China is an artist that we in the sakuga community have learned to know very well for some time now. After all, he broke several records as the youngest key animator ever, the youngest artist in a single solo animation work, and the youngest episode director, ever! His predilection for subtle acting and his continuous presence in the most ambitious television productions have made him a truly recognizable animator, yet, little has been written about his incredible ability as an episode director with a clear and innovative vision. This article was created to provide the most recent work of the director from Osaka a more analytical perspective on how he approaches the narrative of the episode, talking about his tropes and his stylistic choices, without making too much sensationalism about his stunning career.
Clearly there are small spoilers related to the plot of Yama no Susume, but I can assure you that it is nothing really that climactic.
I decided to analyze above all the direction of the episode, taking also into consideration what the artist himself described and explained in his posts on his pixiv fanbox, a crowdfunding service identical to Patreon on the famous art-sharing platform. So alas I had little agency to write about Noriyuki Imaoka’s wonderful animation supervision. It is nevertheless undeniable that many of the scenes of the episode acquire emotional depth precisely through Imaoka’s skill in exalting the best aspects of each animator, and in giving the character models greater three-dimensionality, but maybe this will be a story for another time.
The episode opens through a shot in which a camera very close to the ground frames some walk-on intent on playing football, which immediately leaves our field of vision to make room for our protagonists in the background. It is impossible not to notice an important resemblance to a particular cut of the eleventh episode of Eromanga Sensei, in which a group of kids pass the ball to the park rigidly framed by a protective net, also realized China but in that case only in the role of key animator and layout artist.
The sequence, which could appear to be purely filling, useful only to regulate at best the narrative rhythms through a pause as in the case of Eromanga, represents instead a real declaration of intent on the part of the episode director: even if some techniques will be sometimes used of transforming the entire world into a two-dimensional stage, China seems to remind us that between its virtual cinematographic lens and our protagonists there is a fictional environment and a social fabric interposed that develops and changes in full autonomy, a conglomeration of places and individuals which survives beyond the story he is trying to tell.
Since the first season, the animated spaces regardless of whether it was a city area or any mountain climbed by the protagonists, have come as close as possible to the real locations through extensive documentation and tracing work, useful above all to facilitate the so-called “pilgrimages” by fans in the most iconic places throughout the series. China decides to use this to his advantage. This already present “scenic realism” to comment on the emotional dilemmas of the protagonists through a Hannou framed as never seen before.
Returning to what happens on the screen, shortly after we find ourselves facing the first moment of pure cartoony visual style, in which Mio, Yuri and Kasumi announce what they would like to do during the trip to Ikebukuro interrupted by a small Hinata popped out of a balloon in the shape of mountains. This representation, which reduces the use of way boring shot-reverse shot diptychs, appears as a simple but effective metaphor for the current situation of the character: the ebony-haired girl manages to do well within everyday social life thanks to a powerful enthusiasm, rather than through real relational skills.
So far she has seemed like a figure that stands out for her gumption, but this is simply because it is always accompanied by a timid and introverted Aoi, unable to react to a large number of situations without panicking. Particularly interesting is then the delusion of the latter character, we will see later how it differs stylistically from Hinata’s one.
The entire sequence, including comedical and delusion-oriented cuts, is made following the kagenashi aesthetic (literally without shadows), which helps to describe the expressions of the characters with a certain delicacy through the surgical removal of shadows that can create more complex shapes. This choice is made to represent the stubbornness of Aoi and the stunning of Hinata without making use of particular graphic deformations or visual metaphors, with the pure and overwhelming force of solid and at the same time essential key frames, to provide a certain serious sobriety to the scene. The director wants to immediately tell us that the troubled story of friendship and squabbling of the two will obtain in a different perspective, more interested in deepening the emotional subtexts of the two girls rather than creating one of the many other happy stories with a happy ending that characterized the series so far.
The filler cut with the moon that rises in a late afternoon which sun still shines in the sky anticipates the immediate next break: the following image in fact cites one of the ending shots of the first episode of the very first season, in which immediately after school Hinata drags Aoi towards her home to show her her father’s collection of mountaineering instruments. Now the situation is very different, there is no longer a real physical contact between the two and not even a dominant figure, the girls study each other a little while until Aoi does decide to run home immediately.
The direction amplifies the distance between the two by placing the accent on long sequences in which the protagonists, framed by themselves, occupy only the right third of the screen. It is interesting to note how the emotional explosion, which will paralyze Hinata again, is illuminated by a light similar to the one that characterized the outbrust of Mizore in Liz to Aoi Tori. China himself said that, although he only saw the film some time after the beginning of the production of the episode, as a great Naoko Yamada fan, he found himself unconsciously emulating her aesthetic. In particular he has noticed some important similarities with the recent film in the way in which the composition of the scenes has totally lent itself to telling the different points of view of Hinata and Aoi.
In the awakening of Hinata the next day we can notice a great interest in the interiors composition: The window, very close to her face, gets a central role the cut’s configuration through a complex geometric game realized by a wise positioning of the virtual camera but also by more traditional means. In fact, the girl does not wake up due to an alarm or a call from her parents, but simply because the sun has risen as clearly emphasized by the rule of thirds. It is a very different sun compared to the one that has characterized the series so far: it’s a sun that is too mundane, it’s a way too dazzling sun, it’s the clear sun that creeps into the homes of those who spend boring weekends.
We see for the first time in the series a sleepy Hinata with loose hair, a detail that enriches that trivial moment. The smoke from the still-hot latte is perfectly combined with the thin light that permeates the room. From here on, a peculiar type of framing makes its presence which, like a cage, imprisons and isolates the characters in a small portion of the screen through the use of objects or infrastructures.
There is also particular attention in matching the expressions of the raven-haired girl with the dubbing of Kana Asumi: while she speaks more quietly and softly, her mouth is not even visible, its shape appears for the first time only after an interjection, then she pull out her tongue as she reflects and in the end she timidly hides it again under the cup.
Her imagination, represented inside a balloon, presents a greater three-dimensionality compared to that of Aoi. The idea of representing the fantasies of the two friends with some stylistic differences comes from the director Yuusuke Yamamoto, who as China himself tells, personally corrected that section of storyboard.
Before waking up again, we had another small filler cut, which, as in the previous sequence, will anticipate another aspect of the episode: the one in which the morning light settles anticipatory on a typical souvenir of Ikebukuro, a representation of the statue of an owl called Ikefukurou-zou, which Hinata wanted to give to her friend. Like the statue of Hachiko and the Moai for Shibuya, the feathered sculpture is a well-known meeting place in his area.
Impatient to get an answer from her friend Kokona, Hinata bangs her feet firmly on the ground. A typical emotional representation of Naoko Yamada that China reinterprets more directly. We must not forget, in fact, that in his iconography are the hands, rather than the feet, that provide rich concentrates of information on the emotional state that the characters want others to see or really feel deep inside. Is it perhaps a coincidence that Hinata’s hands, for most of the outdoor sequences, are behind her back, invisible to the eyes of the spectators?
As anticipated before, we can once again see a cut in which structures imprison Hinata, or in which the girl is in one of the external thirds of the screen, “almost implying that someone should be next to her” quoting without hesitation kViN. Her overalls vaguely resemble an armor with which to protect one’s heart but at the same time it is surely a dress that is particularly suited to a little girl who wants to get dirty in the open fields, therefore highlighting the most childish aspects of her personality.
The scene animated by Ken Yamamoto, with the maple leaf gently laying on the water, has been thought of as a work of digital painting in motion since the storyboard stage. The beauty of those colors and of that elegant dance with the wind needed to be firmly witnessed to shift the attention of the protagonist in a credible manner from the charms of autumnal nature to the group of young people who all have fun together from the other side of the river.
Until now there have been too many melancholic scenes, it is time for a momentary change of atmosphere not to bore the average spectator too much with diaphanous and too indirect narrative structure. The introduction of Kaede and Yuka evokes the idea of animated world as a stage outside any real space through the very special cut done by the mysterious animator credited as Niinu Mackenzie. It’s one that is wisely introduced by a sort of ultra-wide-angle framing in which China experiences the union of photographic realistic elements with more cartoonish and two-dimensional additions.
This targeted union of elements so different, especially in order to better calibrate the episode’s atmospheric timing, is something that we have already seen in the second episode of the third season with the animated metaphors of the shop owner and with the fated meeting between Aoi and the her shoes. If we then go to investigate a little better among the “animator” cuts in China’s personal history it is possible to often notice smears and fun deformations inserted for the sole purpose of better calibrating the overall mood of the scene.
The doubt then arises whether it is correct or not to call China a “realist” of animation. Perhaps it is still too early to give an answer with a certain semblance of reliability, but I am quite convinced that he is first of all a director interested in creating solid and swinging staging that only sometimes crosses its ways with “pure” realism, the realism of Hiroyuki Okiura or of the most classical realist literature. The narrative mode of the latter lacks much of the visceral empathy for the characters that our young director inherited from his idol Naoko Yamada, just as we do not find the schematic expressiveness typical of illustrators like Mebachi that our animator so loves.
The representation of the Ikebukuro visited by Aoi focuses much more on its local fauna as opposed to the more popular landmarks in the area, and for good reason: we are still talking about an entertainment district for girls, where spending joyful afternoons with friends to show off good clothes while having fun. The spirit of the town is best manifested through a well-groomed group of mob characters on multiple levels rather than through a big number traced backgrounds. Their wardrobe and their poses exude joy and youth from every line, the mob girls closest to the camera could easily be mistaken for secondary characters of any other well-designed tv anime from their distinct visual appearance alone.
The director moves again to the three girls left in Hannou. The light that strikes the spaces of Kaede’s room is decidedly warmer and more welcoming than that of the morning, although the room still has important shaded areas that often characterize the frames in which Hinata is present. The hands of the senpai intertwine softly as if to convey a sense of security and peace, while those of her friend hide themselves between the legs from embarrassment. This almost maternal portrait of the older character who, without even wanting it, ends up by making the kohai reflect on one of those themes that she would never have faced alone: her future.
In this very moment Hinata realizes how, for her too, the day when she will have to choose which path to take after graduation comes. Until then, the girl has spent almost all idyllic moments with Aoi and her other friends, often interpreting the reference figure of the situation together with Kaede and yet things may change one day. Indeed, sooner or later they will be destined to change. Sooner or later, whether they want it or not, all that will be left is a vague memory of the static and shy little girl with the ashen hair who was easily dragged everywhere. Aoi will be forced to make her own decisions, and her best friend will be only one of a thousand variables to weigh. And yet there is something sweet about the mental comparison between the Yuka-Kaede and Hinata-Aoi pairs, almost as if the spiteful young lady in dungarees felt for a moment the presentiment that, after all the dis-adventures spent together, the fate of the “strange combinations” is to share a strong bond over time.
Changing perspective again, the train taken by classmates returning from the trip tries to figure as much as possible as a real moving vehicle thanks to the use of a background animation present in the animation layer outside the windows. In addition to these fleeting movements we can admire a total framing on the city of Tokyo that acts as a foreground to Mount Fuji wrapped in a very strong light, the same one that will then hit Kasumi during the dialogue with Aoi. This homogeneity in terms of photography amplifies the message of the scene: Aoi has overcome the fear she had towards her peers thanks to the experiences in the mountains.
It was the decision of not refusing the challenges of mountaineering that made her more autonomous, more able to jump into the fray of her emotions and then tackle them later. She may not have become more self-confident, but has certainly learned to open herself up to seize the opportunities of life. The lighting reaches its peak when the meganekko decides to shake the protagonist’s hand, inaugurating their friendship. To provide greater intimacy to the scene, the virtual camera is positioned on several occasions at the height of a hypothetical traveler, who observes the girls without caring too much about them.
Hinata decides to visit Aoi at the station, but she is not sure what to do. Her insecurity and fears, in addition to being characterized visually through the usual body language of the hands behind his back, finds space in the compositing phase through the rich blurring of the backgrounds. Next to the girl pass two female middle school students with the silhouette that reminds one of the two friends.
You have just enough time to notice this detail before the two are covered by the bag of the protagonist on a new layer just out of the train, which does not respect the presence of her friend. Hinata notices the same souvenir that she herself bought, but has not yet had the nerve to give to Aoi, and allows herself be discouraged. The girls then exit the station, only leaving a glimpse of a startled Hinata on the outer layer. Closing the sequence using one of the firsts cut’s mirrored composition evokes a sense of continuity and clarifies the distances between the characters.
It’s been hours since those bittersweet moments, it’s already night now. The light of the smartphone, white and penetrating, is an excellent counterpart to the startling morning sun. The two effects are similar, yet the darkness of the night seems to depict Hinata’s soul as even more disheartened. The owl-souvenir, struck by a ray of moonlight, looks like an ancient cursed artifact.
We enter the bathroom through a reflection of the protagonist in a mirror, a device that China loves to use to introduce new locations since the days of Long Riders. Hinata tries to sum up her day, try to parse the feelings that weigh down her soul like boulders. She finds an answer, but doesn’t want to share it with anyone, not even with us viewers. the tormented girl decides to dive and free her lament, testified only by some bubbles that emerge in rhythm.
Shortly after the airing of this episode, the artist decided to take a well deserved vacation, experimenting with new techniques in the most complete freedom of his personal projects.
What the future holds for China is still a mystery, just as it’s a mistery if his directorial interests will open new paths or solidify the already highly visible tropes in his storyboards. What is certain, however, is that he proved to be a personality capable of producing animation with an harmonious vision, really competent in intelligently revise every productive aspect to enrich the narrative of each scene while taking advantage the individual skills of his staff to the fullest.