Right now, the NBA is divided up into two 15-team conferences. One of them, the Eastern Conference, is a garbage fire which contains a total of 4 teams without a win-loss rate under .500. The other, the Western Conference, is a den of monsters run by hypercompetent GMs that contains 9 teams with a win-loss rate over .500, and, by NBA’s own power rankings, 6 of the best 8 teams in the sport. You take one look at those statistics, and it’s painfully obvious that, since winning a playoff spot requires a team to be one of the best 8 in its conference, the situations of teams that want to earn a playoff spot in those two conferences are as different as night and day. The current number 8 team in the East, Brooklyn, has a record of 14-21, or .400. There are a grand total of 3 teams in the West that can’t beat that record. But of the season ended today, Brooklyn would be a playoff team while the above-.500 Denver Nuggets would be on the outside looking in. It’s not a particularly fair system, but it is the system.
If my straw example worked the way it was supposed to, it should seem pretty obvious that simple playoff seeding shouldn’t be the only measure of success or failure for a team. Because it’s so dependent on the team’s surroundings and circumstances that if it is the sole measure of success or failure, some teams without any legitimate talent are going to be labelled successes due to everyone else around them making their task easier, and some teams with plenty of legitimate talent are going to be labelled failures merely because they got stuck in the basketball version of the Ultimate Showdown of Ultimate Destiny at the exact wrong time.
The principle of judging something by circumstances, rather than simply by results, is a general one that extends well beyond playoff seeding. It’s even a problem that the advanced stats crowd in the NBA still struggles with to some degree. Just read Kirk Goldsberry’s take on how Monta Ellis went from being the league’s single worst shooter to an above-average shooter; the only real change that happened was Ellis switching teams to one where his teammates could actually play professional basketball and all of a sudden not being double-teamed on every play. When we judge people, their starting situation is always as important, if not more so, than the results.
But results are exactly how we judge the directors of anime. Part of this article is an uncomfortable level of #hottake that’s either going to look really stupid or really gutsy in about 3 hours. But the general sentiment is one I’d like to argue regardless, so here goes.
Anime bloggers who write preseason expectation posts are, by the nature of their craft, ludicrously vulnerable to overfitting; confusing a few datapoints for a consistent trend. In general, we tend to overvalue the information we do have regarding creators with short resumes. Writers’ reputations are less vulnerable to this sort of misinterpretation because there are fewer prominent ones in anime and those that do have resumes long enough that some deviation from a general mean is fairly obvious. Many directors, however, have only helmed 2 or 3 shows. And with a resume that short, there’s decent odds that the skill level of the rest of the staff behind those shows, or a even simple hot streak or cold streak, are the dominant factor determining the quality on that resume, rather than the director’s fundamental talent level. Too, there’s some evidence to suggest that how hard a director works leading up to a big break is much more important than the material they’re actually working hard on.
What I’m trying to say is that we still know way less about directors than we think we do. Especially when we’ve seen a little of them, but really even when we’ve seen a lot of them. Heck, plenty of directors who have made 10+ shows have shown a tremendous range of quality in their productions. Osamu Dezaki, the director of Ashita no Joe and Rose of Versailles, has his stamp on the putrid Hakugei Densetsu. Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of either the first or second most important mecha anime in history depending on how you keep score,* can’t take his name off the legendary-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Garzey’s Wing. Kishi Seiji, the only director to make two of the best-selling 60 TV anime of all time with two totally different supporting casts, gets untold amounts of crap for the game adaptations he’s done when there are a single-digit number of good non-VN game-anime adaptations in existence.** Akiyuki Shinbo makes shows at such a ridiculous clip that we’ve come to expect the occaisional failure from Shaft; everybody’s fine with it because the peaks (Monogatari, Madoka Magica) are far more important and memorable than the valleys (Maria Holic, Vampire Bund).
Yamamoto Yutaka, despite being one of those earlier-mentioned short resume directors, has done some pretty significant things. He’s one of a very few modern-era directors (a shortlist list that includes Tsutomu Mizushima and Kishi Seiji) to direct shows that sold more than 10,000 copies per volume on average with multiple teams (Haruhi Suzumiya with Kyoto Animation and Kannagi with A-1 Pictures). He’s also one of the head executives of Ultra Super Pictures, which very recently made out like a bandit, producing 2 of the 5 best-selling shows (Kill La Kill and Arpeggio of Blue Steel) of this Fall season. But the above is not why people talk about him. In between the former and the latter, he managed to cement a different kind of reputation.
For those who don’t know, Yamamoto Yutaka was prominently involved in one of the greatest flops in modern history. The 2011 noitminA anime Fractale was an unmitigated disaster, and much of it was Yutaka’s fault. Yutaka hyped himself in the preseason by trashing Akiyuki Shinbo just before Madoka came out and declaring that he would “save anime”. He produced what had been, up to that point, the lowest ratings in the history of the noitaminA timeslot built to draw in larger audiences. He started an open twitter war with the author of the manga created to promote his show. Someone who may or may not been him suspended Funimation’s simulcast rights after discovering piracy was a thing. This may have been the worst PR any anime has had in the modern era; the only two things in the league with it are Endless Eight and the Kokoro Connect hazing scandal.
But that’s bad PR, not bad direction. Animation-wise, Fractale is actually fairly respectable. It’s got the visual sense to be both understated and fantastic. As someone who plowed through that show back as it was airing, I can personally attest that the visuals were not the show’s biggest problem. The plot, involving borderline plagiarism of Studio Ghibli and a jaw-droppingly dumb cloning twist, was a much bigger minus than the visuals were.
Shinichiro Watanabe and Kunihiko Ikuhara don’t have failures like Fractale on their resume. But do you know why that is? Because they’ve only directed in the neighborhood of 5 shows each. You hand them jobs on 10 more productions on either one team or with a bunch of random studios, and I guarantee you at least one of those will fail in every possible sense of the word. These two are properly valued as two of the greatest directors in anime history. But they’ve also amassed those reputations in the captain’s chairs of elite, ambitious productions that most directors don’t have a hope of sniffing. Hand them the job of making an original anime based off a script from an overworked, loose cannon writer, and it’s nothing close to a guarantee that they come out on the other side of production with something worth watching. Emphasis on overworked writer point. Mari Okada was head writer for three projects at once that winter, the other two being a Gosick adaptation that was painstakingly syncing its story with the release of the last 4 volumes of the LN and a Wandering Son adaptation that needed to edit the manga significantly to fit a story spanning 10 years of time in day-by-day detail into 11 episodes of airtime. That’s a decent-sized asterisk on the actual show’s failure if there ever was one.
Upon examination, it’s pretty obvious that Yutaka’s punchline status comes primarily from the Fractale fallout. But Yamamoto Yutaka the director isn’t just that one show. Personal dislike of Haruhi Suzumiya aside aside, it is one of the most notable anime of the pre-BluRay era, and you can’t fully take that away from him just because he was with Kyoto Animation at the time. Kannagi was also a pretty spectacular success, selling on par with better-remembered contemporaries Toradora and A Certain Magical Index. The man has a very respectable peak. I’ve personally been less than enchanted with many aspects of his career, and I can’t confidently say whether his upcoming Wake Up Girls will be any good with Touko Machida handling another totally original script at the same time. But I don’t think we can say enough about the true talent level of the man helming the project to really count anything, including the possibility of triumphant success, out.
*Gundam is a 30-year franchise, but Evangelion is indirectly responsible for two-thirds of the TV anime made in the past ten years.
**If you thought I was going to talk about people not understanding directors that well without bringing up the Kish Kabob, you clearly haven’t been reading this blog for very long.