Morio Asaka rose to prominence around the same time as our other established directors, Sato and Omori. Each carved out a piece of anime’s market and set to make it theirs, and Asaka’s my personal favorite.
One of the few directors I trust to deliver proper romance and drama. An icon among his largely female fan-base, Asaka’s work has defined the Josei demographic and series. On top of this, his storyboard and action-able directing style makes shows really engaging and fun.
Asaka came out of college in Osaka and joined one of the titans of the industry, studio MadHouse. Dipping his toes into assistant directing and storyboard Asaka worked on Junk Boy, a ecchi comedy OVA.
Asaka’s touch at movement got him noticed by Rintaro and he would be moved up to handle Storyboard for the remake of Tezuka’s series, New Adventures of Kimba. The original was quite good, but Rintaro’s remake found a certain comedic through line that gained wide recognition. Asaka also has some great examples of movement like the stampede scene.
Disney would remake the series a few years later into everyone’s childhood favorite Lion King.
Asaka would step up to direct episodes for Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair, based off a lovely song that has been re-used and referenced in everything from Bugs Bunny to Fight Club.
He would also take on more responsibility for Yawara! Which holds a very special place in Japan’s heart. A story about a girl going to the 1992 Olympics to win gold in Judo, the first Olympics to ever host one. The anime finished just as the actual Olympics began, and a young Japanese girl would win Silver in Judo and be called Yawara-chan for years… Seriously.
Showing a deft hand at dynamic storyboards and episode director. His work in translating movement, more so than animating it, was impressive and Madhouse moved him into more experimental work at the helm.
The Step to Director
Asaka ‘officially’ became a director with his fantastic CardCaptor Sakura, but before getting into the big name game he toiled on some mixed works as Director. MadHouse was seeing a big identity crises at the time, not quite into Satoshi Kon’s era but past the prime of Dezaki and Rintaro, this led to some weird and pretty knarly series.
His first director credit was on Pops which is impossible to find but featured some early ‘serious shoujo’ elements to it. Asaka would work on storyboard and direction for a Playstation video game called Noel, but good luck finding it. Mermaid Scar as a sequel to another OVA, followed this and also delt with some teen mature aspects. It can be interesting, especially if you enjoy Japanese mermaid mythology.
Phantom Quest Corps would feature Asaka directing part of it, but had him working with some all star casts. Previous spotlight director Kawajiri, along with Ueda, Chigira, Inoue, and many others would pour their heart into this little series of 4 OVA’s. Something Asaka would mirror in his later series Rosen Maiden.
He also made Cathexis, a 30 minute music video of the dude singing and fighting a cyborg and crashing a bike…
Returning to Storyboard, Asaka worked on Azuki-chan and Anna no Nikki, the latter based on the ‘original creator’ Anne Frank. He would help with the failure, or nostalgic homage, X (1996) before finally working on a good series with Birdy the Mighty under Kawajiri again. While working on X (1996), Asaka would meet the most important group of artists to work in Shoujo, and have a profound affect on his career.
The CLAMP Era
Asaka would become the wunder director for a group of artists known as CLAMP. A group of female artists, they’ve created a massive universe of stories ranging from childish humor series like Sakura to gore fests like X. The CEO of Funimation calls them, “one of the most acclaimed groups of artists in Japan.” They often re-use characters and settings, creating a full universe of stories that is pretty interesting the deeper you go.
The relationship began with CLAMP in Wonderland as a MAD/AMV style homage to the groups series made in the 80’s.
Asaka’s first major directorial work, launching his career and name among the industry, was CardCaptor Sakura. The series is quite impressive, considered next to Precure and Sailor Moon as the example of mahou shoujo series.
Playing up his strengths as a director, Asaka managed to make a show that stands above the crowd. With a focus on action scenes and dynamic comedy styles. The series would also feature Asaka’s signature characters of confident women and shaky men. His style made Sakura a clear distinction from Sato’s Sailor Moon and other series looking to join in the magic girl genre at the time.
A creation from the minds of the CLAMP group, the series was changed from the original manga but kept the same heart. A story of love, friendship, and acceptance, the series is a wonderful journey that would continue through 2 movies and 2 OVAs.
Asaka woiuld continue to mirror last weeks director Sato in experimenting with the Shoujo demographic of shows with Galaxy Angel. Similar to Kaleido Star as a kind of Sentai Shoujo Slapstick Series that is pretty entertaining.
CLAMP would release their first Seinen series, Chobits, and Asaka would find his calling. I’m not a huge fan of Sakura (or magic girl series in general, just preference) but boy do I love me some Chobits.
Aimed towards the more mature Seinen audience, it deals with questions of humanity vs technology. A better version of Eve no Jikan, or a precurser to Her, the show left a big impression in the industry and abroad.
While making the series, Asaka would begin carving out a style that we now recognize as typically Josei standard. Gunsliger Girl would expand Chobits idea into a darker and more active story but keep the female friendly style. Battle bots with emotions and the consequences involved, all within the same universe of CLAMP.
Rosen Maiden would have a mixed result. A break from CLAMP’s work, the series suffered from proper focus and shows Asaka testing some more personal technique. There is seeds of great characters, whispers of intriguing plot, but it gets left in the wind. The stories structure is flimsy and leaves a lot to be desired, but a belief in Asaka gives us a little gem of a show. The show is beautiful, heartbreaking, and wonderfully delivered in the moment to moment. A story of romance, dolls, and artistic merit with grand ideas similar to Shinbo’s Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, but with much lighter and less auteur methods of delivery. I quite enjoyed it.
A Winning Formula; Josei
This is when a lot of series would begin to brand themselves as Josei, to better separate from the younger and more fanciful Shoujo demo. MAL’s listing of Josei shows is limited, but it features nearly all knock out series. The great sporting man Yuzo Sato‘s Gokusen. The ‘live for your dreams’ Kenichi Kasai‘s Honey and Clover, and Nodame Cantabile. The astounding Dezaki‘s Tale of Ginji. Spotlight directors like Omori’s Princess Jellyfish, and Watanabe’s Kids on the Slope. It’s all so wonderful! Sorry, went all fangirl agian…
Coming slightly ahead of the curve, still listed as Shoujo, is one of my favorite series to recommend…
Based on the acclaimed manga by Ai Yazawa, and part of a larger franchise with video games, albums, tv, and 2 live action films, Nana and Nana 2. The live films are pretty good and sold well in the Japanese theaters, fans of the anime might want to check them out.A good introduction to other great live actions like Death Note, Kamen Rider, and Kenshin films.
The series follows our two lead girls, both named Nana. Moving to Tokyo, attempting to escape their past and innevitably falling back into it, while facing new struggles.
Part fairy tale romance, part shoujo drama, but believably real. Characters are at the center of the story and it’s hard to find a better choice of leads. The Nana’s take a journey of hardship, heartbreak, and rock music.
The rest of the series feature a cast that is given ample time to develop into a real people. No trope or one dimensional cut outs in the show allow for moments of drama to come from so many angles. A web of emotions, it’s one of my favorites in the genre.
Asaka would step back from directing for a bit. This led to his fantastic Storyboard work on Black Lagoon and Claymore. Both have this sense of adventure and intense characterization that builds into watching it. Asaka’s hand can really be felt in the dynamic of watching the shows and I’d recommend any of them if you want a bit more action and blood in your anime.
He would also take a bit of a left turn, directing the first 4 episodes of Blue Literature, pretty close to a must see series. Based on 6 traditional Japanese literature, the series is an amazing insight into the culture and mindset that typically can feel alien. The first 4 episodes with Asaka are especially touching and dark.
Luckily Asaka returns to making great female characters, meet Chihaya; the best girl. Our lovely lady takes us through the most exciting possible version of a show based on Kuruta. Asaka showcases his real action and pacing talent, running on all cylindars for the whole series. The two seasons fly by, often in one haggard weekend of non-stop poetry marathon goodness.
Watch the 2014 Queens Match (championship) to see the sport in action. It’s beautiful and wonderfully traditional, but a bit lacking in the blood pumping action.
As with my review of Ping Pong, this series is at it’s heart a sports anime that is constantly explained away. A love triangle, drama, romance, and questions of maturity all feature within the show, sure. But key to this great series is the sport and Chihaya’s drive to be the best. The show draws you in to cheer on this athlete as she performs her best and slaps her way to the top. While the wider cast delivers a beautiful view on sport and the efforts we put in. Each character feels unique, relateable, and draws on our fundamental natures as humans to find our passion. Another highlight show from Asaka, and one that I’ve yet to find a naysayer of. Embrace and love your goddess along with the 100 beautiful Waka. (Poems of Japan)
Asaka is a quiet one, where I never quite understand what he is bringing to the table outside of action shots and storyboard, yet I trust in every show he puts out. His latest series, Ore Monogatary (My Love Story), just began the season and already it’s looking like a hit.
Josei is a relatively niche market, and it often gets overlooked, luckily Asaka’s been pumping out the goodies for a while now. So treat yourself to one of these lovely stories, and enjoy a different flavor of entertainment.