In the first of what will hopefully be several articles on the topic, I’ll be diving into the behind the scenes world of the anime industry and take a look at individuals, groups, and studios that give each anime its own distinct style of production, and what better way to start than with one of the most successful anime directors of all time: Tetsurō Araki
As you dive deeper into a certain branch of media, you begin to understand more and more about the specific people and groups that work in that industry. You pick out favourite actors, directors, etc., and you eventually start to base your decisions on what to watch next on these people you’ve gotten to understand through their work.
Not surprisingly, this idea works exactly the same way in anime, though because the medium is still fairly underexposed in the West, many anime fans don’t know who the directors, voice actors, or writers are for a given anime series, essentially going in with only the genre and plot descriptions to go off of. The studios that make the series’ used to give a general idea of the quality, but because freelancing is so prominent nowadays, knowing the specific individuals is just as important. So it’s great to be starting on Tetsurō Araki
Araki began working in the anime industry at Studio Madhouse in the early 2000s as an episode director for Galaxy Angel, eventually securing his directorial debut on the Otogi-Jushi Akazukin OVA series in 2005. However, it was not until late 2006 when his first megahit debuted, that being one of the most popular anime of all time: Death Note.
Since then, he has directed only five other anime series: Kurozuka, Highschool of the Dead, Guilty Crown, Attack on Titan, and now the currently airing Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, and almost all of these titles have become massively popular in the anime community, with Attack on Titan sparking a worldwide craze skyrocketing it to the same popularity levels as Death Note and Sword Art Online.
For having directed six TV series in about the span of a decade, it’s pretty amazing to see the high percentage of success that Araki has achieved, especially with the Western audience. With the exception of Kurozuka, all of his TV series have become huge names in the anime landscape for one reason or another; or, perhaps, the same reasons.
What, then, is Tetsurō Araki’s style, and how does he manage to make his shows so massively popular?
In general, there are two things that allow Araki’s works to grab so many viewers so quickly. First is that he is often massively bombastic and over-the-top when directing a scene. Almost every frame is maximized to have as much hype and excitement jammed into it as possible, a talent that very few other anime directors seem to possess.
In that way, I suppose you could make a comparison to the works of Michael Bay or Zack Snyder. Every camera movement, every shot composition, every lighting effect, every bar of music contributes in some way to the intensity of a scene. This doesn’t just apply to action scenes either, as dramatic dialogue and monologue get the exact same treatment, creating some of the most memorable scenes in all of anime. Be it Light Yamagi writing in his Death Note set to sweeping camera zooms and heavy choir music, or one of the multitude of characters in Attack on Titan giving an exhilarating speech filled with pain and emotion, Araki knows exactly how to heighten every moment to its maximum effect.
Even in works he only had a bit part in, his talent shines through.
Did you know he did the storyboards for episode 23 of Sword Art Online, the episode with the biggest and most over-the-top fight scene in the whole series? While that episode might not have been good from a story perspective, the scene direction is very solid and engaging. I definitely felt the hype as Kirito took on legion after legion of seemingly invincible guardian bots.
I won’t speak much on the actual writing for his shows because that’s an entirely different area that might not be under his control, but I will say that as good as he is at creating hype, it sometimes leaves very little breathing room to slow down and take in the smaller details, a trait I find very apparent in Kabaneri.
Another trait that Araki seems to have that isn’t necessarily a stylistic choice, but still heavily influences his overall effectiveness, is what kind of works he chooses to create at all and which demographics those works appeal to. Obviously, almost all of his titles are doused in heavy action, which can easily attract a lot of people, but there’s something a little bit beyond that.
What Araki is really good at is creating works that bridge the gap between the teenage audience and the adult audience, most notably with Death Note and Attack on Titan.
With Death Note, the moral complexity and ambiguity forms the core of the story’s narrative, making it very attractive to an adult audience, but at the same time, there’s nothing so complex or unexplainable that teenagers won’t understand it, allowing them to feel more mature and intelligent by watching it. Attack on Titan is extremely violent, making it attractive to teenage viewers, and it combines that violence with a pseudo-dystopian setting that’s very bleak and depressing, appealing to the adults who enjoy western TV shows of similar tone like Game of Thrones.
Even when he’s appealing to a niche and very specific audience, he seems to know exactly what to focus on to draw attention to his work.
While working on Highschool of the Dead, one of the most infamously ecchi and fan service-heavy anime in existence, he told his animation team to come up with unique and interesting breast physics for the characters, leading to the infamous “Matrix boobs” scene, and the show became a massive hit among teenage boys and young men interested in heavy action and fan service.
While some of the stories for his works rub me the wrong way at times, I will admit that Tetsurō Araki is probably one of my favorite people currently working in the anime industry. It’s very rare for a single director to show such a mastery of hype building and creating scenes that are explosively action-packed and over the top, and I’m positive that I’ll look forward to pretty much all of his shows that are produced in the future.