Kyoto Animation’s rebuilding process is allowing the most self-sufficient anime studio to foster in-house production in new ways, all while raising new generations of storytellers in animation—and Tsurune: The Linking Shot is a perfect example of it.
It’s been well over a year since we last covered the happenings at Kyoto Animation, and four times as long since we focused on Tsurune in particular. Over this period, the two of them have changed more than it appears at first glance—and they’ve done so in unison, partly due to thoughtful planning, but also through fortunate coincidences and convergent evolution. Since looking at one side of the story but not the other would paint an incomplete picture, it’s time to catch up with these two outliers in their respective fields.
Tsurune was originally broadcast in 2018, and its elevator pitch remains the same since then: it’s a series where scenarios from traditional, often hotblooded sports anime are transported to something much quieter and more introspective like kyudo. This is not to throw around the tired argument that this piece of genre fiction is actually about the characters unlike the rest, or even to insinuate that Tsurune’s cast is bereft of loud youthful feelings, but rather to explain how the choice of sport completely changes the tone from the norm. It’s a familiar story with a wholly different spin through its storytelling, and its second season is doubling down on that appeal. Its first episode is largely dedicated to reminding the audience about that curious contrast, though it does so in the elegant way that characterizes this show’s direction.
In recent interviews for Animedia and spoon.2Di, 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. Takuya Yamamura noted how the structure and delivery of episode #01 underlined that difference in temperature; we first see the cast in the midst of a sports festival, represented through all sorts of boisterous pieces of animation, and then those same artists dial up the restrain to capture the nobility of kyudo. The shots themselves are still accompanied by bursts of explosive animation to make for a more impactful experience, and you can bet that a group of teenagers is quick to get their blood pumping, but that comes second to the solemn, ritualistic depiction of archery. Although many of the situations the characters find themselves in are genre staples, when you subject those to this contrast, priorities, and finesse of execution, Tsurune ends up feeling like it really stands on its own—and all those aspects have been greatly refined for this second season. But before we dig further into that, we should recap what the show is actually about, and how its team has evolved leading to this sequel.
The first season of Tsurune covered Minato Narumiya’s struggle to get over his target panic and the traumatic experiences that had soured his feelings for archery, which once represented a source of precious memories and a link with his late mother. He completed his gradual healing process alongside his companions at Kazemai High School’s kyudo club, a mix of childhood friends and new pals, and went as far as earning an unlikely win in the prefectural tournament over the powerhouse Kirisaki. While the series was hardly all that popular, and the tragedy that struck Kyoto Animation greatly reduced their output in the following years, it always felt like a title they would eventually revisit; after all, all but one KA Esuma anime have received some sort of follow-up, which is not a club it was likely to join.
In October 2020, it was announced that a Tsurune movie was indeed on the way, effectively ending the partnership with NHK for countrywide TV broadcast in favor of a model the studio is more familiar with. Although on paper Tsurune: The First Shot was billed as a recap film, the studio’s history with such projects was enough to tell that it wouldn’t be an insignificant effort. Yamamura opted to reconstruct the entire story in a way similar to Taichi Ogawa’s reframing of Hibike! Euphonium S2 for Todoketai Melody; which is to say, he approached the same narrative from a different angle and newfound focus, presenting it with copious amounts of new footage. Yamamura, who also took up the lead writer duties for the film, saw it as an opportunity to center everything around Minato and his mentor Masa. While the series had already drawn parallels between the two of them, The First Shot depicts shared memories and sceneries that unknowingly brought them together, to each other and to archery. It’s not meant to be a definitive version that renders the original series outdated, but it’s a great way to revisit it and enjoy a new side to this tale.
A mere look at some numbers tells you that this project received the type of attention that normally, at least elsewhere, it wouldn’t be granted. The First Shot clocked around 1800 cuts, 400 of which were wholly new sequences of animation. Most impressively, an extra 1100 of them were thoroughly recomposited and often had elements like the backgrounds repainted, all geared towards fitting the new aesthetic that all departments at the studio had conjured together. Simple addition gives you the punchline of the situation: when it came down to it, the staff found themselves remaking essentially everything. So much for a laid-back recap project.
For as impressive as all these narrative and visual changes are, the one aspect where the update was most meaningful is the audio. Alongside veteran sound director Yota Tsuruoka, Yamamura decided that a fresh start would be best served with a complete redub, going as far as telling the voice actors to forget all their previous work for Tsurune. Much like the originally inexperienced animation staff was reinterpreting the work years later, they were also meant to channel all they had learned since then into more natural takes on the characters. On top of that, Tsuruoka and Yamamura decided to challenge themselves by producing the studio’s very first 7.1 audio track, a step up from their previous 5.1 surround sound efforts. The very name of the series is owed to the sound of the vibrating bowstrings, the same one that got its main character to fall in love with kyudo—a visceral charm that the staff went to great lengths to capture, having felt there was room to further that purely sensorial appeal after the first season.
When considering those themes, these particular changes to the production process are easy to understand, but this also happens to be the point where things take a turn for the unusual. The First Shot was the first work at the studio to credit the sound production to Kyoto Animation themselves, and the second season has followed suit. As you might be aware, sound production encompasses a series of tasks that anime studios are not equipped to handle in any way, hence why they tend to be completely hands-off during these steps of the creative process.
Normally, this work is instead entrusted to specialized audio production companies. Those may have tight relationships with certain animation studios—such as the friendly bond between STUDIO MAUSU and ufotable—and perhaps even belong to entertainment conglomerates that happen to contain both animation and sound production companies, but you won’t find traditional anime studios dabbling into these tasks. For now, KyoAni is taking a managerial role more than a manufacturing one, but it’s frankly impossible to tell the future implications of unprecedented moves. Amusingly, KyoAni now in a situation where Tsuruoka’s own company Rakuonsha and their subsidiaries continue offering their expertise and equipment, while at the same time being part of the funding committee for a project that may be the beginning of the end for this relationship.
This expansion of creative duties goes hand in hand with another change to the studio’s pipeline: the establishment of the Kyoto Animation Editing Studio, first seen in the credits for Free! The Final Stroke in 2021. Despite the grandeur implied by that name, the original way they referred to it sums up its scale more appropriately: it’s the Kyoto Animation Media Room. While the studio’s more proactive role in sound production is something that might take a while to materialize into something tangible, the effects of this change are much more immediate from a creative point of view. And to understand them, we should quickly go over what anime editing is.
The editing process in anime is broadly separated into two phases, each of which with smaller tasks of its own. Those receive the confusing names of Offline Editing and Online Editing, spanning from the middle stages of the overall production process until the very end. Online Editing, sometimes referred to by professionals as video editing or V-hen (V編), is known for gathering up directorial and management staff to do the very last checks of a hopefully finished episode. However, the ones to handle the brunt of this process are not the animation studio, but rather a specialized company that runs audio and visual brightness checks—thanks Pikachu—and assembles the episode with its mandatory TV structure and commercial breaks. As the very last step in an industry where deadlines are often criminal, even promotional videos published by these companies will not hesitate to warn you about the pain of dealing with such catastrophic schedules.
Before things get to that point, though, there comes the more creatively oriented Offline Editing. Although each cut is assigned a length as early as the storyboarding stage, those are preliminary estimates that are only settled in this crucial step that fans rarely consider. This procedure, often credited simply as editing, adjusts the length of every shot in the work, defining its rhythm in the process. Although this cutting process also has directorial and management figures in attendance, veterans have remarked why the credits only list the singular editor for that title: it is them who do essentially all that work, despite being largely unknown figures. And as people in that scene tend to remark, they do so mostly in silence; contrasting to their live-action counterparts, who at least get to work with audio accompanying them, rather than doing so before dubbing and then having to readjust according to minute delivery changes. In contrast to the acid remarks from the aforementioned online editor, though, an offline one from the same company noted that the biggest challenge of their work is coming to grasp the specific worldview, feel, and rhythm of so many works. This is editing at its most meaningful.
If this step has so much creative weight, then, who are exactly those editors who handle it? Again, not in-house staff. Similarly to the audio production process we mentioned earlier, it’s specialized companies that take the lead here. Large entertainment corporations may have subsidiaries like Toei Digital Lab and TMS Photo, but those are multipurpose branches that aren’t subservient to their anime studio siblings. The closest case to an in-house editing effort in anime might have been in Madhouse titles edited by MADBOX, their subsidiary that is just one floor above in the same building; while MADBOX is a company of its own that offers all sorts of digital services to many other clients, this closeness can spark more internal synergy than the norm that is subcontracting this workload.
Having greatly benefited from in-house practices for every other stage of the production process, KyoAni is attempting to take this effect to the next level by genuinely bringing the editing process within their walls. While for now their lead editor is still Kengo Shigemura—another Rakuonsha-related name helping the studio grow independent from them?—all their recent projects have had Eri Matsuo as his assistant. Matsuo had joined the studio in the mid-00s as an animator, but after providing keys for a few years, she eventually shifted to other departments like merchandise production. If this new turn in her career pans out, she could be leading the studio’s latest campaign to further self-sufficiency and in-house production. Given that they’ve established this editing substudio for it, likely repurposing some of the space they regained in Studio 5 when they made the decision to put an end to their physical store, it appears that they’re giving it a serious try.
While these aren’t flashy changes to their pipeline, they add up to a pretty meaningful evolution of the model that the studio is now for. Their quest for truly in-house creation has spanned decades, and despite being one of the aspects that makes them so extraordinary within the world of anime, they spend no effort in marketing measures like this; nowhere but buried deep within the credits you’ll find these changes we’ve alluded to, which is rather common for the studio’s new policies. Given the pivotal role that sound and rhythm play in a title like Tsurune, these changes couldn’t have come at a better time—and yet this appears to be nothing but a happy coincidence, fortunate timing for a studio that always trends in this specific direction. For them, it really is all about creating animation that feels of their own, and doing so together. The consequences of that mindset have been brewing in the background of their work, and in the meantime, more specific and deliberate changes have influenced Tsurune’s foreground as well.
It won’t take more than a single scene for most viewers to realize that Tsurune: The Linking Shot looks rather different than the first season, especially if they hadn’t been acclimated to this change by watching The First Shot. The evolution in the show’s aesthetic corresponds to desires that the painting, background art, and compositing departments all shared—inadvertently so until they spoke to each other about their new vision for the series—as well as changes in themes and tone in the story. Tsurune’s visuals were originally more austere and moody, attempting to embody the restraint and elegance of kyudo, and directly informed by the trauma that hovered over its main character. Given a chance to meet its cast again after a healing process, though, all visual departments agreed that both the recap and this second season would be best presented through increased contrast and a brighter outlook.
Putting that into specific terms has involved lots of cross-department tasks, such as color scripts and painted storyboards, or preliminary assets being passed around departments so everyone is on the same page. Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Shouko Ochiai, whose debut in that role was precisely on the original Tsurune, wanted to capture the bokeh effects that the compositing team had caught her fancy with into the backgrounds themselves, which has led to higher communication between departments. One aspect that she’s very particular about is depicting the age of all items and locations through believable wear and tear—an obsession she shares with Color Designer (色彩設定/色彩設計, Shikisai Settei/Shikisai Sekkei): The person establishing the show’s overall palette. Episodes have their own color coordinator (色指定, Iroshitei) in charge of supervising and supplying painters with the model sheets that particular outing requires, which they might even make themselves if they’re tones that weren’t already defined by the color designer. Azumi Hata, hence why they’ve collaborated a lot so that the texture of Tsurune’s world feels thoroughly authentic.
Despite being synergistic on the whole, some of those interconnected changes have increased the workload and forced changes in the studio’s pipeline. Photography (撮影, Satsuei): The marriage of elements produced by different departments into a finished picture, involving filtering to make it more harmonious. A name inherited from the past, when cameras were actually used during this process. director Kohei Funamoto saw it fit to filter the linework so that it comes across as thinner and more elegant, befitting the more ethereal look of The Linking Shot. To emphasize the changes in the scenery, he has tried to bring the light within the character art, rather than accidentally obscuring it through excessive flares. And yet, balancing those changes wasn’t doable without pouring more extensive compositing work into each shot; the thinner silhouettes had to remain well-defined, but also feel like they belong in this brighter, higher contrast world, hence Funamoto’s turn towards efficiency. He personally coded a program that automatically applies preliminary effects to a shot, which the digital artists at the studio can use as the basis to manually tweak them as they see fit. This is something Funamoto had individually done before, but this time he made it more user-friendly so that everyone at the studio can use it, greatly speeding up this costlier process.
Given that they’re motivated by the narrative in the first place, it’s no surprise that these aesthetic changes go hand in hand with new imagery and other means of visual storytelling. Even when returning to motifs from the first season, Yamamura wastes no time in twisting them to show the growth of the characters. An understated but very pointed scene in the first episode of The Linking Shot mirrors one of the first sequences in the original Tsurune, but through Yamamura’s renowned control of the gaze, it embodies the positive growth of the characters just as much as the brighter world that surrounds them. The opening sequence lives up to this season’s subtitle and main theme by pulling a similar trick—a switch from the ropes of trauma binding Minato to colorful, character-coded ribbons representing the bonds everyone is growing thanks to kyudo.
Yamamura always had the making of a capable storyteller, especially on a mechanical level. His sense of flow in particular is great; the nifty shot transitions he comes up with catch the eye, but just as important is the way he’ll introduce characters and events casually in the background before it’s their time in the spotlight, giving his work a very natural sense of continuity. His eye for detail has always been noticeable, but it’s taken some years of growth as a director to see him wield it in more purposeful ways. After accumulating more experience in the role, expanding his storytelling horizons by taking up writing duties in the preceding film, and building a great relationship with his peers that maximizes their talent, Yamamura suddenly stands as a new star director to look out for.
The effect of those relationships with other staff members is worth paying attention to—not only because it has a tangible effect, but also because it’s frankly amusing. During the production of The First Shot, Yamamura found himself surprised by the quality of everyone’s output. As they moved onto The Linking Shot, that surprise only increased as he saw them maintain that theatrical inertia all the same; it’s not often that you’ll find a 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. telling their team to relax, reminding them that they’re no longer making a movie.
Yamamura was oblivious as to why everyone at the studio was putting out such high quality work, but in interviews such as the ones featured in The First Shot’s theatrical pamphlet and bluray release, the heads of each department gave their amusing answer: it’s mostly down to his nice character. They’re aware that Yamamura has very specific storytelling ideas—8 full storyboards in a single cours series is a KyoAni record—which only makes them more thankful that he’s always encouraging them to contribute their own thoughts. When turning in work, they recall how Yamamura will always leave them positive words, especially if they’re physically close to his desk; he’ll make a point to swing by and greet them with a smile, completely unaware of his motivational effect. The aforementioned Funamoto described the studio as a bunch of children thriving off all that praise, which is a fun example of how important a director’s character can be.
The production of Tsurune has always involved tons of research and cooperation with actual kyudo entities; equipment flooding the studio, staff attending competitions, discussing with experts, and lots of reading up. Some members at the studio have experience in kyudo and thus they’ve been able to help, but it’s those same people who insist on drawing a line with the realism. Assistant CG director Mitsuki Takaki is one such person, and she insisted on the need to lie to the audience—as storytellers, tricks like twisting space for emphasis is something they’re bound to do.
The fundamentals set in that first episode spread across the entire show with remarkable consistency, as you’d expect from a 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. who is this involved with hands-on storyboarding. Given that encouragement to pitch in personal ideas that the key staff mentioned, though, it’s no surprise that Yamamura left some room for weekly variability—especially coming from the episode directors processing his work. His tendencies are still on full display in episode #02, but under Taichi Ogawa’s Episode Direction (演出, enshutsu): A creative but also coordinative task, as it entails supervising the many departments and artists involved in the production of an episode – approving animation layouts alongside the Animation Director, overseeing the work of the photography team, the art department, CG staff… The role also exists in movies, refering to the individuals similarly in charge of segments of the film., the focus on the sensorial experience of kyudo takes a noticeable turn. While the emphasis on the sound is still there, Ogawa has very distinct markers to capture the feeling of a specific moment such as the temperature of a shot. His precision when slowing down the most magical instances is a perfect fit for an episode where a young girl first comes across kyudo and realizes its visceral and aesthetic appeal.
Noriyuki Kitanohara’s bolder layouts in episode #03 quickly come across as another noticeable stylistic shift, though again, not one that dilutes Yamamura’s strengths. The more episodes pass, the more that his overarching vision and confident storytelling pay off. After a first season where Minato had to learn to love kyudo again, his brimming passion for the sport in the early stages of the sequel feel like something to root for—and yet, Yamamura had already peppered the first episode with hints that he might be taking it too far.
When facing strong opponents that he’s grown too obsessed with matching, that passion leads to Minato losing his own archery, which sets the whole team’s rhythm off. It’s a feeling of getting in his own head too much that Yamamura represented through neat dolly zooms, and also a headband—deliberately similar to the symbolic ribbons in the opening—being let loose, which he unsurprisingly confirmed to represent the accidental severing of the ties with his team. There’s also a boldness to the delivery, twisting the usually pleasant kyudo noises into lousy rushed wooshes. The newbie Yamamura who directed the first season might not have dared to add friction to his work like this, but the current 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. will gladly do so.
The fourth episode marks the first 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. not drawn by Yamamura himself, which if anything reinforces the thematic—and in some regards, stylistic—consistency of the show; even in the gaps left by an almost omnipresent 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., the show’s visuals continue to embody the overarching themes just as poignantly. One of those, introduced in the very early stages of the season, is the gap in social standings between different characters and schools altogether. Given the emphasis put into it, it’s no exaggeration to say that it’s one of the major points of The Linking Shot. Mind you, this doesn’t mean that Tsurune has a particularly sharp point to make about inequality in the real world, not by any stretch. It does have awareness of those different realities and a very elegant way to expose them, but ultimately, all it wants to do is present its sport as an even field where all sorts of people can bond together. It’s naïve, cheesy, and exactly the type of beat I want out of sports series.
Episode #05 serves as an even better example of the balance between Yamamura’s consistent vision and the individuality provided by his peers. Despite his return to storyboarding duties, the episode’s volume feels nothing like the rest of the show. The intensity, the emotional outbursts, it all feels like it belongs in Free! instead—and that’s in great part because the episode was directed by Yamamura’s Osaka senior Eisaku Kawanami, who has headed the franchise in recent years and thoroughly represents the spirit of that branch of the studio.
And yet, this is all applied to a narrative thread that had carefully been laid out beforehand. Kazemai’s downfall in the third episode had really gotten to Kaito Onogi, the most impulsive member of their team. Fearful of his own short fuse because of past incidents—ones he lacks the full context for—he let those nasty feelings bottle up inside and placed the blame on himself, thoroughly pissing off his best friend Nanao. In dire need of just letting out steam, the two of them face in the most fiercely depicted archery match yet… which deflates into laughter after their beautifully timed, hilarious failure. As it becomes clearer that their main goal this season is to get the whole team on the same page, this wild ride of an episode ends up playing quite an important role.
In contrast to that, episode #06 is designed to be a bit of a side story within the narrative—though one that’s still thematically fitting for this second season. The girls at Kazemai’s kyudo club had consistently gotten some of the cooler character moments in the show: they’ve shown time and again that they have it together much better than the guys and so they’ve pushed them in the right direction, but they’ve never really had their due time in the spotlight. This episode addressed that by dedicating most of its runtime to their local competition, beautifully portrayed with a unique visual language to their kyudo that sets them apart from the rest of the cast. Yamamura’s storyboards emphasizing the flow of teamwork are a learning moment for the guys as they try to chase their own synchronicity, but at no moment it feels like the girls are getting this moment simply to further the development of the guys; theirs is a cool moment that stands toe to toe with any other highlight in the show.
The way Yamamura achieved that is just as interesting as the result itself, in that it exemplifies just how inescapable the figure of Naoko Yamada has become. During her tenure as the studio’s superstar director, Yamamura had stood out as the Osaka director who most closely worked with her; he was notoriously one of the few contributors to her theatrical storyboards, notoriously drawing some for Koe no Katachi alongside the late Yoshiji Kigami, and even in TV projects he had some of his best moments closely supervised by Yamada. Given that much of his growth is occurring after her departure, though, you might assume that her influence over Yamamura would lessen with time—and you’d be completely wrong. He may have found his own voice as a director, but in the process, he’s found himself leaning even more in framing, mannerisms, and entire scenarios from Yamada’s work that still resonate with him.
In regards to the overarching theme of kyudo as a means of fostering connections, few episodes hit as hard as #07. During the first season, Minato had a rival in Shu Fujiwara, the ace of powerhouse school Kirisaki. While he was never particularly villainous, he had an aura to himself that separated him from everyone else, reflected in his nickname The Prince. Since early on, The Linking Shot has been making a point about this and its effects on his teammates, humanizing both parties in the process. Being aware of an issue and being prepared to address it are different stages, though, and it’s taken Shu some unexpected external help to start truly mending his interpersonal relationships. And that has come from Kazemai’s sweetheart, Ryohei Yamanouchi.
Ryohei is the brightest character in Tsurune without question, an old acquaintance of Minato and Seiya who can befriend right about everyone. However, what he lacks in comparison to all his new companions is actual experience with kyudo. In episodes like this, Yamamura beautifully captures that feeling through imagery like one late-dropping leaf disturbing the rest. And this just so happens to give him common ground with Shu, despite their social standings, character, and kyudo expertise being completely different. Throughout this season, Ryohei has befriended Shu’s little sister Sae—a staff favorite if I’ve ever seen one. Despite being very fond of her, Shu always tried to keep a bit of a distance because of his own insecurities about his standing in the family, which are again very elegantly summarized by Yamamura. It’s not until Ryohei nonchalantly soothes those worries that he opens up some more; the sheltered prince now begins to open some doors. Iterating on the character-coded ribbon imagery we see throughout the series, one shot casually sums it up: it’s Ryohei’s own color and hands that connect the paper strings that represent Sae and Shu.
As we reach the last arc of the show with episodes #08 and #09, it’s time to finally introduce the major element I’ve been avoiding thus far: the new rival school in Tsujime, led by Eisuke Nikaido. Their very first appearance in the epilogue of The First Shot had Nikaido swearing he’d crush our protagonists, and their formal introduction at the start of this season didn’t seem any less aggressive. There’s certainly some clash with the show’s usual tone, as you’d expect from the team that specializes on an archery stance that was meant for war purposes, but those early airs of villainy dissipated fast. Instead, they’ve been another outlet for the show’s overarching themes.
Yamamura has drawn attention to the increase in eyecatching tracking shots as one of the means to bump the production values of the series compared to the first season. For some sequences that don’t have those fully-realized 3D environments but that they still wanted to give a dynamic, authentic vibe to, Art Director (美術監督, bijutsu kantoku): The person in charge of the background art for the series. They draw many artboards that once approved by the series director serve as reference for the backgrounds throughout the series. Coordination within the art department is a must – setting and color designers must work together to craft a coherent world. Ochiai researched film of trains and horse racing—ways to portray rapidly scrolling terrain that don’t devolve into anime’s usual shortcut of 流背/speedline backgrounds.
Tsujimine represent one of the most extreme contrasts in standings that we’ve seen across the show, and Kazemai’s visit to Kirisaki’s fancy shooting ranges in episode #08 couldn’t make that any more obvious. That puts them in an underdog position that’s more traditional of protagonists, and Yamamura himself has mentioned that much of the second half of this series is meant to humanize them and why not, root for the guys somewhat. Where it does admonish them, though, it’s in their attitude towards kyudo, especially as Nikaido himself is approaching it. In researching the sport, the staff reached the common conclusion that archery is a competition strictly against yourself, without external foes—exactly the opposite view that Nikaido currently sports. There is a stark, sometimes very amusing contrast with Minato: someone who has come to purely love the sport and used it to better himself, genuinely unaware of the animosity that oozes from Nikaido. Kyudo dorks, I swear.
The following episode finally unveils the reasons for Nikaido’s resentment, which had only been vaguely alluded to before. Through a mix of small misunderstandings and misplaced adoration for his master, Nikaido now holds a bitter grudge for those he feels stole his mentor’s rightful place, imagining them to be snobs who took that spot through the power of money—rather than kids with a genuine passion for kyudo. Episode #09 also offers a window into his insincere habits developing, perfectly illustrated through the storyboards of a veteran like Tatsuya Ishihara and KyoAni’s acting finesse. The Nikaido of the present has been rightfully called out as a liar by his own teammate, despite being able to keep a straight face when doing so. Back then, though, he was clearly not used to suppressing his feelings yet, hence why sequences like that are peppered with nervous mannerisms when he can’t bring himself to tell his master how he feels.
As things stand, the three main schools and their lead characters represent different stages in the same arc; parallels that the show has given visual form too, contrasting the opening doors from Shu’s meeting with Ryohei to a still completely shut mindset for Nikaido. The series has stated that there’s no single path towards team unity, hence why they all need to figure out their own ikiai, but what is clear is that there needs to be an awareness of the need to work together, and willingness to open up yourself in the process. Led by an honest boy like Minato and having addressed their points of friction, Kazemai are clearly the closest to that goal right now. It was their natural evocation of that synergy that got them to beat the much more technically proficient Kirisaki at the end of the first season, and that’s something even the latter have taken notice of and finally started to address in The Linking Shot. Meanwhile, and despite having the bones of a tightly-knit team of misfits, Tsujimine haven’t even reached that awareness stage—all because of Nikaido’s clouded vision.
Before we wrap things up, it’s time to circle back to the changes at KyoAni as a whole. The exploration of those themes isn’t the only common element between episodes #08 and #09: they also happen to be the long-awaited debuts for new key staff at the studio. Ever since the hateful arson attack back in July 2019, we’ve been tracking the movements of the studio as they tread a new path forward. A couple years ago, we noted that they were expanding their training aspirations by increasing the capacity of the KyoAni School, and the regular hiring has since then ramped up too. Ever since the last show of theirs we covered and without accounting for their trainees, there are 12 new fully-fledged animators at the studio—5 of which already acting as key animators, including some highly promising individuals.
That would add up to a pretty active year in the studio’s heyday, but even more so after their workforce took a massive hit. Due to the specific building that was targeted, the arson attack disproportionally affected animators—meaning designers and directors as well—and essentially halved their team. On top of all the brutal loss of life and mental scars, some individuals made the choice to leave once all their ongoing work was over, as the death of their closest peers in age and experience had left them a bit stranded. For a still smaller team, an influx of new talent is certainly a lot more noticeable, and also a trickier prospect; a more sizable group of newbies in a studio unwilling to compromise in their quality demands even more extensive mentorship, which appears to be the solution they’ve once again settled on. KyoAni is no stranger to training schemes within their productions themselves, and their recent efforts have solidified that even further with the way that their animator rotations are organized. In productions as orderly as The Linking Shot’s, it’s very easy to notice how the newcomers are surrounded by specific bets with a knack for teaching, at all levels of the animation process.
The most telling aspect of their rebuild has been the studio’s willingness to take a long time to replenish the positions with the highest responsibility. KyoAni lost multiple directors and supervisors in the arson, but it’s taken 3 full years to start rolling out those big promotions. One of the most frustrating issues in the anime industry right now is the way unprepared young artists are thrown into those high-responsibility roles. For every success story, there are a dozen of bitter ones; even if those individuals have the potential to do a fantastic job leading entire productions, and actual affinity for the specific role they’ve been given, it’s not that but sheer desperation that pushes them into these positions.
In contrast to that, KyoAni has refused to lower the bar for access—maintaining their very high-quality standards in the process, and hopefully making it easier for these new leading voices to have satisfying debuts. And judging by their first leading roles, things appear to be going well. Tamami Tokuyama, whom we’ve been following as an animator with the potential to become a new designer at the studio, finally got her first opportunity as the sole animation director for episode #08. Her distinct style, with a roundness that isn’t common to Tsurune, fed into all the playful sequences in the episode without compromising on the show’s detail and delicacy. And even more impressive was the directorial debut of Mei Isai, whose thoroughly intense approach carried one of the most demanding episodes from a storytelling perspective. Without much screentime to play around, her ability to quickly establish very precise moods made Nikaido’s flashback all the more compelling. Some of her underlying ideas feel reminiscent of Ogawa’s, but with an overall level of energy you wouldn’t normally see in his work. It’ll be interesting how much of it holds once she gets a chance to 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. as well, which shouldn’t take long.
And that’s the final tease we’ll leave you with. The obvious compromise that KyoAni has had to make over the last few years has been in the volume of their output, which was already restrained beforehand when you consider the size of the studio. Years later, now that their slow rebuilding efforts are really making a difference, they seem ready to start leaving those days behind. For months, some staff members in the official blog have vaguely alluded to already being well underway a new TV production, and one that shouldn’t be the already announced Euphonium sequel that’s slated for 2024. Though the release window is unclear because of KyoAni’s currently ridiculous production buffer, they appear to be shifting back to a more familiar pace, inching closer to a fully operative status. They’ve gotten here slowly, carefully, in a mindful way—as if creating animation was a kyudo performance too.
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