Aside from perhaps the hair episode of Yami Shibai, the 5-minute preview for Go Nagai’s Robot Girls Z was the most impressive, repeatable five minutes of animation I watched last month. If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s over here. Short version: it’s a 5-minute comedy which, but for the more modern cutesy character designs, could totally have been written by Go Nagai. Its style of humor, featuring excessive violence and heroes doing more damage than the monsters they fight, is what he’s always been all about.
Being that I was excited about the project (this was only the 0th episode), I flew over to ann to check the profiles of the freaks involved. As it turns out, the director, Hiroshi Ikehata, has only ever handled one TV series before (Ring ni Kakero), which isn’t a very good sample size to judge a director on. But he has held the position of episode director numerous times, on all manner of series (from A-Channel to Yuyushiki).
There are no less than 8 new directors making their debut in this Summer 2013 season with similar information about their early careers available.* One of them is Hiroko Utsumi, the director of Free! Others run the quality gamut, from C3-Bu’s Masayoshi Kawajiri to Neptunia’s Masahiro Mukai. And, lest I forget, Shishiou Igarashi made a smashing debut with The Unlimited this winter. It’s definitely possible for first-timers to post veteran-esque performances, but far from guaranteed.
This observation led me to a question; what, if anything, can we glean from a first-time director’s experience in the bullpen? If it that experience is important, what part of it is? Is it better to have worked as an understudy to a great creator on a memorable show, or to build up tons of experience grinding out lots of support roles? To attempt to answer these questions, I pulled up resumes for the 11 directors who first got their hands on a serial anime project in 2012 and combed them over to see if anything in particular was a good indicator of their respective performances. This article outlines a number of the potential performance I examined, some better than others.
Before we get started for real, let’s take a look at which directors (and shows) we’ll be examining in detail. These are the directors who made their debut in 2012 (debut shows in parentheses). You’ll notice it’s a list of shows that varies considerably in quality, which should be helpful for analysis; we want an indicator that catches bad and mediocre directors as well as picks out good ones.
Hideyo Yamamoto (New Prince of Tennis)
Hiroshi Kimura (Recorder to Randsell)
Shinobu Yoshioka (Black Rock Shooter)
Naokatsu Tsuda (Inu x Boku SS)
Shinichi Omata (Sankarea)
Tooru Kitahata (Koi to Senkyou to Chocolate)
Yuuji Kumazawa (Oda Nobunaga no Yabou)
Masashi Ishihama (Shinsekai Yori)
Kotono Watanabe (Btooom)
Shingo Suzuki (K)
Atsuko Ishizuka (Sakurasou no Pet na Kanojo)
So what sort of indicators would likely spell success for a new director? Well, for active directors, the really successful ones tend to fall into two categories; those who produce a high volume of work (Akiyuki Shinbo, Takahiro Omori) and those who produce less often, but at a very exceptional level (Shinichiro Watanabe, Hideki Anno). Going by that rule of thumb, we might expect new director performance to be predicted either by a large quantity of work, or work on multiple exceptionally high-quality series. Let’s try sorting them that way.
Method A (Peak of Experience/Average myanimelist ranking of top-2 pre-debut shows):
Since it’s tough to be fully objective when talking about which shows were really important, I’m taking the cheap way out and averaging the highest two myanimelist scores from the shows each worked on. (Scores in parentheses) [Shows counted towards ranking in brackets]
1. Kotono Watanabe (8.725) [Hajime no Ippo: New Challenger, Madoka Magica]
2. Shinobu Yoshioka (8.680) [Mushishi, Toradora]
3. Shingo Suzuki (8.675) [Baccano, Madoka Magica]
4. Masashi Ishihama (8.58) [Tatami Galaxy, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time]
5. Atsuko Ishizuka (8.575) [Monster, Chihayafuru]
6. Hideyo Yamamoto (8.555) [Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni Kai, Toradora]
7. Shinichi Omata (8.400) [Hidamari Sketch x ***, Madoka Magica]
8. Hiroshi Kimura (8.365) [Fairy Tail, Haibane Renmei]
9. Yuuji Kumazawa (8.185) [Welcome to the NHK, Accel World]
10. Naokatsu Tsuda (8.14) [Special A, Black Butler]
11. Tooru Kitahata (7.790) [Ha Ga Nai, OreImo]
This ranking has very questionable value. Not only does it rank Tsuda Naokatsu, the director of well-resepected megahit Inu x Boku SS (and thus the mastermind behind this brilliance) one slot from the bottom, the top two are Kotono Watanabe (questionable performance on Btooom) and Shinobu Yoshioka (unquestionably bad performance on BRS). The unreliability of this list brings me to a point I’d like to make; there are many, many people working in the anime industry at any given time. A large percentage of those people will get a chance to work on one or two momentous projects if they stay active in the industry for a while. A history-making undertaking does not guarantee future success to every single grunt involved. Let’s see if the other metric, sheer amount of experience, can do better than this.
Method B (Total Experience/Number of shows worked on pre-debut):
This one is fairly simple. I just went in and physically counted the number of total anime projects each director worked on in some form prior to their debut season. Number of shows worked on in parentheses.
1. Masashi Ishihama (52)
2. Hideyo Yamamoto (41)
3. Shingo Suzuki (30)
4. Naokatsu Tsuda (25)
5. Hiroshi Kimura (23)
6. Shinobu Yoshioka (23)
7. Shinichi Omata (23)
8. Tooru Kitahata (16)
9. Atsuko Ishizuka (10)
10. Kotono Watanabe (5)
11. Yuuji Kumazawa (4)
This indicator is ok. It picks out a decent top 4 (if you’re willing to give Hideyo Yamamoto’s New Prince of Tennis work a pass) and bottom 2, but I have some issues with it. Atsuko Ishizuka is way low, and Shinichi Omata deserves better than a tie with Shinobu Yoshioka’s putrid work on Black Rock Shooter. It’s a start, but it might be possible to improve on.
Method C (Age-Weighted Experience):
One of the most oft-panned aspects of Japanese business is the extent to which it’s based on seniority. But, as anyone who follows sports can tell you, building a successful team is about evaluating a player’s potential; not what he’s done, but what he’s going to do. And, generally speaking, a player who racks up 60 hits over 30 games is a more valuable player than one that racks up 60 hits in 90 games. So, for this category, I (theoretically) correct for how hardworking a director has been by dividing the total number of shows they’ve worked on (i.e. their total from B) by the number of years they were in the industry prior to their debut (measured by subtracting the release year of the first show they’re credited in from 2012). What matters here is how many shows a person has worked on per-year. (Shows per year in parentheses) [Years in industry in brackets]
1. Hideyo Yamamoto (3.73) 
2. Naokatsu Tsuda (3.57) 
3. Masashi Ishihama (3.25) 
4. Shinobu Yoshioka (2.09) 
5. Atsuko Ishizuka (2) 
6. Shinichi Omata (1.77) 
7. Shingo Suzuki (1.67) 
8. Kotono Watanabe (1.67) 
9. Hiroshi Kimura (1.64) 
10. Tooru Kitahata (1.23) 
11. Yuuji Kumazawa (0.67) 
While that list’s not 100% perfect, it’s pretty good. The top-3 directors are two who put up 6k+ sales numbers and Ishihama, and they’re separate from the rest by a fair margin. Shinobu Yoshioka’s still a little high, but grouped within a mid-tier that’s clustered fairly close together. So that’s the quick-and dirty answer: hardworking grinders tend to succeed as much in anime as they do elsewhere.
How does that apply to the new directors of this current season? Well, it’s a simple enough check to run:**
1. Hiroko Utsumi (2.29) 
2. Satoshi Osedo (1.86) 
3. Hikaru Sato (1.86) 
4. Masahiro Mukai (1.44) 
5. Masayuki Yoshihara (1.43) 
6. Motoki Tanaka (1.42) 
7. Yukio Takahashi (0.89) 
8. Masayoshi Kawajiri (0.50) 
Turns out, there’s not a whole lot of separation this season, though Hiroko Utusmi stands out a bit from the pack. That’s an encouraging sign for the metric, as she’s one of only two directors on this list that I’ve seen stay consistent up to the season’s halfway point. The fact that this measure is less effective at sorting out the mid-tier is a flaw worth noting. Still it’s a good rule of thumb to have on something that was previously more or less a crapshoot.
Oh, and Ikehata’s score? When Robot Girls airs in 2014, he’ll have been in the industry for 8 years, having worked on no less than 48 titles, for a score of 6 flat. Expect greatness from Robot Girls.
*For the purposes of this article, I’m treating experience helming one-episode and two-episode ovas and specials (but not movies) like an episode director credit. Also, Yami Shibai’s director has no resume to speak of and is thus excluded from this particular group.
**Free! – Hiroko Utsumi
Golden Mosaic – Motoki Tanaka
Go-Home Club – Hikaru Sato
Uchoten Kazoku – Masayuki Yoshihara
C3-Bu – Masayoshi Kawajiri
Hyperdimension Neptunia – Masahiro Mukai
The World God Only Knows s3 – Satoshi Osedo
Dog and Scissors – Yukio Takahashi