Josh: Visuals are the most important part of anime. Period. This conversation really is a followup to a Twitter conversation we started having and ended up evolving into something too much for 140 characters to support.
Anime is a medium that can do anything, literally. Forced perspectives that are not possible in normal camera work, color and control that would seem tacky otherwise, not to mention animation can draw much closer to the emotional and subconscious aspect of the primal human due to a level of acceptance and suspension of disbelief not warranted in other visual medium. Why would you restrict that with story?
I agree, a good story is nice to have in any medium, but animation (and all other visual medium) can exist for their own sake. A statue does not have a story, nor do all songs, but they both share the same artistic aspect: emotion. Story is, and always will be secondary to that.
Subtle Doctor: Man, this is going to be a convo. My position on these issues has evolved the more I have talked about it. I used to draw a hard line distinction between the medium of animation and its story/narrative/lyrical/emotional content, it’s message, the expression the creator wants to convey using the vehicle of animation. However, there are many instances in which such lines begin to blur. There are plenty of anime that do not adhere to traditional narrative structures but use other mechanisms to communicate their message(s) e.g. the visuals. Visuals are an essential storytelling device in anime. To deny this would be foolhardy. For the purposes of this discussion, though, I want to focus on anime in which we are able to more easily distinguish the expression/message from the visual design and animation because it makes things easier and also because I believe we couldn’t subsist on a diet of lyrical anime alone. Stories are very important to human beings, so we need anime (and books and film and music) with stories. If anime was filled with nothing but Births, I don’t think there’d be anything like the market for it or fan base there is now.
I suppose all the arguments I bring to the table will be highly subjective in some way. Someone somewhere will find shows that serve as counter examples to my points, and I have to live with that. I think that the anime we truly remember and hold dear, we do so for reasons that ultimately don’t rely on the visuals. As I said, visuals are an important mode of message delivery in anime, but, I think we remember the Utenas and Evangelions and Monogataris of this world not for the visuals divorced from the storytelling but for the artistic expression of story and character that fueled those visual images. The latter on their own are empty. It is the non-visual elements in, around, within those visuals that give them meaning and power.
There are a couple of shows that make my point another way. Trigun is a beloved series for many reasons, but its visuals are not one of them. It was ugly and badly animated in 1998 when it came out, yet people still regard it highly today. They do so because the non-visual elements spoke to them to strongly. Violinist of Hamelin has been called “barely animated” by Mike Toole, and he’s right. Yet, that show has fans, myself included, because an anime’ goodness is not equivalent to its visuals. There are plenty of visually appealing anime that we know are bad…I don’t think any of those stick with us for long.
Jimmy Gnome: Have you seen Birth?
Subtle Doctor: Regrettably no, and I am relying on fandom and its take that it is something devoid of good storytelling etc. but is beautifully animated.
Chris Hitchcock: I’m going to be pretty straight forward on this one. I prefer for my animation to have solid context behind it. Animation for the pure sake of animation has its time and it’s place, but for me there’s only so many ways you can make fire look like fire. Sure, new tricks are being implemented all the time as the medium continues to grow and expand, but a rose is a rose, no matter how you slice it.
When you add a story behind your rose though, then it becomes something special. Is it a cursed item that keeps a master trapped in his lonesome castle on the long stormy nights? Does it represent a lost loved one? If so, who were they? A brother, a lover, a mother? Those narrative details give whole new meaning and life to those little things that appear on screen.
I feel a good narrative and strong characters will only improve upon animation. You don’t just have freedom to explore a world visually, but narratively as well. The style of animation you are using shouldn’t dictate what type of story you are trying to tell either. Not every anime has to be about teenage angst, or bad aliens vs good aliens. I’ve always felt anime is at its strongest when exploring time periods like the Victorian Era or explored the lives of everyday people. You could tell those stories in a live action setting yes, but creators chose this medium to express the most purist form of their vision of their narrative that isn’t held back by the shackles of reality. I like to see it as Animation is the tool to tell better stories.
Suribot: I have an issue with Josh’s initial statement. His point of animation for animation’s sake is not invalid. Art can (and sometimes should) be art for its own sake. We don’t look at a statue for its story, yes. But we also don’t look at a single statue for 4-5 hours or more over the course of 13+ weeks. The art in anime is as much in the moment-to-moment as it is in the big picture. A single cut is often a work of art, but the product we call anime is the some total of 3600 cuts or more across 12+ episodes. It is macro and micro. The micro is made by the animation, the verisimilitude of being brought into a world, of believing an object is moving and has weight, but the macro is the story every time. No person is ever going to remember ever single micro detail. A couple will stand out, but by and large, what stands the test of time is the macro. The story, the writing, the whole picture. They cannot be divorced and must work together in concert to create something memorable, though obviously we see productions where one side will outshine the other. Animation for animation’s sake cannot carry a product and to try and only focus on the micro reduces a collaborative work down to a series of gifs and webms. It’s like ordering a cake, only to pull off the strawberries adorning it and say that the cake must exist for the sake of the strawberries.
Animation should never be tossed aside in favor of story and story should not fall flat so that animation can sprint forward. At the end of the day, both need to work together to create something great, but the average person is going to remember the story. It provides context, it makes a cut more than just a series of images. And it’s fine to be just a series of images. But anime is both.
Subtle Doctor: Suri, would you endorse Josh’s position more if he qualified it as an ideal for anime as art and not product, like if he is only talking about what anime “should be” apart from the yucky but necessary business side?
Suribot: I mean, even then, no. The young animator specials are the antithesis of a product and they still tie together. There is story, even if it’s not apparent.
Like he posted on twitter that Anno animation of the car dropping and said “where’s the story” and like, there isn’t one because it’s 4 seconds long, man.
Jimmy Gnome: Pat brings up an excellent point. Anime as an industry is still primarily purposed for telling stories as opposed to being a venue for individual expression through animation, but what makes it largely different from televised western animation is how much freedom animators are given in their respective cuts and the variety of different styles that are acceptable for the final product. The fact that animators like Masaaki Yuasa and Shinya Ohira have gone on to have successful careers despite the distinct nature of their drawings is one of the primary reasons I follow anime instead of commercial animation produced in other countries. That said, I don’t believe there necessarily must be good visuals in an anime for it to be interesting or meaningful, nor do I think there must be a convincing plot to support animation. There are examples of both of these approaches in anime and they both have their own merits and gather their own audiences, and while it’s often useful to marry the techniques to achieve something capable only in this medium it’s not something entirely necessary to make meaningful art. Animation can be pure expression, a visceral experience that relies on an individual’s craft and nothing else, and of course a good story can be enjoyable to any person. In the end both are simply tools for a creator to use when expressing his or her ideas and feelings, nothing more.
Josh: While I agree much with what Jimmy is saying, I still have to assert the visual aspect over narrative. If I was to go off of purely personal, empirical fact, I would say the only season I watched shows like Kiznaiver and Phantom World was because they offerend something visually, so I understand where you’re coming from, Subs, when you mention Birth looking good but ultimately being lackluster because of a narrative failing – but these are all bad examples.
But I also want to address Pat’s comment at the same time. The length of the animation has nothing to do with story complicity. “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
We got a lot of feedback on twitter, and some of it I want to share, especially @_ibcf_’s post: “Would Evangelion or Cowboy Bebop been as popular if they were books?” and the short answer is no, it was the visuals (and audio to be fair) that made these shows what they were. Evangelion episodes 25&26 are a great example of the fact the visuals matter most. In fact, that story only exists because of the visuals. Most of Anno’s works are this way.
Stories are told, and because they are told, they are more reportive, factual retelling of events (fictitious or not) that must be accepted for progression. Visuals can draw conclusions, and create emotions. For example, when I see the face of someone I hold dear I don’t need to be told, I feel. That may be an unfair argument and a bad comparison, but what I’m trying to get at is feeling is more important than being told. Not that a story can;t make you feel, but there are rules in a story, there are none with visual (or at least, there are fewer). I can always see something and ask “What did I feel?” but if I do the same after a story, I have to first ask “What was I told?”
Style is the most basic, fundamental building block of any art. If there’s no style to the story, why tell it?
Subtle Doctor: Why are my example(s) bad? Can you clarify this point? It seems kinda of hand-wavy.
Josh: Well, each of them purposefully left room for story, and the stories where just bad. The only reason any one goes back for them are the visuals. Even if the story was good, Birth would still be mostly regarded for visuals, I feel.
Chris Hitchcock: Not to interrupt, Sub, but even though I don’t like Trigun, I find most people go back to that series because of its characters and they like the story.
Subtle Doctor: I think your own example of Kiznaiver is illustrative, Josh. We regard it as a failure DESPITE the fact that the design and animation are top notch. It is a failure because its narrative and expressive purposes failed, but you couldn’t have asked for much better in the visual department for television. You are on record as stating that the show failed. I think this means that even you don’t truly believe good visuals trump bad everything else.
There is a related idea out there that “anime should always be striving to create things only possible in anime, else why even make it?” This is, to be blunt, hogwash. I mean, we would have to erase 90% of anime history to meet such standards. There are amazing and memorable anime such as Maison Ikkoku and Touch that could easily be done in a live action setting (and have done so poorly in the case of Touch). Yet, these anime deeply resonate with audiences both in America and Japan. Touch was an absolute phenomenon when it came out because of everything that the visuals expressed, not the visuals themselves.
I LOVE it when the Satoshi Kons of the world try to experiment and so bold things, things only possible in animation. It’s wonderful and beautiful, but not every creator can do that or wants to do that. I also LOVE non-narrative stuff and art cinema and shorts, but even these have an intention behind them. They exist to convey an expression, a message (which can be as simple as expressing a feeling), and this is what resonates with people deepest and, again, gives the visuals–however impressive–meaning.
Ibcf asks if Bebop or Eva would be popular as books. Well, Eva already made the transition to another medium (manga) and is wildly popular still. Bebop would make an excellent series of pulp sci-fi novels, in my opinion. It truly just depends on if the creators use the tools at their disposal well enough, the same as when making an anime.
Suribot: As a note, there is in fact a live action Maison Ikkoku.
Chris Hitchcock: I also agree about the novel comment. Actually, I think Eva would highly benefit from removing all of the whining and bitching Shinji does throughout the series. Not change what he’s saying, just tape his mouth shut for awhile.
Anyhow, I’m curious to know if anybody here has ever tried getting one of their non-otaku friends into watching an anime series. I’m betting each and every time you do, you always pitch them a plot synopsis, as opposed to going into a long winded rant about how the main character’s bandana flows in the wind. The reason why most of us do this is because the animation for the most part is superficial. Saying you’re only watching a show because of the animation is kinda like saying you’re only dating a woman because you find them attractive. Those types of relationships all ways end in heartbreak and that’s very much how I view the medium. There needs to be more on the surface than just a pretty face. There needs to be something underneath worth dissecting.
Also let’s face it, those superficial qualities are what turn a lot of normal folks off from the medium in the first place. The animation is either seen as too juvenile or pretentious for most people to give it the time of day. Series like Monogatari and even Eva deal with this criticism from every person who isn’t a fan or willing to give it a chance. We know these series are far more than that, but those qualities that Josh praises so highly are what turn most people off from it in the first place. Its the context and the story that fight against the negative stereotypes the animation bestows upon it.
Suribot: I won’t argue that visuals are THE thing when it comes to anime. It is animation. That is what defines it. But something incredibly short doesn’t need backing or support to keep it standing. A single block stands on its own, but when you start stacking them, you need to build outward, establish a base. A single unit stands alone, but 300 or 3000 units require connective tissue of some kind. A bridge doesn’t get built without supporting struts. I also might have a looser definition of “story” than you guys are operating on. I don’t need someone to have learned a lesson or a moral to be conveyed, but there should be some kind of links between the individual bits. A flow of logic from one beat to the next. No one is going to watch 20 straight minutes of fire and nothing else, even if it’s immaculately rendered. Poulette’s Chair (Noitamina’s short from 2014) is a thing that exists entirely for the sake of its animation, but it conveys story through those visuals. The animation is doing the storytelling legwork, which is more than a lot of things can say.
But I do need to add in: Preconceived notions about animation do not justify the argument of story being more important than animation. Being unwilling to give it a chance speaks nothing of its quality and is a totally separate beast than the animation itself, any of the craft, or how any of it blends together.
Eva and Cowboy Bebop as they were would not immediately work as novels, not because of the stories they tell themselves, but because the stories are structured in such a way that they benefit from being animation. It’s a blending of creating an emotion from visuals while using that emotion to further the development of the story within and reinforce it. Eva‘s entire psychoanalytical components rely heavily on this. Feelings of isolation in the story, emotions characters are feeling, are reinforced visually while being conveyed through the writing as well.
Jimmy Gnome: And here’s where I get to my disagreements with your points, especially CJ’s: while interesting animation isn’t absolutely necessary for anime to be worthwhile, most of the best works the industry has produced are indeed heavily reliant on their visuals. Often enough this is through visual direction rather than animation, a remnant of Tezuka-school concepts of doing the best with as little as possible. However, expressive animation is of huge importance in the appeal of watching these shows as the one thing that is only achievable in the medium of moving pictures. More often than not the artistry of anime stems not from its story or even the resonance of animation and theme, but rather from the individual drawings that were combined to produce motion. While I still don’t believe it’s inherently wrong to exclude this quality when considering artistic works, there is immediately value when they are present that needs to context to be justified.
That said, I have personal qualms with series that are engaging on a visual level yet fail to support on the narrative front. In my eyes a traditional narrative often interferes with the impact of animation, which is why I usually prefer my sakuga series to have basic plots that allow animation to speak for itself. And that is a capability of animation, by the way; there is plenty of pure expression available from independent Japanese animators like Mirai Mizue and Yutaro Kubo that are completely devoid of context. I would love to see more of that kind of work find itself in commercial anime.
Josh: Kiznaiver failed because the visuals were subservient to the story, and quite honestly they didn’t do anything interesting outside of the first episode. Compare it to Space Dandy. What is the story of Space Dandy? There really isn’t one, you don’t watch it for story. And returning this to the Trigun conversation, a memorable character is not the same as a narrative. Golgo 13, Lupin III, Conan Edogawa, and the K-On girls never had what would be considered a cohesive narrative – the exist only within the moment they inhabit.
I agree that that “anime should always be striving to create things only possible in anime” but it’s not ‘why even make it’ – no one is calling to unmake, or not make things. We all realize that bills must be paid, and a lot of my favorite shows fall into that 90%. But at the same time, the range of expression is being broadened by shows in that 10%. Those shows are the ‘peak’ of what anime is. They broaden potential for other shows, and that’s progression.
This whole ‘tell them the story’ that you propose, CJ, is horribly biased. Who carries the anime in their pocket to show? Counter to that argument is what we all do on Twitter: screencap culture. Show them, then they can watch; we do that same thing at conventions and I do it for non-anime friends all the time. I like our friend Joey’s response, and would kinda like to adapt it myself, he says: “Cinema is a visual medium and has no obligation to narrative as a concept nor to any commercial trends.” I think I agree with him fullheartedly.
But a lot of the people in this conversation feel differently. Out of all the comments we received, most where along the lines of “why not both?” Obviously we all disagree on what the right balance is. But I really want to see the discussion that will come out of this. And despite the fact I may present my opinion in factual stone, I accept that it is not. So where do you, Dear Reader, fall on the scale? Let us know in the comments!