Now that I’ve covered what I consider the best along with the most influential studio, I have to talk about my personal favorite, SHAFT. SHAFT was formed in 1975, which comes as a surprise to me because besides their first single-handed production in 1987, Yume Kara, Samenai (which I only just now learned about because I guess this information has just recently surfaced in English whatsoever) they didn’t do many full-on productions for something like 30 years. SHAFT was originally formed to to digital paint and in-between animation on other shows and eventually came into their own as an animation production studio. Between 1995 and 2003 they produced some rather average-to-shitty anime that you can read about on that link above, and they also collaborated heavily with GAINAX on that studios average-to-shitty shows. It wasn’t until 2004 that SHAFT became something important and it was mostly one man to thank for it: Akiyuki Shinbo.
That’s not totally fair. It’s Akiyuki Shinbo, Tatsuya Oishi, and Shin Ounuma‘s combined forces that brought this escalation of awesomeness to SHAFT, but Shinbo definitely serve as the center and inspiration of works to come. This is made obvious by looking at Akiyuki Shinbo’s history as a director, which you can do by going over to my Director Worship page and reading about Shinbo though such might be pointless after reading all of this lol. The first SHAFT show to feature this dream-team was 2004 cult hit Tsukuyomi ~Moon Phase~ (which is now getting big with it’s constant play on the FUNimation channel.) Moon Phase could almost be looked at as the groundwork for the structure that SHAFT shows would take in years to come. Even though it is based on a manga, SHAFT put a completely unique twist on it in terms of storytelling, style, and especially direction. Akiyuki Shinbo’s unique techniques and signature shots rose up frequently and especially in certain episodes of complete and total trippiness. One of the most negatively remembered aspects of the show was the ungodly low budget. Two entire episodes were released with no animation whatsoever. However, this was also the beginning of SHAFT’s trend of redoing episodes on DVD to make them look nicer which pleased most fans. Even though some (see: Wildarmsheero) consider Moon Phase to be the best SHAFT show to date, I personally couldn’t get into it and dropped it after 13 episodes – it was too fucking tsundere.
The next SHAFT title in 2005 would be the definitive landmark of their style – Pani Poni Dash. Based on a 4-koma manga, the manga-ka and Shinbo wanted to make it as little like Azumanga Daioh as humanly possible so they set forth to produce one of the most arthouse comedy series around. Pani Poni Dash is what happened when a bunch of otaku with fucking enormous imaginations sat down and put every single thing they possibly could have wanted to put into one anime. Pani Poni Dash is a show that no American could ever fully understand unless they have been living in Japan for a while. The show is constantly making cultural anime references to the point that there are moments in which what is going on in the foreground, what is in the background, and what is being heard can all 3 be referencing something different at the same time. These references cover everything one could think of and then some – it’s been speculated that the show may have actually referenced every anime known to man as well. The insanity doesn’t stop there, though, as Akiyuki shinbo put forth every directing trick he has ever imagined into this show, and the rest o the staff threw in ideas like crazy as well. In an interview, it was noted how basically someone would say something like ‘lets do this scene as if it were an RPG!’ and the rest of the staff would say ‘why the fuck not!’ essentially. I can only imagine that this was the funnest show to make ever. Unfortunately for fans who don’t know Japanese the show can be painful to watch. Reading the translations of the fast dialog and the background text at the same time can get to levels of insanity and it is highly suggested that this show be watched any number of times. I personally haven’t gotten past episode 15 because I frequently get headaches after episodes. It should also be noted I have never finished a Shinbo show in under a year. I don’t know why.
Interestingly, SHAFT’s next anime in 2006 did not involve the dream-team at all and was comparably high budget in contrast with other SHAFT productions. This 9-episode anime with 9-minute episodes was REC, a very adult but adorable romantic comedy mor in the vein of Hollywood romances than Japanese ones both in style and content. This show was directed by another of my favorite directors, Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain, Kino’s Journey) but isn’t experimental (not that the directing isn’t great anyway). REC is easily the widest-appealing SHAFT anime and if no other, the one I recommend that you watch.
Later that year, SHAFT’s next low-budget Akiyuki Shinbo-directed production Negima?! along with it’s two OVAs was released (and later in 2008 a third OVA would be made.) I haven’t seen this show so I can’t say much about it, but I’ve read a lot about it. The common consensus is that it started off with all the visual style you’d expect from Shinbo and SHAFT but around the halfway point it started to get more average and that combined with the already low budget made it no longer worth watching. This has been most commonly attributed to ‘the team getting bored.’
Early 2007 gave birth to my favorite and my introduction to SHAFT/Shinbo, Hidamari Sketch. This was another anime based on a 4-koma manga and once again, it is set apart from peers by it’s visual style. Hidamari Sketch was Shinbo’s first time showing off completely new directing techniques that matched with the tone of the show to give it a thick, perfect atmosphere. Hidamari Sketch is a very quiet slice-of-life show about four girls in high school with some comedy and a good amount of obscurity, though unlike most anime, the obscurity is never outlandish or the center of attention – it’s just taken as everyday occurrence which helps even more to thicken Hidamari Sketch’s style and make it more fun. Hidamari Sketch also saw the perfection of SHAFT’s budget-hiding technique. Even though the show was low budget and featured very little animation, the directing and techniques used mask it so that the poor animation goes almost totally unnoticed. It is a very, very powerful technique for a studio to have. Because of Hidamari Sketch’s nature as an experimental anime with no real plot, parts were able to be used purely for experimentation – namely the famous episode 5 which featured an acid-trip-like dream sequence that made me into the fan I am of this studio. Hidamari Sketch got 2 specials later that year and the sequel, Hidamari Sketch x365, aired in mid-2008. It took me almost exactly a year to complete the firs series and I’ve yet to start on the second lol.
In the time between that and their next anime, SHAFT produced the second 30-minute Kino no Tabi movie, Byouki no Kuni -For You-, teaming up once again with Ryutaro Nakamura. I have yet to see this movie. Deeper into 2007, SHAFT/Shinbo produced the show that would start to get Akiyuki Shinbo recognized in western fandom, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei. Kouji Kumeta‘s riveting black comedy manga was almost like it was tailor-made for studio SHAFT. As noted in a review by Andrew Cunningham (translator for the Boogiepop and Kino novels as well as a good amount of the light novels currently published in English), the manga is at all times positively coated in jokes, and all of the humor is decisively black. Using the joke-hell techniques from Pani Poni Dash combined with Shinbo’s extremely dark gothic style (as seen in the SoulTaker and PEtit Cossette) SHAFT created the insane force to be reckoned with that is SZS. Even though it is neither Shinbo’s best directing job nor SHAFT’s best production, I credit it with being one of the most amazing anime I’ve seen simply for being so incredibly thorough and so definitively unique. SZS received a sequel, Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, two seasons later in 2008. Zoku would be the beginning of SHAFT’s trend of receiving a higher budget only to spend it all on an over-the-top opening episode and go back to low-budget production on those following. I have yet to complete Zoku. There is also a new OVA called Goku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei which has, BY FAR, the greatest fucking opening sequence in anime history, period.
At the end of 2007 SHAFT produced the visual novel adaption ef ~a tale of memories~ with Shinbo actually performing as ‘supervisor’ and Shin Ounuma taking the director’s chair. This doesn’t lessen the stle at all, and ef features possibly the best use of SHAFT’s style to date. While the visual effects are super-frequent and at first seem meaningless, most of them turn into something with more meaning as the series progresses, and visual techniques are often used to reflect a scene’s emotion in a way that heightens it to a level not commonly seen in anime. I could go on all day about ef, because it’s my favorite anime of all time, but I won’t. The sequel, ef ~a tale of melodies~, is airing currently. Both series, and the sequel especially, are notable for having significantly higher budget production than most SHAFT shows, either because of the game they are based on or the immense popularity of the show (much more than any other SHAFT production).
SHAFT is rumored to be adapting the manga Shina Dark into anime at some point as well as the manga Maria Holic and the novel series Bake Monogatari by heavily talented author NISIOISIN (Death Note: Anothe Note, xxxHolic: another Holic). Wether an of this is true will be seen with the approach of 2009.