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?