Kyoto Animation’s Exception To Industry Norms And The Dedication To

Kyoto Animation’s Exception To Business Norms And The Willpower To Animation As Writing: Hibike! Euphonium Ensemble Contest Manufacturing Notes

Hibike! Euphonium Ensemble Contest is the belated comeback of a series that has come to represent its team’s understanding of animation as a fundamental step in the writing process, and also one that exemplifies how Kyoto Animation buck negative anime industry trends in meaningful, sometimes amusing ways.

It had been a long 4 years since Hibike! Euphonium’s latest venture into animation, just about as long since a sequel was confirmed to happen, and yet we’re still 8 months away from the broadcast of that promised major entry in the franchise. Ensemble Contest exists precisely because of that; it was chosen as a side story that covers the shifting tides between the Eupho of the past and Oumae Kumiko’s final year, and also happens to be short enough that the studio felt comfortable producing it in the meantime, to make that long wait easier to endure. In various interviews like the ones recently published by Febri, the directorial duo of Tatsuya Ishihara and Taichi Ogawa have confirmed that it was meant to be a plain OVA, which then grew into the theatrical affair currently available across Japan—a decision that has proved to be savvy, since it’s already one of the most successful entries in the franchise. They weren’t wrong: Eupho fans couldn’t wait for more.

This entire production timeline is worth examining, not only due to the unusually lengthy span but also because the studio decided to turn industry trends on their heads and misrepresent the situation in the opposite direction than usual. Eupho’s sequels have indeed taken a long time to come to fruition, and the reason is as clear as it is painful. Though all projects at Kyoto Animation were seriously destabilized by the arson attack of July 2019, the losses in regard to this series were particularly devastating. Character designer and chief animation director Shouko Ikeda and instruments supervisor Hiroyuki Takahashi led perhaps the most troublesome efforts in the whole production, and with their tragic passing as well as the major setbacks the team as a whole faced, Eupho’s pre-production was going to be a long and arduous process.

Even with those circumstances in mind, though, a TV show isn’t actually going to take them nearly 5 years to produce. Given their isolation from the industry as a whole, the production schedule of KyoAni titles has always been a bit of a topic of discussion—could their consistent excellence be due to a radically different amount of production time? This is a question that the majority of their own members might not be able to answer; as a team that is generally young, and has only ever belonged to an effectively fully in-house studio, the only reason they’d ever know how things are elsewhere would be hearing about the specifics from an acquaintance. The ones who’d know, though, would be the vets who already led the studio back in their days of subcontracting for other companies—such as the aforementioned Ishihara and the late Yasuhiro Takemoto, who joked about production schedules being essentially the same as in Tokyo in the studio’s 2015 fan event.

While remaining very respectful of other studios, the experienced directors in that panel already pointed out reasons why things might play out differently at KyoAni, like the physical closeness and ease of communication in their in-house environment. As anyone can see if they regularly follow the dates alluded to in the long-running staff blog, their production cycle is indeed similar to the standard on paper, with multiple concurring rotations averaging a bit over three months for the active production of each episode. In this regard, the main difference between them and industry standards is that they do maintain that rhythm, in contrast to the ever-deteriorating gap between TV anime’s expectations and reality. Nearly a decade ago, the beloved anime industry-themed show Shirobako didn’t just make that into a plot point, but even added a toggle into their site to switch between how things are meant to be and how they play out in the end—the latter being marred with delays and increasingly shorter production cycles for each episode. Ever since then, this chronic issue has only gotten worse, with major disasters seeing that intended 3 months cycle reduced to 2-4 weeks for the entire duration of the broadcast. Far from being one specific show’s downfall, this is the unsustainable norm now.

Again, that divergence in outcomes does come down to that exponentially more efficient in-house model, but also other reasons the directors couldn’t have listed in that same polite tone. Which is to say: mentioning that they can count on a fully dedicated, thoroughly well-trained workforce, or that the studio has the leading voice in every production committee would have sounded like they’re pointing out deficiencies at most studios, even though those are simply some of the differential factors. This much has been true for years, but ever since the arson, things have taken a curious turn that we’ve been doing our best to keep track of on this site. And the short story is that the studio appears to have grown more cautious, understandably so given what they’ve gone through—and perhaps as a stance against surrounding companies, like their theatrical distributor Shochiku whom with the studio fire still raging on, issued an embarrassing notice that they had no plans to delay their releases.

Following their previous model, it was standard for the studio to have finished a large chunk of a TV show before its broadcast, with the exact amount depending on its surrounding titles. It wasn’t common, however, for them to have preemptively completed the entire thing… let alone doing so over half a year before that broadcast, as has been the norm since KyoAni works returned to TV with Maidragon S. The amusing wrinkle in this story you might not expect is that their directors, perhaps to avoid the awkward interaction of telling fans that the production buffer is such that they end up sitting on finished works for half a year, they end up half-assedly misrepresenting the production circumstances. In an industry where major players blatantly lie about the state of productions for the sake of the reputation of their product, it’s funny that a studio has started selling themselves short so that fans don’t grow more impatient, telling them that they’re doing their best in long finished projects.

The reason I called those a half-assed misrepresentation, though, is that those who pay attention may have noticed how those claims clash with reality. Just like this theatrical OVA, Maidragon‘s web series Mini Dora was also made to bridge a long gap between main entries—something you could only afford to do if the main title is already well on its way to completion. While Tsurune’s series director Takuya Yamamura kept telling fans during live events that they were working on the series, the original voice acting team had repeatedly commented on having dubbed the series with perfectly finished footage, noting so before the broadcast as well.

The studio’s employees and their current positions across these recent projects have also highlighted a huge discrepancy, with promotions and departures not matching what is shown in the supposedly concurrent credits. This has happened as recently as Ensemble Contest itself; Urara Nakada’s first-ever appearance was in this cute promotional illustration for the Newtype issue published in July, a job that requires at the very least being a key animator, and yet she’s still listed as a newbie in-betweener—her sole anime credit to this day—within Ensemble Contest. Just another case on the pile of mismatches due to this large production buffer they’re pretending isn’t there.

Speaking of newcomers to the studio, it’s worth noting that in his interviews for the Kyoto Student Consortium, Ishihara immediately attributed Eupho and KyoAni’s high quality to their focus on passing down knowledge to new generations of artists. He also took it as an opportunity to express his worries about supposed advancements like AI animation, which is coherent with their understanding of human craft, but also simply feels nice when other studio heads are uncritically embracing the idea.

To put Eupho’s current situation into specifics, we only have to look at what its creators have said about it. As the director, Ishihara is keeping the same coy attitude, claiming that the upcoming TV sequel is currently in its storyboarding stage; he said as much on stage, then noted that storyboards are being delivered left and right in the aforementioned Febri interview. Although the creative process is more fluid in practice than in theory, and you’ll always find people going back to adjust boards and scripts, this paints a picture of Euphonium S3 being close to the end of its pre-production, rather than the reality of half the show being animated already. And why do we know that, besides the evidence of this having happened for all their recent projects? The truth is that its timeline is well-defined if you look elsewhere.

Back in January 2022, Jukki Hanada casually tweeted that he was writing its final episode. If we jump ahead to early June 2022, Kohei Okamura joked that after all the fun he’d had drawing beautiful men, he might struggle to handle Eupho’s cast. He phrased it as if it was already on his mind but not quite an ongoing worry yet, and one of his peers took just a couple weeks to write something that in retrospect nails Ensemble Contest’s timeline. Noriyuki Kitanohara had then started doing enshutsu work by checking layouts, something he couldn’t possibly have done in Tsurune S2’s second half as he didn’t hold that role, but that he did do for this OVA—alongside Okamura, one of its two animation directors.

Kitanohara’s next posts on the staff blog have further illustrated how season 3’s production is going, once again noting the timing of each round of layout checks in March and late June of this year. Given that Kitanohara has gone through two episodes of his own in the series, that means that at least half of it should have been animated by mid-summer, and that’s once again on track for the production to effectively end half a year before its real broadcast. Given how much of this information is public and shared by the studio’s own staff members, their attempts at deception are not exactly the greatest, but I’ll always take this coyness to protect a safe model over the ruthlessness of the industry at large. In its increasingly more polarized state and due to parties like Netflix who set early deadlines, wrapping up projects way ahead of their release—whether their effective schedule was good or not—is becoming more common, but this KyoAni trend might be the most curious case. That said, I do get their attitude: as someone who is dying for more Eupho, the knowledge that it’ll sit somewhere for months might eat me a bit from the inside.

One of the reasons it was easy to tell that Eupho’s animation had been ongoing for a long time was that KyoAni’s most experienced settei manager, Kazuki Kurihara, was completely missing from Tsurune S2 alongside their more veteran production managers. Eupho, which always has a ridiculous amount of materials to keep track of—characters, instruments, props, sheer density of animation assets—felt like the likely reason they were busy. And that is indeed the case.

After such a long introduction to industry norms, shifting practices, and funny lies, it’s time to talk about Ensemble Contest itself—which is pretty damn good, as it turns out. As previously mentioned, this side story was chosen because it’s a transitional beat that the staff found important to cover in some form. Ensemble Contest connects the epilogue of Eupho’s latest movie, where we saw Kumiko appointed as the new club director, to a third season where she’ll have to face the challenge of that role. For those who have followed her character arc, it was always easy to understand how she ended up in that position; Kumiko used to lack a filter but was aware of it, which led to her developing an observant personality to avoid trouble… yet had the natural predisposition to walk into every dispute, hence why she was always mediating like a club prez already.

However, being a good fit for a role and feeling prepared for it are two different things, so the small change this theatrical OVA happens to cover is Kumiko’s realization that she might be able to do it after all. She’ll surely struggle with it, as Ensemble Contest also casually underlines fundamental differences between her viewpoint and that of her closest partner, but now she can face the job without feeling like fish out of water. And in Eupho tradition, she achieved that while also helping others head in the right direction.

This short arc’s premise is a simple one: in her first big task leading the club, Kumiko has to prepare for an ensemble contest akin to the brass band competitions they’ve participated in the past, but instead starring small groups of 3 to 8 performers. Rather than prioritizing specific members for the audition to represent their school, everyone is meant to take part while organizing the groups themselves, which puts our rookie club president as an overseer of tricky social Tetris.

And thus, the A plot has Kumiko scrambling around, with no time to acclimate herself to the role before having to intervene in this chaotic puzzle assembling. As usual with Eupho, and increasingly more so as both audience and creators grow intimately acquainted with the cast, the delivery of their turmoil is very elegant. Kumiko’s struggles aren’t conveyed so much by her speaking out loud about them, but through her actions and minute reactions. It may be a lack of a reaction when she’s called as prez rather than by her name, or perhaps by copying her predecessor—something Ishihara noted he found himself doing in his student club days— when she needs by to command attention, but her feelings of inadequacy at the start are crystal clear without her having to unnaturally voice them out time and time again.

The team’s relationship with Eupho’s characters, what that means for their storytelling as well as the challenges it presents, has been one of the major themes they’ve brought up in staff interviews. The emphasis of most KyoAni directors on body language is nothing new, but when combined with an unusually long series that has done great groundwork, as well as an author who draws great inspiration from the studio’s visual storytelling, their excellence becomes almost incremental. Everyone’s demeanor isn’t just situationally fitting—the simplest example being Kumiko nervously rocking her legs at the start contrasting to her relaxed pose near the end—but always befitting their character, because everyone has grown to have a body language that feels distinctly theirs.

None of these moments that happen constantly are actually part of the script, but rather are the result of a different type of writing: one that happens during the storyboarding, or perhaps even in the key animation stage. Eupho’s team further defines each character beyond their major beats through acting that isn’t only reactive and an embodiment of big feelings, but also aims to capture genuine spontaneity. In the interview featured in Ensemble Contest’s theatrical booklet, Ogawa touches on his conversations with Ishihara about the humanization of characters through the accumulation of pointless, perhaps recurring behavior; something he exemplified by pointing out that Ishihara had spent that same interview absentmindedly drawing carp streamers, as that’s the type of authenticity they aim to capture. The idea of deriving meaning out of characterful meaninglessness is something that fans of Naoko Yamada should be plenty acquainted with, and one that is not surprising to hear from her mentor and one of her pupils.

Both directors had a field day improvising the acting for characters like Hazuki, whom Ogawa decided is exactly the type of person to sprint away mid-conversation to pet a puppy, and Ishihara had acting like one when she gets so excited about being relied upon she immediately dashes into the hallway… just to be seen by a teacher and have to slow down. She’s a known goofball, but in contrast to others, quite naturally so; just compare how down-to-earth her quirky mannerisms are to those of Kanade, who is always playing to an audience.

Since we’ve gotten to her, it’s Kanade in particular who might be the most interesting embodiment of this philosophy of animated storytelling. She made her grand debut in the preceding movie, but since she had to free herself of the burdens that were twisting her personality over that film, we’re only now starting to see her true self—which means Ensemble Contest is building her acting language. Across the OVA, her demeanor remains as haughty and mischievous as the script demands, performative in ways that allude to the nuances of the character, but also more demure and natural than when she went out of her way to seek conflict. In that same Febri interview, Ishihara talked about her already beloved shadowboxing sequence; one that we also know Okamura put a lot of effort into as the animation director for the second half of the OVA. The director admitted that he unconsciously drew that quirky mannerism, baffling himself when he looked back at it, but also making himself feel that Kanade might do that to playfully allude to their competition. And you know what, he’s probably right.

Kanade’s characterful hijinks across that scene aren’t limited to the shadowboxing, but also very fun cuts like her exaggerated pacing around. For as much as we’ve highlighted how important the staff’s experience has been to refine this acting, Ogawa rightfully pointed out that despite their technical chops maybe not being quite there, many of the newcomers at the studio are adding their own fresh acting ideas—very fitting ones too, as multiple recent hires were fans of Eupho as students. Given the unidentified notation in the key animation, it’s likely that one such newbie actually key animated this scene.

For as much as this ever-growing familiarity with the cast plays off nicely with the studio’s animation philosophy, returning to Eupho also made a team full of newcomers face quite the challenge. It’s not just that the studio has heavily rejuvenated itself since the last time they tackled Eupho’s production, but that even the veterans stepping up to replace some of their lost comrades felt the pressure to fill in big shoes. Instrument designer Takahashi was a mechanical animation fiend, the type who meticulously drew every nook and cranny of those tools—often using a magnifying glass to nail near-imperceptible detail. The younger Minoru Ota, a recurring prop designer with a budding directorial career, has taken a slightly different angle by trying to emphasize the feeling of their materials through the drawings themselves. Though it may sound like an oxymoron, with him in the lead, Eupho’s instruments are meant to feel more natural on screen; a more organic depiction that still dazzles you, but without overwhelming in the manner that Takahashi’s calculated precision did. Don’t get me wrong, though: all his corrections show an obscene amount of detail all the same!

Out of all the team members who had to step up—quite a few of them, since Eupho’s density of information is so high that most core positions are handed in duos—the most daunting prospect was Kazumi Ikeda’s. While she’s got nearly 30 years of experience at the studio, as well as the intimacy with Eupho as someone who’d been a recurring animation director for all its run, she opened up about the pressure of the role. In that theatrical pamphlet as well as in individual interviews like Animate Times, Ikeda has talked about inheriting a series where everyone has their own vivid image of the cast; one that she has to live up to, but at the same time, one that she must not grow obsessed with as those characters are constantly growing.

The truth is that, despite the characters’ appearances on screen having noticeably changed over the years, Eupho’s design sheets have basically remained the same and only added extra expressions as needed. Instead, it’s that recurring familiarity with the cast that has naturally made animators draw them with increasingly more mature appearances. Ikeda has stated that she wants people to be able to feel the Kumiko of old in there, while also representing the changes in her demeanor according to her new role and personal growth—but even with that theory clear in her mind, that’s still a tricky balance to maintain. Out of all characters, she has admitted that Reina is the most troublesome of all to nail the intangibles for; in no small part because the directors will always point out that she can’t have expressions that are too easy to read, while at the same time noting that she must never feel expressionless.

As always, this circles back to the relationship between this careful but also spontaneous animation process and the storytelling. Reina isn’t simply a bit of a pain to draw, she’s also meant to be mystifying within the story itself, to the point that much of Ensemble Contest is dedicated to Kumiko not picking up her cues about wanting to team up. Once she does, though, that deliberate mystique melts into adorable flirting about who’s the one lacking romanticism and who cares more about the other; a relationship their VAs called that of a clingy girlfriend and the boyfriend who left her behind to get a job, which is an interesting thing to say out loud in a committee featuring Bandai, given recent events.

Although those scenes are easy fan favorites, both Ogawa’s conversation on the train and Ishihara’s adorable conclusion near the water fountain, the quiet climax of this short story is Kumiko and Tsubame’s resolution; not a bombastic performance, nor a display of loud emotion, but a mutually helpful interaction that sets both parties on the right track. Across the OVA, Kumiko’s observational skills and ability to somehow keep things in balance solves most issues arising in this audition. And the most troublesome of all might be within her own group. While Hazuki’s growing pains only require a little nudging, a certain side character’s confidence keeps plummeting and endangering their group. Tsubame has existed in the background of Eupho for its entire run, most notoriously being part of Team Monaca—those who failed their auditions in the first year of the series, but still wanted to support the rest of the group in some capacity. Which is to say, someone who already didn’t have the greatest confidence for starters, and has now been thrust into a group featuring multiple club leaders.

By actually paying attention to Tsubame’s specific struggles and listening to those who work close to her, Kumiko is able to identify that the issue was never a lack of trying or even of technical skill, but a personal oversight that no one had considered to correct. Near the end of the OVA, Tsubame and Kumiko carry the former’s marimba together, and that’s when she decides to open up about her budding desire to compete—a significant change of heart for someone who had taken their own supposed mediocrity for granted, and one that means more to Kumiko than anything else she accomplished during this arc. Tsubame, feeling ready to stand toe to toe with the other club members for the first time, takes off with the heavy marimba by herself. With newly found confidence about her role as club president, Kumiko follows her with a smile.

Ishihara pointed out that Tsubame’s marimba playing was animated on the 1s, meaning full animation and thus a new drawing every frame, to demonstrate the dexterity required to play that instrument. He was worried that this fluidity could be misinterpreted as simple rotoscoping, so he noted no tracing of any sorts was used.

In the grand scheme of things, this short arc isn’t Eupho’s grandest moment. There will be time for that, as the post-credits scene reminds everyone; the entire sequence, animated by KyoAni ace Tatsuya Sato, has a distinct gravitas to it that is best felt with Kumiko’s delicately shifting expression when Reina brings up their final brass band competition looming in the horizon. Before that grand finale to Kumiko’s entire story, though, we were due a taste of the preliminary stages. And through cautious planning that they may not be entirely honest about, a fascinating approach to storytelling in animation, and the accumulation of knowledge only a long-running series produced by a dedicated team like Eupho’s can earn, Ensemble Contest has beautifully realized that idea. Sure, we’ll still have to wait a while for the show’s finale season, but in the meantime we have reasons for celebration; one of them is a wonderful theatrical OVA, and another one is the fact that today is Kumiko’s birthday. Have a good one, fictional but very human ball of fluff!

Support us on Patreon to help us reach our new goal to sustain the animation archive at Sakugabooru, Sakuga Video on Youtube, as well as this Sakuga Blog. Thanks to everyone who’s helped out so far!

Become a Patron!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *