Can You Assemble A High Profile Anime Studio Out Of

Can You Bring together A Prime Profile Anime Studio Out Of Nowhere? – The Historical past Of Cygames Photos And Uma Musume ROAD TO THE TOP’s Fierce Animation

In an industry like anime where almost everything comes down to personal relationships, is it possible to quickly assemble an entirely new high-profile studio? Cygames Pictures have found a way, and Uma Musume: ROAD TO THE TOP‘s intense, expressive animation stands as proof of their achievements.

Not that long ago, the discourse in English-speaking spaces painted the anime industry as one where monolithic studios determine the quality, scope, and personnel of every title. While casual viewers will likely never move on from that, the increased accessibility to behind the scenes happenings has helped people with a more keen interest come to terms with the freelancing reality of anime. However, with the internet’s tendency to strip nuance away from any discussions, spreading awareness of a misunderstanding can lead to an overcorrection in the opposite direction. Just like how some people swung from the dogmatic belief that anime budgets are the prime reason behind fluctuations in quality, to somehow believing that money plays no part in commercial products, we are now at the risk of downplaying key relationships.

The vast majority of animators are indeed working as freelancers; be it with no formal ties to a studio whatsoever, contracted to one of them for the duration of a project, or simply incentivized to prioritize their works through binding and semi-binding fees. An increasingly more common misconception when it comes to that, though, is the assumption that any animator is even remotely likely to show up in a specific title. As someone who is often approached with questions about the anime industry and upcoming projects, all announcements related to popular series have people messaging me to ask if that one freelance animation star they’ve heard about might play a role in it. Unfortunately for the askers, the answer tends to be that it’s only marginally more likely than winning the lottery—and at that point, I know where I’d focus my prayers.

The most important realization when it comes to understanding these dynamics in the anime industry is that, at the end of the day, it’s all about personal relationships. In a job where the fluctuation in working conditions tends to be between awful and somehow worse, and where satisfying personal expression is never a given, you might as well continue to work alongside old acquaintances you’ve had pleasant interactions with. Those nets of relationships do expand, but they do so steadily and rarely leaping through multiple degrees of separation from one’s old pals. Particularly resourceful producers will make miracle acquisitions possible, but that’s not something that even high-profile projects can take for granted.

When it comes down to it, that means that only so many people are realistic candidates to show up at a specific studio, with some variability depending on the project; those team members may be acquainted with a producer over there, or perhaps happen to be friends with a director who also ended up at the studio due to a prior relationship. For as many variables as there are in pools with hundreds of individual artists, the secret is that these teams become somewhat predictable when you become familiar with these relationships. In a way, those are the real anime industry.

This begs a question, however—if preexisting interpersonal relationships are such an important factor in assembling a team, how are new companies supposed to come together? The answer is quite simple: most new anime studios… aren’t new. Or rather, they’re not new groups of people, as the most common route to create an animation production company is for a pre-existing team to split off another studio. In cases where those were already organized as a distinct production line or sub-studio of their own, these technically new studios can get to the stage where they’re able to handle major projects rather quickly. If they’re instead a younger, perhaps more jumbled type of new studio, then chances are that it’ll take a few years more to attain that stage of maturity. Regardless, there is no way to quickly reach the point where you can create your own anime without relying on dozens upon dozens of previous acquaintances, even more so now that we see constant bloodbaths to secure talent.

Of course, the barrier of entry to forming a support studio is comparatively lower. If you were to find a formula to survive through a more grueling scene than that of major anime studios, sensible growth can also allow these support companies to eventually reach a position where they can create titles of their own. The time scale to pull that off, though, is no joke; some of the highest profile studios of the current era spent several decades assisting others before standing on their own, and while the palpable desperation in the industry can enable shortcuts to that goal, that prospect has also gotten riskier. But what would happen if you were to start somewhat from nothing like those support studios, and yet wanted to have a timeline more similar to seceded teams that can quickly create their own anime? What if, for example, a large corporation with no foothold in anime production wanted more direct control over the animation for their properties—both creatively and in terms of withholding quality standards. The story of Cygames Pictures is no perfect fairy tale, but it illustrates how you can fairly successfully assemble a team out of nowhere in an industry where everyone works with their long-time friends.

Back in 2016, a year after its parent company established an anime division and barely a month into the existence of Cygames Pictures itself, its founder and company director Nobuhiro Takenaka spoke about his vision for the studio in this interview for Anime!Anime!. Takenaka first revealed that he’d been thinking about establishing an animation production company ever since the planning stages for Rage of Bahamut; a series that premiered in 2014, but given the long time it spent in the oven, that should mean another 3 years spent mulling over his plans of creating a new studio. Mind you, it was not hesitation that stopped him from moving forward, but the awareness that his goals couldn’t be easily achieved even with sensible planning. Takenaka’s vision for Cygames Pictures right after its creation is the same one he echoed years later to ANN as they already produced their own works: a studio that should naturally create high-quality works by challenging the poor labor standards in anime. He specifically cited an in-house focus, manageable working hours, higher budgets, and a robust system to nurture new generations of 2D animators. In short, the opposite of the industry’s norms.

Takenaka was aware that those tangible goals aren’t something you can achieve quickly—if anything, given his strong emphasis on the training aspect, there are some that you shouldn’t even attempt to accomplish too fast. When asked about whether their early recruitments were going well, Takenaka stressed that there was no point in trying to hire as many people as possible immediately, because what you really need is veterans or otherwise high-ceiling newcomers that you could actually build a sustainable studio around. At the same time, though, it’s clear that he had no intention to follow a similar timeline to the current industry titans that spent decades in other people’s shadows; something he made obvious by proclaiming that he envisioned a studio that in 5-10 years could stand on its own by even producing original films.

One specific means to shorten that growth period, the one Takenaka alluded to as the reason why he waited to form a new studio, was the opportunity to acquire a capable animation producer. Given this culture that emphasizes interpersonal relationships between creators that we’ve talked about at length, it shouldn’t be surprising that the person whose role includes the duty to assemble animation teams can be such a valuable asset. For the first few Cygames Pictures projects, that responsibility fell on Shun Kashima—though from Takenaka’s own words about how those titles played out and the studio’s actions, it’s pretty clear that it’s not what he had in mind yet. After transferring over from Studio Hibari/Lerche, Kashima stood alongside Takenaka in producing the studio’s first works: Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 and Mysteria / Manaria Friends.

As the latter admitted, though, those weren’t exactly a display of the studio’s potential yet. For as charismatic as a companion short film as it is, Blade Runner: Black Out 2022 is only a Cygames Pictures title in the sense that they were in a position to offer funding and a space to an external team built around legendary director Shinichiro Watanabe. Meanwhile, Manaria Friends was a failed project originally commissioned by their parent company to a different studio, which Takenaka salvaged into a modest production in an act he deemed self-indulgent. Incidentally, and despite the creative team changing in the process, that original project had been entrusted to studio Hibari—precisely the company Kashima worked at, which gives us a good hint as to how he ended up working for Takenaka.

It wasn’t until 2020 that Takenaka’s goal to build around extremely resourceful animation producers began truly taking form. Kashima stuck around to act as the animation producer for the first season of Princess Connect! Re:Dive, a charming loose adaptation that caught many people’s attention with its similarities to a hit like KonoSuba; a very deliberate reaction, as producers had felt parallels between the two works and appointed the latter’s director as the project leader accordingly. In the midst of its fun madness, a detail that most viewers understandably missed was the addition of an extra production desk during the broadcast. And yet, that seemingly trivial addition of Kenta Ueuchi to their management crew can be seen as a pivotal moment for the studio altogether.

Ueuchi appeared to start his career at studio Synergy SP, but he quickly transferred to A-1 Pictures in the early 10s. Over there, he gradually became a trustworthy production assistant who would manage key episodes, often acting as the production desk for the studio’s biggest productions as well. It wouldn’t be much of an exaggeration to say he became the right-hand man of Yuichi Fukushima, who led the studio’s most prestigious production line until he moved on to occupy a similar position at their new sibling company CloverWorks.

Had Ueuchi stuck around just a little more, chances are that he’d have been granted his own production line at the studio too—but instead, it was Cygames Pictures’ hunger and youthful feeling that called out to him. To say that the effects of that new partnership could be felt immediately would be putting it mildly. Ueuchi was first credited in episode #06, and by episode #07, his personal friend and animation superstar Takashi Kojima had begun his stretch of regular appearances to animate climactic moments in the series; Kojima was the main animator in Shin Sekai Yori while Ueuchi managed the production of 5 episodes, so chances are that their relationship blossomed that far back already.

By the time of PriConne’s second season, Ueuchi had become the animation producer in control of a series that at points defied logic with its astonishing highs. Right now, he’s putting his experience directly to use as the animation producer for Idolmaster Cinderella Girls U149. As Fukushima’s protegee, he had of course worked alongside the so-called Imas Team. And so, despite the change in studio, he has been able to gather talented people with experience in a franchise that retains a cohesive spirit despite the apparent disparity of its branches.

Chalking all this recent success up to Ueuchi’s presence alone, though, would do a disservice to Takenaka’s schemes and the interesting nets of relationships being knit at Cygames Pictures. While the addition of such a capable producer certainly helped them get to the next level, a studio founded under the principle of mentorship would have failed itself if they weren’t raising ingenious producers as well. The most notable case thus far is undoubtedly Kan Mizoguchi, whom we’ve already alluded to before as a new ringleader behind flashy animation spectacles.

While it’s happened so fast that even those who pay attention to the industry might now have noticed it yet, Mizoguchi has already compiled a list of contacts comparable to a great veteran’s, and it’s easy to see how. On top of his resourcefulness and tremendous dedication to the job, he can also be attentive and cunning in the way the smartest producers are. He’s always making sure to treat the most skilled artists particularly well, and openly showing his passion for anime’s greatest creators; to say that renowned animators love him back would be downplaying it. Among the achievements that already make him stand out, it’s worth noting that Mizoguchi is the person in charge of all the works led by Ken “Leaf” Yamamoto at the studio—a strong relationship I recommend people keep an eye on.

Although he hasn’t made as much of a splash yet, another interesting showcase of the effect of prior personal relationships among Cygame Pictures’ management personnel is production assistant Yuto “Eichiwai” Kunisada. Those of you acquainted with the Japanese side of the sakuga fandom might recognize Eichiwai as a long-time contributor to it—from his presence in various animation and creator-centric platforms to his circle with animator Yoshiko Saito, which has published multiple books at fan events. Around 4 years ago, Eichiwai made the jump into the anime industry, and as a person who had years of experience with animators through those shared spaces, the episodes he was entrusted with quickly tended to attract fresh talent you wouldn’t otherwise see in those productions. After multiple years at studio 8-bit, Eichiwai has transferred to Cygames Pictures, where he has already managed the production of moments like the dazzling first episode of Imas U149 and its cute opening. With enough time and in the right environment, individuals like him can quietly help interesting creators connect and live up to their potential.

None of these internal dynamics are fundamentally unique, but Cygames Pictures stands out as a company that has figured out how to capitalize on the experience and wit of its management team to quickly grow into a high-profile studio. This progression has been apparent for a while to those who paid attention to their internal growth, but there’s one very specific reason that currently has many more people wondering how the studio has seemingly grown into a powerhouse out of nowhere. For as much of a production bump as PriConne S2 received, and U149’s impressive feat in earning its spot among Imas anime greats, there’s one Cygames Pictures production that now stands clearly above their other in-house works: Uma Musume: Pretty Derby ROAD TO THE TOP.

If you traveled back in time to tell yourself that one of the greatest hits of the moment is the troubled development series about racing horse girls, you would… probably believe it, if you’re acquainted with Cygames’ evil powers, the appeal of raising sims, and the inherent desire to collect cute cards. Still an amusing development, though! The franchise was unveiled in 2016, and when its first TV anime series premiered a couple years later, it made nowhere as big of a splash. Its moderately positive reception came down to series director Kei Oikawa, an expert when it comes to combining wacky comedy with found family dynamics between ragtag groups, as well as the franchise’s maniacal dedication to its central joke; the background gag about the kanji for horse only having two legs in Uma Musume’s world as opposed to the four it has in reality is a popular example, but at the end of the day, only one of many such details. The underdog sports story and execution by the team at P.A. Works—a recurring partner of Cygames, especially before they launched their own studio—may have been merely adequate, but all the details that showed just how well thought-out its goofy universe was earned more than one smile.

3 years later, that impact was amplified by several orders of magnitude. After what seemed like endless delays, the game that was always meant to be the centerpiece of the franchise finally launched, to tremendous acclaim at that. Its release coincided with that of the second season of the anime, which on its own earned much higher acclaim as well. Although P.A. Works remained to animate 5 episodes and assist all over, its production was now spearheaded by Studio KAI—specifically, by the flashy aces of Symphogear, another popular combination of high-octane action and music. Their efforts notably raised the production values, while the narrative itself became appropriately more ambitious; definitely messier than its simple predecessor, but by all means more unique and resonant.

To put it simply, Uma Musume Pretty Derby Season 2 is more dramatized sports history than fictional sports narrative. In its dedication to the premise, Uma Musume has always drawn from actual events, but this sequel takes it to a new level; in terms of scope as it covers more characters over a longer period of time, in terms of poignancy as it tackles neat themes like the vilification of individuals for the sake of manufactured sports narratives, and why not, in terms of sheer coolness. This does come at the cost of some focus, and those of you who aren’t used to following actual sports might be baffled by injuries being a constant annoyance rather than a precisely deployed turn in the narrative—but if you are into sports, it’s a surprisingly interesting series with majestic highs. I suppose that there’s nothing better than anime to wring something beautiful out of a ghoulish industry.

This quirky franchise has now grown to a size where it comfortably allows for different angles to approach it. That diversity tends to manifest faster through projects with a lower barrier of entry like manga serialization, but by now, Uma Musume is already at the point where distinct anime projects can coexist. In contrast to Oikawa’s main series, which will remain at Studio KAI even for the upcoming third season, ROAD TO THE TOP is the first Uma Musume produced internally at Cygames Pictures. And, as if to celebrate that, its fierce animation and bombastic presentation put its predecessors to shame.

At its core, ROAD TO THE TOP is a simple series asking a trio of rivals athletes why they compete. After a second season that leaned more towards historical accuracy and with a more scattershot approach, it’s instead a very idealistic and focused look at sports. Its lead character Narita Top Road may be a bit clumsy, but she’s a hard worker loved by all—and that’s precisely the source of her anxiety, as she misreads support by fans that is unconditional and based on visceral feelings as a material, logical obligation to win to avoid disappointing them. Her object of admiration is the more aloof Admire Vega, who lives crushed by guilt as she convinced herself that she took racing away from her unborn twin; try not to think about how that part is true to life as well. In contrast to their heavy narratives and as the sole source of levity there’s T.M. Opera O: an appropriately operatic goofball running for her own glory, but genuinely passionate all the same. The other two have lost sight of why they run and effectively put the cart before the horsegirl, but despite being otherwise so melodramatic, Opera O’s straightforward nature when it comes to competing ends up guiding them.

Given a simpler and more focused script than its immediate predecessor, ROAD TO THE TOP’s resonance leans even more heavily in the execution. Finesse in those aspects is something that veterans gain over long careers, and yet, leading this entire project we find a newcomer that is slightly unusual in so many ways it adds up to a pretty extraordinary figure. Chengzhi Liao is not the first Chinese anime director by any stretch, nor the first woman,  certainly not the first compositing artist to make the jump to direction, not even the first newbie to make their directorial debut on a major franchise—combine all of those, though, and you have quite the deviation from the norm.

As she explained in this interview for AniTama, Liao first joined the anime industry through studio Dogakobo. That was essentially a dream come true, as the studio and in particular Masahiko Ota works like Yuru Yuri and Love Lab were some of her favorite anime; so much so, that she admitted she idealizes Ota’s direction, and already aimed at molding her style after his before she got any experience in that field. She stuck around at the studio until 2019, before making the move to Cygames Pictures in a full-time capacity. Liao’s versatility can be summed up by her roles at the new studio. Under director Kanasaki—another exemplary force of musicality and rhythm in direction, the qualities she loved in Ota—she did right about everything for Princess Connect; on the management side as production and settei assistant, as compositor also handling the photography of sequences she managed the assets for, and by the time of the second season, as storyboarder and episode director as well. All of this, coming from someone who could always draw too, but simply chose a career she saw as a better fit than that of a key animator.

Despite that versatility, though, I would argue that Liao’s background and preferred methods still show in ROAD TO THE TOP’s expression. The snazzy aesthetic of the show is often heavy on the depth of field, and will take the rim lighting to the point where characters who feel like they’re shining in the narrative quite literally do so on-screen. At the same time, though, Liao learned the ropes at a studio where traditional animators call the shots, so there’s a beautiful clarity to the presentation of the animation, and a clear respect for the texture of the linework.

Even when she acts as the storyboarder and episode director, the ideas she brings to the table feel fundamentally built on the way the assets will be eventually assembled and adjusted together; after all, Liao was attracted to compositing for its ability to have the final hand on the work. Given Admire Vega’s celestial theme and her turmoil over her lost twin, that anguish is often conveyed through starry skies—a reality that overlaps with her lost sibling’s through shots that fundamentally rely on the harmony of different parts. Incidentally, the person who assisted her in storyboarding duties for that second episode was the aforementioned Kanasaki, who has stuck around to mentor not just her, but all the staff at Cygames Pictures. He saw ROAD TO THE TOP in particular as a project where young creators face their first major challenges, so rather than take the lead, he was happy to step to the side and support them instead as sound director and occasional storyboarder.

While Liao is largely behind the more cohesively dazzling look of the show, it’s the animation team that makes it expressive in a way that no previous Uma Musume project was—in a way that very few anime are to begin with. ROAD TO THE TOP caught expert eyes upon its announcement, in no small part because of character designer and chief animation director Jun Yamazaki. At the risk of hammering a recurring point of this piece too much, it’s worth noting that Yamazaki matured as an animator during the golden age of studio Dogakobo as a paragon of fun character animation; which is to say, that he did overlap with Liao there, showing yet again that personal relationships are everything in anime.

As you might be aware if you read an interview we recently translated, though, Yamazaki now orbits around high-profile studio CloverWorks projects, having followed another ex-Dogakobo figure like Shouta Umehara. That has helped drag him priceless helpers from teams like Bocchi The Rock and Bisque—including help from Kerorira, Nara, and the elusive Akira Hamaguchi—but most importantly, working with so many idiosyncratic animation stars seems to keep broadening his range of expression. The figure of the chief animation director in anime has grown to be somewhat controversial; the general decline in drawing quality and decentralized production demand someone protects the cohesion, but at the same time, the emphasis on this role comes hand in hand with homogenization and loss of expressivity through strict adherence to the character sheets.

In contrast to that trend, one of Yamazaki’s greatest challenges with ROAD TO THE TOP was figuring out how much he could break his own characters’ expressions. Franchises built around marketable beautiful characters tend to be particularly restrictive about this, but this team has gotten away with twisting their pretty faces into extreme expressions that will really stick with you. The race at the beginning teases the more visceral intensity of ROAD TO THE TOP’s animation through its extreme angles and heavy 2D effects to emphasize the power of their strides, but it’s the bombastic opening that really sets the tone with its bursts of sketchy linework and loose smears; god bless Takeshi Maenami. People were quick to notice that the storyboarder behind was another recurring figure in this piece: Ken “Leaf” Yamamoto, an expert when it comes to disrupting the status quo of inexpressive on-model drawings, who in fact also gave advice to Yamazaki about how to approach that for the series itself.

Though Leaf’s role was undoubtedly important, we can’t underestimate the input of rising in-house star Shuhei Fuchimoto. He had already stood out as an animator at the studio, often alongside Leaf as well, but with this project he took a step forward… or rather several, as he had a hand in all sorts of new roles, including storyboarding and directing. It’s clear the studio trusts him a lot, as he wasn’t just entrusted with executing Leaf’s ideas for the opening—and adding his own, as Leaf revealed—but even got to storyboard and direct the climax of the whole show. The race in the grand finale is full of cuts where those sharp drawings convey emotions ranging from pain to the most fierce desire to win, but also ingenious storyboarding to thread together those moments of raw intensity with beautiful, polished realizations of the show’s motifs. It’s very early in his career, but Fuchimoto already feels like the type of creator that will make people revisit articles like this in a few years, to try and figure out where this new superstar came from.

Animators like them—as well as other in-house talents like Myoung Jin Leeexcelled when it comes to fierce sequences, but that’s far from ROAD TO THE TOP’s only draw. The animation is often very impressive in its three-dimensionality, meticulous attention to detail, and the beautiful emotional outbursts that a show this melodramatic needs to function outside those intense races. As someone acquainted with so many people in the team, an appearance by Shu Sugita was almost a given; and what better sequence than ToPro breaking into tears, not only as a reminder that he remains a character animator at heart, but also because no one draws hair like he does.

For as beautiful as isolated moments like that can be, though, the more meaningful achievement is the way they established distinct body languages for their characters despite the relatively short length. ToPro’s gestures in the first episode’s flashback are the exact same ones she still does when she’s nervous in the present, and even in further episodes, it’s clear that she gesticulates a lot with her hands when she’s not fully in control of her emotions. Although she’s not home-grown talent in the same way as Fuchimoto, Odashi is a fantastic character animator currently attached to Cygames Pictures—and also the person who animated every single one of those sequences. Having animators like her in-house allows them to grow intimately familiar with the characters, with the possibility to humanize them beyond what the directors themselves envisioned. For a team this young, what they accomplished with ROAD TO THE TOP is pretty amazing.

Does that mean that the Cygames Pictures that Nobuhiro Takenaka dreamed of is already a reality? The answer is no, and not only because they’ve yet to hit lofty goals like being able to produce their own original films. In all the interviews we’ve highlighted, their management staff admits that despite their attempt to run the studio like a standard company rather than following the lawless norms of the anime industry—akin to what Toei Animation has been attempting—they still end up embracing hellish overtime when things get tight.

When it comes to their desire to raise their own staff to truly make animation on their own, Takenaka estimated a 60/40 in-house versus outsourced workload split a couple years ago. The truth is that those numbers were already a very optimistic reading on the situation, counting temporarily contracted staff at the studio as their own and perhaps underestimating the sheer volume of supposedly menial tasks, and things haven’t really gotten much better in that regard. Though it’s impressive that Cygames Pictures already has essentially all departments you could find in an anime studio, most of them are very small, incapable of handling the majority of the workload; Mizoguchi noted that episode #02 was the first time Cygames Pictures acted as the main studio in charge of the background art, but even then, they still required sizable assistance from other companies. Given how much their production pace is accelerating, it’s hard to see them achieving any meaningful degree of self-sufficiency anytime soon.

That said, and despite those shortcomings, their quick but still fundamentally sound rise to success is very impressive. It would be easy to brush it off as a corporation bankrolling its way to success, but that would be missing the point entirely. For starters, because Cygames isn’t actually spending all that much money on it—Takenaka openly said that the reason why they started with a 2D animation studio was that setting it up is cheaper than the 3D alternative. But more importantly, it misses the smart scheming by people like Takenaka, who really understand the interpersonal foundations of anime, as well as their genuine attempts to combat its systemic woes. You only have to compare it to studio ENGI: founded by an even larger corporation after the creation of Cygames Pictures, technically grown to a similar size, but already synonymous with poor quality, throwaway projects that embody the artless vision their leaders have of anime. It may not be the idyllic environment its founder dreamed of yet, but Cygames Pictures already has an identity of its own—and ROAD TO THE TOP is a kickass example of what they can already achieve.

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