Exploring sakuga – Part 4 : What is sakuga good for, anyways ?

This is Part 4 in a series. You can read Parts 1, 2 and 3.

Before I start this article in earnest, I think some context is necessary – because this one is not going to be a historical or critical account of anything, but just my personal ideas and ramblings on a subject. First, there is some personal context : as I’m writing this, I’m starting a new semester, during which I’ll start working on my Master’s degree – and try out academic writing on anime. This will naturally be very different from the Twitter or blog posts I’ve grown used to, so it feels like the right moment to reflect on that. But there’s also some community-wide context : the idea of this text was spurred by a post from more experienced and respectable sakuga expert Fede, that laments some perceived problems in the sakuga discourse on Twitter. This triggered some discussion, both in the answers to the post as well as in other circles, such as in the French-speaking animation community which expressed related complaints. Finally, such discussions fit perfectly in the perspective of this series, especially as a follow-up to the debates about sakuga I covered in my previous entry. Indeed, the complaints expressed in those tweets have been going for a long time – aside from those on Wave Motion Cannon, I was made aware of yet another tamerlane post that reiterates them.

The idea here is not so much to add on complaints about the current state of the community, whether they’re justified or not. It isn’t either to be a normative account of what sakuga should be – I’ve been an active member of this community for far too little time to even dream of making such claims. Take it rather as my own follow-up on “At Least It’s An Ethos” – though I hope a less controversial one : some ideas about what sakuga means to me as an anime fan, and what it does and could bring to anime writing and criticism in general. And finally, while this text is intended as part critique, I’m the first one to do the things I’ll say should be done less. As I just stated, this is also self-reflection on my part.

All the texts I’ve just offered as a starting point are very different, but the problems they have with sakuga can be summed up as follows :

  • sakuga is just amassing knowledge for the sake of it
  • its relationship to animation is either purely technical and descriptive…
  • or completely laudatory, without any critical stance
  • and in the end, it results in a lack of real emotion, hidden behind overused words, from technical ones like “Yutapon cubes” to vague terms like “expressive animation”

I think one of the root causes of most of these problems is simply how and where sakuga expresses itself : that is, mostly on Twitter. While it probably was a crucial factor in sakuga’s rise in popularity, it also places crucial restrictions on it, most notably because it forces you to write short, impactful posts. Because of that, you don’t have time for room nor depth, nuance or explanation : you’ll say a cut is “amazing”, namedrop whatever cool technique or animator, and you won’t be able to go into detail about all that. I myself have tried to go around that by making long analysis threads of some of my favorite cuts, but it’s just going around the problem : in the end, it’s just description and not much more. Moreover, Twitter encourages instant reaction and short-term posting – which means we’re just going to post about whatever’s coming out or is hot right now, without any perspective.

But blaming Twitter for all our evils is not going to get us anywhere. Because we also need to acknowledge something’s wrong with the attitude in the first place. There’s the group effect, which promotes imitation and ends up creating a sort of template for what sakuga posting is supposed to look like. More fundamentally, there’s the fact that such descriptions are more simple to do – and naturally, we’re all drawn to making them. Even though we all like animation, precisely explaining why is difficult, and even though technical jargon doesn’t help to spread the good word of sakuga, it feels like it does, because by using it we create a sense of community whose members understand each other, and we don’t have to spend time discussing minute technical details. Considering this, the question we have to ask is : who is sakuga for ? Or, in other words, who do we talk to when we talk about animation ? 

This is related to what I believe is a deeper problem – because as long as we don’t pretend that our jargon is some mark of superior taste, we can always try to explain it and keep the enthusiasm of a simply emotional reaction to any cut. The real problem would be that this kind of discourse is uninteresting as critical discourse on anime because it leads us to consider sakuga as an end in itself.

Indeed, to put it bluntly, animation doesn’t exist in a vacuum ; and neither should sakuga. We have, obviously, our (good) reasons for enjoying cuts without the sound, but that shouldn’t make us forget that anime also has sound, and that the animation doesn’t stand by itself – it is but the center of a narrative and audiovisual medium. Which doesn’t mean that there aren’t well animated works without any interesting story – many of my favorite movies from the 80’s would fit the bill. But even if the animation is what tells most of the story, simply describing short sequences of the animation would tend to make us forget that there’s a story at all.

Moreover, what most of the sakuga discourse you see on Twitter seems to be missing is the fact that animation doesn’t sum up the entirety of the visual aspect of anime. The comparison of the animator to a director is often used in sakuga circles, but seldom do we see an actual engagement with the cinematography of the cuts. If we often talk about fight choreographies, or animation techniques, seldom do we mention the editing, shot composition or camerawork. Which is sad, because appreciating the quality of a layout or storyboard is something I believe most sakuga fans are able to do – but they don’t actually question the narrative, thematic or aesthetic purpose of it.

My argument would therefore be that sakuga, as a kind of method or way to write about animation, is never an end, but a means to talk about anime. From my experience, it would mostly serve two specific kinds of writing : general anime criticism, and history of anime. As for the first one, I think it would be necessary for fans to forget for a moment that animation is a specific medium and remember that it is also cinema (despite the fact that I’ve been arguing for the contrary since I started this blog), and that many tools of cinema criticism are valid in animation. What sakuga brings, then, is the possibility to go beyond simple analysis of the cinematography, and a way to show what the animation and production brings that nothing else could.

You might say that this is very abstract. What could sakuga concretely bring in anime analysis, beyond simple description of the animation and simple analyses like “the animation itself loses all consistency to match the character’s mental state” ? A good example would be, in my opinion, Kare Kano. The debate of authorship is the one you’ll find the most often in sakuga circles about the show : did Anno really leave the production ? Did Tsurumaki do all the second part of the series, or was it Anno all along ? And what’s going on with the Imaishi episodes ? Many identification-obsessive sakuga fans (me among them) would be tempted to look very closely at the show, to be able to say with utmost precision “X did that”.

But that isn’t really interesting. I think we can just settle on the fact that there are at least three main creative voices in Kare Kano, each with a tone of their own that often intersect and sometimes contradict each other : Anno, on psychology and introspection ; Tsurumaki, on romance and drama ; and Imaishi, on slice-of-life and comedy. With this, we can already begin to explain the sudden thematic and generic shifts the show seems to go through. But that’s not all : any narrative analysis of Kare Kano will show you that polyphony and the clash of different perspectives are at the core of its structure, writing and themes. And guess what, this perfectly matches the creative polyphony of the work

What you end up with is a coherent and comprehensive vision of the show : not the image of it as a mess that started well but ended up unfinished and lost itself in filler comedy, like some entry-level narrative readings, nor the impression of a pure field of experimentation for Anno as a director and Imaishi and friends as animators as the sakuga perspective would imply. This holistic perspective is one that takes into account the nature and events of the production and uses them to make sense of the narration and animation.

Beyond this kind of analysis, I believe there’s another thing sakuga can be an essential tool for, something I’ve been doing more and more myself : that’s anime history. Indeed, I believe the way sakuga fans go about identifying animators is pretty close to a historian’s method : pouring over credits like historical documents, examining the animation up close, and if necessary going to ask the presumed authors themselves. More generally, what sakuga brings to those who don’t go that far is undoubtedly a historical perspective : a look at the evolution of techniques and styles that brought us to current anime.

In that perspective, sakuga can be used as a tool to further our perspective of anime history, beyond the shift in time between styles and genres. It encourages us to look into the details of the works, how some members of the staff might or might not have taken a part in the final product and its influence. To go back to the Kare Kano example, it is probably, in hindsight, one of the most important works of Gainax’s history, precisely because of the creative polyphony I mentioned : it was where the studio’s new generation (mostly Imaishi and Yoshinari), which had done some of their first work on Evangelion, benefited from creative control and started completely renewing the studio’s aesthetics, moving them from the realism in animation of its previous work to a reworking of the Kanada style and a completely crazy atmosphere – something that would bloom even more in FLCL

But this isn’t something you can realize just by looking at the show’s writing, or noticing that this Imaishi person shows up a lot in the credits. You have to actually watch the series, gauge the exact creative role of Imaishi and see that his style is already completely recognizable, compare with his later works and what Gainax did before and after that… Basically what you need is knowledge and dedication. This kind of thing would be in the grasp of any passionate fan, but experience has shown me that many of those are sakuga fans, because they’re the ones willing to spend time reading the credits, looking over and over at scenes to see what makes an animator’s style, or who animated what.

Such an approach can be good, since it can, or even must, do with just descriptions. If the goal is to follow the evolution of artists, and through them, of styles and aesthetics, the basic step of describing what’s on the screen, with the narrative and thematic context only in the background, is the most important one. If the first use of sakuga I highlighted took its roots in commentary, this one would be akin to art history. And I believe that this doesn’t necessarily entail a cold, distant look that would only aim for perfect objectivity. For example, my least favorite part of Yoshinori Kanada’s work are the last ten years of his career – that’s a subjective evaluation. However, I can back that up by the somewhat more objective statement that, while in his last period, Kanada took a bolder approach towards movement, he also stopped renewing himself, to the point that in the end most of his work from that time looks the same. That’s not pure objectivity, but it’s at least a well-informed opinion produced by study and comparison.

We have to acknowledge that this logic can be difficult, if not impossible, to really implement. Indeed, if we follow it to its conclusions, it can easily lead to try and track down or identify each and every cut. I’ve been watching Urusei Yatsura in that mindset, and I’ve often tried to precisely pinpoint who did what in the smallest details. This can be stifling, and kill part of the enjoyment one derives from watching anime. But it’s also a bit vain : we’ll never be able to reach such a degree of accuracy, to know everything – and that’s just not how the sakuga community is structured. As most people probably do, when I want to identify a cut, I go to see if it’s on the booru – and if it’s not, I’m left guessing and wishing someone had posted and identified it already. But the thing is, the booru isn’t meant to be an archive, a complete database that makes it possible to know it all.

However, I also have to admit that all this makes me wonder. Am I not trying too hard to idealize sakuga, make it some sort of academic, or at least more legitimate, form of criticism ? Am I not imposing impossible standards upon it ? That’s also a question we have to ask in these reflexive moments on sakuga, a question that asks us to think about two things : who are we, sakuga writers, and who are we writing for ?

While it is true that simple descriptions or overly admirative posts do get annoying after some point, it’s also necessary to acknowledge that there’s pleasure and joy to be fond in analysis, even if said analysis is pure description. This pleasure might be considered egotistic or masturbatory, but I doubt that it claims to be more than that most of the time. If we share sakuga clips on Twitter, it’s because we find them cool and seek validation ; if we go through the extra step of analyzing them in more or less detail, it’s to prove ourselves and others that we have the skills and, if need be, seek confirmation. If our analysis is wrong, or if we miscredit a cut, we expect others to correct us, and everybody will be better for it. 

As long as this discussion on social media remains peaceful (something that can be difficult to achieve on Twitter), I see no fundamental problem with it. At the start of this text, I’ve highlighted the problems and limitations imposed by Twitter, but we also have to try and see its good points. But this also demands something from us : not that we completely reconsider or repurpose sakuga, as I’ve offered to do, but simply that we discipline ourselves and try our best to become more demanding of ourselves. Rather than just gush over the great cut from the last popular seasonal show, we should always have animation as a medium in mind, and ask what this cut does in regard to the medium at large : how does it link itself to the earlier career of the artist ? the overall style and tone of the show ? is this something fundamentally new, or a variation on a well-known technique ? what are the precise tools that have been used ? – by asking these kinds of questions, we can integrate the critical and historical stances I presented in the simpler format of social media discussions.

Paradoxically, the best example I have of this is a very controversial moment – proof that you have to push sakuga fans, but that they’re ultimately capable of it. I’m thinking about the infamous Naruto vs Pain fight and its controversially expressive style. Indeed, whether it is to defend or to attack it, both sides of the debate (when they’re not dishonest or mindlessly provocative) have to actually engage with the animation, what it does and expresses, as well as with the context of the overall episode, show, and the artists behind it. I’ve seen the argument that, while technically impressive, the animation is out of place because it has (intentionally or not) comical aspects to it that contrast too heavily with the drama of the fight. Just saying this is a 10 times more interesting take on the role of animation and visuals than the “anime writing is bad, so let’s just look at the animation” argument that popped up on Wave Motion Cannon. If animation can go against the dramatic context of a scene, what is its expressive purpose ? On what grounds should we judge the animation ?

The Naruto vs Pain debate is also interesting because it forces us to engage with what is good animation, or rather, what “bad animation” could mean. Is the animation bad just because it’s off-model ? But if it’s good, why is that ? More generally, should sakuga only be evaluative, highlighting cuts generally considered to be good, and restraining itself to explain what makes them “good” ? Or should it – and that’s what I subscribe to – consider animation as an entire medium, care for all its techniques, even “bad” animation, or just simply “things that look good as animation” ? When we see a cut, we should just ask some basic questions, those that are the very ground of any analysis : what is this trying to achieve ? does it succeed ? how does it do it ?

These are mostly proposals and questions, because I am myself groping around for answers here. What I am sure of, however, is that we should never stop asking these questions and wondering about something as apparently abstract as the purpose of sakuga. That’s the best way to keep it alive or, in other words, to avoid falling down into bigotry and boredom – boredom that would mean death, because after all, we do this because we like it.

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