Quite a lot has changed for animator and director Keiichiro Saito since the last time I covered their work.  The biggest development that occurred during this time was the recent announcement that they were heading the upcoming TV anime series Bocchi The Rock at animation studio CloverWorks.  However, I wish to concentrate on continuities rather than changes.  Due to Saito’s connection to director Yoshiki Kawasaki and animation director Keiko Tamaki, which was formed during the production of Monster Hunter Stories: Ride On, the artist found himself contributing to The Executioner and Her Way of Life.  That brings us to ‘Tomoshibi Serenade‘, a magnificent ending sequence put together primarily by the young artist with the assistance of the anime’s director of photography, Shingo Fukuyo.

It is probably to nobody’s surprise that I found Saito’s ending sequence nothing short of masterful – after all, that is why I have dedicated so much time to covering his work.  Almost everything I love about their art is on display for just under two minutes and proves yet again that they can utilise their visual tools for much shorter pieces as well as longer ones.

The hollowness and earthy aesthetic of ‘Tomoshibi Serenade’.

‘Tomoshibi Serenade’ bears a strong resemblance to ‘Laughing Dog’, the eighth episode of Sonny Boy (led by Shingo Natsume),  which Saito helmed as a storyboard artist, episode director and animation director.  The director utilises the same earthy mixture of browns, greys and off-whites to transport us to another lonely plain that defies the rules of space and time.  Furthermore, the overwhelming amounts of negative space in many of the shots amplify the same fusion of feelings that were present in ‘Laughing Dog’; the two subjects in the sequence are never viewed together in the same hollow space, evoking a sense of isolation.  At the same time, by being left alone with the characters on-screen, Saito constructs an intimate, dream-like experience for us, the viewers.  Even though the artist is forging their own path as a director, Natsume’s visual minimalism remains an embedded part of their style.

The ending sequence bounces off the anime’s central questions of identity.  The Executioner and Her Way of Life’s opening episodes spend more time generating questions than they do answering them – this gives ‘Tomoshibi Serenade’ a window to explore the series’ mysteries in greater depth.  The ED’s nebulousness, due to the absence of any distinct outlines, places us into the hazy memories of the main characters, whom we still know very little about.  Despite being a predominantly digital artist, Saito chooses to emulate the imperfections of traditional tools and media, establishing a deep feeling of nostalgia for events we have never experienced before or the touch of people we have never come across.  The director’s capacity to tease out the wistfulness that is buried inside all of us is what makes this ED, as well as even Sonny Boy’s eighth episode, an immersive and rather sombre experience.  When this idea is paired with the artist’s appreciation for dolls, it becomes clear why they were the perfect fit to direct ‘Tomoshibi Serenade’; the influence of traditional crafts in tandem with their other techniques puts them in a position to tackle notions of identity and nostalgia with ease.

‘Facelessness’ in Keiichiro Saito’s directorial work – Boogiepop and Others ED (Left), Sonny Boy #08 (Middle), The Executioner and Her Way of Life ED (Right).

The facelessness of the director’s work is what allows it to engage with notions of identity.  In the case of this ED, the shots that capture characters either as a blur, from a distance or from behind only add to the mystery that they are already shrouded in.  By focusing on facial features that reside in the upper region of his subject’s faces (namely their eyes and hair), Saito portrays them as voiceless mental images that are yearning to be remembered.  Although the anime is still warming up (as of when this piece was put together), this ending sequence makes it clear that there are some unsettling ideas brimming below its surface.  These faceless portrayals are not new to anime by any means; the EDs put together by Saito’s contemporaries such as Shingo Yamashita or Masashi Ishihama speak for themselves.  However, while I like how many make use of faceless figures and silhouettes to cultivate a sense of individuality for the subjects they are dealing with, I admire Saito’s decision to do the opposite.  Instead, the director uses them as a vehicle for discussing the perplexities of identity or the lack thereof.  Like ‘Tomoshibi Serenade’, ‘Whiteout’ (Saito’s ending sequence for Boogiepop and Others) also grapples with the subject of identity, specifically that of Touka Miyashita and her alter ego, Boogiepop.  A faceless edition of Miyashita complicates her identity even further as she, as an individual, is presented as no different to the alternate personality that dwells inside her.  In a similar spirit, the facelessness of ‘Laughing Dog’ reminds us that the characters, that dwell in the epidemic-stricken world it depicts, have little to no agency.  Yamabiko, Kodama and almost everybody else in the episode are or were just like us at some point – normal people living normal lives.  The Executioner and Her Way of Life’s ending sequence follows suit with its use of facelessness, making the artist’s ongoing commentary on identity even more rich.

‘Tomoshibi Serenade’ is not an isolated piece but one that is part of a grand set of works directed by Keiichiro Saito that confront the subjects of identity and nostalgia.  The ideas that glues his pieces together and the intersecting influences that inform the way this ending looks should be a reminder that no art exists in a vacuum.  Old ideas make their way into new pieces and traditional art inspires its modern counterparts – great works of art are made by learning from the so-called ‘great’ art that came before them.  The Executioner and Her Way of Life’s ED embraces this very notion and comes out on top because of it.

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