My favorite things

Animétudes celebrates its first anniversary! It has been a relatively short time, but the blog has grown a lot and I’m very thankful for that. So, first of all, I thank all my readers and those who have followed me during this adventure. I have done a bit of reflection over the past and future of the blog here. This time, to celebrate, I’d like to come back over my own relationship with animation and sakuga by highlighting some of my favorite animated sequences.

How does one become a sakuga fan? It seems that, from what I’ve read, many like to frame it as a sudden discovery – there’s a “sakuga awakening” when you encounter a specific moment or person that shows you that there are people behind the animation, and how wonderful and limitless the art is. In my case, it’s been a very gradual process: I had been an anime fan long before I cared for the animation itself. Then, I encountered sakuga not as “cool animation” or “charismatic animators” but by blogs and discussions surrounding it on Wave Motion Cannon. But it was not until a year ago, just after I started this blog, that I became good enough that I could call myself a “sakuga fan” and talk about animation with some confidence.

The idea of this piece will be, in a way, to go back over my sakuga history.  Not through the people and the blogs and so on, but through the works: it was a series of encounters, not one sudden realization. It will obviously be impossible to recount all the moments I love in anime, but I have selected four – one very old, one more recent, and two that date back to only a few months ago. All of them are still to this day some of my most intense experiences and favorite animated sequences. What I hope then is less to talk about myself, but to convey some of the love I have for them and, hopefully, for animation in general. While doing this, I’d like to elaborate what I believe to be some fundamental concepts of animation, or what I think is what I appreciate the most in it. In other words, I’d like to take a look at what is going on in each of these moments, both for me and for animation as a whole.

Materiality: Shinji Hashimoto, The Tale of Princess Kaguya

I distinctly remember the day in late June (or early July?) of 2014 when I went to see The Tale of Princess Kaguya in a theatre. I had just started liking manga and anime, I had never heard the name of Isao Takahata before, but this was a Ghibli movie, so it was sure to be good, right? In the end, it was more than good. I was blown away, I came out of the movie with shaking legs, not really understanding what had happened to me. This was the first time I had had such an intense aesthetic experience, and it’s probably when I realized the unlimited expressive power of the animated medium.

I didn’t put it like that at the time, of course. It is only now, a bit more than 6 years later and with countless rewatches under my belt, that I feel that I’ve reached at least a minimal understanding of what I consider to be one of the greatest (animated) movies ever made. 

The first time, every one of the film’s most intense moments hit me at its hardest: Kaguya’s miraculous growth and the songs of the children; the discovery of the capital and the princess’ loneliness; her brief moments of joy and freedom; and, finally, her tragic departure. But the one scene that pushed me to tears back then, and still does however much I rewatch it, is the famous dream sequence, animated by Shinji Hashimoto.

Before Hashimoto himself, it is necessary to give credit where it is due and mention the director, Isao Takahata, and music composer, Joe Hisaishi. The sound design of this scene plays a large part in what makes it so powerful: a scream, music, and then silence – just footsteps resonating in the emptiness. It perfectly accompanies the animation that gets more bare and intense with every single frame.

Indeed, what sets this scene apart, even in the movie’s unique art style, is how raw it is. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to say that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is, at least in some aspects, a movie about animation itself: how it can give birth and growth to fantastical and beautiful beings, how it creates life and motion, but also how it can be constrained and absurdly limited. The very look of the movie plays a part in this, as the thick and simple outlines of the characters, as well as the washed-out colors of the backgrounds, never hide the fact that these are just drawings, that this is still animation, however true or emotional it might feel.

Hashimoto’s scene plays a large part in the movie’s reflection on animation. Animators throughout the world have always insisted on the creative part of their art, whether by reveling in beautiful transformations or repeatedly breaking the fourth wall. This sequence does the absolute opposite: it’s not about animation as creation, but about animation as destruction. Or even, about the destruction of animation itself. We start with on-model characters and clear lines, but very quickly, the backgrounds either disappear or dissolve into abstract compositions. And then, it is the turn of the character itself, reduced at the same time to silence and to shapelessness. All that is left of Kaguya by the end of that sequence is the red bright color of her hakama and the black of her hair.

Besides the intense memories and feelings I have about it, the idea that this scene evokes to me is that of matter. What happens here is the breaking down of all order, to the point that the drawing itself is not just revealed as drawing, but also decomposed to its most fundamental, concrete elements: rough lines and brush strokes. Ultimately, animation is just that, and this scene reveals it in an almost mystical manner – this is a dream, something somewhere between nightmare and revelation. As the corporeality of the animation dissolves, we are ourselves hit in our own bodies, reminded that we are flesh and that this is not, but also maybe, deep down, that we could be subjected to the same thing one day.

Animation is matter. It is physical stuff. Something that you draw, touch and manipulate. Apart from all aesthetical and theoretical considerations, it’s probably what sets apart the most 2d and 3d animation, and why cel animation will always be a step closer to stop-motion than CGI. And it’s also what makes me love anime so much – and I believe it might be the same for at least some anime or sakuga fans. 

Because of its inherent limitations, even its cheapness, anime never hides this materiality – it doesn’t have the means to bother. And, at its best, it reveals it and revels in it. For me, all of anime’s greatest directors have understood that fact: Takahata, but also Hideaki Anno, Osamu Dezaki, Rintarô, and to some extent Naoko Yamada. The same applies to animators and to the one who, for me, expressed it better than anyone else: Yoshinori Kanada.

Personality: Yoshinori Kanada, Galaxy Express 999

I don’t remember exactly when I first heard of Kanada, when I first watched one of his works, or even when I fell in love with him. But one of his most determining works, and the one I revisit the most, is what he did on the Galaxy Express 999 movies.

I am clearly not the only one for whom the first Galaxy Express 999 movie was a revelation, a work I watch and rewatch to remind myself of what I love in animation and in Kanada in particular. It is, after all, one of his most iconic works, a movie on which he animated, to my estimate, between 20 and 30 minutes and no doubt what definitely propelled him to the status of “charisma animator” supreme.

Indeed, what’s so striking in this movie, and in Kanada’s animation in general, is how much personality it has. When I first watched it, I was obviously not able to identify his cuts, and even now I make some mistakes. But even then, Kanada’s work, and to a lesser extent his friend Kazuhide Tomonaga’s, simply stands out in a way that no other animated motion does. It has a voice of its own and screams: “I am here! Look at me!”

I don’t think Kanada’s animation was lacking in any field, whether characters, effects, or mechas. It was always unique, but what sets his effects apart, especially in Galaxy Express, is that Kanada reached as close to abstraction there as he ever did. With his famous “fire dragons”, he would later go back to figuration, and give life and shapes to flames and lightning. This is impressive in its own right, but what’s going on here is different. It is neither the intense kind of explosions of his youth, or the highly stylized effects of his later work. It is the tipping point, just in-between all that, where both animator and viewer seem to discover the power that lies behind simple colors and lines.

Just like in The Tale of Princess Kaguya, this is a scene of destruction, where things break down into their constitutive parts. But it is a very different one: this isn’t a dream, something both highly intimate and symbolical. This, here, is the apocalypse, the (literal) end of one world but also the beginning of a new one. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the last shots, when Planet Maetel implodes in a set of abstract lines, circles and colors, becoming like a black hole that absorbs all things, but also out of which all things come from. The dark circle at the center of the frame both rejects and attracts, and the light flares seem at the same time to be produced, reflected and taken in by its eerie surface.

This is not, as in Kaguya, some sort of mise-en-abyme, a moment that calls upon us to provoke a kind of realization. But it is still something of a display – a display of personality, as I mentioned earlier, but also maybe a display of power. This is what the end of the world looks like, so you better watch closely and be in awe. Animation is spectacle – it is meant to be seen, to be shown, to be publicized not just for what it tells, but by virtue of its own creative power. And no other artist than Yoshinori Kanada better personifies the demiurgic and apocalyptic force of the medium.

Instability: Mitsuo Iso, Gosenzosama Banbanzai

Like every sakuga fan, I’ve always been aware of Mitsuo Iso, among the most respected and cited names in Japanese animation, and the inventor of the mysteriously paradoxical “full limited” technique. I also always appreciated his immensely powerful work – who would stay indifferent after having seen Asuka fighting the Eva series? But I feel that I really discovered and fell in love with him only recently, that is just a few months ago. I was researching him and the realist school, which led me, of course, to watch Gosenzosama Banbanzai. And there it was, in the middle of episode 4: almost 2 minutes of the most expressive and fun character animation I had ever seen.

This might simply be because of youth, but the first five or ten years of an animator’s career are often the ones I like the most – see Kanada, Shin’ya Ohira, Masami Obari, Masahito Yamashita, Hayao Miyazaki… Iso is no exception. His early works have a sense of spontaneity and freedom to them that I feel he progressively lost. His work on End of Evangelion seems to spell the end of that first era – there are still so many feelings poured over this sequence, but you start to see the methodical, studied approach slowly taking over.

On the other hand, Gosenzosama Banbanzai is Iso at the best of his natural and unprompted ability. Fittingly for this comedy series, the acting is very exaggerated (one might say theatrical), something you might not expect in an animator so renowned for his sense of realism. And yet, both go hand in hand: the sense of weight is there grounding the characters’ bodies, but there’s too much of it, they’re too heavy to be true. This scene, just like most of the OVA, is paradoxical, as the characters themselves are fake and overreacting, but the motion itself feels natural and honest.

What attracts me so much in Iso’s animation lies somewhere in this contradiction. Iso’s work is often so real, or rather feels so present that it at the same time feels fake. In a way, you could say that it moves too much, that it’s too natural or too fluid, and creates this sense of both attraction and repulsion. As strange as it might seem, Iso is often for me just at the border of the uncanny valley. But that’s precisely where its power lies.

The thing I find the most striking with Iso is the instability of his movement, or maybe the fragility of his frames, or maybe again the trembling quality he gives to motion. In the first shot of this sequence, Inumaru’s movement is excessive: he wavers a bit too much when he rises, his arms flap a bit too wild when he jumps, his clothes are a bit too animated… Everything is moving at once as if every part of the cel wanted to get its own share of activity.

If everything is moving, what follows is then the impression that everything can, in fact, move. And that it very well might start moving at any moment. I don’t mean that in an animistic sense, as if inanimate objects had an inner life that could awaken anytime; rather, I mean that every little line feels unsettled, taken in the motion of the entirety of all other lines. In Iso’s animation, the motion of just one part takes along with it the movement of the whole. It’s as if he pushed to the extreme the principle of secondary motion and decided that it’s not just optional, but an absolute: nothing in the frame exists apart from the rest, and it must move along or against it.

The frame is then transformed into a prodigious stage in which all elements are made to dance. This is as beautiful as it is overwhelming: coming back to what I said, there is too much motion in Iso’s animation. Every line feels so intentional and packed with so much movement that it’s about to burst, as if the rigid shapes of the characters were going to liquefy and lose all their consistency to transform into who knows what. That’s what I call instability: the fact that motion is unrelenting, that it sweeps everything and that every immobile element is under threat. The threat of being animated, of being given life and energy and meaning. Less than any other, Iso’s work is not meant to be watched frame by frame – because if you do, you might seize it out of balance and everything might collapse. At least, that’s what it feels like.

Sensibility: Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, Farewell Space Battleship Yamato

One of my regular sources of wonder for the past few months has been to get acquainted with the work of Yoshikazu Yasuhiko – not as one of the most important and talented character designers ever, but as an animator. Yasuhiko’s character animation is often very vivid, full of life and energy. But it can also be tragic, quiet and soft, as in this sequence, the most intense part of the long finale he solo animated for Farewell Space Battleship Yamato

The animation here might be considered “realistic”, and it is in that regard the perfect counterpart to what I just said about Mitsuo Iso. Without being flashy and on your nose the way Kanada is, Iso is showy. When you see one of his cuts, you can’t miss it, because everything feels so unique and different. Yasuhiko, at least here, does the opposite; he creates emotion not through constant movement or exaggeration or by overloading the frame, but instead by taking things slowly and naturally. If Iso is an intense and exhilarating run, Yasuhiko is a deep, clear breath.

There is not much motion in this sequence. There isn’t even that much happening. And yet, even when you watch it out of context, there are so many feelings, so much warmth in the way the characters look and feel that you can’t help but empathize with them.

Hashimoto was the destruction of animation and sudden revelation of the body and matter behind it; Kanada was the euphoria of creation and self-expression; Iso was the joy of energy flowing through every part of the frame and making everything new. Yasuhiko is, here, the slow melancholy of things ending in death, or maybe just in what looks like an incredibly soft state of rest. This is the end of the movie, no, of  the adventure. Everybody, or almost, has been killed. Only Kôdai is left, with the body of his dead lover. And he does not succumb to despair even though he is facing death. He gathers his thoughts and sense of duty, and slowly embraces Yûki. He walks, tenderly holding her in his arms, and sits her next to him. And then he goes off to die.

There’s not much to be said about this sequence, but that is precisely its greatest strength. Everything about it is subdued, slow and gentle, the kind of thing that you could miss if you didn’t pay attention. It doesn’t grab you by the shoulder and makes a show of its virtuosity. But if you’re sensitive enough, what it offers you is much more than any flashy big sakuga moment. It’s a kind of human warmth, of soft but raw emotion that you might not believe could exist in simple moving pictures. This feels human, in a way that very few other moments in animation do. For this to be possible, it’s hard to not project one’s feelings onto the animator, or rather, to feel for the animator as one feels for the characters. How could it be so touching otherwise?

And that’s all that matters, really. It doesn’t have to be flashy, or even powerful: it is enough to be just delicate.

I believe the common thread between all the scenes I’ve mentioned here is the notion of excess. All of the moments here are excessive in a way or another, they all go beyond the simple technicalities of the craft. With Hashimoto, it was the explosion of feelings that went as far as to destroy animation itself; with Kanada, the creative power of the animator as not just a revelation of the potentialities of animation, but an attempt to go beyond even them: the drawing itself goes beyond representation in an effort to go beyond the medium itself. For Iso, it is the nature of animation, motion itself, which is excessive and takes everything within it. And finally, for Yasuhiko, exceeding animation is achieved by delicateness, not by a large amount of motion but by the importance of emotion and sensibility, so that the animation is not just a craft but something that involves all of our humanity.

If animation is truly as limitless as I said, my journey of discovery of it will never end. It is as much hope as certainty: there will always be new things to discover and experience. New ways of expressing the fundamental concepts I tried to lay out here, but also new concepts, new ideas, new ways for the medium to challenge both itself and my own perception and imagination. This is a celebratory post, coming back over one year of the blog and many years of anime fandom. But it is also a look towards the future, where I hope to try new things in my writing, as many as this wonderful art that is animation will inspire me to.

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