The purpose of realism in animation

Even without deliberately staging this, the cartoon is inherently a document of – hence a film about – the fact of its own making” (Daniel Morgan)

The concept of realism in animation is a tricky one. Indeed, animation is thought to be the perfect medium to transcend reality and give shape to one’s wildest dreams – it has become a cliché to say that the animator’s imagination is the only limit. However, paradoxically, some of the most important artists and works in the medium have seemingly relinquished this aspect, believed to be essential : look no further than Disney’s search for “the illusion of life” and, in Japanese animation, the talent and number of animators of the so-called “realist” school, from Toshiyuki Inoue to Hiroyuki Okiura.

The question we have to ask is then : why realism ? When you have such a limitless potential at hand, why bother to try and mimic reality ? In the case of animators and the integration of their sequences into a work, realism can be considered to add intensity to a climactic scene : think of Iso’s Asuka vs the mass-produced Eva Units in End of Evangelion. What matters in this specific scene isn’t a philosophical adherence of the director to the principles of realism (though that could be argued in End of Evangelion’s case), but rather trying to aim for maximal visual and emotional intensity in a climactic moment : basically, using realistic animation will make the scene, and therefore the entire movie, stronger because it stands out so much.

But what interests me here is something else : not its expressive use in cool bursts of sakuga, but when realism is the core of a work’s aesthetic, when it is entirely built around that idea and all the animation, with little or no exception, follows its principles. That is why, instead of animators and their specific cuts, I want to focus on directors for whom realism is arguably the core of their work : Isao Takahata, Satoshi Kon and Naoko Yamada.

You might be surprised to see Satoshi Kon among this list. Indeed, his work on the blurry limit between dreams and reality can be considered to be as far away from realism as you can be – and the same could be argued of some moments in Takahata’s works. Which is why it is necessary to start by clearly defining what I will mean by “realism” in this essay.

First, I do not mean photorealism, that is, aiming for the closest accordance between the work’s overall look, and especially its character designs, with perceived reality. Unless, maybe, in some cases of rotoscope animation (when they aren’t failed attempts), I don’t believe the complete reproduction of perception or photography is possible in animation, however much real-world reference is used by the animators – in the case of character animation, at least, as mechanical animation is another story. On the other hand, while I will cover it to some extent, narrative realism is not what I’m aiming at either. By narrative realism, I mean the attempt to create a coherent, believable world that follows our expectations of what reality should be. In that sense, the science-fiction or dream scenarios we can find in Kon’s catalogue aren’t excluded.

Then, by “realism”, I mean what media theorist Andrew Darley calls “second-order realism”, that is the attempt not to reproduce reality or perception, but the cinematographical conventions of realistic representation. We could also term this “conventional realism”, since it is not an exact copy of reality, but rather a reworking of conventional codes of fiction that aim to make us believe in the reality and materiality of what we’re looking at, even though we know they are not real – because they’re just drawings, after all. In that regard, my definition of realism in animation relies on two criteria : in the direction, the creation of a sense of space and the presence of the camera in this space ; and in the animation, the creation of an impression of weight and volume of the bodies. To sum it up, in my definition, realism in animation is what conveys a sense of presence : presence of the camera, presence of space, presence of the characters.

With this in mind, let’s come back to the initial question : why realism ? Beyond the simple formal and technical achievement, why use realism in animation when you can do so much more ? My argument will be that the way anime directors have used realism is never straightforward : it’s never realism for the sake of it. Instead, I will try to show that, even though they try to mimic live-action cinema, these directors use realism in a way that only animation can : not to make the difference between real and drawn disappear, but instead foregrounding the fictionality and artificiality of their own work. This entails a certain theory of animation, according to which the nature of the medium is not to animate, that is to give life, but simply to create movement (as the Japanese dôga, moving picture, highlights) and never hiding the fact that the starting point of this movement is a series of still images.

Grave of the Fireflies : Distant Realism

The relationship between Isao Takahata and realism makes no doubt – after all, among directors in animation, he is the one who went the furthest in the association between realism and a sense of presence. So far that he even coined concepts for it : jitsuzaikan and rinjôkan, which roughly translate as “feeling of existence” and  “feeling of the place” or “feeling of being there”. Moreover, in the course of his career, Takahata has practiced all kinds of realism, from the narrative realism of his World Masterpiece Theater series to the photorealism of some movies – among which the one I have decided to analyze, Grave  of the Fireflies

I don’t think I need to explain how photographic most of the backgrounds in the movie look, and how meticulous and detailed the character animation is. The animators went so far as to animate wrinkles and little movements of the skin, something that’s usually absent in the simple character designs of animation and especially of anime. Moreover, the movie is the adaptation of a semi-autobiographical war story, and tries very hard to convey the atmosphere of 1945 Kobe. Therefore, the natural question one must ask when watching Grave of the Fireflies is : beyond the fictional nature of some episodes, should this movie be considered like a documentary ? My answer to this is no, and showing why will illustrate Takahata’s unique relationship to realism.

One of the most noted characteristics of Takahata’s directorial style is the interplay between the real, present events, and events that happen in the realm of the fantasy or dream (as in Gauche the Cellist and The Tale of Princess Kaguya) or that are flashbacks (like in Only Yesterday). Grave of the Fireflies is no exception, as the ghosts of the two main characters appear multiple times in the movie, reflecting back on the past and haunting the most important places of their lives. But what needs to be noted about this interplay of the real and the imaginary is not just that Takahata uses animation’s potential to create fantasy and distance from the real. In Grave of the Fireflies, it is in fact the complete opposite, as there seems to be no difference between the fantastic and the real. In terms of mise-en-scène, it could even be argued that the realm of the ghosts is more real than that of the living.

The first reason for this is simply narrative : the movie is a flashback, told through Seita’s perspective. However, Seita is dead, and the first line of the movie, told from his perspective, clearly indicates that it is the ghost talking : “I died”, he says. This means that what we are seeing is not the events as they unfolded, but the projection of those events by Seita – and it is where you have to note that the Japanese word for “movie”, eiga, literally means “projected image”. In a way, what we are witnessing is Seita’s movie version of what happened – and the scenes with the ghosts are but a secondary, meta-movie that’s on top of it.

But there is something else, which pertains to the visual direction of the movie. In that regard, there are two key moments. The first one happens around 20 minutes in, as the ghosts of Seita and Setsuko go to the house of their aunt. In one of the shots, we follow them as they walk from the right towards the left of the screen, and a pan accompanies their movement. For anyone who knows their Takahata, this camera movement will immediately be reminiscent of another famous moment : the very first few seconds of Hols, Prince of the Sun, where the camera pans left and the characters run in front of it in a very similar fashion. And it so happens that Takahata himself has done a lengthy commentary of this sequence.

What comes out most clearly is his idea to create the feeling of a real camera, that would be in a real space, just like in live-action. That’s rinjôkan. And the best way to do that is to have the characters and the camera interact : the characters passing in front of it, and the camera following them with a pan (there might even be a slight travelling in the shot from Hols, even though we don’t make any difference between the two in animation). In the shot from Grave of the Fireflies, the intention is made even clearer thanks to the background, walls and houses which trail along as the “camera” pans, and create a sense of depth and space.

While there are other pans and camera movements in the movie, there is no other shot just like this one. If we accept the fact that such a composition is meant to create a feeling of tri-dimensional space, this means that the ghosts inhabit a space that is closer to the real, physical world of the spectator than the living. In other words, from the spectator’s perspective, they are more real. This is also apparent in all the transitions – or lack thereof – between the world of the living and the world of the dead. All these moments can be interpreted in various manners : the living and the dead share the same space ; the world of the living is but the projected image that the dead (and us, spectators) are watching ; or the world of the dead is but the backside of the world of the living. If the relationship is that of the dead watching the living, the living are but an image, and it is the dead who have the privilege of reality.

Many of Takahata’s movies can be read as reflections on the medium of animation itself, so such techniques are not surprising. But in Grave of the Fireflies, this serves yet another purpose : distancing ourselves from what is happening. Indeed, the movie confronts us with a moral dilemma that isn’t really one : was Seita right to take his sister with him and run away to live on their own ? The answer is probably no, but even the movie provides no unambiguous answer : he has caused his own and his sister’s death, but since we follow Seita’s perspective, there is no way to know if this isn’t distorting our view of the events, portraying him as a victim and Setsuko’s death as overly pathetic. However, the very construction of the movie all goes towards the idea of giving the viewer enough space to make their own judgement.

Indeed, the set-up and its three layers (the flashback, the ghosts, and us the viewer) invite us to reflect not only on what’s happening, but on its consequences. The very choice of the medium of animation is also telling. Indeed, the moments when the choice of realism is the most striking is when we are shown close-ups of mutilated or dying bodies. One could argue that here, we are meant to witness the horror of war in detail and that realism is what makes us believe in what we see, and in turn react to it.

The sometimes horrifying realism of dead and/or dying bodies in Grave of the Fireflies

In fact, I’d say it’s the exact contrary. To understand this, we must reformulate my initial question : not “why realism ?” but “why animation, and not live-action ?” If this were live-action, we would indeed have no choice but to turn away our gaze in fear and horror (see, for example, the unbearable Hiroshima scenes in Shôei Imamura’s Black Rain). But since this is animation, these are just drawings and we know they are – which means that we don’t react to dead bodies as we would “real” people (that is actors) in agony. The distance created by the choice of the medium allows the gaze to be not pathetic or empathetic, but on the contrary, almost voyeuristic. There is indeed something profoundly upsetting about Takahata’s insistence on the degradations of the body, especially when said body is a young child’s. And I’d argue that this insistence is not meant to create pathos, but that it is cold and analytical – a study of death as it progresses in and on the body. This isn’t to say that Takahata is a sadistic director, who likes to torture his viewers with the sight of suffering : I believe that the distance created towards the pain on the screen invites the viewer to an even more critical look of Seita’s and Japan’s responsibility, and of Setsuko herself. Indeed, her dying body is not unbearable to watch – and precisely because of that, we have no choice but to watch, to be confronted to the utter horror that is her gratuitous death.

The same could be said of one of the movie’s climaxes and one of its most famous scenes – the fireflies sequence. We could say it is the culmination of the movie’s realistic aesthetic : the movements are slow and deliberate, the lighting is masterful and beautifully enhances the volume of the bodies – creating the all-important sense of presence. But at the same time, it’s the most unreal scene of the movie : the night setting, the overbearing music and the short-lived happiness all frame it like a dream. Even more importantly, the animation itself bears that contradiction : the light and shading on the bodies emphasizes the volume, but it does so to an unbelievably high degree, to the point that it feels like too much. We do forget that what we see are drawings, but what precisely are we seeing ? The two children look like real people as much as they do moving statues.

This way, Takahata, just like the two other directors I’m about to cover, doesn’t just follow the principles of realism. He either goes around them with the elaborate construction of a metanarration, or goes even deeper and surpasses realism at the same time that he’s following it. To put it in more abstract and energetic terms, he makes realism implode – that is, he destroys and transcends it from the inside.

Paprika : Uncanny Realism

It could be argued that Satoshi Kon has only ever made movies about cinema. But what is especially striking in Kon’s relationship to live-action cinema in particular is the fact that, like the two other directors covered here, he used animation to express his fascination towards it. In that regard, the movie that goes the furthest in playing with the two mediums and their borders is without a doubt Paprika. The association between dreams and cinema on one hand, and dreams and animation on the other, is a classic one ; add to that the metafictionality omnipresent in the movie, just like in any other Kon work, and the fact that one of the main character arcs of the film is all about detective Konakawa resolving his difficult relationship with cinema, and one of Paprika’s main motifs and themes becomes transparent. What is explored is not just our relationship to fiction in general, but to fiction as it is mediated by a certain technological apparatus – the DC Mini in the movie’s narrative, the cinematic apparatus in its metanarrative.

This becomes apparent in a dream sequence at the end of the first half of the movie, where Paprika confronts Konakawa and his problem with cinema for the first time. Taken up by enthusiasm, the detective lets go of his usual reservation and gleefully explains some cinema techniques – namely, the “line of action” and “Panfocus”. This is obviously metafictional, especially in the moment when the direction transgresses the line of action principle to illustrate it. But what’s so interesting about this is the fact that the line of action is a realistic convention of live action cinema. Indeed, the point of this technique is not just visual clarity, but to make the viewer obtain a sense of real space, that they can read, understand, and in a way that they could move into.

Konakawa explains the line of action to Paprika – and to us

That scene is therefore central to the movie, as I believe it sums up Kon’s entire relationship with realism and live action cinema. Cinema is based on conventions that give a sense of clarity and reality ; but these conventions are just that, and to illustrate it, there is no better way than to transgress them. On a theoretical level, it could be said that Kon aims to subvert cinema precisely by mimicking it.

But that’s not all : if that was the case, he wouldn’t be any different from Takahata or Yamada. What sets Kon apart is his relationship to, and use of, character animation and acting. Whereas Grave of the Fireflies’ animation went out of its way to convey a sense of volume, Paprika’s takes a different direction : what it tries to create is the impression of fleshiness, the soft and squishy impression that fat (guess what, there’s an obese character) or stuffed animals give off. This has many purposes.

The first one is realism – not physical realism as in weight and presence, but the creation of a sense of texture, as for example in those moments when the ground or hard objects suddenly become soft or limp, and lose all their expected physical qualities. These moments are unexpected, but the animation (and the use of CG) sells it off, and makes the viewer able to feel what it must be like. Conveying the impression of touch is central here and creates both a sense of unreality (as the physical properties of reality lose ground) and believability. At the same moment, we stray off from realism and reach it back again, just through the sheer quality of the animation. This is also very apparent in some of the most impressive and unsettling moments of character animation – such as in this rape scene. The movement of the hand going over Paprika’s body is followed in painful detail, and it becomes even more terrifying when the man’s hand suddenly penetrates the clothes and flesh – or rather, goes through it as if it were jelly.

What all this leads to is a growing sense of horror – or at least, of strong uneasiness that Kon and his animators try to create in the viewer. There exists a word to describe exactly this feeling : that is the uncanny – a sense of familiarity with what you’re watching, and at the same time, the feeling that something isn’t right, a creeping dread under it all. Satoshi Kon, since his start as a director in a psychological horror movie, is a master of this, and it explains his adherence to the principle of realistic animation. In Paprika, this culminates in all the parade scenes and the common and yet playful objects taking life. This is a motif in animation at least since Disney’s Pinocchio, but the idea here is very different – or rather, Kon takes cues not from the movie’s childlike wonder at making things move but from its darkest scenes of metamorphosis.

The joy the parading objects exhibit is not that of happiness, but that of madness – these parades are terrifying, and the animation plays a large part in it. Even though they are solid, hard things – like statues or refrigerators – they move like plush dolls or beings made of flesh. While their movement as such feels realistic, it is profoundly unnatural. The animation fans will wonder at the quality of the craft, but we are clearly not meant to admire what is being shown to us. The fluidity of the movement, the sense of presence and life it conveys, are precisely what makes it so uncanny – and so terrifying.

In other words, Satoshi Kon takes one of the key principles of realism – giving the viewer the illusion of life – and turns it on its head. What makes it stand out from Takahata and Yamada is that it’s not just purely formal or aesthetic – or rather it is, but it’s also something more. It manages to create a sense of atmosphere, and a reflection on animation and live-action whose depth is probably unmatched.

K-On ! The Movie : Abstract Realism

Naoko Yamada is no doubt one of the, if not the, most talented director to emerge out of Japanese animation in the last 10 years. In my own book, she is one of very few people who can start to compete with Isao Takahata for the title of the greatest director in animation of all time – though we have to let her grow and see her style keep evolving to see whether or not that claim will still hold. The relationship with Takahata isn’t just completely arbitrary either : just like him, her work has always focused on the problematic of realism, and the question of the limits of animation and live-action, animated and real. While the K-On ! period is still her early one, with a heavy use of cartoony animation, it’s when she established the fundamentals of her approach to the medium. This is why I will cover this movie, rather than the much bolder and experimental Liz, undeniably her masterpiece.

Another reason is precisely the fact that it is an early work. All the fundamentals of her style are already deeply established at this point, but it’s also a movie (like the series as a whole) that doesn’t just use one aesthetic or tone (like Liz), but instead navigates between them. Or doesn’t, as a dream sequence at half the movie demonstrates : Azusa dreams that Yui repeats her year, that they spend it together, and that she will become her senpai’s toy. What’s very striking here is that, except for the music and editing, there is absolutely no visual difference between the dream and reality. The limit is even thinner than in Grave of the Fireflies, where ghosts were at least colored in red – though the quick editing and comical music do indicate that the dream is less real, and not as real (Kon) or even more real (Takahata). 

But, as I’ve said, there are other aesthetics : the most notable one is that of the music video. Yamada had already shown her sensibility for this genre with the endings of the K-On ! TV series, and she strikes again for the movie with another one just before the ending credits. If we just focus on realism, we risk missing the importance of this other aesthetic in Yamada’s repertoire : it enables her to get more free and spontaneous, with washed-off colors, dutch angles, snappier editing and flashy costumes. 

However, it must be remarked that this aesthetic is not confined to endings, as if it were just an alternative to the dominant realism of the movie or series. It functions as its complement, as the many concerts in the movie illustrate, especially the second London one, and the classroom one. While they both happen in spaces that the viewer is supposed to be already familiar with, their direction takes a clear departure from the usual establishing shots and careful compositions Yamada is known for. This is especially the case when the girls perform Rice is a dish in their London performance : while it is an occasion to display the lively and detailed animation Kyoto Animation is known for, it is also full of quick cuts and bold camera movements that the director almost never uses elsewhere.

This goes to show that, even generically and stylistically, Yamada’s relationship to realism is not as obvious as generally considered. But this is even more so the case when one looks at the formal elements of her work. The trait most often noted about her direction is her imitation of live-action photography, most notably in lighting and depth of field. This works as a perfect illustration of second-order realism : what Yamada reproduces isn’t reality, it’s the way a camera works. But this has also deep implications when considering her  relationship with live-action cinema.

French cinema critic and theoretician André Bazin has made depth of field one of the key elements in his theory of cinema and, most notably, what he considered to be the realistic aesthetic in live-action movies. Indeed, for Bazin, if cinema wants to aim for realism, what matters is the sense of continuity and space. Montage plays a large part in this, but the most interesting aspect for us here is the question of the depth of field : favorable to the work of directors such as Jean Renoir and Orson Welles, Bazin favored the use of deep focus, that is having all the elements of the image as distinct, no matter their distance from the camera. According to Bazin, this created a sense of real space, since it was the closest to human vision and most importantly allowed the viewer’s gaze to wander freely among the image, not manipulated by the overarching instance of the director and the fictionality it implied.

Such remarks normally shouldn’t apply to animation, even though it overwhelmingly relies on a reproduction of deep focus. But Yamada’s work might be an exception, precisely because she imitates live-action, and most importantly because her prominent use of depth of field puts into question the very nature and meaning of the deep focus in animation. If we most often remark on her experimentations with short focus, what we note less often is that this practice puts deep focus in another context : if short focus is the dominant technique, deep focus loses its position as the “natural” form of vision in animation. In other words, if deep focus doesn’t come naturally as it seems to do with most other directors, then it must be deliberate.

While it’d be impossible to simply apply Bazin’s ideas to Yamada’s works (we can’t just ignore the ontological distinction between animation and live-action), they offer a compelling way to comprehend the meaning of deep focus in her movies. If short focus is most often used for framing (she is, after all, a master of compositions) or emphasizing character animation, deep focus is what creates a sense of space, grounds the action, and in the end plays a large part in establishing the realism.

An establishing shot in deep focus

This is especially interesting in the London part of the movie, as the different meanings of short and deep focus come to the fore. Betraying the meticulous work during the staff’s scouting trip, many shots just linger on the city’s scenery, with or without the girls. Shots in deep focus are most often establishing or pillow shots, like documentary photographs that set up the setting of the action. On the other hand, short focus happens when we already know the place, or when a big event occurs. To put it clearly, short focus is used to create atmosphere and mood.

The sense of warmth and fuzziness created by the depth of field

But, as I think the last shot illustrates, the use of depth of field has another consequence. Indeed, what’s created here is not just a fuzzy, warm atmosphere ; because most of the image is blurred, we don’t really see the scenery. To contrast against the photographic quality of most of the backgrounds, what we have here are just colors, as if this were closer to an abstract, or at least an Impressionist, painting. And this is decisive, because it brings us to other decisive traits of Yamada’s style – her sense of shot composition and her use of the pillow shot technique. By “pillow shot”, I mean a cut to another still shot, most of the time not directly related to the scene just before or after. In Yamada’s work, pillow shots are often synonymous with shots of the school setting.

The fact that K-On’s school is modeled after a real one is well-known, as is her care in creating a sense of space and making the viewer as familiar with it as are the characters. The pillow shots are considered to play a large part in this impression, since they show us even more views and places of the school. But they have other purposes : slowing down the rhythm of the movie, allowing the viewer to think on what just happened – and, I believe, creating a space for pure visual abstraction. While Yamada’s works are never directly abstract, many of the pillow shots in the movie take a step away from the realism, in that, just like it was the case with Takahata and Kon, they push realism to its limit until it breaks from the inside.

Two pillow shots from the end of the movie

For example, here are two shots from the last part of the movie, between the final concert and the performance of the band for Azusa. The first image shows us guitars and the shadow from the window ; the second one a hallway in the school, where we have often seen the characters go by. Both of these shots are empty : there is nobody in them, which creates a sense of sadness and nostalgia, but also takes away any impression of action or narration. They are also very rigorous compositions, with carefully constructed geometrical lines. And finally, we must note the special color of the images, a washed-out white light – an obviously deliberate choice for Yamada, so careful to photography. What all this creates is a sense of emptiness and silence, a meditative impression. What we see here are not photographs of the school as it would look like if it were real, but pure images, stills where nothing happens except the gaze of the spectator upon it. Basically, we aren’t in realism anymore, but closer to abstraction.

The same could be said of Yamada’s most famous stylistical flourish – her attention towards the little movements of the body, especially those of the feet and the legs. These “Yamada feet” are what make her so famous and recognizable, and never have they been displayed in a more impressive fashion than in the movie’s amazing last scene, as the camera lingers on the girls’ legs for almost an entire minute.

Following Yamada herself, many analyses have focused on the idea of body language – the fact that expression doesn’t always happen through the dialogue, but that all the body, even the legs, can convey a character’s emotions. However, I don’t really believe this interpretation applies to the movie’s last scene. Indeed, what we tend to forget about it is that there’s dialogue – in other words, it’s not the legs who are doing the talking here. That doesn’t mean they don’t express anything ; but just that expressing isn’t all that they do. At this point, you might be seeing where I’m going : detached from the upper body, with the dialogue sounding like voice-over, the legs look like they exist in a world of their own – something that’s made even stronger by the lighting and focus which tend to abstract the background, make it simple colors instead of detailed objects. These legs are no more just legs, they have become pure images, and this at the exact same moment that the animation reaches a peak in realism and detail.

To conclude, it becomes apparent that realism in animation is never just realism. Each time, as animation comes the closest to live-action cinema and its aesthetics, it points back to itself as animation, that is as pure images. It is paradoxically by imitating another medium that animation reveals itself in its fullest potential : to go beyond simple representation.

Bibliography

Bazin, André. Qu’est-ce que le Cinéma ? [What is Cinema ?]. 7ème Art, Le Cerf, 1985.

Frank, Hannah. Frame by Frame – A Materialist Aesthetics of Animated Cartoons. University of California Press, 2019.

Leroux, Stéphane. Isao Takahata Cinéaste en Animation : Modernité du Dessin Animé [Isao Takahata Director in Animation : Modernity of the Cartoon]. Cinéma(s) d’animation. L’Harmattan, 2009.

Steinberg, Marc, “Realism in the Animation Media Environment: Animation Theory from Japan” in Beckman, Karen (ed). Animating Film Theory. Duke University Press, 2014.

Naoko Yamada interviews :

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