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The Joy of Sakuga

by Kevin Cirugeda,

Animation is fascinating. Even in the case of a struggling industry like TV anime, the amount of notable work being regularly made is staggering. It won't always be an entire well-produced series; it can be an impressive episode, a great scene or a single cut with an incredible outburst of motion. But whatever the case, there's a lot of material that takes advantage of the magic charm this medium has, so it is no surprise that there are many fans of Japanese animation. Specifically, the animation.

We're known as Sakuga fans.

A word that you might have heard before, and while it simply means animation in Japanese, it has been used for a while by enthusiasts overseas to refer to impressive motion. It's often brought up when talking about scenes with sudden and sharp increases in animation quality – any viewer acquainted enough with anime is probably aware of the economic approach most productions take, saving up the strong cuts for climatic scenes. And whether it's a satisfying punch with mind-boggling animation or a subtle yet rich character acting scene, I think it's safe to say that most people quite like it when anime is well put together. So why not get into sakuga?

Well… it's complicated. You might already be into animation, but trying to find out more about it can be a bit of a nightmare; access to the creators themselves is often restricted to those who speak Japanese, and while sakuga fans don't always stick to strictly professional terminology, reading their thoughts you will find tons of names of people and techniques that will confuse you. While you only need your eyes to appreciate animation, furthering that enjoyment requires some guidance. In this case, understanding what it is that you love can greatly improve your experience.

And that's the right attitude to tackle this, I feel. You won't suddenly come to understand the entirety of the Japanese animation industry, with many decades of work and distinct styles poured into it. You don't want to, to begin with. You will not enjoy every animator's work, the same way you don't enjoy every writer's prose. You have to start by finding out exactly what appeals to you. This might be the hardest part to assist people with, but also thankfully the one that is ultimately the most simple – let your instinct guide you. There are no rules dictating what kind of art you'll be fascinated by.

This process often starts with a work that personally resonates with you acting as a catalyst. It tends to take place a few years into your first anime experience, when you have reached the point where you can pick up that all anime doesn't look the same. Some people are more easily predisposed to pay attention to the visuals, but for the most part it's not until you have a gist of what anime can offer that you begin developing preferences. That's when you can find a piece that truly feels special. No matter what that trigger is, the effect is always the same – you want more of it. You might even start thinking about who made that possible. The craft stops being something you passively absorb and becomes something you are curious about.

Some strong enough series have managed to win over entire generations of fans, and every year we get new works that spark the curiosity of newcomers. I belong to a generation that began their sakuga adventures because of anime like Gurren Lagann, which offered lots of gorgeous effects animation with strong personality. We started getting acquainted with names like Yoh Yoshinari and sushio, decided to follow their work and many years later we have the privilege to enjoy those same talented animators getting the chance to lead their own projects like Little Witch Academia. Much like many of my peers, I can also pinpoint my fondness of thoughtful character acting to series like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, which managed to combine subtle motion with more intense bits like the famous concert scene, all while keeping a realistic approach to the movement.

Everyone's experiences in this regard are slightly different, but the patterns are similar. These last couple years I've seen works like Yozakura Quartet, Hana no Uta and Space Dandy pique people's interest in animation, and while the roads they take differ, we all end up in the same place. The catalysts prompt different questions depending on the distinct flair of the show that catches people's eyes, which is why the aforementioned Yozakura lead to people wanting to know more about the so called webgen – short for web generation, a term used to refer to the mostly young animators who began by simply uploading their gif animation to the internet and are now making it in the industry. Their works have a peculiar stylized look that's easy to notice, an easy target for people starting to develop their eye for animation. That said, it's not just those outstanding projects that can have this effect; very few TV anime productions have struggled as hard as Attack on Titan did, yet Arifumi Imai's three-dimensional action sequences have also been the trigger for some new sakuga fans.

There are special cases too, shows the very structure of which help this process happen. Anyone who has watched a long running anime must be aware that their production values tend to be anything but consistent, as animating a show airing weekly for years is a huge endeavor. Corners are cut, outsourcing becomes an even bigger factor and a staff rotation is put in place to make the project sustainable. Yet when it reaches a climactic moment, they seem to go all out. Series that usually have to make do with unimpressive visuals have some of the most incredible highlights in the whole industry, and that stark contrast has been the wakeup call for many sakuga fans out there. As effective as those highlights are to catch people's attention however, them being so noticeable is a double edged sword. Not all fans are open to change, and an episode that looks fairly different to the rest (especially within a long running series they might have been following for years) isn't always welcome. Possibly the best known instance of this is still Naruto Shippuden #167, still a source of controversy to this day; Pierrot trusted the veteran Atsushi Wakabayashi to deliver something truly unique for one of the most important fights in the entire series, and the end result left no one indifferent. Wakabayashi directed, storyboarded and supervised the animation of the episode, which was a non-stop kinetic explosion made by just a few key animators, a mix of new talent and industry legends. Shingo Yamashita's work – about 7 minutes worth of animation he did by himself – sums up what that episode was like: a raw outburst of motion that often disregarded staying on-model in favor of stylization. There is a lot to love in there from an animation standpoint, from the flat but effective FX animation to the plentiful usage of debris to accentuate the impact of the fight. Wakabayashi is no fool either, his brilliant storyboard tightly controlled that seemingly unrestrained animation, he built action around the idea of that non-stop crazy motion and ended up with a fight that flowed incredibly well. A memorable display of the strengths of this medium.

That of course wasn't enough, and many people reacted poorly to an unconventional look they weren't used to. It was different, it was weird, and so it was bad. The poor reaction to it lead to assumptions that they put no effort, that it was a low budget outing, and that the staff must simply not have cared. Not exactly a healthy attitude when approaching art, even in the case of styles as divisive as that. This isn't to say that everyone must come to love all unorthodox approaches, but at least respecting the craft seems like the sensible choice. There is a reason studios trust people like Wakabayashi for those climactic moments, their unique touch might not please all casual fans but the artists themselves love it.

Understanding why that individualism is allowed to happen to begin with and its role in the sakuga fandom is also very important. One of anime's greatest visual strengths is the degree of artistic freedom, something not just limited to directors and storyboarders; due to the harsh realities of the industry they can't always afford to, but even individual key animators are allowed to show off their personal style as long as their supervisors are fine with that. That increases the diversity of styles, since we aren't limited by the number of series directors but the much larger pool of animators. Anime is rich because its production system doesn't impose rock solid hierarchy, and that leads to many more artistic voices being heard.

And the effect that directly has over Japanese animation aficionados is huge, to the point of having shaped that fandom. The ability to see the hand of the artist in the work makes those key animators identifiable, a possible target of admiration before they even get a big gig. They might never move up to big roles like character designer, but as long as their work is recognizable and people find it appealing there will be people paying attention to their output. Those poorly paid and very passionate animators will at least get some personal spotlight – it doesn't make their situation much better, but at least their work is acknowledged.

A rather amusing consequence of this is the popularization of terms to refer to the animator quirks people have been noticing throughout the years. From classics like the Kanada Dragon or the Itano Circus to more modern ones like Yutapon Cubes, this terminology is established because those animator idiosyncrasies are embraced by the industry and thus eventually become recurring elements. Since artists influencing each other is also a very common practice in anime, these start being used by their peers and evolve as they all give their personal spin on it. These expressions tend to have the name of whoever popularized the technique attached to them, yet with time they end up referring to craft shared by many animators; as of late mentions of the Akai Smile – named after Toshifumi Akai, character designer for Magi amongst other anime – have increased, even though the person spreading its usage the most at the moment is his good pal Yuusuke Matsuo. Watching these terms and the quirks they refer to evolve with time is very interesting.
There are exceptions to these individual spotlights of course, since animation appreciation isn't necessarily tied to knowing who did what. It can be close to impossible to recognize individual key animators in an episode produced by KyoAni because the studio's particular ways of operating and their strong animation school culture put more weight on the animation director's role. To a lesser degree that's also a factor in Ghibli pieces and even some older Gainax work, yet these are all examples of anime held in very high regard by sakuga fans. Individual talent is pivotal to anime, but animation fans are always going to respect good craft.

It's crucial to realize why even care about the names of those animators. From an outsider's perspective it might feel like worship of individuals rather than passion for impressive artistic work, but you have to take into account those peculiarities of the anime industry; by allowing the personal style of key animators to leak strongly into the work, they create a situation in which fans can easily find and identify the kind of art they are fond of. Knowing someone whose style you love is involved with a show can be a strong hint that it will have scenes you will fancy, and recognizing names in the staff list is a good way to find out who was in charge of that one bit that impressed you. People don't follow animators because they're looking for idols to worship, they do it because they enjoy those artistic voices that anime allows to be heard. It's not about the names, but what those names represent does matter.

There is a prevalent attitude amongst anime fans to obsess over the studio in charge of a show, which ignores the realities of the industry and sometimes borders unhealthiness and plain disrespect. The truth is that save for very few exceptions, anime is the work of freelancers and outsourced animators; even the core staff of TV anime and movies is often composed by people who don't belong to the company, so making judgments based on that is unreliable at best. It's obviously easier to attach an opinion to a brand name than tracking individual performances, but generalizations often based on misconceptions help no one. If you're going to honor impressive work, credit the actual artists who made it. This isn't to say that studios aren't a factor – in-house talent still exists, working conditions differ, and different producers tackle projects in their own way. If you want to see why a certain anime looks the way it does however, pay attention to the actual names of the creators. Not because of the names themselves, but the people behind them. They matter.

Having understood why this all matters and noticed styles you enjoy, how do you exactly seek out more about them? People having arrived to this point nowadays are in a more privileged position than their past equivalents. There only used to be reliable resources in Japanese and low quality videos on youtube, but 2015 is much kinder to newcomers; resources like sakugabooru do a better job at showcasing animation snippets than those old videos used to, and databases like the Anime News Network Encyclopedia and Animators Corner are fairly complete and can start to compete with the Japanese Anime Staff Wiki. The overseas sakuga community has been steadily growing for the last few years and that means it's easier to find guidance, even if it still isn't very intuitive.
Once a piece of animation has caught your eye, identification and familiarization become your goals. The former can be tricky even for seasoned fans, but starting to pay attention to the credits is always a solid first step. The staff list at the end of every anime episode that you have always overlooked becomes your first tool when you want to find out more about something within an episode that stood out to you. Sometimes they explicitly state who was in charge of a certain scene, or separate whoever animated the highlights from the rest of key animators, but for the most part you will simply see a list of names. Those who can't read kanji shouldn't worry much since chances are that the credits have been added into those western staff databases, but that doesn't solve the core issue – figuring out who animated the scene that interests you. While Japanese speakers might get lucky and find the answer at Sakuga Wiki, the rest will have to rely on less direct approaches like asking through social media. There are lists of animation fans who can help you and considering how the sakuga fandom has been spreading these last few years, simply asking the void on Twitter might be enough. Don't be shy, a short conversation can be enough to find out about a creator you unknowingly already were a fan of! Since what newcomers tend to notice first are unique artists, your questions will probably be easy to answer and it'll only be a matter of time until you yourself can start distinguishing them.

Which brings us to the next point: familiarization. If you're lucky you might come across a solo key animation episode which naturally showcases the artist's style; rare instances like Your Lie In April #5, which was a non-stop display of Takashi Kojima character motion and effects. Most of the time however, you will simply learn that a certain animator animated a handful of cuts within an episode you liked. Once you have that name, go look them up on Sakugabooru or check if there's a compilation of their work elsewhere. By watching an animator's work isolated from the rest you will start to notice patterns, the distinct ways in which they draw stuff and everything that composes their personal style. From the detailed and bouncy hair in Megumi Kouno's work to the large amount of sparks and debris on Nozomu Abe's cuts, there's no end to the quirks you will notice. You might want to check their animation frame by frame to have a clearer look at their art, but that is far from necessary and something fans do either to appreciate their work or gain in-depth understanding of it. Once you're used to this process it becomes something you naturally can do, even while watching an episode for the first time; don't worry if you struggle at the beginning. This is just like people who might be scared of being unable to follow subtitled anime rapidly being able to process a bit more information without thinking about it!

This shouldn't come as a surprise, but one of the best sources for this sort of knowledge are the creators themselves. Sites like twitter have given them personal outlets where they can share their industry insight, what they've been working on, all sorts of fascinating details. For the most part artists enjoy talking about their work and appreciate fan interaction, so it's common to see things like animators sourcing their own cuts when asked by fans. This is of course quite limited to Japanese speakers (though you also see animators try their best to reply in English to foreigners, that's how much they enjoy people reaching out to them), but there are plenty of people translating those messages into other languages nowadays. The gap between artists and consumers keeps shrinking, and we get some great stuff out of it.

What does this all achieve? While it's not as daunting as it might seem, you will still have to put some effort into your entertainment, something that not everyone is up for, and that's fine. The advantages are many, though; it enhances your anime watching, gives you a better understanding of what you love and even makes you more perceptive. The eye is gradually trained and you learn what to look out for, to the point it becomes something you subconsciously do. Sure, you will also start noticing more the poorly animated bits, but it's not as if you will stop liking what you enjoyed before – this is all about refining your appreciation. You'll start spotting nuanced character motion in a powerful scene you never saw before, recognizing the draftsmanship behind a gorgeous explosion, it's all very rewarding.

Anime is a powerful medium and animation is no small part of it. Even those who don't make an effort to pay extra attention to animation still passively experience it, and whether they are aware of it or not a well animated piece will always engross them more. Sakuga appreciation isn't a replacement for a compelling story and characters but rather builds upon it; when it comes down to it, the lines between different elements of execution blur - chances are that a well-directed piece will use animation in a smart manner, some of the best character stories sell their cast through subtle character motions, and intense action anime relies heavily on the layouts and choreographies Animation Directors come up with. Yet despite being so integral to the medium, the barriers to entry make it a bit hard for interested newcomers to start actively appreciating it. Hopefully this can ease their introduction, and more people can add an extra layer of enjoyment to their hobby. It is worth it.

Kevin Cirugeda can be found discussing sakuga and all things anime here on Twitter and on his blog, Anime Bingo.

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