Hello all, and welcome again to one more edition of Why It Works. I’m sure many of you have seen SHELTER, the recent Porter Robinson music video featuring an apocalyptic anime narrative. If you haven’t, I’d certainly recommend it - it’s only six minutes long, and a beautiful piece of work in its own right. But when SHELTER was announced, it wasn’t Porter Robinson’s music or the short film’s general narrative that caught my attention. It was the fact that the work’s animation was largely being handled by Megumi Kouno.
Animators don’t generally get the same western recognition as other anime creators. Many of us know a variety of studio names, and possibly some writers and directors - Gen Urobuchi is an anime household name at this point, for example. But anime itself is the art of Japanese animation, and it’s often overlooked just how much animation itself can tell a story. It’s easy to say we liked a show’s characters, or that the pacing was too slow, or that some twist was silly - but sometimes what draws us to a show isn’t its overt narrative features, but how well some talented staff can bring those features to life.
Anime offers a uniquely showcase-friendly tableau for talented animators. While western animation trends towards evoking a very consistent style, strong cuts from anime often exhibit the hallmarks of their specific animator. With particularly strong animators, sometimes show directors simply let them handle scenes as they will. And the fact that single animators handle entire cuts means anime is not just the art of bringing characters to life, it involves the direction and staging itself, with the active frame and moving characters working in concert at all times.
Megumi Kouno’s biggest claim to fame is the jaw-droppingly animated [email protected] franchise, so let’s pick out some examples from there. In this cut, we can clearly see how the direction and animation work in concert to create far more energy than a static framing could provide. The first shot moves sideways against the spin of the characters, enhancing the sense of momentum. When the show then moves to recenter our attention, it starts with a closeup on the central girl Haruka’s kicking leg, then pulls up and then outwards as the girls themselves extend their focus towards the presumed audience. When the characters join hands, the camera essentially joins hands with them, positioning itself at each end of the group to echo the rhythm of their gesture. Even without music, the energy of their performance is preserved through the combination of very fluid animation and very restless camera work.
Of course, Megumi Kouno’s animation is just as impressive in the abstract, divorced from an active frame. In these shots, we can see the quality she’s specifically renowned for - her gorgeous, constantly billowing hair. Her characters move with a sense of weight and momentum, and that is most clear in how her idols bounce across the stage, their complex hair arrangements echoing the energy of their performances. Kouno’s animation isn’t necessarily “fluid” - as you can see in this cut, there are sometimes major gaps of movement between her keyframes, resulting in shots that can occasionally feel disjointed. But every one of those keyframes is bursting with lively personality, and her understanding of human musculature is top-notch even if it’s not expressed through entirely contiguous movement.
To highlight another example that’s somehow from the same show, note the progression of movement through this sequence. The flowing hair and sharp expression work of her material is all there, but look at how Makoto (the girl with the flowers) moves through both the first and second halves. There’s a brief, slow gentleness in her initial movements that’s only echoed at the end, when her death seems to bring a kind of peace. This management of timing gives the smallest of dramatic narratives to this sequence, where even without overt context we can feel the rise and fall of the drama. And other than that, it’s all jerky, focused movements, all calibrated to convey the energy of the moment.
Look specifically at the transitions as she moves to first block, and then push the other girl to safety. You can see the consequences of her weight, the other girl’s weight, her muscle movements, and her momentum in the way her clothes billow around her body, hugging tight as she huddles close, stretching as she pushes through her sleeves to save her companion. More than just conveying movement, a sequence like that conveys bodies in motion, the ways we express movement through the muscles we’re given, and the way motion always disrupts the soft objects around us. Kouno’s focus on hair and fabric isn’t just a personal tic, it’s one of the best ways to create a world we can believe in visually, a world of gravity and visual consequence.
After contributing brilliantly to the original [email protected], Kouno was actually selected as director for its followup Cinderella Girls. Cinderella Girls unfortunately couldn’t match the consistent animation glory of its predecessor (the downside of a medium so reliant on its individual voices is that if you don’t have the same staff, you won’t capture the same magic), but Kouno’s own cuts are still a true marvel. Some of the show’s later highlights demonstrate Kouno’s strengths compounded with more fluidity of motion, but I’m personally fond of this sequence from the very first episode. Capturing the easy grace of Uzuki and the astonishment of her new friend Rin, it is a climax relayed almost entirely through animation, where the wonder of the moment is clear to us without a word. Truly great animators are capable of evoking that wonder, a magic that can elevate the mundane into the timeless and beautiful. Kouno’s work embodies the magic of animation, and I hope to see more of it for many years to come.