Unless you’re Urobouchi Gen,* if your name headlines the trailer of a given series, odds are you’re its director. Director credits are the first non-voice actor bit of information given on staff pages of ann, anidb, and mal show pages. And that’s how it should be; as important as good writing can be, directors have the desk the buck stops at when it comes to power and responsibility to make decisions in show production, often holding full or partial authority to rewrite an episode script. Ano Hana was written as part slapstick/erotic comedy before director Tatsuyuki Nagai got his hands on the script. Beyond that, directors supervise the visual component of anime, making sure a series’ art says what it’s supposed to and flows from shot to shot.
A lot of complex factors go into an anime being either a success, hit, or failure, but it’s really hard for an untalented creator to accidentally produce a hit more than once. And while hit tv anime aren’t the only achievement that deserves recognition (JMAF grand prizes and Oscars would be two others), they are one of the bigger ones; excluding sequel seasons, less than 100 people have managed to notch this achievement in the 50+ years since Astro Boy first aired.
This is the very short list of directors who have headed at least 3 separate hit franchises, with some supplementary information. A similar post on those who have made 2 shows will be up sometime in the near future.
This list was compiled from something’s list of 10k+ shows, with supplementary resume data pulled from ann and anidb. While I am making heavy use of these databases, I don’t trust them to be 100% complete: Seiji Kishi’s pages show an 8-year gap between his first credits and his first series directed in which he does (supposedly) nothing. Not only that, but anidb and ann disagree on whether his first work was as an in-betweener on Ruin Explorers or on Eiga Nintama Rantarou (anidb lists the former, ann the latter). Tatsuyuki Nagai’s first credit is as an episode director, a position not typically awarded to newbies. More likely their full histories aren’t chronicled here, though that only applies to secondary roles played in production. It’s an important thing to be aware of.
An Important Note About The Classification: I only included non-sequel anime when looking for directors. This means nothing with some manifestation of a 2 in the title. Ditto for Gundam or Macross franchise entries after the original. My rationale is that it’s a lot harder to make a prime-time anime from scratch, even with popular source material, than it is to continue living in a house you or someone else built. I count A Certain Scientific Railgun and Mononoke as spinoffs rather than sequels, as the series they spun off of are considerably less well-established franchises.
Directors With 5 10k+ Anime:
First Credited On: Shiawase Te Nani (1991)
10k+ Series: Air (2005), The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006), Kanon (2006), Clannad (2007), chuu2koi (2012)
Less Notable Work: Shiawase Te Nani
Recent Work: chuu2koi s2 (2014)
Directors With 3 10k+ Anime:
First Credited On: Ruin Explorers (1995)
10k+ Series: Angel Beats (2010), Persona 4 (2011), Arpeggio of Blue Steel (2013)
Less Notable Work: Kappamaki, Magikano
Recent Work: Hamatora
First Credited On: Mahoromatic (2002)
10k+ Series: Toradora (2008), A Certain Scientific Railgun (2009), Ano Hana (2011)
Less Notable Work: Ano Natsu de Matteru, Idolm@ster Xenoglossia
Recent Work: A Certain Scientific Railgun s2
First Credited On: Astro Boy (1963)
10k+ Series: Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), Aura Battler Dunbine (1983), Brain Powered (1998)
Less Notable Work: Garzey’s Wing, Xabungle Graffiti
Recent Work: Overman King Gainer, Wings of Rean
Already there’s at least one notable difference with writers who had similar power resumes. In the latter case, everyone but Ichiro Okouchi had some less illustrious shows under their belt. Here, though, we see Tatsuya Ishihara put up a fantastic five show stretch (the best ever under this particular criterion) without any real non-notable baggage. This is likely a combination of at least two factors – one, more of a director’s resume buildup can occur before they actually get to sit in the captain’s chair, via in-betweening/key animation/episode direction work. Two, directors tied to one studio may have more long-term job security and thus freedom to pick and choose flagship jobs with a more advantageous source material, budget, and supporting cast. Three of the four directors above made each of their hits with one studio (Ishihara with Kyoto Animation, Nagai with JC Staff, Tomino with Sunrise). Kishi was the sole exception; while he’s done much of his work at AIC ASTA, each of his 10k+ hits were produced at separate studios (P4 with AIC ASTA, Angel Beats with PA Works, and Arpeggio at Sanzigen).** Whether or not the 2-timers made both of their big hits at the same studio is something I’ll be watching out for.
**This furthers my evaluation of him as the Nic Cage of anime; a dude who enjoys the actual act of making anime but isn’t really concerned with legacy and thus takes on weak-infrastructure projects (read: chronically overcompressed video game adaptations) with lower odds of becoming big hits.