Kyousougiga and The Career of Director Rie Matsumoto

It says a lot when I can fall in love with a director after just one of their works. Rie Matsumoto stole mine and many others’ hearts after season one of Blood Blockade Battlefront. While at times her chaotic direction could produce scenes difficult to parse, I defend that she has a way of conducting a narrative unforgettably.

I’d always heard that there was one other show that she directed but I never got around to watching it. One day while walking through a movie store, I found a copy of a series that immediately caught my eye. Something about the art and its dynamic composition spoke to me and I thought it looked familiar. Sure enough, when I looked it up on my phone, there she was.

Kyousougiga, a Toho Animation series directed by Rie Matsumoto. Just recently I took the time to dive into it and get a sense of what an original work of hers looks like. Additionally, today I want to look at Matsumoto’s career past and present to get a better sense of her style and where she comes from.

A Review of Kyousougiga

Myoue is a priest living in the mountains of Kyoto, whose paintings which come to life have made him an outcast in the eyes of a superstitious public. One of his drawings, a black rabbit named Koto, falls in love with the priest and makes a deal with Buddha. She will be given a human form so she may express her love to him until he reciprocates.

The two hit it off and as they grow closer, they start a family. One human child, and two others whom they create from paintings. They are happy, up until the church decides their presence has become a problem and tells them to leave. Rather than fight it, they leave, but not in the way you think.

They decide to venture into the world of drawings; a mirror image of Kyoto, where no one dies and anything that breaks repairs. This “City of the Looking Glass” seems to offer an even better life for this happy family. However, nightmares of the city’s destruction haunt the priest and Koto. The latter must leave as her deal has been fulfilled and the former leaves for more mysterious reasons. They leave their three children to take over running the city.

And so the three children, Yase, Kurama, Yakushimaru (now taking on his father’s name Myoue and the role of the priest) have grown up and governed their little world, praying for the day that they can either leave or see their parents again. Suddenly, one day, a girl with a giant hammer from another world bursts through, claiming she is chasing a black rabbit. Her name… is Koto.

The fact that one single episode told the entire tale above and got me emotionally invested in this eccentric family in under 10 minutes in astonishing. It’s a perfect synergy of music, writing and directing, all ensnaring the viewer.

Normally when explaining the premise above, I end by saying something to the effect of “… and then shit gets crazier.” It’s astoundingly accurate, as there isn’t necessarily a driving narrative goal. It is an episodic study of its characters’ past and present before a conclusion that ties every thread together.

Even without a clear-cut goal, it finds a way to touch on many different themes and topics. At once it is a story about escapism and fighting to protect these worlds we create to let our imaginations run wild. This is evident at the beginning when the public’s fear of the priest’s eccentric family prompts them to leave. It even resurfaces later on as the city is further threatened.

On the other hand, it is a story about family, the legacies we leave behind, and the pressure to live up to them. The three children each have their own radically different aesthetics and personal issues related to their parents. They are lonely and searching for something out of reach.

Yase is constantly thinking of her mother and becomes a hoarder of the memories of her. Kurama wishes to escape from the Looking Glass so he can be among the world he looked upon from afar for so long back in the mountains. As for Myoue, he would rather have as little to do with governing this city as possible.

There aren’t necessarily any villains in this show. Some people act selfishly and use others for their own ends, but their reasons are understandable and they aren’t beyond seeing reason. Nevertheless, Yase and Kurama to wonder if this new Koto might be able to help them get what they want. Myoue, on the other hand, ends up housing Koto and her familiars, A and Un, acting like the responsible older brother.

Koto’s joyous chaotic-good personality already won me over early on. Later, though, she begins to struggle with reconciling her desire to offer aid with her own desires. She keeps giving but rarely gets closer to where she is heading. This only multiplies as the world gets more confusing. By the end, I really enjoyed her watching her find her place and make sense of the insanity.

Of the ten episodes, a little more than half is exploring the characters through fun episodic stories combined with flashbacks. The last four episodes are when this whole bizarre family starts to come together to face the largest threat. I mentioned earlier a theme of escapism and defending creativity and it is here that it is most potent.

There is a conflict that touches upon an idea that something which “shouldn’t” exist yet does will destroy everything else. Characters created something which made them happy but disrupted the order of what already exists. The writing boldly follows through on a message that what was created is beautiful and worth protecting even if it is different.

In the end, I realized something about what has drawn me to Japanese animation, or more specifically, Japanese storytelling. These colorful, bright stories often carry with them these grand philosophical declarations. They are sometimes blunt, yet poignant messages that speak to audiences all the more. This show captured my imagination from the beginning until the very end.

The journey to reach that end is a fast one and arguably too fast. There was clearly thought-out lore that was hyper-condensed to focus on a character-centric plot. Finishing the show gave off a sense that there was more to tell. Plus the huge cast of characters, comfortable as they felt in their roles, was underdeveloped.

However, to those who kept up with the meta-narrative of Kyousougiga before the TV airing though, the time with the characters may have been more fulfilling. Despite airing in 2013, the original OVA came out in 2011, with five more ranging in length released the next year.

The five OVA’s have some content not found in the full series, but much of it was later re-purposed for the TV run, making it the definitive way to watch it. The original OVA from 2011 was later re-edited and released as episode 0 before the airing. It is a perplexing 25-minute story that serves as a concept pilot more than the beginning of a story. Think the first episode of Fullmetal Alchemist Brotherhood, but more confusing.

It is a tonal primer for the TV series that even hits a major plot point from later in the show. It’s bizarre but so fun that I have to recommend it all the same. In addition to being an a-temporal preview of future events, it comes the closest to creating a formula that the series lacks.

Episode 0’s opening act, as well as the synopsis, seems to imply that the show is about Koto running around causing trouble and fighting Shouko, a scientist character who is her chief rival. However, without episode 0, you wouldn’t get the impression that this is a common occurrence at all. Shouko and Koto don’t interact much in the grand scheme of things.

Kyousougiga is too short. Enough so that it misses out on opportunities to flesh out even more of this world and its characters. Apart from the pilot, the only expansions upon the content are found in the OVA’s from 2011. Clearly, Matsumoto had more to tell beyond what was included in the show.

Kyousougiga didn’t surpass Kekkai Sensen but seeing Matsumoto’s directing again certainly brings a smile to my face. She conducts colorful yet controlled chaos that feels a bit more cohesive here than in Kekkai. The wide shots, the perfectly timed jump cuts, and the eye-catching shot composition were all among her repertoire long before she directed Kekkai Sensen.

Speaking of which, the music could have been done by Taisei Iwasaki and I wouldn’t have noticed… at least not much. Go Shiina was behind the music and created some truly melancholic orchestral pieces. Combined with Matsumoto’s directing, the music instantly completed her style. Often I would be reminded of Kekkai Sensen season one’s opening scene and the powerful track which accompanied it.

It’s no secret that I liked Kyousougiga. Had the series lasted a little longer, perhaps I would have even loved it, but there is value in how this story limited its scope. Judging by her two most prominent directorial roles, Matsumoto is most heavily interested in exploring grounded human conflicts in the most abnormal of environments. To that end, this show is a tale of family that – like any family – is weird, dramatic, but endearing above all else.

The Works of Rie Matsumoto

Tracking Matsumoto’s career from the beginning makes it pretty clear what her biggest inspirations were. Starting in 2006 as an assistant director on Futari Wa Pretty Cure Splash Star, she would spend the next five years working several entries in the PreCure franchise. Mostly as an assistant director or storyboard artist and occasionally directing a few episodes here and there.

There is a lot that could be dissected about Matsumoto’s style by delving into PreCure and the magical girl genre of which it inhabits. Unfortunately, as I am not even close to an expert on either of these topics, I won’t necessarily be the one to do the digging. I can, however, extrapolate what artists inspired her.

Anime News Network’s page on Matsumoto lists her “favorites:” Among them are Sushi, Tom Cruise (amazing), Stanley Kubrick and Fumiko Takano. The latter two fascinate me because the former being one of the most acclaimed directors puts a lot of the abstraction of Matsumoto’s storytelling into perspective. The latter, caught my eye because it speaks to her rather niche literary inspirations.

Fumiko Takano is a mangaka who herself is inspired greatly by female mangaka Moto Hagio. Hagio became popular for being an author whose works were targeted at the shoujo market, but whose content branched out, tackling homosexuality and science fiction. Fun fact, Hagio wrote the first boys love short story and her roommate was Keiko Takemiya, who would pioneer the boys-love genre.

Getting back to Takano, she was also a pioneer in the realm of female illustrators, albeit more obscure. She mostly wrote short stories, but also broke the mold, not wanting to aim towards only specific audiences. One can infer that Matsumoto has taken inspiration from women-led movements in Japanese literature with an intent to branch outward and create new kinds of stories not limited by one audience.

Added to that is a clear attraction to western films and especially classics, judging by her apparent affinity for Kubrick’s work. Keep in mind, I’m not sure where Anime News Network gets its information for these “favorites.” In my research, I couldn’t find any statements from Matsumoto regarding any of them, so I could be totally off-base, but when you think them over, the dots DO connect.

Heartcatch Precure! Hana no to de Fashion Show… desuka!?, a film which Matsumoto was assistant director on.

She would continue to work on PreCure while also directing the first episode of Toei Animation’s Marie and Gali in 2009. It was a 40-episode TV anime about a gothic lolita named Marika who meets scientists like Galileo Galilei and Issac Newton… Certainly one of the most intriguing concepts I’ve heard in a while. If she had directed more than just episode one I may have even considered binging it just for the insanity.

While working on PreCure, a producer recommended Matsumoto to direct an original series for Toei. This later became Kyousougiga. It would be her first time directing an original work, though in Matsumoto’s eyes it wasn’t all that different from her work on PreCure. Caitlin of Heroineproblem.com transcribed a roundtable interview with Bones founder Toshihiro Kawamoto and Rie Matsumoto from 2016. In it, Matsumoto says the following:

Like KyousougigaPretty Cure was also basically an original anime. They wanted to be able to make toys for that show, and as long as that hurdle was cleared, they wouldn’t get angry and there wouldn’t be a problem, so I don’t feel like there’s that much of a difference between those shows.

Rie Matsumoto at Sakura Con 2016

This isn’t an unthinkable practice for such a high-profile franchise. After all, studio Sunrise told director Shinichiro Watanabe he could do whatever he wanted with Cowboy Bebop so long as there were spaceships in it. I’m aware that was more strictly an original show, but considering that like 90% of Sunrise’s work is the Gundam franchise, I imagine they had similar philosophies.

In 2017, Wave Motion Cannon on WordPress posted a translation of a 2013 interview about Kyousougiga that gives great insight into Matsumoto’s thought process when constructing the show. The setting of Kyoto was used not only because of Matsumoto’s fondness of the city, but the presence of the supernatural was based in Kyoto’s spiritual roots. Alice Through the Looking Glass became the motif behind the production.

Matsumoto seemed to take to the responsibility of producing a story with numerous characters and strong themes naturally. In 2011, she and animator Yuki Hayashi spoke of the production of the OVA and five-minute PV. In it, she expresses how it wasn’t certain if the OVA would lead to a finished show.

Matsumoto made it her goal to include all of the characters in the OVA, even if certain characters wouldn’t logically appear until later. Her logic is what fascinates me. She said, “let’s take Shounen Jump for example: before a series is serialized, don’t they give out a complete one-shot?”

Matsumoto sacrificed character drama, a component of which even she is very fond of in writing, and focused on creating immediately interesting characters.

I’ll admit, though, that passion alone doesn’t make your story work. But I don’t want to create shows that’ll have the viewers stewing over reasons instead of having fun. I’d like it if viewers would watch the OVA and say to themselves, “I didn’t understand it that well, but it was fun!”

Rie Matsumoto on creating the Kyousougiga OVA (2011)

That last line of the quote perfectly summed up my thoughts on the OVA. It isn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but safe in the knowledge that the entire story has been told after the release, there is a value to it. Matsumoto admits that not everyone likes that kind of direction, but expresses that the reaction to the OVA is very telling of someone’s tastes. It’s valuable to think about how we react to media and what it says about ourselves.

Matsumoto’s most well-known (but still not popular enough) show would come in 2015 with studio Bones’ Blood Blockade Battlefront. Being the adaptation of a manga series by Yasuhiro Nightow (Trigun), Matsumoto put her own spin on the story. She famously created an anime-original plotline for the first season. While diverting from the manga is typically frowned upon out of a stigma that it often leads to a lesser product, this ended up being one of the best parts of the show.

Amazingly, judging by how Matsumoto talks about it, it never struck her as a decision that was risky or concerning. Rather, it was almost a necessity. By the time the show was in production, Leonardo Watch, the main character, had an incomplete story in the manga involving his sister. The anime-original characters, Black and White, mirrored Leo and his sister, offering a chance to develop Leo through his interactions with them.

…I had to be able to grasp where Nightow was going with that storyline. Conversely, when it came to Black and White, I was able to know where that story was going and while doing that, I had to convey the appeal of the main characters.

Rie Matsumoto on creating her original story for Blood Blockade Battlefront (2016)

Given that the manga was ongoing, it arguably wasn’t necessary for her to put such emphasis on giving closure to a character arc still in progress. Some were critical of the anime for diverging from the manga, as it took time away from the rest of the characters.

I’ve always thought that this criticism didn’t make a lot of sense. From what I hear, the manga doesn’t have much of a through-line narrative and focuses on standalone stories. As much as I love that kind of format, it’s all somewhat meaningless if it isn’t leading anywhere.

Matsumoto saw an opportunity to give Leo an arc by tying him emotionally with two complex original characters. This triangle between the three was intertwined beautifully with episodic stories both adapted from the manga and original to the show. In my view, she took an already cool story and improved upon it.

At the end of my review of Kyousougiga, I inferred that the director was fascinated with character drama in larger-than-life settings. Her interview from 2016 reaffirms this.

… One of the themes I’m really drawn to is figuring out one’s place in the world. I expect these kinds of stories will have different receptions in different parts of the world, but I do think family is a huge part of that and I want to clarify one’s place in the world, so I think the family theme naturally comes from that.

Rie Matsumoto on themes of family (2016)

Whether it be Koto or Leo, she composes these coming-of-age stories that are big in concept and heavily personal in presentation. Even without the characters in Kekkai Sensen being related by blood, the whole organization of Libra is like a family to Leo.

Since working on Kekkai Sensen, Matsumoto has not been super active, save for two notable works recently. The first is storyboarding for episode three of My Hero Academia Season Three, which carries some of her visual style but lacks the directing to consider it her truly a signature. The second is quite special.

In a positively delightful trifecta, Matsumoto directed an animated commercial produced by Bones with a song by Bump of Chicken, who did the opening for season one of Kekkai. It was an upbeat romantic short story promoting the 70th anniversary of Japanese confectionery company, Lotte.

Each of the popular Lotte brands of candy was given characterizations and the video juxtaposed montages of said characterizations with everyday people eating candy and a story of young love. Every shot of people just going about their daily lives creates a scene that feels so lived-in and relatable, as if Matsumoto watched classic 90s soda ads and went wild.

Apart from that awesome ad, I haven’t seen nearly as much of this breakthrough director as I want to. In a time in which female anime directors are starting to make huge names for themselves, Matsumoto deserves a lot of praise. I worried for a moment that maybe her window had passed, but considering that Lotte commercial has over 14 million views I’m pretty confident she’s doing something right.

I heard rumors that she was planning on making a movie, though it isn’t confirmed. Personally, I would love for her to work on Kekkai Sensen again, either for a third season or a movie. I would especially like to see her direct a film. Having seen what she can bring to a 30-minute OVA, I’m dying to see what she can do with a theatrical run-time and a movie budget.

All the same, some of the greatest things come in moderation. If she isn’t gifting us with new works now, at least we can hope for something special down the road. Rie Matsumoto is one of the youngest female directors working in the anime industry. With time, she could be one of its best directors – period. And I’ll be damned if she goes unappreciated.

Sources

If you want to learn more about director Matsumoto, please check my sources, and support the authors.

Sakura Con 2016: Rie Matsumoto/Toshihiro Kawamoto Interview Part 1

Sakura Con 2016: Rie Matsumoto/Toshihiro Kawamoto Interview, Part 2

RIE MATSUMOTO – A NEW GENERATION OF DIRECTING VIA KYOUSOUGIGA

Great Women Animators – Rie Matsumoto

Kyousougiga Artbook Interviews 1/3: PV and OVA


Kyousougiga is available for legal streaming through Crunchyroll. It’s also available on DVD and Blu-ray.

What do you think about Kyousougiga? Furthermore, what would you like to see Matsumoto do in the future? Leave a comment below and tell me what other directors I should analyze. This ended up being a lot more involved than I initially thought, but I’m so glad I took the leap and explored this woman’s career.

Thanks for reading and as always, I’ll see you next time.

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