My experience with 86 (Eighty-Six) was pretty varied.  After offering a strong eleven-episode package for the first cour, my expectations for the anime’s second half were quite high. Unfortunately, they were not met in their entirety but that does not dismiss the fact that there were some rather memorable moments during the second half.  The main one I look to is the aftermath of the battle between Shinei and the Morpho in Episode Twenty-Two titled, ‘Shin’.  This episode is not only the best in the series in my opinion but a point of growth for director Toshimasa Ishii’s visual grammar.  Although I do not believe what the director is doing in this episode is particularly ‘new’, I still believe that it is an escalation of their previous work that utilises letterboxing.

Episode Twenty-Two is predominantly shot in the 21:9 aspect ratio or what some may call a 21:9 ‘letterbox’ since there are two horizontal bars that clasp the animation from above and below.  86 has opened up the door to experimenting with aspect ratios before. Fido’s flashback in 4:3 within Hirotaka Mori and Satsuki Takahashi’s episode (Episode Ten), as well as Ken Yamamoto’s use of 21:9 in the second cour’s opening, are examples of how they can be mobilised to add to the anime’s ongoing discussion on the multiple perspectives that are present during times of conflict.  Shifting to a different aspect ratio represents a shift in worldview and provides viewers with an alternative lens to interpret what is going on in front of them.  So what exactly makes Ishii’s experiment in ‘Shin’ different from the ones that preceded it?  In my view, the use of 21:9 helps to express the pent-up emotions felt by the characters.  The director breathes life into the bars and makes them responsive to the feelings of the subjects.

Toshimasa Ishii’s transformation of the black bars in 86 (Eighty-Six) #22.

One of the bars’ primary functions is to imitate the confines of Shinei’s mind.  Shinei’s dark thoughts, which manifest as silhouettes of himself, morph outwards from the bars and superimpose themselves onto his flashback, showing how deep his self-hatred runs. Such thoughts are so pervasive that they are even able to tarnish his old, precious memories of fallen comrades.  This scene becomes even more dreamlike when the height of the letterbox is reduced by approximately a third, slicing off his reaching hand.  In this surreal sequence, Ishii reinterprets the 21:9 aspect ratio by making the peripheries of the frame do more work than usual.  The bars are no longer a barrier for the animation on the screen and are metamorphosed into the chaotic walls of the main character’s psyche.

I think the main reason why a conversation surrounding aspect ratios and their importance in anime is almost non-existent is because they are taken for granted.  Whether it is the pillars one finds when watching an anime originally made in 4:3 or the black strips that sometimes surround a film, viewers (including myself) assume them to be passive structures that are mostly incapable of participating with the animation itself.  Episode Twenty-Two turns this preconceived notion on its head, reimagining the boundaries of the frame as an active and even threatening participant in the events taking place on-screen.  Ishii forces the audience to acknowledge what is going on within and outside of the letterbox, forging an indivisible bond between both elements.

Lena defies the boundaries of the 21:9 aspect ratio

With that being said, the aspect ratio is also used to deliver positive messages.  The walls that lie in Shinei’s head gradually erode as Lena offers her words of encouragement to him, as shown by the increasingly transparent bars which eventually fade away, restoring the episode to 16:9.  To me, the most spectacular shots are those which go against the notion that an aspect ratio is a set of boundaries for a video.  Ishii grants Lena the ability to transcend the very barriers they constructed, pushing the idea that she has the potential to relieve Shinei of the pressure that has been weighing down on him for so long. Whether this feeds into the idea that Lena is a ‘saviour’ for the oppressed is up for debate, however the use of the 21:9 aspect ratio helps to put her growth into better perspective, which I can still appreciate.

86 focuses heavily on the different points of view that those directly involved or caught up in conflict hold; the erosion of the bars as well as Lena’s step outside of the boundaries of the letterbox tell one about how individual perspectives can be opened up too.  Lena’s journey to recognise her privilege and make more of an effort to expand her worldview beyond her bubble are not forgotten and are expressed visually instead.  Ishii’s control of the bars adds an extra layer of nuance to the anime’s central theme and does so in a way that is both beautiful and subtle.

Treating 21:9 as a roll of 35mm film in Erased #02 (SB/ED by Toshimasa Ishii)

Most techniques and styles in the world of anime can be contextualised and Ishii’s ability to exploit the limits of letterboxes is no exception.  Putting this approach into context is not an attempt to undermine the achievements of the artist; if anything, it helps to shine a light on how they took the pre-existing ‘meta’ to another level.  I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to talk about Episode Twenty-Two from a technical point of view without discussing Erased (directed by Ishii’s colleague, Tomohiko Ito) and its potential influence on the usage of the 21:9 aspect ratio. It is not best practice to make broad assumptions when discussing the influence of creatives on other works without a direct quote or the like but considering that Ishii worked as an Assistant Director on Ito’s Erased, I do not think that it would be unreasonable to draw some sort of connection between their approaches. 

The most recognisable things on-screen in an episode of Erased are the black bars that line most of the footage that is set in the past.  The 21:9 aspect ratio is often referred to as a tool for making scenes appear more ‘dramatic’ or ‘cinematic’; although I do not disagree with this interpretation, I think it is possible to develop it a bit more.  In the case of Erased, the horizontal bars work to make the viewer aware that they are looking into a section within a grand stream of history.  Ito & co. constantly remind viewers that the footage on display is part of an infinite roll of film, by running a series of perforations through the often barren edges of the frame.  This is exemplified in Episode Two (storyboarded and directed by Ishii), which shows how the events in the series so far are interwoven.  The use of letterboxing in both series is extremely intentional and massively affects how one views the story being told to them.

Transforming the black bars into 35mm film once again in Interviews With Monster Girls #04 (SB/ED by Toshimasa Ishii)

Ishii even paid homage to Erased for a very short moment in the fourth episode of Interviews With Monster Girls which aired almost a year after the former.  Even though the boundaries are converted into a reel of film for comedic purposes, the point still stands that the work of Tomohiko Ito and Erased‘s visual philosophy are key for putting the mind and techniques behind Episode Twenty-Two of 86 into context.

The point is that both Ito and Ishii transform the space that is typically not occupied when shooting in 21:9 into a malleable, negative one that can constantly be altered or even engaged with by the anime’s characters.  The same can be said for ‘Shin’, which regularly manipulates the black space to let the audience into Shinei’s state of mind as he ponders over his position as the ‘undertaker’ of the Spearhead squadron.  Just like Ito, Ishii treats the 21:9 aspect ratio as if it is a device capable of influencing the story they are telling, by allowing it to do things that it usually is not supposed to.  This is not to say that there are no other examples of this approach but it is always exciting to see artists test the waters like this inside the framework of a popular TV anime production.

Ishii’s divided compositions in 21:9 in 86 (Eighty-Six) #22 & Erased #02

Ishii’s cinematography in ‘Shin’ is such a treat to observe because of how it feels genuinely aware of the black bars that it is encased in.  Once again, this is not a new practice for the director, as proven by their phenomenal work on the second episode of Erased.  Ishii works with the horizontality of the letterbox and plants vertical elements into their compositions to juxtapose it.  The natural separations placed between the characters generate a sense of separation that speaks to the emotional disconnect between them.  Creating divisions like this is often done in other aspect ratios as well but I would argue that when it is executed well inside the confines of 21:9, these compartments feel much more distinct, due to their clash with the top and bottom bars.  Ishii gets as much as they can out of the letterbox they are shooting in and gets the most out of the subjects they are dealing with as a result of doing so.

86 Part Two’s penultimate episode is a masterclass in the clever use of an aspect ratio as well as a display of how the director’s proficiency in letterboxing has improved.  Episodes like ‘Shin’ are the reason why aspect ratios are worth analysing.  Toshimasa Ishii’s manipulation of the bars that line his shots provides even more depth to the anime’s exploration of the different perspectives on oppression and how no two points of view are the same.  Episode Twenty-Two demonstrates why animation is such a capable medium: almost every element on-screen can be controlled to a tee, at least in theory.  ‘Shin’ is also worth acknowledging since it showcases its director taking techniques they had already been exposed to and used to the next level.  Like Tomohiko Ito, Ishii deviates from the passive understanding of the 21:9 aspect ratio and goes the extra mile to tweak their visual ideas so that they harmonise with the themes that they are working with. As a result, ‘Shin’ ends up being a powerful story about grief, self-loathing and liberation. Episode Twenty-Two may not exactly reinvent the wheel but it certainly pushes it forward and into a fascinating direction that I am excited to witness in Ishii’s future projects.

2 thoughts on “Bringing Letterboxes To Life: Toshimasa Ishii, Tomohiko Ito & Eighty-Six Episode Twenty-Two’s Use Of The 21:9 Aspect Ratio

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