On Sakuga, and Why You Should Care About It

I felt it was finally time to do my part to introduce sakuga to others and in this piece I make a case for why anybody can enjoy sakuga.

Captain Earth

Depending on how much reading you do across anime-related sites, you may or may not be aware that there is a small but vibrant community constantly producing various kinds of anime criticism. These critics – spread across various sites like Crunchyroll, Anime News Network, and a variety of personal blogs and other review sites – bring a wide range of different perspectives, biases, focuses, and interests to their writing. And while some sources of anime criticism (like this column) are newer and others older, this tradition of writing critical analysis on anime has been around for a while. I’m a relative newcomer to all of this, having only started my blog, Mage in a Barrel, about three years ago, so I don’t have a complete perspective on the development of the community. However, I have been paying attention long enough to observe some of the more recent trends that have cropped up. Of course, this is only representative of the fairly limited circles where I spend my time, but I do think we’ve already started to see the effects of some of these changes.

Chief among this is the rising star of sakuga, a word used within the overseas anime fandom to refer to particularly impressive bits of animation [not sure what I’m talking about? Here’s a recent example from Concrete Revolutio]. In recent months, there have been a handful of insightful articles written about the topic (accompanying a number of Twitter users and bloggers who write specifically about it), which has given it more visibility and more helped to move it towards becoming something more than just a niche interest among a few hardcore anime fans.

What I’d like to do with this article is two things: 1) present a case study of a discussion about sakuga that interacts with some forms of engaging with anime that are already well-known, and 2) share a bit about why I think sakuga is a good thing not just for animation buffs and anime critics to know about, but for anyone who likes anime to be familiar with and able to enjoy. While I’m not arguing for a full paradigm shift in the way the bulk of anime fans consume or engage with anime, I do want to make a case for sakuga appreciation as something more than just the esoteric realm of critics and specialists. In short, this is about what sakuga means and why you should care.

Haruhi Ponytail.gif

The idea for this article came to me when a blogger friend of mine, Frog-kun, wrote a post analyzing the way the character Ushio from Clannad was animated. He tagged the piece as “[sakuga analysis],” which caught my attention because his recent blogging interests have been more about otaku culture and light novels. It’s a really good piece, interesting even for someone like me who hasn’t seen Clannad, but the fact that he wrote it at all struck me as a significant because he doesn’t consider himself a “sakuga expert.” Despite this, his attention to detail and ability to see patterns and interpret the animation itself, rather than the cinematography or the writing, in the service of writing an intelligent post accessible even to someone who hadn’t seen the show demonstrates that sakuga isn’t and doesn’t have to be a scary, foreign (or, worse, elitist) way of engaging with anime. In fact, it connects beautifully with other ways of engaging with the show, even going to far as to explain why Ushio’s character can create an emotional impact on the audience (or, if you prefer, “feels”).

Towards the end of the post, Frog-kun also makes a point I’d like to specifically draw your attention to (although you should read the rest of the post, too). He says, “The more I delve into the animation medium, the more I find that ‘good writing’ can’t be easily separated from ‘good animation.'” At the risk of sounding like I wrote this column just to link to blog posts, this point reminded me of a piece by tamerlane420 on Wave Motion Cannon about why sakuga has become increasingly popular. While he makes far too many distinct points within this piece for me to detail and talk about them all (and although his writing is far more academic than Frog-kun’s), he makes a solid case for appreciation of good animation for its own sake. This is something that differs somewhat from the point Frog-kun makes about the difficulty of separating good anime and good writing. What tamerlane talks about is not appreciating sakuga because it helps Ushio become a well-realized character, but because the excellent technical qualities of the animation allow the character to be imbued with personality.

This isn’t just a semantic switch; it’s a fundamentally different way of looking at anime than most of us are used to doing. It’s the difference between saying, “Ushio was such a good character! All the cute animation really made her memorable and seem like a kid,” and saying “Wow, did you see how well-animated Ushio was in her introduction scene? The way they drew her running out of the room really conveyed her energy well.” While this doesn’t erase the connection between character (the writing) and animation, the focus shifts from the character to the way they’re visually portrayed on screen. It’s a matter of prioritization, of what you pay attention to first and what you use as your access point into what you’re watching. And lest you’re now thinking that this makes sakuga sound like it has to be deep and intensely united with other elements of anime, let me offer up a counter-example. While I ultimately found the 2014 show Captain Earth to be pretty lacking in a lot of the departments by which we traditionally assess shows by (well-rounded characters, a tightly written plot, etc.), one thing that consistently stood out to me about it was the neat effects animation. Captain Earth is filled with tons of cool laser beams and explosions, and it was primarily for these reasons that I liked it.

Yozakura Ao Pet.gif

In other words, being able to appreciate the cool effects animation – the sakuga – gave me an entirely new way of enjoying a show I might not have otherwise watched to completion. Is watching a show just because it has neat animation dumb? Or, perhaps more relevantly (because this is a thing people have complained to me about!), is critiquing a show based on the merits of its animation dumb? tamerlane argues that, by virtue of the actual animation’s uniqueness – that is, the sequences of drawing that make motion appear before us – it’s not; and I’m inclined to agree with him. Furthermore, while tamerlane specifically says that he’s not out to campaign for a “pro-sakuga position” (likely a wise decision), that is exactly what I’m trying to do here.

However, I’m not arguing for sakuga to the exclusion of all else. In his article for Anime News Network entitled, “The Joy of Sakuga” (which I highly recommend you read as a sakuga starter guide), Kevin Cirugeda provides a really helpful look at the basics of sakuga and how to begin to learn more about it, but I think perhaps the most salient point of the entire piece is its title. The joy of sakuga. In other words, sakuga (and those who like talking about it) is not here to take away your fun. As Cirugeda writes, “The craft [of animation] stops being something you passively absorb and becomes something you are curious about.” In other words, sakuga can be a doorway to a new way of looking at and enjoying anime. As happened with Frog-kun and Clannad, it may give you a new thing to appreciate in a show you’ve already seen. Or, as happened with me and Captain Earth, it may help you to find a reason to watch a show you might have otherwise found boring. We’re all in this hobby of watching anime for entertainment, right? Why deny yourself another thing you can enjoy about anime?In many ways, starting to get into sakuga is like learning a new skill – it’s just another tool in your toolbox of anime enjoyment that can make this medium fun for you.

And at this point, I feel I should come clean about my motivations for writing all this. I’ve been an anime fan for about four years, and I’m well-aware that the typical lifecycle of the average anime fan is pretty short (according to some figures I’ve seen, about two years). Of course, I don’t begrudge those who move on from anime because they’re no longer interested in an industry that mainly produces shows targeted at male teenagers; but I still can’t help but feel a little sad that anime becomes a relative flash in the pan for them, a two-year personal fad that disappears after the novelty has worn off. Coming to appreciate anime for its animation, I feel, is one way to give ourselves one more reasons to care about anime and to keep watching. This may all be somewhat unconvinving on that front, and I hope to expand on some of these ideas in the future, but for now… consider trying out some sakuga.

Inou Battle Exit.gif


This post was first published as part of the Aniwords column on Crunchyroll under the same title. The original article can be read here.

12 thoughts on “On Sakuga, and Why You Should Care About It

  1. First, I feel like I should point you to Oguie Maniax’s response to Tamerlane’s piece if you haven’t read it already: https://ogiuemaniax.com/2016/01/22/sakuga-fans-need-more-carl-sagans/ It addresses some of my problems with some of Tamerlane’s train of thought, even if I am in complete agreement with the main thrust of his arguments.

    I agree that serious anime criticism should at least attempt to engage with animation as an essential aspect of the storytelling. I think of the function of animation in a similar way as I think of prose in a piece of writing. Just as you can’t ignore a writer’s prose when you critically engage with their work, you can’t ignore animation when you critically engage with anime. That observation is what I find valuable about Tamerlane’s piece.

    (As a side note, it’s because I agree with Tamerlane that I generally stick to writing about otaku culture, translation and light novels these days, subjects that don’t have much to do with animation techniques. I feel my lack of expertise about animation and film theory keenly and would rather not write specifically about an anime unless I have something insightful to say.)

    For most anime fans, though, animation is something that impacts them a lot as they’re appreciating the story, but not something one would go out of their way to analyse. I also find sakuga fandom hard to get into because of the sheer number of names to remember. At the same time, you probably don’t need to know the name of the animator to appreciate a good cut, and it’s not just the key animator who is responsible for a well-composed scene anyway. I imagine that for most sakuga fans, remembering the names serves primarily as a way of putting a human face next to a job well done. So I think you made a good choice focusing on the thing which are universal about sakuga appreciation (cool pictures! cool explosions!) instead of focusing on the drier, technical aspects.

    And you also bring up a good point that paying specific attention to the animation can help you appreciate shows you might otherwise not enjoy. That reminds me, I watched the Macross: Do You Remember Love? movie the other day and absolutely loved every minute of it – but I probably wouldn’t have enjoyed it to such a degree if I didn’t find my eyes drawn to all the loving details in the animation. While I don’t endorse the “sakuga above all else” position, sakuga appreciation definitely adds to the anime-viewing experience instead of detracting from it.

    To finish this rambling comment, I’d like to point out that while sakuga is incredibly important, there are other aspects of anime production that are worth exploring as well, such as seiyuu (which is even useful for learning Japanese, apparently https://karice.wordpress.com/2015/10/03/p463/) and music/sound production. That is to say, the deeper you get into the nitty gritties of how anime is created, the more there is to explore. It’s all very exciting, I think.

    Anime4lyfe!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, yes, I have read that response piece. It’s very good and perhaps equally as important. Sakuga very much needs ambassadors (Kvin/Yuyucow is a great example) who can make it accessible and fun for people. Sakuga folks (even tamerlane in his post!) sometimes don’t come off as the most welcoming or easy-to-interact with, so it’s important to bridge the gap. As a side note, this post is part of an effort I want to make to break down barriers between critics and regular fans, dunno how successful it’ll be.

      And yeah, the barriers to deep sakuga engagement are significant (language, data, technicalities, etc.), but I think the ability to just appreciate things is something everyone can learn, assuming interest and desire. For me, sakuga is basically like cinematography – it’s more a niche and specialized way of engaging with stuff, but it doesn’t have to be entirely impenetrable. I remember how many people said they liked my Hyouka stuff because it made cinematography analysis accessible. It’s be cool if there was more like that for sakuga, and I think your Clannad post is a great example of that.

      (DYRL is soooo pretty.)

      And yup, there’s so much more to anime (and, really, any creative art, especially those as collaborative as film-type stuff) than what we engage with on the surface. Hopefully this post was maybe a bit effective at encouraging people to open up to expanding their toolboxes.

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  2. Sakuga does not come naturally to me. I’m a tactile learner, the sense I’m most attuned to is my hearing, and I tend to approach stories (in any medium) from the perspective of a writer rather than an artist or director, since that’s what I am. That doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate a good cut of animation, but when I’m studying a scene’s animation I have to really concentrate hard on just that. While that means I might overlook some great animation once in a while, I’m also a lot less sensitive to things like characters going off-model, because unless it’s a really egregious mistake it usually flies right over my head.

    What has helped me a lot with paying more attention to visuals in general are the reviews of short anime that I’ve been doing over on MAL since last fall. Reviewing shorts is kind of a different beast from reviewing a TV series or movie, since there usually isn’t a ton of plot and story to talk about, and some of the ones that I’ve reviewed don’t have any dialogue, either. So to give a short a fair review (and have enough interesting things to say), it forces me to pay attention to other things that might normally slide past me. That includes animation quality and sakuga-ish moments, of course, but also things like cinematography, color choices, background art, and character designs. This week I reviewed Rain Town, and that’s an obvious example of a short where it’s impossible to talk about it without discussing all of those things, and how well Ishida marries all of them together to create just the right mood and atmosphere in that film. But just doing the background research and checking the credits on these shorts has been a great learning experience, too. For instance I reviewed a music video a couple of months ago for a Maaya Sakamoto song called Universe. (it can be viewed at http://www.catsuka.com/player/universe) Now initially you might think, “Just a music video, what’s to talk about?” But then I started researching into the production credits and learned that, besides some of its key animation being done by Yoh Yoshinari (someone even a sakuga knobhead like me needs no introduction to), the video was directed by Gekidan Inu Curry. And that was when I learned they were the duo who also designed and animated Madoka’s witches and witch worlds, and I also found some interviews where they talked about the ideas they came up with for the Universe video and about the Eastern European influences (Russian and Czech) on their animation style. Suddenly I’m learning a lot more about not just this short video, but also gaining a new perspective on the animation in one of the best magical girl shows I’ve ever seen.

    I guess the point I’m making is that sakuga is certainly a valid way for people to engage with anime on a deeper level than “boobies and explosions are kewl,” but I think what’s more important than sakuga specifically is just fostering a healthy curiosity that encourages people to think about and explore whatever aspect of a series interests them, be it sakuga or character designs or background art or the director’s style. I have no beef with the sakuga community, and sometimes I even enjoy looking up a show I’ve watched on sakugabooru and seeing which animation cuts from it have been singled out there. But since that’s not how my brain is wired, I would not enjoy making sakuga the focus of my engagement with anime as a whole. I like it well enough as a garnish, but as the main dish it would be too much for me.

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    • You make a great point here – I focus on sakuga primarily because the animation part of anime is so crucial to the medium itself, but it’s certainly equally true that other types of enjoyment can hold up a show for someone on their own. Hyouka obviously had much more going on than just its cinematography, but I focused a lot of that and enjoyed the show greatly on those terms in concert with other elements of the show.

      And yeah, exploring creators and their influences and convergences is super fascinating. I think sakuga fandom has inherited a lot of those sorts of priorities. Shorts are a great thing to do that with, since the creative collaboration is usually more limited, which makes it easier to pinpoint creator quirks, etc.

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  3. Back in the day we just called it “A nice bit of animation” or a “moment”

    Here is a “moment” . A youtube of a famous sequence from Disney’s Jungle Book being lovingly obsessed over, played at different speeds. 
https://youtu.be/sNcWM1VxdGI
    Animation fans have geeked out about certain sequences, certain shots, etc. forever. I’m a bit concerned the term “Sakuga” might have the unintended consequence of further ghettoizing anime as an “other” in animation circles. Western and Japanese animation have been cross pollinating since the silent era, so I see no need to separate out one from the other when talking about animation, specifically. I am an animation fan, I have been for over 40 years, and that’s why I enjoy anime. Chances are, I’m not going to suddenly burn out on it 🙂

    Frog-Kun’s Ushio example is an interesting one. Kyo-Ani seems to do a good job of creating characters that seem to have weight, muscle, and mass, a very naturalistic animation. Shaft seems to go for more of a tableau-to-tableau style a bit reminiscent of Bunraku Puppetry, and Trigger, god bless ‘em create animation with the manic energy and elasticity of Bob Clampett’s Looney Tunes work.

    Sometimes the source of those “Nice bits of animation” can be surprising. Three Leaves, Three Colors is by the numbers, a boilerplate CGDGT show, but then they start moving! And it’s thrilling! Such a lively looking show, that watching it for the sake of “seeing” it is worthwhile 🙂

    I can’t say I’m on board with the animation/writing connection. First, functionally, structurally, they are too different. The animation aspect of is a collaborative part of the larger collaborative effort of television/film production. Unless a writer delegates the prose part of his writing to a subcontractor, of course, then the analogy works. 😉

    And so many of the most astounding sequences in animation history are connected with rubbish stories, non-existent stories, even 30 second ads for bug spray. But I guess it depends on what you mean by “Writing” and “Story”

    Granted the process animated story crafting in mid-20th Century Burbank, and 21st century Japan are significantly different, but perhaps that underscores my point. The “Jungle Book” example above is a beautiful example of storyboarding direction, animation, etc. It’s a lovely little mini story in an incoherent mess of a feature film. The story of Mowgli and Bagheera getting up the tree is brilliant. The 1967 adaptation of Kiplings writings is abhorrent. It’s a brilliantly storyboarded train-wreck.

    I am truly glad though, that people are looking at the animation part of anime. They can call it Sakuga if they wanna, I’ll keep calling it “A nice bit of animation”

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    • I can’t say I’m on board with the animation/writing connection. First, functionally, structurally, they are too different. The animation aspect of is a collaborative part of the larger collaborative effort of television/film production. Unless a writer delegates the prose part of his writing to a subcontractor, of course, then the analogy works.

      I’ve been looking into ‘writing’ in the TV industry both in Japan (mostly anime) and the West (US and British) on my own blog, and you might be surprised at how collaborative it actually is. And it seems to be more collaborative in most anime than in the typical US TV drama, which are usually run by the one or two showrunners who originally came up with the idea. This is not something that I’m confident about explaining in a short comment, but interviews with anime directors, producers and writers often point to them all being involved in ‘breaking the story’ and various other stages of ‘writing’. I’ve also read a couple of interviews with Okada Mari and Uroguchi Gen where they note the connection between themselves and the production staff as something that’s important in making anime. Okada, in particular, says that she writes first with the animators in mind, with the intention of sparking their creative juices and making them want to animate the scenes in question. But even though screenwriters try to indicate important details in the script, these details are often changed and added to in the storyboarding and even key animation stages.

      So I’d have to agree with iblessall and Frog-kun that it’s all connected. The way I’ve personally thought about it is that I prefer stories to ‘show rather than tell’: good animation is arguably the most important tool for ‘showing’. But other aspects of a production, like sound and dialogue, are part of that, too.

      p.s. @iblessall, I really shouldn’t be trying to find new aspects of anime to appreciate at the moment, but sakuga is something that I want to pay more attention to, so thanks for providing another starting point for that!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course you’re right TV/film production, yes the story crafting is very collaborative, from the source material to adaptation, to storyboarding to performances, both vocal and visual. I was having a bit of fun with frog-kun’s equivalence of animation as the ‘prose’ part of writing.

        And it is all connected. You can have very technically adept animation, but without decent storyboarding, it’s all for naught. I would argue that storyboarding is probably more important for ‘showing’ than animation. A musical analogy You can have a studio full of musical vurtuosi, but if the arrangement is a mess, their talents go to waste

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        • Haha ^^
          Well, sure, no analogy is perfect. But if you think about it in those terms, then similarly, even wonderfully written lines get lost in poor writing structure. So having a good storyboard is akin to having good paragraph structure. ^^

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    • “I can’t say I’m on board with the animation/writing connection. First, functionally, structurally, they are too different. The animation aspect of is a collaborative part of the larger collaborative effort of television/film production.”

      Screenwriting is an interesting beast, because when you’re writing a script, it’s not just words on a page, it’s how it’s going to present itself on the screen. It’s closer to writing a play than a novel, although even more rigidly structured than either in some ways (like adhering to the “one page=one minute of screen time” standard that’s generally followed in Hollywood, for instance). I remember reading an interview a while back with Mari Okada talking about her approach to adapting Toradora, and a big part of what she talked about was that as she was reading through the novels while preparing to adapt it, she was constantly thinking about things like, “How is this particular scene going to look?,” and “What would the characters’ expressions be as they have this conversation?” So she wasn’t just putting words on the page, she was trying to anticipate how they might be storyboarded and animated too. Reiko Yoshida and Jukki Hanada have also talked in interviews about scripting scenes to convey certain visual elements or character traits that they or the director felt should be specifically shown. For instance, a lot of Asuka’s playfulness early in Euphonium were scenes Hanada invented, like the magic trick in ep 1, because he wanted to convey that side of her character very clearly before her more serious side came to the fore later on. It also depends on the director, though. Like Hanada talked about how Ishihara and Yamada gave him a lot of freedom on Eupho to develop that show’s composition organically, versus many other anime directors who come into planning meetings having already sketched out a bunch of scenes that they want and tell him to fit them all into the script somewhere.

      In short, where Bless says, “It’s the difference between saying, ‘Ushio was such a good character! All the cute animation really made her memorable and seem like a kid,’ and saying ‘Wow, did you see how well-animated Ushio was in her introduction scene? The way they drew her running out of the room really conveyed her energy well.'” it seems like even the writers themselves would say that the latter perspective is ideally the goal they’re trying to facilitate when they hand their scripts over to the directors and animators.

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    • If you like cartoony animation, I’d also suggest checking out Dogakobo’s (Sansha Sanyou) other works if you haven’t already (Love Lab, Engaged to the Unidentified). They’re not a fav studio of mine yet, but I do love the kinds of animation they seems to prioritize.

      As to the point of what to call it, I do think the more “sakuga” gets thrown around the more normalized it will become. I don’t think the term itself will do anything to further impact the way Japanese animation is seen in relation to US animation – and there are certainly stylistic differences in priority that I think make having a separate term valid.

      But yes! The more important part is that, hopefully, people will continue to expand their horizons of appreciation to the actual animation part of anime.

      Like

  4. Like WingKing, I’m not primarily a visual person, but I am generally aware of the visuals. My biggest problem, with regards to the word “Sakuga”, is that I simply can’t tell how much animation means to me, visually. I think this scene looks good, but why? How much of it is art direction? Character design? Backgrounds? Storyboarding? Animation? I can’t really tell what comes about how, and that means I can’t really say what impacts me how.

    A little story. Autumn 2011, I was watching a harem romance called Mashiroiro Symphony. It was a decent show; entertaining enough, but not very memorable. In one of the last episodes, it is winter, the main character complains how cold it has gotten. The imouto character, in one of her rare playful moments, jumps on an ice-puddle and comments that it’s also fun. It was decent use of setting, but at that exact moment I realised why I liked the show A Channel so much.

    The theme of “cracking ice-puddles is fun” is not rare in anime. Episode 10 of A-Channel starts with it. We get some scenere of snow and ice (the usual shots: branches, etc.) Then we get a pretty shot of an ice puddle. It’s nice clear day, and the thing sparkles. Enter Tooru, the vulnerable, insecure, caring, petty, violent character I’ve grown to love throughout the series. The sight stops her short. We get a close up of her face, and then something changes and she steps onto the puddle, cracking it. She sends ice-shards flying. It’s an idyll breaker. Then she looks down the street, and we get another idyll – a road full of sparkling ice-puddles. Oh yes, cracking ice puddles is fun. So Tooru prepares for the next puddle – we get a close up – but before she can crack the puddle, four cat paws land on it and it cracks. Aw, a kitty, right? Not Tooru, no. A rival. This is when the animation becomes childish. Obviously hand-drawn lines, chibi-models as Tooru races the cat for the next puddle, and jumps up and down on it (in her chibi form). But the cat actually had other plans…

    This scene relies a lot on visuals. The idyll, the details of the cracking ice puddles, Tooru’s expression changes (aided by Yuuki Aoi, master of tiny noises that convey emotion), the suddenly wonky art-style… Clearly animation is in the mix here somewhere, but I couldn’t tell you how. I wouldn’t be surprised, actually, if the entire scene contains not a single piece of Sakuga. All I know is that the visuals are what make the scene for me. The visuals are good at creating the proper mood to frame the character moment. And this will hold true, for me, even if the animation in this scene is little more than comptetent. But ultimately I can’t tell.

    I’m curious, but I’m not curious enough to spend a lot of time and energy on learning to spot animation techniques. Good animation is definitely a plus. Putting a name to animation could be helpful for me, especially since I tend to suffer from motion sickness and I tend to get dizzy if the camera moves around too much (a problem especially bad with CGI).

    [Aside: There’s really no danger of me ever losing interest in anime. I’m sure my current obsession (I watch 20+ shows each season) won’t last, but I’ve been watching anime nearly all my life, so it’s really a staple of my entertainment habits.]

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    • I think if sakuga/animation aren’t a priority for people, that’s fine! This piece is worded a bit provocatively to hopefully get people to read and reflect (from responses it seems to have done that successfully), but I’m under no illusions that everyone will find sakuga as rewarding an element of enjoyment as I or others do.

      As long as you’re having fun and enjoy what you’re watching on your own terms, and remaining open to other ways as they come up, I think that’s enough. 🙂

      Like

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