Tengoku Daimakyou Production Notes: An Exceptional Adaptation Facing Exceptional Challenges

Tengoku Daimakyou Manufacturing Notes: An Outstanding Adaptation Going through Outstanding Demanding situations

Tengoku Daimakyou is an exceptional series facing equally exceptional challenges. It’s got a production environment and an amalgamation of talent most anime would die for, but also the duty to tackle a fascinatingly weird post-apocalyptic story that is somehow both terrible dense and also mostly laid back in nature. One of a kind!

Compromise is an art form while making anime for television. Resources are acknowledged to be insufficient, and production timelines have only become worse—a perverse success given how bad they were to begin with. The way these works are developed has been shaped by this reality and still is. If corner-cutting is inescapable, then you might as well be artistic about it since that way you could stumble across new means of expression. At its best, startling creative currents have sprung out of those restrictions, turning their weaknesses into strengths of their own. Anime has a long history of weaponizing its flaws, whether it’s through the rise of efficient drawing count modulation techniques, emphasizing the staging more, or more modern technology improvements that aim to combine efficiency with emotion.

At their worst, though, these solutions can entirely sap the life out of the works they are meant to complement. TV anime frequently fail to manage these situations, whether it be due to insufficient or poorly targeted compromises producing a poor title that crumbles under its own ambition or an overly conservative approach producing nothing but a sterile result. On the other hand, that should imply that a project shouldn’t actually have to deal with basic issues given the correct staff, a high-profile production environment, and an abundant schedule—but is it really that simple?

There is no doubting that Tengoku Daimakyou is a fortunate title at this point. Its circumstances might not appear exceptional—or even advantageous, for that matter—at first glance. Hirotaka Mori is making his series directing debut, and he only accepted the job because he knew animation producer Masashi Ohira. Ohira managed one of Mori’s early episodes in Joker Game, and the two have since frequently collaborated on Production IG projects like PSYCHO-PASS and Moriarty the Patriot. Even if Mori’s work on shows like 86 and 22/7 was memorable and distinctive, managing a full project takes a new set of talents, so a smooth transfer should never be taken for granted.

Given that Ohira himself only has one prior position under his belt as an animation producer, their inexperience as a group could have raised concerns about their ability to assemble a skilled crew; yet, they were successful in their endeavors. Their positions just so happened to mesh well: Ohira’s employment with one of the most established animation powerhouses gave him access to a workforce with sound fundamentals, while Mori’s charismatic, elegant delivery had already won the respect of many talented young freelancers he came into contact with. Tengoku Daimakyou’s team is as strong as any production can hope to be thanks to their deceptively wide audience and the seriousness of their already substantial body of work. brimming with new talent as well as seasoned pros, vivid storyboarders, and the technical know-how to make those ambitious concepts a reality. In other words, the whole shebang.

Naturally, it helps that Tengoku Daimakyou has also benefited from that other dreadful TV anime variable. The existence of this adaptation was widely known prior to its official announcement in October 2022 for a reason: at that time, the series’ animation process had already been underway for a considerable amount of time, as it was originally intended to premiere in April 2022—a full year before its actual broadcast. Missing the initial target date is common, and giving that extra time shouldn’t be seen as a kind gesture that eliminates all deadline-related stress, but this project’s background is unusual because of the room for error and the potential to keep a strong core team together in the long run. Because of this, Tengoku Daimakyou’s crew has diligently chipped away at their burden until they have produced something that seems fully realized. After all, time can be of little use if all resources and talent are channeled away. The extra time has also been beneficial to its celebrity visitors, who have ended up contributing more than they should have, whether it be by leaving behind painstakingly specific directions or by creating exquisite animation in addition to the storyboards. In these early episodes, we can see examples of this in action, and more are in store for us in the following weeks.

So, once more, since Tengoku Daimakyou doesn’t have to deal with the most significant problems that affect TV anime, could there possibly be another important obstacle for this adaptation to overcome? The truth is that there are other problems that cannot be avoided in such initiatives in addition to poor planning and a lack of resources; in fact, some of these problems are more inherent to the format. The limited length of episodes and their quantity having to adhere to seasonal programming can be somewhat of a nightmare from a storytelling perspective, despite it being so commonplace that viewers hardly ever question it. Few formats are as rigidly fixed in stone as TV, though most have their own loosely specified runtimes that they can get away with. The second your project is destined for television, every second within a 30-minute block has a predetermined purpose. There is a reason why teams will choose special broadcasts when given the chance, even if they usually involve a greater burden. You won’t get more or less until you battle tooth and nail for it. Similar to how it has been increasingly difficult to get more than one anime series approved at once due to the industry’s constant need for New Content, anime has become more and more commercialized.

All of the problems are systemic ones, not the most urgent ones for a typical project, hence none of them are exclusive to Tengoku Daimakyou. The fact that this is not your typical TV anime and how all these factors interplay makes this adaptation particularly difficult to pull off. The series Tengoku Daimakyou itself must also be taken into account in this equation. It has an intrinsically conflicting core, which director Mori found impressive because the manga is able to convey without friction.

Mori was faced with a multi-threaded thriller that was sustained by meticulous planning across lengthy arcs, but also one that featured two idiots who liked to mess around in the post-apocalyptic world. Its two main plotlines deliberately overlap, both to lead you astray and to reveal information. Thus, the series’ structure itself becomes a component of the heavenly illusion. If you only know Masakazu Ishiguro from his undoubtedly funny maid-themed series, Tengoku Daimakyou is a formal triumph in storytelling that can catch you off guard. However, it’s precisely this that makes it a royal pain in the ass to adapt. This crew has the resources and assistance that the majority of their contemporaries wish they had, but at the same time, their challenging task also coincides with being more incompatible with the structural constraints of TV, specifically in a show that excels in that area. Let’s finally go into the first few episodes of the show to see how these problems and this team’s creative answers develop.

The first episode of Tengoku Daimakyou clearly establishes that this series is divided into two main storylines: the adventures of Maru and Kiruko in the post-apocalyptic wilderness, and the mysterious plot in a technologically advanced orphanage, centered around a Maru lookalike by the name of Tokio. Ishiguro alternates between each thread, continuously looking for a method to connect the two. This may be done by having a character pass out at one end and awaken in the other, by having a transition that suggests physical continuity between the two, by having a common theme, by having an implied accusation, or by any other number of things. Its frequent use can give the impression that it’s a sly gimmick, but while you can definitely picture the author grinning behind some of these transitions, they also contribute a lot to the suspense and support the book’s entertaining, rapid pacing.

This is immediately put into action in the anime; in fact, it does so more quickly than the original manga. The anime’s confident series composition reorders all the early events and creates new points of connection, although its first chapter was almost totally devoted to the children in the mystery institution, only dedicating one of those crucial switches right at the conclusion. A transition with numerous ramifications is made towards Maru and Kiruko after Tokio is introduced to the idea of the outside of the outside, which is virtually inconceivable to someone who has always lived inside the sealed world of this future orphanage. In the first episode alone, there are numerous instances of similar changes; some are the result of clever rearrangements, while others are fundamentally original. These shifts finally result in a fresh cliffhanger that would make the manga proud.

The fact that this team is able—and willing—to emulate the author’s narrative techniques rather than simply replicate them demonstrates their command of Tengoku Daimakyou’s grammar and, more crucially, it demonstrates that they understand why that matters. Again, they were given a difficult task to do. Around six volumes of a very eventful, multifaceted series are expected to be adapted this season. Simply skipping over them would be counterproductive to the story’s overall theme and do a disservice to the meticulously created enigma.

Maru and Kiruko actually enjoy going on adventures together in Tengoku Daimakyou’s fascinating, peculiar, and occasionally horribly harsh world. While being pursued by a terrifying monster the size of a skyscraper, they joke about, make mistakes, and believe themselves they’ve created seatbelts. This last incident won’t be featured in the anime, but allow me to provide a small spoiler to make my point. In contrast to the horrible reality of a desolate post-apocalypse inhabited by monsters, the concept heavily codes the institution as the heaven the two co-leads have been instructed to find. It contains clues allegedly related to their objective, such as Maru’s resemblance to Tokio and why not, excellent tomatoes. Even Ishiguro’s narration on the manga’s first page refers to it as heaven. This is the only remnant of civilization we see in a devastated planet.

Despite all of that, we rapidly realize that nothing is quite as it seems. The manga’s least unexpected early revelation reveals that the clearly suspicious orphanage is actually hiding sinister secrets. Maru and Kiruko’s journey across a barren Japan is, quite plainly, more cheerful, in contrast to Tokio’s side of the story, which features one horrific revelation after another. Tengoku Daimakyou never depicts anything in black and white, and tragedy permeates every thread of its narrative, but it nonetheless makes it clear that these two’s travels together are the only thing we see that comes near to a heavenly period. Even the characters say as much, with Maru expressing it faster as the husband-to-be that he was meant to be.

All of this is to imply that the seemingly insignificant banter between the two is actually a crucial aspect of the plot, if not its entire foundation. Blazing through it, let alone completely cutting it because it appears to have no narrative significance, would have resulted in a workable puzzle that lacked the appeal of the original piece and had a far deeper message. This team has chosen a more difficult, but more likely to successfully convey Tengoku Daimakyou’s appeal, pre-production route through frequent little rearrangements and deliberate omissions. However, this does not negate the fact that some sacrifices are being made. Since the theme of this play is compromise, they eliminated some lovely dialogue between its two co-leads and some of the innumerable hidden clues as well. But Mori and his team have been able to maintain Tengoku Daimakyou’s spirit while concentrating on the elements that can make the anime into an experience that stands out on its own by correctly identifying what makes Tengoku Daimakyou so appealing, and generally making the right choices to address these inevitable pacing woes.

What, therefore, are those qualities Mori thinks could improve a Tengoku Daimakyou anime? The director constantly singled out a few of them in particular in interviews. Sound is one of the aspects he found himself paying attention to out of all those that an anime adaptation is allowed to include. While a comic may not have audio, any work with enough personality will feel as though it has. For the director, Ishiguro’s work’s nonchalant off-kilterness begged for a score by the one and only Kensuke Ushio. I wholeheartedly concur with him when he said that Ushio’s ethereal tones are something you can just picture playing across a school and a post-apocalyptic world alike.

Although he didn’t specifically mention it like he did with music, Mori did consider color and backdrops as important elements in recreating a work’s personality. And it’s obvious from just one look at the first episode that Yuji Kaneko’s art direction is just as crucial to how the universe of Tengoku Daimakyou is portrayed as any other. The location plays to his studio Aoshashin’s strengths that have been seen in previous works, yet to paint this as a typecasting for a single, extremely narrow aesthetic would be unfair to him. Particularly in the past few years, Kaneko has magnificently broadened his scope, not only in terms of the subjects he paints but also in terms of the methods he employs to get there, such as whether to prioritize analog or digital paintings. The two very different possibilities inside Kaneko’s framework are represented by the grounded lived-in atmosphere of Josee and Ousama Ranking’s impressionistic, creative fairy tale. Kaneko also has two further distinct sides in Tengoku Daimakyou. A clinical, sanitized orphanage and a decaying, overgrown post-apocalypse. Whatever those may be, there is heaven and hell.

The final point of focus in Mori’s strategy, in contrast to these elements that are fundamental to Tengoku Daimakyou’s identity, was more concerned with the adaptation itself: if they were going to adapt this, they might as well go all out with the action element of the series, since that was something his crew had faith in. It’s interesting how they went about spotlighting it because it wasn’t just a matter of hiring the best action animators. Major action scenes in Tengoku Daimakyou episodes are frequently held aside so that a skilled action animator may storyboard them, either acting as the only key animator for the sequence or collaborating with close friends. It’s no secret that Tetsuya Takeuchi is dissatisfied with the state of action in anime because he wants to match wuxia-like choreography with active camerawork, which makes it simpler for crafty directors to entice him with the promise that he can board the style of action he enjoys. We see this in the very first episode, where the original action setpiece is storyboarded by none other than Tetsuya Takeuchi. The pivotal animation, most of which was produced by Takeuchi’s most devoted pupil Ryo Araki, satisfies Mori’s ambition to use the action to ratchet up an already tantalizing proposition.

The second episode continues to make excellent use of the special attributes of its format, continuing to follow Mori’s own efficient, elegant, but brutal direction from the first. Itsuki Tsuchigami, a notable guest who did more work than expected just because they could, and episode director Kai Shibata are responsible for this one. This very entertaining chase sequence is a nice perk as a result of the project’s rarely advantageous scheduling shenanigans. The invasive framing is made more frightening in anime form, and sly directorial choices like switching to cinemascope heighten the suspense in a way that is intrinsically silly—very much in keeping with the tone of this series. But what I find most fascinating about that horror movie-like scenario is the understanding of the genre. Early installments of the manga and anime both made use of the darkness in ways that just couldn’t be imitated, making them valuable works on their own. The manga’s introduction of the bird monster makes fantastic use of the negative space that a black-and-white format naturally lends itself to; the anime had to take a different approach. However, as others have pointed out, this basically original horror scene in the anime is inextricably linked to the idea of camera technique and physical illumination. Definitely a series worth seeing in both media.

The third episode, which was directed and storyboarded by Kazuya Nomura, a close friend of this crew, continues the horror theme. This time, body horror is available in every conceivable flavor. It includes horrifying, immersive pictures of a body being taken over, the terrifying experience of awakening in the incorrect body, and even some repulsive fish with humanoid parts that have no business being there. There are several strong reasons why this episode of the anime is likely the most focused: Nomura’s extremely elegant storyboarding; the program’s more relaxed tempo; and the adaptation of a shorter and more self-contained flashback. In a sense, it serves as a preview of what a really faithful adaptation of Tengoku Daimakyou may have been, one that would have preserved every nuance of the original and, if anything, enhanced its thickness, intensity, and character.

The events of this episode also emphasize a few of Tengoku Daimakyou’s most endearing characteristics on their own. It’s only after this episode that you start to understand details like Kiruko declaring they are a man in what seemed like a dumb gag in the first episode, the reaction to the reflection at the inn, the mysterious two-year gap in the age they gave to Maru, or even the desync with the linework in Kiruko’s running. The author has only just begun what can only be described as utterly psychotic foreshadowing, so I’m looking forward to people cursing him when they realize that every seemingly random detail in the series was actually enormously essential.

The utterly random assortment of themes he chose to address is just as interesting as his well planned framework, some of which, I must say, were done much better than others. This is something that Mori himself has stated should be maintained in the anime, as Ishiguro’s work allows you to approach them and have your own read; the director cited gender, technology, nature, and many more angles you could approach it from, none particularly more valid to him than the other. To me, Tengoku Daimakyou is a series that feels sympathetic to younger generations who have inherited a ruined world and receive nothing but scorn. Although adults are repeatedly implicated in the worst post-apocalyptic schemes, Kiruko and Maru are mockingly referred to as members of the lawless generation. There are exchanges that explicitly hint in that direction, and it’s simple to turn this into a legitimately environmental read of the series. However, it is also rather dubious of localities flying that environmental flag. At the series’ worst, its desire to meddle into every delicate subject and taboo topic comes off as juvenile and pointlessly cruel, but for the most part, its deeply weird world and the many readings you can take away from it are a huge part of its appeal. Tomato weed heaven really did have it figured out, though.

In a way, it feels like with the passage of each episode, the series grows a bit more confident about skipping some content for the sake of tighter focus. By delaying or simply removing scenes from the manga, Takashi Otsuka, the director and storyboarder of Episode #4, is able to emphasize the contrast between all the children in the institution naturally seeking intimacy and their surveyors’ vigilant eyes. Frankly, it’s all the better for it, as this also gave Asuka Suzuki more room to take over the action part. Similarly, episode #05’s storyboarder Yojiro Arai even got to expand crucial memories further than the original, with stunning visual delivery at that. The final aspect that this episode gives me a great excuse to focus on, though, is the animation itself. It’s not the theologic intent behind yet another Takeuchi masterclass, nor his pupil Araki delivering the exact same satisfying flips, but rather the nostalgic art at the beginning of the episode that best exemplifies this show’s identity.

No one should be surprised to hear that Ishiguro is a big fan of Katsuhiro Otomo. So much so, that he makes a conscious effort not to make his own work resemble AKIRA too much; a message that the mobs at the start of episode #05 definitely didn’t get. It’s also no big reveal that Otomo-like forms are malleable, an inherent good fit for animation and a treat for a production filled with this many acting specialists. Multiple animators directly played off those qualities, and most interestingly, the opening itself does. Weilin Zhang‘s masterful intro is oozing with his own personality and worldview, but it’s arguably even more interesting in how it finds common ground between different eras of animation. The blobby forms in his animation are very reminiscent of the style Satoru Utsunomiya developed precisely after maturing on projects like AKIRA, which filtered through the likes of Norio Matsumoto and later Shingo Yamashita, ended up bleeding into popular webgen aesthetics. On its own, the opening already feels like a mix of old and new Yama traits, and if you started tracing all the inadvertent influences at play, you’d get a delightful mess of an artistry tree.

That said, I feel like there’s no point in trying to pin down Tengoku Daimakyou‘s animation to one specific current, as it makes a point to allow for variance. One of the greatest contributors to the show has been Shuto Enomoto, who stands out from all the aforementioned styles with his much sharper artwork. His sequences are still in conversation with Ishiguro’s work, but they do so on their own terms. This cute acting sequence from the first episode contrasts that sharpness that’s best used in tense moments with looser, cartoony expressions that feel like they come straight from the comic; in truth, they don’t really, but that speaks volumes of this team’s ability to make Ishiguro’s work into their own. And while on an artwork level Enomoto tends to contrast pretty strongly with his peers, we’re fortunate that he shares a passion for thorough articulation of the characters with a whole lot of animators in the team. We’ve gone over the well-known duo of Takeuchi and Araki, but perhaps the best surprise in this regard so far has been the appearance of Hiroyuki Yamashita to illustrate Kiruko’s living nightmare so vividly it hurts. Even when the animation isn’t outwardly flashy, there’s a consideration given to the acting that you’ll rarely find in TV anime.

And honestly, that makes sense. As we’ve gone over, Tengoku Daimakyou is no regular project. In some regards, it appears blessed to a degree that makes you wonder if that may actually be a deal with the devil at play. Its long, well-staffed production has paid dividends, and we’ve arguably yet to see the biggest names in the team. At the same time, this uniquely dense and somehow laid-back series takes clinical precision to reconstruct into a 1 cours anime without sacrificing the elements that make it special. Up till this point, the compromises have been reasonable, not only managing to capture most of the manga’s charm but also adding medium-specific appeal to the adaptation. So far, so good! If I know myself, see you again after episode #08.

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