From around April through October, the production for Naruto Shippuden takes a hit due to resources being diverted to the annual movie that debuts in the summer. The best example of this is during the Pain arc (summer of 2010), which had high expectations given the source material only to have a fairly mediocre adaptation in the end. The only outliers were episodes 166-167, the latter drawing much controversy thanks to its fairly ambitious and unrestrained approach.
The summer of 2011 was not bad in comparison. Partly because there was a filler arc in place of canon material, but also because of the promotion of Studio Pierrot animator Masayuki Kouda (above) to the regular rotation of animation directors. Kouda joined Studio Pierrot in the early 2000s where he started out as an in-betweener on shows such as Twelve Kingdoms and the original Naruto series. He made his animation director debut in late 2010 on episode 180 of Shippuden where he was paired up ex-Kyoto Animation animator Gorou Sessha (storyboard/episode director).
The episode had one of SHAFT’s top animators, Gen’ichirou Abe. I believe he worked on it because Kouda had done some key animation on a few SHAFT productions before and presumably that is where they got to know each other. He animated the scene in the later part of the 2nd half with the mercenaries trying to take down the shadow clones amidst all the smoke.
The next two episodes with Kouda and Sessha together were episodes 194 and 234. 194 reverts back to the silly potty humor of the first series, but it features some dynamic action with the prime example being the scene with Sasuke and Naruto rolling down the hill (pictured above). You see some extreme deformation here in addition to some heavy digital effects being placed on top of the drawings. The same style is also present in the Itachi vs. Sasuke fight in episode 135. These kinds of effects are a staple of what you see in Gorou’s work as an episode director and in some of his earlier work as animation director on the show. Was the key animation done by Gorou Sessha? I believe so, but it seems that Kouda himself might trying to imitate that kind of style if the fight in episode 240 (top collage, bottom right) and the race scene in 219(two images below) is any indication.
After Kouda’s first two episodes between spaced out 14 episodes apart, he was introduced in the regular rotation in early 2011. His episodes are identifiable by the rounder faces along with the square mouths that comes from author Masashi Kishimoto’s style. While Kouda’s episodes are generally worth watching for his drawing style, but episode 225 and 249 are among his weaker outings.
However, the short opening scene in 225 (above)– presumably by Gorou Sessha given those post-processing wrinkles- is a neat segment. The episode doesn’t have much in the way of flashy animation, but this part stood out as it doesn’t look anything like the rest of the show. Episode 249 doesn’t have much to look at either. The main reason being Kouda was overstretched as he was the animation director for that episode and an episode of Rock Lee and his Ninja Pals that aired shorty after.
As an aside, that Rock Lee anime is unwatchable. It’s the worst you can expect from a children’s comedy show. Unfortunately, it does have some noteworthy staff working on it. Gorou Sessha is the assistant director, Masahiko Murata is the director, and Hokuto Sakiyama has turned into a regular, working on episodes 5, 10, and 15.
Kouda and Gorou Sessha reunited on episode 234 which had more of the same. Nice action sequences with a knack for timing and effortlessly constructing an episode’s ambiance– not surprising given Sessha’s KyoAni pedigree. Some of the nice touches that Kouda and Gorou bring here are the digital textures of the smoke effects that give the drawings another dimension to look at. There’s also the little things that make these episodes that stand out from your typical entry in the show, like the part where Sakura is organizing medical bags and you see the bags leaning on each other as she neatly lines them up.
As good as Kouda is, Hiroyuki Yamashita (above) is no doubt the best (sometimes?) regular animator working on the show. Yamashita started out as in-betweener on Monkey Turn V and Panty Flash Teacher before moving to Gonzo for a short while. While there, he worked on Solty Rei and Pumpkin Scissors before finally leaving for Pierrot in 2007. The first piece of key animation he did for Shippuden was at the beginning of episode 17 with the pre-OP sequence at the camp. He also did the fights with Team Gai in episode 21. Compared that to his more recent work, such as the sword fight post-OP in episode 143, and it’s remarkable to see how far he’s come. The movement is much more lively along with his own stylistic touches (flat square fingers, triangle swords) having evolved over the years. Additionally, something both he and Kouda have taken from character designer/animation director Hirofumi Suzuki is the stylized lip-synch, something that Toshiyuki Tsuru mandates on the episodes he directs. Here’s an extensive analysis on Yamashita’s style if you’re interested in learning more.
Unlike Kouda– who has worked on other non-Pierrot shows recently such as Black Rock Shooter and the Yozakura Quartet OVAs– Yamashita has almost exclusively stuck working on Pierrot. The one exception being the Keiichi Hara movie, Colorful. With Norio Matsumoto also having worked on the movie, I’m assuming he brought along Yamashita along with him. He animated this awkward scene with the lead forcing a kiss on another girl (the video has been flipped). However, since he’s obviously the top animator in the studio, he’s taken off of the TV production for months at a time to work on the yearly Naruto movie. Last year he even made his debut as co-character designer for Blood Prison. He also directed and animated the Killer Bee rap segment for Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm Generations.
Another in-house animation director is Shigeki Kawai, who joined Pierrot about a year or two before Kouda joined the studio. He doesn’t have much in the way of a distinct style, but he’s adequate at keeping the designs on-model. Back before Kouda and Yamashita were not part of the regular rotation, his episodes used to have more resources focused on them and they looked better. Ever since Kouda and Yamashita’s emergence in the rotation, his episodes dipped slightly in quality. But now he’s been moved over to directing episodes over the past few months, presumably to compensate for the upcoming Naruto movie taking up resources.
Kayano Tomizawa is another Pierrot product (albeit no longer under contract at the studio), but his episodes are bar far the worst looking of the Pierrot animators. His style isn’t absolutely terrible to look at, but it’s rather unrefined and rough around the edges.
Kengo Matsumoto has emerged as the 3rd best AD on the show recently, but his work overall is at or slightly above Kawai’s level. Matsumoto is an ex-Production I.G animator who started working on the series in 2008. On some of the episodes he’s worked on as animation director, he’s brought along some of his friends from Production I.G like Kiyu Katagiri and Shinji Itadaki (both of them were animation directors for Blood-C) who all started out as in-betweeners at I.G at around the same time. Hiroshi Yamazaki (director of The Duel segment from Halo Legends) from I.G also directed an episode for Shippuden along with Matsumoto as AD, but it didn’t deviate from the usual fidelity the shows has for the original comic’s layout.
Another regular animator on the show is veteran Tsutomu Ohshiro (brother of Masaru Oshiro). He appears in the episodes directed by Kiyomu Fukuda which have most of the key animation outsourced to Korean studio Jiwoo Animation. Ohshiro takes cues from the Kanada style, but honestly it is some of the worst interpretations of that style I’ve ever seen. What makes the Kanada style so exciting to watch is how the animators play with the timing and combine that with drawing exaggerated, stylized animation to highlight poses and movements. But Ohshiro’s style is rife with poorly drawn drawings and timing that ends up being more grating on the eyes than exciting.Since his work shows up on the lower-tier episodes, it ends up being good by comparison, so at least that works out to be a net positive. I feel a bit bad saying it, but I’m just not a fan. I know I’ve seen one clip from 90s show he worked on that actually looked pretty good, but I’m beginning to think that was because the animation director reined him in.
Early last year, Pierrot promoted a number of its in-betweeners up to key animators. While at this early stage none of them has developed an idiosyncratic style like Kouda and Yamashita have, it’ll be interesting to see if any of them develop along the lines Kouda or Yamashita later on. The ones promoted were: Haru Watanabe, Yuuki Ikeda, Asuka Mamezuka, and Ayano Fujita. While searching around online, I found these drawings from Ikeda and Fujita from back when they were in animation school.
Openings and Endings
The openings and endings were usually taken care of by Toshiyuki Tsuru and Hirofumi Suzuki, but after working on them for so long others have had to step in. Mostly known for the numerous comedy shows he’s directed over the years, OP 10 was directed by Akitaroh Daichi. The tone of the OP isn’t one that fits given the serious tone the show has, but it certainly is enjoyable as long as you put that aside. Hiroyuki Yamashita animated the scene at the end with Sai vs. Kisame and Sakura throwing her kunai at Madara.
OP 11 is directed by Pierrot regular Kazunori Mizuno. Mizuno was active on Bleach, but once that series ended earlier this year, the staff naturally went on to work other projects. Some went to tsuritama (the OP directed by Bleach director, Noriyuki Abe), others to Polar Bear’s Cafe and the Rock Lee anime. Notable action key animator Teruaki Tokumauru is now a main animator on So, I Can’t Play H!
In OP 11 you see some of the Bleach staff at work: Mizuno, long time Pierrot animator Masaya Onishi, Sanae Shimada, etc. Unfortunately, the OP is fairly flat and uneventful. Hiroyuki Yamashita is the AD for this one, so it’s a nice short intro to some of his style.
The endings as of late have been mostly solo efforts. The most memorable ones have Atsushi Wakabayashi’s (ED 18) and Shingo Yamashita’s (ED 20). Both of them worked on the controversial episode 167, so it’s nice to see Pierrot was still willing to bring them back on the show to bring their unique style along with them. Although, there hasn’t been another Wakabayashi episode ever since, and he’s been involved with other Pierrot projects. The latest assignment had him storyboarding the 5th episode of Kingdom. Shinji Satoh was in charge of ED 22, and former GAINAX animator Keisuke Watanabe (Rap is Man’s Soul section of TTGL Parallel Works) was charge of ED 21.
Masahiko Murata directed ED 19 and animated it along with series regular Seiko Asai. The ED (above image, bottom left) features a reference to memorable shot animated by Norio Matsumoto episode 71: the slow-motion shot of the 3rd Hokage taking a punch to the face.
Both of them have worked on episodes where Murata animated the 1st half of the episode and Asai animated the 2nd (eps. 35, 42, 55, 138), with Murata serving as storyboarder/episode director. Murata also directed episode 245 (above), but that was more of a regular episode when it came to distributing the key animation work. I’ve been a fan of Murata’s work on the series as an episode director. I haven’t seen Murata’s other works to be certain of this, but it feels like he’s taken certain cues from Toshiyuki Tsuru. His approach to photography and layouts reminds me of what Tsuru has done elsewhere (Gungrave ep. 14, his various Naruto eps. and OP/EDs).
He uses peculiar photographic tricks (such as the blurring out of the image while the camera zooms in), and the softer lighting on the drawings– something not unique to Murata’s episodes, but nevertheless gives them a more refined kind of presentation–are things that makes me think of Tsuru’s work. The episodes by the Tsuru/Suzuki duo tend to be to rather subdued and methodical– Murata doesn’t actually get up to their level in terms of execution, but at least he tries. Tsuru has been messing around with unique post-production tricks or over a decade now, so I wouldn’t be surprised if Murata was inspired by his work once Murata got to be regular director on the original Naruto series. To get a quick intro to Tsuru’s style, watch episode 82 of Shippuden. It’s easily his best work on the series and one of my all-time favorite episodes in general.
This is an opening directed by Tsuru with, presumably, Hirofumi Suzuki as AD. It’s for the opening of a Kaze no Yojimbo pachinko game (silhouettes are a staple of his OP works).
You can see the kind of the influence Tsuru and Suzuki have had on the show by watching Kouda and Yamashita. Take note of how the shading and lighting of the show changes when Kouda or Yamashita are the animation directors. The other obvious big influence on the show is Atsushi Wakabayashi and Norio Matsumoto, but, as mentioned before, they haven’t worked together on the show for two years now. Tsuru and Suzuki haven’t been involved in an episode for the same amount of time.
For a quick rundown of episodes by Yamashita and Kouda as AD follows, the ones italicized being the ones I feel/remember being really worth checking out:
Yamashita as animation director (ED 12 + storyboard/directing, ED 15 + storyboard/directing; eps. 178 2nd half, 186, 198, 204 +storyboard, 238, 248, 252- more than half of this one is made up of flashbacks to previous episodes, but the rest of solo work by Yamashita)
Kouda as animation director (180 + Gorou storyboard/directing, 194 + Gorou storyboard/directing, 209, 216 1st half- lots of dull flashbacks to 1st series re-animated, 219, 225, 234 + Gorou storyboard/directing, 240 1st half, 249, 262- pretty flat TBH, 270).