Oshi no Ko‘s massive, worldwide impact with its first episode is no fluke. Its team is led by savvy, inventive, and sometimes kinda superhuman individuals who tweaked and elevated the source material to start with such a bang. So who are they, what did they do, and can they keep it up?
Similar to its representative Ai Hoshino, Oshi no Ko exploded onto the scene as if it were predestined for success. Even though Aka Akasaka was once known for composing cult classics that were never released, mixing his words with Mengo Yokoyari’s mesmerizing artwork felt like a winning combination after Kaguya-sama’s enormous rise to fame. Akasaka has been writing a very entertaining page-turner set all across the Japanese entertainment industry, using his experience on both ends of the success spectrum to inform his writing. This setting allows him to use characters as avatars representing opposing views on art, interpretation, and commercialism to clash, as well as one that serves as a venting mechanism for clearly real frustrations with various industries. Its relationships can also become twisted enough to make Scum’s Wish proud, as if his friend and co-author were whispering in his ear. Oshi no Ko is what comes out of it: occasionally moving, frequently silly, and almost always entertaining.
Since then, the series has received recognition from fans and awards. However, as sweet as success is, it may quickly become bitter if the inevitable expansion into other media is stifled by expectations. With that in mind, I can understand hesitation, if not outright skepticism, upon the initial announcement of the anime. After all, its team is best described as Selection Project on steroids, and that’s a point of comparison I wouldn’t expect most people to even have. Fans would fantasize about a high-profile Oshi no Ko adaptation produced by some of the biggest names in the anime industry. Names don’t always convey the whole narrative, though; in fact, some of Oshi no Ko’s storylines serve as a caution against works that feature those well-known celebrities. The team’s sincerity, the leaders’ capacity to carry out their vision and whether or not their surroundings will support or hinder their success are the three most important variables. Oshi no Ko’s anime has a strong base that has already allowed its crew to produce some amazing work, despite the fact that the situation is not ideal.
Series director Daisuke Hiramaki, one of the most technically proficient filmmakers at Dogakobo right now despite his still limited background, is a perfect example of the effectiveness required for these circumstances. Hiramaki feels like he has been developing his own directorial voice on the fly, and to his credit, he has done so fairly quickly. Hiramaki was pushed into the role at a company with no time for introspective self-discovery. By the time he reached Koisuru Asteroid and the aforementioned SelePro, it seemed as though he had discovered something intriguing: a style that draws from the open layouts that had already distinguished him as an animator, switching from realistic framing to more subjective framing as the narrative calls for it. Since he storyboarded the majority of Oshi no Ko #01’s first half, there are hints of these various depictions of space from the very beginning of the episode. However, the execution of the first 15 minutes of the episode is so restrained that, upon first viewing, I struggled to feel much of an impact from them. But considering the size of the project and the context in which they are being considered, I’ve changed my mind.
I’ll be honest and say that I never thought Goro’s story to be all that interesting on its own. A story about a doctor who uses the idol she loved to channel his affection for a terminal patient he used to care for is difficult to emotionally connect to in any way during those characters’ extremely brief time in the spotlight—at least as their initial selves. This is especially true given that he is not at all endearing as a person at this point. There is an alternate reality where Goro could have been better humanized by improved emphasis and targeted execution, but do I really want to live there, unless that comes from a dream-like production with no restrictions at all? I believe I would have made the same decision as they did, focusing on more endearing characters and going all-out in the second half, had there been a segment of this nearly 90-minute ride to prioritize lower on the totem pole.
I don’t believe it’s a deliberate statement by any means; rather, I believe it’s an effort to work within the constraints of the production while conserving energy for what matters most. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but imagine a later scene in this same episode where Ai’s screentime was reduced in order to avoid overshadowing the main character. And it turns out that Ai herself was supposed to be the star of this movie-like debut episode.
The highlights of this prologue of a prologue all relate to Ai’s appearances, with the exception of Goro’s very last moments, where Hiramaki’s deft staging pairs with outstanding animation. She uses her charm and charisma in the world of Oshi no Ko to show herself as more of a platonic notion than a real person, which contrasts with her desire to start the family she was never able to have in her own life. She is dishonest, cunning, conflicted, and downright stupid, yet whether you are aware of this or not, she exudes a captivating aura. The idea that Ai is a natural star is captured in Hiramaki’s storyboards, but it is Kanna “Kappe” Hirayama’s animation designs and meticulous direction that give Ai the viciously eye-catching presence she was designed to have. One look at the character’s exquisite animation will have you convinced you’re seeing the fanciest, most captivating cartoon you’ve ever seen. If the character’s idea of idols is that of great liars, then her own designer must behave as the queen of lies. If ever there was a match made in heaven, this is it.
Common sense in the world of animation pushes towards stylization of designs, both to ease the production load and for the sake of shifting expressivity, while it’s usually commercial forces that demand more complicated aesthetics; you know, the type of friction between art and commercialism that Oshi no Ko characters have to constantly deal with. In contrast to that, though, Kappe’s intricate approach to animation is something she personally strives for, and that doesn’t come at the cost of lively animation for that matter. While the laws of physics still somewhat apply to her—her animation is more loosely expressive with simpler designs—her unmatched drawing speed allows her to be one of the greatest needle-movers in anime altogether. Her ability to singlehandedly supervise every shot of entire shows with complex designs if need be, providing sizable quality bumps with her thorough corrections, is perhaps only matched by someone like Kerorira—whose invaluable role in elevating Bocchi the Rock we covered at length. Great animators come in many forms, but central figures like them who can act as floor and ceiling raisers for any production are incredibly rare.
To put Kappe’s contributions into more concrete terms, she supervised over one thousand cuts as chief animation director for the first episode alone, 400 of which she also corrected as the regular animation director for; in short, she had a hand in pretty much every single shot we’ve seen, and thoroughly redrew nearly half of them. It wasn’t until fellow teammates pointed it out that she admitted she contributed plenty of TP corrections as well—which is to say, that she intervened at the very last step over the animation data, because the industry carelessly messing up the effort of the animators is something she’s grown very mindful about. And, despite this exceptionally proactive role leading the animation, she has also pointed out that working alongside skilled animators means that the best choice as a supervisor can also be letting drawings through uncorrected. It’s this ability to tell when she should intervene, and violently exploding onto the screen whenever she thinks that the answer is yes, that makes Kappe one of a kind as an animation director.
Circling back to the limitations of the production, especially when it comes to its schedule, it’s worth noting that Kappe will remain the central figure animation-wise but that she’s not the sole chief supervisor. Though she’s been around Dogakobo for this project for a while—hence her surprise chief animation directionAnimation Direction (作画監督, sakuga kantoku): The artists supervising the quality and consistency of the animation itself. They might correct cuts that deviate from the designs too much if they see it fit, but their job is mostly to ensure the motion is up to par while not looking too rough. Plenty of specialized Animation Direction roles exist – mecha, effects, creatures, all focused in one particular recurring element. stunt in Shikimori-san—there would have been no way to keep up her quality standards on her own with such tight deadlines. Fortunately, that issue is assuaged by a properly planned rotation of chief supervisors, which includes nothing but artists who could lead a production of their own; not an exaggeration, given that Maho Yoshikawa, Miki Matsumoto, and to a lesser degree Tomoya Atsumi have been doing so for years. Coupled with Kappe’s inhuman speed, their lineup of supervisors should be plenty prepared to maintain the visual presence of characters who live and die through it.
Returning to the first episode, you can see how Hiramaki steps up his game to portray the return of Ai to the stage after giving birth to twin children. His framing feels at its best here, giving a physical aspect to the distance between performers and the industry, and highlighting the difference between that cold reality and the polished product that viewers are presented with. Above everything else, though, this is a chance to show the audience—in-universe and outside the show—that Ai’s innate charisma is the real deal.
Her performance on TV marks the appearance of some of the show’s main animators, like Dogakobo’s own Kimiaki Mizuno and Kenji Sawada, who’s on a roll juggling ace animator roles between this team’s works and Aniplex properties like the recent Lycoris Recoil. The dancing is plenty cute, and the sequence allows Kappe to flex the intricate appeal of her drawings as well, but it’s the raw explosion of rough lineart at the start that I feel best captures the stage beast within Ai’s calculated performances; some drawings hidden in that sequence embody that arresting, but at the same time ominous aura that surrounds her. Seriously, never approach someone who even projects star-shaped shadows.
It’s also in this segment of the episode that we hit the reveal that it’s in fact both twins who happen to be reincarnations of the initial duo, which leads to some levity through this inherently funny scenario. Mind you, these kids are awful gremlins, but the series is clearly aware of that and derives most of the jokes from that. Given that this is an anime adaptation, the parts I find working the best are those that use the animation itself to underline how ridiculous of a situation we find ourselves in. The world’s most erudite babies are still subjected to their useless bodies, so it can be pretty amusing to watch them bumble around with their disproportionately big heads as they unleash another creepy rant. This eventually leads to the accidental viral marketing that launched Ai’s career to the next level, as the babies immediately betray their promise to behave normally once their wota instincts kick in. Ai’s performance is another nice relay of main animators and Kappe herself, but it’s the fun execution of a visual gag that was always more suited to animation that sells this gloriously silly moment.
A year then passes within the story, with Ai’s popularity having skyrocketed thanks to the baby incident and her realization that the idol fandom paradoxically seeks dashes of authenticity in the lies they’re sold—which serves as advice about how she should sell her persona. When it comes to this episode itself, though, the biggest change comes in the directorial seat. After a first half mostly storyboarded by Hiramaki, assistant Series Director: (監督, kantoku): The person in charge of the entire production, both as a creative decision-maker and final supervisor. They outrank the rest of the staff and ultimately have the last word. Series with different levels of directors do exist however – Chief Director, Assistant Director, Series Episode Director, all sorts of non-standard roles. The hierarchy in those instances is a case by case scenario. Chao Nekotomi—best known as Saori Tachibana before joining this team—takes over as the storyboarder for the entire second half. Nekotomi’s work with this crew at Dogakobo quickly stood out for the sheer density of visual ideas she always has, sometimes to the point that she’s forced to leave some on the cutting floor. It’s no surprise that she has moved pretty fast up their ladder, and frankly, I find her to be the perfect compliment for Hiramaki’s technically sound approach. She’s the spice a project like this needs to capture the life of performers with great intangibles.
Nekotomi’s storyboards quickly capture Ai’s manipulative relationship with the camera, but it’s her usage of color that stands out the most right off the bat. One of her major roles in the anime will be to provide color scripts—something akin to a colored Storyboard (絵コンテ, ekonte): The blueprints of animation. A series of usually simple drawings serving as anime’s visual script, drawn on special sheets with fields for the animation cut number, notes for the staff and the matching lines of dialogue. or concept artboards—as guidelines for all the staff, defining the intended mood of every scene through the colors themselves. As anime moves towards digital effects playing a larger role in its aesthetic, roles like this become more prevalent; otherwise, you risk the overly complex postprocessing diluting the effect of fundamental tools like the color, muddying the work’s intent. That said, it’s still rare to see color scripts deployed on this scale for a TV series, especially by someone with such sharp sensibilities. Once she takes over as storyboarder and unit director as well, Nekotomi is able to deftly contrast the colder colors of the backstage with an artificially bright recording site, or to give a forest where they’re recording a horror film an otherworldly aura… as long as the cameras are on.
After Aqua accidentally stumbles into the path of acting, it’s time for his twin sister Ruby to more proactively carve a path forward—something she never considered in her previous life, as a terminal patient who died young. This is an inherently more compelling conflict, and seeing her grow over her fear of her own frailty that had been burned into her brain through Ai’s influence is a beautiful moment; even more so as Nekotomi’s boards and usage of color triumphally depict it.
As Ai ponders about her life of lies, we approach the grand climax of this first episode. After her tragic childhood, she’d only become an idol because she was told that it was fine, if not outright encouraged, to lie about her professions of affection; unsure about whether she’d ever really loved anyone or anything, she embarked on a life of lying about love that would hopefully solidify those feelings as true one day. Unfortunately, this idol life is also intrinsically tied to dehumanizing marketing that panders to the lowest instincts of some people, and thus the same deranged fan who’d ended Goro’s life stabs Ai after finding out where she’s living with her secret children.
This entire segment is as breathtaking as it is revolting, contrasting beauty and gruesome detail on multiple levels; Nekotomi’s angelic palette dyed red with Ai’s blood, and Kappe’s once beautiful detailed expressions becoming progressively more twisted by pain. This hurtful moment is illustrated by studio Dogakobo’s young talent, as the studio remains a seemingly neverending source of skillful character animators despite the loss of their old leaders and increasingly less friendly schedules. Ayaka Muroga may have been one of the lesser-known names in the lineup of main animators, but she’s already earned the admiration of her peers—and so has Danny Cho, for whom this is the first project as key animator… and yet he impressed Kappe herself so much she left these climactic cuts untouched. From the chaotically shifting movements of the attacker to the unfocused eyes, it’s easy to see why this left such a strong impression on his seniors. It certainly feels like there’s a bright career ahead, though hopefully they’ll entrust him with less painful scenes in the future; somehow, nearly all of his contributions for this first episode were dedicated to this hateful stalker.
As Ai’s life fades away, she comes to the realization that her love was real—something that was clearer to the audience than to herself, given her genuine worry over her children’s future, or even this stalker’s gift we had already seen in her house before. After her final moment of emotional sincerity, we’re left with a truly haunting image that twists Kappe’s intricate detail to its most horrifying form. While I’ve seen people mention that this is too creepy, that feels like the point to me: someone whose natural beauty made her shine like a star leaves behind a nightmarish corpse, which as we can quickly see, will haunt these children for their entire lives. In another stunning sequence that elevates the source material, the simple visual metaphor of the darkening star eyes represents Aqua’s thirst for vengeance after realizing that the stalker must have had someone giving them information about Ai. And given their unique circumstances, that person could only be their mysterious father.
— kappe（ひらやま) @新刊通販中 (@kaaaaaappe) April 18, 2023
Having reached the end, it’s worth considering what this 90 minutes episode actually did as an adaptation, because it’s not as simple as animating the first volume of the manga. The changes are for the most part small, medium-aware shifts to make the best use of animation; again, if you have read Oshi no Ko, chances are that you remember an entire arc that hinges on how necessary all those are, to the point where the entire impact of an adapted work might hinge on them. Many of the techniques and creative choices we’ve highlighted may not be the type of thing your casual fan will pick up on, but their accumulation is felt regardless, hence why they’re so important.
On top of all those, there’s also a major structural choice in the removal of anything but Ai’s story. In the original work, this first volume is punctuated with documentary-like moments that tease future developments, while also underlining the farcical nature of storytelling and all the devices that go into creating commercial art. Now, there’s no way the anime will remove that aspect of the work, as it’s way too deeply tied to the story they’re telling. By completely removing it from this introduction, though, it feels like there’s a more deliberate intent than just securing as much screen time for Ai as possible. In a way, it feels like a curated look at Ai’s tale: this is the type of movie a savvy producer would make within the show itself, so for now, we’re not supposed to peek behind the scenes yet. But that will come, and it will inevitably be some of the most interesting scenes in the whole show.
Can we trust it moving forward, then? The first episode certainly feels special, though that can be a double-edged sword—every choice they’ve made bolstered the sheer impact of this introduction, but that also means there won’t be anything quite like this moving forward, at the very least in narrative terms. That said, I do believe that Oshi no Ko remains interesting; at its weakest still a fun thriller, and at its best, insightful and filled with pointed rage. And when it comes to this adaptation, I remain fairly confident as well, even with the limitations I brought up at the start. Sure, the core staff might not be able to control every single shot like this on a weekly basis, but through structural support like Nekotomi’s color scripts and Kappe being Kappe, its best qualities should be protected.
And when it comes to external talent coming in to help, we have fun surprises to look out for as well; though some of them are not exactly a twist anymore, given that overly excited publicists have shared some of those names already. That includes people like Koji Masunari, storyboarder of the second episode, or the exciting Opening/Ending duo of Nara and Naoya Nakayama. Incidentally, the latter also directed Ai’s aptly named music video Idol, which sums up her character as deftly as this first episode; its combination of polished commercial animation with typography and VFX quirks of modern indie music videos is as trendy as it possibly gets, so no one should be surprised that it reached 20 million views in just a few days. Even when it comes to supplementary material like this, this team’s level of commitment and their maximization of Oshi no Ko’s impact has definitely earned my trust so far.
The touching epilogue to this story was animated by main animator Honoka Yokoyama, who didn’t have experience holding two babies, so she did her research with a couple of plushies instead. Though she contributed to other scenes as well, I waited until the very end to bring her up because she actually arrived to this team right after finishing her job as a regular contributor to Kaguya-sama. The Aka anime legacy continues.
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