The Heike Story Marks New Paths for Science SARU and Naoko Yamada

WARNING: The following contains spoilers for The Heike Story Episode 1, "If You Don't Belong to the Heike, You Won't Be a Person," now streaming on Funimation.

Starting off the fall anime season a few weeks early, The Heike Story marks new ground for both its director and its animation studio. This is director Naoko Yamada's first anime not produced at Kyoto Animation, as well as studio Science SARU's first in-house project without the involvement of the currently-retired Masaaki Yuasa. The Heike Story's first episode is undeniably a Yamada anime yet also retains much of the aesthetic of Science SARU's work with Yuasa, creating an intriguing hybrid style.

The Heike Story Episode 1 lens flare

The basic explanation for how this hybrid of styles works is that The Heike Story's design is pure Science SARU but its direction is pure Yamada. While Science SARU's designs have never stuck to just one style, the consistent throughline throughout all the studio's works is stylization that eschews both realism and standard moe design tropes. This is in many ways the complete opposite of Yamada's work on Kyoto Animation series like K-ON! and Sound! Euphonium, which was based on elevating moe tropes through hyper-realistic animation detail. The Heike Story's cartoony characters and flatter backgrounds would never be mistaken for a KyoAni work.

Using the Science SARU art style, however, Yamada is still communicating in a visual language that's clearly her own. More than other anime directors, she's particularly interested in recreating live-action camera effects like lens flares and shallow depth of field. Her compositions often make use of off-center framing, and she has particular visual preoccupations with flower symbolism and shots of characters walking shown from the legs down. All of these aspects of her style shine through in the first episode of The Heike Story, even if the designs are very different from her previous anime.

Yamada has eased the transition from Kyoto Animation to Science SARU by bringing along in-between and paint artists from the KyoAni subsidiary studio St. Blue. Science SARU itself seems to be easing the transition to a post-Yuasa era by greenlighting shows which tie in with Yuasa's previous hits. Shingo Natsume will direct a sequel to Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy, and The Heike Story has connections with Yuasa's upcoming film Inu-Oh. The series is based on a modern translation of The Tale of the Heike by Hideo Furukawa, the author of the Inu-Oh novel, and the original main character Biwa serves to establish an additional parallel to the biwa priests central to Inu-Oh.

As for the quality of the show itself, The Heike Story is off to a solid start. Biwa, a child cursed with visions of the future in one eye, is a charming and interesting protagonist, and the Heike lord Shigemori is also intriguing with his ability to see ghosts. It's unclear exactly where the show is going with its handling of gender issues, with Biwa readable as either a trans boy or simply following their father's instructions to present as a boy. As one of the rare anime written, directed and produced by women, it should be interesting to see where this modern adaptation of an ancient story goes.

New episodes of The Heike Story stream Wednesdays on Funimation.

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