The Anime Debate

by Andrew Osmond

Is anime the most exciting, cutting-edge form of animation today? Or does it betray the whole point of the medium? Animation World asked ten animation professionals and commentators for their views. Their responses reveal that there are no simple answers and delve into everything from personal tastes to cultural differences and film theory. Enjoy! There is plenty here to question and discuss.

Swords clash in a scene from X. © Manga Entertainment, Inc.

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.

Escaflowne, the saga that follows the adventures of the mythical world of Hitomi Kanzaki, airs on Fox Kids. TM and © Fox Kids. All rights reserved.

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.

When Miramax obtained the distribution rights to Princess Mononoke, they agreed that only the dialogue could be changed; none of the frames, scenes or imagery could be touched. © Miramax Films.

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.


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