SHAFT as a studio has garnered a reputation for cutting corners. Go to practically any anime forum and you’ll find a dissenter calling all of their productions low-effort slideshows, a comment all too easy to refute these days with sakuga-heavy productions like Madoka or Kizumonogatari. But it is hard to deny that part of their signature style was born out of necessity when looking back to their early days as a studio.
When Akiyuki Shinbo and his acolytes joined in 2004 they experimented with digital techniques that were cutting edge at the time, forging a method of visual direction that was both simplistic to produce and eyecatching in order to make ends meet. Before joining the studio, Shinbo’s direction was often supplemented by impressive animators in series like Yu Yu Hakusho or Tenamonya Voyagers, but SHAFT didn’t have nearly enough in-house talent to accommodate at the time (although some outside connections allowed for above-average production on specific episodes, see Yoh Yoshinari’s work on Oishi’s early-SHAFT episodes). That said, these restrictions did force the staff to be clever, planning creative methods to differentiate their products from the surrounding low-quality digital animation at the time. One of these breakthroughs came in the form of Hidamari Sketch, the studio’s second 4-koma adaptation since restructuring and the first to bring the focus away from the genre’s rigid gag-comedy structure.
The first season of Hidamari Sketch is perhaps the most abstract and simplistic animation ever produced at SHAFT. Character movement is kept to a minimum, backgrounds are often replaced with flat colors or designs, and shots are recycled frequently. On paper this would appear a throwaway series compared even to its predecessor, the experimental Pani Poni Dash, but Hidamari has a different aim. It fits squarely into the iyashikei subgenre of slice-of-life comedy which focus on building a relaxed tone and atmosphere, and in this sense it succeeds. Director Akiyuki Shinbo (and Ryouki Kamitsubo) decided to adapt Ume Aoki’s manga in achronological order, beginning in the middle of winter far ahead of the manga’s introduction and skipping around seemingly at random throughout its airing. This, combined with the deliberate choice to reuse certain shots in regularly visited places, draw attention away from the minor ‘plot’ of the material and focused on the feeling. Each episode, which traditionally takes place over the course of a single day at the Hidamari Apartments, offers both familiarity and uniqueness. Different subtle textures are introduced to breathe life into the regular hangouts, capturing the more nuanced details of daily life to make the locales feel as real as any friendly home.
This atmosphere is held together by a small but tight-knit cast. Each character remains rather archetypal and rarely receives any major development, but together they have such great chemistry that their interactions are a joy to watch anyways. Furthermore, their presence makes the apartments feel lived in. Every day they wake up to attend classes and return in the evening to chat about their day over food and eventually prepare for bed. Occasionally they get out of the house and go to a karaoke bar or go see fireworks (depending on the time of year), but it’s all relatively normal and mundane. Even the gags, reliably the most scripted aspect of the series, are delivered in such a way that they feel more relatable than the highly structured acts of series like Azumanga Daioh or Lucky Star.
The simplistic visuals are used to the show’s advantage. Abstractions are used constantly to create familiarity and link certain areas and events to specific characters. For example, each door of the Hidamari Apartment complex is differently colored and has a number printed in clean font at eye level. Nearly every time a room is entered or the scene shifts somewhere else, a flat colored card of that door can be presented to immediately give the viewer an understanding of where they’re being led. Other times atmosphere is carried in an expressionist sense, such as how Yuno’s trademark ‘X’ can be used against different backgrounds to give an immediate representation of her feelings. The simplistic visuals are also often juxtaposed with real photographs (a technique pioneered by Oishi), lending a stronger impression of realism to various foods and art pieces.
If you’re unconvinced that these choices were creatively significant, consider how the series transitioned into its second season, Hidamari Sketch x365 (Tetsuya Oishi’s debut as series director). First and foremost there is a huge jump in quality between these productions, and x365 remains a high water mark for SHAFT as a studio in this regard. There are obvious immediate benefits to this change as characters move more naturally and environments are generally more detailed, but it retains much of the core philosophy of the first season. For example, there’s still a significant amount of abstraction used from scene to scene, although relying on the technique less so. It continues the first season’s tradition of presenting episodes out of order and continues to fill in holes that were left in the year that the first season adapts (in fact, it’s only in x365 that you see the introductory chapter, which was entirely skipped in Hidamari Sketch). Though episodes are occasionally broken up into two parts, each part is framed by itself with its own opening sequence, ending, and title card. Even the same shots are recycled and redrawn. If anything, x365 feels more like an expansion of the first season, fleshing out its environments in ways that weren’t possible before, and it similarly improves upon the sense of routine that Hidamari Sketch so effectively captured.
Unfortunately the following seasons, Hoshimittsu and Honeycomb, which were both supervised by new staff, worked to undo most of the more unique aspects of the franchise while keeping a similar style of visual direction. While they’re still enjoyable in their own right as a more straight adaptation of Ume-sensei’s manga, they also lose a lot of the magic that make the first two seasons so immersive. Yet the fact still remains that SHAFT, because of their corner cutting ways, managed to produce a widely successful franchise that still remains one of the most effective slice of life series to date.