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Andrew Osmond on an anime with a distinctive look

The series Nisekoi (literally “False Love”) is a specimen of what we might call anime du look – anime with an unconventional look-at-me flash and a clear signature, in the manner of live-action directors like Wes Anderson or Jean-Pierre Jeunet. There are plenty of ‘mainstream’ anime which look gorgeous and have a signature style; for example, Blood-C: The Last Vampire by Production I.G, which we’ve analysed in depth. But we’re thinking more of individual, graphics-led mavericks like Takeshi Koike, responsible for the looks of Redline and Lupin the Third: The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. Or the animator-director Hiroyuki Imaishi, who’s frazzled our brains for a decade with Dead Leaves, Gurren Lagann, Panty and Stocking and Kill la Kill.

Nisekoi is a Shaft series. Shaft is a studio that’s been around for donkey’s years, but which really developed a popular identity in the last decade. It was founded back in 1975, offering support to such vintage titles as the first Gundam, Night on the Galactic Railroad and Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. However, Shaft has been popularised in fandom by its 21st century serials. The most familiar ones to Brits are the needling, disturbing “Monogatari” anime starting with Bakemonogatari, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica, aka Magic Girls Armageddon. Other Shaft works include Paniponi Dash and the second anime of Negima (Shaft’s version is properly called Negima!?); the latter is sometimes cited as an exemplar of how Shaft makes over a property as its own. This trailer gives some idea of Negima!?’s aggressively manic stylisation. (In contrast, the non-Shaft Negima anime looked like this.)

To get an idea of Shaft’s full-on style, take a look at the opening scene of Madoka’s first episode, which brilliantly collides Sailor Moon, Lewis Carroll, M.C. Escher and Akira. (Hey, we recognise that flying skyscraper!)

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Magi Madoka and the ‘Monogatari’ franchise are dark and sinister. Bakemonogatari is the only romcom to open with a girl threatening to skewer a boy with her school stationary! But Nisekoi demonstrates that Shaft doesn’t think style dictates subject; this is a far more normal, lighthearted comedy. Based on an epic manga strip by Naoshi Komi (17 books and counting in Japan), Nisekoi is your crazy school set-up. Boy meets girl; boy and girl hate each other; boy and girl learn they’re both children of gangster families and must pretend to be lovers to prevent gang war. Naturally there are rival suitors on both sides of the fractious pair, ranging from a sweet girl-next-door type to a pistol-packing assassin. There are also half-remembered promises and keepsakes from childhood, and a trip to a hot spring by episode 9. Yes, one of those trips to a hot spring…

Nisekoi, though, saturates all the hijinks in style: elaborately patterned backgrounds with hatchings of parallel lines and curlicued trellises, plus freakily unreal décor in the Expressionist tradition of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The schools in Nisekoi and Puella Magi Madoka Magica have plainly been designed by the same nutter architect! There are spotlight stars and shapes which pulse under the action. Fast edits change the grade of abstraction or cartooniness in a single scene, so that the viewing experience feels dense, compacted. As reviewers have noted, these traits are most exaggerated in Nisekoi’s opening episode. Perhaps the artists were seeing how far they should go, or perhaps it’s a funny-peculiar joke on what we expect from a Shaft show, a style pressing down hard.

An ambiguity with ‘anime du look’ shows is how far they can be identified with individuals, rather than companies. Of course, fans prefer to link them with individuals. It’s an easy shorthand when we’re thinking and writing about anime; besides, we like to think of images like the Madoka scene above as created by gifted visionaries, not by teams following management instructions to ‘draw like this.’ In the first paragraph, we highlighted Koike and Imaishi as driving forces in anime. Of course, by doing so, we played down other talents, people like Sayo Yamamoto, the director of Fujiko Mine, or “Sushio” (aka Toshio Ishizaki), who has animation director credits on Imaishi’s most celebrated works.

While Shaft is a brand in itself, many fans highlight one of its artists in particular; Akiyuki Simbo, who’s credited with chief direction and series composition on Nisekoi. Simbo’s long list of director credits at Shaft include Madoka Magica, Bakamonogatari, Negima!?, Pani Poni Dash (co-director) and Dance in the Vampire Bund (co-director again). Notably, Simbo also made Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, a non-Shaft anime back in 2004. A Gothic SM fantasy about a boy obsessed with a ghost, Cossette was presented in an extremely comparable style to Simbo’s Shaft work: it was Daliesque, dense, sinister and fastidiously detailed down to the last frill and thorn (see the trailer). The same visual boldness looks apparent in Simbo’s other pre-Shaft works, like the 2001 actioner The Soul Taker (German trailer).

But to see Nisekoi as a one-man show, or even a one-man interpretation of someone else’s manga, may be dubious. So let’s give shout-outs to Nobuhiro Sugiyama, who’s Nisekoi’s character designer and chief animation director; and to Ken Naito, Nisekoi’s art director whose backgrounds furnish Madoka, ef: a tale of melodies and (beyond Shaft) Vampire Knight and Baka and Test. And let’s also shout out to Nisekoi’s Chief Animation Directors Kazuya Shiotsuki and Nobuhiro Sugiyama, who have extensive credits on many of the same Shaft titles as Simbo has.

Maybe in the end, it’s better to think of Nisekoi as just a Shaft show, an anime that’s arrived at its look via many hands, rather than one mad genius. After all, the result’s still the same at our end; an anime which screams “Look at Me!”

Nisekoi is released in the UK by Manga Entertainment.

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