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The Leaf and the Giant: The Astonishing Animation of Akihiro Ota

So, goddamn Wano, huh? It turns out I caught up on One Piece at an exceptionally good time. Over the past several years, the team at Toei have endeavored to make One Piece’s latest arc a landmark in the genre, a towering feat of animation offering film-tier feats of fluidity and scale on a nearly weekly basis. From the moment the Straw Hat crew set foot on Wano’s long-awaited shores, it was clear something was different; the arc immediately dispensed with One Piece’s traditionally thin linework and limited shading, offering instead bold splashes of ink and color emulating audacious works of traditional calligraphy. Yet at the same time, one of my favorite things about Wano is how loosely it treats its new art design mandate; its aesthetic is a suggestion, not a demand, and individual animators frequently stray far beyond the models and linework of Wano’s standard mode.

This is fortunately not a trend limited to One Piece. Though you might disagree with the precise aesthetic choices of this or another production, it’s undeniable that recent action hits like Chainsaw Man and Jujutsu Kaisen have been embracing greater aesthetic deviation from their source material, alongside greater freedom of vision for individual animators. While some of that freedom may well be a consequence of MAPPA so overworking their animators that any functional chain of corrections has broken down, it seems like audiences are responding positively to this new era of ostentatious sakuga showcasing. Individual animators have their own fandoms now; and while many fans are taking this in a tedious console war-style direction, more visibility for the people who actually create anime, rather than nebulous ideas of studio or director identity, can only be a good thing.

Also, it makes for better anime! It is heartening to see adaptations moving beyond the conservative paradigm embodied by adaptations like My Hero Academia. With that show, if it’s not Yutaka Nakamura himself animating some sequence, it is rare you are going to see anything that wasn’t explicitly, precisely depicted in the original’s manga panels. And frankly, “bringing a story to life through animation” doesn’t really mean much if you’re simply animating a sequence of original panels – if anything, it’s a downgrade, because you lose the specificity of linework and panel-born pacing of the original.

While fans often clamor for unerring loyalty to source material, what interests me about any adaptation is what makes it different, what new ideas the animation brings to the table. What good is an adaptation if it doesn’t have any ideas of its own? Championing such adaptations strikes me as fundamentally insecure – you are not hoping to extrapolate on what made a work interesting, you are hoping only to prove its original ideas were valid to a new audience. As for me, I’ve generally already enjoyed those original ideas, and can reread them any time I desire. If you’re going to make an adaptation, I want you to prove to me how this work can be made uniquely interesting via its adapted medium, how it can be reframed and reimagined and made singular through animation’s incomparable aesthetic tools.

But anyway, this is all a long road towards a very simple point: I absolutely adore Akihiro Ota’s contributions to One Piece, and feel they truly embody animation’s potential not for reproduction, but true reinvention. It’s taken Ota some time to arrive at this point; in fact, we can even make a direct comparison with his first contributions to the series back in Dressrosa. That cut isn’t a bad piece of work – the metallic shading on Rebecca’s boots gives some weight to the second cut, the use of Rebecca’s hair as a wipe to manage the perspective shift is a deft trick, and there’s some reasonable character acting throughout. But while the cut is perfectly functional, it is clearly not transformative, and you’d be unlikely to call it out as the work of one particular animator.

Ota’s work would improve rapidly over the following years, as he worked on productions ranging from the One Piece: Stampede film to World Trigger. And by the time he arrived at Wano, in the midst of the arc’s climactic Onigashima invasion, he would be something less entirely. First off, Ota’s now-reliable fluidity of form makes his characters seem alive like few others, vibrating with energy articulated through literal modulation of their bodily form. Additionally, his ability to convey weight and scale is truly magnificent. It makes sense that he first came back for a bout between a dinosaur and a robot; only Ota could convey the sense of such titanic bodies in brutal physical collision, their forms morphing while losing none of their weighty enormity. By modulating the speed of movements (take Franky’s slow lift of his opponent into that manic swing) and being unafraid to let his characters completely fill and overflow beyond the screen (Franky being literally pushed off the screen before regaining his footing), Ota is able to evoke the felt sensation of giants towering over the screen, colliding and shaking the rafters with the force of their impact.

The fluidity of Ota’s design forms dovetails neatly with his sequences’ dramatic intent. With characters who morph so dramatically, persistently abandoning any stability of form or consistently of linework, you get a natural sensation that their bodies might topple or collapse at any moment. This sensation works perfectly for sequences of towering kaiju-like beasts, making it no surprise he frequently pitched in for sequences starring the gargantuan Queen and monster-form Chopper. Here again, his characters’ tendency to sprawl beyond the screen works to the benefit of his dramatic intent; Queen is so large you can only assess him piecemeal, while Ota’s variability of form ensures that it is never boring assessing these flowing, persistently morphing bodies. Queen’s rage and Chopper’s determination are conveyed purely through movement and stance – Queen literally boiling over with frustration, Chopper’s fatigue clear in his slow movements and stillness. And then Marco flying to the rescue, his flame powers an obvious fit for Ota’s fluidity of form.

Marco’s agility points to the counterbalance of Ota’s mastery of scale: his equally compelling ability to convey lithe, frenetic movement, a faculty similarly assisted by his persistently shifting character forms. Take the brief reaction of the onlookers in that first Franky shot, or the many low-ranking soldiers populating this Kid-focused sequence. Ota might actually be most in his element animating original designs, allowing his characters to fully embody in their shape and movements the far reaches of their emotions. Here, their shifting and jutting limbs convey both panic and fragility. The plight of the bomber near the end reveals the fullness of Ota’s mastery: that throw demonstrates total understanding of musculature and pitching form, while Kid’s cartoonish head-spinning retort reflects how that understanding must ultimately work in service of dramatic intent, realism secondary to the felt experience of a moment.

Each of these sequences is outstanding, each marvelous in their own way. But when Ota’s mastery of scale and agility are put in conflict, something truly astonishing happens. Given his specialties, it is no surprise that Ota was handed the central exchange of the Queen versus Sanji battle, a conflict pitting an unstoppable force against an uncatchable object. That first cut is Ota entirely unleashed, Queen’s rippling form conveying the immense strength necessary to simply move his own gargantuan body. Then comes Sanji, all loose limbs and lightning, the character practically exulting in the agility offered by Ota’s wisp-like realization of his form. Sanji tumbling like a leaf in the breeze, a kite caught in the slipstream of a flailing giant. In this battle, we see the realization of animation as inherent conflict: speed versus power, agility versus obstinance, the fundamental interchange of their antagonism clear without words, without anything but the contrast of form against form.

Ultimately, it is clear that Ota is stretching beyond the strictures of commercial animation, creating emotion not through the recreation of an external narrative sequence, but through the pure visual vitality of figures in motion. At its most pure, animation needs no words, no guiding context of narrative intent – like a magnificent painting, great animation can offer a full emotional experience purely through the movement of lines on paper. Ota’s final contribution to Wano feels like the fulfillment of that promise, as he worked in collaboration with the incomparable Shinya Ohira to realize Luffy rising into his confident, fully invigorated self. Like Ohira before him, Ota is stretching towards animation that is singular in its form yet cohesive in its emotional intent; every line of his cuts speaks to Luffy’s conviction, every breath and heartbeat vibrating with his rebellious intent. As Luffy smiles and exhales, so too does Ota. Isn’t such power and purpose in concert a marvelous thing to see?

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