It’s time to discuss Kusuriya no Hitorigoto’s remarkable transformation from a good adaptation to an extraordinary one, the sometimes perplexing and misinterpreted shifting labor and creative dynamics of Spy x Family’s co-production, and much more!
The Evolving Co-Production of Spy x Family
We have always been interested in the shared responsibilities between Studio WIT and CloverWorks to bring Spy x Family to life, which is why we wrote a long piece outlining the events that led to this co-production. Those events included the fact that WIT, the studio to which the project was originally pitched, was so busy that producers there decided to organize a tag team approach with friends at CloverWorks. Their technique has only gotten more intriguing—and the misconceptions surrounding it have only gotten worse—with the release of both the second season and an original film at the same time. There is strong incentive to reveal the truth because those studios are run by people who willfully distort the facts in order to appease a gullible public that is unaware of their shoddy management.
That being said, it appears that the notion that WIT will produce the film and CloverWorks will handle the second season’s production is gaining support. While most of it is accurate, there are still essential details that people miss because of the lack of depth on the internet, such as the fact that WIT is still leading the alternating production order this season or that they’ve managed to create the most vividly animated episodes to date. As usual, ignorance of the language and production methods can also result in completely incorrect interpretations. Since it was previously widely known that the two leadership roles in season 2 will alternate, some people appeared to believe that CloverWorks produced the show because an animator was listed under their name during its premiere. when his studio was designated in that manner due to his appearance as a guest in a WIT episode. So let’s quickly review how things used to operate in order to grasp how things have changed.
Studio WIT selected Kazuhiro Furuhashi as the series director for Spy x Family Season 1. The majority of aesthetic departments were also headed by artists who were affiliated with WIT, but there was a crucial distinction to be made: the leader was always accompanied by an assistant who was either directly employed by CloverWorks or very close to it. In the case of animation supervision, this dynamic was reversed because the character designer is Kazuaki Shimada, who is associated with that particular CloverWorks team. After that, each studio created a single episode, and each of those factions—that is, their in-house staff and the people they notably associate with—handled every stage of the production. Even though the two primary studios occasionally assisted one another, the divide was somewhat orderly, assigning all of the workload to one of the two studios on a weekly rotation.
This work allocation seemed to indicate a completely balanced co-production, at least until the animation stage began, but in reality, the original intentions continued to tip the scales in favor of WIT. They constantly pressed the accelerator harder in their delivery, and even though the difference was never particularly great, they had a bit more on their plate just by sheer volume; in the first course in particular, practically all of the highlights correlated to WIT episodes and animators like Keisuke Okura. Even the two complete outsourcing cases suggested a higher degree of planning intervention. The second half began in the hands of studio Colorido, whose relationship is renowned to be stronger with a WIT team that had once again assisted them on a theatrical production. The first half was concluded by the Madhouse team, both of whom had assisted in Sonny Boy. In this case, a perfect 50/50 split would be more accurate than a 60/40 co-production. However, these are arbitrary numbers.
So what about the follow-ups? Even though Furuhashi will only be supervising the future original film, Takashi Katagiri, an internal WIT member, will take over as director, so you can already guess where things are headed. The team behind WIT’s animation production Kazuki Yamanaka—the same AniP behind Ryouhei Takeshita’s fantastic Pokemon Paldean Wings, incidentally—should lean more toward them than Spy x Family has ever done, even though some assistance from CloverWorks wouldn’t be unreasonable.
Given the movie’s outcome, it makes sense to anticipate the TV program to follow a different trajectory. As a matter of fact, even its core personnel was shifted to support CloverWorks. Do you recall the setup from the first season, where each aesthetic department had a head from the WIT faction and a closer to CloverWorks assistant? Unlike the alternating of the first season, Season 2 rearranged all those positions so that the leadership now rests with the latter group, and most of those tasks—like painting and background art—are rather constantly led by the same CloverWorks-adjacent persons. The dynamic has completely shifted in the other direction in that regard.
But it only took one episode to demonstrate that things are more complicated than CloverWorks simply taking over the TV series. As previously indicated, WIT produced the first episode of season 2 instead; with a certain SatoSute serving as a guest assistant, and further duties to be completed by CloverWorks-adjacent workers later on, but still a WIT episode. Though it seems as though the standards have been somewhat lowered to make up for the film’s presence, the adaptation didn’t really change either. Furuhashi’s boarding, however, nonetheless makes for an intrinsically entertaining presentation even in the absence of similar highlight scenes. Going back to a previous short tale to start the season made sense since, throughout this adaptation, he has performed best when given the freedom to take diversions.
Next up, in episode two, we get a preview of CloverWorks’ real work for season two. Even though it’s not overly dramatic, there’s a certain effectiveness to the way it’s delivered that makes you feel as though you’re learning something from this adaption. We’ll save the production of this episode for when we have more time because it’s a significant milestone in the studio’s in-house animator training program and also holds significance for their mentor, who was planning to retire early before being offered this position.
But it soon becomes clear that Miyuki Kuroki is an incredibly talented filmmaker. Commencing with an episode directed by one of Yuichi Fukushima’s more accomplished directors does seem to be a good indication, as CloverWorks’ lesser expenditure in the first season also showed in the caliber of the directors they assembled. The episode’s second half, in particular, is quite good because Kuroki uses similar shots to bookend the boys’ brief journey of self-discovery. It begins brightly, but there’s a hint of darkness lurking within the group, and it ends at night but with warmth and light having been nurtured within. A sophisticated demonstration of what a filmmaker with a certain level of competence can accomplish without a lot of funding.
The third episode’s significance from the perspective of the division of labor stems not only from the fact that it was outsourced but also from the identity of the subcontractor. It is possible that CloverWorks made the decision to rely on studio Snow Drop for handling, as we demonstrated with the support studios in the first season being closer to WIT. That makes sense, too—as the studio in a larger leadership role, you’ll also be the one most concerned with managing the production schedule to prevent overwork on your team or teams. These shifts can also be seen in the less obvious changes to the core team. For example, Spy x Family no longer employs one production desk for each studio, instead only using Cloverworks’ Mamoru Honda. Another change is the order of the animation producers, with Taito Ito of CloverWorks now listed first. To put it succinctly, internal management is now also moving in their favor.
However, it would be incorrect to believe that WIT is no longer participating, given they created the subsequent episode without having that subcontracted interlude skip their turn. The fourth episode of the season is actually the most animated one, possessing a consistent energy without going overboard in some scenes. So what’s the secret behind this? Even in a season where their team’s focus is split, how is WIT once again the studio with the most daring episodes? Internal outsourcing, an oxymoronic term for jobs that are redirected to a different production line within the same studio, is the trick in this instance.
This time, the internal assistance came from Maiko Okada, who is unquestionably WIT’s top animator these days, a frequent subject of discussion on this site due to projects like After the Rain and Ousama Ranking, as well as her connections to outstanding artists that go all the way back to Parol’s Future Island and Shin-Ei Animation. Okada’s schedule has become more and more packed as her reputation has justifiably grown, but the studio has managed to keep her working on a project that requires all of the support it can get. Even though CloverWorks produced Masaaki Yuasa’s opening for this season, Okada’s involvement made it possible for prominent animators like Yoshimichi Kameda to be there. Though Kameda was unable to make it to episode #4—he’s essentially creating his own series with this same team, along with another friend of his—it’s great to see Claire Launay taking on characteristics from both him and other aces who play on that team, thereby becoming one of their new aces. They’re too busy to anticipate constant assistance, but it has already had some impact.
The cruise narrative begins with the most recent episode, which also demonstrates a different kind of ingenuity from the CloverWorks half of the co-production. Episodes like Spy x Family S2 #05 stand out in an era where hundreds of animators raced to finish each episode, destroying any vestige of a cohesive vision in the process. Haruka Tsuzuki and Takuya Kawaii, who also served as the show’s director/storyboarder and animation supervisor, respectively, key animated the entire episode, sparingly using 2nd key animation. We’ve been working for years to break the unhealthy habit of being obsessed with the quantity of animators. I entirely failed to, but that won’t stop me from attempting to make the crucial point: rather than being a number we draw absolute conclusions from, these should help us grasp the conditions—strictly labor-related ones as well as various understandings of the creative process. And in this instance, examining the team and viewing the episode clearly demonstrate how productive they are at work.
Tsuzuki trained at A-1 Pictures as an in-betweener and has worked with them and their cousin CloverWorks for the whole of her career. They all appeared to come to the same conclusion when switching between production lines: she is capable of doing a little bit of everything and doing it effectively. Tsuzuki has evolved into the kind of director and animator that earns a few different credits for the series in which she is heavily involved, demonstrating her versatility in directing and animating. She swiftly demonstrated, however, that she can also work effectively, which is perhaps more significant for the individuals overseeing those projects. Takashi Sakuma, the director of the 16bit Sensation series, praised her as a godsend for a director in 2021 because of her strong foundation, economical character animation, and capacity to maintain schedule integrity.
Besides Okada’s involvement, Yuasa’s opening is also notable because of… well, Yuasa, and his funny contrast with a polish-first work like Spy x Family. The goofy posing and timing across the OP brings to mind his classic work on the likes of Shin-chan, but this show’s need to stick closer to the design sheets creates a pretty amusing gap as far as I’m concerned.
From that point on, Tsuzuki has been cast in more significant roles in well-known productions like Fukushima’s. Fans usually go straight to the names of the people who created the most stunning scenes in those, but it’s the responsibility of individuals like her to give everyone a break and create work that fits in with such high caliber productions. It’s therefore not surprising that she was able to pull off this ruse inside Spy x Family’s more restrained parameters because she had become accustomed to that. In Episode #05, the director effectively employs the shot building principles that her colleagues have commended, maintains a high level of readability regarding the emotions of each character, and avoids superfluous scenes. Although it’s not the kind of work that fans usually notice, anime desperately needs it right now for a variety of reasons.
So what’s the synopsis? After five episodes of season 2, it’s safe to say that the TV show’s standards have dropped somewhat. This makes sense, considering that the creators of the most spectacular scenes from the first season are now working on a movie. In a co-production that was initially scheduled because all parties were already busy, everyone is typically busier, and that’s just not ideal. Still, the excellent direction and some astute management by the individuals who actually create this cartoon allow for occasional moments of genius. As is always the case, most people have assumed correctly that this season is so far leaning more towards CloverWorks, but the details have been greatly misinterpreted. I hope this clarifies the situation for you, at least for the time being. We may require another one of these in the future, as there is a chance that WIT will return to reclaim the TV program following the film.
Kusuriya no Hitorigoto’s Anime Is Solid—And Sometimes, Truly Exceptional
I’ll spare you all the essay about the making of Kusuriya no Hitorigoto, its wider appeal, and what makes the anime version so great; in other words, I’ve already written it, so go read the previous column article instead. Today, we must address a more significant issue: despite the lack of specifics, I had described the show’s outstanding fourth episode and its major performers in that same article. Do I deserve recognition and gratitude for it? In hindsight, I’m going to tell myself that it was evident—of course not you idiot. Why, then, is that?
As said above, Takafumi Inagaki is the animation producer for TOHO Animation Studio in this co-production. Kusuriya is much more of an OLM product than a TOHO Animation Studio one, in contrast to the dynamic but broadly evenly split co-production we just discussed. While the former may be overworked to the point of internal collapse these days, the latter hardly exists, so it’s not surprising that OLM is in charge of the project. So who are these other individuals? Despite becoming a significant player in many industries, TOHO isn’t satisfied with that. They’re not even doing the CGi in this show, so what they did by buying a little 3D firm like I&A wasn’t to pursue their area of competence; rather, it was to pursue what the biggest anime distributors have been drooling over: more direct control over their products and intellectual property.
Although there are undoubtedly troubling possible ramifications to that, TOHO’s propensity to discover emerging creative talent and their choice to establish their own studio do work in concert. This year, in honor of the distributor’s anime branch’s tenth anniversary, they assembled a group of well-liked, primarily young artists to animate music videos in any way they wished. A few were excellent, a few were outstanding, and one was possibly the best short film of the year: Detarame na Sekai no Melodrama by Chinashi and Moaang, a moving and contemplative ode to Utena. Their music video was ascribed to TOHO Animation Studio, with a certain Inagaki serving as the production desk, in contrast to the other music videos that were created in conventional studios. Considering all of this, this remarkable episode begins to make a great deal more sense.
As we approach the fourth episode, we already have a great example of what TOHO Animation Studio can bring to the table: excellent connections, thanks to both a corporation with a knack for that and resourceful people like Inagaki. It is expected that OLM will continue to be the main voice in this adaptation. He obviously has the eye for this that TOHO tends to value because in his most recent endeavor at Liden Films, he had already recruited Chinashi to make a cameo appearance for the eyecatches in Yofukashi no Uta; incidentally, his former partner at Liden, Ayana Honjou, has also been recruited into TOHO Animation Studios, appearing as the animation producer in the aforementioned music video and as one of the production assistants for this episode. There’s a reason it’s said that the anime industry revolves around human ties.
Even while all of these behind-the-scenes activities are fascinating, most viewers are ultimately interested in how they play out on screen. Furthermore, by assembling a team that was very different from the one we had previously seen, the outcome was, well, completely different. Norihiro Naganuma, the director of the series, described it as an episode that highlights movement, which does bring attention to certain aspects of it, but I believe it undervalues its brilliance. His reference is immediately clear because of the incredibly detailed and accurate character animation. Check out Maomao’s unusual level of attention to etiquette in that scene, which signals the presence of the emperor in the room way before the camera actually shows him. Scenes like the beginning of the episode, when she tests her poison, feel like the clearest look we’ve gotten at her expert procedures, and they also set the tone for the elegant storytelling that the episode is built upon. The story touches on a true tragedy in this chapter, thus Chinashi’s appointment as the director—a highly considerate and dignified man—was a wise one.
Another thing that jumps out right away is how space is framed and how it relates to the characters, particularly when compared to earlier episodes. A key takeaway from the earlier Kusuriya article was that Naganuma is an extremely objective cameraman; in his storyboards for the first episode, he makes imperial palaces appear larger than they actually are, without distorting the layouts to highlight this for Maomao and company. Rather, other objective elements such as the way light seeps through intricate objects and architecture evoke amazement.
With a flurry of layouts that feel more purposefully spacious than ever, Chinashi upends that formula right away, aiming to make Maomao feel little and important. Since she would prefer not to stand out in the first place, she has always been a fan of this aspect of the story. She is happy to act like a lost child directing others around, even when the emperor himself gives her instructions to heal one of his consorts—with an implied threat if she fails. Naturally, the issue arises when people who despise her utterly ignore her advice; even the humorous sequences effectively convey this message. Luckily, this results in a cathartic snapping that utterly reverses those framing concepts to make Maomao appear large and powerful, well, except maybe for the person who just got slapped. Every one of these scenes is fantastic on its own. Together, they’re really great when you understand the ultimate goal and how they support one another.
The remainder of the show makes extensive use of each of these attributes as well as the subtlety in the character design made possible by Moaang’s astute oversight. This episode is built on deft modulation, whereas other episodes stayed fairly true to the design sheets for a polished appearance. By default, it retains as much, if not more, of the evocative power of previous paintings while stylizing away some of the more unnecessary information in areas like the shading and medium to long shot definition. When a particularly shocking close-up is required, the episode then shifts from that cleaner canvas to drawings with captivating detail or to elegant ways to convey even more information. One of the main points of the episode is the portrayal of Maomao’s growing exhaustion as she tries everything to save lives, which is done with such economical brilliance that you can only kneel in respect.
This episode is as good as it gets when you combine it with a good helping of real character acting as the story shifts between social registers, Chinashi’s delicate touch in expressing a mother’s love even in such a tragic situation, and the hilarious jokes that inject much-needed humor into the whole thing. Although Kusuriya’s strong writing and naturally humorous exchanges make it an easy sell, the anime really shines in episodes like these. I would be happy to watch more works by artists of this class if Mr. TOHO gathers them for special episodes.
It almost seems inappropriate to bring up a merely mediocre episode after discussing such a great one for so long, but Kusuriya #05 also happens to be pertinent to some of the topics we were discussing. First of all, since his assistant Akimi Fudesaka storyboarded it, it’s stylistically similar to Naganuma’s usual method. This is just another example of the more objective lens that the series director utilizes to frame this story.
Furthermore, it relates to the idea of how things are first manufactured and then ordered. This section began by highlighting the interpersonal links that enabled the incredible fourth episode, but it’s also important to note that those connections apply to more low-key activities. Since there aren’t enough internal resources for a project like this, the fifth episode is also entirely outsourced. This is necessary to speed the production. The studio that offered assistance? One called Studio Guts is also where Yukiko Nakatani, a character designer, spent the majority of her career. Finding these linkages can sometimes require searching for management individuals across several projects, but other times it can be as easy as saying, “This was the designer’s workspace for years.” That being said, it’s always helpful to know these things!
Undead Unluck, and Yuki Yase’s Greatness Extending Beyond Superficial SHAFT Mimicry
Fire Force made me realize that Yuki Yase’s charismatic presentation might not be enough to sell me on writing I find kinda abrasive, and tasting Undead Unluck has confirmed that for me—both the fact that he’s being entrusted with titles that aren’t for me, and that his team is so good at their job that I’m still compelled to write about it. It’s well known that Yase leads a faction of ex-SHAFT personnel at David Production, having left their original workplace at a turbulent time and spanning across all sorts of creative and management roles. Being surrounded by like-minded folks certainly helps, but I find the attempts to reduce the appeal of his delivery to “ex-SHAFT director borrows their style” to undersell why his work is particularly effective.
Many creators have come and gone through SHAFT, a fact that often remains evident in their style. Much fewer of those, though, have Yase’s ability to actually recreate what made the original tick. Superficial traits of those aesthetics are relatively easy to borrow, but it takes a thoughtful director to master that uniquely appealing cadence that mixes length, proximity, and intensity of shots to always keep you on the edge; there’s a good reason that Akiyuki Shinbo has to often correct other director’s storyboards to a great extent, despite the broader focus of his position at the studio nowadays. For something that is so recognizable, so strongly codified that they have internal guidelines about the style, nailing it beyond the surface is rather tricky. And Yase has proved to have an aptitude for it that I wouldn’t have predicted when he actually frequented the studio on the regular.
That aptitude does include the ability to insert the illustrative greatness of Taiki Konno’s work whenever possible, yes.
Yase’s work at David Production has been aided in this area by talented animators such as Kazuhiro Miwa, who seem to be a perfect fit for him. Even though SHAFT’s compositions are known for how much mileage they can get out of oddball, motionless pieces, at their finest, they also thrive at capturing dynamic eruptions, something that had, in their case, historically belonged to artists like Genichiro Abe and Ryo Imamura. As the team’s principal action animator, Miwa is an equally flamboyant artist who thrives in a setting that permits him to give it his best for extended periods of time. He’s been bringing to life one exciting setpiece after another, with just enough variation in the characters’ abilities to keep each confrontation new and not so much abstraction that it becomes impractical to take a typical approach.
The appropriate team also includes individuals in various roles. It’s clear that people who are similar to Yase will probably fit right into his vision; Taiki Konno’s distinctive qualities were actually made widely known by Yase’s work at SHAFT, and people like Riki Matsuura are now openly channeling the studio’s greatest director, so you can bet it all works out beautifully. Perhaps more impressively, though, is how they’ve managed to surround Yase with people who, despite not being SHAFT expats themselves, can fit in with this particular style. The debut of Shuntaro Tozawa, a chameleonic director who can match the beat of his beloved Naoko Yamada with the same ease as he can nail Yase’s approach, was the main reason I caught up with the series last week. This week, not just because of the episode’s appearance but also because of the way it feels, you could be led to believe that you are seeing the work of someone who studied under Shinbo for ten years, from his staging to the rhythm of his storyboards. There will be more content coming soon, and not just from Tozawa, if you enjoyed this.
Will I continue to watch it on my own? To be honest, I’m unsure. Not only is the action animated well, but I also find the crazy choreographies entertaining. The way the content is presented generally makes the subject more appealing to me, but every time I see a scenario that really works, I seem to come across another that bores me. I might give it up after all unless a friend is excited about seeing it with me. You seem to be in for a fun lunch if you can get beyond the genre clichés, but perhaps even because of them. I sincerely hope you appreciate it—this crew is very unique!