The Low Profile Brilliance Of Kotomi Deai, Or How A

The Low Profile Brilliance Of Kotomi Deai, Or How A Protegee Of Mythical Administrators Was Skip And Idler’s Inconspicuous Director

As enjoyable as anime can get is Skip and Loafer. Kotomi Deai, the film’s director, describes how she transitioned from admiring Shinichiro Watanabe to working with him and other well-known artists, carving out a quiet space for herself in the business.

Regardless of the aesthetic differences that could exist between them, the finest filmmakers all share a talent for spotting interesting creatives. There is no way to reach your full creative potential without surrounding yourself with other strong creative voices, preferably ones who are technically competent. It’s not as if becoming a well-known director will magically bestow upon you scouting abilities. It may be argued that the greatest talent of some people, such as the adored directors Kunihiko Ikuhara, Shinichiro Watanabe, or the late Osamu Kobayashi, is the capacity to recognize and develop potential. They’ve all given emerging artists a platform, some in very unrelated industries, and unintentionally catapulted some of the most intriguing anime careers. Of course, chance and timing are significant uncontrollable factors, but if you observe a lesser-known creator working frequently with directors of that caliber, there’s a good probability they have something exceptional.

Now, whether or not that possibility actually comes to pass depends on an industry that is rarely especially kind. Being a protégé of a bright mind doesn’t provide you any guarantees because even legendary filmmakers occasionally struggle to get their passion projects accepted and not interfered with. Before they ever get the chance to take the reins of their own enterprise, some of them burn out. Others do succeed in becoming showrunners, but they are forced to give up the identities and aspirations that initially propelled them to fame. And somewhere in the center, there are individuals who never achieved the same level of success as their predecessors’ visionary films but nonetheless developed a cult following for producing works that endure despite the limitations of commercial animation. One such person is Kotomi Deai, whose most recent program, Skip and Loafer, is among the best ones you can watch right now.

Before we get to that point, though, it’s worth going through a career that had her alongside many such legends, but also made her aware of the limitations most creators have to face. In interviews like this archived 2016 article from ToonZone, Deai explained that she initially had her sights on film-making, but that it was a certain person’s influence that led her to animation. Years later for Uno Cine, she explored that background more at length. Deai had grown up at the peak of Cowboy Bebop’s popularity, being a bit fan of it herself and by extension of its aforementioned director Shinichiro Watanabe. Though she held an interest in visual storytelling, she didn’t seem to have a clear image of where to direct her career—commercials, promotional videos, actual films, the possibilities were many. As if to guide her, Watanabe publicly announced his next work in 2003: one that he had been ruminating about since 1999, which was being produced at the recently founded studio Manglobe. Realizing that animation was also an option to channel her creative energy, Deai immediately applied and found herself working on her idol’s new TV series Samurai Champloo.

The newcomer Deai was a production assistant for 6 episodes across the show, more than anyone else across its broadcast. The studio must have noticed her enthusiasm, because by their next major project Ergo Proxy, she was already being trained as assistant episode director and even as storyboarder; first alongside Shukou Murase of current Hathaway fame, then on her lonesome for the introspective episode #11. Across her first few years in directorial roles, Deai already exhibited many traits that remain in her modern works. There are specifics like the usage of silhouettes and backlit figures, or the emphasis on props to suggest interiority, as well as more general precepts about her staging. While Deai will often frame her characters rather starkly, she tends to do it diegetically and with elegance, using elements in the environment to do so; more often than not, that also puts an emphasis on the architecture, another one of her passions.

It’s not just the compositions in her early storyboards that still echo in Deai’s modern work—so does much of her mindset as an episode director. She has stated that her outlook on animation is such that, since it’s all created from nothing in the first place, the possibilities are endless. Deai has proved that she can take that statement to bombastic extremes, but that doesn’t mean she always operates at a high volume of dramatization and abstraction. If anything, she finds herself comfortable in a slightly heightened naturalism. One that applies her eye for color and deceitfully involved compositing to portray nuanced moods and diverse lighting conditions one rarely sees in anime.

For as much as you can already recognize Deai’s current output in her very first attempts at directing episodes, it’s clear that she picked up a lot of knowledge from her illustrious mentors; something she’s still very appreciative of. One of the pivotal projects for her career happened early as 2008, just a couple years into Deai’s directorial adventures. While we know her as a household name now, Sayo Yamamoto was in need of revitalizing a career that might have stalled way too early due to muddy industry politics at Madhouse. Much like Deai, though higher up the ladder, she joined Watanabe for Samurai Champloo and immediately caught the attention of the studio itself. As Yamamoto herself recalls, they asked her to direct a passion project of her own with no strings attached… while Samurai Champloo was still ongoing, such was the impression she had left on them. Years later and fueled by a breakup, she made the trip to Brazil that would inspire Michiko & Hatchin: a parenting series depicting relationships, locations, and cultures rarely ever seen in commercial anime. Very much following Watanabe’s lineage in that way, but with a rebel personality of its own.

Alongside Yamamoto, as the director with a hand in the most episodes behind her, was none other than a young Deai; she tagged in alongside her for the first episode, contributed storyboards, processed those of other directors, led episodes of her own, and even helped on the grand finale. Although her episodes were rarely the most extravagant showcases of animation, she did handle plenty of pivotal moments for the show. Her nonchalantly emotive storytelling rooted Yamamoto’s wild imagination into something very personal and real, making for some of the show’s greatest highlights. You don’t have to take my word for it, but rather just look at how Watanabe himself made her arguably his second in command for his next title Kids on the Slope. As his sole assistant, Deai would again have a direct hand across multiple episodes, starting with the premiere and including fan-favorite moments like episode #07.

In retrospect, it’s easy to see how working with them helped Deai come to her own answer about what animation stands for. That aforementioned belief that its possibilities are limitless rings truer than ever when working under two of the directors with the least regard for conventions about what anime can depict—and also, how it does so. With multiple Watanabe titles under her belt, Deai was able to witness how music doesn’t have to be an addendum to a piece of animation to enhance its story, and instead can be the genesis of it all. Even a specific sequence like Yamamoto’s Michiko & Hatchin opening—which in turn draws from Cowboy Bebop’s iconic Tank!—might very well have fueled Deai’s enduring love for pop-art aesthetics in animation. When working with creators with this distinct of a personality, perhaps it’s harder not to become influenced by them.

It should come as no surprise that someone who had assisted such legendary filmmakers as well as other well-known talents on the rise quickly found herself moving up the directorial ladder. The order of her rise to series directing is a little unclear, though, because the majority of viewers aren’t aware of what goes on behind the scenes. She received an invitation from Tomohiko Ito, with whom she had previously collaborated on the projects Michiko & Hatchin, Occult Academy, and Sword Art Online, to serve as the assistant series director for Hiromu Arakawa’s Silver Spoon. It takes many years to plan and produce an anime, and sometimes a happy accident, such as one of your projects being a huge success, can fill your plate more than you’d expect. For this reason, Deai had to succeed Ito as the series director for Silver Spoon’s second season.

Around this period, Deai also oversaw the production of an OVA that accompanied Takahiro Omori’s adaptation of Natsume’s Book of Friends. Though we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves, now is the time to mention that Deai also took over as director for that show, overseeing its fifth and sixth seasons under Omori’s guidance. While her connection to him wasn’t as strong as Ito’s—he had only directed one episode of Natsume before—he was also connected to Manglobe at the time, so it makes sense that someone close to him would support Deai.

Whatever the case may be, Natsume and Silver Spoon certainly seem like they belong together, and not simply because of their proximity in time and comparably comparable situations. Together, they reveal another aspect of Deai: her capacity to set her ego aside without stifling her desire to create. Her approach to adaptations is extremely reverent, albeit not necessarily constrictive, to the point where she always stands in the author’s shoes, or in this case, the director of the original series as well. This also somewhat applies to the way she directs each particular episode. Because of her willingness and capacity for adaptation, unlike many of her mentors, you can incorporate a Deai outing into just about any style of show without causing any significant disruption. Deai’s kind touch is usually apparent upon closer inspection, yet she differs significantly from the extremely eccentric directors we frequently discuss on this website. Something is clearly coming or rather rolling, so it’s not that she can’t be, but rather that she can’t be, which is a perspective that not all artists can maintain over the long term. Discipline is not always simple.

Although she played a more supporting role in projects that were initially pushed by someone else, this does not mean that her leadership was ineffective or that these were not worthwhile learning experiences. For instance, Ito and Omori are the kind of directors who prioritize sound so highly that they occasionally opt not to designate a separate sound director for their movies in favor of handling it all themselves. Deai was aware of music, without a doubt, but after working with them, you could sense a wider appreciation of the importance of the audio. This was directly reflected in the improved musicality of her storyboards and direction, which in turn changed how the industry viewed her. Hiro Kaburagi, the director, was familiar with Deai because she handled episodes for him on shows like Kimi ni Todoke and My Little Monster, but it wasn’t until 2016 that he asked her to handle an unusual task: choosing the music for his original anime 91 Days. This is, incidentally, the kind of request that Deai’s idol Watanabe frequently gets.

Again, referring to those specific projects as learning experiences isn’t an inference on my part, but rather Deai’s own view. In the Uno-Cine interview above, she refers to Silver Spoon S2 in particular as a proposal she accepted while preparing the first project that had been pitched to her as director, essentially grinding for experience in the role during a lengthy pre-production process. The result of those efforts is Rolling Girls, a show that whether you love it or hate it, you’ll find unbelievable—though perhaps understandable if you hear where it comes from. The name Sengoku Basara will either leave you indifferent or make you scream very specific words; if you’re in the former camp, all you need to know is that it’s a series of musou-like games loosely set in feudal Japan, where special units blast through entire armies like they’re demigods. Its spectacle and intensity were very nicely captured in a series of adaptations animated by Production I.G Section 6, featuring individuals like writer Yasuyuki Mutou and animation producer Tetsuya Nakatake.

The inertia of Sengoku Basara’s success had producers pitching an original follow-up, vaguely proposing themes like fighting pretty girls and regional flair to Mutou; which is to say that as usual, it was up to the creatives to make sense out of random marketable concepts. Having recently written for a franchise where foot soldiers get nonchalantly blown away by god-like powers, he wondered about the efforts of the unchosen ones in an extreme scenario like that. By the time Nakatake—who had co-founded Studio WIT in the meantime—got Deai on board, more concepts like bikes and road trip had been added to the mix already. And with her around, the density of ideas only skyrocketed.

Given Deai’s Watanabe pedigree, it’s unsurprising that a series of covers from 80s punk rock band The Blue Hearts became a key part of the series, inseparable from its identity and bearer of its messages. But above everything else, she deserves credit for fostering an environment where everyone on the team would never stop pitching their ideas; something they treasure very dearly still, despite the headaches that managing a project like that involves. Many viewers will remember the gorgeous, uniquely defined 2D effects that action director Arifumi Imai came up with, or the radically diverse art direction, with the likes of Eriko Shibayama and Ryou Kouno contributing the type of stunning painting you’re most likely to see as concept art than as an actual element in a show. Some might still recall major points about its crazy setting, which the show would nonchalantly skim over. Even fewer will remember side characters with crocodile masks, perfect communication through motorcycle sounds, or koalas who spend their entire lives attached to someone’s arm without anyone bringing it up. What no one will ever forget, though, is that Rolling Girls is packed to the brim with original ideas. Deai said animation could do anything, and that it did.

Deai mentioned that even years later and in unrelated productions as WIT, she still notices Rolling Girls team members sneaking in lookalikes from its cast that they remember fondly. What she didn’t point out, though, is that a certain animator from the team who has gone on to become a popular ace in shonen action titles outright changed his name into that of a character in the show—because they were similar, and why not, because she’s cute. Godspeed, Yukina Kosaka.

In the end, it’s difficult to suggest Rolling Girls in general to those who haven’t seen it, but despite certain production issues, I can’t bring myself to wish that the show had turned out any differently. Rolling Girls is similarly set in a Japan of warring factions lead by their respective Best, extraordinarily powerful individuals supported by the Rest, much like the previous project that served as its inspiration. If the focus had been on the mobs, as Mutou always wanted, a more conventional plot might have followed those leaders, or it might have given those leaders’ efforts an equal amount of remarkable strength. Instead, the four major protagonists in Rolling Girls see situations that are much more important than they are, appreciating their modest contributions for what they are.

There is no getting around the fact that the spectacle used to sell the experience was inconsistent and that some aspects were undercooked due to the team’s drive to accomplish so much. Even though Rolling Girls is obviously unfocused—almost on purpose—it is nonetheless a distinctive show that I think is simple to understand. Once a month, the account of this specialized series is published, and it all began with an idea of sympathy for anonymous people who try their best to support others. stills tells

people to keep at it. That’s what Rolling Girls set out to convey.

For the people who did connect with such an unconventional show, or at least saw the potential of Deai’s imagination within it, a quick look at her resume since then might be a bit depressing. Leaving aside those Natsume seasons she inherited, Deai didn’t lead a single project again until this year. The episodes she has storyboarded as a guest for other directors have kept a mostly low profile, save for the already highly idiosyncratic shows she did get invited to; her tag team with Rolling Girls designer Katsuhiko Kitada for Flip Flappers #09 and her contributions to GREAT PRETENDER being some of the clear standouts. But is a very occasional flare-up of personal expression really enough for someone who’s shown appreciation for the possibilities of animation, and actually gotten a good taste of it with Rolling Girls?

Here is where I admit we’ve skipped over one very important part of Deai’s career, one that might explain why she’s content with the way things are. Back in her early Manglobe days, a new type of request landed on Deai’s lap during the production of The World God Only Knows: directing and storyboarding its opening sequences. Unpolished in spots as they may have been, she succeeded at matching their unusual beat to thematically appropriate motifs, and did so using tools—like the VFX and colorful palette—that she personally fancies. And so for the next decade, Deai made a name for herself in this specific field by directing dozens of opening and ending sequences, ranging from simple illustrations that exploit her love for pastels to more involved intros full of simple joy and quirky animation. When asked about what she enjoys storyboarding, Deai put her fondness of these sequences in very simple terms: they’re fun, because so much is left up to her own choices. In a way, they might have been the outlet for creative impulses the industry isn’t consistently giving her otherwise.

With all this context about Deai’s career, we’re all better prepared to understand the lovely Skip and Loafer adaptation that she is leading not just as the director, but also as the series composer. Given her modesty in projects of this nature and the fact that she was a big fan of the source material to begin with, the anime was never going to be a radical departure. As exciting as clearly transformative adaptations can be, though, there’s something fascinating about those that appear to be doing essentially the same thing and still come across as a thoughtful enhancement of the original work.

Skip and Loafer is a fundamentally kind work that wears its heart on its sleeve, and Deai set out to meet it with just as much honesty. Its tale follows country bumpkin Mitsuki Iwakura as she moves to Tokyo to attend a prestigious high-school. Though in her mind this is the first step towards the grand plan of revitalizing her hometown and left-behind rural locations in general, a high school debut is on its own a mundane thing. And yet, to kids that age it feels like a massive deal, so you can taste the feeling of trepidation in this gorgeous preparation sequence Deai added; incidentally, animated by star guest Saki Takahashi, quickly showing that the team did a nice job capitalizing on the talented women who already liked the series. This idea of depict events with the gravitas they have for them rather than through cold, objective realism also applies to a pivotal moment in this first episode. The musicality of Deai’s direction is in full display as she matches the increasing tempo of the music to that of the characters running, but most importantly, you can see how this silly event illuminates Mitsumi’s natural magnetism to others.

The anime’s presentation isn’t just beautiful, but also coherent and purposeful. It’s easy to pick up on the exceptional color design, handled by the same Yuko Kobari whom Deai relied on for Rolling Girls. It’s frankly a given that a show conceptualized by Deai will have a colorful, fitting palette, but what you can’t take for granted is other directors properly using that as another storytelling tool. Deai’s assistant Yuriko Abe opens up the second episode by giving color, and maybe more importantly substracting it, from a poignant scene; the gazes on Nao-chan’s secondary sex characteristics are borrowed from the original work, but the way Mitsumi nonchalantly drags her from the somber stares into the show’s usual pleasant palette is a beautiful moment of expression for the anime. This goes hand in hand in small changes even in the writing department, including the way Mitsumi’s own narration introduces her in the first episode. It all feels thoughtful and considerate of its own characters.

Avid fans of the source material might have noticed that the very popular opening, of course directed and storyboarded by Deai herself, is based on a chapter cover from the manga. The way she derived an entire charming dance routine out of it that feels so in-character sums up that great ability to interpret someone else’s work. 

After two dazzling episodes, the anime has settled into a much more conservative relationship with the manga’s original panels—something that tends to spell doom for anime adaptations, as it’s become synonymous with lifeless, restrictive takes. This overlaps with a production effort by studio P.A. Works that remains sturdy in a way their modern works haven’t necessarily been, but also mostly lacking in the beautiful bursts of energy the earliest episodes had. Even with these limitations, though, Skip and Loafer’s adaptation always feels additive, complementary.

If I had to sum up what fundamentally sets it apart from other seemingly super faithful adaptations nowadays, it might come down to the process of interpretation that Deai’s team has clearly done. There is no denying most shots come straight from a page of the manga, but those are rarely widescreen compositions, so there’s an inherent change in the presentation. As a black-and-white work where the reader sort of sets their own pace, the director—and series composer, also Deai’s job—of a manga adaptation is constantly in that process of interpretation as well. And that’s where someone like Deai can shine without making a big spectacle about it: in the small information that is being added to the frame, in the interpretation of the lighting conditions and how that defines the mood, in Tomoyo Kurosawa’s goofy but still somewhat naturalistic delivery as Mitsumi, in all these small things that make Skip and Loafer feel right.

In a conversation between Deai and original author Takamatsu Misaki that you can read over here, or translated here, the interviewer inadvertently makes one of the best points by noting that the colors of the anime never put them off at all. This lack of friction isn’t just because the palette is very soothing, which it is, or because it oftentimes becomes a storytelling tool in and of itself, which it does. The reason why they feel so natural is once again because Deai has been able to interpret the type of palette implied by the original work; not by copying what she saw in the color covers, but by deriving it from its worldview. And, despite thinking that she’s putting her ego aside in the process, directors as distinct as her always end up leaving their personal flair in the way they reach their goal. In that same interview, Deai explains she had the team studying the work of photographer Hideaki Hamada, whose focus on the everyday and fresh-feeling tint felt like they captured the same vibe the manga was going for—a Deai-like view if I’ve ever seen one.

While it would be lovely if Deai were given the same freedom she had on Rolling Girls—especially given how much she cherishes that experience and the latitude she’s given for opening and closing sequences—the truth is that she’s better than most at adapting to the realities of the business. She can suppress her creative ego as long as she has some release valves, even though, as we’ve repeatedly seen, the method she uses to do so still highlights her particular preferences and the influences of all the legends she grew up with. No matter what, Deai’s artwork is infused with her exquisite hues.

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