Smart Management Makes Room For Ambitious Creators: Dungeon Meshi Production

Good Control Makes Room For Bold Creators: Dungeon Meshi Manufacturing Notes 04-08

Outsourcing and various delegations of duties have become tools for TV anime to barely survive, but with its team’s clear vision and enviable contacts, Dungeon Meshi has been able to alternate between external production excellence and Trigger’s explosive in-house ambition.

A full profile about Dungeon Meshi can be found in the Weekly Famitsu issue dated February 29. Ryoko Kui, the author, is most recognized for the picture in which she immortalized the elves from Western role-playing games that impacted her. It’s not as though any of them can compare to Marcille’s enormous ears, but those are lofty expectations. The same issue also features an interview with the character designer Naoki Takeda and director Yoshihiro Miyajima of the anime series—a couple who, as they have often stated whenever they have a microphone, camera, or pen in front of them, were initially huge fans of the show. As we mentioned in our introduction to this translation, the reason Dungeon Meshi’s anime even existed in the first place is connected to Miyajima’s relationship with the series and his development at Trigger studio. This interview provides additional insight into that connection. The most hilarious explanation comes from the fact that, even before it obtained final approval, Miyajima employed the possibility of a Dungeon Meshi adaption to keep Takeda employed at the studio because, at the time, he had received offers to work elsewhere. Never undervalue the desire of individuals to work on their favorite shows; it has the power to completely transform entire studios.

Miyajima also confirms in that same interview, which was conducted in January of this year, that they had only recently begun filming the final episode, bringing it almost finished at this point. Although the conditions around initiatives with a clear timeline are frequently oversimplified to the point of being perceived as breezy, getting here hasn’t always been simple. Speaking for the official handbook for the program, series composer Kimiko Ueno revealed the challenges in preserving the original work’s integrity but still having to make occasional changes because of its complex nature and the volume of content they intended to cover. This was Ueno’s most difficult compositional aspect to date; she battled to imagine a satisfying ending until the very end of pre-production. This was an area in which she had previously excelled. Even though it worked out well, Gridman Universe was prepared to change its production timeline in order to keep all of its core staff, which ultimately had an impact on an already-in-the-works Dungeon Meshi adaption.

Ueno added that Miyajima’s complete refusal to hear from editors about the series’ conclusion in order to prevent any potential errors in the anime—he wanted to experience that as a reader—was what truly revealed to her how much Miyajima loved the series, in addition to the thoughtfulness of his suggestions. But Ueno herself did check her writing with them just to be sure!

As has been the case with every successful completion of a Trigger project on a favorable timeline, the core crew is the first to point out that this is not typical for them; in other words, Miyajima himself added that it went remarkably well in comparison to the other shows produced at the studio. When questioned about the series, not just in this interview but in others as well, Miyajima has come to a conclusion that is comparable to Akira Amemiya’s justification for Gridman’s prosperous production.

Amemiya claimed at the time that he had avoided repeats by surrounding himself with people he admired in the first place since he knew they would produce work that suited his tastes. Delegation and staff selection play a significant role in this situation as well. Not so much in the sense of hand-picking preferred artists as in the way Miyajima looked for important people who had a crucial quality in common with him: they had long since imagined what they wanted to do in a Dungeon Meshi anime, years before one was officially approved. The pre-production process, which could be quite demanding in a complex fantasy series, will go much more smoothly because you’ve already given it a lot of consideration and were on the same page from the start. Their long-term cultivation of a strong understanding of the series is paying off even as they’ve moved onto the show, whether it’s in a chapter they already knew they’d have to put additional effort into or a corner they know they can cut.

Even while that is essentially the official response, I think there is more to it when you look at the studio as a whole. In our last essay, we concentrated on Trigger’s ever-widening stylistic repertory. This may be seen in their lead creatives’ preferred methods of drawing things—or, in Miyajima’s case, not drawing them at all—as well as in their creative beliefs and how they relate to project management. A seasoned player like Hiroyuki Imaishi is definitely not surrounded by turmoil out of inexperience, but rather because he thrives in it despite its disadvantages. Yoh Yoshinari, in a similar vein, fails to meet expectations not because of a lack of technical talent but rather because of his extraordinary ability, which drives him to strive for perfection in any spare moment he has.

As opposed to them, Miyajima’s foundations lie in sound management rather than quirky, ambitious animation. A major part of his job as a production assistant for the first several years, and then as an episode director, was making sure everything got done in a studio full of fiery creatives. Despite having directed films for nearly ten years, he has undoubtedly improved his artistic side, but his practical side will always be there. Whether he is aware of it or not, knowing the timeline, the size of the project, and other factors definitely influences every choice he makes in his role as series director. However, having observed his leadership style, we can confidently state that drawing conclusions merely from someone’s history runs the risk of being incorrect. Look no further than the aforementioned Amemiya, who ultimately proved to possess the practical bone required to succeed in TV anime, despite initially being viewed as a director who would follow in Imaishi’s footsteps before taking on a significant project of his own.

Prioritization is a fundamental concept in project management that, like other professional jargon that has become popular with English-speaking fans, is easily misinterpreted when used improperly to excuse loud people’s (dis)likes of cartoons. The idea is as straightforward as it gets: teams will modify episodes based on schedule and story considerations rather than allocating the same amount of financial and creative resources to each one because no two episodes are the same. The idea isn’t unique to meticulous series directors like Miyajima, but how much emphasis is placed on it differs. Though among big-profile series, Dungeon Meshi’s adherence to that theme is very daring, the contrast between highs and lows isn’t as dramatic as the many messy TV anime that go nuclear for a single episode thanks to its respectably high floor.

Looking back at the first three episodes that we have already discussed, Miyajima was confident in letting Kui’s worldview’s inherent appeal do the majority of the talking early on. This was dubbed the tutorial stage, which is fitting considering Kui’s influences from video games. However, he believed that the third episode deserved extra attention, which is why they had always intended to take things to heights you might not have thought possible from those modest beginnings.

He thought that episode #03 demonstrated the power of Kui’s worldbuilding, even though there weren’t any purely narrative reasons for it (a few significant events do occur, but not much more than in the first few). We can all roughly picture how one might prepare organic-looking monsters for food, but how could one cook armor while maintaining the internal consistency of a Dungeon Meshi? While the ensuing shenanigans are highly entertaining, the rationale behind that order of importance is more basic: their endeavor should be commensurate with the author’s extravagant imagination.

Now that we have a clearer grasp of Miyajima’s emphasis on resource management, we can at last move on to the upcoming episodes. Given the mentality we’ve been discussing and the frantic period with the living armors, it should come as no surprise that episode #4 exhibits more restraint. Though it has its share of humorous moments and exposes the party to more dungeon dynamics, Miyajima feels that these are the kinds of chapters that can largely stand on their own thanks to Kui’s endearing storytelling, Senshi and Marcille’s invaluable voice acting, and a cameo from Atsushi Ikariya.

You should be extremely familiar with the particular flavor of this breather if you are familiar with Trigger’s work. Tatsumi Fujii of Yostar Pictures has been involved in their productions for so long that he has changed studio names during that time. This is a very technical change because Yostar simply absorbed the Albacrow gang, to which he was affiliated, along with other creators who were close to Trigger. While storyboarding is rarely outsourced in TV anime, close working connections such as Trigger’s with Fujii enable him to oversee the process in addition to overseeing production at his own studio. Normally, he would have also served as its episode director, but he had to assign those responsibilities to a new Trigger member due to his fatherhood. Probably a fitting conclusion, considering that educating young employees practically was one of the reasons he was glad to accept the position. The majority of the first part of the episode was ultimately handled by Yostar’s young animators, which perhaps helped them be ready for extremely busy times at their studio.

The adaptation would have received a passing grade if the anime had kept producing sufficient episodes until it was time to go all out once more. But what it has accomplished recently is far more remarkable; Dungeon Meshi has managed to push the envelope while maintaining energy for its core cast, allowing for numerous consecutive episodes, each with a distinct flavor of brilliance, and providing hope for the show’s future.

Aya Ikeda’s storyboarding and direction of episode #05 kick off the show’s greatest run of episodes to date. Despite the fact that she has begun to feature heavily in the productions of her firm, A-1 Pictures, the first film that quickly springs to mind is Kaguya-sama. One reason is that Mamoru Hatakeyama’s influence on the still-developing filmmaker is evident in everything he does; from paneling for similar reasons or just for laughs, to flat shading and extreme close-ups to isolate emotional shifts, and attempts to make exposition more palatable with visually fitting themes, it has it all. Properly, Shunsuke Shida, the animation producer for Dungeon Meshi, noted that it was her first storyboard from that series that initially caught their attention, prompting them to try to recruit her despite her hectic schedule.

They were correct to look for her skills, based on the outcomes. While still embracing the funny exaggeration of this adaptation, Episode #05 may be the most accurate representation of Kui’s original manga’s strange humor. Those Hatakeyama school stylizations, in addition to working there, seem like a perfect complement for the moments that are more somber. Kui was given the advise to keep in mind that the dungeon is a somewhat dark place, even if he enjoyed the commercial for the series that Miyajima originally directed. Ikeda skillfully alternates between two forms of lighting: the calm yet frequently frightening appearance of zenkage shots, and finely shaded artwork when the spookiness shifts from implied to overt. All filmmakers have addressed lighting from different perspectives and with varied degrees of focus. Ikeda’s presentation presents the two chapters this episode covers as a humorous horror story that was always intended to be delivered in this manner, even if I never got the feeling that they were necessarily a single, cohesive whole. This is the first significant success in the search for outside directors, and there will be more.

How much longer would it take before there was one more? In precisely one week, as episode #06 transpires to be among the most captivating of the complete series. Instead of just looking for an excellent external director like Ikeda, this is another episode that was completely outsourced, yet one that nevertheless strengthens the bonds within the crew. Keita Nagahara, an enthusiast for animation who works at Kyoto Animation’s Osaka division, is both the director and storyboarder for it. His broad love of animation has allowed him to jump between the biggest action shows of the moment, silly kids anime, the most mainstream films, and everything in between. And by everything, I mean that in just a few years, he’s tried his hand at a variety of animation and directing roles. He possesses the acting fundamentals you’d expect from someone trained there.

We have a company full of animation nerds like Nagahara, so we try to match his enthusiasm for the medium. Enishiya is an intriguing business that provides services on two fronts: managing intellectual property (as demonstrated in the impending Spice and Wolf revival) and functioning as an anime studio. Producer Kei Igarashi, for example, has been instrumental in bringing together some of the top talent in the animation industry on a regular basis. During his tenure at Studio 3hz, Igarashi got to know a number of exciting up-and-coming artists. However, to attribute his success to this alone belies his true motivations, which are his sincere love of animation and his ability to foster an atmosphere that inspires creators to work freely. Enishiya began by concentrating on smaller projects that offered higher prices in order to do that. These projects included commercials, promotional videos, short films, and, most obviously, an all-star Pokemon music video including Ed Sheeran among others.

Only lately, after the company had sufficiently proven both its artistic and financial credentials, have they begun working on full episodes. Though, as they still maintain a high level of exclusivity, if Yostar’s debut in episode #4 represented Trigger reaching out to a trustworthy acquaintance that not everyone has access to, then Enishiya’s #06 represents the ultimate service that ordinary people can only dream of. Do it Yourself #05, their debut episode, is a standout among the greatest artistic accomplishments in animation during the past ten years. They took on Frieren #14 as their next task, and I believe I don’t need to say much more to convey how excellent the animation is there. While anime outsourcing is intended to provide breathing room for the core team, highly skilled outside assistance such as this totally dispels the idea that a low-priority episode (so low they’re literally not making it!) must in any way be subpar.

The Massara short film, produced at Enishiya and with Nagahar also at the helm, is another beautiful example of their abilities. It’s also quite relevant to this team at Trigger, as its character designer is Mayumi Nakamura—a key figure in the likes of Gridman, who also served as the character designer for Miyajima’s original commercial for Dungeon Meshi. Those are the nice excuses I found to promote it again, anyway.

In addition to the fact that this kind of prime outsourcing is no longer used, episode #06 is intriguing because it functions as a microcosm of this superior management. If Enishiya’s presence represents the wise decisions made at a larger scale, then the way it’s implemented is excellent micromanagement. Alongside animation director Hirotoshi Arai, Nagahara establishes his all-arounder reputation by drawing nearly the entirety of the first half of the episode, freeing up the studio’s bright animation talent to concentrate on the second.

Similar to how Dungeon Meshi as a whole is flourishing in these outsourced episodes that would have otherwise required a sacrifice, Nagahara and Arai’s heavy workload didn’t actually have a negative effect; on the contrary, it helped the episode establish its strong individuality right away. This one is particularly remarkable for the dungeon’s physical depth, with well-designed, evocative layouts that frequently allude to the possibility of something lurking in the shadows—and accentuate those shadows more from the start, reinforcing Kui’s observation that the dungeon is a dark place. The humor isn’t diminished in any way by this increase in the eerie quality of the scene; in fact, everything is made funnier than usual by the layered viewpoints and humorous perspectives that combine numerous panels for contrast. The real Dungeon Meshi experience is when you’re smiling but you also know that something scary could be around the corner.

The episode’s last scene perfectly captures the essence of what makes this strategy so alluring. This rather original addition (based on an omake rather than this chapter) depicts a lighthearted dispute using one of those deep layouts and adorable, limited shorthand animation. Later, it employs the same depth to give the characters a last, unsettling surprise. That’s the essence of the incident, a mimic in the wrong situation.

But it’s important to call out a second half that makes the most of all the energy they have left before we get to that point. Perhaps the most well-known animator working for Enishiya is its supervisor, Toya Oshima, who frequently serves as a focal point for bringing together the youthful but yet glamorous faces that can be found throughout their credits. Even stars were drawn to his radical linework and his penchant for backdrop animation when he was a total novice; even though he has since refined his approach, those remain significant components of his repertory. Because of this, the action scenes in this half-episode, in which Chilchuck musters all his might to escape a mimic by crawling across a closed chamber, feel like a perfect fit for him. It also helps that he worked with other animators who, although coming at things from different perspectives, are equally skilled and possess those qualities. Ren Onodera’s extraordinary use of computer-generated imagery complements Takeshi Maenami’s raw intensity and one’s ability to discern when manually adjusting angles.

Shout out to Kaito Tomioka’s thrilling sequence (and Meka Aoratos’ contributions after it) as well, on grounds of kicking ass.

Dungeon Meshi is able to reap the benefits of a rested core team without experiencing any negative effects following a couple of episodes that were quickly produced outside of the company and one that was still centered around an outside director. It’s intriguing to see that episode #07 in particular was considered a highlight, considering that may not have been the first thing a fan would have selected out of instinct. However, I think that it’s worth highlighting because of how beautifully it introduces the cast to the dungeon as a live, vibrant ecosystem of which they are a part.

Senshi has been attempting to explain to them the circle of life within the dungeon ever since they first saw it, but the way these three chapters—perfectly woven into one story—address it from various perspectives makes the concept clear to both viewers and explorers. Everything revolves on the idea that the dungeon is a living entity that they are all a part of, whether it is the dramatic decision to devour a horse Senshi once thought of as a friend, the exciting battle with a superpredator kraken, or the punchline that ends with Laios being tormented by its parasites.

It’s also important to remember that Miyajima wishes to highlight the spots where witnessing the events unfold brings the greatest joy in order to replicate the thrill he experienced when first reading it. That makes me think of the action in this episode right away, and for good cause. Young in-house aces Shimon Dohi and Sho Oi’s battle with the Kraken culminates in a scene with enough organic movement, secondary animation, and attention to detail to make anyone’s fantasies about facing a giant squid come true. Though Kui aimed for the death process to be as physiologically authentic as possible, a less well-executed version would never have been as gratifying (sorry, all you mollusk readers). The painting and compositing teams will have a far stronger basis to sell this scene because of how its pigmented patches instantly fade as a cel element and the realistic deflation. Even while it’s not as flamboyant, the underwater kelpie’s ferocity—which features some of the best character art in the show thus far—impressed me as well.

Episodes like these, however, also flourish in little moments, such as witnessing the kelpie shake itself dry. these is a delightful portrayal of a fanciful moment, suitably entrusted to another animator with KyoAni origins in Haruki Sakamoto. This is because of Kui’s interesting worldbuilding. The crew is clearly aware of his abilities because of how frequently he’s been given edits when they need to highlight closeness (particularly around Falin) or other wacky charm like this.

Speaking of the devil, Marcille meets the party member they are attempting to save for the first time in the final episode that we will discuss for the time being. The episode’s talented storyboarder, Yuki Yonemori, isn’t a stranger, even though he’s not actually connected to Trigger—especially when he’s around friends like Kai Ikarashi, who elevated a brief escape scene from the manga into a memorable highlight. Even with those grandiose scenes, Yonemori’s distinctive style as an animator is more articulate acting that is grounded in reality. He has been combining that with evocative shot composition for a more comprehensive portrayal of mental states ever since he took on the role of director. These attributes confirm that the elf who reminisces about meeting a quirky female who changed her perspective and put her in a difficult situation later on is correct when it comes to the ideal storyboarder.

The fact remains that Yonemori hasn’t gotten much experience as a director yet. We wrote about his directing debut three years ago, with the main thesis being that, given his inexperience, his abilities made no sense. I can assure you that he hasn’t grown any worse since then. But there has been a slight shift in his approach to the work. Yonemori made the decision to abandon animation direction in order to concentrate only on these directing responsibilities after landing an incredible episode of Do it Yourself!, at least for those situations when he was required to handle the latter. That may seem like a limitation for someone who builds upon character animation the way he does, but I think that with his skill and experience, he can identify the crucial details through his boards and director corrections alone; or in this case, just with the former, because Trigger tends to separate enshutsu duties, so Yuichi Shimodaira is in charge of overseeing the production.

You don’t have to wait to find out how Yonemori’s sensitivities materialize because episode #08’s first half seems very different from the previous half. There’s a delicateness to Marcille that hasn’t been seen to this extent before, from the way her cheek felt soft against Laios’ armor to the cautious manner she conducted her previous trials. Once more, one of the best examples is the endearing animation of the previously mentioned Sakamoto; at this point, it’s safe to argue that Falin has been officially classified as a KyoAni character. Watching Marcille come out of her shell and lash out at her the same way she does with Laios today is as delightful as the contrast between their body language throughout the flashback. The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate how their meeting fundamentally altered their lives, and the animation serves to further emphasize this point with the meticulous gesture work that Shunpei Gunyasu oversaw. The implicit character journey is sweetly summed up by the difference in sitting motions alone. Falin’s wild methods contrast sharply with Marcille’s excessively prim and proper manner, although the elf’s current behavior is noticeably truer to herself and tougher.

In addition to this exceptionally meticulous acting, Yonemori’s storyboards have an evocative quality that can elevate even the most straightforward compositions to the level of something memorable. In an actual adventure, the contrast between Falin’s shadowy presence and Marcille’s brilliance at school is reversed; it’s now a playful free spirit vs an excessively repressed self. Even when we jump back to the present and find Marcille unintentionally encountering a deadly water ghost, her desperation is succinctly conveyed. It speaks for itself when you see how she literally feels the weight of the dungeon after being drained of magic, even if you’re too focused on the intense action to notice it.

However, it would be impossible to discuss this second part without mentioning the animation itself. Ichigo Kanno and Ikarashi, the main characters of the third episode, steal the show when they emerge back-to-back, but the entire scene is incredible. The drawings have a three-dimensionality that the show has seldom succeeded in achieving, and the same shading that adds to that also lends depth to Marcille’s expressions, most of which are painful ones because that is how her life is; however, it is objectively funny to see her zombie self getting increasingly irate over not being served a varied BBQ. Although Akihiro Sato, an animation director, has only recently assumed that position, the caliber of the episode produced under his direction is evident.

In-house staff provided nearly all of the highlights in this exquisite episode. They were able to concentrate on these crucial moments because of the extensive delegation the team had previously completed, which they were able to accomplish without compromising quality, as we’ve discussed in detail. We should use caution at this point, but if you’ve been enjoying the adaption as much as I have throughout these episodes, there’s no reason to spoil the fun for you. Although episodes #09–10 aren’t designed to be on this magnitude, some of the excellent episodes we’ve seen this month weren’t either. Given the production’s respectable floor and the team’s commitment to giving it their all to wrap out this season, I have no doubt they’ll quickly deliver another standout episode.

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