Answerman
Why Is Anime's Animation Style So Hard To Imitate?

by Justin Sevakis,

Kiza asks:

In the past 15 years, we've seen more and more of anime influenced animation: we've had the colorful Totally Spies, the gag-action Teen Titans, two stories from the Avatar franchise, etc. And then we've seen animation that didn't go out of it's way to be "anime", but did have anime inspired elements: Ben 10, Generator Rex, etc. And now in the 2010s, we're seeing independent "anime" in the international scene. Even regions with not much of history in animation, such as the middle east, are trying their own take on anime, eg- Torkaizer. My question is, despite all these efforts to mimic the anime style, why do they feel so vastly different? You can watch all these, but they just don't feel anime enough. Is it because of the difference in their animation processes, the difference in storytelling, the uniqueness of Japanese culture, or something much different entirely?

Japan's anime industry has been around in various flavors since basically the beginning of motion pictures. After World War II and the postwar reconstruction, Japan got a taste of Disney's feature animation, and many young budding artists were incredibly impressed. But rather than ape the technique of American animators, Japanese animators came up with their own system and aesthetic. How a Japanese animator thinks about motion, design, writing for animation, and all the rest of it has been extremely different from how an American animator thinks about those things from day one.

Since the late 1950s, huge numbers of animators have worked their entire lives further developing and perfecting this technique. It was affected by things like budget, local tastes, and individual artist's personal styles. It's still developing. Anime in its current form is the product of all of that thought and experimentation. It's more than an art style, it's a filmic tradition.

But all of this happened in a way that was completely insulated from the rest of the world's animation production. It wasn't until the 90s that the Western animation business caught on to what Japan was doing. Some animators fell in love with anime, but many of the old school ones, including the teachers, hated it (from an animation standpoint). Japan wasn't following the "rules," and from their point of view, the animation style didn't work as well as the techniques they'd been honing for decades.

But as the younger generation of Western animators, the ones that had always been familiar with and (generally) liked anime started coming of age and becoming influential, that started changing. They started producing shows with an anime-influenced aesthetic. But when they're doing so, they're producing that animation with Western principles of squash and stretch, with Western approaches to color and layout, with storyboards and leica reels instead of e-conte (Japanese style continuity sheets). It's not the same thing.

Imagine a well trained French chef, who trained at one of the best culinary schools in Europe. Imagine that chef really likes sushi, and decides to make it, despite not having any real experience making it. That chef might be able to rely on their basic skills -- knife work, a good eye for ingredients, and a recipe for sushi rice -- and come up with something reasonably decent. But it wouldn't taste the same. That chef never trained with a real sushi chef, never practiced all of the things that sushi chefs do tirelessly. The end product would be a result of his own experiences and the techniques he's learned, and the end result is inevitably not going to match "proper" sushi.

It's the same thing here. When all of your techniques belong to another school with another set of principles, you can't expect to be able to perfectly imitate the work of a distant land with completely different teachings and principles. It just doesn't work. And I think the Western animators know this. That's why you see very few attempts to completely rip off anime, and more of a subtle influence on American animation styles and tastes. In order for the artists to do a good job, they still must communicate in their native language.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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