Akiyuki Shinbo in the Early 2000s [Dissecting SHAFT Prologue]

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Akiyuki Shinbo has had one of the most bizarrely fascinating and difficult-to-trace careers in the anime industry. As a director, his work has never really had much consistency in genre or tone, and only features a small handful of running themes. His hallmarks are almost entirely defined by aesthetic and the general feel and pacing of his presentation. In spite of being described by many as an auteur, he’s made it pretty clear that he makes his shows in the way that he does because he thinks it’s what fans will find most entertaining and interesting; and he considers it his top priority that the fans of the work are pleased. Moreover, in the latter half of his career, he would collaborate with so many other creatives who would leave so many of their own indelible marks on his work, that the idea of Shinbo as a director has all but totally faded away. These days, the conversation surrounding Shinbo is usually about pointing out that he didn’t direct this show or that, rather than pointing out his own involvement.

In my two-part video series on Shinbo in the 90s, I explored all of the things which his name was attached to in chronological order, chronicling the evolution of his distinct visual style over the course of the first half of his career. In doing so for the rest of his career, however, I will have to define not only what Shinbo’s style is all about, but also decode exactly what each and every one of his many collaborators has brought to his work, in order to definitively figure out which new stylistic flourishes are permutations of Shinbo’s voice, and which have been brought forth by the people that he worked with. But first, we need to find our way to the major turning point that made the director’s trajectory so convoluted: his joining studio SHAFT in 2004.

When we left the director behind at the end of the 90s, he had just produced what was possibly the first work of true auteurism in his career–an original show which was almost entirely defined by its Shiboness and nothing else, and which bled his visual style out of every pore of its being.

I have no idea whether or not The SoulTaker was considered a financial or critical success–but one thing I do know is that the show was unbelievably offbeat. It’s hard to even believe that something like it got funded for thirteen whole episodes and even ran on television. It truly is characteristic of the post-Evangelion boom of weird, original TV anime; consider its contemporaries having been the likes of NieA_7, Boogiepop Phantom, Brigadoon, Arjuna, Figure 17, and Haibane Renmei. The late 90s and early 2000s were a peak era of TV anime risk-taking, and most of those risks didn’t really seem to lead to much reward. It would be difficult to imagine that, in the wake of The SoulTaker, Shinbo would’ve been asked to make another thing like it any time soon–which is the best reason I can think of for what he did next.

For years, it would’ve been assumed that Shinbo just blinked off the map for all of 2002 and most of 2003; until a discovery was made about a little-known director of five pornographic OVAs by the name of Jyuuhachi Minamizawa, who was exclusively active during that two-year period, and is painfully obviously Shinbo if you look at anything that he directed.

Indeed, over the course of those two years, Shinbo directed Sibling Secret, Blood Royale, Nurse Me!, Temptation, and Swallowtail Inn–five of the most aesthetically unhinged and downright batshit crazy pornographic animations ever put to film.

All of the techniques that I talked about in the Shinbo in the 90s series show up in these OVAs. I can’t help but imagine that Shinbo, having just completed the SoulTaker and gotten way into the idea of making anime as visually unhinged as possible, turned to an industry that would let him get away with doing whatever the hell he wanted as long as it involved sex–so that’s what he did.

Each of these five OVAs goes straight to the bottom when it comes to weird fetishes and fulfilling the stereotypes of what anime porn is all about. If you prefer your anime porn to be as vanilla as possible, then you need to stay far, far away from these. If you’re the type who gets a kick from watching weird anime porn, though, or if you just don’t give a shit about the context as long as the girls are attractive, then these are actually pretty easy to recommend. The artwork and animation is among the best that I’ve ever seen in animated porn, and we really start to see how Shinbo likes to give the girls in his shows weirdly detailed and realistic bodies in spite of how cutesy and moe they are. If you’ve seen stuff like how naked girls would be drawn in Dance in the Vampire Bund, the Monogatari series, or even the daily bath scenes in Hidamari Sketch, then you’ll know what I mean–Shinbo seems to draw attention to the bone and muscle structure of his girls in a way that moe stuff would rarely have want to do. But, uh, I honestly can’t show you a lot of examples of that from these OVAs because, you know… youtube rules. But if you’re a fan of Shinbo’s aesthetic and you love weird anime porn, then I’ll just say that Sibling Secret is the most hilariously out-there, Nurse Me has the best animation, Temptation has the best character designs, Blood Royale has the stuff that’ll make normies barf, and Swallowtail is kinda boring.

At the tail end of those two years of constant debauchery, Shinbo came to be a director on the first proper production by studio Seven Arcs, called Triangle Heart ~Sweet Song Forever~, in 2003. Seven Arcs was a young studio formed out of a staff migration from Studio Pierrot, who got their start working on pornographic OVAs as assistants to another studio called Arcturus, before finally becoming ready to produce their own original work in 2002. Their first work was one final porn OVA called Night Shift Nurses, which they made in collaboration with studio Discovery–who’d just produced all five of those other Shinbo OVAs–meaning that Shinbo’s connection to Seven Arcs most likely began as a result of this collaboration.

Triangle Heart ~Sweet Songs Forever~ was, itself, an adaptation of an erotic visual novel (the third in the Triangle Heart series)–which had been written by Masaki Tsuzuki, who would also write the screenplay for the anime adaptation. The four-episode OVA is PG-13 though, and honestly not at all worth watching if you’re not either a fan of the source material, or a diehard completionist of the much more popular side-series that sprung out of it.

Here, Akiyuki Shinbo’s trademarks are more scaled back than ever before, with so little of them appearing that you could easily be forgiven for not recognizing his involvement. He doesn’t even really break out the single-color frames this time, though little glimpses of his fingerprints can be seen here and there; and we also get this moving CG hallway shot, which is something that we’ll be seeing in his future as he gets more and more into utilizing CG.

Watching this OVA and the next TV series which Shinbo would handle with Seven Arcs, it might seem a bit odd that Shinbo was even involved with these works, given how little of his style is represented here, and how out-of-left-field it is for him to take up work with this studio. Interviews from this part of Shinbo’s career have only recently started to surface in English, thanks to a translation effort by the website Wave Motion Cannon, which you should check out, and where I guested on a podcast recently; but even still, Shinbo doesn’t tend to talk too much about the specifics of how and why his shows get made–so if you’ll indulge me, I’d like to dive into some wild but educated speculation.

See, when people talk about directors, they tend to focus a lot on the stylistic trappings and distinctive thematic voice that each director brings to their work–but they don’t tend to focus much on what a director’s actual job is. A director’s job is basically to keep everyone involved in the project organized. They have to make sure that everyone on the production is working with the same understanding of the final product and to keep track of everything that’s going on to make sure that everyone’s talents and efforts are being put to the right use. On a big enough production, a director’s job is akin to that of a community organizer, balancing the needs of all of their collaborators in service of the product that they’re trying to create.

If there’s one thing that seems likely to me, it’s that Akiyuki Shinbo’s real talent lies in this aspect of directing even more so than in the actual creative vision that he brings to his work. Shinbo is someone who has worked on countless massive projects involving an especially large number of creative staff in his time at SHAFT, and before that he was an absurdly prolific director of OVAs throughout the 90s. Moreover, Shinbo’s number one specialty seems to be getting relatively unpopular studios into the limelight of mainstream TV anime with his work.

Remember how Shinbo’s directorial debut was on the second half of Metal Fighter Miku in 1994? Well, that was also the first TV anime which J.C. Staff had ever done–and they kept him around to direct a bunch of 90s OVAs soon afterward. When Shinbo would join SHAFT in 2004, he and his team would completely redefine the studio’s style and launch them into an era of nonstop productivity from that point forward–and even one of his understudies, Shin Oonuma (who, by the way, was the storyboard artist and episode director of Triangle Heart episode three) would go on to do the very same thing with a fledgling studio in the form of Silver Link half a decade later. There must be a reason that Shinbo kept getting brought on as an animation checker for all those Triangle Staff projects in the late 90s–projects which involved a ton of minor staff who would eventually join him on many of SHAFT’s works throughout the next decade. He just seems to be a person whom people want to work with.

So you’ve got Seven Arcs over here, which is this little studio of former Pierrot staff dreaming of making their own original anime, but stuck doing assistant animation work for porn OVAs. Then you’ve got this highly experienced director who used to work for Pierrot back in the day, and has for some reason decided to drop out of the mainstream entirely to work on a bunch of porn; something which, as far as I know, is not a career move that any major director has ever done in this industry. If the Seven Arcs guys met with Shinbo while they were working on one of their joint projects with Discovery and begged him to come over to their studio and teach them how to get an original project off the ground, then it’s easy to imagine that Shinbo wasn’t there so much to offer his unique voice to their anime, as to get their anime made at all.

After all, Shinbo’s time with the studio would be short-lived. In 2004, he would enter a phase of non-stop output which he has yet to fall out of, and at that point appears to have been working on three different shows at the same time. First, a three-episode OVA running through the second half of the year called Le Portrait de Petite Cossette with studio Daume, and then two different TV anime which started in the fall season: Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha with Seven Arcs, and Tsukuyomi: Moon Phase with SHAFT.

The thirteen-episode Lyrical Nanoha TV series was a spinoff from Triangle Heart, and itself became a runaway success and spawned its own massive franchise–which I’ve already talked about extensively in this other three-part video series that you can check out over here. In contrast with the other two things that he was working on at the time, Nanoha features almost none of Shinbo’s visual trademarks. In fact, the only thing I’d like to note is how this show started a trend that would continue among many of Shinbo’s relatively low-budget productions from this point forward, of packing the most impressive bursts of animation into the first episode as a way of hooking viewers in–a genius, if totally transparent, marketing tactic.

It seems likely to me that Shinbo’s main involvement with this series was supervising the studio’s ability to run a production on their own. The episode director for the OP and episodes one and eleven, Keizou Kusakawa, who was also an episode director on Triangle Heart, did 3D Cinematography work on Petite Cossette, and even directed and storyboarded the OP and some episodes of Moon Phase, would take over as the lead director on all future installments of the Nanoha franchise to come from Seven Arcs–along with most of their other shows for the rest of the decade. I really get the sense that Shinbo was setting this guy up up to be the leader of the studio once he took off to go set up shop at SHAFT–where he, too, would take up a similar role.

As for Petite Cossette, that little three-episode OVA would take a seat right next to the SoulTaker as one of the most thoroughly Shinbo things in existence; and it just so happens that the DVD comes with a little making-of documentary which features one of the very few appearances of Akiyuki Shinbo on video! In it, Shinbo describes how he usually draws heavily from the involvement of other artists in his work, and how it’s rare for him to actually make all of the storyboards even for a three-episode OVA–but, in this case, he did. It’s also made very clear that his main staff for this OVA were all hand-picked by him; screenwriter Mayori Sekijima had previously written Yamamoto Yohko and The SoulTaker, and would go on to write Moon Phase later that year. Character designer Hirofumi Suzuki had previously been a key animator on The SoulTaker and Tenamonya Voyagers, and had been the character designer for the TV adaptation of Naruto, and Shinbo personally asked him to design for Petit Cossette. Suzuki would pop up again as a key animator on a handful of SHAFT’s future work, and is currently the chief animation director for the studio’s latest OVA series, Kubikiri Cycle. This would also be the director’s first collaboration with the madam of gothic soundtracks, Yuki Kajiura, whom he would later bring on once again to provide the soundtrack for Mahou Shoujo Madoka Magica.

Petite Cossette is a very different beast from The SoulTaker in how it handles its stylistic oversaturation, and is a lot more indicative of how Shinbo’s style was going to evolve over the course of the following decade. Where The SoulTaker was all about bold colors, dramatic lighting, and striking imagery, Petite Cossette is much more about an abundance of detail. This OVA is very, very digital, and if there was an HD version of it, then it probably wouldn’t even look all that out of place among the modern catalog of studio SHAFT work. It’s certainly aged better than a lot of its contemporaries from that year, though it also feels right at home in a time when shows like Gankutsuou, Mahou Shoujo-tai Arusu, and Ghost in the Shell Stand Alone Complex: 2nd Gig were all airing alongside it. This was a period when experimentation with digital animation was running excitedly through even TV anime, and was being used to awesome and interesting effect.

Petite Cossette is particularly heavy on CG, and uses it to create some of the trippiest and most hauntingly memorable dreamscapes in animation. The team was smart enough to realize that CG combined with 2D animation is inherently unnerving, and thus sought to focus on that very aspect of it, using the CG only at times when it’s supposed to feel out-of-body and bizarre. Meanwhile, the character designs occupy this space right in-between cute and realistic that gives them a ton of edge and really makes the entire atmosphere of this OVA possible. Everyone on the staff in the documentary would reiterate how the project really started falling into place once the design of Cossette had been made, and I absolutely believe it. So much of the imagery in this OVA is dedicated to just having her on-screen and expressing something.

Petite Cossette was based entirely around the core themes of “gothic” and “lolita,” and this really permeates it to the core. The story itself is what would happen if the book Lolita got superfused with a gothic romance story, and then found some excuse to involve Japan and its own sense of spirituality for some reason. Of course, gothloli fashion is also integral to the main character’s design, and Shinbo’s already deep love of gothic imagery seeps into every second of it. Also, there’s lots and lots and lots of blood–and I couldn’t ask for anything more.

If this OVA seems to have sparked something in Shinbo, it’s that maybe he got as obsessed with gothic lolis as the main character in the story did. His very next work, Tsukuyomi Moon Phase, stars a loli vampire; and he would go on to work on Dance in the Vampire Bund and Bakemonogatari half a decade later–both of which prominently feature their own blond vampire lolis. Here, Shinbo also begins a long-standing trend of having just no scruples about his characters being naked a lot. In this case, it seems as though he felt like this was the only way to get his characters to bear their souls to the camera–and this look of a gothloli girl dressed only in a shawl would immediately come up in the Moon Phase OP, and later in Vampire Bund as well.

Petite Cossette is something I would recommend to pretty much anybody. It’s an interesting and unsettling piece of romantic gothic horror on its own, and makes some of the best use of Shinbo’s style of anything out there. This is one of the only series in the director’s oeuvre where I can honestly say that the story could not have been told without him being a part of it, and that his style is entirely what brings it to life. If you want to get into Shinbo’s work and really appreciate what he uniquely has to offer to anime, then this is what you need to watch.

So this, finally, brings us to Studio SHAFT, and to Shinbo’s soon-to-be total reign over the studio’s output for the rest of his career. SHAFT as a studio had actually been around since 1975, and was originally founded purely for the sake of doing paint work by contract for other studios. They would produce just one OVA of their own in the late 80s, one TV series in the mid-90s, and then finally start to work on full productions in the early 2000s–though at the time, most of their projects were joint works with studio GAINAX, in which most of the creative staff came from the other studio. In 2004, the original company director retired, and one Kubota Mitsutoshi would step up to fill in his position; and this is when SHAFT’s complete re-imagining of itself came to be.

Akiyuki Shinbo was placed at the forefront of the studio, with his team, consisting then of episode directors Shin Oonuma and Tatsuya Oishi and known as Team Shinbo, forming the throat of their creative voice. But to focus only on these three would be to miss the forest for the trees, as SHAFT seems more comparable to a village of creative staff, who come out to work on project after project, and usually stick around for a considerable amount of time.

Nearly every studio SHAFT series features around ten storyboarders and episode directors, a myriad of animation directors, and usually a team of script writers to boot–and all of these people are allowed to basically run rampant with their own unique creative voices. This is how the SHAFT style would come to encompass such a huge umbrella of visual trademarks–because basically everyone working there is given the freedom to leave their fingerprints all over their work.

But having said all of that, Tsukuyomi Moon Phase is still very much a Shinbo show; in fact, it reflects a sort of evolution in how his style was used that isn’t quite like anything he did before. Whereas in the past he made shows which either looked fairly normal a lot of the time until one of his techniques showed up, or otherwise were just way over-the-top aesthetically, Moon Phase finally balances these different approaches and makes Shinboness into something more casual.

Nearly the entirety of this series has the trademark Shinbo color palette and many of his odd camera angles and visual flourishes; but very rarely is any of it pushed in the viewer’s face. If anything, it’s more like this is just what the world of the series looks like, and playing out within it is a very typical sort of anime plot. The town wherein the main characters live bears a lot of resemblance to the one wherein the main character in Petite Cossette worked–both shows taking place largely in antiques shops–and Seiji in Moon Phase even has a nearly identical studio apartment to the one Eiri lived in. Meanwhile, the loli girl Hazuki comes from the same kind of gothic castle that Shinbo has always been so fond of.

But this show would also introduce a whole slew of new trademarks which would very quickly become associated with SHAFT–and, in turn, with Shinbo himself–in spite of never having appeared in his work up to this point. We constantly see the main character’s house from this pulled-out, fourth-wall-less perspective that paints the entire thing as an elaborate set, for instance–which will be a constant in SHAFT comedies from here on out; but this one is not too far off from the things he did with rooms before, and in one of his interviews he confirms that he asked one of the show’s designers to create a set like this for the show.

I can’t, however, explain this constant running gag of having washbasins fall on characters’ heads whenever they say something dumb, which comes up in future shows as well. According to Shinbo, it was just an idea that someone threw out at some point in the production, and it stuck. Or how food is sometimes represented with photographs instead of being actually drawn. Or how there are multiple permutations of the OP and the ED which alternate based on what’s going on in the episode, or occasionally just change permanently. Or how the main characters are voiced by Kamiya Hiroshi and Chiwa Saito, who would also perform as Araragi and Senjougahara in Bakemonogatari, and as Itoshiki-sensei and Otonashi Meru in Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei respectively, among others.

Moon Phase feels less like an landmark moment in the career of Akiyuki Shinbo, and more like the origin point of the style of studio SHAFT–as it would come to feel so at home amongst their catalog over the next half-decade. As for whether the show is actually worth watching, it’s a painful question, but I’d have to say no. The best thing that Moon Phase has going for it is phenomenal character design and animation direction work courtesy of Masahiro Aizawa, which makes some episodes a blast to watch just on the strength of the facial expressions. Unfortunately, while 25% of the show consists of adorable, laid-back comedy and character interactions, the other 75% is the most trite, generic, and boring storyline imaginable, which takes itself too seriously and isn’t nearly cool enough to be fun. If you really like the look and feel of this show and want to give it a shot, I’d say just watch it until you reach the point where it seems hard to care about what’s happening, and then give up–probably after five episodes or so.

If Moon Phase is a very Shinbo series which gradually bleeds in little bits and pieces of creativity from the rest of the team at SHAFT, then it may also have been the last show that was entirely identifiable as a Shinbo vehicle. The very next show that he and the studio would put together had him assuming the infamously confusing “Chief Director” role, while Shin Oonuma took over as the actual Director; and from then on, Shinbo’s involvement with every other show that his name has been attached to suddenly became questionable.

And that’s why, to get to the bottom of it all, I’m going to go through this entire studio’s body of work with a fine-toothed comb and figure out exactly what it is that each of its creative staff has brought to the table. To do this, I’m going to need a minimum of sixteen videos–so stick around on my channel if you want to see a HELL of a lot more where this came from. Support me on Patreon if you want to help me to make those videos, and check out my other channels if you want more from me. Thanks again for watching, and I’ll see you in the next one.

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