Benjamin Ettinger stopped posting regularly on Anipages just after the blog’s 10th anniversary, in late 2014. The forum kept existing, but the community in general had changed considerably between 2013 and 2014. This tidal change had a name : Sakugabooru. I don’t think I need to explain how and why this database of animated sequences, often credited, was and still is the central meeting place for all members of the community. It enabled and still enables animators and fans alike to learn the craft and know about artists they’d have never discovered without it, while being accessible and intuitive. Moreover, the website made the cuts easy to share on other media, whether Twitter, Discord or blogs. By 2016 and the creation of the companion Sakuga Blog, the sakuga community we now know had pretty much been formed. But that wasn’t without debates and heated discussions which would definitely establish the core elements of the sakuga discourse and positioning towards the general anime fandom. This all happened in and around one of the most prominent sakuga blogs of the time, Wave Motion Cannon, between 2016 and 2017.
Prelude : What is Sakuga ? (September 2015)
Before anything could happen, sakuga had to become more open ; people had to become aware of it. This was a long process, but I believe a key moment and text was the one written by Kevin Cirudega, aka Kvin or Yuyucow, published on Anime News Network on September 30th, 2015. ANN is probably the biggest English-speaking anime website, and while it has its own forum and community, writing for it is a guarantee to be read by a lot of people. This is especially the case if you’re not just writing a news article or a review, but a genuine blog post, like this one. And this one is decisive, because it’s basically an introduction and invitation to sakuga. There are multiple ways to approach it, so let’s review them one by one.
First, it’s a presentation of sakuga and an attempt to define it. There are in fact two kinds of definition present in the article, reminiscent of my own distinction between sakuga as something one enjoys and one does. On the one hand, sakuga “has been used for a while by enthusiasts overseas to refer to impressive motion” – and on the other, sakuga is a different way to enjoy animation : “the craft stops being something you passively absorb and becomes something you are curious about.” The vocabulary being used is pretty interesting, because Kvin speaks of getting into sakuga, just like one would get into anime : it is, in a way, a deeper and new kind of engagement with the medium.
The argument of the article goes further than that, and introduces a thread that has been one of the core elements of Kvin’s article on the Sakuga Blog and the entire sakuga discourse ever since : sakuga isn’t just liking animation, it’s paying attention to the reality of the anime industry. He demonstrates it by giving a crash course in how anime is made : the fact that most animators are freelancers, that studios are but a relative actor (around 2015, before sakuga became such a big thing, was probably the height of the studio-as-style discourse), giving example and counter-examples of individual animators and their techniques, from the idiosyncratic Yoshinori Kanada and his dragons to Kyoani’s tight supervision which makes the animators harder to identify.
But it goes further than that, and anticipates on critiques that were already voiced, and on part of the debate I’m going to chronicle here : it addresses the fact that sakuga fans “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.” In that, sakuga is a necessary component of anime criticism and history because it is aware of how anime is made, and calls attention to that – either to celebrate its great artists or to call out bad practices.
The other interesting aspect of this article lies in its situation as a historical record : of what the sakuga and anime community were like at the time, how sakuga had evolved, and how it was received. First, as I already mentioned, it’s an important text because it testifies to the sakuga community’s growth and was a factor in it. All this is visible in the forum reactions, but before that, it’s also worth noting the mentions in the article itself. As an introduction and guide to sakuga, it lays out the typical path to become a sakuga fan : a special, unique show or scene that inspires one to look deeper into it, and then discovering the various websites, tools and databases that enable one to learn more and develop one’s taste and eye. But more specifically, Kvin mentions some particular shows that make it possible to lay out the most important works and moments for sakuga : he himself is from “a generation that began their sakuga adventures because of anime like Gurren Lagann, which offered lots of gorgeous effects animation with strong personality.” As I noted previously, Gainax was indeed a trigger for many new fans.
But the other reference he gives is more interesting and somewhat original : the delicate character acting from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Indeed, in the last article, I had noted how difficult it was for the members of the Anipages forum to simply process Kyoto Animation’s work, and to detach it from their negative image of “moe blobs”. Aside from the general progressive acceptance of moe and slice of life works by most of the fandom, I believe that the sakuga community did play a part in the critical reevaluation of the studio, highlighting its history and its talented staff.
Then, Kvin mentions more recent shows that inspired new fans – their presence is not surprising, but it is nonetheless interesting : Yozakura Quartet and Space Dandy. It’s so interesting because they’re both in a large part (especially Yozakura Quartet) not just impressive displays of animation, but a playground for the web generation, whose development and popularity within most of the sakuga community have made the two of them something of a concurrent phenomenon.
The readers’ comments are pretty interesting, as you can see people recounting their “conversion epiphany” to sakuga, discovering the word, or getting into debates to try and show that the budget is what determines the quality of the animation and that “sakuga fandom is pointless”. But one of the retrospectively most interesting tidbits is this short exchange between Zac Bertschy, ANN’s executive editor, and another forum user, about the relevance of sakuga to anime criticism – in fact, it anticipates a large part of the debates I’m going to cover in this article.
Act I : “The Next Big Thing” (January-February 2016)
5 months after Kvin’s article for ANN, in February 2016, animation fan and blogger tamerlane wrote in an article for Wave Motion Cannon that “sakuga is the Next Big Thing in the international anime community”. This statement wasn’t only an analysis of the current state of the fandom : it was also something of a manifesto for Wave Motion Cannon, a way for it to place itself at the vanguard of sakuga blogging, which it certainly was at the time. But, for tamerlane themselves, that was revealing their writing agenda : why and how sakuga was already and could become the next big thing. While they had already been writing on sakuga over at the blog Camonte, it was with this post on WMC that the sakuga theorizing really began : when, on January 8, 2016, they posted “Why over sixty years of animation history remains obscure”.
Tamerlane’s position as a writer is, I believe, central here, because it’s the core of this first piece : they were writing not only as an anime and sakuga fan, but also as a world animation fan – that is, someone interested in the medium at large, beyond Japanese animation. In this regard, the text can be summed up as follows : it explains the difference between classical Western and Japanese animation, why the fans of one don’t communicate with the other, and tries to bridge that gap. This still mostly hasn’t been achieved, and while more world animation fans have started taking interest in anime over the years, I don’t think the opposite is still very true. However, this argument led tamerlane to make a comparative analysis of Japanese and American animation – in this way, it is a clear follow-up and reworking of Peter Chung’s writing on the Anipages forum, which I analyzed last time and is quoted multiple times. Keeping this in mind when reading tamerlane’s piece makes it much clearer, but also considerably highlights the evolution of sakuga knowledge and discourse.
What’s most striking to me is the sudden apparition of historical perspective. Anime history had quickly become the crux of Ben Ettinger’s writing, but this was completely absent from the “Japanese animation theory” thread. This meant that Chung’s account, while very rich, was just a description of the anime production process in a general and ideal form, whereas tamerlane’s was a way to approach the entirety of anime and, as they claim, of animation as a medium.
The most central aspect of this perspective is that tamerlane doesn’t essentialize either Disney or Japanese animation – they show that most of their differences are the result of different historical, economical, and production contexts. For example, they highlight that “characters like Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny are extrapolations of their live action contemporaries like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and the Marx Brothers”, while “The guiding metaphor of American animation is that the animator is an actor, that they’re bringing inanimate drawings to life.” On the other hand, the overview of anime shows a very good understanding of its history, most notably the early years and golden age of Toei studio, their inspiration, and their “seconding system” used to train up new animators modeled after Disney’s. It is after this overview that they formulate, in complete continuity with Peter Chung, one of the core metaphors that sakuga fans use when they want to explain why Japanese animators stand out so much : “Japanese animators are like cinematographers. They’re concerned with how a scene is shot, how it’s choreographed, how things move in-frame. This is predicated on a far more generalized understanding of animation, animation as the medium of artificial motion.”
After that, tamerlane proceeds to highlight three core aspects of what I’ve come to call the “sakuga system” – the specific production system of anime that enables individual animators to stand out and become their own cinematographers : 1. the intense use of framerate modulation, 2. the freedom of individual animators to make their own layouts, choreographies and sometimes even in-betweens (in the case of Iso’s full-limited), and 3. “the collapse of the distinction between character, background, and effects”, since the same animator could be led to do all three in their sequence. These things were already mentioned by Chung, but here, the perspective is more general and systematic, and in the end feels much more impactful and convincing.
However, even if I think that text to be essential reading and illuminating in many ways, tamerlane strangely replicates an enduring misconception in animation fans, and even many sakuga fans, that I’ve already noted in the Anipages community : an overwhelming orientation towards action and effects and the long-enduring belief that the Japanese don’t master character animation. Indeed, they state that “Character acting in anime is often symbolic. […] Even in serious productions like Miyazaki’s the animation rarely has specificity of character – any given Miyazaki heroine is interchangeable with any other. And when we’re able to be emotionally affected by what happens to a character or empathize with their situation, the acting is almost never the reason why. This is probably why anime characters are appealing to fanartists and fanfictionists; they’re nearly blank slates.”
This part was noted by many in the comments, especially one calling it “a bizarre brain fart in an otherwise solid article”, but tamerlane themselves never got back to it (to my knowledge). These comments are also interesting to look at, especially because they show how much impact the article had : there are 65 of them ! And most aren’t just general ones like “This was a great article, thank you !” – they are often very long, either directly engaging with and debating with tamerlane, or people giving testimonies of their own animation fandom, Japanese or Western. These discussions led tamerlane to modify some of the text – making it less provocative, but most notably to write a second piece, a sort of response to the first one and to the discussion (controversy ?) it triggered. That was “At least it’s an ethos”, in February 2016.
Tamerlane has described themselves as a “sakuga supremacist”, and seems to be remembered like one, which doesn’t necessarily invite sympathy – but the thing is, with time and distance behind us, “At least it’s an ethos” seems like a fairly reasonable and moderate take. To tell the truth, it’s pretty close to my own on many points… But it was provocative in more ways than one. Even though it ends up being more rhetorical than anything else, the first paragraph is a brutal one, directly attacking “oldschool gatekeepers and tastemakers” who were made to realize that they had a “faux mastery” because of sakuga. Moreover, the article does mention the expression “sakuga supremacism” – which is anything but a diplomatic way to present your opinions. And finally, there’s the apparently complete lack of interest for anime’s writing : “The writing is far and away the weakest link in anime; without fail, even the best written anime are formulaic, embarrassing, and shallow” – a controversial idea that will be at the core of the second act of this history.
It turns out, however, that this provocative statement is anything but the center of the article – which is very important, because so far as I have seen, it has widely been taken – that is misunderstood – as such. In fact, the article is a fascinating piece of fandom history and sakuga theory, because it attempts to situate sakuga into the larger anime discourse, point out its specificity and highlight its relevance. More than a declaration of sakuga’s supremacy, it was and still is a welcome manifesto for sakuga as a new kind of critical discourse on anime.
First, we must take into account tamerlane’s position here : the article explicitly claims to be not “a lengthy thesis defending the pro-sakuga position”, but instead a vehicle to “kick off some discussion” – which it certainly did, with 39 comments and, I imagine, numerous Twitter discussions I haven’t found. The essay then takes the form of just “informal observations” that oscillate between anime criticism and sakuga theory or meta-considerations. These observations go as follow :
- There’s no objective way to define what “good animation” means
- Most anime fans consider the animation to be just the icing on the cake, but it’s in fact fundamental to the medium
- Before sakuga, the discussion on animation was “backwards” and sometimes plain wrong
- The writing doesn’t exist in vacuum but only supported and given life by the physical process of animation
- The writing in most anime is bad or unoriginal, which means that the most interesting aspect will often be the animation
- Anime discourse tends too much to focus on works with mature or complex writing to demonstrate “it’s not kids’ stuff”
- Sakuga has brought some objectivity into anime criticism
Broken down like this, the article, its strengths and weaknesses, become much clearer. Arguments 1, 3, 4 and 6 are either stating plain facts or pretty intuitive and simple to understand. 2 and 5 are far more controversial – I feel that 2 shouldn’t really be, but the formulation tamerlane uses is, while 5, even if it was written genuinely, feels like pure provocation. Then, by far the most interesting take is the last one, because it’s not too deep in either extreme and is a fascinating reflection on anime fandom and criticism, which complements (and takes as an assumption) 3.
Indeed, tamerlane’s opinion of anime writing until sakuga arrived is far from charitable :
“up to this point the vast majority of writing about anime on blogs and elsewhere has been tediously subjective, personal, and diaristic. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but it’s a terrible fit for close analysis. Unmoored by formal or historical consideration, “anime criticism” as it exists often loses track of what it’s supposed to be analyzing, the show in question becoming a sort of Rorschach blot for whatever philosophical theory the author is interested in at the moment.”
My own perspective is very probably swayed by the fact that, at that point, my outlook on anime was limited to MAL and ANN reviews, and (sometimes very good) Youtube analysis videos, but this feels pretty much right. Textual analysis of any media (that is, only focusing on the writing) is bound to confront the problem of interpretation and subjectivity – in other words, how can you be sure that what you’re seeing is really in the text ? There are obviously ways to try and overcome this, but these aren’t always applied to anime criticism – which shouldn’t be held against it, just because it’s mostly amateur. But, as a backdrop and maybe support to this amateur and subjective approach, sakuga is “grounding the conversations about anime in empirical fact”. To put it even more bluntly, when done right, sakuga brings professionalism and objectivity to anime criticism.
Indeed, as tamerlane argues, sakuga isn’t just cataloguing animators and what they worked on. It can begin (or end) like that, but what’s behind it is mostly a drive to know more about how anime is made, by whom, for what reasons – which should naturally lead one to explore influences, look at production documents beyond just the animation, search for any information that can widen one’s perspective of a work. Think only of the incredible amount of knowledge that’s been made available about anime history thanks to the sakuga community – or at the journalistic work that has brought to light the dreary conditions of the anime industry to a large part of the fandom (at least those dedicated enough that don’t leave after a few months or years). In that sense, tamerlane’s view of sakuga aligns with mine : sakuga is an ethos, that is a method, an attitude towards animation that makes it that much more interesting.
Act II : Visuals or Narrative ? (September 2016-June 2017)
Somewhat unsurprisingly, tamerlane’s piece wasn’t really remembered for this, but for its most provocative, “supremacist” and uninteresting elements. But this appears to have been their last major text before they “quit anime”, which meant that the following debates took place without them, and those who took part in it seem to have forgotten what made tamerlane’s ideas so interesting. The discussion therefore went from what made anime so special and sakuga so interesting to a question best formulated in WMC’s September 2016 post : “Visuals Trump Narrative ?”
This first post was a discussion between 5 members of WMC’s editorial team, and a follow-up to a previous, apparently heated, Twitter conversation – which goes to show that the debate had started to expand beyond the columns of just the blog and into the larger community. But to remain simply into WMC’s scope, the debate clearly had two phases : a first one, a late reaction to tamerlane’s post, in September 2016 ; and then, a bit less than a year later, WMC’s main editor, Josh Dunham, stroke back with a piece titled “Anime Visuals Matter a Whole Lot, Actually” – which led to an almost immediate answer from the other side of the blog’s team with, two weeks later, a conversation titled “Narrative, Anime’s Key Ingredient”.
To be honest, the whole debate feels completely absurd to me now – even though it’s through these posts that I was first introduced to sakuga. It was bound to fail, for at least 3 reasons :
1. In the most part, both sides agreed that balance was the best thing (when a great story was supported by great visuals, or great visuals accompanied by great visuals), which meant that the discussion could only happen between the extremes positions on each side, and end up just being a series of examples illustrating either side’s position. For the supporters of narrative, there’s the fact that “If anime was filled with nothing but Births, I don’t think there’d be anything like the market for it or fanbase there is now”, whereas the defenders of animation would ask “Where is the story in Space Dandy ?”
2. When discussing “visuals”, both sides in fact completely reduced the meaning of the word “visuals” and only made it mean “animation”. This is already visible in the first of the three posts I’ve mentioned, but completely dominates the discussion in Josh’s text – whereas in the last of the three articles, both members of the discussion actually take the time to define what they precisely mean by “narrative”. This could only alienate even more sakuga fans from the rest of the community, because it encouraged their portrayal as animation fanatics who care nothing about the rest – even some visual elements like the direction. Indeed, if by “sakuga” we only mean “good animation” or “animation that stands out”, that leaves out an impressive amount of otherwise impressive works – the case of Osamu Dezaki’s portfolio is the most eloquent in that regard. Basically, there is no distinction made between good animation and something that looks good as animation .
For example, both parties invoke Evangelion at some point – either to illustrate that its last two episodes rely a lot on visuals (whatever that means), or that it wouldn’t be so impactful without the psychological depth of the characters. But beyond that, neither side actually directly confronts Anno’s work, despite it being such a good example of balance between the two. Especially his 90’s series (Eva and KareKano) are very text-based, relying a lot on internal narration and dialogue. But these are supported by flawless visual direction, which most often does with, or in spite of, extremely limited animation. The whole debate feels like it was the occasion for sakuga fans to demonstrate that their approach was a holistic one, an occasion which they completely missed.
3. Despite Josh’s best intentions, the debate ended up as “Style VS Substance”, and thereby lost most of the interest it still had. I say “despite Josh’s best intentions”, because it was the most obvious consequence of his text “Anime Visuals Matter a Whole Lot, Actually” – a shame since, despite its title, it is a nuanced and reasonable approach to the discussion. Indeed, in this article, he repeatedly states that “The argument is not style VS story, or even style VS substance” and does offer a conciliatory position arguing that “‘sakuga critics’ would be wise to view these amazing pieces of animation as style, as the presentation of underlying substance, and not as themselves pieces of substance to report on.”
But with this being said, the precise point of the article is lost, because instead of offering a real middle ground, he keeps arguing that “the focus on the actual events should be secondary” and downplaying the role of writing. But more importantly, the very role he gives to the writing is very vague : he says at one point that not just the visuals make up the style, but he never considers the actual importance of writing in setting up the style. On the contrary, what little analysis he gives of writing tends to bring it on the side of substance – this was probably not his intention, but an unwarranted result of the formulation itself. The best proof of it is the actual misreading that pops up in the response to it : one of the two writers, Tim, quotes Josh with the warning that he “uses “style” to mean visuals and “substance” to mean narrative in this context”.
At this point, the debate had lost much of its interest, and from these articles only, I’d say sakuga had failed to make a convincing case for itself. Without much surprise, it apparently stopped there, at least in Wave Motion Cannon – sakuga fans would have to demonstrate their relevance by themselves. That was until October 2019, when Josh tried to revive the entire thing with a fiery article – “It’s Been Years, Where Is The Ethos Now ?”
Epilogue : The Ethos Strikes Back (October 2019)
This essay served as much as a manifesto in 2019 as tamerlane’s in 2016 – albeit for different reasons. At that point, WMC had stopped publishing anything for a little less than a year, Josh had apparently “quit anime” – but now they were back. The result was a mixed bag, to say the least : the article constantly oscillates between well articulated arguments and examples on one hand, and pure provocation and ranting on the other. Because of this, the piece is a messy, convoluted one, what it’s precisely trying to say being hard to make out – much harder than the original “At Least It’s An Ethos”.
The very start of the text is the hardest part to go through, with its claims that “Anime is a fucking joke. It’s vapid, trashy, smutty, and oftentimes, really a waste of effort on the part of the creators”. But it does go deeper than tamerlane’s position, which was that anime writing is poor and only the animation worth noting – though it does appear like an even more violent reformulation of it. Paradoxically, the way in which this article best follows up on “At Least It’s An Ethos” is in its examination and critique of sakuga : Josh acknowledges the large amount of knowledge discovered and shared by the community, but questions its real point. As he formulates it, “these revelations and gifts of connecting an artist to their work are still two dimensional and oftentimes reportage.” What he means is that identification for identification’s sake, and analysis for analysis’ sake, don’t really matter that much : just this doesn’t do anything “emotionally” – it doesn’t really further our emotions or understanding of the work besides its technical aspects.
Taken like this, the evolution between “narrative isn’t important in anime” to this becomes obvious. While still maintaining that the visuals matter more than the text, Josh formulates this in a clearer manner : “Characterization is more defined by how something happens rather than the actual event itself.” In other words, what he advocates for is not sakuga as catalogue, but as a really holistic stance towards anime that shows how the visuals illustrate, serve and transcend the plot. And what’s more, the ambiguity behind “visuals” is dispelled : animation shouldn’t be considered for itself, but it should be the visual direction as a whole.
Obviously we could restart the debate all over again with counter-arguments and examples. But that’s not really interesting, once you’ve ignored the opinion that anime’s writing is mostly bad or boring. What matters to me in this whole debate, and comes out very clearly in this last article, is the constant interrogation over what sakuga is and what sakuga should be. Even though it’s never actually brought to the fore, the issue of elitism is always there behind most of the arguments, and so is the fundamental question of “what is this good for ? What’s the use of collecting and identifying animators’ works and names ?”
These are legitimate questions, and we should never stop asking them. But at the same time, I believe that sakuga has mostly gone past the point (if it ever was there) when it was just a bunch of animation maniacs listing up names. It hasn’t just brought vast amounts of knowledge to most anime fans, but also an entire (although not clearly set up) methodology and vocabulary for analysis which has always taken care of taking into account the actual cinematography of the works – see the discussions around storyboards and layout artists, series and episodes directors. Moreover, the sakuga discourse has undoubtedly spread the awareness about how the anime industry works, and its long-enduring problems. There’s always room for improvement, but in my eyes, sakuga has become the ethos it set out to be.
 Many thanks to Thaliarchus for the exact formulation of what seems to me to be a fundamental distinction