SHAFT’s Edge, PART 2: Hidamari Sketch, Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, Bakemonogatari

In a previous blog post, I went on for a bit about the specific qualities of Tsukuyomi -MOON PHASE- and Pani Poni Dash that make them stand out amongst other moe-centric works. Since those shows strayed a great deal away from their source material in a variety of ways, I devoted a lot of words to what SHAFT specifically did to change them for the better. These next three works come from a time when SHAFT started leaning more on the source material for inspiration, but strangely enough their style diversified even more as a result.

Hidamari Sketch

I know Hidamari Sketch is often regarded as a gem amongst SHAFT’s works, but I’m just going to say straight up that I’m not that wild about it. It’s a pretty good show, but it’s not really what I’m looking for when I see Shinbou’s name in a show’s opening credits (but wouldn’t you know it, Shinbou has gone on record saying that he enjoys doing shows like Hidasketch the most.) Its source material lacks the edge I look for in SHAFT works; this edge instead being replaced by a genuine sense of warmth that appeals to some people. It does still manage to have the same brand of quirkiness present in most SHAFT works, though. It’s good, it just doesn’t press all of my buttons.

Hidasketch is probably the first SHAFT show where Shinbou and crew had to stretch a dime and really make it work. Tsukuyomi (as I understand it) was a mess when it aired, but was fixed for DVD; while Pani Poni and Negima!? looked more or less like normal anime with the subtle application of some visual tricks to save on budget. But Hidasketch was the first time the studio’s creative wheels really had to start turning–a good fit for a show about a bunch of art students.

The Hidasketch anime takes a couple of stylistic cues from the manga, then frames them in a functional, but appealing, minimalist aesthetic. Ume-sensei’s use of halftone–and various other patterns–becomes more common place, whereas their use in the manga is less pronounced (at least, that’s the impression I get from reading one volume.) Similarly, there is a heavy use of photographs, giving backgrounds a slight collage-esque feel at times. Shinbou’s training as a designer shines through when 3D space is flattened to look more like arrangements of geometric shapes, and in the various bits of visual shorthand the show develops. One iconic example of this shorthand is the camera panning over thick black lines against a white background matched to footsteps, to suggest someone climbing up stairs (something probably cribbed from the opening moments of Lupin VS The Clone.)

In the first season of Hidasketch, it’s obvious that a lot of the techniques used came about due to a lack of time and resources, but rather than put out yashigani after yashigani (I mean, the show had its moments) SHAFT found a way to create a simple, effective, and cheap aesthetic that fit the show, rather than just giving up. That said, further seasons of Hidasketch seem to have more money lavished upon them, but the core aesthetic remains the same.

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei

Remember that thing I said about Hidasketch not having the edge I look for in a Shinbou show? Well Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei delivers what I’m looking for in spades!

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is perhaps one of my most favorite comedies. Not just amongst anime, but across all media. Kumeta’s insanity, matched against a cast of characters about as sick as he is, mixed with a Seinfeld-ish approach to humor, results in a comedy that strikes you hard on a personal level. It’s essentially a stand-up routine in manga form.

But while the original manga is Pretty Good, SHAFT’s anime adaptation is exponentially better. The Zetsubou Sensei manga can feel stiff and awkward at points: it’s pretty text heavy, so if you’re a slow reader (like yours truly) the rate at which you read affects the impact of Kumeta’s random changes in locales and visual asides.

By virtue of being anime, the pace of the story is set for you, so these cuts and asides hit quick and hard, making the whole sketch funnier. These transitions are often accompanied by some kind of visual or audial cue. While pontificating upon something, the “camera” will move in such a way that turns the character themselves into a wipe used to transition from one background (usually scenery) to another (usually a list of items pertaining to the issue at hand, or a series of illustrations.) Simpler visual cues will also be employed, like cherry blossoms blowing in the wind, cuts of solid color between scenes, or quick frames of text in the style of silent movie intertitles.

Much like Hidasketch, SHAFT’s application of patterns persists in Zetsubou Sensei. But instead of halftone patterns, traditional Japanese imagery is used to reinforce the show’s post war, Showa-era aesthetic. In the original manga these types of patterns aren’t applied past Itoshiki’s kimono and the tankoubon covers. In the anime, they’re used heavily in the work itself in place of scenery to highlight bits of dialouge between characters. Also used for emphasis are cuts to frames with minimal color (usually in cases where characters are shocked or surprised), or, as mentioned earlier, frames in the style of intertitles will pop up, with the text inside highlighting a word or two of the spoken dialogue. The use of intertitles also goes a long way toward establishing the show’s old-fashioned aesthetic. To drive this aesthetic home ever further, SHAFT applies a subtle filter over the animation that makes the show look as if it’s unfolding on old, weathered paper–something lifted from Kumeta’s color illustrations.

Kumeta will often employ the use of background illustrations and text in his manga to reinforce his point. While this can look somewhat plain in the manga, SHAFT’s adaptation always finds new ways to transition to Kumeta’s insane lists of pop-culture references interestingly, and his illustrations are usually framed by visually arresting design elements, usually consisting of more traditional Japanese patterns, but at times we get throwbacks to design elements from past SHAFT works like Pani Poni Dash.

Subsequent seasons of Zetsubou Sensei put their unique spin on the formula established in season one. The second season, Zoku Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, takes the relatively tame first season and injects a double dose of experimental weirdness directly into its veins. Animation styles change on a whim, cuts to bizarre interludes are frequent, and in one sketch characters speak nothing but gibberish, with subtitles that are just as incoherent. The season opens up adapting one of Kumeta’s nonsensical rants printed in one volume of the manga, setting an appropriately manic tone for things to come. The third season, Zan Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei streamlines the formula. There is residual insanity from Zoku that sneaks in, along with some other running jokes, such as on-screen manga sound effects voiced by the seiyuu, and Chiri’s sentences being properly punctuated in the corner of the screen while she speaks.

All three seasons of Zetsubou Sensei get things rolling with killer opening animations filled with provocative–and in the case of Zan’s opening, bizarre–imagery, matched to Ohtsuki Kenji’s raspy voice, setting a delightfully twisted tone for the show that follows. Background music and ending songs tend to fall back on homages to and send-ups of older musical styles, once again laying the show’s old-fashioned aesthetic on thick. Zan probably has the best ending sequence of all the seasons, simply because it depicts a life I aspire towards.

Bakemonogatari

While most people seem to be looking towards Madoka as the big ol’ serious show they’ve wanted out of SHAFT (well, I think people are more interested in it as a serious magical girl show, but let me pretend), Bakemonogatari quite wonderfully granted that wish for me about two years ago when it first popped up on my small analog TV in Japan. It had everything I wanted: Weird characters, quirky humor, and strong, serious stories lurking underneath it all.

That said, this is going to be pretty short compared to the last two entries. Because what really gives Bakemonogatari its edge is the fact that SHAFT, Shinbou and Oishi more or less took all the tricks and techniques they had developed up until that point and re-contextualized them into a (somewhat) serious story. Which is to say, everything I mentioned earlier more or less finds its way into Bakemonogatari. But that re-contextualization is part of what makes it interesting, since a lot of those techniques are used in comedies. That said, when the show gets really heavy, Shinbou breaks out his serious side, seen previously in works such as The Soultaker, parts of Tsukuyomi -Moon Phase-, and even in his big ol’ directorial debut in Yuu Yuu Hakusho.

But while Bakemonogatari is more or less a refinement of past techniques, it does use a lot of them in very specific ways that tie it back to the original work. Now, I obviously haven’t read Bakemonogatari, but I know that the anime script is more or less word-for-word, and I’ve flipped through the books in order to catch glimpses of the illustrations in New York’s Kinokuniya, so I can at least pretend I’m familiar with the original work. As most people who’ve watched the show will notice, it’s very dialogue heavy. Shinbou said from the beginning that he wanted to reinforce the show’s literary background, so kanji makes its way into the visuals a lot. But rather than just flashing up every now and again like in Zetsubou Sensei, text is littered all over the Bakemonogatari world.

Background artists go out of their way to cover walls in posters filled with text, scenes set in bookstores create perfect opportunities to sprinkle the backdrop with text, and there are a number of shots showcasing all manner of signage. Even in Shinbou’s famous frames of solid color,  Bakemonogatari gives us both the color, and text on top telling us what color it is. But what makes this constant use of typography striking is the fact that all of the kanji in Bakemonogatari are more or less written in the same type face. It is this uniformity that distinguishes the text as a bold and prominent design element. The use of typography really begins to interact with the story when it comes to puns, or characters discussing the minutiae of writing kanji, as such instances are helpfully illustrated onscreen by way of sharply designed intertitles. The flashing of text on screen also helps to add another slight layer of drama to serious scenes, bringing the main issues of the scene to the forefront, reinforcing their gravity. One interesting thing to note is that all of the text in Bakemonogatari is either katakana or kanji, giving the typography an even more distinct look. The same thing is done in Zetsubou Sensei.

Along with being wordy, Nisioisin is also fond of pop-culture references. To complement this, SHAFT stretches their nerd muscles and inserts frames of manga parodies into the show here and there. These parodies typically don’t correspond exactly to the spoken references, but are instead used in instances where characters are surprised in order to add another layer of humor to the situation. My favorite example of this is when Araragi is confronted with having to collect a swimsuit that Nadeko had previously worn. When faced with this task, the scene cuts to a portrait Araragi as drawn by Ikegami Ryouichi. One should note that these manga interludes basically only happen to Araragi, and typically in instances where he’s being sexually aroused. Perhaps it says something about his pop-culture infected mind; everyone in Bakemonogatari is an otaku, after all.

Aside from that, the show generally has a very calculated and clean sense of design, which can obviously be seen in the last two works I wrote about as well. But the design in Bakemonogatari specifically complements Nisioisin’s writing well, which is similarly very calculated and fine-tuned. The style of the backgrounds also pays homage to VOFAN’s original artwork, distinguished by their unique approach to color and contrast. I suppose one other thing worth a mention is how the show has five (count ’em, five) very distinct opening sequences for each of its story arcs. Similarly, the dénouements to each arc are told in very non-traditional styles, complementing the respective characters in some way. But those are things better spoken about in another article.

Did I say something about that being short? I guess it just can’t be helped…

While Hidasketch is undoubtedly a moe-centric show, I can imagine some people taking issue with my labeling of Zetsubou Sensei and Bakemonogatari as such. I think Zetsubou Sensei falls pretty easily into the moe comedy pile, but its approach relies more on overwhelmingly negative humor, as opposed to what one usually sees in moe comedy. And hey, I’m pretty moe for all the girls in that show, so that counts for something, right? Bakemonogatari’s characters certainly seem moe by these eyes, it’s just that they’re actually given a good script, as opposed to something vapid and shallow like To Aru Majutsu no Index.

But that’s all up to debate, I suppose.

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