Learning the Basics of Sakuga

My buddy Mystlord went to ACen recently, and attended an interesting panel on sakuga animation. When the folks who ran the panel put it up on YouTube, Mystlord was good enough to link it on Twitter, and I finally got around to watching it last night. As someone who is embarrassingly ignorant about the evolution of Japanese animation, I think it is an interesting look at the basics of sakuga and a solid primer on its evolution from the origins of Japanese animation to today. It’s a very newbie-friendly series of videos, and at a relatively short running length (I didn’t add up the times of the videos, but it can’t be more than an hour or so).

I think many of us — especially those of us who don’t draw or have backgrounds in art — tend to (perhaps unintentionally) de-emphasize the importance of animation in anime in favor of writing and characterization, perhaps because we know (or like to think we know) the latter, and the former has an entirely different set of mechanics and a language all its own that may be daunting to people, so we just do not think about it as strongly. But it does seem absurd that so many anime fans (myself included) so willingly gloss over the importance of animation. It’s not there simply to provide a nice background or to look pretty — it literally is the medium by which we receive the story of whatever show, movie or OVA we are watching.

The panel runners put it well and succinctly: We have the story at point A and the audience at point B, with a gap between them. Animation is what bridges the gap between them; what makes the story come to life. Bad animation (or even average animation like much of what you see with TV anime) might hold back a good story, or make a bad story that much worse. Good animation should amplify the effects of a good story, much like good filmmaking amplifies the effects of a good script — they take the mechanics and foundation of writing and add a spark of emotion.

That’s what the best of sakuga animation does. Would End of Evangelion be the same without Mitsuo Iso animating Asuka’s battles with such heft and gravity? He takes the idea of Asuka’s passion and struggle, and makes it real. How could it not be good to actually see and appreciate that? After all, we’re not seeing the writing onscreen (ignoring subtitles); we’re seeing the animation. Doesn’t mean you have to shit on everything with bad and/or limited animation (Berserk is highlighted as a good show that doesn’t have the best animation in the world), or blindly worship something that has good animation (Sword of the Stranger has amazing fights, but a rather meh story for me), but the more you know and can see about anime, the more you can love and appreciate, right? That can’t be a bad thing.

9 Responses to “Learning the Basics of Sakuga”

  1. While I agree that anime fans should pay more attention to the animation, I’ve noticed that Sakuga nerds tend to focus merely on the quality of the animation and not how it tells the story at all

    • I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that in and of itself. If they just want to jerk off to great animation, then whatever; people enjoy this crazy stuff in different ways. That said, I am with you in thinking that great animation should be in service to the story in some way. Kind of like how I can’t get into philosophy for philosophy’s sake in anime.

  2. Go watch a fuckload of sakuga videos on youtube, change your whole world. Start with my favorite animator:

  3. Whoa this was awesome! Watched all nine parts very interesting stuff, I can tell this takes years of practice to get that good hahah still fun stuff I know I have seen this done a lot in Bleach, Naruto and One piece well those are fighting themed anime.

    Thanks for sharing! Loved seeing all the various art styles <3

  4. fathomlessblue Says:

    Great article and thanks for the link, I’d heard of sukuga animation before but it was great to see a proper introduction complete with scenes to put the term/process into context.

    I suppose it’s easy enough to see animation as a storytelling device in itself whenever the money is available to create amazing, artistic scenes, such as in ova’s and movies, e.g. The end of Evangelion or your standard Ghibli film; however, the ACen presentation really highlighted how easy it is to overlook series with far smaller budgets. I definitely need to check out Space Runaway Ideon and Birdy the Mighty Decode at the first opportunity.

    Saying that, I’m not sure I could agree with those that see sakuga animation as some kind anime holy grail. It can add it to a story but never significantly elevate it. A show like FMA:B would still have been great without the frenetic action scenes, while a movie such as Spriggan is still a complete mess despite how fluidly drawn it is. So yeah, I’m with you on that. I see it more as icing on the cake for the most part, something that adds intensity and credence to the idea of animation as a legitimate art form.

    Ps. Man, I’d forgotten how spectacular that Asuka fight and the Girl who leapt through Time running scene was! :)

    • Yeah, what the presentation really highlights is that you can still have interestingly-animated scenes on a tight budget (which is what SHAFT does all the time, when they’re not focusing on still shots for five minutes while people are off fighting offscreen).

      I don’t think sakuga animation makes a story great all by itself, but it’s an element that can turn a good story into a great one by amplifying the emotions and feelings laid out by the story. It’s like how good, interesting cinematography in movies can intensify certain feelings in the story. It’s all about capturing the essence of what the story is aiming for.

  5. Marcomax Says:

    I have to say that my perspective on anime in general has changed after seeing the entire video set. I’ve just starting to actually look into the people that create these shows. Between directors, animation studios , character designers, voice actors and now Sakuga animation, it feels a little overwhelming. Is this all information that you just pick up as you watch more shows or are there good books or sites people would recommend for learning more about creators?

    • Oh yeah, I hear you there. I’ve been watching anime for nearly a decade, and I’m still not totally squared away on everything. It’s not really information you can get from watching shows unless you already know what to look for, I think. The sakuga dudes in the video series can pick out their favorite animators from certain scenes, because they already know what traits separate them from other animators.

      As for a specific book or something . . . I wouldn’t be much help there. The Anime Encyclopedia is good. I liked The Rough Guide to Anime as well. And Digiboy above has done a fair amount of posts on creators and other stuff looking into the technical side of anime. (Just overlook what a raging perv he is. :p)

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