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.