Pushing through the limits: Yoshihiro Kanno and SAO War of Underworld

Hundreds of animators are needed to produce a single series, and that’s before considering other factors, such as photography, background, paint artists and producers. However, some animators in particular can carry a lot of weight regarding the quality of a production. Those individuals leave a mark on the series they work on and their works become almost tied to the identity of the series.

In fact, producers and directors are aware of that and that’s why those artists can be given special positions such as main animator or action animation director. These special roles tie the animators to the production and grant them some kind of financial stability for a certain period of time. A few recent examples of these cases being Arifumi Imai on Attack on Titan, Kazuhiro Miwa on Fire Force or Takashi Mukouda on Kazetsuyo.

Sword Art Online itself is no stranger to such roles given that the first two seasons were carried a lot by the action animation directors (Takahiro Shikama and Ryuuta Yanagi for season one, then the latter and Tetsuya Takeuchi for the second season).
Despite the changes in the staff, Alicization kept the tradition with Tetsuya Takeuchi keeping his role and Yoshihiro Kanno joining him. The series started unbelievably strong and while I preferred the overall aesthetic and designs under Director Tomohiko Ito, I would say the first few episodes managed to go beyond what the first series accomplished.

The first of SAO Alicization was quite promising, especially thanks to animator and animation director Kiminori Ito who inserted a lot of subtle character acting throughout the episode

Episode 4 in particular offered exquisite action set-pieces for the first real fight of the series. Yoshihiro Kanno handled action storyboard and supervision and his touch can be felt in every scene. Kanno’s style is imposing and all about impact and power. He takes full advantage of the key animation system with exaggerated and stretched poses as well as smeary close-ups, reminiscent of Umakoshi-eyes, coupled with his signature (pose-to-pose) timing and camera work. I believe that Kanno evolved as an animator over the years thanks to the way he manipulates the camera. It’s generally quite close to the action but there’s constant zoom and dezoom to make it readable and thrilling to see. On the other hand, when the camera isn’t necessarily close, he still moves it to guide the eyes and creates an harmony between that and the actions of the characters. His control of the camera is even present in non-action works like this CM he storyboard, directed and key animated all by himself.

Kanno’s use of camera in wide shots, it’s just enough to enhance the animation without making it distracting

Sadly Kanno had to leave the production because he was occupying the role of main animator on Karakuri Circus, quite the testimony of his immense talent! At first glance, there was nothing to be worried about, Tetsuya Takeuchi is a legend and he carried many productions before, especially when coupled with Ryo Araki. However, the production quickly lost the grandeur of its first four episodes. Takeuchi and Araki’s own contributions were quite strong of course but as supervisors they couldn’t do much, especially when the action storyboarding was so painfully simple. The only exception being the highly controversial 10th episode which benefited from the entire focus of the team. The 2nd cour was completely devoid of Takeuchi until the final episode (though he storyboarded and directed the fantastic second OP) and the show lacked consistency as it alternated between guest action ADs and no action AD at all. It doesn’t help that the schedule got a bit shaky as well.

Tetsuya Takeuchi’s fantasic OP. He rarely storyboards but when it does the result is always amazing.

And that’s why the show had to take a break before resuming the story. Thankfully this time Kanno is free and we should finally get the promised Kanno/Takeuchi duo! Except for the fact that… Takeuchi left?! Kanno now was in the same position as Takeuchi but the result is quite different. The quality of this season is surprisingly good and while there are many factors (split-cour, a fully outsourced episode and a lot of guest animators), Kanno is surely playing a major role into that greatness.

Firstly, Kanno is quite hands-on: he never missed a single episode as action AD, did action storyboarding for episodes 03 and 04 as well as key animation for half of the cour. His output is constantly impressive and while his style never changes, it adapts wonderfully to the fighters’ individual styles. You can tell Kanno influences greatly the way the action is done even when he is not doing the animation himself.

Another sequence full of obvious Kanno’s quirks he didn’t handle directly

As much as I love Takeuchi, I believe his style isn’t fit for the role of animation director. Takeuchi’s style is quite unique and while you can pinpoint the way he draws faces, effects or fabric, summarizing it as a sum of quirks would be a great disservice. A lot of Takeuchi’s charm is in the motion itself, moreso the secondary motion. Takeuchi goes the extra mile to animate hair and fabric and the way he portrays inertia makes him one of the best animator in the industry. But the fact is that unless Takeuchi completely redraw the sequences, he can’t insert much of his touch into someone’s else’s cuts. Meanwhile Kanno manages to add things without necessarily erasing the animator’s works, whether it’s his smears, light flares or effects. Those are meaningful additions that add a lot of dynamism and impact to the scenes, especially for the more static cuts.

While Kanno didn’t do much key animation in this episode, his corrections and additions can be felt in pretty much every scene.

In definitive, Kanno was surely a major factor as to why this season remained solid, thanks to both his skills/style and his passion. But only mentioning his name would not be telling the whole truth. The production could count on regular contributors such as Kouta Mori, Kai Shibata and Toru Iwazawa to deliver some stunning moments. Akiko Itagaki is a relatively unknown name but she was highly praised for handling some of the most emotional scenes of the show. We also got the debut of a highly skilled chinese artist named Jiage Qiu and even some animators from overseas doing particularly great contributions! And of course that’s not mentioning all the unknown artists that did great works throughout the season, with the best scene probably being done by someone who went uncredited!

As you would expect, Kanno handled the last action scene of this cour, finishing on a high note. But that’s only an appetizer for what’s to come!

After the first season, something needed to be done about the production and the staff fought back admirably.
But the war isn’t over! Actually it just started and the next cour is coming next season. Here’s hoping the staff can keep pushing through the limits and deliver ambitious works to our great pleasure!

Bonus: here is compilation of Yoshihiro Kanno’s (recent) works, including SAO of course.

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