; maybe you don’t care about character relationships, emotions, and how they are portrayed. Maybe a good plot with exciting action is all you ask from an anime. I completely get you. But that’s not the type of film Yamada has been making till now. The ones that I adore. Nor do I think the signature techniques she used on her films until now really line up with that genre.
I also think a part of this disappointment really comes from the drastic change in art style in the film as well. I know a lot of people like the Yuasa art style for being unique and very animatic in how they move. I understand the appeal, but it’s not really something that I think looks especially nice or anything. I agree it’s unique and adds a lot to how creatively the characters move but they don’t look the nicest or the prettiest. While I am pretty excited to see the minimalistic style of Yuasa’s shows blend in with Yamada Naoko, I wonder how it’s gonna work. Essentially, what I’m afraid of is Yamada straying away from the type of shows that I spent like half my whole life loving.
But do I think Yamada Naoko can pull it off and create an awesome heartfelt action? Yeah, I certainly think so. Yamada Naoko is pretty much a genius director from what I’ve seen now. And despite my worries, I’m sure she’s just going to find a way to make the show good using something cinematographic we haven’t seen from her before. Her films are already so experimental that it’s beginning to step out of animation. Just from the trailer, her signature liveaction style change in depth or blurring with depth is still there. If she is able to mix her subtleness of reality with the surrealism in Yuasa’s shows, it may work amazingly for a historical action show such as this. It’s going to be tricky to manage between what’s normally asked of in action shows while adding the features that made her past shows so great. But if she is able to do it, it’s going to be one awesome show that packs everything from emotions to excitement.
I guess I’m just disappointed that we aren’t seeing a KyoAni historical action and that we most likely aren’t going to get another KyoAni esque show from Yamada Naoko.
At this point, I don’t even think I should be considering KyoAni my favorite studio. Most likely, KyoAni shows won’t have a lot of the things I loved about KyoAni anymore. Shows like Violet Evergarden, Free!, or Tsuzune are all shows that KyoAni made but had the touch that I loved in Takemoto, Ishihara, or Yamada’s works. Hopefully these new directors become something as great as Yamada was, but my hopes aren’t too high.
Anyways, none of this matters until I watch her new show. This kind of turned into a rant about how I like a more reality-based slice of life shows more than dramatic actions which I don’t feel all too great about. But regardless, I have an incredibly high bar for Heike monogatari; afterall, it was the project that moved Yamada away from KyoAni. And that bar is something which if the show is not able to exceed will fill me with a sense of outrage and sadness about Yamada leaving KyoAni. If it can exceed it, I’ll go back to happily living life.
I’ll try to have all my Yamada Naoko analysis posts out by the time Heike monogatari comes out. It might give a better sense of why I’m so disappointed if this post itself wasn’t completely clear.