BLEACH: Thousand Year Blood War #06: The Fire

Script
Masaki Hiramatsu
Storyboard
Tomohisa Taguchi
Episode Direction
Ema Saito
Key Animation
Qkawa, Daisuke Tsumagari, Masato Yoshida, Tomoko Hayashi, Saucelot, Ryan White, Yuugen RB, Ken Imaizumi, Yoh Natsuki, Hiroki Takiguchi, Manami Shiba, Takaaki Saito, Mika Okubo, Masaru Miyazaki, Kaori Matsushima, Kousei Matsusaka

For the better part of nearly fifteen years, Hiroyuki Yamashita had dedicated his life to a single franchise. This is already admirable, but his true merit is beyond mere consistency. Rather, Yamashita’s output in this franchise sits rightfully beside some of the most technically proficient work to come out of the Japanese animation industry. Now, while the series may have changed from NARUTO to BLEACH, the context is no doubt familiar – both being Pierrot-produced shounen anime, and from the same generation of Jump magazine no less. To anyone familiar with the production side of NARUTO, the complete and thorough transformation found in The Fire should hardly come as a surprise. Everything Yamashita has been involved with has found a way to elevate the material such that, when compared to what came previously, and what follows after, one has to wonder how they’re even spawned from the same series.

He can do this in part due to his role within the studio. In terms of earned good-will, you would be hard pressed to find an animator-studio duo with more than Yamashita and Pierrot. Since stepping down as the series director of BORUTO: Naruto Next Generations in 2018, he has assumed a somewhat unorthodox role within the studio: working almost exclusively without credit, and appearing just when you least expect it. Don’t let the lack of credits over the last four years fool you though, his output is no different in quality or frequency, and if anything, he’s as dominant of an action animator as he’s ever been.

Head-turning action from Hiroyuki Yamashita on the ninety-ninth episode of BORUTO

This self-effacing behavior culminates in a frustratingly awkward situation when it comes to speaking about the technical side of BLEACH: Thousand Year Blood War #06. From the storyboard, direction, and animation, Yamashita was seemingly involved with everything, and yet, his name doesn’t appear anywhere in the woefully misleading credits. Amusingly, this situation has led to no animation director of any sort being credited on the episode. Whether or not this is a first for television, I can’t say for sure, but it is practically unheard of to say the least.

To a newcomer to the sakuga world this is no doubt confusing. Why would someone do such magnificent work and then decline any credit for it? Truthfully, without his personal testimony it’s unfair to hazard a guess toward his reasons since it could range anywhere from extreme hubris – my work is so noticeable I don’t need to be credited for people to recognize it – to extreme humility – my work is second to the characters and world, and the surrounding support staff make what I do possible. More than likely it is closer to the latter, and moreover, there is a valid argument to be had there too. With the ever increasing popularity of anime, and consequently, sakuga, the discourse surrounding production staff has evolved into somewhat of a numbers game, forgetting the artform these people happen to be attached to in the process. In fairness, it is demonstrably easier to talk in terms of objective quantities such as the who and the what, rather than embellish over the finer details – since the latter requires experience that not everyone has. By not being credited, it reminds us that anime is a team effort and no single individual should command such a disproportionate amount of the spotlight. Unfortunately for Hiroyuki Yamashita, without intentionally nerfing his ability as an artist, the spotlight will inevitably gravitate to him (Perhaps he can try drawing with his non-dominant hand, though I’d half expect the result to still be great).

To that end, there are a number of notable support staff scattered throughout the credits. Like he did for the premiere and subsequent episode, Series Director Tomohisa Taguchi provided the storyboard for this one as well. It would appear that Yamashita enjoys working for him, as BLEACH marks the third time in the last few years, following in the footsteps of Digimon Adventure: Last Evolution Kizuna and Akudama Drive – the former of which was produced outside of Pierrot even.

The episode director, Ema Saito, is also an interesting contributor. While it’s unwise to put stock in the name of the school alone, she happens to be a 2020 Tokyo University for the Arts (Geidai) graduate – the most prestigious art school in Japan. Regrettably, it would appear she took down some of her graduation projects, so you will have to take my word for it, but caught in the crossfire was a simple but cute BORUTO-related short. Her being a fan of the series explains how she would eventually debut on it one way or another. In the year since her first credit, and with guidance from the esteemed shounen-anime veteran Noriyuki Abe, she’s become a very competent regular in BORUTO’s episode director rotation. Even still, with just three solo-directed episodes under her belt, this fact, more than anything, speaks towards Yamashita’s confidential involvement. Having said that, she would not have been given the opportunity without showing a lot of potential in the first place. This also seems about as beneficial of a learning experience as one can get, so it will be interesting to see what the future has in store for Ema Saito.

Continuing with the supporting roles, we curiously find the line producer, Wataru Hamamoto, and production desk, Mai Hashimoto, acting as regular production assistants for the episode. Both the line producer and production desk roles are tasked with managing the personnel and budget of the show on the whole, so to explain this with an analogy, it’s like the regional manager and district manager coming in to run the store for a day. They each bring valuable production experience, and Hamamoto previously worked in the same role with Yamashita during his time as series director of BORUTO, so its fair to assume the communication throughout the production of the episode was efficient. This is especially important considering the number of foreigners credited for key animation. Any time you rely on social media for animation help, the artists become a step removed, and several time zones removed as well. Having reliable communication is key in these cases.

Another surprise contributor comes in the form of Ryo Ohashi. BORUTO and Fire Force fans will likely already be familiar with his name as he has contributed a significant amount of highly proficient visual effect and CGI work to both series. His involvement on BLEACH is timely considering the episode is named “The Fire” and contains enough of the hot stuff to put even Fire Force to shame. Having a visual effect supervisor as strong as Ohashi no doubt paid dividends in the final result. I would also assume he supervised the CGI skeletons – they’re well-textured and blend harmoniously with the surrounding purple haze.

As far as the content goes, BLEACH: Thousand Year Blood War #06 is relatively faithful to the manga. It adapts the last few pages of chapter 505 and continues until the end of 510. A couple original Ishida parts are added to mix-up the scene selection, and naturally, when it comes to the action, Yamashita could not help himself but to add some original choreography.

What was just a sword slash in the manga became a brilliant dance, with the soaring Yamamoto missing his first strike, only to be greeted by the leg of his adversary on the other end. The sequence on the whole is masterclass action storyboarding, and executed wonderfully by saucelot.

A recurring difficulty the BLEACH anime has faced, since its inception even, is that Tite Kubo is a generational artistic talent. For as many skilled animation directors BLEACH has had over the years, measuring up to such a skilled mangaka is no easy task. Imagine my anticipation upon discovering Hiroyuki Yamashita would bring his own special take to the designs. Naturally, the drawing fidelity throughout is so high that you would think he’s been drawing Shinigami for as long as he has ninja. Captain Yamamoto in particular takes on a completely new look under his hand. For as withered and old as his body is, the supervision manages to accentuate all the sharp corners and crevices for a visceral, genuinely ferocious look. His cloak of flames is also an interesting topic as this episode manages to get incredible mileage out of a handful of looped frames – made possible by each one being ridiculously attractive in its own right. A special digital brush was likely used to create the many different sketchy patterns and then they were simply adjusted depending on the context. The decision to largely have the background flames done in CGI, and then hand-draw the flames from the cloak or various attacks creates a nice balance, and allows for the latter to better stand out.

From a direction perspective, I can only regret how difficult it is to highlight the sound direction and music selection in a written form like this, though it at least bears mentioning that it was phenomenal throughout. The episode also makes far greater use out of the past and present theme than the manga does. It reminded me of NARUTO’s Kakashi vs. Obito, which Yamashita also directed, in the way that match-cuts of a younger Yamamoto and his older self are strategically placed throughout the episode. This weaving of parallel scenes provides solid structure to the composition, and maintains the up-tempo pace. The rim highlights, a staple of the series’ identity, adopt new meaning here, signaling to the viewer that we are observing the conflict in the past. I would hazard a guess that the red and blue theme was chosen because when blended together, they complement the purple haze and vice versa, but regardless, it all comes to a head with the lead up to Captain Yamamoto’s bankai. Accented by the harrowing parallel between fallen soldiers reaching out toward their commander and their skeleton-selves doing the same, the rising tension builds until the sheer infernal rage carried across time and possessed by a single man erupts. What follows is bar-none the most mind-blowingly attractive bankai activation, and possibly even animated sequence, in all of BLEACH.

TV commercial break placement is an often ignored factor when it comes to building an episode. With streaming, viewers have the benefit of watching uninterrupted, but its important to realize that is not how it was made, nor intended to be watched. To that end, a weaker episode would have shoe-horned it somewhere in the middle, breaking the carefully established tension. Wisely though, the break for this episode occurs at the seventeen minute mark, relatively late and dangerously close to the end. This happens to be perfectly placed as it serves to signal the reversal of fortune in the fight. Prior to the break, Captain Yamamoto had thought he’d defeated his enemy, while after, it’s a completely different story. For as controversial as this moment might be from a writing perspective, the anime handles it about as well as it could. The added dialogue between Aizen and Ywach goes a long way in allowing it time to sink in as well. With the scene change, the color script shifts accordingly to a rich assortment of purples and dark blues, while we’re also given a better look at Yamashita’s trademarked lip-sync animation. With how meticulously involved the rest of the episode is, it was expected that the final panel would get its due diligence as well, and it does. It’s an homage to the manga, while also symbolizing the extinguished flame of the old fart.

BLEACH was not without its fair share of standout episodes over its previous run, however its approach was one that ultimately valued consistency and competency over all else. Thousand Year Blood War has allowed for a new side of the franchise to be seen, for better or for worse. While not fault-free as an overall adaptation, this episode goes above and beyond to transform the corresponding chapters into a genuine event. It surpasses expectations, defies odds, and even manages to break the ending credits system thanks to Hiroyuki Yamashita’s shenanigans. It may be some time until BLEACH fans experience anything close to this level again. However, the prospect alone has us waiting with baited breath.

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