On sakuga and Japanese animation
Anime is renowned for its beauty, but what sets it apart?
When it comes to the question of why the physics looks so good in some scenes, it comes down to a number of factors. The most important point is that Japanese animators typically have to make do with much less funding, with fewer staff members and under much tighter schedules than Western productions, so they tend to be forced to innovate a lot more in order to get it to look good. Flow has to be created artistically rather than simply frame-by-frame because they just don't get the money or the time to animate in 'real-time' so to speak. The other point is applying live-action direction techniques to anime: the virtual camera flows with the momentum of the animation much more prominently in Japanese productions because it enhances the visual effects without requiring more frames to be animated. If the camera acts like it's being pulled along with something heavy, it's going to look and feel heavier to the viewer. They put a lot more thought into the physics because it's an easy and smart way to make it more visually stimulating and convincing. It makes it even more impressive, because they achieve the glorious fluidity and momentum in their animation in far fewer frames than Western animators can play with.
How do you know where to look?
Historically, there were some animation studios with a reputation for gorgeous animation: Kyoto Animation, Production I.G, Studio Daume, Studio BONES, Studio Gainax, PA Works and more recently Studio Trigger, and so on, and obviously there are some key people you should look out for if you ever want to have an idea whether a show is going to look good. Some of the best animation I remember seeing back when I used to watch anime regularly was from Kyoto Animation in Nichijou, A-1 pictures in The [email protected], and PA works in Hanasaku Iroha. Something else I'll say is that a lot of anime shows/films feature epic fights; half of them are rehashed samurai stories that have to feature some gorgeous fights so you don't realise it's the same series as the last one you watched. I mean, even the big three: Naruto, Bleach and One Piece, have some moments of spectacular animation, usually in a climactic fight when they've hired a particularly talented guy to take care of it, and I've no problem admitting that despite my personal lack of interest in these shows. My primary criticism of these shows is that the plots are stupid and reiterative, protracted for maximum profit as opposed to adhering to any principles of good writing. If they got some good writers in or just let the shows die where it would have made sense for them to do so, I'd be more tolerant of them. Bleach was actually okay before it was dragged out too far for the sake of profit.
What can influence the prevalence of high quality animation?
Of course, when a Japanese production does have a significant budget and when that budget isn't spread out over too many episodes (generally it's no coincidence that 3-6 episode OVA runs tend to be better looking than 12 episode anime series, which in turn tend to look better than 24+ episode anime series) it's probably going to look good no matter what. However, if the right talent is behind a project and the budget is managed well, it also has the potential to look good. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule regarding the amount of episodes in a series: Nichijou was terrifyingly consistent for a 26 episode anime. Comparing it to its rivals for best animation over its summer season, Mawaru Penguindrum and The [email protected] have had arguably better high points in individual scenes than Nichijou, but that's because the talent and funding was poured into those particular scenes. After some high quality episodes, Mawaru Penguindrum episode 9 looked hilariously bad because they left one guy in charge of the animation direction and keyframing of that episode — and to put it bluntly, he was not the best person to have left in charge. The [email protected] has also had some low points and drops in quality; the point is that I'd honestly struggle to single out an episode of Nichijou that looked bad — but this is also because the show's comedic art style makes it more difficult to tell when something's amiss, as has been pointed out to me in discussions.
What role does CGI play in anime?
Computer imaging is also beginning to play a much bigger role in anime, primarily because it's cheaper and the only people who really notice the difference are animation enthusiasts (provided that the direction is good). Studios like Shaft and ufotable make extensive use of CGI and, provided that they get the composition right, it can look good. ufotable isn't actually bad at animating (you can see this in their productions of Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works, Fate/Zero and Kara no Kyoukai) but they seem to heap on the special effects because they have prequel George Lucas goggles on or something. Watch Kara no Kyoukai and you see that the facial animation is actually quite impressive, but the fight scenes end up looking tacky and have a plastic, weightless feel to them. Excessive CG dispels all of the magic achieved with quality direction and physics. Some studios are already putting computer imaging to use much more subtly. PA Works and Kyoto Animation seemed to have a knack for blending CG with traditional animation extremely well — and by that, I mean they make it very difficult to discern when the CG starts.
They don't overlay a ton of CG effects to create an atmosphere that would otherwise be missing, as other studios do. Bones and Gainax are pretty good with CG too — the rebuild of evangelion movies are ample proof of that. When it comes to CG in anime, it isn't that much different to discussing CG in cinema. It's like watching the original Jurassic Park: the CG still looks good to me because it's carefully mixed in with traditional animatronics and the colors of the computer graphics are all blended well with the color tones of the film. In the sequels to Jurassic Park, there was much more CG in order to make the velociraptors do more exciting things, but as a result they became less convincing — and the colors seemed off (they were too orange and bright, and they stood out much more). In anime, when they use a little CG here and there to enhance the look, it can often pay off. When you get a studio like ufotable, everything has a tendency to get CG'd to hell, and suddenly you're watching something that looks worse because none of it has any weight to it. It's hard to explain it well, especially when I'm not an expert and I don't know half the ins and outs of the actual animation world, but that's how I see it.
Some pointers to sakuga
If you want to see a timeless example of sakuga, watch Asuka vs the S2 evangelion units in The End of Evangelion. This fight sequence was animated by Mitsuo Iso, a legendary figure who demonstrated a truly insightful understanding of weight and momentum and how to represent both with limited frames. When Asuka swings the enormous ironing board sword she acquires from one of her adversaries, you can feel that she's basically swinging a sword the size of an airport. When she buries her knife in the skull of her adversaries, you can see that the impact has been delivered with force that would vaporise a house. A word of warning however: the film will make little sense without having watched the original television series, and even then, your mileage may vary depending on your tolerance for the franchise's idiosyncratic weirdness.