Is anime the most exciting, cutting-edge form of animation today? Or does it betray the whole point of the medium? Andrew Osmond asks ten animation professionals and commentators for their views and their responses reveal that there are no simple answers.
Is anime, Japanese animation, no more than badly-made animation? For example, anime often features jerky, puppet-like character movement, along with an excess of static frames, without a trace of the "illusion of life" championed by Disney and other greats.
Giannalberto Bendazzi (author of Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation):
Yes, anime is badly animated. On the other hand, it is normally well written and well directed.
Amid Amidi (publisher/editor of Animation Blast): Having viewed so many animated films, I've developed a rather extensive and varied appetite for animation, but sadly, the majority of anime I've seen leaves a sour taste in my mouth. Still, I refuse to completely write off their output, and I sample new Japanese cartoons at every opportunity I receive. Very occasionally it pays off, such as when I discover innovative ideas and approaches to the art form as in Katsuhiro Otomo's Memories, or I find visually impressive action sequences in films such as Ninja Scroll and Akira.
The reason as to why I haven't joined the ever-growing legions of rabid "otaku," results from certain aspects of Japanese cartoons that turn me off, and surprisingly these elements remain consistent throughout all of the anime I've seen, whether it's a cheaply-produced OAV or a classy Miyazaki production. Namely, it is the unappealing and cold nature of their character designs, and the general lack of dynamics and complexity in their personality animation. The death of animation is if you don't find the characters believable because subsequently the value and effectiveness of the stories those characters are telling is diminished.
All I pray for is that the next international animation fad will be more visually stimulating and appealing.
Animator for Disney, DreamWorks and Warner Bros. Feature Animation: The ability to animate a sense of mass is perhaps the biggest place Japanese animation comes up short, though I think they really do that on purpose. In Asian films one often sees fantasy characters moving so rapidly they're literally weightless. You see this in manga, too. If you want a manga character to look dramatic, just have him or her blasting around with a page full of speedlines. It turns me off, my having grown up with the clear and powerful comic book staging of guys like Kirby and Romita and Ditko. I find it very convincing and visually pleasing when a character is animated so that one really feels the sense of weight and mass. Look at Stromboli in Pinnochio, at the bullfight cartoon with Bugs Bunny, at Max in Cats Don't Dance, etc. Look at Tex Avery. He animated the most impossible things, but it was only funny because he understood how to manipulate the sense of mass.
The best test of good animation is to take shots or scenes out of the context of the film and watch them without any connection to the story. For me, and most Western trained animation buffs, quality animation will have a sense of mass and the movement will occur in a pleasing and interesting way.
Fred Patten (Anime commentator since the '70s):
When American fans first saw the giant-robot and space-adventure anime TV cartoons in the 1970s and 1980s, one of their fascinating aspects was how they seemed diametrically opposed to American TV animation. American TV animation had been getting graphically simpler and simpler so that the actual animation could remain relatively fluid. Japanese TV animation relied on elaborate drawings with very little movement. A catchphrase at the time of Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock was that the animation stunk, but fans would have loved to have any given scene as a framed cel setup on their wall.
That is still largely true. Anime fans who pay attention to the actual animation instead of concentrating on the story and dialogue tend to look for imaginative direction and graphics rather than rich, lush, Disney-quality animation.
Mark Schilling (Author of Princess Mononoke: The Art and Making, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture and Contemporary Japanese Film):
The "movement gap" between Disney and much of Japanese animation is one that Japanese animators are acutely aware of. Budget is one reason. Studio Ghibli (creators of Princess Mononoke, Kiki's Delivery Service) is perhaps the only Japanese animation studio that can afford to regularly incorporate a Disney-like fluidity and complexity of motion into its animation. The flying sequences that have become a trademark of Miyazaki's work for Studio Ghibli are the best-known examples.
Animator: Taking the example of the film Princess Mononoke, I was continually disappointed when huge animals that would weigh hundreds or even thousands of pounds would gallop or jump exactly like an animal weighing a fraction of that. I think the Japanese enjoy that sense of weightlessness, since it seems to be associated with supernatural power, but to me it just looks like the creature is made of balsa wood and fluff. Also, the "actors" in Mononoke were often wooden. There are some amazing layouts and poses, but that does not make great animation in the pure sense. It's not that I find the movement in Mononoke objectionable; it's just that it's often uninvolving. I remember being struck at the difference in the way the "Night Walker" rose up and moved about. That character more than any other in Mononoke seemed to have personality and presence through its animation. It seemed to me that the Japanese love of effects animation here worked to an advantage, since the Night Walker wasn't a person, and wasn't animated in a stock and predictable way. It gave me chills to see it move. By contrast, when I watched the giant boars running or San riding on Moro, it seemed weightless and a fraction as thrilling as it could have been.
Gilles Poitras (Author of The Anime Companion and the new Anime Essentials):
The character movement in anime is not any lower in quality than most U.S. animation and often higher. The choreography in a TV show like Cowboy Bebop or theatrical feature like Perfect Blue are only two examples of this. As for static frames, there are not that many and they are often used to create what could be called an "illusion of cinema."
This "illusion of cinema" is a good example of key differences between U.S. and Japanese animation theory. In the U.S., animators look back on the history of animation, often just animation in the U.S. and not that far back. In Japan anime is more of a cinematic art with directors observing the techniques of great live-action directors. Consider the concert sequences in the beginning of Perfect Blue or the opening sequence of You're Under Arrest. These are anime done as if shot from a camera. Even in older anime you find cinematic elements being used.
What first drew me to anime was the use of "camera" techniques in the Yamato series; which I saw in a store window in 1977. The only U.S. show I can think of that does this is The Simpsons "Halloween" specials, which parody cinema and therefore use the same techniques. As for the "illusion of life" I think anime comes much closer. You rarely see anyone move like an American animation character, even the ones in the better Disney movies. Exaggerated, overly energetic movements are not an "illusion of life." Slower sequences where people stand or sit and move little when they have a conversation are a better "illusion of life," found commonly in anime.
Cedric Littardi (Co-founder of the French AnimeLand magazine and creator of the country's first anime video label, Kaze Animation): How do you define good animation? Not by the budget, otherwise Titan A.E. wouldn't have failed. Not by the number of cels per second, as most of the best animators in our history were very limited in this matter. The brand new CGI programs prove that "state of the art techniques" are far from being as good as some of the more classical. There is no sure technical way to measure the quality of an animation. Animation is a combination of elements so diverse that only the final patchwork can be judged.
Disney's "illusion of life," has not much to do with the number of frames per second but is an overall result. Can anyone say that it is the same in The Jungle Book and Aladdin? There seems to be a very deep gap between the two. As such, there is no reason whatsoever that the "illusion of life" can be rendered only with very high budget animation. Animation is very clearly an art form and the final quality of artwork is frequently very different from the sum of its parts. The Japanese are no exception to this rule. Since the country has a very rich cultural background in the areas of stylization, graphic arts and storytelling, there is no reason why they cannot create a life of their own.
Maureen Furniss (Founding editor of Animation Journal and author of Art in Motion: Animation Aesthetics): People often use the physical movement of animation as its primary qualitative measure. This is the case in part because of the dominance of Disney-style animation and the history of animation as an attraction that mystifies by recreating "real life." When animation does not seem to create "real" movement, its identity as a construct becomes clear. There's less wonder in looking at drawings that look like drawings on the screen than drawings that somehow look like they could be real. It's a little mind game that has been used to promote animation to the general public since the early days of film history, when animation was still categorized under the heading of "trick film" and audiences marveled at Winsor McCay's ability to make Little Nemo or Gertie the Dinosaur move. The aesthetic of Japanese animation, with its limited animation technique, is determined by many things including budget, but also cultural and conventional expectations of the art form.
If people are interested in studying the cultural components of Japanese animation, then I think the whole of Japan's production becomes much more interesting. When we limit ourselves to saying, "It doesn't look or act like what is produced by the most successful American studios," then we are pretty limited in our perspectives.
Mark Schilling: Traditional Japanese performance arts, such as Kabuki and Noh, are highly stylized forms that rely more on presentation than representation for their effects. In Kabuki, sword-fighting scenes are akin to dance, with the swords of the two opponents barely touching, let alone clashing. Also, in Kabuki the most dramatic moments are considered to be stylized poses that the lead actor holds while the audience applauds and shouts its approval. Flow, in short, is less important than form. In much of Japanese animation, particularly the sci-fi variety, there is more emphasis on the grotesquely comic or operatically dramatic gesture -- the worlds-colliding climaxes in the Dragonball series being one example -- than on so-called realistic movement.
Charles Solomon (Film critic for the LA Times and author of animation books including The Disney that Never Was): It should be borne in mind that there is no tradition of Disney style acting and lip synch in Japan. Some anime films look strangely limited to Western audiences, but they don't to Japanese viewers. The animators and directors use conventions to get around the limits of the animation, just as their American counterparts do. Americans are simply used to one set of conventions: is it any odder to have a character hang in mid-air with his feet and legs revolving, then whip him off screen in a fast pan, than to have a character turn into a "super-deformed" child version of himself when he behaves childishly?
Francesco Fillipi (Animation columnist and animator): Disney wanted to show the "truth of the movement." Every emotion a character lives must emerge in a frame. So you can see everything the character feels, nothing less but nothing more. Instead, the Japanese wanted to show the "psychological truth" of the characters. It's true their first choices were due to their lack of money, but they managed to build a new language. In this direction a great help came from the Japanese ability to concentrate attention on only a single element, as in the Kabuki theater and Haiku verses. So in animation, the emotions were spread through the environment, so everything contributed to a character's emotions: the music, the colors, the editing, etc.
In the first episode of the TV series Captain Harlock, the little Mayu meets her "uncle" Harlock, knowing the Earth forces are laying a trap to chase the space pirate. Mayu and Harlock are happy to meet but also sad because of the whole situation. Disney would have animated the scene alternating smiles and sad looks on the characters' faces. Instead Rin Taro (the director, also responsible for the recent movie X) put sad music over two smiling faces.
Further, Osamu Dezaki (one of the greatest directors of anime) talked about the animated character of Black Jack, based on Tezuka's manga, in an interview for an Italian magazine: "Black Jack is a difficult person to understand...he has an obscure temperament, but charming at the same time. As director, I didn't feel the need to understand the most mysterious parts of his soul. I decided to leave his mystery integral to him and to follow with the camera tagging after...letting the audience create a personal image of him."
This requires a different role for the viewer, a different sensibility, but for those who grew up with it, there are no problems at all. In anime you can give your feelings to the character, have a dialogue with him or her, not only listen to a monologue. It's more interactive.
Charles Solomon: To dismiss anime as "badly made animation" strikes me as silly. Limited animation has been around for more than 50 years. It can be (and has been) extremely effective when used properly. Do the designs for the film suit the style of the animation? One of the great lessons of the UPA films is that the way a character is animated should relate to its design. Animating Mr. Magoo, Bullwinkle or Tenchi in a full Disney style is as inappropriate as doing Hanna-Barbera style limited animation of Pinocchio. Would full animation add anything to Tenchi or Rocky and Bullwinkle? I doubt it.
Fred Patten: There is an attitude that the only animation worth watching is Disney "illusion of life" quality animation. American examples that disprove this include most of the UPA output, Disney's Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom, Jay Ward's TV programs, and such recent TV animated hits as Ren and Stimpy, The Simpsons, Aeon Flux, King of the Hill and South Park. A good script, good voice acting and good music can win a devoted audience despite jerky or limited animation. Some recent noteworthy examples of anime that exemplify this are Serial Experiments Lain and Cowboy Bebop.
Francesco Fillipi: I saw two new non-Japanese shorts at the I Castelli Animati festival. In For The Birds, a Pixar short, there are a lot of little birds with very expressive faces. Everything moves and the birds are very funny. There was also The Periwig-Maker, a German puppet short about the Black Death. The puppets have almost the same faces for all the film, but they were so human, so deep, so true in their dramatic experience and...so beautiful! I can't say the second short is better than the first or vice versa. They are both perfect in their own language, the first in the Disney style, the second in the anime style.
I think it's apples and oranges. Different conventions and different tastes are at work. Perhaps Akira and Mononoke are not as interesting or entertaining to general Western audiences, but the same is true of most successful Western animated features in Japan.
As for why some Westerners, who weren't raised on the anime style, prefer it I can't say. I think a big part of it is that they love the stories and the overall style so much that they've come to accept the Japanese animation style. I really think that if some top-notch Western character animators worked on a quality anime film, the results would knock your socks off, and make most current anime films look lame (and most current Western animation, too!). I also don't think anime could be done as inexpensively as it is if they put the emphasis on character animation that the top studios here do. For years there's been flirtations between DreamWorks and Otomo to do a film together. That would be something.
Are some anime titles of value, or are productions such as Akira and Princess Mononoke as misguided as more commonly-maligned titles such as Pokémon? And how about anime which breaks what is commonly regarded as a cardinal rule of animation -- animating a story such as Heidi, which could have been made in live-action?
Mark Schilling: Japanese animators have made a virtue of necessity by using limited animation to explore topics considered off-limits to Disney and its imitators, who must appeal to the widest possible audience to recoup on their enormous investments. Could Disney have attempted the Twilight Zone-like fantasy of Memories or the psycho-horror of Perfect Blue? I think not. Less bound by the need to sell tickets to every eight-year-old in the country, Japanese animators can be more imaginative, daring and, occasionally, more self-indulgent than their Disney counterparts.
Cedric Littardi: Whereas in the U.S. scarcely no animated feature can be created with less than $50 million, the Japanese need a tenth of these budgets. U.S. mega-productions keep more or less the same style, as imposed by Disney standards, with the unique purpose of having everyone in the target audience come and see it in the theaters. The Japanese animators have a much wider range of animation styles. Akira and Princess Mononoke have less to do with each other than Hercules and Titan A.E., for instance.
Gilles Poitras: In the U.S. animation is seen as young children's entertainment. In Japan until recently anime was largely seen as children's entertainment, but remember in Japan you are not an adult until you are 20. A show like Blue Submarine No.6 (recently screened on Cartoon Network) is assumed by Americans to be for people over 18, as the story has the complexities and nuances of presentation that would fit that age group in the U.S. But the director had in mind an audience of 12-15 year olds.
Anime for children is far more complex in plot, character development and subtlety than U.S. animation, even much of U.S. cinema. My interpretation of this is that there is a much greater respect for the ability of children to understand stories in Japan than there is in the U.S.; in fact a greater respect for what adults can understand, given the quality of U.S. TV and movie fare.
Giannalberto Bendazzi: Anime is normally misunderstood overseas because Japanese tradition is today the only big, winning animation cultural tradition that doesn't share Western values and viewpoints. These films don't have internationally recognized stars, except for the Pokémon.
Gilles Poitras: Another factor is the large manga industry in Japan which provides producers with a body of literature to draw on. Then there is the competition between studios in Japan. What do we have in America? Disney, Fox and Warner Bros. dominate the market so people usually judge between what they produce with few other options. In Japan the industry has so many companies that there is a constant pressure to find new niche markets and to try new techniques. This competition allows small companies to get work, even subcontracting for other companies, and to develop reputations. Some examples of this are Gainax, Gonzo and Studio Rex, all of which gained reputations for quality work in a commercial culture used to a variety of companies. I don't think they could have gained the same attention in the U.S.
Charles Solomon: Hayao Miyazaki is clearly one of the most interesting and talented directors working in animation (and in film) today. John Lasseter, Nick Park and Frédéric Back are about his only peers. Mamoru Oshii is so skillful a director he can make a story as silly as the first Patlabor movie seem compelling. Don Bluth tried to capture the excitement of Oshii's Ghost in the Shell or Hiroyuki Okiura's Jin-Roh (Wolf Brigade) in Titan A.E., but failed.
The Tenchi series combines sci-fi fantasy adventures with slapstick romantic comedy in a way that is unpretentious and silly, yet warm. Outside of The Simpsons, few American TV series -- animated or live-action -- can match the clever writing in "Murder Machine," episode 9 of Trigun. Cowboy Bebop evokes the film noir genre more effectively than many live-action detective movies. Takashi Nakamura's Catnapped seems to overflow with imaginative visuals.
Fred Patten: Akira seems to have attempted too much, mixing an intellectually confusing "scientific secret" with an apocalyptic action-adventure story, but it's spectacular to look at and genuinely suspenseful. Princess Mononoke was also possibly too intellectual, leaving audiences confused by the lack of clear heroes or villains, and leaving American viewers confused as to how much of the film reflected actual Japanese history. Being overly intellectual is a flaw almost unknown in American animation.
Many of Miyazaki's other films, such as Kiki's Delivery Service and Laputa: The Castle in the Sky, should be more accessible to general audiences. Catnapped! is a delightful fantasy for young children which will not bore adults. Jin-Roh could certainly have been a live-action film, but it is a taut and suspenseful political thriller. Outlaw Star is a TV series in the Star Wars vein that successfully captures the action-filled pacing, the interstellar grandeur, the exotic aliens and the bantering dialogue of Lucas' hit, despite its limited TV budget.
Giannalberto Bendazzi: Among anime I find many examples of good cinema, tolerated today in the way intellectuals just tolerated Casablanca in the '40s. If I were to mention one title only it would be Ranma 1/2. Of the feature films, I very much like Takahata's works, especially Grave of the Fireflies. But the really original works are the short films of Osamu Tezuka (Jumping), Yoji Kuri, Renzo Kinoshita, Taku Furukawa, Harugutsu Fukushima, Sadao Tsukioka, Keiichi Tanami, Shinichi Suzuki, Nobuhiro Aihara, Keita Kuroska, Dino Sato, Kihachiro Kawamoto and Tadanari Okamoto. Unfortunately there is no distribution for these latter films, and we see them only in the international festivals.
Cedric Littardi: Who is to say an anime is "misguided?" Pokémon sells more than anything else. Akira has united a fan-base worldwide and -- nearly 15 years after its release -- is still considered a classic. Princess Mononoke is the most successful Japanese film ever. If misguided is another word for "un-Disney," then these anime are. But you will never convince the people that enjoy them and they are the best suited to judge. Success is often the best guide to quality!
Fred Patten: As for the Japanese animating stories which could be told in live-action, this is a case of what the legal profession calls tu quoque. How different is DreamWorks' animated The Prince of Egypt from de Mille's live-action Ten Commandments? Hanna-Barbera animated Heidi. The Japanese are notorious for animating popular literary classics with funny-animal casts (The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, Around the World in 80 Days; these are actually usually commissioned by TV buyers in Italy and Spain), but the last decade has seen American funny-animal versions of David Copperfield and Tom Sawyer. This seems like picking some of the lesser Japanese products to compare with the best of Disney.
Gilles Poitras: Many anime set in a realistic setting would be much more expensive to do as live cinema. Sets, crews, equipment, location shoots, actors who vaguely resemble the characters all add up to a much higher total than the cost of an anime. After all a small studio space rented in an office building is enough for the animators, rented sound studios are enough for the voice and sound effects work and the actors do not have to look like their characters.
Charles Solomon: There are anime shows and features that could be done in live-action, especially some of the martial arts sagas. They remind me of the Saturday morning programs from the '70s and '80s that used animated versions of live characters (Partridge Family, Karate Kid, Harlem Globetrotters) because it was cheaper. There are stories that may initially seem suited to live-action but work in animation, depending on the style and storytelling. Grave of the Fireflies is essentially a live-action story, but doing it in animation heightens the emotions and distances the audience. The story would be too heart-rending if it were done well in live-action. (If it were done badly, it would feel manipulative and hokey.) Director Isao Takahata balances the intensity and distance to give the story its maximum emotional impact. If the filmmakers have the proper vision, animation can be used to tell almost any story.
Cedric Littardi: This is the greatest challenge an animator can face -- to make his artistic world better and more expressive than the real one. Considering the spectacular success of Takahata, there is hardly anyone that could challenge his achievements in this domain. And this will become a critical skill in a world where CGI animation can be made to look more and more real, mixed with real-world images.
Giannalberto Bendazzi: About 30 years ago, the American critic Dwight McDonald proposed a hierarchy that is still valid, and fits Japanese animation production. We have there a mass-culture output (TV anime), a mid-culture output (theatrical feature films such as Miyazaki's or Takahata's), and a high-culture output (the independent works of Yoji Kuri, Kihachiro Kawamoto, Osamu Tezuka and many others). You can get quality out of them all, but more likely out of the high-culture output, just because there are no big money investments there and therefore no constraints by the executives, the marketers, the distributors and so on.
Finally, if you could nominate one other national animation industry which deserves far more attention, which one would it be?
Mark Schilling: Canadian animators have been doing excellent, innovative work for years. Not many Canadian animation otaku out there, at least that I'm aware of. But then again, how many American multiplex goers are aware that many, if not most, of the best comedians on their screens are from The Great White North?
Charles Solomon: The defunct government-sponsored studios in Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the USSR produced an extraordinary body of work. I've heard the Shanghai Studio no longer exists, which I greatly regret as they created some remarkable films that adapted traditional Chinese art styles to animation. If I had to pick one other country's animation as worthy of wider attention, it would probably be Canada, as the National Film Board artists and Frédéric Back have made so many brilliant films.
Francesco Fillipi: The Canadian National Film Board is great. I like also Aardman animation.
Cedric Littardi: For years, studios have used Korea to make most of their animation, creating a more and more skilled workforce there. Today Koreans are struggling to bring new projects to fruition and though most copy the anime style, an underlying creativity can be felt in many of these.
Fred Patten: If you mean more attention by serious animation aficionados, then the late Soviet and Socialist Hungarian state-subsidized animation industries and China. There were some stunningly imaginative Soviet short films and features; not just Russian, but from other Soviet republics like Latvia. Hungary had a wide range of animation from short art films to theatrical family features, mostly through the Pannonia studio. But if you mean more attention by the public, then none. Most foreign animation will not play in America except to the art-house circuit. Chinese animation is usually beautiful but too slow-paced for general audiences. It is probably significant that the one Chinese animated feature that comes closest to American tastes, A Chinese Ghost Story, has been picked up for American video.
Giannalberto Bendazzi: An animation industry as such only exists in the USA, Japan, Korea and France. In the rest of the world we have animators, animation companies, but not an animation industry. In my opinion, the most original and innovative films of the '90s have come from Britain and Russia; one step lower I would put the USA, Canada and Poland.
Maureen Furniss: There is a whole world of animation out there that deserves to be discussed. However much of it is even further from the Disney-style "norm" of American feature animation and thus has even less likelihood of being widely screened and appreciated. It's almost impossible to say one country, though Canada, England, Russia, France, Germany, Estonia, Czechoslovakia and Italy all come to mind.
Our grateful thanks to all the contributors to this article.
Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specializing in fantasy media and animation.