Exploring sakuga – Conclusion : A sakuga starter pack

This is Part 5 in a series. You can read Parts 1, 2, 3 and 4.

As a conclusion for this series on the sakuga community, it seemed fitting to me to target a different audience – not the experienced sakuga fans who would be interested in the theory and history of the community, but those who’ve just started getting into it, or haven’t even yet. Basically, this isn’t going to be an essay like the others, but I’d like it to be used as a resource : a place to find other places to start getting into sakuga.

Indeed, while Twitter can be a good place to start, if you’re really interested, it’s also a good place to get lost. There are few in-depth analyses, names and big words get thrown around without explanation… And while it doesn’t have to be too serious, sakuga does require a bit of orderly learning if you want to really enjoy it beyond just sharing cool clips on social media. There are already some guides going around the Internet, and mine doesn’t aim for exhaustivity, or being the best ; it will be subjective, and incomplete. But I’ve thought and read a lot about the subject, so I at least hope that this starter pack will be clear and satisfy different peoples’ different approaches. To make things as easy to access as possible, I’ve tried to link to individual articles rather than entire blogs ; but obviously the places where these pieces are posted are highly recommended.

Where to start, what to watch

If you’ve heard the word sakuga thrown around, even if you know what it means, but don’t know how to get deeper into it ; or if you’re already interested in animation, but can’t remember the names of any animators, let alone identify them… Where do you start ? The best place is, quite obviously, to watch anime. And in that regard, sakuga fans have two anime that they will probably all recommend : Shirobako and Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken !

Both shows have very different approaches, that are in the end complementary and both end up showing why sakuga matters, why and how it can be fun, and how to do it. Eizouken is a love letter to animation, while Shirobako could be conceived as a love (?) letter to the industry behind it. If those two series are so often recommended and loved, it’s not just because they are good, or because they show different stages of anime’s production in clear and interesting ways. I think it’s because they show why we should care about animation at all : because the people behind it already care immensely. They’re not just learning material : they illustrate that appreciation for animation can be a form of respect, paying one’s homage to the dedicated artists and staff.

As such, they are the perfect entry point, whether you want to learn more about the workings of the industry (in the case of Shirobako) or are fascinated with animation as a means to embody the limitless forms of one’s imagination (Eizouken). But they are just that : entry points. It’s after that that the real business starts.

This might be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that the most obvious place to get into sakuga, the booru, is not really the best. Don’t misunderstand me : the booru is a fantastic thing, but you can as easily get lost as find what you were looking for in the first place. Going through all the cuts of a single animator can seem like the perfect way to learn all about their style, but it’s also very time-consuming, and can be pretty exhausting.

As an alternative, what I’d recommend would be animator reels, or sakuga mads. The format can vary, from 2 to 20 minutes, but their nature of music videos with sometimes pretty good editing makes them easier to digest. Moreover, all animators haven’t got a mad to their name ; this lack of exhaustivity is in fact an advantage for the beginner, since it makes it easier to directly get to the basics, i.e. the most important and well-known artists. Here, I’m going to limit myself to YouTube, and what channels I know – which I think are among the most interesting. But there are obviously others, and since YouTube can be pretty annoying with copyrights, a large part of the mad scene can be found elsewhere, from Dailymotion to BiliBili. Finally, Mads come in all forms and sizes, so I’ve tried to class them by approach :

  • First, there’s the thematic approach : making videos by show, or by type of animation. The most prominent channel in that regard is without a doubt Hobbes Sakuga. Their last videos have gotten longer and longer, but this makes them that much more complete and rich.  Another good point about them, is the quality of the editing – and the fact that Hobbes also has a blog where they talk a bit about animation
  • Then you have more “classical” mads, by animator. These are probably the best place to train your eye since it’s by putting similar cuts side by side that you can start to see the similarities and identify the style. For this, I have 4 recommandations : Sakuga Boy, PurpleGeth, Bloo and Blue
  • As a subcategory in the mads by animator, there are some channels dedicated to just certain animators – classical Japanese and Western animation. These are essential, both to give historical knowledge and perspective on anime (restricting sakuga talk to seasonals would be the death of sakuga) and on animation in general : while sakuga fans have their reasons for liking Japanese animation better than American animation, it’s absolutely necessary to engage with the medium as whole at some point – which also means that “non-Japanese animation” doesn’t just include classical American cartoons but also Soviet, Polish, French, Chinese animation and many more. The two major ones are ibcf and magnil.

What is sakuga ? A few recommended readings

All this is well and good, but you might have noticed that I haven’t once discussed the meaning or definition of sakuga. That’s normal, as this is not the goal of this article – I do not conceive it as an introduction to sakuga, after all, but just as a compilation of possible introductions. An introduction to sakuga can take different approaches. It can simply be an introduction to the concept : what does it mean, what is it all about. But there are other ways which are as interesting, even if they do not openly claim to be sakuga – these are introductions to anime production and artists, which are, after all, the core interest of the community. 

A classical starting point would be the Youtube playlist dedicated to sakuga, a series of videos taken from a panel at the convention Anime Central in 2013. It has aged a bit, and the more knowledgeable people in the community might want to correct or rework some rough edges, but it certainly does the job in at least three ways :

  • it quickly introduces the specificity of Japanese animation and especially its “charisma animator” system
  • it presents the major names, styles and techniques of anime and helps to understand them in context
  • it offers a somewhat historical approach, offering perspective on the evolution of the style of anime – which is very important to me, as I consider that anime history is something that sakuga fans should be, more than others, especially aware of

However, for a more complete introduction to the concept of sakuga, its meaning and most importantly to answer the questions “what is it good for ?” and “is it any fun ?”, the best place to look at is Kvin’s article on ANN “The joy of sakuga”. I’ve already commented on this one, but let me just say that even though it might look old considering the recent growth of the community, it hasn’t aged a bit and is still as relevant. Without any snobbery, and with great pedagogy, it establishes all that one should know about sakuga as cool animation, as a practice, and as a community. Written by one of its core members, I think it’s essential reading for anyone interested in animation.

Then come some other texts, that I believe are as essential, but for different reasons : texts about how anime are produced. Indeed, sakuga isn’t just liking animation for the sake of it, or being able to use cool terms to describe it. It’s also having a holistic look towards all the sides of productions, including the non-artistic ones like the role of producers, production assistants, or technical and technological concernes – if you’ve watched it well, Shirobako should have made you aware of all this.

The basic piece in that regard is this rundown of “The anime production line”, by Ben Ettinger. His website, Anipages, is a wealth of information that even I haven’t seen the bottom of. It’s mostly preoccupied with anime history, so go there if that’s your interest, but it also contains fundamental texts like this one, which gives all the essential information to read anime credits and understand how it’s all made. But you also have to be careful : it’s not an absolute source that grants you complete knowledge of anime production. All of what Ettinger talks about has changed with time, and even from studio to studio. Here as in many other fields, discussion is vital : for those of us who do not have direct access to Japanese sources (assuming they exist, which might not always be the case), our knowledge of how things actually work is always evolving as new things surface.

Then, there are two related pieces dedicated to the more technical aspects of anime, namely, compositing and photography. Both mean pretty much the same thing in production, but these two articles in effect take different approaches, which makes them complementary : the first, taken from the excellent Washi’s Blog, focuses on the ideas of space and depth in animation, and delves in a very interesting manner in the evolution between the difference in techniques, styles and workflow between the cel and the numerical era. The other, from Alex’s blog, is only focused on cel era animation, but it is just as interesting. It goes into a bit more depth about the technicalities of anime photography, but what’s also very good in that it takes an example (Kouji Nanke’s Maison Ikkoku OP) and analyzes it : that way, it functions as an introduction to what sakuga analysis can look like.

Finally, if you’re interested in sakuga, you don’t just have to know what tools is animation made with, but what are the artistic techniques that make it look like what it looks like. Some of these techniques were formalized by Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson in their book The Illusion of Life. I’ve tried to not recommend any books, so let’s take that as an exception – but if you can’t have access to it (it’s not exactly cheap), an introduction to 3 of the 12 principles was made by ibcf for Wave Motion Cannon. While incomplete, it covers some of the most fundamental ones (the most lacking one being timing, but you can partly recover from that by reading this very rich post by the same writer on framerate modulation) and is more than enough to considerably enlarge your vision of animation.

What is sakuga writing like ?

Sakuga fans don’t just enjoy animation : they talk about it. They do so mostly on Twitter, but they sometimes go in more length and depth, making it that much more interesting. Writing about something is a way to understand it, and to go beyond the simple impression it first gives you. That’s why sakuga analysis is so important, beyond just expressing our appreciation for a piece of animation. Writing about anime helps us appreciate it better, because it’s through understanding that we gain a richer look. Here, rather than just a post, I’m going to be recommending three blogs, because there just isn’t any exemplar way of writing about anime, a model that I think everyone should follow and that I’d absolutely recommend. As sakuga fans, we all train our eyes and our gaze, but ultimately we appreciate and care for different things, and the way we transcribe it are all different.

The first place I’d recommend is Full Frontal, and especially its attempt at making a daily series of sakuga writeups, the Sakuga Expressos. The attempt was short-lived, but since it was daily, we ended up with 16 short texts that all take different perspectives, from very technical ones, to others more centered around the emotion or atmosphere a sequence tries to convey.

A bit similar, but centered more around seasonal and airing shows, is the blog artist_unknown. Like all sakuga blogs, its write-ups cover very different themes and areas, but you will find many articles dedicated to certain cuts and looking into them in depth. Its writers are some of the most prominent in the community, and for good reason.

Another kind of write-up you’ll find often is the artist spotlight, covering a single individual’s career or style. In that regard, I wholeheartedly recommend the three pieces Fede dedicated to Kou Yoshinari, Ryosuke Nishii and Yuuya Geshi on their website FAR from Animation.

Finally, I can’t not mention the center of it all, the famed Sakuga Blog. Its approach is more journalistic, recounting the day to day evolution of the industry, with some analyses of specific artists or studios. While I’m more on the side of sakuga as a way to look at past anime and understand them, one of the great strengths of the Sakuga Blog’s approach is its focus in the other direction : anime’s future. It has a series dedicated to just that (i.e. up and coming artists), but its coverage of the working conditions in the industry and its production notes constitute essential reading to get what’s going on right now and things might evolve.

Getting into anime history

I just said I favor the historical side of sakuga. Beyond my personal liking of history and the historical approach, I think a minimum of knowledge in that regard is essential for the sakuga fan, because understanding the industry and their artists means understanding their evolution. Anime is and has ever been an ever-changing object, and knowing that prevents us from making generalizations or mistakes – which is essential if we consider sakuga as a method, a specific way of looking at and appreciating anime.

I’ve already mentioned the seminal and encyclopedic Anipages. As a counterpart, and maybe in a more palatable narrative form (instead of work by work), I believe my own series dedicated to the studio Tokyo Movie Shinsha can work pretty well as an introduction to anime’s first two decades and the progressive formalization of its production system and aesthetics.

However, it’s easy to get lost in Anipages, and my own series is a pretty long read. Washi’s Blog has got you covered in shorter pieces, especially its detailed analysis of Yasuo’s Otsuka style and his sense of realism. But if you’re tired of reading already, this article is strongly inspired by a fascinating 2-hours long documentary dedicated to Otsuka, Joy in Motion. Its natural complement is a shorter one, on Yoshinori Kanada, which also explains how animation is made and some of the secrets of Kanada’s unique style, which then spread to become anime’s general aesthetic for at least a decade. Thankfully, both documentaries have been subbed in English, and they are too good and interesting to pass up on. Since any kind of on-site documentary is a precious resource, the Kill la Kill making of, available on Youtube, is also very much worth the watch.

Let’s not forget world animation !

Sakuga fans have their good reasons for preferring anime over other kinds of animation, but that shouldn’t mean they should ignore them. To actually make a judgement, you have to engage with the media, and whether or not you don’t like it, experiencing world animation, or even indie Japanese animation, will enrich in many ways your perspective on anime and sakuga. Animation is a medium, and you have to consider it as a whole.

First, if you need an introduction to world animation, this list is probably the best place to start. As an anime fan, your first reaction will surely be surprise at what’s there and disappointment at what’s not – but this isn’t what’s important. We should be happy that anime is featured there in the first place, and there are some other big things lacking, such as Soviet animation. But anyhow, this long survey of some of the most important moments in the medium’s history is probably the most concise and easily accessible place to learn about it.

Then, my recommendation would be On the Ones, which once featured many writers but is now the one-man project of talented writer Toadette. Its focus is diverse, but that’s what makes it so precious : it mostly doesn’t cover cartoons, like all the blogs I’ll be listing up below, but instead centers on European and independent Japanese works. This also means that it covers a wider range of techniques and styles than those sakuga fans are usually familiar with.

While it has some more obscure interests, you can also go to ajetology for a look at European animation – namely Czech series Pat and Mat, to which it is single mindedly dedicated. This kind of very deep analysis of a single series, including translation and research on the credits, will probably ring a bell in some sakuga fans. A similar approach exists within the world of Disney animation, with the blog What About Thad that tries to identify who animated what in classical Disney works. Finally, for a very different kind of cartoon, you can go look at Supervised by Fred Avery, a blog solely dedicated to Tex Avery’s works at the Warner Bros studio.

The world of cartoon blogging also has a notable advantage on that of anime and sakuga writing, in that many academics and animation historians have their own blogs in which they share old or new works that are always guaranteed to be eye-opening. The biggest one is probably Cartoon Research, with its impressive team of 25 writers ; but you also have Animated Eye, the website of famous Disney historian John Canemaker, or Michael Barrier’s works.

Some other resources

While the list I’ve just made is far from exhaustive, I think that if you’ve read through all of my recommendations, you’ll be shaping up to be someone who remotely knows what they’re talking about when they’re talking about animation. But the thing is, not everything has been written and at some point, every sakuga fan is pretty much on their own – left to guess who animated what, what those credits mean, and so on. If that’s what you want to get into, there are thankfully a few ways to get some help. The first one is other sakuga fans : if you’re on a sakuga Discord server, or just follow the right people on Twitter (not gonna name any names), you can just ask and you’ll probably get an answer. Even commenting on a booru post if you’re not sure about something might get you some information. It’s easy being wrong in this field, so we shouldn’t be ashamed of it ; but when we end up being right, or trusting enough in our research that it probably is, it is something very satisfying.

To get even more acquainted with animators you don’t know too much about, a good place to start is Camonte’s directory. Sadly, it stopped being updated some time ago, which means it’s lacking the names that have become relevant in the last few years. But it still remains something very useful and a good source of information.

After that, the sakugabooru is obviously essential, as it’s where you’ll be looking for the animator’s works and will eventually be able to give a name to the cuts that amazed you. But if you can’t find it on the booru, there are still a few places to search if you’re really desperate – or passionate. The first is AniDB, if you can’t read Japanese credits. I know most people initially recommend ANN’s encyclopedia, because it’s an already popular website and has a much more intuitive interface. But sadly, ANN is often wrong – it can be completely off the mark on shows before the 80’s, and miscredit staff on more recent works : I’ve recently found myself miscrediting Naoko Yamada for an episode on Haruhi Suzumiya. I haven’t yet found faults with AniDB, which has the advantage of offering an episode-by-episode staff list ; but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. If you’re still not sure, a reliable technique I use when I’m looking at a specific person (I can’t yet read Japanese credits) is simply to learn how a person’s name is written in kanji and look for it in the credits.

Finally, if you’re looking for a single animator, your best friend will quickly become the SakugaWiki. The English-speaking version can be very good for the most famous names, but if you want to go a bit deeper, you’ll have to go to the Japanese one. But don’t let that rebuke you : most of the time, Google Translation will do a good enough job for the pages to be intelligible – though you’ll be left guessing the works’ exact titles from their weird literal translations.

At this point, this might be less a starter pack, and rather a mini sakuga encyclopedia. Considering how long it is, I won’t add anything more, but there is more, so all that I’ve indicated are just possible starting points. But most importantly, don’t take this as a list of required readings if you want to be acknowledged as a sakuga fan, as if this were some kind of diploma or school exercise. The most important things are to always be curious, watch all kinds of animation, and to keep enjoying it.

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