To mourn the end of Pop Team Epic, or maybe to celebrate the death of the #1 crappy anime, we...
To mourn the end of Pop Team Epic, or maybe to celebrate the death of the #1 crappy anime, we went over the many unique, often non-commercial artists at its core, figuring out how such a cheeky series became anime’s greatest hub of experimental animators.
What makes Pop Team Epic extraordinary? Is it original author Bkub’s quirky, irreverent sense of humor, coupled with design sensibilities that feel like they were formulated in a lab to maximize memetic power? Is it the process that led to its animated adaptation, with original producer Kotaro Sudo bruteforcing a bold pitch that was initially rejected, then proceeding to ignore every anime industry standard when it comes to voice acting, broadcasting format, internal hierarchies, and production pipelines? Or is it perhaps the creative team first built around series directors Jun Aoki and Aoi Umeki, where an impossibly wide array of artists have been granted complete freedom in the individual sketches of its anthology format. Actually, isn’t it simply that as its own author proudly proclaims, Pop Team Epic is the crappiest series ever excreted?
The answer is all of the above, and then some. There are as many angles with which to approach Pop Team Epic as there are uniquely crafted sketches, as many as there are unorthodox choices made by the likes of Sudo and Aoki, and even more than there are parodies packed into the series; ok, maybe not this many. One distinctive trait about Pop Team Epic that has always caught my attention over the rest, though, is its reliance on alternative, non-commercial animators. The type that is confusingly referred to in Japan as art animators, a deliberately vague term that not even people in that scene can concisely define, but whom you immediately recognize when you see them. They’re often independent and experimental in their methods, their view of what encompasses animation is as broad as animation reaches, and even if they happened to be commissioned for some work, what really drives them is their own creative satisfaction.
Although there are resourceful, bold anime directors who are willing to tap into such talent pools for their commercial works, there are levels to this practice, and the way Pop Team Epic has embraced these highly idiosyncratic, worldwide faces of alternative animation is unprecedented in modern anime. We’re not talking about stylish guests with highly specialized roles, or trendy indie darlings shining outside the realms of the show itself—something the Chainsaw Man anime is exploiting gorgeously with its ending sequences—but rather using these unique views of animation as the actual building blocks of this adaptation. To its team, only an absurd approach like this could capture the Pop Team Epic experience.
If you ask most viewers about which of those experimental creators caught their attention the most, chances are that they’ll first mention AC-bu—after all, we’re all still thinking about Hellshake Yano. Given their large role across the whole series, they do feel like a great place to start, and a timely one at that; did you know that their name is a reference to Armored Core, the iconic FromSoftware game series that recently got its new mainline title announced after a long decade? That is actually completely unrelated to their activities, as they chose it on a whim, but robots are good and worth your attention.
As the duo comprised of Toru Adachi and Shunsuke Itakura explained in their toco toco feature, AC-bu developed their unorthodox style in an attempt to stand out from their peers, as the standardized art education process was instilling the same technical knowledge in everyone—so how is an individual supposed to outshine others? What began as purposely janky drawings for their own entertainment ended up becoming their answer, after seeing that their friends were drawn to that weirdness. It’s important to note that, while they do have those technical fundamentals, AC-bu have made a point to focus their careers on animation: a field they never formally learned, which is key to them as it means that they’re not tainted by preconceptions. The temptation of taking a safe, polished and technically sound route doesn’t even exist when you never learned the rules after all. In that sense, their philosophy aligns with Teruhiko “King Terry” Yumura’s view of the heta-uma movement he thoroughly represented and that they’ve come to inherit in their own way; one that advocates for art that appears technically crude and unskilled, and yet more resonating than thoroughly polished works. I suppose it was fate that heirs of a style that values crappiness would find their way into Pop Team Epic.
The offer AC-bu received wasn’t one to decline. Saying that they were granted complete freedom when approaching Pop Team Epic would be an understatement—it’s more that they were actively encouraged to make something of their own, which is how they ended up ditching the series’ standard name in favor of Bob Team Epic. Their segments feel radically different from the rest even in a series where many artists do as they please, and the few overarching rules of the production simply don’t apply to them; rather than the usual double lineup of star VAs, it’s AC-bu themselves who dub essentially all their skits, to give an obvious example of their disruption. The material that loosely inspires their work often includes comics that have already been adapted by the show in a more straightforward fashion, but it hardly feels like a retread when the depictions are so fundamentally different.
Besides that degree of freedom, it’s easy to see how this project was an inherent good fit for AC-bu. Their animation in Bob Team Epic distorts in revolting ways, not just in its proud ugliness, but in how they combine stiff hyperdetail with overly fluid moving parts. Exaggerated face shapes stay frozen as expressions melt like smooth butter in entirely the wrong location. It’s a style built to be off-putting to those with preconceptions about how animation should be, but to get away with such alienating approach, there has to be some hook for the viewers. And thus, much like the aforementioned Yumura, AC-bu make a point to anchor their outlandish work on something that an audience can latch onto: a popular piece of pop culture, genre staples, whatever immediately identifiable element that happens to be relevant. By giving them already very popular, mascot-like characters like Pipimi and Popuko, it creates a contrast between the familiar and their bizarre worldview that is hard to look away from. The team envisioned Bob Team Epic as a breather, but it’s closer to a short nap with sleep paralysis demons you’ve somehow befriended.
A single mandate hovered over this otherwise unrestrained, natural fit. The one thing that AC-bu were specifically asked to do was to incorporate kamishibai—literally paper play—into one of their sketches, since Pop Team Epic’s team knew that was a very engaging type of physical storytelling they dabbled into. Now of course, AC-bu’s take on it twists the norm too, applying the same radical approach to the drawings they flip through, evoking the idea of animation in ingenious ways, and delivering all of it at a physically exhausting pace; even more so once they realized that working within a TV slot meant they had a fixed length to respect, leading to them speedrunning their dense material over and over until they nailed it within the allocated time. It was Aoki himself who suggested doing something with the Hellshake Yano skit from the manga, and as you know, the rest is history.
Ages before working together in this series, Aoki and AC-bu already happened to share sort of a bond: they had earned awards at NHK’s Digital Stadium around 20 years ago, very much at the start of their careers. DigiSta was a program aimed at discovering and giving a platform to up-and-coming creators, young and genuinely unknown ones, not just to acknowledge their efforts but to offer guidance as well. Those who earned their highest praises and thus were posed to lead Japan’s digital generation also included the likes of studio Colorido centerpiece Hiroyasu Ishida and beloved Madhouse director Atsuko Ishizuka; which is to say, DigiSta might have been into something with their picks.
To this day, Aoki is very mindful of the importance of programs like this, as well as more general outlets for all sorts of creative voices like Minna no Uta, another NHK staple. Because of that mindset, his own studio Space Neko Company is geared towards scouting unique young voices and giving them platforms like they’ve never had before. As he explained in a Gekkan MdN issue that covered Pop Team Epic, an essentially lawless project like this is the perfect scenario to put those ideas into action, which is why he straight up envisioned it as his own DigiSta—a place where the youngsters he’d recruit could play key roles, one that they could look back on years down the line and feel that it meaningfully advanced their careers.
Though of course, that’s easier said than done. What has made the likes of DigiSta historically significant aren’t the noble ideas behind it alone, but how those came hand in hand with the excellent foresight that time has proved they had. And in a way, the challenge for Aoki was trickier: it wasn’t untapped potential he had to look for, but rather the ability to make a good anime with him now. His personal goal was to find young artists that don’t conform to any standards, and at the same time, his job was to get things done. Seeking truly fresh talent to boost, but also immediately reliable allies. Surely there’s not such a convenient creative hub in Japan.
The Tokyo University of the Art’s GEIDAI Animation program isn’t just the most prestigious animation course in Japan, it holds such a reputation on a worldwide level. While covering a variety of subjects, from the theory of animation to the economics of production, it’s more geared towards helping each student find their own animation than conveying one specific package of knowledge. And they do so with an emphasis on practical experience, with alternative animation icons assisting the students in a process that is as much animation production as it is self-discovery. Ideally, that leads to GEIDAI alumni expressing themselves in ways essentially no one else does, and also gaining experience in creating animation from scratch all by themselves. Now that sounds like exactly what Aoki would need, doesn’t it?
Some of the artists we’ve dedicated the most effusive praise on this site happen to have undergone the GEIDAI Animation program. Megumi Ishitani, who was in the context of that course as down-to-earth as it possibly gets, has become a superstar at Toei Animation at an essentially unprecedented pace. Miyo Sato’s role in Mob Psycho has made her a fan-favorite for good reason; stunning on the surface, and through its usage for both otherworldly bursts and mundane daily life endings, a beautiful way to reinforce the show’s vision of supernatural beings as just any other person. With their recent stunts, Yutaro Kubo and his peers gathering in Studio WIT’s Ibaraki branch have expanded their range of expression like never before. And yet, despite success stories like this, it’s not particularly common to see them mingle with standard, commercial anime. And frankly, why would they? They’ve grown capable of creating exactly what they want by themselves, and the artistic desires that have been fostered in them are the type that commercial anime stifles every single day—to the point where fields like advertising are much more welcoming to them than TV anime. For many of them to work on a show, it would have to be because a similarly-minded artist is promising them artistic and material freedom. Something like, you know, Pop Team Epic.
So, exactly how many of these one-of-a-kind artists did they manage to gather? Across the whole series, and in particular during the first season, at least a dozen of them have made contributions—most of them producing skits and even regular corners on their own. This includes artists as eclectic as Yoko Yuki, who singlehandedly created Pop Team Collage. Yuki explains that in her works she draws from her life, which is to be taken not just in the sense of borrowing ideas, but also in how her materials of choice encompass everything that there is in life; standard 2D animation using different toolsets, cut-outs, stop-motion using any material she can fit on a screen, you name it. Similarly, and despite the lively outward appearance of her work, her emotional gamut can be as diverse and willingly contradictory. Her work on that skit sums up very nicely: it’s a colorful ode to the power of the imagination, a great call for someone with such a broad vision of animation, and at the same time it’s telling you to channel that into thinking about the cool ways to murder your boss.
When it comes to the sheer workload they did, two other GEIDAI Animation alumni stand out as cornerstones of this adaptation. One of them is Kazuki Sekiguchi, who directed, animated, painted, composited, edited, and by the end even storyboarded the Pop Team Cooking segments across the whole series. Although they’re stylistically tame compared to the output of her peers, as she’s more of a storyteller with a penchant for stylized forms, her efficient production was clearly a nice clutch for the team.
The real cheat code for the staff, though, has been Asami Ike. Unlike some of her peers with specific material preferences—or specifically fond of mixing them all ala Yoko Yuki—Ike acquired a solid grasp of various toolsets as she switched approaches to whatever was most appropriate to the tone she aimed for with each work. It should be no surprise, then, that she’s assisted this production on many fronts. By now, she’s done all sorts of animation and art design for it, staged and helped film some live-action segments, and provided some traditional 2D animation while she was at it too.
Now, this isn’t to say that Ike has no personal preferences, both when it comes to technique, but most notoriously content. At the core of her work you’ll often find traditionally cute creatures, real animals or otherwise, that she uses to pivot into contrasting feelings like otherworldliness or simple creepiness with her shifting animation; something that only clicked for me when a certain giraffe tongue in the second season prompted me to look her up some more. It’s worth noting that her multitalents also happen to include music, something she has made good use of in the skits she directed for the show, where she provided the BGM to match the pace of her own animation.
Although she only made skits for the special episodes, Yuriko Noda’s appearance made a strong impression due to the great fit between her material choices and the content she handled. Noda is a stop-motion animator who on occasion has used materials like clay in pointed ways, tying its shifting properties to identity issues. At the same time, though, she’s no stranger to simply exploiting the inherent fun of seeing clay characters move in certain ways. Her Pop Clay Epic segments are obviously in this camp; Pop Team Epic often contrasts the cutesy appearance of the characters with the violent slapstick they get into on the regular, and seeing that translated with actual physicality makes it even funnier.
Those episodes also included an appearance by Satomi Maiya, whom anime fans might know best as part of the dynamic duo behind the stunning anime adaptations of Totsukuni no Shoujo. While she’s no stranger to heavy topics, and can certainly pull off bursts of kinetic and emotional energy when asked to, there’s something inherently peaceful about the picture book-esque style she defaults to. Her partnership with Yutaro Kubo makes a lot of sense with this in mind, with each of them providing what the other perhaps lacks. In her appropriately named Pop Team Pastel skit, though, it’s only her color—quite literally—that is needed. A rarely wholesome one, although in that Pop Team Epic way where it still involves toying with the laws of the world.
In that same camp of artists who made impactful guest appearances we also find the aforementioned Miyo Sato, who handled the Pop Team Epic: Tales of Long ago skits. Although they’re short and not thematically poignant in the way that her contributions to Mob Psycho can be, they’re amusing ways to exploit the quirks of the techniques she specializes on: oil paint on glass animation, as well as sand animation. With the inherent lack of solidity of those materials, morphing and transformations come naturally, turning silly puns into brief flashes of stunning craft. And, almost more importantly, she actually opened up her first skit with a short sample of how she operates sand in the animation process.
It’s worth noting that, on top of all these GEIDAI Animation folks who directed their own skits, a few more tagged in to assist Aoki’s work. During the first run, right about any step in the animation process that he didn’t handle himself was in the hands of those youngsters, who despite not receiving as big of an opportunity as their slightly more experienced pals singlehandedly making the equivalent of short films, they still got a taste of anime—and a nice addition to their resumes. Most of them stuck to a specific department that fit their strengths; for Mika Seike, that is her eye for color helping in painting and design tasks, for Harune Sato, the sense of place for background art and design, and for Takuto Katayama, the digital mastery to help with compositing and special effects. And for the adaptable ones with the time to dedicate to the show’s production? Kaori Ryo alone has worked in nearly 30 skits across two seasons, where she’s done right about everything: key animation, in-betweening, painting, background art, and even some design assistance. Not bad for someone whose name won’t be highlighted much.
If you’re acquainted with Japan’s alternative animation scene, you might have noticed that there are some conspicuously missing names in the list of GEIDAI Animation contributors. Behind stop-motion experts UchuPeople there are not one but two artists who graduated from that program: Kazushige Toma and Hana Ono. Similarly to many of their peers, they were invited because Aoki had enjoyed their graduation work for the program; one that also happened to involve felt dolls and a bit of dancing like their eventual Pop Team Epic fan favorites, but it’s worth noting that the series director’s invitation granted them to freedom to do as they pleased so it was UchuPeople themselves who decided to proceed this way. The result was a series of short music videos like Let’s Pop Together, amusing parodies in the vein of other Pop Team Epic skits, but with a universal appeal granted by UchuPeople’s charming handcraft that makes it so that even people lacking any sort of context can enjoy them.
As they explained in this interview, and despite the obvious undertaking, their production methods aren’t as daunting of a prospect as it may appear, so they encouraged other anime producers—ones not as crazy as Sudo—to commission more stop-motion work. They did prove that their workflow is efficient by contributing four music videos across the first season and its two extra episodes… and yet, up until the last episode of season 2, they had yet to appear again. Let’s talk about the pesky variable that is production timing.
In the seasonal preview for Pop Team Epic Season 2, we brought up some forced changes in the team for the sequel. Before resigning from his position at King Records, producer Sudo had thankfully mentored his equally crazy protégée Riko Koarai to take over. There hasn’t been as much of a direct replacement for co-series director Umeki, who hasn’t been around for this sequel. You might have noticed how all the directorial and scouting talk has revolved around Aoki instead, and that’s no coincidence; while the pitch was initially sent to Kamikaze Douga, the studio Umeki worked for at the time, Aoki was very much the central pillar where everything was built around. This isn’t to undersell what she brought to the table when she was around: Umeki directed one skit for every episode in the first season, sometimes assisting others in design and animation supervision duties, essentially providing a genuinely cute change of pace for the series. Now that she’s flourishing as a freelance creator, she hasn’t been in a position to return to this series.
Another entry in that preview alluded to another scheduling conflict, though again one with fortunate reasons behind it. Hana Ono of UchuPeople had been appointed as the series director for the second season of Molcar, the surprise hit of 2021. With its original director having used its popularity to launch his very own studio, and Ono being one of the very few people in the original team, there was no better substitute for a sequel to a series that uses similar materials in stop-motion fashion. On top of that, Ono also requested the help of some other GEIDAI Animation-adjacent creators mentioned here, using the talents of people like Satomi Maiya to spice things up with different forms of animation. In the end and despite those conflicting schedules, UchuPeople did make an appearance with another music video for Pop Team Epic S2’s finale—see producers, they do work fast—but it’s still worth noting that this season has forced Aoki to scout talent yet again. And that sometimes means looking at other countries.
Mind you, the alternative animation scene is international and multicultural in nature. GEIDAI Animation itself mentors artists of all sorts of ethnicities, and independent film festivals across the globe are as interconnected as art schools are. And of course, the series that famously made a French animator into the protagonist of his own regular corner wasn’t going to scoff at international talent. Season 2 has featured guest appearances of the likes of French animator Kéké, who animated the ending for episode #11 in his uniquely bouncy style. His is a story of perseverance, having gotten over the criticism of narrow-minded mentors and the technical limitations of getting into animation via rather restrictive tools like the Flipnote Studio software on DSi and 3DS consoles. And yet, his optimism shines through simple yet technically very sound loops of dancing animals, which comprise most of his work.
It’s also worth pointing out that, much like he had to reach out to new skit directors like that, Aoki also found interesting talent to replace some of the assistants he originally had. Season 2 took a turn towards independent Chinese animators for his core team, with the likes of surreal animators Chen Xi and Ji Zhaoqi, as well as Yang Liu making dozens of appearances in the sequel. While they didn’t have as much of a protagonist role in Pop Team Epic, they’ve regularly appeared in Aoki’s projects such as this youthful animation relay, so chances are that his future projects would have entire chunks directed by some of them. While overall the conflicting schedules and production circumstances have gotten in the way of Pop Team Epic S2 matching the incredible creative energy of the first season, Aoki’s commitment to platforming fresh talent of a kind that commercial anime scoffs at is clearly the real deal.
And so, King Records producers who are surely reading this, let me tell you that it’s absolutely worth it to keep funding Aoki’s madness. Initiatives like his help anime as a whole arguably as much as it helps the individuals he gives opportunities to. Sure, life as independent and unrelentingly weird artists isn’t easy, but multiple names we’ve highlighted here are award-winners with recognition in their specific field. While Aoki giving them a much more mainstream stage helps them a lot, and they’ve made as much clear when speaking about it, they’re giving back just as much to anime by providing the sort of uncompromised artistry that commodified entertainment like commercial anime sorely lacks. So once again, producers, keep giving the likes of Aoki money. Are they going to use it to gloat that they’re wasting your cash? Well, yes. But I swear that it’s worth it.
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