At least it’s an Ethos

It’s hard to prove this with statistics, and a confirmation bias might be at play, but I don’t think it’s too controversial to say that sakuga is the Next Big Thing in the international anime community. The tireless efforts of a small few have transformed what was the most niche of interests into common knowledge. Panels at conventions, social media outreach, and the fantastically intuitive sakugabooru have helped generate broad appreciation for what goes on behind the scenes. However, with this increased saturation comes increased pushback. Any new fad is guaranteed to attract groans from the unenthusiastic but it’s notable how much of the sakuga backlash is concentrated, at least in my experience, among oldschool gatekeepers and tastemakers. English-language anime fans knew far, far less about the history of the industry than they thought they did and this can’t be a welcome realization for those who built their reputation around such faux mastery. And though not nearly as severe, I’m reminded of the angst surrounding moe/slice of life shows from several years back. There was a catchy new term (“moe”), lines drawn between old and new, and the fact that what occasioned the debate was always there anyway. Yet if the situation with moe is any precedent, the community will eventually move on and sakuga will be just another thing anime fans are aware of and tolerate to some extent.

Still, the critics might have a point. To the non-devout this obsession on individual scenes of animation must come across as strange (an acquaintance recently said it’s like going to see an awful Hollywood blockbuster for the special effects). Because these debates occur on sites like Twitter, glib and imprecise digs prevent any middle ground from being formed. It doesn’t have to be that way though. In fact, I was so impressed by the level of comments on my last article I’d thought I try a new format with that specifically in mind. Instead of laying out a lengthy thesis defending the pro-sakuga position, I’ll throw out a few informal observations in order to kick off some discussion below. In particular, I’m curious to hear how all of you factor animation into your judgement of an anime’s overall merit. Have you ever disliked an anime purely for its animation? Has your enjoyment ever hinged on its success? In any case, it should be easy to tell where I fall on this issue:

  • To most, “good animation” implies scenes which are flashy, resource intensive, and easily recognizable but that’s severely wrongheaded. If it were true that framerate alone determines whether animation is good or not, then Richard Williams’s work would be the towering pinnacle of the medium. Saying something has “good animation” is a lot like saying something has “good prose” or “good composition”; it implies a level of proficiency, sure, but what “good animation” is is an open question, and it’s up to animators to come up with a compelling answer. It could be openly embracing a lower drawing count, as in Tissa David’s and Satoru Utsunomiya’s best work. It could be using a drawing count so low that the animation is nothing more than a series of creatively edited stills, as in Kenji Nakamura’s shows. It could be stop motion, CG, paper dolls, and any number of alternatives to standard 2D cel. It could even be traditionally “bad animation”, rough and amateurish, if the artist conceives of their scenes with that in mind, as with Tamotsu Ogawa. By the same token, technically polished but cliched animation can be just as stiff and confining as the average episode of Dragon Ball Z. We need to stop thinking about it as a form of engineering where framerate and traditional perspective skills are all that matters. It’s a creative medium like any other.
  • This issue is muddied by the fact that it’s very difficult for an animated film, much less an animated television show, to succeed on all fronts. Our enjoyment of anime tends to be compartmentalized – ‘The writing was good for this arc’, ‘This episode had a great storyboard’, ‘The soundtrack is atmospheric’ – and sakuga fanaticism is no different. Most anime are pretty bad, but there might a cool scene of animation here or there even among the worst. What irks people is a (seemingly) singleminded focus on the animation at the expense of everything else. I doubt most sakuga fans fit that description, at least the most prominent ones don’t, but I believe the case for sakuga supremacism is much stronger than is commonly thought. While most animated films can be understood in terms of their script, their direction, their sound design, their voice acting, etc. at the end of the day all of those qualities are optional. An animated film can be completely silent (at one point they all were), or it can be non-narrative and abstract, or it can lack the vestiges of live action cinematography completely, but an animated film cannot under any circumstance lack animation. It’s the one defining characteristic. Without those drawings, the sound design, the script, the voices acting couldn’t exist. Nonetheless most fans still consider animation to be a garnish, the very thing that makes an animated film animated no more than a secondary concern. I guess we have Tezuka to blame for that one.
  • One thing to consider is how ass backwards the discourse about animation was before the sakuga community came along and fixed it. Sophisticated shows of technique were routinely punished for being “off-model” and “sloppy”. In one case published Miyazaki biographer Helen McCarthy referred to a scene in Howl’s Moving Castle (probably Shinya Ohira’s) as “messy […] cels with really thick lines that had been scribbled a bit or the paint had wandered.” You don’t have to search far to find condescending remarks about, for example, Kaguya-hime or Atsushi Wakabayashi’s Naruto episodes either. Of course there should be room for disagreement on sacred cows like Ohira or Iso, but the fan reaction never rose above this level. Whether you care about animation or not, it’s undeniable that sakuga fans have done a great job at pushing the conversation away from such nonsense.
  • Whenever I talk with friends about what we thought about a specific anime, there’s this dichotomy between “the writing” and “the animation” (one, both, or neither being good) that usually crops up, but I’m not convinced such a distinction is meaningful. True, many scriptwriters have left their mark on specific anime, for good (Keiko Nobumoto) or for ill (Mari Okada), but the ways in which their work engages with the audience (staging, dialogue, acting) are audiovisual in nature. It’d be hard to argue that a screenwriter has a more intimate relationship to the way characters act and how dramatic situations develop than the artists physically producing the drawings that constitute the final product. This is born out by the fact that the work of a talented screenwriter often founders in the hands of poor staff. Moreover, an overly restrictive conception of “good writing” will crowd out shows which accomplish their goals by other means. “Strong characterization”, “brisk pacing”, or even the existence of “character” and “plot” themselves should not be presumed. There’s also the semantic issue that, outside a few rare cases like the intertitles in Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei, there’s no ‘writing’ to speak of in anime. I prefer to use the term ‘story’ when describing the narrative process in animation, mostly for its historical basis: at the Disney studio in the 30s and 40s, scenarios were developed in a dedicated Story Department via the use of notes, storyboards, acted-out scenes, layouts, and any number of ad hoc conveniences. Likewise, the ekonte is absolutely essential to how the script for an anime is realized.
  • While I don’t think other aspects of animation should be ignored, valuing anime mainly for their stories seems as foolish to me as sakuga obsession must seem to others. The writing is far and away the weakest link in anime; without fail, even the best written anime are formulaic, embarrassing, and shallow. At least the animation can offer something new. And priggish though it may seem, if an anime can’t justify itself with such newness, we’re left to judge it by other standards, standards where it’ll inevitable come up short. Legend of the Galactic Heroes is a textbook case of this. When I initially watched the show years ago I found it engaging for its massive scope and complex character relationships, but on rewatch it became apparent that its storytelling, well-planned by the standards of most anime, suffered immensely from an inattention to craft. The acting is schematic, dramatic scenes are wan and lifeless, and cliched dialogue abounds, with little that would reward a close formal reading. It’s as if the only way to appreciate the show fully would be to remove oneself from the moment-to-moment experience of watching it and take it in abstraction, but even then what Galactic Heroes has to say about the nature of war and civilization has been said a million times over since Thucydides. Discrete, tangible ideas are often a poor fit for art. In my experience the main way in which artists manage to present genuine insight is through accidental relationships of form. A work of art where Ideas and Themes are packaged in a thin aesthetic shell will always be less desirable than art which says nothing but does quite a lot. Had the staff behind Galactic Heroes paid stronger attention to the show’s animation and direction, they might’ve created something with a life of its own, not dependent on the meager insight of its creators.
  • This clash of priorities is seen most strongly in the work of those who pay attention to the minutiae of form while working with stories that are, on the surface at least, unabashedly puerile (like Hiroyuki Imaishi and Takeshi Koike). That approach to cartooning rarely strives to be respectable and for many that’s a problem. Anime became the hip young adult alternative to Disney & co. across the globe because of its darker stories and the industry’s relatively lax content restrictions. As a result anime fans are quick to triumph unexceptional, derivative, yet “mature” shows in order to prove that the medium “isn’t just for kids” (and possibly balm their embarrassment about sticking with a juvenile hobby into adulthood). I can empathize as I would love some variety too, but it needs to be done right. A single FLCL will be a more convincing case for animation’s worth than a thousand Nodame Cantabiles.
  • I believe the main reason why sakuga love has spread so rapidly is because it offers something sturdy and concrete in a field where nothing of the sort exists. Up to this point the vast majority of writing about anime on blogs and elsewhere has been tediously subjective, personal, and diaristic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a terrible fit for close analysis. Unmoored by formal or historical consideration, “anime criticism” as it exists often loses track of what it’s supposed to be analyzing, the show in question becoming a sort of Rorschach blot for whatever philosophical theory the author is interested in at the moment (look to the explosion of ludicrous fan theories around Kill la Kill for a recent example). In my mind the biggest contribution of the sakuga community is not simply helping animators get their due but grounding the conversations around anime in empirical fact. Sakuga fans aren’t monomaniacs; they spend just as much time discussing directors, background artists, producers, character designers, color stylists, and any other staff position that might influence how a project turns out. The most insightful conversations I’ve had about individual screenwriters in anime have been with self-proclaimed sakuga fans and never with those that insist they prefer “substance over style”. There’s certainly a risk of technological determinism, and it’s easy to get lost in mere reportage, but if kept in check I think the benefits of that type of sakuga obsession are obvious. By focusing on what is strictly objective, you’re able to make insights that transcend your own experiences and speak to something essential about the work itself. Until someone can come up with a better alternative, sakuga is here to stay.

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  1. Your last point touches on an issue I’ve been noticing a lot lately – all arguments that bring up staff names and specific technical terms are quickly branded as “sakuga criticism”, then immediately disregarded by people who have decided they don’t want to engage with those. Which they’re obviously entitled to, but it’s the classification that bothers me; I understand that people might not know whether it’s a director’s name or a key animator’s that is being argued about, but when people are discussing lenses or layouts it should be clear that it’s not – at least not exclusively – about the “sakuga”. It’s not like we’ve recently invented this approach to criticism, but now that it’s been getting attention it seems like some have decided that the way to downplay it all is to brand them as animation (thus lesser) criticism.

    That said, this isn’t a war between animation aficionados vs writing fans! People who have been writing about anime on a more character and thematic level for a long time have been taking this ease of accessibility to enhance their pieces; if you’re talking about the delivery of important plot beats it’ll be hard to dissociate that from the way the scene is framed, at which point the technique might lead you into the artist behind. Many people realize that ultimately, within the finished work there’s only “execution”.

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    • The approach that sakuga fans take is much closer to how the rest of world talks about animation and I think ya’ll’s outreach efforts have done a great job at spreading the good word overseas.

      I agree this WRITING VS ANIMATION thing is arbitrary and in fairness there are interesting readings of famous anime that don’t rely on analyzing craft at all (such as https://animekritik.wordpress.com/2011/11/22/imperialism-translation-gunbuster-introduction/). A holistic approach is certainly preferable because not every show will prioritize every possible component. Still, I think considered use of animation lies at the base of virtually all animation of worth. I tend to look at it as if animation is the raw material which the other parts of production (storyboard, sound design, script, and so on) shape into something more structurally complex.

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      • Yep! The issue is that what’s been masquerading as holistic anime criticism and become the standard for years is actually more similar to a dissected corpse; talking a lot about plot and characters, touching themes if you’re lucky, and then a paragraph about ‘art/animation’ that can mostly summed up with ‘the production values were high/low’. People supporting this model complaining about sakuga fans obsessively focusing in one aspect feels incredibly disingenuous, especially considering that as I said there’s a lot of mislabeling. Hopefully the internet will get over this phase soon! I don’t think we’ll drastically change The Anime Discourse, since most fans will always be youngsters who are only in to have fun, but I think that the heavily invested people needed this push.

        And yeah, I agree about the role of animation. There are series dealing with fascinating themes, but if those are genuinely disconnected from the visuals then something’s gone wrong. This isn’t to say there aren’t great works “only” brought down a bit because of their visuals, but truly spectacular pieces shine because of their animation, not in spite of it.

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  2. Everyone has preferences but I’m an advocate of case to case. I can’t imagine Mizue’s Wonder, being as “animation-centered” as creative pieces go, without its music and its interaction with the drawings. I’m an animation person, I like drawings and I like seeing them move, but focusing on this media specifity over all other forms of content within the film only works depending on the piece. There’s a lot of creative decisions that are made when it comes to making films that can affect the final result even if they’re seemingly about minor matters, or not important to “the point” of the film itself. What I like is trying to understand what these decisions were, why they were made and how they fit together. This is why I also don’t have an issue with compartmentalizing enjoyment depending on parts, which is what the sakuga idea was all about at the beginning: this film might have problems in other areas or it might not, but what I really liked inside of it was X’s person animation work. Film is not an ‘elemental’ artform after all, isolated ‘sections’ contributing to a whole are a necessity for making them.

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    • Maybe what I’m describing is a much more generalized medium specificity. The range of acceptable choices is vast but eventually you will have to commit to a set of, as you call them, small decisions. Any choice is theoretically valid but I expect the author to take every choice (or as many as possible) seriously. Animation can be a series of ga-nime stills, it can be computer generated in-betweens, it can be wry anti-art experiments like those by Walerian Borowczyk. The best animation is that which causes us to rethink the medium from the ground up. In the case of industrial animation, most choices are already made ahead of time, so artists need to take that into consideration.

      The medium specificity question is interesting. Animation shares a lot in common with film, which shares a lot in common with the fine arts. It could be that medium is an arbitrary assumption that most artists implicitly agree to. It could be that media do exist, though their edges are a little frayed. Or it could be (and this is probably the best lens for criticism) that each individual work constructs its own definition of its medium, implicitly or explicitly. For the sake of rhetorical coherence though I go with the term “animation”. Best describes what I’m trying to say.

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      • I think what I don’t really agree with is “The best animation is that which causes us to rethink the medium from the ground up”. Does a Rod Scribner pose or an Anno explosion really make us rethink the medium? Are these appreciated because they get at these meta answers wrt animation -as an artform-, or does their value lie in the exceptional quality and creativity of the product itself, because of how they excel at solving and rendering situations? I used to think “engagement with the medium” was universal criteria for value judging, but I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I prefer to take creative works at face value and consider them in context. That doesn’t discount valuing a work for its uniqueness, but the opposite is also true.

        But I think this goes a bit beyond the idea of the article. I agree with the general point that many people still place this abstract notion of writing-as-substance above all the other forms of content (or even ignore these altogether) and that this narrowifies appreciation for the stuff they’re watching.

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      • Maybe “rethink the medium” is a bit hyperbolic but I would say that absolutely Rod Scribner pushed character animation in a new direction. Total paradigm shifts are super rare but, in my experience, the best animation causes me to at least rethink the rest of my favorites. I see what you’re getting at though; an industrial product like anime is not created with the entire medium in mind, and the face value you mention is usually the intended effect. But I think if we were to try and justify animation’s value in a broader context, these are the kinds of questions that come up. As I mention above one of the most appealing aspects of a good film or book for me is how it can take on a life of its own, free from the limitations of its creators and context. How you reconcile that with close, grounded analysis is tricky but I like to believe that universal qualities can emerge from the particular.

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  3. A couple thoughts come to mind and I’m not sure all of them congeal into anything holistic, so I’m not going to try to make them do so. Bear with me.

    First off, in terms of focus on individual scenes of animation within a larger (possibly largely poor) piece of work, confusion over this seems, to me, to be a really weird and silly thing (I don’t mean to direct this at anyone in particular). However people may wish it to be so, there are very, very few creative works out there (possibly none) that are of supremely excellent quality from top to bottom. Perhaps we like to pretend this isn’t so for our own comfort, but anyone who’s being halfway honest about the art they encounter should be able to acknowledge that even their most favored anime, film, novel, painting, etc. has elements to it that are lesser than its peak strength. As I see it, then, the corollary to this on the side of works that are mostly bad, is that there may, in fact (and this not necessarily always), be exhibitions of really wonderful individual elements—a creative, inspiring sakuga cut in the middle of a boilerplate light novel adaptation—within these lesser works. An ability to appreciate parts and pieces within creations of uneven quality is essential, unavoidable to the experience of art. [This idea might not apply well outside of critical circles, but as Kvin noted above, the bulk of the fandom is always gonna be youngsters—so it’s those invested who need to hear this kind of thing.]

    As for the first bullet point, I’m in complete agreement. Creativity on its own doesn’t = good animation, but neither does strict technical excellence.

    As for the third, I’ll return to my original point as well as to your own description of our appreciation of anime as “compartmentalized.” There may be a case for sakuga supremacism by virtue of the fact that animation is the essential quality of an animated film, but I think it ultimately falls apart unless you’re solely talking about appreciating animation for its own sake. A poorly animation film with good writing gives one something to appreciate; a poorly written film with good animation gives one something to appreciate. But, as you’ve argued here, it’s not an either/or—it should be a both/and! This isn’t to say that non-narrative or abstract animated films automatically become recursive artifacts—simply that their accompanying elements and values differ from the traditional narrative film. But the point remains that there ought to be something beyond craft for craft’s sake (perhaps some will disagree with me on that point).

    But to return to the both/and point, I feel I saw this myself when I recently watched Hosoda’s *The Boy and the Beast*, a film that ultimately lacked polish in terms of both writing and animation. Where the character writing was bland and cliched, the character animation followed suit at a point where distinctive, thoughtful character animation could have helped ease the writing’s issues. To take another example, there’s a fabulously animated fighting cut near the end of the film with slippery, slidey (I realize my terms are a bit imprecise here) animation—on its own, it was delightful, but I could really only appreciate it in terms of the animation due to the failure of the writing to contextualize it in any compelling way. In short, when the animation or writing (or other creative elements that may appear alongside animation in other forms of non-narrative art) exist alongside each other, they bear a joint responsibility for the success of the overall work.

    (An aside: I did not appreciate that Okada dig, you schmuk, you fake anime fan.)

    As far as your final bullet point goes, while I don’t disagree that the benefits offered by sakuga obsession are tangible or important—indeed, it should be obvious that I think the incorporation of sakuga appreciation alongside other methods of analysis has the potential to be a great boon to the critical community’s appreciation of anime, to diversify, to deepen, to expand (further, I agree that it opens to floodgates to appreciation for other elements of construction like direction, art design, coloring, etc.)—I do question your characterization of it as being something “objective,” particularly since your point of contrast seems to be subjective anime blogging (something we recently discussed, and while I don’t fully understand your characterization of myself in particular contrast here, I think I have a better idea of what you’re talking about now). Ultimately, appreciation of individual sakuga cuts is going to be subjective on the same level that appreciation for character/plot/themes (more generally, writing or cinematography or whatever else).

    I’ll stop for now because this comment is ridiculous.

    In any case, I really appreciate your writing—it feels like you’ve gotten something of a groove going here on WMC, and hopefully the community will appreciate this. At least personally, even if I don’t always agree on all points, I’m glad to have the impetus to think about anime on these terms.

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    • Thanks for the lengthy reply. Always a pleasure to read these.

      I largely agree with what you’re saying, narrative anime can and should be judged by what narrative decisions they make. And in the best cases, when the stars align, every facet of the production should be in synch. That said, I think there’s a case to be made for animation for it’s own sake. As you note there’s plenty of terrible anime with spots of brilliant animation and that alone isn’t enough to overcome mediocrity. But the best pieces of animation, even those buried in trash, have qualities that are singularly unique. When I watch a well-directed or well-written episode of anime I might be entertained, but they never stand comparison to the best of cinema or literature in that regard. However, when I see a scene of top shelf animation, nothing can compare. That’s why I would rather anime directors prioritize building their films with animation at the center. But this largely reflects of how I consume anime; not everyone is rifling through bleh OVAs for short bursts of quality.

      The subjective/objective thing is probably outside the scope of this convo (and I’m always wary about conversations like this taking a philosophical turn) but I don’t really believe that everything in art is subjective. It may not be as axiomatic as math, but I think that arguments and theories can be repeatedly tested and proven accurate or inaccurate like any other field of study. Saying that “all art is subjective” seems like a cop-out to me, that art is fundamentally nihilistic and without invariable value. It may be tough but that’s no reason why we shouldn’t at least try.

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      • Aha, I feel I understand what you’re saying much better with regards to animation for its own sake there with your comment about prioritizing filmmaking with animation at the center—in other words, if you’re going to make an animated film, you should make it an animated film that exposes the unique qualities of animation (I think I remember you talking about this elsewhere). Hm. To be entirely honest, I can’t say I disagree at all. Also I think I was maybe wandering outside what I actually think anyways, since there is some prose that I value simply for its own beauty, not for what it communicates. So yeah, now that I understand what you’re saying better, I think I agree.

        As far as animation in terms of direction/writing goes, while I appreciate your point that you haven’t seen anything as well-directed or written as the peaks of cinema or literature, I guess I’d simply like to point out that being animation doesn’t exclude a work from achieving those highs. We maybe just haven’t gotten there yet.

        And as far as the subjective/objective thing goes, I think we’re actually on the same page. Like you, I don’t believe “all art is subjective” to be a worthwhile or interesting or even good position. I was merely noting that I don’t think animation is any more objective than writing or cinematography or what have you. Although it just occurred to me that perhaps you were talking about the scholarship itself being more objective in nature, in which case I apologize for my off-topic tangent. ^_^”

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  4. I think that the charge that writing in anime is universally substandard even in the best of cases is fairly absurd. I love animation, and value it as a key part of anime; I have enjoyed watching more mads recently and embracing the sakuga culture. However, dismissing the writing of series such as FLCL (and indeed to hold it up as the relatively mindless fun that anime “should” embrace), whose writing is incredibly subtle and well-crafted, drawing upon literary tradition and iterating upon it in a manner that is truly worthwhile can only hurt sakuga fans and fuel those accusations of supremacy that you were complaining about a mere article prior. I love anime above any other medium because I love every aspect of it as much as or more than those aspects’ counterparts in other mediums. I have very strong interests in literature, film, music, and video games as artistic mediums, and if all anime had going for it over its peers was the animation then it would not hold the special place for me that it does. Part of the appeal is that I prefer Eastern artistic tendencies over Western ones in many instances, especially when it comes to writing. It is no coincidence that my favorite game developers are almost all Japanese, as is my favorite author, Haruki Murukami. Perhaps this is simply because I grew up surrounded by Western art, so the Eastern proclivities are more unpredictable/fresh to me, but I genuinely enjoy them more. The writing of almost American television is dreadful. So much of it is absolute dull garbage, and the bit of it that is mildly interesting is generally fairly formulaic according to its genre and clearly dragged out hoping for extended serialization. This is the most important point for me. American television is written to last as long as possible (in nearly all cases), whereas anime is written with a very real awareness of its time restraints (in nearly all cases). This often hurts anime, especially adaptations, that end up rushed or incomplete, but in the instances where it doesn’t, it is a boon to them. Allowing, complete, self-contained stories to be told without holding anything back for the second season (think: FLCL, Yoshitoshi ABe shows, Masaaki Yuasa shows, etc.). I’d say the worst part of the writing is generally the dialogue, but in many cases that is due at least in part to the inability of translations to be as natural as the original language. In conclusion, do I come to anime for its unique audio-visual presentation? Absolutely, that’s a huge part of it, but as someone who got a 5 on the 5-point scale National Advance Placement Literature and Composition Exam and an exclusive reader of literary fiction, I find anime’s writing to be as much if not more engaging and well-crafted than that in its fellow mediums. You are of course entitled to your own opinion of it, but it is a great disservice to many, many fans of anime to say that their love of its writing is somehow misplaced because it is markedly inferior to that of its peers.

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  5. If I may add my two cents, I find the best part of anime (or any medium really) is knowing how the scotch tape and popsicle sticks used to create the illusion. Anime is so limited yet limitless at the same time, a natural hotbed for this sort of discussion. That said, more often than not, anime has seams, parts where you can tell they tried to spread what butter they had over too much bread. I am fairly ignorant of sakuga, not for a lack of trying, but in my mind, seeing how resources where applied to create the illusion – that is sakuga. I agree with the idea that animation is what makes an animated film an animated one, and you would think it’s a no brainer, but really it’s not. So when I see something that can ONLY be done in animation, that is sakuga. The name that comes to mind is Satoshi Kon. Using the superior framerate control that the medium gives was his bread and butter. Just an example.

    What people need to realize is that art is information. Spoken lines, music, visuals – all of it is just information. What does that mean? It means that visuals can be just as informative as dialogue or music, and oft times more informative. I will never understand how the inclusion of more elements leads to its segmentation. ‘The X was good but Y was bad’ is an odd argument. Maybe it’s a limit of our language to refer to story as what is being said. I prefer to think in terms of ‘did this add or subtract?’ Was what was said assist what was going on screen? Was what you saw responsive to the music or vice versa? Where did the weight of the story lie? Then ask the best question: Why. Much more productive use of thought to me.

    What I don’t agree with is the complete segmentation that often accompanies this process. Sakugabooru is wonderful for understanding the ‘how’ of animation in a classroom setting, but can often feel so cold. If I ask you to sample a loaf of bread you don’t comment on the yeast, flour and milk separately. I want to be clear, I think Sakugarbooru is a good thing, a very good thing, but no the end all be all. Segmentation is a necessary evil for the sake of discussion. Great post Tam!

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    • If the discourse around sakuga feels limited, it’s because talking about animation in a critical manner is difficult and few know how to do it well. It requires memorizing a ton of jargon and history, and even then you have to be an organized thinker, a persuasive writer, and have some degree of poetic faculty. And all that for fucking anime! Most bloggers would rather copy/paste their skills from English 301 and call it a day.

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  6. This is a really difficult and complex topic, kudos for trying to tackle it! Animation isn’t easy to discuss because it can mean so many different things. Visuals, music, story, acting–it’s literally a synthesis of all the arts. As shergal says, it’s probably best to look at it on a case-by-case basis. There’s plenty of great cartoons with minimal animation.

    That said, it’s ridiculous to dismiss animation as “garnish” or “special effects.” It’s an art form unto itself. It can stand on its own, as you mentioned. It’s the one element that unifies this very disparate medium (and its fans). Even if you couldn’t care less for it, you have to acknowledge that.

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  7. Love the dialogue here and your insights that sakuga is the next big thing. I think that is a good insight, and is definitely reflected by ANN’s newer articles on the matter.

    One thing I would like to add is that Scholar Tom LaMarre’s book The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation argues that compositing is just as important, if not more so, that character animation alone, noting that “You cannot address the interstices between frames without first dealing with the interstices between layers” (xxv).

    I’m still only partway through the book, so I haven’t read his whole argument yet, but I would at least like to add that compositing is quite important and can be left to the wayside in discussions of sakuga. Compositing has a tremendous effect on animation which can be taken for granted. I think of Serial Experiments Lain, which uses a cheap budget for effective, alienating effects (https://youtu.be/2W4Yx_k2RYk?t=6m36s).

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  8. Sakuga fans, or at least some of them not just appreciate good animating scenes, they go further to track many aspects in production and the industry, they also read and seek the history of workers, their influences their lifestyles and ideologies and their approaches toward anime and visual narrative, and they bring many of what they learn to the surface. this enthusiasm and passion are heavy in typical anime fans(or Big fishes who now everything.) which lead some of them to fireback with words like “they pretend to be a maven critics, etc” while all they do is sharing some of what they learn and found about the industry and medium they love.

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  9. I tried to answer your questioning about how animation factors in one’s judgment of an anime’s merit, but I ended up writing a long, rambling post on how I try to interpretate art in general than something more about anime or sakuga specifically. Sorry!

    When trying to evaluate a work of art, even though you’ll often find yourself making many value judgments, both subjective (I liked this, I enjoyed this, I hated this) and objective (the animation is stellar, the writing is weak, the storyboarding is intricate), in the end, the real thing you’re looking for is the meaning of that work. The meaning of a work of art is what it was made to convey – its purpose. If an anime achieves what it meant to do, and does it well, then it is a good anime. That’s my general thought process.

    Then, what could be the “meaning” of an anime, specifically? It could range from a complex statement on human life (Utena or Evangelion) to the exploration of a concept or concepts (media, identity and reality, in Perfect Blue; personal freedom and socially determined fate, in Penguindrum; power, its control and tacit totalitarianism, in Shinsekai Yori) to evoking a lived experience (motherhood, in Wolf Children, or adolescence, in FLCL) or a feeling (relaxation, in K-On, or adrenaline, in Gurren Lagann) or even a bodily reaction (disgust, in Akira, or laughter, in Nichijou).

    It could go from making you rethink your existence to making your dick hard – if something reaches its end, it is, in a broad sense, good. Of course, some ends are more intricate, interesting or innovative than others, and one will evidently take that into consideration when comparing two works.

    A work can, of course, derive its meaning primarily or uniquely from its visual components in detriment of narrative, as in any abstract work, or Yuasa’s Cat Soup or Dream Machine. And they can be fundamental to a work’s purpose – it’s hard to imagine Medarot’s humor without its expressive and funny character art, or Gurren Lagann’s passionate furor without its visceral fights – But, in general, what matters is what arises out of the interaction between the union of writing, story, animation, etc and the mind of the viewer.You may break something down into its constituent parts analytically, but if you want to get anything out of something you’ll have to interpretate it, and to interpretate you’ll have to look at it holistically. You can’t compartmentalize them into strict boxes, much less put one of them above the others.

    This is also why you can’t create a comprehensive, universal concept of good animation, writing etc., or a general theory of what makes an anime good. You said each work constructs its own definition of the medium. I think that for each work, you have to build a functional concept of good animation, or writing, or direction out of the work itself, that is, you have to look at what the work is trying to do and what it does, and only then come to a conclusion about whether it succeeds at its purpose or not, and only through that judgment may you say that the animation or writing or direction of that work is good or not – which is why I’d agree with, for example, your judgment that Mononoke has good animation (since it’s made to suit its wider aesthetic purpose of simulating late-19th century Japanese art, and through it, late-19th century Japanese society) but disagree with your statement that anime neccessarily has bad writing (for example, the redundant, unstructured, spontaneous and irreverent writing of Mind Game is central to its purpose of celebrating life, disjointed, confusing and infinitely open as it may be). So, even for formal analysis, you’d need to interpretate the individual work, look at its objectives.

    Of course, that doesn’t preclude comparisons with other works, even those from other media, but that must always be done taking into consideration the different ends, and the means to achieve these ends, of each.

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  10. If (Anipages’) Ben Ettinger was the first sakuga evangelist, I probably took part in its second wave doing a convention panel and recording it for YouTube (in 2011 initially). The panel had a diverse selection of scenes from realist to impressionist, and action to drama; we tried to fight the impression that “sakuga = snazzy action setpiece”, even if that’s what it often is. And it ended on a note that animation is an important component of storytelling, preempting the backlash that would divorce “story” and “animation” into isolated camps. I’d rather ponder how elements like “music” and “animation” serve total storytelling (or intellectual/emotional/aesthetic ideas) than serve themselves.

    But the backlash isn’t entirely wrong. TV Anime _is_ often a jumble of freelancers making their assigned parts individually cool if time allows (a character design, an episode’s storyboard, an action scene). With individual animators sometimes being mini-directors, the total visual storytelling is effectively delegated to dozens of people without strong oversight, completely unlike a Disney/Pixar film where every moment is scrutinized heavily. We all know this, but I’m just saying. The way anime is constructed lends itself to fanatical deconstruction; every fancy scene cropped & uploaded to sakugabooru, every bishoujo ranked #1-5 in a”best girl” list, etc.

    It’s hard to argue that “sakuga” or even broader staff-list analyses have elevated importance when TV anime is often more about incongruity than synergy. I will argue for it, certainly, but it’s hard. A visionary director that can put skilled & inspired artists on the same thematic page, in a production schedule that allows synergistic magic to happen, is a once-a-year event. Everything else slaps the audience across the face with “the X is bad, but at least the Y is cool”, and I must be a masochist to enjoy anime as much as I do.

    On a positive note, I definitely agree that the Sakuga Enlightenment (lol) has greatly elevated the discourse, and that its biggest proponents incl. yourself impart a holistic perspective. Thanks for doing what you do.

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    • I think that piecemeal way of enjoying anime has actually helped rather than hurt in my case. If I was watching entire shows, instead of picking around for the best parts as I do now, I’d be bored as hell. It also gives you a more balanced perspective I think. We can talk about this shit in the most high flown terms but ultimately anime are these weird pulpy cartoons. Going through its ‘canon’ (if such as thing exists) you’re gonna see a muuuuuuuuuch lower hit to miss ratio than the canon of virtually any other artform.

      The name Sakuga Enlightenment is perfect lol. Gonna use it if I ever get into a twitter argument about this stuff.

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  11. I believe as a critic you should always ask two fundamental questions: 1) Why should this particular story be told in this particular medium? and 2) How did the creators make use of the strengths of the medium in question?

    I fully agree that “writing” in anime is comparatively weak. No matter if I want grand, complex stories or intimite characterisation, I would always turn to literature. As a visual medium, film – both animated and live-action – should prevail on the visual front.

    Which leads me to the question why I do watch anime. The answer has been for the longest time: action, especially giant robot action. This was true even before I came in contact with the sakuga scene. In retrospect, the connection was always there. Action sences are among the most “flashy” or noticable animation sequences. But the framing and attention provided by employing the sakuga lense helps to appreciate beloved action scenes much more. From there it is relatively easy to start looking into animation’s role in portraying chartacter drama and comedy as well. Or simply enjoying when more than two characters on the screen are moving at the same time.

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  12. Reading this post a second time, if there’s any reason I like the “sakuga supremacism” point, it’s the combination of your first and last bullet points. At least for some works, I feel like the variety of different things that could constitute purposeful, successful animation means the “supremacist” approach, on top of being less personal and accommodating historical discussion, lends itself to a more holistic analysis. I agree with Mew that it matters how everything within a work interacts, but because of that, choosing one element to approach first can be a good jumping-off point for an analysis. As to why that point should be animation, I’d go further with what Josh said above about art being information and say that it works with a specific emotive, experiential kind of information. I’m not sure what’s the best way to put it; it’s articulated better in Ebert’s words on Potemkin and Rosenbaum’s on Greed. It’s hard to resist animation; part of the reaction to it is intuitive, even if you can’t put it into words right away because it doesn’t run on words – like you said, it doesn’t literally contain any writing.

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  13. I’m probably way out of my depth here, and I’m postponing my studying for an important exam in a few months for it, but this article was interesting enough that I felt I might as well spare a few words.

    It might do good to mention that the specific subject of this article is a bit of a foreign issue to me. I was aware of the increasing knowledge of the concept of sakuga and how it affects anime production, and had seen highlights of particularly good scenes on YT, but I wasn’t aware there was some huge debate going on around the concept. I figured it was just something that was added to our knowledge of how anime is thought of and created. You learn something new every day, I guess.

    Anyways:

    As someone who’s been an art hobbyist (not an animator, just general drawing), I find your comment about the distinction between “writing” and art/animation to be pretty agreeable. These ARE visual mediums; what the artists draw ends up being much closer to the final product than what the script or scenario writers penned. A character’s angry rant can fall completely flat or be an iconic and defining moment all depending on how it’s staged and acted. And these are not things that you can adequately express through writing; that’s the advantage of the medium, the ability to be able to see and not have to imagine. Consider the fact that often the most powerful scenes in film, comic books, and yes anime as well, are the ones that no require words, because the visual art is so strongly telling the audience all they need to know that adding words to it would be inelegant.

    The answer as to why this dichotomy/separation exists is fairly obvious: the “writing” is the easiest thing for the layman to critique. Most people who think about things enough have some semblance of an idea of how to about critiquing a work’s narrative structure, characterization, script, etc, because these are things that are universal to storytelling, no matter what medium. However, any particularities of that medium, like shot composition in film, perspective and stylization in comics, and timing and frames in animation, are not things that the vast majority of people are going to be very knowledgeable about on anything but a very superficial level.

    And let’s be frank here: at the end of the day, I don’t think the majority of people really care to know that much. The majority of people are interested in stories, and not necessarily the peculiarities of the medium itself. The medium is a means to an end, and not the end. Everyone likes stories, but only a few people are film buffs, bookworms, anime enthusiasts and what have you. At that point, it’s merely up to the individual to choose where they consume stories most frequently, and why.

    While I wouldn’t go so far as you did in your article regarding the narrative highs of anime (if your criteria for something being shallow is that work saying something that’s been around for a long time, you write off a lot of very great films and books), I do think that a large part of its appreciation from people comes down to its visual style and animation, which only makes the dichotomy you’re talking more about more strange to me.

    While I understand that the lack of technical knowledge of animation must be frustrating for enthusiasts, it’s just sort of a natural thing to happen really. Unless you’re talking about a very particular community, the majority of anime fans are not going to be knowledgeable about animation.

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  14. Thank you again for another great insight.

    When so-called anime criticism always overlook animation/visual aspect, then it’s like trying to watch anime with blank screen while only subtitles and sounds are running (like 90’s VHS fansub gone wrong). Or trying to comprehend dialogue in Japanese drama CD without understanding a lick of Japanese language. Picture tells story just like spoken dialogue. Show me anime viewer who fell love with anime without who never looked at a single anime picture. As the phrase, “a picture tells a thousand words”, it’s just pointless trying to make sound analysis about a visual media without talking about visual at all.

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  15. While I do not have many issues regarding the majority of your points above, acknowledging that you are extremely good at analyzing the craft of animation in particular, I do have a couple of questions related to particular subjects.

    1. Doesn’t the moment-to-moment experience of watching any anime primilary depend on the viewer’s own subjectivity, knowledge, background and interests? An episode of Legend of the Galactic Heroes that you might find to be extremely boring can, and most certainly does, appeal to another sector of the audience.

    2. It is even possible for a work of fiction to say something completely new at this point in history? Art can find new ways to convey similar messages, but there is hardly any significant novelty beneath the surface.

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    • 1. Absolutely, but those factors aren’t very persuasive when you’re trying to make an argument. There are people who love LOGH; so what? Why should anyone care besides themselves? The “it’s all subjective” always comes off like “I can’t defend my position that well” to me.

      2. That’s what I was getting at. Works of art shouldn’t be trying to _say_ things at all. Otherwise we’re left to compare them to coherent thought, a comparison where they’ll always come up short.

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  16. Very interesting. So if I try to summarize what I take out of this, the idea (among other things) would be to advocate for a holistic approach to anime talking that puts back animation in the broad sense at the center of things? I think it could provide very interesting insights, since the writing-plot-story-dialog-narration approach often feels limited.

    What I wonder about though, is how that would be concretely realized. I’m especially skeptical about what can come out of piecemeal appreciation of things. As you’ve said, though, the fact is there that it’s what we tend to do, because anime easily lends itself to that kind of appreciation, or perhaps is better enjoyed thus. Thing is, can we really have an analysis without joining together the whole? In other words, it’s good indeed to ground an analysis in empirical data, but empirical data is nothing without the theory behind that gives it its meaning and coherence. So now that we’ve got ourselves a “program” that sounds really cool on paper, the question is how to enact it, go from the pieces to the whole in a sense, instead of staying at a piecemeal approach (but then what do we do about all that stuff whose only worth is found in the tiny bits?)

    Anyway, great article. I think your insight about the role sakuga may play within the community is right. I’ve seen english sakuga fans make a few emulates in french communities that hadn’t ever really been interested in sakuga before and were stuck in (what I find) kinda sterile discussions. They, too, could be the alternative to the old gatekeepers that so far were the main providers of interesting anime discussions across french communities.

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  17. You should write the Sakuga Manifesto.

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