During Anime Expo Lite in July, Crunchyroll announced three new titles into their “Originals” lineup. According to Head of Global Partnerships Alden Budill, a Crunchyroll Original is a show that's “developed with an eye towards our community”, and is “made for our audiences with the distinct intention to fulfill what they're looking for from us as a brand and what they're looking for from anime as an art form.”
Joining titles like The God of High School and Tower of God was the currently airing TONIKAWA: Over The Moon For You, So I'm a Spider, So What?, and EX-ARM. At the time, all we knew about EX-ARM was that it was an adaptation of a cyberpunk manga, it had gotten delayed, and it had some cool looking key visuals.
But things got weirder from there...Cool, right?
In late August, EX-ARM revealed the names of the director, writer, music composer and animation studio. And I'll let Anime News Network's encyclopedia prove a point.
Click on each of these names:Director: Yoshikatsu Kimura Writer: Tommy Morton Music: Sō Kimura Animation Studio: Visual Flight
None of them have ever worked in anime before. Yoshikatsu Kimura made a name for himself by writing and directing live-action television. Tommy Morton is likely a pen-name. Sō Kimura is a guitar teacher who DJs at night under the names SIGMA X81 or FIQTIV. Later, they announced the name of the action director, Takahiro Ouchi. And much like the others, he has no animation experience, with his closest ties to anime being his stunt work on the first two live-action Rurouni Kenshin films.
But Visual Flight is perhaps the oddest name of the bunch. The only anime-esque project they've been a part of is creating a bizarre dance demo in Unity (note: Visual Flight did not create the dance animation). And their professional credits only seem to include modelling work for Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. It is incredibly rare to have a main staff this inexperienced work on an anime.Visual Flight's demo movie
At Crunchyroll Expo, director Kimura and voice actor Sōma Saitō appeared on a panel meant to give fans a chance to learn more about the upcoming series, including the reason why nobody on the team had worked in anime before.
According to Kimura, he was asked to direct the series because the staff felt a live-action director would be able to understand 3D space better. And instead of working with an anime studio, he instead chose to create EX-ARM as if it was one of his own live-action works. The focus would be on acting out the scenes with actors in motion-capture suits and then applying that to character models. In this way, Kimura stated that the show would be “extremely realistic” and that fans could look forward to action scenes never seen before in anime.
On the latter point, he might be right.The Trailer for EX-ARM. It currently has 90% dislikes on YouTube.
EX-ARM is embarrassing. Despite being a Crunchyroll Original, at the time of this writing the streaming service has yet to promote the recently released mass-disliked trailer on their social media feeds. Commenters have pointed out the poor quality en-masse, with the show appearing to look nothing like the early key visual art.
Ultimately, this series appears to be ruined by unwarranted confidence and a lack of interest in animation. Despite being well-aware of the fact that live-action directors rarely direct anime, director Yoshikatsu Kimura claimed, “I have experience as a director, so I decided to give it a shot.” The last prominent example of a live-action director being in charge of an anime was 2011's Psycho-Pass, led by Katsuyuki Motohiro. However, in this case, he was aided by co-director Naoyoshi Shiotani, a veteran key animator. This is because to be an anime director, you need to have an understanding of animation, but Kimura had little interest in the artistic capabilities of the medium, instead opting to focus on the camera and motion-capture work.
According to BEASTARS director Shinichi Matsumi, “Motion capture is the first step. And we adjust the movement to look more anime-like.” This is a way of capturing realistic timing and basic motion, but it needs additional key-frame animation work to make these elements work and look appealing in anime. At Square Enix Visual Works, they warn against using motion capture as a crutch, and EX-ARM's awkward motion is proof as to why. While the show's creative staff are perfectly capable of directing actors in a motion-capture studio, they clearly had no idea what to do once these motions were mapped onto 3D models.“What (fans are) looking for from anime as an artform.”
Kimura argued that his status as a newcomer meant that he wouldn't be tied down to how things were usually done in the anime industry, but this also meant that a lot of animation basics went forgotten. The gravity-defying action that he refers to as a merit of the medium is perhaps the worst part of this trailer; it all looks silly and weightless. In EX-ARM, Alma is a largely emotionless android, but that seems to have resulted from the staff not bothering to have her face move at all. The same appears to be true for the maid she battles. Her hair rarely seems to move appropriately: it'll shift about when she runs, but when she flips upside down, it appears static – certainly not the “extremely realistic” animation we were promised.
Additionally, the entire trailer has a smoke filter covering the screen, regardless of how the camera moves. The same is true for the explosions, which at 0:19 appear to follow the camera around. There are also these blue splodges that appear occasionally, likely meant to be some kind of indeterminable sci-fi VFX gone wrong. Like with animation, compositing for anime requires an understanding of the medium. Sword Art Online: Alicization compositing director Kentarō Waki was inspired by great animators of the 70s and 80s and he uses their work as a basis for his compositing decisions. Similarly, ufotable's digital chief Yuichi Terao warns against realistic visual effects. In his words, “The more you strive for realism, the more contrived it appears. Anime is supposed to be unrealistic.”
And unlike most 3D anime, the entire trailer is filled with motion blur, despite Kimura stating that “every frame is important.”I'm sure they're shaking in their boots.
During the production of Berserk 2016, the staff were worked to the bone. They'd spent far too long fussing about in pre-production and had very little time to actually bring the show together. Director Shin Itagaki had made mistakes, but they were all driven by his respect for anime as a medium, even if it contributed to a poor final product. EX-ARM doesn't have this excuse, because EX-ARM was a broken plan from the beginning.
The production team chose to bring on a live-action director, despite the fact that 2D anime staff have consistently made for great 3D anime directors as well. There was Takahiko Kyōgoku's Land of the Lustrous, Seiji Mizushima's Expelled from Paradise, Daizen Komatsuda's BBK/BRNK, Yoshiki Yamakawa's Hi Score Girl, and many, many more. But instead of someone with experience, they chose a director who had such little respect for anime that, in his attempt to make something “never seen before”, he turned the adaptation of HiRock and Shinya Komi's manga into a laughing stock.
It's hard to criticize the animation team at Visual Flight, because they've been asked to handle something way outside of their forte. But somehow neither the producers at Crunchyroll nor the director himself seemed to notice their mistake until now.
The lessons from EX-ARM are clear and obvious: Anime is best produced by those who understand and respect animation. And if you, the reader, understood this already, then congratulations. You would have made a better director of EX-ARM.