Lycoris Recoil is the surprise hit of 2022 thus far. A chaotic project that grew in an organic way with...
Lycoris Recoil is the surprise hit of 2022 thus far. A chaotic project that grew in an organic way with the arrival of its director, turning uncertain circumstances into the fuel for their bombastic but very personable character story, which also serves as a love letter to action films.
What’s the recipe for a truly great TV anime, an original one at that? The theory says that it must start with solid planning, establishing a cohesive worldview during pre-production, and also securing a sturdy schedule so the execution can live up to those ideas. Of course, it’s not just time you need; the necessary groundwork should also involve the studio surrounding the core staff with the right personnel, in-house or otherwise, specialists and those in support roles. Few people in the know are naïve enough to expect a cut-throat industry like anime to perfectly comply with all those demands when it comes down to it, but given its relative opacity, most viewers still find themselves assuming that things must have worked out reasonably well for what they perceive to be a high quality work. It’s not to rain on anyone’s parade that we often have to point out that this is not the case—if anything, highlighting the messiness behind the screen makes those teams’ efforts even more worthy of praise.
When it comes to the surprise hit of the year, likely betraying the assumptions of many of its fans, we’re not simply talking about deviating a bit from that theoretical recipe for success. Lycoris Recoil is a chaotically conceived series from top to bottom, one that only made its deadlines thanks to specific individuals calling their neighbors, spouses, and people on vacation, as the already overwhelmed studio never really supported the team in the way they should have. And yet, it’s a show that oozes charisma from every pore of its bright protagonist, the original title that has enamored the most people this year via word of mouth alone. Despite messy origins that led to the presence of extraneous elements in the show itself, LycoReco eventually found its identity and committed to it with such boldness that even those incoherencies ended up adding to its charm. It takes finesse to make a good anime in spite of negative circumstances, and downright magic to actually twist those problems into part of your unique appeal. And as it turns out, Shingo Adachi is a magician.
Skilled and resourceful as Adachi proved to be—in his directorial debut at that—he wasn’t actually involved in this show’s genesis, which starts to explain the project’s chaotic nature. While common sense says that an original anime should begin in the hands of the director, as they have the final say within the creative team, it’s not particularly uncommon for companies like Aniplex to kick them off via more marketable creative figures or with a producer’s own pitch. Although it was by no means an efficient approach, LycoReco’s origins weren’t so cynical; in an unrelated meeting with his editor, A-1 producer and representative director Shinichiro Kashiwada brought up Death Need Round and its author Asaura, qualifying them both as completely nuts—and who doesn’t want to work with a madman at least once? The writer was approached without much of a specific request, but rather told to write freely to channel similarly chaotic energy as that Girls x Guns series… which he might have taken too literally, as his arbitrarily gruesome pitch was rejected because there was no way that could be shown on TV.
Even as he adjusted the premise and introduced most of the characters and concepts seen in the final story, Asaura doesn’t shy away from admitting that at the time he was writing without any point nor consideration for the audience. It was in that moment of uncertainty, with the skeleton of a cast and setting already established but without any real goals, that Adachi was called to lead the project as series director.
It shouldn’t be surprising to hear that he initially hesitated; not only would it be the first time in such a role for someone who had been essentially a pure animator for all his career, but it was also a canvas already containing someone else’s vague sketches. We’re fortunate to be in the timeline where he accepted the job regardless, and according to Asaura himself, everything changed with his arrival. The once pointless spectacle now had a clear goal, and connective tissue began growing between the disconnected pieces. In many regards, Adachi had to work backward; they already had a cute crew working at a café while also somehow getting involved in gunfights, so organizations like DA and the Lycoris were created for him to justify those preexisting pieces. Hardly an elegant writing process, but as this entire project proves, adaptability trumps hoping for ideal circumstances that TV anime will often deny you.
So, what did the director reorganize LycoReco around after his late arrival? The very first scene of the show contrasts the PR-friendly peacefulness that Japan prides itself on with supposed schoolgirls doing a little bit of extrajudicial murder to uphold that image, as the narration concludes that doing so is a noble job for the sake of the country—or so does the propaganda tell them, anyway. This introduces one of the central elements of the narrative, the aforementioned Lycoris force with its army of weaponized orphans that has existed in different forms across the country’s history, as well as the DA agency pulling their strings. Coupled with early imagery that echoes similarly cynical views on nationalism, it would be reasonable to assume that the show’s focus would be on taking down such a regime. The word reasonable, however, doesn’t appear to exist in LycoReco’s dictionary, and that’s exactly what made it such a memorable show in the end.
Had Adachi not decided to commit to a lighthearted tone, with a self-imposed rule to make the viewer smile at least once every 5 minutes, they might actually have been able to pivot onto that serious societal takedown. Instead, though, the focus became two Lycoris agents and their evolving relationship. We have Takina, a straight-laced yet strong-willed girl who becomes the scapegoat of DA’s failure even though her insubordination wasn’t really their downfall. And most importantly, there’s her new partner Chisato, a long-time problem child for the organization who refuses to comply with their lethal demands.
Adachi heavily adjusted their personalities and dynamics, changing the plans from having friction by both leads over the idea of working together to Chisato brightly welcoming her new pal; not only did that switch in her personality better reflect her reaction to her limited lifespan, they also needed her positive magnetism if the characters themselves were going to be the hook. Once he got Asaura on the same page, they put together an eclectic mix of familiar elements. LycoReco draws from western buddy cop movies, tropes from international action movies and hardboiled mystery series that are wholeheartedly embraced by creators and characters alike, but also more traditionally anime-like scenarios like the clear yuri framing, or the fact that the genius scientist who bails them with impossible technology looks like she’s 10 years old.
This switch to a strict character focus at the expense of what would have been a much more involved narrative doesn’t mean that there are no themes to the show, but rather that they’re derived from Chisato and Takina’s situation. The former is a gifted individual with a clearly limited time on this planet, so what should she do with it? What’s the best way to help others in ways no one else can, and who even defines anyone’s unique talents? These are the questions that ended up resonating with Adachi the most, which caused the narrative to further evolve in an organic way; again, not in the most elegant fashion, but it gave the series a distinctly personal feel to it.
Rather than Majima, the presumed villain who threatens that societal order and with whom if anything the staff found themselves agreeing on a philosophical level, the actual antagonist became Yoshimatsu—a representative of the Alan Institute, which locates people they deem hypertalented and help them as long as they maximize their skill. On a dramatic level, that made for a very compelling conflict; pitching Chisato against her savior, an adoptive father who also happens to have an efficiently written yet tender gay relationship with a stellar character in Mika, her other dad and smokescreen café owner. And on that personal level for Adachi himself, this was also the dilemma that got to him the most. After all, he is an institution in the anime industry as a character designer and animator… yet he barely picked up the pen for those tasks in this project, instead focusing on new tasks like direction, storyboarding, and writing. He found himself in Chisato’s shoes, feeling pressure to do what is expected to be his forte even though that wasn’t what he felt he had to do.
In the end, both director and lead characters stuck to their guns—very literally in the latter’s case. Adachi didn’t cave in to the temptations of handling his usual roles, which protected the schedule from collapse and allowed him to emphasize what he felt was most important, and the characters concluded that their way of doing good was to help those around them and their loved ones. The world? That’s someone else’s problem. LycoReco embraces the narrower vision of its local heroes and even derives great comedy from it, with very amusing narrative threads like the girl who spends the entire show trying to thank Takina for saving her in the mission where she disobeyed orders, just to barely even register in her view because she’s too busy trying to save her wife. In retrospect, the intro that looked like it might be misleading about the show’s focus ended up feeling brilliantly on point. Sure, it’s somewhat condemnatory of the system, but the final remarks embody just how little Chisato has ever cared about the grand picture. As an individual, it’s individuals she decided to help.
This conceptualization and writing process has been covered in interviews, most notably in Febri’s interviews. Those also dip their toes into the production process, briefly touching on some of the struggles they had in the early stages. For one, there’s the story that Adachi appointed a mangaka like Imigi Muru as the actual character designer, rather than asking him to provide drafts for an animator to draw the design sheets. Although his style is compatible with Adachi’s and a good fit for animation purposes, he struggled when it came to drawing those reference sheets; not being an animator, he was unsure of which angles and expressions would be required, and the vague idea that stylization equals animation friendliness ignores the fact that you still need recognizable silhouettes and balanced designs. Adachi refused to have much of input when it came to the designs themselves, to the point of never showing him the placeholder drafts that were part of the project pitch, but did help him when it came to those technical aspects. That’s the type of happy ending story that tends to be made public, but of course, that’s hardly representative of the whole process.
Although it has earned a reputation as a high-profile, well-produced action series, LycoReco never received much of a favorable treatment. Aniplex ramping out their output has been handled in different ways by their studios—and none of them are ideal, because overproduction never is. While on the CloverWorks side of things we’re seeing their most resourceful animation producers handling more titles at a time than they should, A-1 Pictures is leaning more on the promotion of new AniP who aren’t necessarily prepared for the role, in an environment that won’t support them either. LycoReco was entrusted to a complete newbie on the role like Yuuji Nakagara, surrounded by other fairly green management personnel like production desk Yu Sasaki. The equally inexperienced production assistants managing the making of every episode came almost in their entirety from the Hypnosis Mic anime that aired in Fall 2020, which would have made for a very tight schedule had they stuck with their original plan of airing this show in Winter 2022; incidentally, this tracks with Adachi’s public admission that the staff has been working with him for 1~2 years.
In summary, they had little room to pivot and a management crew without the experience and contacts to draw in the high-profile names you’d like to have. The solution? Adachi to the rescue once again. Although his work with A-1 means they’re all interconnected in the first place, and there are individuals who can be directly tracked to Nakagara and Sasaki—assistant series director Yusuke Maruyama being a great example—it’s Adachi’s ability to drag in his famous friends and admirers that raised the bar for the whole production. While it’s common for core staff to attract individuals they’re linked with, Adachi’s very strong magnetism and the desperate need for it made this quite the extreme case.
That net of relationships is obvious across the whole show. Assistant character designer and main—as well as best—chief animation director Yumiko Yamamoto is very well acquainted with Adachi, as she came to occupy a similar position alongside him in SAO. Other acquaintances of his from that project include action superstar Takahiro Shikama, whom he got to storyboard a couple of episodes, and most curiously, write them as well. And if we speak about action, we’ve got to mention its supervisor across nearly the whole show: Kenji Sawada. While they settled on making a show that wasn’t just for firearms and action movie nuts, they still did want to make those aspects enjoyable, so Sawada acted as the specialist who corrected, drew layouts, and even finalized key animation for nearly every piece of action in LycoReco. It was him who granted the show its grounded fundamentals that make the John Wick-esque quirks and downright supernatural flashes stand out even more. And speaking of highlights, Adachi’s best buddy Tetsuya Takeuchi somehow turned an underwear scenario into the funniest, most heartfelt, and technically most brilliant episode in the whole show.
For as enjoyable as all those aspects are, though, what I believe to be the key to LycoReco’s successful execution resides in that bold decision Adachi took early on. Sure, the often beautiful character art is easy for viewers to latch onto, as are the well-choreographed action sequences, but no one would be around to pay attention to those if the characters didn’t feel so personable. When he gave up on the animation, leaving it in the hands of the aforementioned Yamamoto and Maruyama, one of the aspects that Adachi strictly focused on was controlling the acting through the storyboards. His grasp on the body language and postures of the main characters sells them as people; Chisato is consistently slovenly, her gorilla strength is obvious even outside of action scenarios, and her tendency to invade personal space ends up rubbing on Takina—but even then, their sitting postures alone tell you the differences between the two. Combined with the team’s willingness to adapt the character writing according to the delivery of the voice actors—with some all-time adlibs too—it led to a cast that always feels like themselves. Adachi’s decision to turn all the disconnected elements that were on the table when he arrived into a character story ended up working not just because he made them charming on paper, but also because of the thoughtful, flexible way in which they were brought to life.
As great as that sounds, and even though Adachi had efficiency in mind when he decided on his own role, it’s hard to imagine that those constant adjustments weren’t a factor in the team running out of time. Despite being granted a delay, LycoReco became yet another example of a TV anime barely making its final deadline. Adachi had to rely on all those aforementioned acquaintances and then some for the finale; including his own wife, equally beloved designer Haruko Iizuka. While studio A-1 hadn’t provided the support you’d hope for, the desperate situation made them smash the panic button in the end, so the last episode was stormed by notable animation figures from Kaguya-sama—another title they barely finished in time. The show’s own regulars had to reappear, often reconverting themselves into animation supervisors since that’s what was needed the most. You’ll find cases like Akiko Seki, who was so convinced her job was done after directing episode #11 that she went on a well-earned summer holiday… only to receive a call to ask if she could help, hence why she returned to draw some 2nd key animation for the finale.
Finishing a show mere days if not hours away from the broadcast of its final episode is sadly not extraordinary for anime, but those are stories that hardly echo in public spaces. And in cases like LycoReco, where this outcome appears to be inseparable from the circumstances of the project and the decisions that its lead creatives took, only following the sanitized, producer-approved narrative will not help you understand what this work was really like.
And in the end, what was LycoReco like? The answer is that it simply was like LycoReco. A series of disconnected, bombastic ideas came together with the late arrival of its director, who used the sheer charisma of the cast and the eclectic set of influences he shares with the writer as the glue for a character-focused story. Flexible in his vision, but inflexible in his newfound focus, Adachi’s directorial debut is a constant blast. The resulting narrative still keeps artifacts of what the show could have been in a way some might find distracting, and some developments related to that are downright nonsensical, but the parts that matter most are affecting and actually very well plotted out. It’s a chaotic show made in chaotic fashion, but in some regards, the team managed to use that to fuel their amusing madness. Everyone involved worked on it like it was a once-and-done miracle, and accidentally stumbled onto the surprise hit of 2022. And there’s a reason for that success: if you come to it with the right mindset, you won’t find a more entertaining show so far this year.
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