Exploring sakuga – Part 1 : Birth of otaku, birth of sakuga

If you ask different people what “sakuga” is or means, chances are you’ll get different answers ; but all these answers will probably revolve around a few similar ideas : sakuga is good animation ; animation that stands out ; animation made by some talented animators, etc. All these definitions rely on remarkably vague terms (“good”, “standing out”, “talented”), but they all point out a certain awareness that there’s something going on. Animation is not just the things you see moving on the screen, or even the way they move. So to speak, animation is the way things are made to move, in specific ways and by specific people, enough to make it remarkable.

This idea that there’s something deliberate in the movement is in fact at the core of the word sakuga. While it commonly means any kind of picture, and by extension animation, there’s a remarkable difference between it and the other Japanese words used to describe animation. The word for key animation/frames, genga (原画), literally means “original image”, while the one for in-between animation/frames, douga (動画), means “moving image” : the key frame is original in that no one key pose is like the other, and the in-between is moving because it’s the one producing the actual movement. However, sakuga (作画) is a far more general word : the first kanji, 作, means “to make, to craft”. Considering this, when one refers to animation as “sakuga”, they underline the fact that this animation has been made by someone, crafted following specific production processes. Sakuga is not animation as the first step towards movement, it’s animation as the last step of a certain craft.

What, then, could the “sakuga” in “sakuga community” mean ? It’s simple : the sakuga community is the group of people who do not just appreciate animation as movement, but also consider the work that has been made to actually create the movement. To put it another way, sakuga is the awareness of what goes on behind the scenes. This entails that sakuga isn’t a thing, but a process : not something you watch, but something you do.

This, in a nutshell, is going to be my key assumption for the entirety of this series : that sakuga isn’t only good animation, or the way animation is made, but also the way animation is enjoyed – it refers to a certain kind of way to watch and appreciate animation. And the goal of this series is precisely to study and follow the evolution of this appreciation, which has made a part of the anime fandom reconsider their favorite medium and offer new ways to enjoy and study it.


For this first part, I’m gonna look at how sakuga was born : how, when and why anime fans started to take an interest in the actual people making the animation. This brings us back to the early 80’s in Japan, and the appearance of two new words in the anime lingo : otaku and karisuma animeta, or, in English, “charisma animator”. The name pretty much speaks of itself :  a charisma animator isn’t simply good, he stands out to the point that his style is recognizable. This figure was mostly represented by 4 animators who had started to make a name for themselves in the late 70’s : Yoshinori Kanada, Yasuomi Umetsu, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and Ichirou Itano. The four of them could be said to represent a similar generation, but there’s a clear age divide between the oldest ones (Kawajiri, born in 1950 and Kanada, in 1952) and the other two (Itano, born in 1959 and Umetsu in 1960).

The most notable among them was no doubt Kanada, the most important and influential Japanese animator ever. I won’t go over the detail of Kanada’s style and career, but the most important moment for this series is the airing period of Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Invincible Superman Zambot 3, from October 8, 1977 to March 25, 1978. At the time, after 5 years working on animation, Kanada’s style had reached its first peak –  but if you add to that the lack of any animation director on the show, it was the perfect occasion for him to go wild and demonstrate the full extent of his genius. He soloed or largely contributed to 4 episodes, most notably #22, one of anime’s most powerful moments. Kanada’s strong poses, thick linework, inventive camera movement and endless creativity made all of his episodes one of a kind that stood out so far apart from the rest of the show and of TV animation at the time. Since his style was so idiosyncratic and kept popping up in many outstanding episodes and openings from the time, it was easy work for any fan to just look up the credits and realize that there was this one name that came up every time.

Yoshinori Kanada’s cover of the April 1983 issue of the magazine Animage

Between 1979 and 1982, Kanada started working on multiple high-profile, popular SF movies : Galaxy Express 999, Be Forever Yamato, Terra E, Farewell Galaxy Express 999, Arcadia of my Youth… At this point he was just doing as he pleased : it’s just a personal approximation, but he might’ve animated something between 10 to 20 minutes of the Farewell Galaxy Express 999 movie. With so much work handed out to him, he was simply impossible to ignore – especially if you consider that the audience for these movies was basically the same. In 4 years, more or less the same people went to see them, and must have been stunned everytime by Kanada’s animation. By then, he was a name no anime fan could ignore : it started appearing in official magazines like Animage, but also fan publications like the Yamato fan club’s publication, and, as time went by, Kanada fan clubs !

A page from the “That’s Iko anime !” section

The most interesting publication for that time is what I believe to be one of the first, if not the first, animator’s artbook to be published in Japan : the Yoshinori Kanada Special, by Tokuma Shoten (Animage’s publisher) in August 1982. It featured original illustrations (many for the upcoming Birth OVA which was then in pre-production) and key frames, but there are two sections which are particularly interesting : the end of the book contains 3 essays about Kanada made by coworkers or prominent industry members (among which none other than Hayao Miyazaki) and a section titled “Message for Iko” made up of shorter messages or texts also written by other animators, producers, editors, etc. Another interesting section is the second one, titled “That’s Iko anime !” which a frame-by-frame commentary of some of Kanada’s most striking scenes.

Kanada-related publications only continued as a book dedicated to his work on Final Yamato was published the same year and, starting 1984, Kanada-related doujinshi started coming out regularly. While this is the kind of content you could expect from regular anime magazines, the focus on a single artist and especially the analytical breakdown of his work, from individual cuts to more general essays, all demonstrate that Kanada’s popularity initiated a new look towards animation. The animator himself and his individual work were starting to come to the fore [1].

Ichirou Itano is the perfect example of Kanada’s influence, and of the spread of the charisma animator mindset. He entered the industry just after highschool, and was inspired by Kanada – he reportedly developed his famous “Itano Circus” technique as a way to rival and maybe even surpass him. What’s interesting is that, in both cases, the techniques they invented were strongly tied to their names or to specific shows : the “Kanada perspective”, the “Itano Circus” or “Macross Missile Massacre”. Considering Itano’s personality, having something attached to his own name must have been close to intentional. Itano’s personality, too, is worth looking at. More than any other animator, Itano could be said to embody the word “charisma”, or at least, “strong personality which attracts attention to itself” : Itano always had conflictual relationships with his higher-ups, often modified cuts and storyboards he was handled, and was basically the very definition of a daredevil. The most famous anecdote is about the invention of the Itano Circus : he attached fireworks to his motorcycle and lit them up as he was riding said motorcycle ; the vision of the fireworks going out all around him apparently gave him the idea of animating missiles in such a way. Itano’s career is full of such anecdotes and there’s no doubt that they were already circulating at the time – between industry members, and then between fans. This would only reinforce the idea of the animator as some kind of auteur or individual genius with not just a strong style, but also a strong personality. This, in turn, only encouraged people to look more into the animators and study their works.

Indeed, sakuga isn’t just appreciation for animation and the people behind it – it also often contains a large part of study, whether to learn to identify the styles and technique or to be able to reproduce them. A large part of sakuga fans has always been made of fledgling or future animators. This was already the case in 80’s Japan – the people behind Daicon are the best and most famous example of that. And the reason why this period saw sakuga develop beyond just animators is precisely because the ability to actually study animation became more easily accessible.

Otaku no VIDEO

There’s this scene in Toshio Okada’s Otaku no Video where main character Kubo enters the typical otaku den. What he sees there are plastic weapons, cosplays, plastic figures and anime posters, people making doujinshi… and a VHS recorder. His friend Tanaka shows him a scene from Daicon IV on the TV and comments : “This is what we call “effects”. It’s using stuff like laser beams and explosions. They’re all different, depending on the particular animator’s style and habits. These guys are real sticklers for details. It’s not something anyone can do.” After commenting an Itano cut from Macross, he concludes, “this is the cutting edge of animation nowadays ! And if you really watch it frame-by-frame, you can really see how the images flow together.” Just a few seconds later, he seduces Kubo into the otaku lifestyle by showing him his collection of video tapes.

In the OVA’s narrative, it’s a central scene, because it’s when the protagonist makes his first steps as an otaku and discovers the passionate lifestyle of those he once had contempt for. It’s also a good occasion for many in-jokes and references about Daicon, Itano, and all the series from which we see posters in the backgrounds. But in its meta narrative, that is what Okada has to say about otaku, it’s even more interesting : it is, in a condensed version, a little demonstration of the impact the video tape technology had on otaku culture. Add to that the fact that this scene comes just after the (fake) interview of an otaku whose main occupation is recording shows on TV and dealing his tapes around, and it all comes full circle.

The first commercial video tape recorder was released in 1959 by Japanese electronics company Toshiba ; but it wasn’t until 1971 and Sony’s first video cassette and recorder that video tapes started getting popular. In 1976, a third (still Japanese) company, JVS, entered the market with a new format, the VHS – the VHS and Sony’s Betamax were in a hard concurrence throughout the late 70’s and 80’s. In Otaku no Video, the characters have a Sony video tape player – not surprising, because the Betamax had a longer recording time than the VHS. What’s striking is that the introduction of this new format and the slow spread of VCRs in the general public exactly coincides with Kanada’s rising popularity, the charisma animators movement, and the birth of otaku culture. Which is precisely what Okada is pointing at in this central scene from his OVA – a format which was precisely born thanks to VCRs. But this wasn’t the only thing they allowed : with a VCR, one could record TV programs, which meant rewatching them enough to know them intimately (Hideaki Anno reportedly said that he knew every line from Space Battleship Yamato, except for the first episode which he hadn’t recorded) and exchanging or trading them with other fans. And, as VCR technology evolved, they even allowed to watch in slow-motion or frame-by-frame.

A Betamax videotape player and recorder

This was, obviously, a revolution. Up till then, anime fans were able to read the credits, and maybe remember them to make comparisons, but once a show had aired, it was done and you were lucky if it aired a second time or had a sequel. But now, once you had recorded a show, you could virtually enjoy it forever, and watch it however you pleased. You could read the credits in detail, try to guess who did what, how, and compare – which was made easier by the fact that, until the early to mid-80’s, the number of animators working on a TV episode was notably lower than it is now, and their cuts were longer. Watching scenes frame by frame enabled those who could draw to try and reproduce them – which would go even further in the case of fans going to ask, or even sometimes steal, key frames or cels from anime studios.

It would have triggered what I believe are some of the key realizations to become a sakuga fan : that animation is, in the end, just drawings, and that if you look at them closely enough, you can see how the drawings are made and how they are made to move. If you add that to the encyclopedic knowledge otaku managed to have and produce about the shows they liked, what you end up with is more than just really dedicated fans. It’s people with an almost intimate relationship to the media they consumed, an appreciation of its workmanship and, for many, the will to share and reproduce it. Which is precisely Toshio Okada’s point – and not just in Otaku no Video.

Opening the third eye

Maybe not satisfied with just his pseudo-autobiographical OVA, Okada became something of an otaku expert in the 1990’s, and summed up his thoughts in a book, 1996’s Introduction to Otakuology. Okada’s account is far from objective – he’s clearly trying to legitimize otaku culture – and full of unsubstantiated or more or less absurd opinions. However, his approach is a unique one in that it tries to characterize otaku as “a new step in human perception” and details the way anime fans have become critics and then creators in their own right. At the core of Okada’s argument are two provocative theses : the first, that “otaku are the legitimate heirs of Japanese culture”, and the second, what I call the “3-eyes theory”. Let’s review them one by one.

The first is basically at the center of Okada’s agenda : the reason why otaku deserve to be taken seriously and not just as weird people or degenerate fans is because they represent the natural evolution of Japanese high culture, in a lineage that dates back to the 18th century. This is obviously very debatable and I’m not going to argue for or against the historical accuracy of such a position ; what interests me is the way Okada defends it. For him, “the otaku form of enjoyment is the gratification of appreciating an artisan’s work. This means admiring the work’s craftsmanship, learning about its origin and appreciating its refinedness.” Notice how the vocabulary of the “artisan” and “craftsmanship” is close to what I’ve been trying to highlight as the core of sakuga culture. According to Okada, this kind of appreciation dates back to the urban culture of the Edo period, when artisans were funded by patrons from the merchant class which was getting richer and more powerful as time went by. These patrons started appreciating daily objects not just for their practical, but also for their aesthetic value and enjoyed even the little details and references to other works or famous landscapes – for example, the way the decorative pattern of a pipe reminds one of a beach, or of clouds. Those that were able to note what might look like insignificant details to the trained eye were deemed “sophisticated” – and, as Okada says, at the time “creators also made things with the sophisticated customer in mind, hoping that they would understand the ideas behind their work”.

To give another example, Okada uses this to explain the decline of rakugo : it is “becoming extinct” because of “the decrease of customers who understand the principles behind it”. The reason why otaku culture is so distinct and alive is because, according to Okada, both customers and creators operate along the same rules and cultivate a mutual understanding. This means that, to the untrained eye, two different works will be mostly the same, but to the otaku able to grasp every reference and little variation on the archetypes, no two series will ever be the same. This works at the level of narrative and writing (such character is a variation on the tsundere, for example), but also of visuals – and that’s where sakuga comes in. The sakuga fan is what Okada would call the “sophisticated” customer, able to grasp not just what said anime is about, but also the way it is made, and appreciate its very craft.

Okada refines this in his “three-eyes theory” : he argues that the “splendid otaku” (sic) isn’t just any sophisticated customer. It entails a set of very specific skills : “the eye of sophistication, to discover beauty in works ; the eye of the craftsman to evaluate the art of craftsmanship ; and the eye of the expert, to grasp  the work’s social positioning”. There’s something of a hierarchy here, as each “eye” points to something different, but always more refined and difficult to grasp. But to put it in a less dramatic way than Otsuka does (in this, he is very much on otaku), I’d say each skill represents an evolution in one’s appreciation of animation : the eye of sophistication would be being able to simply like animation as animation, discovering its potential as a medium ; the eye of craftsmanship is the point where you start understanding how animation works, and therefore why you like it, why certain kinds of animation or animators and not others ; and finally, the eye of the expert is confronting this perspective with other ones, trying to situate animators and techniques and arriving to sakuga not just as personal enjoyment, but as something that’s done as a community exchanging information and appraisal.

The “community” side is very important for Okada, and if we follow my comparison between sakuga fans and the way he conceives otaku, his theory can change a bit the perspective on the sakuga community. Among the (more or less legitimate) critiques one could make of sakuga, there’s the classical accusation of elitism, but also undue admiration for animators heralded as auteurs in their own right, talented individuals who are the only ones worth the attention. However, according to Okada, that’s not how otaku consider artists – whereas, “in the Western art world, the creator is a god” who doesn’t need to listen to the spectator’s or the consumer’s demands, “Japanese culture evolved through the competition between creators and receivers”. If you ignore the pretty caricatural East/West opposition, Okada’s argument is really interesting because it makes him argue that, in some context, the consumer “who understands the beauty of a work and can put this understanding into words” has a higher status than the artist himself. In other words, it’s the “sophisticated” otaku that creates the value of the show because he’s able to highlight its qualities – that would remain hidden otherwise. To give an example, it’s because fans noticed and appreciated Kanada’s works that he was able to move on from kids shows and animate on more ambitious projects.

To put it another way, it’s because there were people to feel the charisma that the charisma animators were born. There had been great animators in Japan before Kanada, and even some geniuses ; but the reason he kickstarted a boom not only among other animators but in the entire fandom was thanks to a specific context during which anime consumers became anime fans and then experts able to fully appreciate his work.

Historians may want to explore all of this in further detail : after all, Toshio Okada is far from the most objective point of view on these questions. But in spite of all his typically otaku melodrama, he does note some very interesting points for people interested in sakuga and in fandom, and notably the fact that the kind of involvement sakuga fans have in anime is both normal development for any fandom, but at the same time the consequence of very specific conditions. Moreover, there’s the strong link between sakuga fans and otaku ; nowadays, some would tend to dissociate the two because of the negative image of the latter, but just this simple overview has shown that they are closely related. And that none of the two can be considered as a purely individual activity that one just does for enjoyment. Both are something social, shared between people, that give birth to concrete consequences : learning animation, as the Daicon staff and, more recently, the Web generation have shown us, or sharing and debating over a common passion. In that, the sakuga community pushes analysis a step further than normal fandom in that it dissects the formal workings of animation as a medium. And seeing how this has evolved and operates is the goal of this series.

[1] Strictly speaking, Kanada wasn’t the first name animation fans were specially aware of : he had, as predecessors, Youichi Kotabe for his work on Hols, Prince of the Sun and Shingo Araki on Star of the Giants. With the creation of the Animage magazine in 1978, more staff names started coming out, notably Hayao Miyazaki’s. (Thanks to Ten for the correction)

8 thoughts on “Exploring sakuga – Part 1 : Birth of otaku, birth of sakuga

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