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This was a sweet episode. Sweet in both senses - kick-ass and tender. The sharp directing of Akitoshi Yokoyama's episode 2 was replaced with something a little smoother and less frenetic, but as always, the episode was packed to the brim with constantly shifting scenes and perspectives and richly realized animation.
This time we rewound to a world in which the protagonist joined a biking club on his peril-fraught journey through the first year at university. The mere idea of doing an episode about biking in a TV show is preposterous. Even if it were done in another show by another studio, it's easy to envision all the gliding stills we'd be privy to. I was astounded how much this episode moved. Every bike scene was moving constantly, and the motion was true to the actual movement of a biker on a bike, on all sorts of different slopes, from all sorts of crazy angles and camera positions. That is quite amazing. Nobody else would have refused to compromise to this extent. I imagine they approached this episode as a kind of self-challenge to see how much actual biking animation they could pack in. Who the hell could have been responsible for so much work, I wondered?
Ryotaro Makihara, that's who - the amazing ex-Shinei animator who did so much great work on Kaiba (to say nothing of elsewhere). So there we have it. In the first three episodes, my two favorite new faces from Kaiba both responsible for an episode each - Akitoshi Yokoyama and now Ryotaro Makihara. I could not think of a better example proving the importance of careful staff selection. Though it was a no-brainer, I'm delighted to see that Yuasa indeed saw how massively talented they were, and made sure to get them involved in his new show big time.
To be specific, Makihara storyboarded, directed, was animation director (with Naoyuki Asano) and tops the list of animators. Obviously a labor of love. Or rather, here is a guy oozing talent who hasn't really had an opportunity to put that talent to good use, who when finally given that chance, puts his all into work about which he can justly feel conviction. That's what it felt like to me. There is real love in the work here. Ryotaro Makihara and Akitoshi Yokoyama are special because, in addition to doing technically exceptional work, you can feel the love in both of their work.
Aside from the obviously very high quality of the animation, it was very well directed. Makihara actually directed his first episode last year for a silly Sato Junichi mermaid shoujo anime, which I was kind of disappointed to see, because despite his and many talented animators' presence, the episode was insufferable to anyone above the age of 13 thanks to the material.
With this episode, Makihara finally has the chance to try his hand at directing material that is intelligent and interesting, and I think he did an impressive job. The episode has a more cinematic feeling than the previous episodes, you might say, with characters actually acting out scenes rather than just going through a series of montages, true to his origins at Shin-Ei.
The animation wasn't the star-studded affair of last episode, but it's clear that Makihara was there supporting the animation throughout. The climax in particular with the glider was moving quite vividly, so I assume he must have been the animator responsible. I'm sure his hand is a little bit everywhere in this episode.
So the question at this point boils down to: Are you digging the repetitive structure? Are you able to enjoy it, or if not, see past it to enjoy the technical mastery on display? I'm finally starting to enjoy the series' unique structure, though I think it's also one of its main liabilities. I don't want to shortchange the sophistication of what is being done through this somewhat obvious pattern; embedded in each seemingly unchanging reiteration of the situation are subtle developments in the characters' personalities. They do a pretty impressive job of filling out all the little details in which each iteration differs. The characters aren't just ciphers; they feel pretty well fleshed out in a lot of ways. It's just that most people want to see a linear narrative being told, with characters developing with each episode, and this series is far too sophisticated for anything so pat and easy.
Main staff for this episode:
Storyboard / Director / Animation Director (w/Naoyuki Asano): Ryotaro Makihara
Ryotaro Makihara, Naoyuki Asano
Kenichi Shima, Shingo Okano
Takeo Oda, Sawako Miyamoto