The contrast of animated characters on real-life backgrounds is a surefire way to create striking or memorable imagery. Many of my favorite anime openings or endings greatly utilize this trick! For example, Gatchaman Crowds Insight’s opening is a mixed-media masterpiece. 

It’s incredibly diverse from the start, a non-stop barrage of CG, 2D animation, and even stop-motion! Paired with the slick usage of time lapses. All these elements boldly exist within their own space and come together to truly make a one-of-a-kind opening. Naoki Yoshibe– who has directed other openings for anime, most notably for Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure– typically has an eclectic flair to all of his openings, and he pushes that to the absolute extreme here. It’s all time of mine for a good reason! 

Embracing contrasting elements can lead to amazing results, but what about the opposite? Instead of embracing the clash between 2D and 3D, how about trying to bridge the gap between the two? How about making reality a part of the medium instead of rejecting it?

Enter Tao Tajima.

He is a director with a very VFX-heavy approach to all of his work. Typically directing commercials or music videos, he never interacted with anime until Kunihiko Ikuhara scouted him out. I consider Ikuhara’s works– Utena, Penguindrum, Yuri Kuma Arashi, and Sarazanmai– to all be truly boundary-pushing. His works deal with themes of isolation, gender expression, and sexuality in the most brutal and explicit ways… and somehow the funniest as well! One second, you’ll be crying along with the characters, and the next, you’ll laugh your ass off with the most ridiculous out-of-nowhere gag–but that’s just how it is with him! 

He also has a knack for scouting young individuals and assigning them to high-profile positions. Penguindrum’s Chief Director Shouko Nakamura, for example, only started to rise through the ranks as an episode director on shows like Panty and Stocking and Kimi ni Todoke before Ikuhara scouted her out for the show. Tajima was an even more ambitious collaboration since he had no prior experience working in animation at all.

His earliest collaboration with Ikuhara was for the Sarazanmai teaser trailer in 2018. The goal is to bridge the gap between fantasy and reality and to provide a fully immersive experience. Instead of playing up the contrast- thanks to Tajima’s VFX-heavy background- he tries to make it feel like these characters are occupying actual space and crafting a mind-bending experience that leaves viewers constantly second-guessing what’s real and what’s not.

It’s not as easy as taking a drawing and superimposing it onto a real-life background. Through the use of camera meshes, depth of field, and even 3D for the reflection behind the character! Source:

It’s not just the characters, the iconography from the show is also seamlessly woven into real life. It is going all in with the immersion to boggle viewers’ minds even further.

He also directed, storyboarded, and handled VFX for the show’s ending. The approach is very similar to his older work, Night Stroll and Waxing Moon– both music videos being the reason he was scouted out to work on Sarazanmai. He still sticks with his usual approach of making the mundane magical, with his VFX work remaining as enchanting and immersive as ever.

His VFX doesn’t just exist in isolation, you can see the lighting interact with the characters and even the real-life backgrounds too. It’s a minor detail that really makes this ending come together.

Outside of the ending, he wasn’t very hands-on with the show itself. This wasn’t the end of his relationship with Ikuhara, as Tajima would already play a more vital role in his next project.

Penguindrum is an all-time favorite of mine, but it’s pretty hard to describe so briefly. At its core, it’s about a cast of characters doing everything they can to fight against the cruel hand life has given them, to fight against fate itself. On the other hand, it’s also a show where the cast makes complete and utter fools of themselves every other second– like I said, Ikuhara is just like this. Re:cycle by all means is a recap movie through and through, with a couple of surprises to keep viewers on their toes: An intriguing framing device that seemingly picks up right from the ending, recapping events not in sequential order from character to character instead, and Tajima having a much more involved role. Handling the opening for the first movie, the ending for the second, and brief intermission segments for both films. It is building on the visual foundation he established on Sarazanmai of fully immersing these characters into our world.

His most recent work- not with Ikuhara but within Lapintrack, the studio that animated Sarazanmai and the Penguindrum movies- was the ending for Undead Murder Farce. Not as striking or cohesive as his past work since he wasn’t as hands-on compared to his past work, only credited for direction. Instead, other individuals who worked at other studios handled the VFX and CG work. The feel is much different as well. Instead of trying to blur the lines between fantasy and reality, Tajima is more interested in creating his own eerie little world. It’s fitting for a show where the supernatural runs wild, and our protagonists are an Oni and a talking disembodied head.

I hope he continues to work with Ikuhara or at least stay around in the anime industry in general. I would love to see his unique touch to get further expanded on. Ideally, a whole TV series thoughtfully built around his sensibilities would blow everyone’s minds! I’d be fine with a movie, too, by the way.