It’s been years, where is the Ethos now?

Anime is a fucking joke. It’s vapid, trashy, smutty, and often times, really a waste of effort on the part of the creators (not that their efforts are wasted or unappreciated , as they themselves often work hard only for the end result to be… less than time worthy, shall we say). Season after season, the same show is dug up like an old, husky corpse, placed back on to the assembly line to be cloned and resold to the masses as a ‘new’ product. And what I mean by this is that anime stories are bad. They are dreadful. They have no sense of identity in and of themselves, and to be honest, it’s been this way for a while. Try and find a Shonen property that hasn’t been done before by a predecessor. You can’t.

If it’s one thing I’ve learned being away from the anime community for so long was how right I was when I first made the argument that visuals are the most important part of anime. I usually favored sakuga in these conversations, but really all visual aspects (layout, set design, background art, post effects, etc.) meld into one, and supercede the superficial slave-master that is the written narrative/script/setting/plot – whatever the hell you wanna call it. This is the reason there are no ‘anime books’. Anime is anime, it’s on your tv, not in the pages of a hardcover novel. How do people pick new shows? Chances are, we all look at some key visual and watch the first episode. And even then, sometimes the story is so pathetic, we stop watching. Wanna say that story is important in anime; stop kidding yourself.

Where would fandom be without the sakuga the community? The community has always been around, but now it’s stronger than ever. More than three years have passed since Tamerlane’s original At Least It’s an Ethos, and it’s safe to say that folks at Sakuga blog are here to stay. And we should thank them. I dabbled in that game, and it’s not easy sorting through foreign language microblog posts or attempting to punch through the veil of secrecy that many animators are sworn to. Sakuga fans of all different creeds and associations have done wonders in raising awareness of the labored masterpieces that flash before our eyes every week. What used to be sacred, treasured knowledge is now openly displayed almost like a museum, open to educate all who are interested. Now, you go to a convention and it’s hard not to spot a sakuga panel on the program; there’s one almost every day of the con. Names of producers, animators, studio heads are common vernacular in forum conversation. Youtube videos introduce the works of background artists, composers, and storyboarders to a new generation of fans, creating a form of adoration among those who have seen their work but never identified the masters’ hands.

But what is the point? These revelations and gifts of connecting an artist to their work are still two dimensional and often times reportage. I apologize for the bait-and-switch tone, but that’s the bone I have to pick with sakuga writing. Sure, I can toss ‘Yutapon cubes’ into any conversation and expect anyone who is listening to know that ‘Yutapon’ means Yutaka Nakamura, and will visualize the building block like wreckage that we’ve seen in shows like Soul Eater and One Punch Man. That’s no small feat! The level of conversation has been elevated (read more professional), and that’s super important to point out. We’ve come a long way.

But I feel like it’s missing a very important point: what does it actually do for the viewer emotionally?

The climax of Summer Wars always makes me cry. The music starts playing, and I start tearing up. It’s an emotional queue. But it only works after I’ve seen the chatacters struggle. You had to be there, see the expressions of grief, of loss, hopelessness, before a triumph can even matter. Sure the music matters, but really the visuals are carrying all the weight. No if, ands, or buts about it – the music alone cannot convey the same message. But the visuals can. Do they help? Yeah. And I wouldn’t change that scene one bit. But guess what, Belladonna of Sadness did it. The damn thing hardly even moves. The soundtrack is in there to ease the audiences into what is actually happening. (Funnily enough, this is the exact reason horror movies fail if they rely too much on sounds and not actual visuals.)

Animation versus story. Story versus animation. It’s a bullshit argument at this point. For those of you who know me, this has been the eternal struggle I have proposed, and to this day, I still argue that ‘story’ and ‘plot’ in anime is going to be forever inferior to the visual presentation of that same story. See, for me, anime can be dissected into two categories: animation and culture. At the end of the day, what points and thoughts are being presented don’t really matter unless they are interesting, captivating. And with a visual medium, that means they must look good.

Allow me to go out on a limb and say Akira does not have a good story. Or any story. Not one that you can express in conversation at least. What the hell is it even about? Biker gang kid takes a pill and becomes a psychic, who then turns to goo. Fascinating. What a story. So why is it so fascinating? Why did it resonate with so many people in the budding days of American anime fandom? Why do it and Ghost in the Shell hold sacred cow places in the zeitgeist of Western anime fandom? I propose it’s because of its ideas.

Both shared with us a future, one we didn’t know how we got to, what had happened along the way, or what needed to be done to avoid it. But that really wasn’t really the point of the piece in either case. The story didn’t matter so much as the themes did/do, and those themes are all visual. Akira‘s biker gangs were reminiscent of the bosozoku in the 80’s (but casual anime fans don’t know that because they only stick to anime), the religious movement was nearly the same thing that was happening at the same time. Akira was about the eventual collapse of Japan (which was actually fairly well predicted in anime of the 80’s because they knew trickle down economics was bullshit), as well as the collapse of society. Akira‘s greatest strength is communicating these messages without telling you. You don’t need to know Japanese culture of the past half century to understand Akira, everything you need to know is on the goddamn screen right in front of you. The buildings are warn down, kids are dangerous hooligans, riots are in the streets, the government is in control but too weak to govern, you SEE all of this. No one told you.

Same goes for Ghost in the Shell. The body is not who you are, it is a thing. The message was summed up before the credits even ended. The scene of the Major’s body being constructed and re-skinned was not fanservice, it was art. The realistic detail of how she puts her arm through the sleeve of her jacket before leaving her apartment was to allow the viewer a semblance of relatability. The most memorable scene of the movie is her fading with optic camouflage, and has been recreated in every incarnation of GitS since! The animation was her character.

Over the course of my personal crusades, I’ve proposed that the animation is the most important factor in an anime. Period. Sound be damned, at the end of the day, a deaf person can more or less experience the same story (obviously there are discrepancies) as a fully hearing person. All visual mediums started off as being silent at one point or another anyway. And damn the false dichotomy of ‘writing/story vs visuals’ as well – it’s a trap I fall into all too often. In anime, writing/story IS animation. Or maybe it’s better to say, animation is the writing of the show. Characterization is more defined by how something happens rather than the actual event itself. For example, a character assuming the fetal position is a hyper common trope, but well defined characters will all do it in their own unique fashion – and uniqueness is the lifeblood of characterization. This is what makes the K-On girls different, distinguishes the Osomatsu brothers, the seven dwaves from Snow White, etc. John Lasster touched on this point when he was discussion My Neighbor Totoro, specifically the scene where Mei and Satsuki are running through the new house. The two girls do the exact same action, but it’s how they do it. Lasseter says on the topic:

To me, one of the basic elements in defining the personality of an animated character is to show the same action performed by two separate characters. No one does the same thing in the same way – no one. By using this technique, the characters really take on a personality of their own.

– From the interview in Ghibli, Studio Ghibli, May 2005

Look at Evangelion, episode 4, Rain After Running Away. We open with a shot of the rain falling over Tokyo-III, Misato still in bed. Her alarm goes off and groggily, she gets up to brush her teeth. It’s a simple thing we all do every day, literally nothing remarkable about it. So why is the time being spent to show this as the set up? Wouldn’t it be better to show Shinji sneaking out, leaving a note? Because this way establishes Misato’s character without words, and we understand without having to be told. When she finds Shinji’s note (addressing her with -sama, two levels of honorific suffix against her wishes) and she knows instantly what’s going on. She doesn’t have to read it. Groggily getting out of bed to brush our teeth in the morning is an extremely human thing, but places Mistao on a level we can relate to. Here, in the mundane, we can see aspect of ourselves in the details of Misato’s routine. Likewise, not seeing Shinji leave builds his character by not telegraphing his actions.

In that very same episode, despite being the main focus and having the majority of the screen time, Shinji has relatively few lines. It’s a decompressed view of what’s happening inside of Shinji. It’s better to feel than to be told. The scene on the train is well crafted in allowing us to see who Shinji is, more than what actions he takes (or doesn’t take) to move the story along. We are privy to character motivation, the very essence of what makes Shinji Ikari.

No dialog save the announcer over the speaker, but we don’t need it. The track on the SDAT moves forward; people slowly phase out of existence. The SDAT moves back; slowly, people fade back into view. Then the world goes black. But the most important factor in this scene is what happens immediately after… Nothing. Nothing stirs, it’s a static shot, a breather. We got the message, internalize it. Then he speaks: “I’ve got to go back.” Track 26. That’s pacing.

This scene is a paragon example of pacing dictating character. It’s a simple concept really, the literal unfolding of time on the screen must be animated to exist at all. Thus even things like pacing are subject to their visual representation. In the realm of Japanese animation, a series like Evangelion is about as strong as storytelling can get, and that’s mostly due to it’s animation. Even in the final episodes, where everything came tumbling down (pardon the pun) the visuals still prove to be exciting and visceral, invoking emotion. And that’s what art is supposed to do, make us think, make us feel.

Sight was the first language you learned, so why abandon it in favor of written word? The story behind the heroes of Olympus do not make the statues of ancient Greece more important. I don’t know half of the lore, and I don’t care. Because I see the glory in their expressions, and feel the softness of cloth even though it’s portrayed in stone. No one had to tell me. And most importantly, there’s a wonder and amazement to be felt, not told, when you see these for yourself. Art is one of the purist forms of convoluted communication. Even when language fails; when sound is absent. In my time being part of a new family, watching a small child grow is more amazing then being told stories about their first words, or former habits they’ve outgrown. I’ve seen the change. A text message of ‘the child is happy’ is great, and has a very real meaning – but it falls shy of being there, seeing them happy.

Watch the opening of Kizumonogatari again. It kinda all proves my point.

4 Comments

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  1. It’s really great to see you writing again, Josh! Unfortunately, it’s also a bit disappointing to see that this is what you have to say.

    This whole article feels a little “taking my ball and going home” to me. It feels like you’re resonating with anime on a specific wavelength and are expecting everyone else to resonate with it on the same wavelength, and that’s just not how things work. I don’t think anyone can say that animation isn’t important to anime. After all, that’s the medium that anime is: animation. But you seem to be bending over backwards to insist that, because the visuals are a large part of the medium’s form, and because that’s what YOU like about it, that that’s what EVERYONE should primarily like about it.

    Animation and visuals are important, sure. If an anime doesn’t have good animation, or at least good visuals to make up for its limited animation, it probably isn’t going to become one of the greats. But what makes any work great in any medium is a cocktail of a variety of things. They have to work in harmony to create a whole, and just because one element works, it doesn’t mean others will. Trying to claim that animation is what dictates everything is a chicken-and-egg argument. Are the visuals the story? Or is the story the visuals? And the answer to both questions is “yeah, sure, sometimes.” And those questions both ignore the other elements of presentation.

    The idea of “literacy,” in my opinion, is something that’s always a sliding scale, and more than just the written word. Just like how being able to read or write doesn’t mean you can decipher a metaphor or create a clever phrase, being able to see, appreciate, and be moved by something visually or aurally doesn’t necessarily mean you’re able to explain it. I know how I feel when I hear a certain song or see a certain scene. I maybe can’t put why that is into words. But I can feel it. And I feel all elements of a thing at once. In the “Simon’s Rebirth” moment of Gurren Lagann, I’m moved because of the animation, yes. It wouldn’t have the same impact as a still image. But the music that accompanies it, as well as the content of his speech, especially in the context of the narrative? Without those elements, it’s just some kid striking a pose in a robot. It doesn’t mean anything.

    You’re focusing on the emotions that animation makes you feel in this post, and that’s great. But you’re trying to take something as subjective as that and make the claim that it’s actually objective. As a result, the post really comes across as a tantrum about how other people don’t have the same level of literacy in animation that you do. You’re demanding that people who don’t appreciate animation on the same level care about it more, and that people who appreciate animation articulate why better. And saying “yeah, but be BETTER at it” isn’t doing anyone any good, especially since it’s kind of arbitrary. The beauty of art, in my opinion, is that it has the ability to connect with people on different levels. And to attempt to invalidate the level at which other people engage with art (or fandom, because like it or not, anime is defined by its subcultures and communities as much as it is the medium) just ends up coming across as whiny.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Great counter argument – however, there are some aspects I want to clarify.

      Using your scene from Gurren Lagann, is Simon’s speech stirring? Absolutely, but it is because we’ve seen Kamina die. The story is, a boy has lost his friend/mentor, and is now taking his life into his own hands. That’s is the plot/story. My argument is that without seeing those events that drew them close, and I mean actually seeing them, then it’s no more than words on a page. Gurren Lagann’s story is not complex or very deep, it’s actually kinda silly. You only take it somewhat seriously (or better said, you identify the tone of the work) through the style and presentation, which is the moving image.

      I agree 100% that “…what makes any work great in any medium is a cocktail of a variety of things.” Yes, absolutely, but my argument is that this is all being carried on the back of animation.

      Anime is not making new stories, not really. No new lines are being crossed there… unless you consider the stylization/presentation – which I argue is supremely (if not entirely) in the drawings.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m a newcomer to anime. I am old enough that I rented GITS and Akira on VHS and watched the original airing of bebop but that was pretty much it till about a year ago when I wanted to show my 12yr old Shonen some Ghibli films. When doing so it rekindled my love of animated films and television. I started to dig around and discovered that anime was and endless pit of animation and I dove in. Thanks to sites like yours that helped me sift through and find what I was looking for. Glad to see new posts popping up. Hope you’re able to keep them coming. Thanks for all your hard work.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. And I thought you guys pulled plug on this site due to life changes….

    Anyway, it’s interesting to point out lack of new and fresh story in Anime and if I was younger and immature then I would vehemently reject your argument. But now, I have to agree with you.

    Animation being visual storytelling medium at its core and Anime has been very good at delivering great storytelling with their effective direction and quality visuals loaded with details. Plus constant stream of youth oriented expressions and ideas makes anime attractive despite the medium itself being over several decades old.

    Those qualities obviously filled the void left by simple story of run-of-the-mill manga adaptations. Not only that, TV animation production system of Anime makes it hard to come up with complex story from scratch unless source materials move up the notch. Original shows are not easy to come by and only a tiny amount of creators in the industry has ball to choose whatever source materials of their liking (or their intellect).

    Excuses aside, I do think that animation appreciation needs more holistic approach and animation quality alone are not enough to impress fans who are getting older and wiser with life experience. Once fans grow up, there is no turning back to animation they like unless the animation medium grows up with them.

    Even though I consider myself as early “adopter” of Sakuga movement in the West, I have to point out insufficiency of the our sub-fandom. If fandom is too focused on a single aspect of art, they lose track of other aspect of scene which makes overall the holistic view of anime highly enjoyable. Not only animation appreciation through Sakuga alone turns away people who don’t have strong visual literacy and unable to include other aspects such as direction, sound, music, voice acting from time to time makes it unapproachable. Not everyone has developed sense of analyzing visual in deeper aspect and Sakuga fandom is in danger of developing myopic vision if not careful.

    Identifying which animator worked on what scene is nice and all, but unable to articulate why certain sequence leaves deep impression on reviewer and unable to interpret thought process of the animator responsible make it less engaging. Sometimes I get tired of looking at another “cool” FX animation sequence or elaborate character animation when the given storyline of a show feels like it’s just there for show.

    Liked by 2 people

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