While fans prefer to see production circumstances as black and white, Frieren represents what real-world success looks like resourceful management, delegation of the correct tasks to the right people, and inventive solutions to challenging situations.
It’s no secret that the internet despises nuance just as much as it despises false dichotomies. Recent events have bred a myopic discourse around anime production, in which the two most popular titles at the time must necessarily represent opposite ends of a black-and-white situation; if Jujutsu Kaisen S2 is such a poorly planned project, then Frieren must be in a thoroughly blessed situation, which explains why its adaptation is so beautiful. We’ve written extensively about the pitfalls of making such assumptions about perceived quality and labor conditions as a viewer, as well as how corporations use opacity to whitewash their questionable management, so it’s no surprise that neither case is so definitive.
Even though the schedule was never ideal, JJK2’s crew produced some amazing, completely realized work, particularly in the first arc. And, despite the fact that this has been the standard for all of Frieren thus far, presuming that this is a direct result of having plenty of time and a nice atmosphere at their disposal is a mistake. People should be more cautious about painting Madhouse as a healthy workplace simply to contrast it with MAPPA, because we’re still talking about the same company that started the trend of being sued for egregious treatment of their management staff just a few years ago.
Extrapolating the studio’s overall reality from their handling of Yuichiro Fukushi’s production line is likewise a mistake, as their standing as the studio’s stars entitles them to a whole different degree of resources and staff availability. Even within that one crew, things can change quickly; for some recent examples involving many people currently working on Frieren, look no further than the deep difficulties their production assistant expressed when managing their episode of Spy x Family S1, or how exhausted a bunch of them were after the late switch from Sonny Boy to Takt Op Destiny. By believing that their success is a given owing to favorable circumstances, you not only ignore their occasional extreme hardships, but you also risk missing out on how that accomplishment occurred.
This is all very pertinent to Frieren, as many of its victories are instead a demonstration of savvy and efficient technique. We already covered the series’ genesis in our first piece, and as impressive as it is to convince TOHO producers that they want to turn your work into an anime after a single chapter, that was still in 2020, so much time had to pass to accumulate enough material to seriously consider the idea. The time constraints that surrounded this project on many levels are hardly a trade secret; even though Saito was clearly entrusted with the series prior to the broadcast of Bocchi the Rock one year ago, he was still quite busy with that up until the end of its run, which conditioned Frieren’s progress.
In the anime’s official starting guide, his interview with character designer Reiko Nagasawa and series composer Tomohiro Suzuki hinted at how strict the pre-production process was. Nagasawa noted that she based her designs on the situation of the manga at the time, as styles tend to fluctuate dramatically throughout the early stages of serialization before settling. She specifically chose up to volume 7 of the manga, i.e. a spring 2022 release, for this early stage of the design process where she had to settle on the style to follow. Having personally witnessed various types of design materials—color scripts, artboards, and the like—being given the final OK between the fall and winter of that year, this roughly corresponds to a production process that did begin in 2022, but has only begun in full as the series director himself became free from previous obligations. And, for a two-course animation, it means they’ve got no time to spare.
So, what makes it stand out from other titles in comparable situations? For a multitude of reasons, including the unusually high technical floor. Frieren possesses the charisma of not only a beloved young filmmaker who has just released a smash success, but also of two star animation producers. Everyone on the outside is praising Fukushi, but it’s easy to forget that Takashi Nakame is using his theatrical experience and greater freedom as second in command to cherrypick star guests who would otherwise never be available to TV anime; this isn’t hyperbole, as he’s responsible for the presence of Ghibli-aligned animators who hadn’t appeared on TV in decades. And it’s not just those who make a difference: because of their enormous pull, this team has been able to be selective with all participants, which is the polar opposite of the industry habit of hiring the first person you see out of pure desperation. You may save so much time and trouble just by developing a team that will minimize the frequent corrections to people’s work, whether they are dependable veterans or young people who have proved that they can navigate the often obtuse production process.
When you combine that general aptitude with minute, but still very impactful, specific moves, you can create a series that punches far above its weight; one obvious example that I keep returning to is the pre-scoring, which they did apply across the entire special four episode introduction to give it a special feel, and is now being tactically deployed to great success. A team this resourceful can nonetheless send individual animators a recording of the music planned for that specific scene without completely disrupting the typical workflow. This frequently results in sequences that not only capture the feelings conveyed by the storyboard and script, but also match the intended tone on a whole new level due to auditory synchronization. Knowing when to pull off this trick and who to entrust these moments to are equally important components of Frieren’s recipe for success.
That leads us back to Saito, because task delegation has been one of his biggest achievements in this project. As someone who was quite busy in the early stages of the production, he merely needed to recruit dependable team members to lay the groundwork for the adaptation he’d envisioned. One of the most notable examples of this, as detailed in the first Frieren article, is Seiko Yoshioka, whose many credits as a concept artist and the like fall short of explaining her huge role in the worldbuilding process. Due to his hectic schedule and his inability to communicate everything verbally, Saito exposed the foundations of his vision and allowed her to imagine Frieren’s entire world and societies far beyond the confines of the original manga, tying it all together with their relationship to the passage of time. Be it color scripts to set specific moods, extensive design work to solidify the customs of the people in Frieren’s world, or the many season/age variants for everything she paints to underline that overarching theme, the presence of people like Yoshioka made the job easier for everyone else—from a director who could sigh in relief, to all the staff members who arrived later and were presented with clear, tangible goals.
The shield location of Qual was depicted with the image of villagers creating a barrier-like seal with stones and dedicating it. Relief carvings of goddess worship are engraved at the base of the stones.
The picture is used with permission from Madhouse.
— YOSHIOKA SEIKO (@seiko11) October 20, 2023
Another facet in which Saito has successfully delegated authority to his comrades, and one that has been particularly crucial in recent episodes, has been the action. We noted that Fukushi had previously presented him several projects, but that Saito rejected them because they were too loud and not really up to his taste. In that same Nikkei Entertainment interview, Saito went on to say that action was simply not his thing. It’s simply something he’s not good at, in his opinion. If it hadn’t been for Fukushi’s team’s reputation and the certainty that he’d be surrounded by specific people, this Frieren pitch would have ended up like those abandoned titles.
Remember that Saito’s inability to deal with action is a relative, self-inflicted judgment. When looking back on his career, one of the most crucial points was Monster Hunter Stories: Ride On, the long-running series where he made his storyboarding and directing debuts, as well as a location where he met some of his closest friends. Daiki Harashina, who graduated from the same university as Saito a few years earlier, went through the same experience on that project—and ever since, they’ve been close, with Shinashina also playing a significant role in Frieren. Toshiyuki Sato was the production’s ace animator, and he remains a crucial ally for Saito now that he has advanced to series direction duties. Friendship is genuinely eternal.
Contrary to what you might expect from Saito’s statements, and perhaps expected if you’re familiar with this genre, we’re talking about someone who initially made a name for himself in an adventure series where one of the key draws is the action component. Given the tastes of many of his friends, Saito has frequently found himself working in action anime, where he has proven that he can handle the job quite fine. Excellent, even! It’s also undeniable that he has always gravitated in a different direction than those bombastic pals; for example, he would prefer effects-heavy scenes where he could exploit his abstraction abilities, call dibs on acting sequences, or simply be entrusted with the more contemplative moments that balance out his peers’ hectic work. Given these preferences, as well as the fact that the original work’s representatives advised him not to hesitate in putting together an action spectacle when necessary, Saito had to select the correct personnel for the job. And, as we’ve seen in the most recent arcs, he did.
Speaking of which: everyone who works with Hiroki Uchiyama calls him a genius, so perhaps they’re onto something.
If we go back to where we left off in the series, we’ll get a wonderful overview of the topics that episodes #1-4 beautifully articulated. Frieren is continually dealing with the passage of time, balancing its unavoidable objective impacts with even more significant subjective ones. We’ve seen the physical aging of this world and its inhabitants through the eyes of an elf who, in theory, operates on a completely other scale. Everyone but her realizes that the ostensibly minor 10-year trip with her old party was a life-changing experience, because the weight of personal ties may extend well beyond the amount of time people have spent together.
Fern’s trial to become a full-fledged wizard was a nice illustration of that conclusion, and we see it again with Stark. When we first see him, he’s surrounded by youngsters from the hamlet he’s come to love, and behind him is a mysteriously missing section of a mountain. Though the formal reveal is delayed, Frieren immediately realizes that these are the results of his severe training to protect the villagers—again, a significant physical dent in stone so dense that time itself would take an eternity to impact it so forcefully. As previously said, the following episode expands those same notions to Stark’s scars, which serve as similarly physical manifestations of love. And why take it this far? In his case, it may be for the enjoyment of some children, and in Frieren’s case, for the enjoyment of her own party as she learns some funny magic; once again, this adaptation benefits greatly from the much more diverse, humorous portrayal of magic compared to the original manga. A totally objective understanding of time could never explain their acts, nor would they make sense if those relationships were rationally weighed. Frieren aspires to portray an irrational, wonderful humanity.
While all of that is standard procedure, the addition of a warrior to the party required some action spectacle for a change: this is the cue for action director Toru Iwazawa to take the stage. While he has acquired a reputation as an action specialist with colleagues such as Kai Shibata, Iwazawa has little experience as an episode director and storyboarder. If there was one area he’d be entrusted with that responsibility, it had to be within the Fukushi production line, where he’d lately made his debut in such positions—which, it turns out, fit him very well.
Iwazawa’s storyboard successfully builds up to Stark’s showdown with the dragon that has threatened the village. On an emotional level, the match cut between his shaking hands and his master’s shows us that he has inherited not only his master’s technique, but also the concept of accepting fear as an essential component while fighting a conflict. His heavy walk heightens the tension, and Iwazawa’s boards do an excellent job of establishing the battle’s objective scale… only to gradually betray it as it bursts into a stunning setpiece that goes far beyond that physical reality. Keiichiro Watanabe, Shingo Yamashita, Yen BM, Tatsuya Yoshihara, Definitely Not Yutaka Nakamura, and Hironori Tanaka were recruited not just by the aforementioned capable management team, but also by Iwazawa himself. Nobody knows the type of sequence that will satisfy his peers’ urge to go all-out like a true action specialist.
While that was well-deserved attention, I’d be failing myself if I didn’t mention the rest of the show. For starters, Iwazawa’s boards are extremely attractive even apart from the action; I especially liked how they first highlight the barriers between Fern and Stark, only to bring them on the same page with a simple flip of perspective—simple and effective! While there is no action, the second half of the show is dominated by another eye-catching artist in animation director Akiko Takase, who goes by the pen name Takasemaru.
There were legitimate fears that she would abandon animation entirely after being a member of Kyoto Animation during the arson assault that shook her to her core, but we’re progressively seeing her return to very particular projects. On the one hand, she has resumed creating artwork for KyoAni projects, and as Takasemaru, she is gradually accepting more traditional animation tasks. In any case, her position as supervisor alters the balance between intricacy and ease of animation that everyone considers to be typical. It’s easy to notice how her corrections increase the level of intricacy, but more importantly, she manages to marry that with her old studio’s careful acting principles; it’s no coincidence that there’s an attention to complex fabric and how personal mannerisms affect it right as she takes over as the supervisor, making it feel straight out of Violet Evergarden. Anime is simply a better place having her there to match themes that would otherwise appear to be at odds. Why not have some smoothly acted, extremely detailed artwork?
After a thematically consistent but primarily episodic first six episodes, #07-10 represent the series’ first genuine arc. That necessitates a shift in our perspective, and not simply because the structure requires us to consider the entire rather than individual episodes. Despite my respect for the early stuff, I don’t think this first contact with demons is as thematically sound. Even ignoring the genre’s racial trappings, Frieren hasn’t quite figured out how it wants to portray demons; Frieren’s harsh prejudice is objectively correct according to the narrative, but there is friction with a characterization that, in the end, hints at some affective links existing between them that are perhaps not so dissimilar to human bonds. Although I don’t believe the anime has fully resolved this issue, I do find it interesting how they’ve emphasized the malice in the titular elf at points, and not just to showcase badassery; if demons are beasts, perhaps Frieren, who is consistently framed closer to them than to humans, as a larger, scarier being, is as well. Her sneer even resembles Aura’s!
Add to it the less smooth pacing, and it’s not as tight as the prior content. Again, I don’t blame this team: they were told not to change the dialogue as much as possible, making it more difficult to compress the manga’s content, and so they had to commit to perhaps one episode too many—such is the reality of TV anime, where the decision is often between 24 more minutes or 0. While its themes may not always click, and at times I’ve wished for the arc to be over, the pure enjoyment and admiration for the craft I’ve acquired from these episodes is unmistakable. So, yet again, how has this production succeeded?
The arc begins with another demonstration of the power of friendship, which governs the industry as much as the cartoons themselves. The storyboard is divided between Naoto Uchida, who is always close Saito, and another buddy in the form of Keisuke “Desuran” Kojima. More intriguingly, it has been outsourced to the latter’s new studio, continuing the friendly game of ping pong that these teams have been playing for years. Though I say “new,” it is actually a spin-off of his former team studio at Revoroot, structured around the concept of an efficient animation workflow utilizing Clip Studio. Combine those ideas with Saito’s knowledge of Desuran’s work, and you have a high-quality outsourced episode that genuinely offloaded a lot of work from the main team; something you can’t take for granted anymore, as subcontracted episodes can drain so much energy to correct shoddy or misguided work.
The following episode has another strong performance by Tomoya Kitagawa, who has quietly been the best assistant Saito could ask for. He was the first person other than him to sketch storyboards for the series, which according to the series director was quite a challenge—after all, there was no model to follow at the time, so he had to envision what Saito’s vision exactly meant. And once he understood that, he was entrusted with none other than the title drop moment, which appears to be fated to occur in the eighth episode of a Saito series.
However, if you ask anyone, they will tell you that the highlight of this arc was episode #09, which was directed and storyboarded by Kouki Fujimoto, who may proudly wear his first episode as a genuine badge of honor. To say he was active despite his new responsibilities is an understatement; he contributed a lot of animation to the episode himself, both in terms of action and in the buildup that already increased the gravitas significantly, while also leading the effort in unusual aspects like the actual lip-synching. Fujimoto has clearly absorbed ideas and particular how-tos for creating three-dimensional surroundings for action over the last few years, and then mixed those with the rawer appeal of his own linework. When you combine that with some breathtaking moments of pure cel power, you get an episode that feels like it properly balances current techniques with a more traditional appeal.
The action he imagined is notable for feeling vast in its individual confrontations—particularly the two magicians firing beams at each other—but yet intimately connected and attentive. Cutting from one explosion in one fight to fluttering hair in another nearby fight, or using lighting effects visible across both, makes them feel constantly connected; a cool feeling that also prepares you for one distraction elsewhere determining the fate of the remaining fight. That attentiveness can range from all the information packed into mere hair loops to really contributing to character development. Fern’s expressiveness is a challenge since, like Frieren, she is frequently deadpan on the surface, thus a successful adaption requires these exquisite techniques to reinforce her character without spelling out too much, not even visually. Her confidence and downright swagger in this fight hits much more after seeing her typical stride and even some reluctance, coupled to one of many instances when she has conveyed her sentiments of inadequacy. She will believe in her casting speed if Frieren does. And she will do so with the same arrogance as her adversary.
How do you keep audiences interested in a much more constrained showing after such a spectacular episode? That’s the quandary that animation producer Nakame raised, while observing that #10 featured half the graphics as its predecessor. Saito’s solution to this difficulty was to assign the work to Nobuhide Kariya, who had already demonstrated a great grasp of his vision in Bocchi the Rock; interestingly, that one was also his debut, meaning that we’re seeing here one spectacular debut followed by a second time showing that lives up to it. It’s almost as if these exceptional young people can live up to their full potential in the right circumstances.
Following Saito’s support of experimentation, Kariya emphasized visual diversity in Bocchi. Not only was his episode a steady relay of different styles, but he also gave the idea behind the famous zoetrope of anxiety a few weeks later, making him stand out even by the odd standards of that show. Frieren seeks a more coherent flavor, therefore Kariya focuses on establishing emotional and physical distance, with compositions that are pretty adept at hinting something is there even if it cannot yet be perceived. With that, the episode clearly leads up to the disclosure of the hidden mana, which is a hilarious Dragon Ball-esque surprise for a series like this.
Though I don’t think it was necessary to devote an entire episode to it, I can’t fault Kariya’s deft storyboarding in the least; who doesn’t enjoy using physically unequal standings to depict a scene that discusses societal standings among demons being determined by their unequal powerlevels, one of the more interesting ideas in this arc? Frieren’s moments of tranquillity following her master’s death are some of the most beautiful, but also the saddest, of her life. She’s been left alone for centuries, trained not to stand out, so even the sunlight of those memories has a coldness to it—one that requires the hero’s warmth to disperse, since he can naturally sense there’s more to Frieren than her frigid exterior. Frieren, according to Saito, is not a series about her learning human feelings, but rather about discovering that she has always had them. That is why his opening sequence finishes with the parties of the past and present aligning, and why it was equally critical to depict how she was desensitized to her own emotions. That’s a powerful ending for an arc I don’t particularly care for.
Did you know that during the corresponding animation meeting, Kariya acted out Aura’s final moments with an umbrella, providing excellent references for her pained expression? Now you can join me in demanding that they make that footage public.
So, what has Frieren’s trick been thus far? It’s tough to boil it down to a single basic recipe that can be applied elsewhere, but I believe resourcefulness captures the overall idea. Saito is already a remarkable director, not only in what he has done personally, but also in the steps he has known to take back—and the individuals he has made room for as a result of those. Though this production benefits from its high-profile status, which provides it with resources that most titles could only dream of, it is simply incorrect to think that this is the only reason for its success. We work in an industry where comparable massive attempts fail on a regular basis, mostly due to external factors, but partly because they haven’t worked out the type of inventive solutions that have become the standard with Frieren. When asked about the current episode, Nakame said that it was difficult to put together—after all, they’ve all been difficult in their own way. From Saito’s hectic schedule to Kariya becoming ill during filming this episode, this crew has had to wiggle its way out of several sticky circumstances. Moving forward, it’s likely to get even more challenging. But guess what? I trust these folks since they are really resourceful.