Editing Irina here: I have to admit this post got a bit away from me. instead of a simple list of anime directors I happen to like it turned into this little diatribe about the role of directors in anime production and now it’s way too long. Still I did enjoy writing it so I’m leaving it in but feel free to skip to the list section. I won’t be sad!
For some time I’ve been under the impression that anime directors have a much bigger impact on their end product than live action directors. By no means am I trying to imply that a traditional director does not shape the works they are a part of but for me, it wasn’t as flagrant. There are a lot of directors whose filmography stuns me. Unless they’re big names they don’t necessarily have that much control over the final cut so even renowned directors have some pretty confusing early movies. To me, I tend to notice writer directors way more, than those that stick to just directing.
But in anime, I almost never get caught off guard. I can usually see clear family resemblances between shows from a same series director even if they get produced by a different studio and are in completely different genres. I’m sure there are a lot of reasons for that but I think one of the main differences is storyboarding.
As far as I know, pretty much all shows and movies have storyboards. It’s a basic part of film production. I’m sure there are some rebels out there who just go out and wing it, but when it comes to animated works it’s considerably less optional. It also has more impact.
Even if a director didn’t write a particular series (or adapt it as is usually the case) they always have a final say on the storyboards, if they didn’t outright create them. The storyboards guide and shape the action in such a precise and deliberate way that it’s impossible not to leave a trace. This makes the director’s input as important and obvious as the writer.
Of course, anime directors also have control of the appearance of a given series but unlike real life shows they are not bound by physical or budgetary constraints when it comes to setting and are never forced into bad casting…. Actually that’s not true. They don’t have to deal with any particular actor’s looks or physicality but they could get stuck with some horribly miscast voice actor and that can be just as damaging.
This said, as far as appearances go, animation in general allows for a much tighter control over the look of a series than would otherwise be possible. It also allows for easy signature looks. You know certain design styles and colours are favoured by certain directors and show up in most of their works. After a while you can tell at the glance when a new show is likely from a director you like. Of course you can get fooled.
The same type of signature look is very difficult and mostly, very expensive to recreate in a live action setting. Not to mention that because it is so involved, a lot of directors will purposefully avoid creating one as it can end up distracting from the story. I heard that in an interview. I don’t remember the director who said it but I like to think it was subtle shade at Tim Burton.
Animation is a more independent venture than traditional film making. Unlike actors on a set, animators do not have to be physically in the same room to create a scene. Everything is compartmentalized. Designers come up with a design. The tons of artists draw the different elements and scenes, separately. The images go somewhere else to be cleaned up and coloured. They then get put together and edited by different people once more. After that the voice and soundtracks are created. And all these people never even have to meet. The producer and director become much more vital to making sure all the moving parts fit together.
Because of how central the anime directors role is, they tend to leave their fingerprints all over the production. Not to mention that generally speaking, aside from new media (i.e. YouTube) most media has more oversight than anime and as such anime directors have more freedom to mould their shows than even western animation directors. Let me tell you, most of the stuff that comes out of the big anime studios would never fly at Disney. Wait, does Disney own anime now? It’s possible, they own everything else…
Once again, I want to make sure that I don’t sound like I’m trivializing the role of classic directors. They can make or break a movie or show in any format. I’m just saying that I personally feel the director’s presence more in anime than other mediums.
And it’s therefore particularly bad that I hardly ever acknowledge them. I speak or writers, voice actors, studios but I hardly ever mention directors. I would like to fix that today with a very short list of anime directors I am currently interested in. This is by no means an exhaustive list!
Renowned key animator, director and co-founder of studio Trigger. Regardless of what people may say about Trigger’s narrative choices, most do agree that their productions are usually stylish and distinctive.
As a director Imaishi has helmed:
- Dead Leaves (2004)
- Gurren Lagann (2007)
- Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (2010)
- Kill la Kill (2013)
- Space Patrol Luluco (2016)
- Promare (2019)
Considering my deep love for both Gurren Lagann, Kill la Kill and Promare, it’s not surprising that he tops my list. Beyond just the visual flare and fantastic palette choices, I find that Imaishi is very skilled at pacing high action with emotional verve. His works are often tongue in cheek and meant to convey deeper meaning and questioning through high speed antics and crazy over the top moments. He manages to balance out both plot and character development with good ole fashion fun in a way that has always managed to suck me in.
A fantastic creator and veteran of the anime industry, if his name is attached to a project, it has my attention. Especially as a director. Utena alone was enough to win my devotion but this guy also directed:
- Sailor Moon R (and a lot of Sailor Moon in fact – also Hell Yeah Sailor Moon!!!)
- Revolutionary Girl Utena
- Yurikuma Arashi (will see this really soon)
- Sarazanmai (I fell in love with this)
I don’t think I made my point clear enough, but Sailor Moon was a great series and it does NOT get enough credit. It should have been considered on of the Big Boys but somehow never makes the list. A travesty. Since Ikuhara often has a hand in writing or storyboarding the shows he directs, they often have a certain feel to them. That feel is bonkers. This guy loves him some surrealism and so do I. I don’t know what his next project will be but count me in.
Ok, I’m not gonna lie, I enjoy good visuals and strong compositions. I sort of give them disproportionate importance. So the director of Fire Force made this list. Whatever else it may be, the series has given me some of my best gallery posts by far.
Yuki Yase may not be quite as seasoned as the two I mentioned so far and although he’s worked as an episode director a lot (and in some very prestigious shows), he only has a few full series to his name:
- Fire Force (TV)
- Hidamari Sketch × Honeycomb (TV)
- Kubikiri Cycle: Aoiro Savant to Zaregoto Tsukai (OAV)
- Mekakucity Actors (TV)
Admittedly aside from Fire Force I’ve only seen Mekakucity Actors but it made an impression. I would say he is one of the most adventures directors I know, unafraid to experiment with productions. Sometimes even a bit too much but then again, I appreciate the verve. Both shows are distinctive and visually interesting which is enough to make me want to see what’s next.
Naoyoshi Shiotani has been in the business for a while and racked up quite a few credits but as a director, he’s basically done two things. Blood+ and Psycho Pass. But pretty much all of Psycho Pass) I haven’t watched the second season of Psycho Pass (and I haven’t great things), but I have seen clips of it. And one thing I enjoy about Shiotani is his consistence. I can tell its Psycho Pass from a mile away. And it’s not all up to character designs and backgrounds. Colour choice, voice actor delivery, movement framing and camera angles. All of them have a very specific style and remain true in both movies and series throughout the years. There’s a dedication to his direction which I just appreciate. He also manages to spread out a complicated story in such a way that it’s clear for the audience without talking down to the viewers. That’s a gift.
Wikipedia makes a point of stating that Igarashi is a freelance director, I’m not sure why. And I might never have picked up on this guy until last season of Bungo Stray Dogs basically made me get a pinterest account so I could keep all my screencaps safe. It was gorgeous. The framing in the series, the angles… Beautiful and masterfully integrated into the atmosphere and ambiance of the series.
- Bungo Stray Dogs (TV) :
Bungo Stray Dogs (TV 3) :
- Bungo Stray Dogs 2 (TV) : )
Bungo Stray Dogs: Dead Apple (movie) :
Bungo Stray Dogs: Hitori Ayumu (OAV) :
Captain Earth (TV) :
- Ojamajo Doremi (TV) :
- Sailor Moon Sailor Stars (TV) (Hells Yeah Sailor Moon)
- Soul Eater (TV) (whoa)
- Star Driver (TV)
- Zatch Bell: Attack of Mechavulcan (movie 2)
So I guess the moral of the story is, I like directors who worked on Sailor Moon at some point? Good moral. Let’s go with that!
I am going to start paying more attention to the production team when new anime get announced cause that’s usually the best indicator of how likely I am to enjoy a show. Who am I kidding..? I’m gonna look at the promo picture band decide entirely based on that. Reading is hard guys! But maybe I’ll look at the production staff of the first few shows! Baby steps.
Do you have any favourite anime directors? Who are they?
34 thoughts on “Way Too Long My Top 5 Anime Directors post”
Another vote for Satoshi Kon 🙂
Still feel really sad that he’s gone – I remember his final blog post and it gutted me, his poor family
Satoshi Kon and Shinichiro Watanabe
As a trained animator, I am in awe of Shinichiro Watanabe’s work. Imaishi is fabulous, too. He’s invested a lot of time studying Golden Age cartoons. And I loved the way Tsurumaki mixed styles in FLCL.
I’m not good with remembering directors, but Junichi Sato is one of the few names I know because he was behind much of SM along with other good shoujo shows like Princess Tutu and Goldfish Warning! (Kingyo Chuuihou!).
Pretear was a good Sato work.
I am shocked that no one has mentioned the inimitable Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Carole & Tuesday) yet. He has an incredible sense of style and panache that can lend itself to many different genres, while connecting them with dynamic, off the wall storytelling and incredible music. He played a big part in having anime be taken seriously in the West with Cowboy Bebop, and continues to innovate to this day. In my mind, he’s a true auteur of anime.
I can’t think of any other directors off the top of my head (I’m terrible at remembering names), but he’s definitely up there with Miyazaki and the guy who did Your Name and all those other movies
Oh yeah – another fantastic director. Hope wb doesn’t eat him
Damn it. How did I forget him?
Very good choice for Watanabe. The director you’re thinking of that did Your Name is Makoto Shinkai.
My number one anime director of all time has to be Yamamoto Sayo (Yuri on Ice, Michiko to Hatchin, Lupin III: Mine Fujiko). I just love her overall style and flair – it’s so very distinctive, and instantly recognizable to me). I also really adore Yamamoto Soubi, Takahiro Omori, Watanabe Shinichirou, and of course Miyazaki Hayao.
Another great list!
Out of those, my favourite is probably Igarashi, followed by Ikuhara. Also, the picture you used for Blood + (the one beneath the poster) is actually Blood C (and thus Mizushima rather than Yase; see Wingking’s post).
A lot of great directors in the comments, too. I’ll add some of my own when I have the time. (Don’t expect a top ranking; I’m too forgetful for that.)
A few directors I’m paying attention to and that nobody so far has mentioned:
Kaburagi Hiro: Kimi ni Todoke (both seasons), Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, Hozuki no Reitetsu (first season and 2 OVAs), 91 Days. I’ve loved everything I’ve seen from him. No two of his shows are alike, and his weakest show is the second season of Kimi ni Todoke, which makes me think he gets most excited about figuring out how to do stuff. He’s got an anime coming in 2020 (Great Pretender), which I hope will be great, too.
Andou Masaomi: School Live, White Album 2, Scum’s Wish, Hakumei to Mikochi, Kanata no Astra. A straightforward director who figures out the concept of a show and then makes it work. Of the shows I mentioned, I think I like Hakumei to Mikochi the most, and Scum’s Wish the least, but there are shows I didn’t mention (if you’re a fan of silly action harem shows I guess Undefeated Bahamut Chronicle might be worth a watch, but otherwise the only thing the show has to offer is great reaction faces.).
Oonuma Shin: Watamote, ef – A Tale of Memories, A Sister’s All You Need, and many, many others. Very much an otaku director, and very fond of fanservice, he gets emotional content right when it comes up, but above all, his shows always look great. He’s very much a visual director and I adore his style, even in shows I don’t actually like (e.g. No-Rin). The one exception is Deathmarch, an isekai that looked somewhat interesting in the real world (which is about 5 minutes?) and then looked utterly dull for as long as watched it (which was too long). You won’t believe how often I watched a mildly entertaining show only to find out he did this one. Crow’s reviewed two of his shows: Chivalry of a Failed Knight and C3 (the cube show; as strange as it may sound, there’s a second anime called C3, so you need to pay attention to the taglines). I own two of his shows: Invaders of the Rokujoma and Dusk Maiden of Amnesia. I only found out that Rokujoma is by him after I bought it (it’s one of those averagely entertaining shows).
Deai Kotomi: The director of Rolling Girls, a show many people dropped and some are beginning to re-discover. Underrated show. Also, notably the director who took over Natsume at season 5 and did a really good job with it. I only recently found out that she directed episodes of Kimi ni Todoke, Tonair no Kaibutsu kun and 91 Days (look at Hiro Kaburagi above). It’s always fun to see that directors you discover independentently have worked together quite a bit. I wish she’d direct a show again soon. She seems to work on openings and endings a lot.
Matsumoto Rie: The director and original creator of the awesome Kyousougiga, and the director of Blood Blockade Battlefront. And some Precure, none of which I’ve seen. Last I’ve heard of her she directed a commercial for something (chocolate? I don’t remember, though I’ve seen it). I heard she wanted to do live action, but I don’t know if that’s true, or if anything came from this. I really hope she gives us another anime some time. She has such an energetic visual style!
I’m going to have to refer back to this list
I have kind of a love-hate relationship with Shin Oonuma. When he hits for me, he really hits, like with Chivalry (which I own), but at the same time I’ve probably dropped more of his anime than any other director, and he’s responsible for two of my least-favorite shows ever (Baka & Test and Watamote). I agree with you that his shows normally look really good, even the ones I haven’t liked. I think my biggest problem with him is that his typical brand of comedy (call it “stupid people doing stupid things”) just doesn’t appeal to me at all.
I’ve seen very little of the other directors you listed, regrettably, though I recognize most of the names.
I love Watamote; it’s uncomfortable becasue it hits so close to home. Baka to Test? I must have tried three times over the years, thinking “Maybe I wasn’t in the mood?” and never got very far into it before I had enough. On the other hand, I did really like Anne Happy.
Also, once I again, I only found out today that he was responsible for Genome – The Ones Within, a show I really ended up liking after it snuck up on me with its silliness.
But yeah, he’s got shows I just don’t like, and many of those I do like are… very uneven, or seasoned with unpalatable elements.
For me Watamote is just uncomfortable, period. I don’t enjoy schadenfreude-as-comedy anyway (ask me about the movie “Honeymoon in Vegas” sometime if you want an earful about that, or better yet don’t), and I’d rather not watch something where I spend more time cringing than laughing. I’m not judging anyone who enjoys it or even relates to it (which I’ve heard many people say they do), I just can’t.
Anne-Happy was another one that I dropped, though I didn’t outright hate it the way I did the other two. It just wasn’t enticing me to keep going past the first handful of episodes.
had a though time finding pics – I haven’t seen Blood+
I checked. When I enter “Blood +” I get mostly Blood C images. When I enter “Blood plus”, I get mostly Blood + images (though of them are either posters, promo art, or fan art). It’s a pretty good show, definitely better than Blood C, which was… not my thing.
Let’s see. I really love Kazuki Akane despite not liking his latest offering Stars Align, Goro Taniguchi because his direction is really what made Code Geass good along with the Planetes anime existing, Satoshi Kon, Hideaki Anno for his own directional style despite his thousand controversies, and Masaki Yuasa. I’m sure there are more, but these names are what come to mind right now.
I’m getting such mixed messages abo stars align
I think I’m one of a few people that I know of that don’t like it. I’ve mostly read positive things on it myself.
Imaishi and Ikuhara forever!
Hmm, lots of Sailor Moon but no mention of Natsume director Takahiro Omori? He has a pretty accomplished resume himself, albeit mostly built on shows I haven’t watched.
My favorite directors (in some order, don’t ask me to rank them):
-Naoko Yamada: K-On!, A Silent Voice, Liz and the Blue Bird. Supposedly her first rejected proposal for the K-On movie was two hours of Yui trying to thread a needle, and somehow I’m convinced she would’ve turned even that into something brilliant.
-Yasuhiro Takemoto (RIP): Hyouka, The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, Amagi Brilliant Park, Lucky Star, Miss Kobayashi’s Dragon Maid. While I haven’t seen all his work yet, so far I’ve yet to watch anything he directed that I didn’t like, and that’s a rare thing.
-Tsutomu Mizushima: Girls und Panzer, xxxHolic, Shirobako, Another, Bludgeoning Angel Dokuro-chan, Magical Witch Punie-chan, etc. More of an entertainer than an auteur, but for my money he’s one of the best comedy directors in the business.
-Morio Asaka: Cardcaptor Sakura, Chobits, Gunslinger Girl, Chihayafuru, My Love Story. The longtime Madhouse stalwart excels at making emotionally resonant character-driven shows. See: all of the above.
-Hiroyasu Ishida: Penguin Highway is his biggest project so far, but I’ve been a fan for years going back to when he was posting independent shorts like Fumiko’s Confession and Rain Town on the web. His animation style is also pretty distinctive, tending to have a lot more “squash and stretch” than is typical for anime.
Those are probably my top five, though as soon as I send this comment I’m sure I’ll think of someone else.
I’ve come to realize I forgot half my favourite directors…
True enough. I smacked my head when I saw other people mention Satoshi Kon. He feels like he needs to be in my top five, but I just don’t know who I’d bump out to make room. The other one I thought of later that I really wish I could fit up there is Hiroyuki Okiura. He’s mostly an animator – his biggest claim to fame is probably creating Cowboy Bebop’s opening – but he’s had the chance to direct two feature films (Jin-Roh and A Letter to Momo) and they’re both terrific.
That was an interesting list even though I’ve only watched some of the anime mentioned from these directors. I certainly pay attention to creators and directors in several media, so I do kind of geek out about these things. Haha! You do know one of my favorite creators and anime artists is Yoshitoshi ABe, but I think some of my favorite anime directors would be (in no particular order)…
Isao Takahata (Mainly for Grave of the Fireflies and Princess Kaguya, but I haven’t seen his pre-Ghibli work)
Makoto Shinkai (mostly for his older works)
Mahiro Maeda (Gankutsuou and Last Exile)
Ryutaro Nakamura (Serial Experiments Lain and the original Kino’s Journey)
I adore Kon. He should have ben number 1….
Yes! Kon is phenomenal and deserved SO much better. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen of him and I wish he was still alive.
I need to start paying more attention to the people behind my favourite anime. I have a tendency to take a work as it’s own thing and only learn who made it later, which works for me but at the same time there’s people I want to follow (in a non-stalker way).
You’ve put together a great list, the only directors I’d add off the top of my head (and a quick bit of googling) would be Tatsuya Ishihara because of Sound Euphonium and Atsuko Ishizuka because of A Place Further Than The Universe.