Exploring sakuga – Part 2 : The birth of Western sakuga

This article is the second part of a series. You can read Part 1 here. For another perspective on the same events, you can read this interview.

In the previous essay in this series, I argued that one of the most important factors for the development of sakuga in Japan was the VCR and its widespread use during the 1980’s, when otaku culture in general was born and boomed. Go forward 20 or 25 years, and I think that you can find something of a similar situation in the West ; but the new technology was, obviously, not the same. It was, this time, the Internet.

Basically, the VCR technology made possible the “analytical” side of sakuga : thanks to it, you could play and replay your anime, watch them frame by frame or in slow-motion, and really take the time to break down the animation. This, theoretically, would have been possible outside Japan as the number of anime exported started to rise, especially in the 90’s, when VHS versions and then DVDs started circulating in the West. However, if that did happen, it was still very localized and rare. It is the Internet that really gave birth to the “social” or “community” aspect of sakuga : exchange and discussion of analyses and information on animation. Indeed, it made possible a wider circulation of anime, mostly thanks to the multiplication and rapid development of fansubbing in the 2000’s and of online piracy – which meant that more anime was made available, and therefore, more animation and animators were there to be discovered. But more importantly, the birth of websites sharing information and trivia, and then of online forums and message boards allowed for more knowledge to be spread and exchanged, and for people to start communicating about animation. This article is about these websites and forums, notably 2 that could arguably be called the birthplace of the Western sakuga community : the French-speaking Catsuka, and the English-speaking Anipages.

Catsuka : the first community of animation fans

Catsuka, short for “Cyber Adventure Tsuka” (a Space Adventure Cobra reference), was created on May 30, 2000. This still very dynamic French website is among the oldest ones dedicated not only to anime, but animation in general. The website’s admin, Tsuka, is apparently very conscious of that and has made a timeline of its history, which is going to be one of my main sources, for those among you who can’t read French.

Catsuka’s initial homepage

It all started in 1999, as a website hosted by the computer science school of Bordeaux, which then benefited from an excellent, and rare, connection to the Internet. The website then became public the next year, thanks to the free web host Citeweb. The interface has quite the 2000’s feel, and the Rei Ayanami image on it is a testament to Evangelion and Gainax’s influence, even in the West, at the time. What’s really notable is that, even though the site has evolved and immensely grown, its fundamental functions seem to have already existed. It’s most important feature was basically to share information, images and clips from various anime.

The information part was made up of a presentation of some movies or TV shows, but also various news more or less related to anime : what animated movies came out on TV or in the theaters, what new manga or anime were released, news of conventions, etc. But more than that, the website served as a database for various resources, from anime scripts, to illustrations of various sources (mostly CD covers or images from artbooks) and, most meaningfully, clips and GIFs from anime. I haven’t managed to see if these already tried to identify the animators, but they were a step further towards taking a look at animation in detail and short sequences, as well as a preview that could incite people to watch these series. But the first real “sakuga” moment was in early 2001, when Tsuka released an article dedicated to animator Koji Morimoto, which quickly became the most popular of the site and even became an entirely separate website some time later. Along with information on Morimoto’s career, it featured, for the first time outside of Japan, the pilot film for Tekkon Kinkreet and Noiseman Sound Insect, along with other clips and illustrations. One of the early and main focuses of the website was not just sharing videos, but, if possible, unreleased or rare ones. As time went by, it became more diverse, and, in May 2002, launched an encyclopedia about manga and anime, titled “The Manga Bible”. By then, the website would become bigger and bigger, and more important : by August of that year, it registered 800 pages, 5000 images and 100 videos – it also hosted the English-speaking website of Production I.G, which was another one of the birthplaces of the early sakuga community. To give another idea of the website’s growth, the timeline also chronicles the number of reported news from 2002 to today.

The evolution of Catsuka told by the evolution of reported news

Another important place was, obviously, the website’s forum. I have to admit I know next to nothing about what Internet and forum culture looked like in the early 2000’s, but I’ve seen enough from this particular one to make some remarks. First, it’s important to note that it is older, and therefore bigger, than the other forum I’ll cover, the Anipages one – it started in May 2002. Most of what I’m going to comment on is about that early period – roughly the 6 years until 2008 (approximately half of the forum’s posts were published in this time). While almost completely written in French, it’s interesting to note that the first English-speaking post dates as far back as November of 2002 – probably from someone that had met some of the members at the Production IG English website which had its own message board. However, and without much surprise, there doesn’t seem to have been a lot of dialogue between these French fans and the possible general English-speaking community – but a 2004 post is interesting in this regard, as it both ironically and prophetically comments that “right now the Americans are getting into DBZ and they really like it… When they’ll get to big hits like Naruto it’ll obviously be a boom”.

But more generally, the forum’s main function seems to have been to relay and discuss information about anime : announcing new licensing or discussing works, but also any kind of French programs or conventions about anime or manga. The series discussed are very diverse, but what’s really striking for a later fan like me who reads these discussions, is the overwhelming presence and prestige of Gainax. There’s obviously something of a veneration for Evangelion, but the real star in discussions about animation is FLCL – in fact not that surprising : it’s always been a fan-favourite in the West, and both its animation and energetic style would have been a shock just after it came out. Another surprising (for me) aspect is how close-knitted the members ended up being : many of the regular members met each other and organized their own events in conventions, most importantly in France’s most important one, the Japan Expo.

Finally, what makes the Catsuka forum so fascinating is not so much the discussions, but the members : many of them were animators in training. An entire part of the board is dedicated to sharing the members’ own animation, but the most telling thing is perhaps the fact that the results of France’s most prestigious animation school, the Gobelins’ entrance exams, are published each year. You can also find some threads of people wanting to get into the school asking for advice. This is very interesting, because while the word “sakuga” never pops up and there’s very little actual discussion about the industry, or close analysis of animated sequences, this speaks to the (obvious) fact that animation’s first fans are the animators themselves. Considering this, it’s no surprise that the first members of what we would now call the sakuga community were, or tried to become, animators.

Anipages : setting the fundamentals of the sakuga discourse

Some time after Catsuka, in 2004, Benjamin Ettinger created Anipages, the first major English-speaking website dedicated to “Anime, its animators and the art of animation”. This simple sentence should be enough to tell you how important Anipages was, since these are the three core interests of the sakuga community even today.

At first, the blog was pretty much daily and very informal and personal, even if most entries were related to anime in a way or another. But what set it apart instantly were a few things. First, the simple fact that Ettinger knew Japanese and followed not only anime but all anime-related news and websites in Japanese – this elevated him and his knowledge far above the rest of anime fans at the time. This is probably the skill which enabled him, from the very start, to pay attention not only to the animation in itself, but to celebrate the individuals behind it. Here, the most important part of his website is probably the “Karisuma Animators” page, a list of great and famous Japanese animators, brief notes about their life and style, and their most important work. This little encyclopedia of animation would have been (and could still be) the perfect starting point for any sakuga fans. What’s interesting is that the very name of the page shows Ettinger’s knowledge of the Japan-based charisma animator boom and attempt at situating himself in its lineage.

In the early posts, his comments about his own viewing practice are also very sakuga-ish. One of his very first entries, dating from June 13, 2004, is titled “Stand-Outs” and is dedicated to remarkable episodes that highlight the talent of a particular animator or team. Just by saying this, you can see the attention paid to the staff, but also to the individual episode as something of an event, a unique meeting between a certain set of people that results in a remarkable work that maybe won’t ever happen again. Moreover, Ettinger himself points out to the fact that he rarely watched full series, based on the debatable opinion that “once you’ve seen one episode, you’ve seen them all”. I can’t say I, or many anime fans, would agree with him, but it once more emphasizes a certain approach of animation, one adopted by certain sakuga fans and that’s received heavy criticism both from within and without the community : caring only for the animation, and maybe not the rest, most importantly the plot and writing. Finally, in said article, you can see a deep knowledge of who’s who, and a very rich anime culture, which goes far beyond the Gainax/IG/4°C fandom of Catsuka. Most importantly for the future and development of the sakuga community, he points out some Naruto episodes (#30 and #71) and the “army of two” made up of Atsushi Wakabayashi and Norio Matsumoto.

Ettinger wrote about and commented on many contemporary airing anime, as sakuga fans still mostly do, but what remains the most interesting aspect of his blog to this day is his very early turn towards history of animation and old anime. For example, as soon as 2004, he was writing about the development of indie Japanese animation and one of the first Japanese TV animation studios, Otogi Pro. From these posts, it’s visible that Ettinger already had extensive knowledge about anime, and it only grew with time, making the website one of the most complete and rich resources on animation – a statement that still holds true today. I doubt that, at the time, there were many in the West that could rival Ettinger’s grasp of anime, its history and its creators.

It seems obvious to me that Anipages, as a source of information, was instrumental in establishing the foundations of the sakuga community. But as important as the website itself was its forum, which gives a good idea of the evolution of the fandom, as well as the very birth of the Western sakuga community. Ettinger himself acknowledged his status as a pioneer, since on the first post of the forum, he claims that a website and board entirely dedicated to discussing anime, its history and people are “virgin territory for the English-speaking web”. The only major English-speaking place dedicated in depth to these subjects was the Production IG website, which I already mentioned – and which died somewhere around 2006. When it did, Anipages basically became the most important (if not the only) gathering place for people to talk about what would become “sakuga” – and it’s when Catsuka’s audience started coming over too : in 2006, you see posts by Tsuka and manuloz.

Anipages’ forum is, despite being younger, far more diverse than Catsuka’s – and, from the perspective of this research piece, far more interesting to look at. The subjects evoked are many, but can be broken down into multiple categories.

The first, most normal one, consists in sharing news and information of various kinds – such as deaths (Carl Macek and Yoshinori Kanada, most notably), new releases and studios (the creation of Studio Trigger is among the most noted ones) and reactions to shows or movies. Among these, two are particularly interesting, because they illustrate how much the discourse, and the fandom in general, have evolved since then.

The first discussion is about The Disappearance of Haruhi Suzumiya, from 2010. What’s very striking from these two posts are two things. One is the still very active contempt for “moefags” – even if the word isn’t actually used. The mention of “body odor”, “bad breath” and “fanboys and fangirls” conjures the image of dirty, asocial nerds – basically, of otaku. The fact that these early sakuga fans (notice that the word “sakuga” comes up, though I haven’t been able to track its first appearance in the Western fandom [1]) try so hard to differentiate themselves from the rest of the otaku-ish (weeb-ish, we would now say) community is very meaningful. 

But even though they try to exercise contempt for Kyoani as pure otaku bait, there’s clearly some sense of bewilderment in considering the quality of the animation. It’s interesting to see that the specific qualities of the Kyoani style are acknowledged (“gesture animation that expresses subtle body movements” ; “felt like full animation” ; it’s “something else” than “action sakuga”), but that at the same time, they do everything to downplay it : the writing is bad (“really long”, “endless subtitles”), just like the direction (“the person who made it didn’t know [how] to exhibit the best animation” ; the layouts “look visual novel grade”). And even the animation meets resistance : it’s too smooth, giving this kind of “melting” effect. I may be reading too much into it here, but I think what’s going on runs deeper than rejecting what was perceived as Kyoani’s catering to otaku audiences : there may very well be a general rejection of the studio’s realism and almost full animation techniques. Indeed, while Kigami’s name is mentioned, his involvement in realistic and canonical movies like Grave of the Fireflies or Akira isn’t, and the fluidity of the movement becomes an argument against the animation rather than for it. Finally, this shows that the sakuga community was already very partial towards showy action and effects animation, and the complete lack of it in the movie might have been yet another thing that put people off.

Another striking thread is dedicated to a more historic moment in recent animation history – I’m talking about the infamous Birdy Decode episode 7 and the complete unleashing of the web generation’s style and talent. The screenshot I’m sharing as well as the thread in general, gives a good idea of the debates the episode stirred. While it seems to be quite bewildering, you can see attempts at identifying the names behind the cuts – such as someone correctly guessing Norio Matsumoto behind this one.

But another remark from this thread is very telling of some of the fan’s approach of animation : “Feels like rebellious youths that want to make a statement against traditional Japanese humility. Makes me want to see some Toshiyuki Inoue work.” I don’t think it too bold to say that this reeks of orientalism – which is precisely what makes it so fascinating. It means that the anime production process was already considered unique enough to be essentialized in such a way, but also that there was a good grasp of the stylistical and technical changes brought by the webgen, to the point of making a reactionary and caricatural divide between rebellious, individualistic youth and good old traditional and realistic Toshiyuki Inoue. The issue of realism is also interesting : bringing up Inoue, and not Kanada or Yuasa (who were often highlighted on Anipages ; this isn’t a case of ignorance), is probably deliberate and conveys an image of attention to detail and seriousness that Yamashita and company obviously did not give off.

The same impression is visible in many talks involving one of the major names of web generation animation, and an active member of the Anipages forum : Bahi JD. This is, in retrospect, one of the most fun things to look for, as you can see some of his first forays into the sakuga community, sharing his first animation and slowly getting better. In one post where he’s asking for advice, he got severely told off in a comment that shows how difficult the current situation of more and more foreign animators getting into anime was to imagine : “do your homework first before thinking about moving to Japan. Japanese won’t hire anyone as key animator unless you have some serious drawing and animating skills.” 

The fact that Anipages was apparently so instrumental in this famous animator’s career shows how much knowledge went around and the fact that it was, just like Catsuka, a place for animators to hang out and exchange advice. There are some threads dedicated to classical questions like places where one could download anime or looking for recommendations, but there are two that are very interesting. The first is dedicated to sharing animators’ student films ; and the other shared a link to a (now apparently offline) English version of the sakuga wiki. It’s hard to get an idea of what kind of people exactly formed this first community, but would-be animators were definitely a large chunk of it. In that regard, the most interesting post is what I’d call an “origin story” – this long post recounting someone’s discovery of anime and the start of their passion.

This long and fascinating text is taken from what’s undoubtedly the core and most important thread of the forum, the almost encyclopedic “Japanese animation theory”, that’s still one of the best places to learn about animation online and, in the words of one of the forum’s members, “house[s] some of the most concise, practical and informative material on the Japanese animation industry, ever commited to English text”. It started in July 2007, when one user asked for resources on what they called “Japanese cel animation theory” – a remarkably vague expression that could bring in different sorts of answers. In a first interesting development, another user shared a translation of a Toshiyuki Inoue interview – but as the translation made use of the word “cut”, debate ensued over the precise meaning of the word : does “cut” mean a shot ? a scene ? while we now mostly use “cut”, just like in Japanese, this is the first important moment for sakuga as a special practice, because it shows that fans were actually starting to think about the words they used, and maybe already coming up with a specific terminology.

From there, the discussion went away from animation theory to an actual explanation of anime’s production process. Things started getting really deep in August when Korean-American animator and director Peter Chung got into the discussion. What made his intervention so worthwhile was the fact that he had worked both in Japan and the US, and could actually compare – and also that many users knew him and his work. He could therefore speak from a place of authority and the thread started to look like a dialogue between a teacher and his students. In his posts, Chung laid out the basics of one of the founding discourses in the sakuga community today : what makes Japanese animation so special is the feeling of personal expression and freedom it conveys, in contrast with American classical animation. In a way, anime is much more expressive, a more interesting way of exploring the possibilities of cel animation. Chung’s argument was more complex, and I encourage you to go read it for yourself, but here’s a sufficient excerpt that shows how much of the ideas he develops here have become part of the basic sakuga rhetoric : 

One reason why many young artists (including myself at one time) are attracted to Japanese animation and may be inspired to emulate it is that you can see how it is done. You can easily see it is composed of individual drawings, and for that reason, it seems within one’s reach. In classical animation (I will call traditional Disney animation “classical” from here on), to allow the viewer to notice he is looking at a drawing is a cardinal sin. In classical animation, even held poses were traced over and over to make them “breathe”. These are called “moving holds”.

In classical American animation, the animator’s hand must not be noticeable. The focus is entirely on the character and in the illusion that it is a living, breathing creature. From a Western animator’s perspective, it is NOT praise to say “I noticed how well you animated that scene.” That is a statement of failure. It means that the animation drew attention to itself. That is the basic violation of classicist representation in Western art, and of “classical” American animation. John Lasseter puts it clearly when he says he prefers the animation of Frank Thomas to that of Milt Kahl. You can tell a scene animated by Kahl. Thomas’s efforts disappear into the performance, like a good actor’s. That is THE major difference between Japanese animation theory and Disney. […]

“Japanese animation theory” is that animation is the art of creating and controlling movement. It’s all about using motion itself as a means of self expression. American animators define what they do much more narrowly: animation is the art of creating life. Not making drawings move, but making them live. This may seem like a mere semantic distinction, but the difference permeates every aspect of the animator’s thinking.

This is a broad generalization, of course, but Japanese animators animate drawings; American animators animate characters. It’s one reason why the Japanese industry has not embraced CG the way the rest of the world has.”

This is the core of the discussion, but what’s so interesting is that the thread didn’t stop here. After his first big posts, Chung and others had a discussion on Western animation and classical cartoons ; and at the same time, he used his experience working in Japanese studios to share what was probably the first comprehensive account of the anime production process : the role of the sakkan and corrections, the precise difference between genga and douga, the process of making the layouts, etc. but also some technical details such as how timing sheets work, the fact that the corrections are made on special yellow paper… The thread would go on to become the forum’s main place to ask about how anime is produced : a year after the first post, you can see Bahi JD still speculating and asking questions about the production process.

What’s also worth noting is the realization by the members that they actually don’t know that much about anime production, which started a discussion on the reception (or lack thereof) of anime overseas, anime’s influence, discussing anime exports… In the midst of that, interviews and production materials got shared, which led to the first mention of “Yutapon” I noted, in 2009, as a reaction to some Sword of the Stranger roughs. Another part of the discussion that retrospectively is very interesting is when users started wondering about the possible impact of the Internet on anime as a medium and on their own fandom – which led to some prophetic answers.

Finally, the most important aspect of this thread is all the other offshoots it triggered on the same forum. The user who started it, Leedar, reformulated his initial question on another post : “Are the concepts which give Japanese animation its certain qualities purely ‘spoken knowledge’ or are they codified, in the manner of the 12 Disney principles ? If they aren’t abstract, then what are common ones ?” This led to yet some more discussion and speculation about the differences between Japanese and American animation, but also towards the reality of the industry. Indeed, a possible answer to the stylistical diversity of Japanese animation was that there was no big, central studio like Disney that would formulate clear principles for all its staff, that would trickle down around all the industry. This led to a talk about the multiplicity of Japanese animation studios and, already in 2007, some people evoking the terrible working conditions in Japan : “We know that turnover rate in the industry is very high due to poor pay. I read that a salesman at an electronics store makes better money than an animator. Who would want to work in the industry where reward is rare and benefit package is unheard of? Few people who decided to stay in the industry honed their skill, but they’re not getting younger. The industry needs serious reform that balances creative freedom and better quality of life for everyone.”

This shows that the situation in the industry has been like that for a while… but also that the same applies to the sakuga discourse. Obviously, the community has grown a lot since then, and become very different. Many of the people that hung out on Anipages have either left (like Ettinger himself) or become professionals. Many of today’s sakuga fans are maybe not aware of the existence of the website, or of the foundational “Japanese animation theory” thread. But the fact is that it set many of the recurring elements of today’s discourse about Japanese animation. To say it bluntly, it was probably the birthplace of the Western sakuga community, just like Catsuka and other, maybe less well-known websites, were.

[1] Apparently, the word “sakuga” was first used to mean “good animation” around 2006, on Japanese websites Nico Nico and Stage 6, as a tag on “Sakuga MADs”. From there it got around to message boards like 2channel, and to Western websites like Youtube which started to have its share of MADs. (Thanks to manuloz and ten for the tip)

6 thoughts on “Exploring sakuga – Part 2 : The birth of Western sakuga

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