It is impossible to spend any amount of time blogging about or discussing anime on the internet without running into a mention of Hatsune Miku and the Vocaloid program. Miku’s visage is ubiquitous in many social media circles. This is thanks, in large part, to an aggressive marketing campaign from her Crypton Future Media creators, who developed her character using Yamaha’s Vocaloid 2 and Vocaloid 3 software. Armed with a cute character design from manga artist Kei Garou, Miku exploded onto the scene with professional and amateur producers alike. Her image is peppered frequently throughout various anime, which is how I came to know of her. In spite of learning who and what she was, it never inspired me to seek out music made with the Vocaloid software.
This all changed with the recent production Mekaku City Actors. Little did I know that this series would be the catalyst for my personal descent into the world of Vocaloid.
Mekaku City Actors caught my eye for the admittedly shallow reason of enjoying the promotional artwork. Additionally, I do try to keep up with what SHAFT is doing, even with speculation that the infamous Akiyuki Shinbo is simply sitting at home on a pile of Monogatari money, occasionally mailing in a production sketch or two to earn his title of Director with whomever is actually directing the series: Tomoyuki Itamura (Monogatari Second Season), Naoyuki Tatsuwa- (Nisekoi), and now Yuuki Yase (Mekaku City Actors). The series debuts a predictably stylized and inexpensive first episode, with the second episode following suit.
Visual trademarks that one can easily associate with Studio SHAFT bombard the viewer from the opening sequence and continue throughout the progression of the series. Sharp, swift cuts designed to cover up a lack of movement, use of icons and signs, odd-looking city-scapes, empty streets, and the signature head-tilt; this entire project oozes SHAFT from every pixel. It also oozes the music videos of Kagerou Project.
Upon watching Mekaku City Actors‘ second installment, I was struck by the transparency of marketing within the episode. Titled “Kisaragi Attention,” the series had seemingly created an entire episode to promote the Jin (Shizen no Teki-P) original, albeit with more quick cuts and only slightly less animation. The screentone and Ben-Day dots ascribed to SHAFT – specifically Hidamari Sketch, which Director Yuuki Yase has also directed a season of – were also present in Jin’s videos.
It is hardly outlandish to suggest that an anime series take visual cues from its source material – this happens with nearly every animated production that is an adaptation of something else be that manga, a visual novel, light novel, etc. – however, specific visual quirks that one would typically note as being “of SHAFT” in Mekaku City Actors were already present in their original Vocaloid music video counterparts. The pastel-colored, be-dotted background characters shown above, first in the original video and then in the second episode of Mekaku City Actors, are only one example of many. Replacing would-be classmates with objects, aforementioned vacant city streets, and focus on icons or street signs are all present in the Jin prototypes.
For a more general comparison, a common editing technique for an amateur music video is to quickly cut between still photographs or artwork, interspersed with frames of specific words and lines from the song. The videos of The Kagerou Project are no exception, and provide easy, highly-stylized cuts (as shown above with one shot from the first episode of Mekaku City Actors followed by a shot from Jin’s “Headphone Actor”). This is something SHAFT has used – and often been much-maligned for – in nearly every single one of their series to cut costs. It’s not a case of SHAFT specifically adapting the original material, but the circumstance of both the animation production studio and creator using similar techniques from the get-go. Even SHAFT’s tendency to focus on eyes with close-up shots naturally fits with The Kagerou Project, as it’s about a group of social misfits with secret eye powers.
Inspired by “Kisaragi Attention” the episode, I sought out “Kisaragi Attention” the source material: a music video by Jin (Shizen no Teki-P) featuring IA of Vocaloid 3. This quickly led to the downwards spiral of watching all 22 music videos in a row. The advertising of SHAFT’s Mekaku City Actors worked in a way that seeing the ubiquitous Miku’s likeness in countless anime had not. It propelled me to look up The Kagerou Project, introducing me to an entire world of enjoyable, addictive, and entertaining music. I know little of the manga or light novel that followed Jin’s music series; however, for better or for worse, SHAFT’s adaptation of the Kagerou Project videos themselves is a perfect fit. If Mekaku City Actors‘ goal is to be a 12-episode commercial for the Vocaloid music videos, then I would argue that the series is working exactly as designed.