I've enjoyed this show from the start, but episode 8 was a minor masterpiece. It combined story, acting, character design, animation and backgrounds to create a really memorable anime episode.
This show is at a higher aesthetic level than any other current show, with the possible exception of Kara no Kyoukai. Director Kobayashi Osamu has always had a unique touch, but he seems to me to be excelling with this simple show. The pacing is so good that silences seem to surround events, both aurally and visually, putting them into something like a sacred space. (click photos to enlarge)
The widespread criticism of the show's photographic backgrounds and simple animation style is completely misguided, in my opinion. I guess the contrast between background detail and foreground simplicity may not work for some people, but it works in spades for me.
The rich reality that the backgrounds give us is matched by the subtle expressiveness of the animation. A slight change in a single line gives a character a whole new expression. This is character design that works.
The original manga was drawn by Yoshizuki Kumichi, but I'm going to give the credit to young animation character designer Yoshigaki Yuusuke, and to director Kobayashi Osamu. Kobayashi apparently discovered him when he was an animator on Kobayashi's BECK, and used him on Paradise Kiss, as well. This appears to be his first full character design job, and I do suspect he worked closely with the director to develop the designs.
Here is the lead character, Sora, from the manga:
Critics have decried the show's use of detailed static photographic backgrounds, in part because it seems to them like cheating. As far as I'm concerned, animators should seek the cheapest way of producing the effects they want. That is how they help their studio survive and produce more anime. And these backgrounds are more involving and atmospheric than almost any others I have seen.
If judging anime on the basis of how much work went into them made any sense, the critics might be right. But in fact it's the aesthetic effect that counts. Not every great anime has to be in super-detailed Kyoto Animation style.
The voice acting is outstanding. Hanazawa Kana's super-moe voice embodies Sora's combination of uncertain innocence and confident magic. Maeno Tomoaki as the male lead is also impressing me. He is a youngish seiyuu who made a big impression as Doujou in Toshokan Sensou, and he is making a big impression on me here. And it seems directors agree: he went from one unnamed role in each of 2005 and 2006 to seven roles last year and already 15 roles, three of them fairly major, in 2008.
And we have Inoue Marina, Takahashi Mikako, Koyama Rikiya and Namikawa Daisuke -- all seiyuu who have starred in other shows -- as supporting cast. Marina is giving us her somewhat fakey, stiff tsuntsun voice, but as you hear more of it, it becomes more and more riveting.
Sound director Nagasaki Yukio was music director of BECK and sound director of Itazura na Kiss. He has also been a producer and music director of other shows. I have to give him some of the credit for the voice acting, but the wild sound is also excellent in this show, and the music is outstanding.
The OP by Thyme and the ED by micc are both wonderful, and just the kind of melodic, emotional music I like. They both come out in Japan next week.
One thing many people complain about in all of Kobayashi's shows is the way he uses long shots and even shots of the sky to save money as people talk behind them. This is clearly a money-saving ploy, but it is also real art, in my opinion, especially in this show. It makes the voices rise into the foreground, so they have their full effect.
Like all the others, this episode was written by lead writer Yamada Norie. And it was storyboarded by Kobayashi himself. He has at least co-storyboarded every other episode, too. The episode director was long-time animator Arakawa Masatsugu, who has been animation supervisor of a couple of dozen episodes of Crayon Shin-chan, and did a lot of work on the ARIA shows.
There is a good summary of this episode on the Subculture Anime Blog. The basic story involves the apprentice mages going out to help rescue some dolphins that became stranded on a beach. If you like shows that convey emotions and relationships delicately and subtly, watch this episode. The larger Zero raw includes the TV commercials that ran on-air. This makes it all the more fascinating.