Spoiler warning: Significant spoilers for Full Metal Alchemist
It’s been a long while since I watched Full metal Alchemist: Brotherhood. Names of characters, the beats of the story and most of the dramatic climaxes have faded to a distant haze. But one brief moment of the 60-odd episode saga still leaps to mind with perfect clarity and that is the death of Lust by Roy Mustang’s barrage of fire attacks.
It was about a third of the way through the series, and by this point these sinful villains had put the heroes through all manners of torment and, with the regenerative power of the philosopher’s stone seemed to be utterly indestructible. This moment marked a turning point with the sheer power of Roy’s sustained attacks overcoming their supposed immortality and finally defeating one of them for good. It was important to the story, but that’s not what made it so memorable.
It was one of those moments where the power of animation took a good scene and made it an unforgettable one. And the impact of this one short scene on viewers and even the industry as a whole can’t be understated – after all, it was a rare instance where it wasn’t just die hard sakugabros who got weak at the knees. Fans of all kinds were united in awe by Yoshimichi Kameda’s unique, visceral and powerful animation and it was the true launchpad for his career that now has him as one of the most well-known charisma animators of our time. I dare say the sakuga community gained a few members that day – it certainly left an impression on me too.
But what’s so good about it? Kameda took a character’s death scene and cut through all the usual shounen anime niceties of neatly drawn, attractive characters to focus on sheer, untamed intensity of being burnt alive using whatever methods he could. He threw out the book and used rough, contorted but extremely detailed drawings, and depicted withering figures in the flames with pure shadow, barely recognisable as human. It’s probably fair to say that TV animation hadn’t seen something quite like this before.
The first couple of cuts waste no time in making a statement with the realistic disfigurement underscoring the real violence of the sequence – while fire in anime is too often treated as some kind of orange magical essence that reduces a characters HP until they’re arbitrarily defeated, here it burns away the skin to muscle and bone and singes the hair. Already his drawings show carefully defined gritty details well beyond the level of the rest of the anime up until this point.
But this is only the beginning; Lust is again and again engulfed in a furnace of flames, burning away her form until she becomes this writhing, flickering contortion. Here Kameda is no longer using lines and shading for Lust, depicting her purely with ink and brush. While it’s relatively common for this kind of cut to do away with standard linework for other techniques, Kameda’s execution with the brush is unique and exceptional. His drawings strike just the right balance between form and distortion so that this scorched horror is still strikingly human. Combined this with the jittery, flailing motion he creates with his frames and the overall effect is as unsettling as it is exciting.
His animation throughout this sequence has such unrestrained intensity to it that impact frames might seem redundant, but he still breaks them out as yet another tool in his arsenal to take the power of Roy’s inferno to the next level. And they are a sight to behold, a primal clash of light and dark.
Lust’s final screaming lunge – a last furious, escape from the jaws of a fiery death is the real money shot here that sells the whole scene, using Kameda’s creative gusto not just for wow factor but for vivid emotion.
Here, Kameda’s raw, messy drawings are imbued with the very essence of desperate rage. Again the conventions of character design and crisp linework are left behind in the dust, but now more intimately, as every scrawl and stroke becomes a perfect etching of agony, hatred and desolation.
Looking into Lust’s eyes in the caps below you can really feel the anger emanating from her. I don’t know about you, but it reaches right into my heart. I don’t think drawings like this can be taught, it’s Kameda’s pure artistic vision incarnate and a profound demonstration of his talent.
The use of the flickering trail of the reflection in Lust’s eyes is a clever way to add speed and force to her charge.
It’s also a fine example of his use of the calligraphy brush (sumi-e brush) to add a visceral, textural aesthetic to the genga. You can see this used for her hair in the screenshots above and also in the genga below (from a different episode altogether)
While he’s very capable of nuance and telling through motion, the sheer impact of his drawings carry the lion’s share of Kameda’s power. Each of his key frames is a piece of art in its own right, especially in this sequence, which remains one of his best to this day.
It almost goes without saying, but he was credited for in-betweens this episode so it’s fair to assume his sequence was completely animated by him. I think the concept of in-betweens doesn’t even really apply to Kameda’s efforts anyway – that would imply there’s some comprehensible logic separating his frames.
The thing about Kameda’s animation on FMA is that it did away with the staples of action anime, the crisp linework, stringent on-model animation and elegant choreography. That stuff is all fun of course, but it feels like a mere farce when Kameda enters the stage. All the designing, planning and teams of directors in the world don’t hold a candle to the innate talent of this one man let loose. His animation is rough, wild and unconventional but it’s not trying to be. The vibe I get from his work is that he’s not throwing in techniques just because they’re different or to imitate his sakuga forbears; he just earnestly throws everything he has at a scene to make it as good as it can be. And it works.
In his animation is a kind of truth that is almost impossible to grasp, and that is why he’s the real deal, a truly dynamic charisma animator in the spirit of Yoshinori Kanada.
I’ve been really enjoying this new season of Attack on Titan so far. Of course, we’re only two episodes in and I know that’s not saying much when we’re talking about a WIT production, but it’s already streets ahead of last year. Season 2 seemed to be deeply unsure of itself, intent on recapturing the spirit of the original blockbuster hit series but also desperately worried that the audience would fall asleep if it didn’t keep them entertained with constant action and campy effects. Attack on Titan has always worked best when it embraces its strengths as a unique character driven storie, only punctuated by moments of furious action. I was afraid that assistant-made-director Masashi Koizuka would never understand that, but he seems to have reflected on the missteps of last year.
This latest episode definitely got that mix right, taking the time to advance its plot in detail, and dwell on the personal impacts of the violent encounters on its strangely loveable cast. And violent encounters there were, with Levi and his squad’s shockingly sudden and ferocious face-off against rival soldiers through the streets of the city being probably the most impressive sequence of action animation the title has ever pulled off.
It still didn’t quite match the dramatic impact of the original episodes, but it was the first time in a hell of a long time that Attack on Titan had me teetering on the edge of my seat and in awe of the raw speed, power and skill on display.
From an animation perspective there were two particularly stand out cuts, which really took things to the next level.
But the cut that I found more exciting that I’ll focus on a bit was the very next beat.
For want of a better pun, this is right up my alley. Both of these sequences are blatant, unapologetic showing off in the best way possible, taking the ideas at the heart of the show’s action animation – sheer, adrenaline fueled speed and dynamism – and pushing it as far as it can go.
From the very first season, Attack on Titan saw the 3D maneuver gear combat as not just a unique challenge in producing the show, but also an opportunity to create action the like of which people hadn’t really seen before. The thing they had to get right was making the audience really feel the acceleration and momentum that these characters were thrusting themselves into. We have to be right there with them as they swing and propel themselves between buildings, launching from the shoulders of hungry titans or pivoting from ledge to ledge.
The most obvious and probably critical tool in Titan’s arsenal is the use of 3D backgrounds. Most anime use static background layers, even in their actions shots. 3D backgrounds are a lot more work to produce and are generally only be used for important cuts where the camera has to rotate (like how KyoAni used it in Keion’s OP). Of course, you can still create riveting action sequences with 2D backdrops – just look at Masahiro Andou’s work in the currently airing Sirious the Jaeger. But if you want to create the kind of battles that Titan has, you need the camera to truly move with the character, keeping pace with their extreme speed and aerobatic techniques.
Animated backgrounds used to be the only way to do this, but 3DCG backgrounds are far more suited to this kind of task as they allow detailed renders that match the fine art qualities of a normal 2D background to move with the camera in absolutely realistic ways. The realistic sense of space and proportions of the background while in fast motion ensure our disbelief is kept suspended while all the little details – individual tiles, bricks and windows flying past the screen work to make our eyes understand the velocity with a grounded sense of scale.
I’m making it sound easy, but it obviously takes more work than most projects are willing or able to invest and this week’s Titan has done it exceptionally well. Especially in the latter sequence; the dense lived-in feel of the buildings down the alley and the way the bar approaches at the end is just great.
But it takes a lot more than 3D backgrounds to make a moment this exhilarating. Picture that gif without Levi and the effects in it; you could tell it was fast, sure, but you wouldn’t feel the speed. It would be boring, to be honest.
The remarkable thing about this sequence is the fact that the animator (Arifumi Irai) went to the nth degree to do everything in their power to portray the thrilling motion. Every frame seems to have some hidden facet to it that, in sum with the others, brings the whole scene to perfect fruition.
As Levi bounds from wall to wall, his body is stretched and contorted, his hair blows back, his shirt presses against his chest; the forces of momentum, gravity and air resistance are all on display, underscoring the physicality of it.
The layered and detailed effects that occur in mere instants are not grandstanded but are humbly used just to ramp up the overall intensity and heat of the chase. These frames are quite impressive on their own but they barely have time to feel like key frames. I also think this frame of Levi’s face reflected in a passing window is a great example of how much detail went into storyboarding and creating this fleeting sequence.
Here Levi leaps onto a wooden scaffold, jumping over a box, avoiding an explosion, scraping his gear along a stone wall and finally flinging off the end. Honestly, it could have just been a wooden surface – the box and the rice bags aren’t essential. And I didn’t even notice the detail of his gear hitting the brick until I freeze-framed it. But again, it’s the extra effort that went into these furnishings that make the scene remarkable and not just good. Interacting with the objects around him gives Levi’s flight a certain kineticism that it wouldn’t have it he was just free-flying in open space.
It’s probably a good time to talk about the impressive undertaking it would have been to animate these cuts with the combined factors of high speed, rotating camera, and layers of effects. Remember that Levi and the sparks and flames surrounding him are just 2D layers totally divorced from the 3 dimensionality of the backgrounds. The buildings in the background will perfectly match every whim of the camera, but when it comes to the drawings, the animator needs to make sure the angles and proportions of their subjects evoke the same effect.
Only very careful planning and strong technical skills can ensure that from frame to frame Levi is realistically in step with the velocity of the camera and the vectors of every object around him. Dealing with any one of these is often a technical challenge, but all three must be quite maddening. Nonetheless Imai was more than up to the task.
The use of relative smearing in that last screenshot is also interesting – the speed being emphasized closer to the camera is an added dash of faux realism alluding to both speed and dynamic depth.
All of these aspects are put to work in the next part – Levi scrapes and rebounds off the ground with true momentum, creating a fuhror of effects as he then dodges a blast before firing his gear at the screen which is strongly emphasised with smears to give it that extra degree of dynamism. Make no mistake, this is a kind of fast, frenetic and furious action that we have rarely seen in anime before period.
It’s got enough thought put into it that it could have been a storyboard for at least a whole episode of a typical anime yet it was over in just a matter of seconds. It’s taking this expanse of deeply considered ideas and work and then compressing it into a fleeting moment that I believe truly makes us feel the speed in the way the creators hoped.
From what I’ve heard, the entire sequence was not only solo key animated but also single-handedly storyboarded by the series’ lead action animator, Arifumi Imai. It also took him about a month to complete the storyboard for it – which really is longer than a lot of anime get for entire episodes. It’s not at all surprising that this kind of sequence was both envisioned and executed by one talented individual – I think difficult sequences this complex need the hands of someone who has the perfect picture of it in their own head.
So, all praise to Imai. I just really hope that the series has another of his solo efforts up their sleeves for a a later episode!
In the late 90s, after Gegege no Kitarou 4 went digicel after the 64th episode, the Japanese animation industry quickly transitioned from being filmed with a camera to being scanned and composited in computer software. Over the last decade, there has now been some further evolution with stylus and tablet often replacing pencil and paper to with the new generation of animators. Although we have lost some finishing touches along this technological journey (and gained some!), the fundamental principal has never changed: piecing together a moving image from layers of hand-drawn frames. That’s the underlying tenet behind the anime we all grew up with.
Some people make a mistake here and see 3DCG animation as the next logical step on the horizon, a kind of inevitable technological break-through for animation. Perhaps this is a western perspective that is in tune with the movements of our own industry, which has always been quick to jump on new innovations, first using Flash automation to eliminate the need for inbetween frames, then pushing forth into fully computer generated animation. Over the last few years, more and more Japanese directors are embracing this and creating wholly/largely 3DCG animation such as Arpeggio of Blue Steel, Knights of Sidonia and Houseki no Kuni.
It’s a trend I have been diligently ignoring for the last couple of years in the hope that it would just somehow go away. Recently though, I had the misfortune to sit down and watch an entire episode of such a creation: the first episode of High Score Girl. It was a grim reminder if how not into the whole thing I am.
But that’s just my opinion – plenty of people out there are singing to the tune of 3DCG (Houseki no Kuni in particular got a lot of praise), and I’m not here to tell them they’re wrong. But I do want to make one thing crystal clear:
This kind of animation and traditional 2D animation are not the same thing.
I mean, sure, they’re both just making something move. But that’s like saying photography and painting are the same thing because they both produce a picture. They’re both animation, strictly speaking, but I argue that they’re wholly different art-forms.
As a sakuga fan, I’ve talked often and deeply about the power of animation. But more, specifically, sakuga is the power of traditional 2D animation. I’d argue that true sakuga in 3DCG anime is virtually impossible. You can have as much technological innovation and creative ideas as you like, but at the end of the day it can only strive to emulate the brand of charisma that 2D animation can evoke. You see, in traditional animation, every frame can be a world of its own, with limitless potential to create its own space and illustrative beauty.
In 2D animation there’s theoretically no need to stick to the model – in fact, even if you wanted to you, it’s practically impossible. Each frame can and will have a life of its own, a cat could become a plane from one instant to the next, or one if its whiskers could could bend with an almost imperceptible tweak. The point is that there’s no limit – each moment is a canvas of infinite potential which can tell any kind of story about what came before and what is to come.
This potential is used especially well by the Japanese industry where animators have long been given the freedom to experiment with it in commercial productions and not have their personal styles over-corrected into dull uniformity. This road, paved with the deeds and misdeeds of many a pioneering animator, has lead to an environment where animators are truly creating every frame and not just replicating a drawing in a set pose.
From the rawness and boldness etched with every tiny line, the surreal warping of proportions, perspective that defies any real logic, or even just the finer details of intricate beauty that they might pour into a money-shot, the hands of animators can do anything. The most charismatic animators know this well and can tell a breathtaking visual story as they fly from one frame to another, each one introducing new ideas and unexpected twists.
Even when they’re imitating life, most of the best realistic animators use this freedom of the frame and the space between frames. They understand that animation doesn’t have to look precisely real, to feel genuinely believable. They might exaggerate small, subtle movements that our minds pick up on as realistic, or hone in on the most powerful expressive movements that our hearts can relate to – the stifling of tears, the heavy breathing, or the spring in our step when we feel elated. In the same way that a simple drawing can inspire great beauty, animation can concentrate and make abstract these innate gestures, amplifying them into powerful emotion.
Only masters with control over each key drawing, and every precise detail can tell such a story with mere motion.
3DCG can’t really do any of this, at least, not in the same way.
You see, with 3DCG you create a model and then you move it for each frame you want. Sure, you can pose it however you like, and you can add some funky touches to spruce up different frames if you want, but at the end of the day that’s why you’re using 3D -so that you don’t need to recreate each moment from scratch. It’s more akin to a puppet show than it is to 2D animation. Some companies are getting better at fooling us with dynamic timing, and effects to mask the fact that they’re just posing a virtual dummy, but it doesn’t matter how good they get – they will never be able to create the same kind of sequences that 2D can.
When you’re posing a model, it doesn’t matter what you do, you lose the ability to instill that visceral feeling of a hand crafted moving image with all its natural flaws and human touches. Our minds and the natural world are complex beyond imagination and explanation, and the pencil/stylus in an animator’s hand is a raw conduit to that.
Then there’s compositing. In traditional ‘cel’ animation you’re dealing with creating a sense of depth through discrete, flat layers. It’s a challenge and an art in and of itself that I discuss at length in thisblog post. With artful use of compositing, you can create wholly different visual experiences with the same layers and the same anime can flirt with different approaches between cuts. The rich colourscapes crafted by ‘superflat’ styles, or the cinematic depth created with simple lighting and shading, the space between layers is another great playgound of potential.
In 3DCG, you can happily zoom in, out and spin around your model with ease – it’s not a layer, it’s an object in virtual space. As you might expect, this makes tricky, dynamic camera work and even lighting effects a lot easier. Directors might feel like they have more freedom, but in truth they’re missing out on the potential that 2D anime photography can offer in terms of interweaving characters and backgrounds into a singular artistic vision. This is because you’re filming a real (albeit virtual) object in a defined space, instead of crafting the space yourself with every shot.
2D animation may be more logistically challenging and technically constrained, but its artistic potential is virtually limitless within these bounds, and when it does hit a high note it’s something truly magnificent.
I’m not here trying to say that 3DCG anime shouldn’t exist, or that people are wrong for liking it. And there’s certainly a lot of talent that goes into creating these works. I just want us all to understand that they are not one in the same. 2D animation isn’t an old way of doing things, it’s a wholly different artform, and one that I and many others love dearly. If we allow 3DCG to be the future and not just an alternative, anime will lose something forever.
What I would like to see, is the two approaches continue to evolve side-by-side and overlap in interesting ways.
I recently rewatched Ore Imo and thought I’d better get something off my chest:
I really like Ore Imo, you could even say that I love it!
But don’t mistake me; I don’t think Ore Imo (appreciably short for Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii Wake ga Nai or There’s no Way my Little Sister can be this Cute) is by any means a perfect anime, or even great. I’m talking here about an abnormal, irrational kind of love, much like the central romance of the anime itself.
Don’t worry, it’s not that I have a thing for my sister anything (I don’t even have one), and I’m not some kind of incest fetishist either. No, it’s just that OreImo has a strange way of taking me in and pulling my heart strings. Even years later, upon my recent rewatch, that affection came flooding back, much to my surprise. It’s been a few years, and I’ve naturally grown into a hard, seasoned anime verteran. I expected to shake my head a wonder how it was I ever liked this trash. Instead, it clicked with me all over again.
A lot of people hate the feisty Kirino, but she’s up on the waifu mantle for me. And many critics will rush to buy first class seats and clamber aboard the ‘show is trash’ train, but I found it to be far more moving and clever than most other run-of-the-mill light novel series. But why?
My hunch is that it’s all in the characters.
Throughout the first half of the series, you can be forgiven for thinking that the anime and its colourful cast boils down to sensationalist, skin-deep bait. Kirino is deeply implausible on paper – a 14 year old otaku, model, ace student and school athlete who also sleeps and is mortal. Bullshit, right? What’s more, she comes across as a shallow, self-centered bitch right from the start, taking the tsundere archetype and running away with it to new frontiers. Kyousuke is a self-proclaimed ‘ordinary high-school boy’, basically advertising himself as trope on legs. Then there’s Manami, the tranquil childhood friend, Kuroneko the straight-laced, no-frills goth-loli. As for the bother x sister overtones, that’s gotta be a bait that’ll amount to nothing, right?
Wrong. All wrong. OreImo is all about people being dishonest, with others and with themselves. But it’s not just the characters in the show who don’t know what each other are thinking – we don’t know either. The author makes a point of making sure nothing is at appears, and by the end of it, you’ll come to know them as unique and fascinating individuals whose sometimes strange actions are born from honest truths. A little larger than life, sure, but by no means shallow or cliche.
Don’t take Kirino’s outbursts earlier in the show at face value – there’s more to her bitterness
What’s interesting is how this depth is organically explored, because it’s almost the opposite to convention. Take the character of Kirino – normally a storyteller would start her out as a blank canvas, then craft her into a more interesting character through the experiences of the story. Whereas, Ore Imo had all its character development happen years ago, off screen. The start of a love story, dramatic falling out between friends, life-changing events all transpired in Kyousuke and Kirino’s childhood that they have both since buried with their own barriers and the sands of time.
The angry, bitter Kirino and the lethargic Kyousuke at the start of the show are already twisted up into a knot of denial and, in Kirino’s case, unrequited feelings. The rest of the story is then not about them growing, but almost unwravelling the last few years and coming to understand themselves again.
Occasional hints are dropped that make you question the characters words – why is Kirino so infatuated with little sister eroge?
But first, a little back story for those not across it:
A key later episode provides the missing link, how they went from childhood besties to distant co-habitants of the Kousaka household. When they were young kids, Kyousuke was boisterous, confident and the ace of the class in grades and sports. Kirino didn’t just look up to him, she was infatuated with him and he instilled in her an unshakeable personal drive that shaped her adolescent life. As she pushed herself in her studies and her track team activities, Kyousuke meanwhile fell into a rut, quitting running and letting his grades slip into mediocrity. Gone was the person she aspired to; she’d spent years trying to stand proudly next to him only to find that, when she had reached that point, that person no longer existed in Kyousuke. She blamed Kyousuke’s childhood friend Manami for his descent, but more importantly, it made her hate and resent what she saw as the shambling shell of Kyousuke.
Through this history and gradually seeing some of their innate personality traits you can begin to appreciate Kyousuke, and yes, even Kirino. But you can’t talk about them without talking about their strange love story,
The central romance between Kirino and Kyousuke is not just thrown in for shits and giggles; it is an ever-present, looming force from the very first scenes with roots running deep into the characters hearts. To the author’s credit, I’m sure he set out to deliver a taboo love story from the very beginning and had the balls to see it through, even against the push-back from publishers and the chagrin of many fans. The author sticking to his guns and writing his story I think goes a long way to explain why OreImo has an edge that many light novels lack.
-… the author apologizes for being a troublemaker (and comments that the other writers must be sick of him), but says that he doesn’t let that pressure affect his writing or change what he wants to write. He says that “occasionally I have no choice but to change what I want to write, but I decided from the get-go that I wouldn’t write something ‘lukewarm'”. (i.e. That he wouldn’t write just to please others, or in response to pressure.)
Throughout this journey, I found Kirino and Kyousuke to have more chemistry than the vast majority of other anime couplings out there – a fiery, confused and chaotic chemistry no doubt, but a real, visceral sense of attraction and tension. Most romances in anime feel like an arranged marriage, an inevitable pairing of convenience between the hero and heroine simply because that’s the way things go. That or they’re the product of a typical harem situation, where a flurry of jealousy is confused for a love story. Many shoujo on the other hand may ham-fist emotion into their romances with comically over the top trauma or ‘edgy’ dark pasts.
Either way, it’s usually surface level stuff you could pull out of a hat. Kirino and Kyousuke however, have a love that comes from somewhere altogether more complicated and rooted in real situations.
This bears fruit in their loaded interactions, where words don’t match actions and actions don’t match their body language let alone their true feelings. Kyousuke’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to defend and make his sister happy are justified by a simple ‘because I’m her brother’, while his front of ambivalence towards her personal life is belied by deep-set forlornness when she goes overseas or they have a fight. Kirino’s seemingly vile anger, is a mask of her own feelings so convincing that even she buys it most of the time. She blushes as she scorns her bother with lines like ‘ go get hit by a bus’, ‘creep!’, et cetera. This aggression is her way of both fighting back her disgust at her own forbidden, incestual feelings, and lashing out at the person Kyousuke has become at the cost of the boy he once was.
Throughout the second season, Kirino and Kyousuke’s interactions are rife with double meaning and subtext that they don’t even fully grasp, creating thrilling tension.
This leads us to the hot-topic tsundere element. Sure, Kirino is a tsundere, and sure, she has the lion’s share of tsun, at times being one of the most gratingly abrasive anime girls to ever grace the TV screen, but you’ve got her all wrong if you think that’s all there is to it. She’s a tsundere who not only can’t be honest with others, she can’t be honest with herself on a level that’s practically self destructive. In the darkest corner of the lowest chasms of her heart, she is in love with her brother, but she is so scared by the thought, repulsed by the idea and spiteful towards the person Kyousuke is now, that the feeling is tied up and wound a hundred times within her.
The thing I like about her character though is that the love isn’t neatly sealed away, it’s tangled all through her, a messy knot of emotions that sometimes gives her drive, sometimes leads her down surprising paths like becoming an otaku, and creates this tension within her that manifests in her tsundere actions. When she’s being bitter, it’s not just a distraction tactic, or mere reflex to embarrassment – it’s genuine anger from that dark vortex inside that even she doesn’t want to face or understand.
-By the end of the story, his favourite character is Kirino, but it wasn’t that way at first and he was just as annoyed with her as Kyousuke was at the beginning. But having her hide her true romantic feelings was part of the setting, and so he struggled to bring out the charm of this hated heroine little by little over the course of the narrative. And then, as all these developments started adding up, the amount of people who came to like her increased, and that made the author happy.
Once this knot inside her is unstrung, her verbal lashings no longer carry the same edge, instead landing softly and feeling like playful banter. If early Kirino told you to go get hit by a bus you’d probably feel a chill down your spine, but when it comes from late Kirino you’d probably laugh and fire something back. On paper, she acts the same, but you know she doesn’t feel the same and her tsun side is almost now just habitual. And of course there are those moments that every tsundere fan lives for, when the clouds part and heaven casts its golden rays for that fleeting moment of dere.
Kirino’s tsun comes from a deep, dark place, but those moments where she manages to let her real feelings slip out are truly one of natures miracles.
Kyousuke may identify as a boring everyday highschool boy, but even before we find out that he used to be a passionate, driven child, he frequently lets slip more attitude that many main male characters who are outright TRYING to be interesting. This is especially true when it comes to Kirino, who can unlock his innate zeal. Whether it’s riding all across Tokyo on a publicly indecent loli bicycle just to get her to a concert on time, acting as a talent agent to help win her a rare figure prize from a cosplay competition, or publicly confessing his love for his sister, Kyousuke is an unstoppable force when it comes to her. It doesn’t just attest to his love for her, but also reveals his true nature.
These two spend so long fighting with each other and their own feelings that I couldn’t but root for them with full force. They deserve true love after all the false hatred. Kyousuke’s confession was a worthy moment, but I was more amazed at the quiet, understated scene later in the hotel room. It was just them talking, no screaming, no crying or running through the city – but they were finally talking honestly with each other! A touching moment of peace.
I could go on about the other characters, especially the wonderful Kuroneko, but by now I think I’ve played my hand: OreImo is not all that it appears, and most critics have taken it at face value. There’s far more depth, nuance and truth in this work than so many other critic darlings out there. The depth that is there is massaged to the surface by remarkable voice acting performances, and strong production values that perfectly express Kanzaki Hiiro’s superb character designs
Sure, there’s also plenty of dumb stuff in here, especially unnecessary harem elements, and it’s never going to be considered intellectual literature, but I do think it has a surprising amount of heart to it.
At the end of the day, there’s something about the gutsy and deceptively earnest way Tsukasa Fushimi pulled off his characters and relationships that makes you think ‘There’s no way my trashy otaku LN series can be this good‘.
So I watched the first episode of A-1 Picture’s ‘Granblue Fantasy the Animation’ last night. Not sure I’m a fan. Like so many other anime these days, Granblue appears to be a victim of its own ambition. On the surface of it, it has all the hallmarks of a big-win production – ornate, beautiful characters, battle sequences, lots of lavish detail. But put into practice, these building blocks of greatness don’t fall into place. There are signs of production stress all throughout – symptoms of the issues that caused them to delay the release of the anime by a season. This is all too common in TV anime today, but the reason I am picking on Granblue Fantasy is because its issues are harder to put a finger on. It’s not like there are blatantly disfigured drawings of the characters or incomplete cuts. Rather, there’s just this jarring sense of something not being right – it doesn’t feel like quality animation.
This is because the detail in the raw drawings are not the issue. As drawings, they are fine, but by the time they hit our screen they often come off looking flat and awkward against their backdrops. This is an issue that’s often a lot harder for people to pinpoint than shoddy pencil draftsmanship. It’s the product of a web of processes and techniques, of approaches to animation, and the art of compositing in photography. In this case, the drawings come off looking flat and out of place because these factors have failed to produce a sense of depth to the scenes, or of natural distance between layers. When the opposite occurs and skillful photography seamlessly binds artful animation, anime can take your breathe away with rich, cinematic depth.
Photography in Anime Production
Most of the sense of depth in anime is injected in the photography stage of production. But before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s make sure we’re all across the basics – what is photography in anime? To convey this, I’ll run through the whole process briefly to show how it fits in. If you already know how things work, feel free to skip this section! In the first instance, I’m also going to talk about the process as it was back in the days when it was produced by physically filming cels. It is easy to think about the concepts of photography by relating it back to analogue era and then seeing how new digital technologies now replicate the same approach within computer software.
The storyboard is broken up into a series of cuts (generally marked by a change in camera angle or transition). The key animator usually draws the layout for a cut, which is like the blue-print for the composition of the shot/sequence – what actors/objects will be in it, where they will be placed in what layers, and what the background is going to be. From this point, the fine arts team work on the backgrounds, while the animation department works on the key frame drawings and the in-betweens.
In anime nowadays, there is further work on the key animation, with varying amounts of touch-up, animation direction (senior animators correcting the drawings to the character designs and tweaking the movements). Once the drawings are done, they are handed over to painters. Traditionally, they meticulously painted each frame onto celluloid (clear plastic sheets), cleaning them up at the same time. These finished product are referred to as cels. Nowadays, this painting is done digitally after scanning the drawings. Either way, these cels are then delivered to photography.
Originally the photography department loaded the cels into the animation stand. The animation stand is a production apparatus and system that allows the cels to be systematically loaded into a rack over the top of each other, forming layers. A camera is mounted above the stand, facing down, to capture them on film. Between each layer, lighting can be applied to stop shadowing creeping in or for other effects. In the most primitive form, you load the background sheet on the bottom layer, and then have one cel in a layer directly above it (say a person standing at a bus stop). If the bus needed to pull up in front of the person, the bus would be added in the rack over the top of the other two, creating a third layer. The work of utilising these layers and their interactions is called compositing.
Each frame is then captured on film with a mounted camera. Between each shot, the cels can be re-ordered, swapped in or out, or simply moved horizontally or vertically. The two sources of motion that can be seen of anime are therefore changes in pose with different cels, or relative movement of cels and/or background. Again, this work is referred to as compositing.
In addition, there are a whole suite of effects that are applied at this photography stage, such as making more distant layers blurrier than others, and adding other digital effects. One example might be making everything overlaid with a pale white colour during a snow scene, or applying enhanced shine of the sun of metallic surfaces or the glimmer on the water. These effects are handled by the photography team because they must work across all layers, bridging them together with holistic consideration for lighting and distance.
Although it may appear to be 3DCG at first glance, this effect from Mushishi was achieved by applying effects to hand-drawn cels during photography.
To summarise, the photography department take on the completed, coloured drawings and all other elements that are featured in a particular cut (such as background art and 3DCG) and combine them into a recording, adding any effects that can act across all the layers. These days, the elements are combined in computer software rather than an anime stand, but the approach and scope has largely carried through – dealing with the various layers, moving them between frames, and handling lighting and effects.
One of the new challenges in photography these days is compositing with both 2D and 3DCG animation and not creating an uneven sense of space and depth between them. This is getting better and better. Take a look at Fuuka, in this band scene. Coordinating the 3DCG of the instruments and 2D animation of the characters would likely have been difficult, but even a relatively poorly produced anime like this can pull it off.
Anime has started to become proficient in having 2D and 3D layers interact as shown by the characters playing 3DCG instruments.
Photography as Animation
Part of the final product we call animation is actually the direct outcome of photography – movement achieved by shifting the layers relative to each other to produce motion.
Take this walking shot. The key animation defines the convincing walk cycle, but it is the photography work that actually depicts them as moving forward by pulling the background across behind them. More specifically, this cut implies that the camera is panning along, following them. Going back to the example of the animation stand, the camera does not need to be moved, just the layers it is filming.
On the flip side, the background can be left static, and the cels or other layers can be shifted frame-by-frame to indicate that they are moving. This gives the effect that the camera is fixed while the actors or objects are moving.
Either way, it is the work of photography that creates the real motion by shifting layers, while they key animation creates the pose cycles that make it convincing. Clouds parting, doors opening, objects falling, mouths moving, many small pieces of movement within a scene are not brought to movement by an animator but by photography.
The movement of the castle in this cut from Howl’s moving castle is done by moving static 2D drawings.
Only through careful compositing can you pull off all of these kinds of camera movements and layer movements in a convincing way. If the audience perceives an incongruence in the relative movement of layers or the space between them, the intended effect can be off-putting and feel cheap. Picture the example of a car driving along a road – in the worst case the viewer might not get the sense that the car is moving. Sure, you can work out that that’s probably what’s happening by the images involved, but it certainly won’t feel realistic or natural.
In addition to hilariously bad key animation, this cut from Higurashi Kai feels wrong because the relative movement of layers is unnatural – the cel layer feels detached, as though it’s just floating.
Another thing that compositing can get right to bring out the space between layers is the relativity of movement during pans. If all layers moved together it would look like they were sliding awkwardly together across the backdrop. Instead, the pan of the camera is implied by the layers moving, and how fast one layer moves over another creates space between them. Notice in the Inuyasha gif above, there are two background layers that are moving at different speeds to imply depth – if the fence and the cityscape moved together it would not have felt succiciently three-dimensional to be believable.
The keyword that I just reached is depth. While there are certainly contrarian examples that I’ll get to later, generally speaking anime aims to replicate a sense of reality and a cinematic flavour. In other words, it wants its shots to feel like they are occurring in a full-bodied, three dimensional natural world and to present them so that the audience can feel drawn in. Anime striving for cinematic tones will attempt to imbue their shots with visual depth – when you look into them you feel like your glance can penetrate ever deeper and deeper into the cut into infinity.
Orange (top) has very good compositing that gives a cinematic sense of depth while Granblue Fantasy (Bottom) feels flat and unrealistic at times due to poor compositing. When looking at the top example your eyes feel like they can penetrate the shot, whereas Granblue doesn’t feel natural to look deeply into.
Through effective compositing, photography must then create visual depth with only a few flat layers. Unfortunately, human visual perception is a funny thing, it’s easy to trick but also hard to convince. The first way to get around it is using proportions – obviously layers that are meant to be further away should be proportionally smaller. Getting this balance right to portray correct distances is important to the viewer feeling that the layers are in a believable spatial relationship.
Another often used trick is done with lighting, by creating differentials of vibrancy in the layers, depth is very quickly established. Going back to the anime stand, this could be controlled with the actual lighting in the machine. These days, digital lighting can be easily tweaked in similar fashion. A common way to instill depth that I’ve observed is to have exaggerated lighting, with say a diagonal ray of light hitting half the room. This allows you to easily cast characters in certain amounts of light to produce a palpable sense of space. Much more common now is the use of blur at different layers to simulate camera focus and therefore imply depth.
One of the best ways to make something feel cinematic is to have the camera move forward, pulling the audience into the scene. This is called movement into depth, and is a lot harder to nail in 2D animation than in full 3D animation or when filming a movie. Returning again to the animation stand, the camera is fixed above the mounted layers. You can’t simply move the camera down towards the layers, or the space between them will instantly leap out as being unnatural.
Thomas LaMarre discusses this in his fantastic book ‘The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation’ and uses a great example:
Say that you want to create the sensation of a person walking toward a barn under the full moon. You begin with a background sheet with the barn and moon drawn on it. You might try changing the focus of the camera (zooming in or out), or try moving the camera closer or farther away from the picture. The problem is that, as the barn gets bigger, so does everything around it in the picture. The moon, for instance, also grows larger— rather than remaining the same size, as our conventional sense of the world dictates. Piling on additional layers doesn’t help with this problem. You might try drawing the moon on a separate sheet. But the same problem will arise. The problem does not lie in the number of layers but in the relation between layers
The camera essentially stays fixed and you need separate layers for the distinct levels of distance. You would then need to move these layers closer to the camera at different rates to portray the right sense of distance and speed of movement. This movement into depth is something that Walt Disney was apparently obsessed over early in Disney’s leap into cinema, going as far as to patent (though arguable not invent) the multi-planar anime stand, which allowed for the layers to be shifted not just horizontally but also vertically for this very purpose.
Even with this stand, it is a difficult effect to achieve, and requires especially precise compositing to impart the proper sense of space. Due to limited resources, anime has traditionally shied away from these movement into depth shots. This has begun to change recently with the exploration of 3D backgrounds and improved integration of 3D and the 2D layers in compositing. One anime film to seriously explore this potential was Ghost in the Shell Innocence. Mamori Oshii has a clear cinematic approach to animation production and it is plain to see he relished the opportunity to break through the surfaces of his layers in his compositing.
Other applications are starting to sneak into every day TV animation. K-ON! had a strikingly well-executed 360 degree pan around the band as they played their instruments, and examples like this are becoming much more common.
K-ON! impressed with a technically challenging 360-pan in the second season’s OP, using a 3DCG backdrop.
In general though, the anime looks to other avenues to deal with space and depth in compositing.
This isn’t all the magic of the photography department, of course; it is clear that the animators play a key role in suggesting depth. Although a layer is just 2D drawing, the way that drawing is posed, and the way the model changes between each frame does impart depth as well as motion. The first principle of course is to animate movements multi-dimensionally. For example if you have a character walk, don’t have them walk a flat x-axis, but also change their proportions so that they are moving slightly towards and/or away from the screen. This obviously adds an extra level of complexity in animating, but immediately gives the cut depth.
Yasuo Otsuka, famous as being a linchpin figure in the formative years of the anime industry and bringing animation to life with dynamic timing and expert detail, used a technique called the ‘peg hole’ technique (named as such due to the fact that he literally rotated subsequent genga around the hole at the top of the sheet). This technique added a roughness to the arc of movement of a character – instead of running in a straight line they would pivot into and out of the motion. It adds both a sense of energy and weight to his sequences, with the feeling that his character’s vitality is only barely bounded by gravity. The other effect is that it looks like his cels are grounded to the backgrounds, placing them nicely into the natural world and thereby delivering an innate kind of depth.
Yasuo Otsuka’s ‘peg hole technique’ adds both energy and a sense of natural, grounded relationship between layers.
Yoshinori Kanada is famous for the cool poses and playful timing he uses in his key-frames, but what’s sometimes overlooked is the fact that those poses included exaggerated perspective, often referred to as the ‘Kanada Perspective’. Wherever possible, the poses would have arms and legs spread out towards or away from the camera, going from one extreme to the other throughout the motion. These poses worked within wide angle lens and fish-eye distortions to expand the stage. This perspective made for wildly dynamic action sequences because they felt like they were frenetically moving through a space.
Yoshinori Kanada’s drawings create their own space with exaggerated, angular poses and perspectives.
Where I’ve discussed depth perception previously as being the feel of space between layers, addressed through compositing, here, Kanada’s layers forcefully create their own space. By their perspective posing, the layers have carved out depth within themselves, avoiding the need for careful compositing.
The eponymous Itano circus is another avenue for animating space. Popularised by Ichiro Itano, they have become a staple in anime. Trailing schools of ballistics traverse the full breadth of the scene, with self-propelled trajectory and speed. The geometric patterns these trails form etch out their own fields of space, as deep and vast as the animator can will it. A reason these scenes are so great to watch is the way the ballistics drive the photography; their geometries and paths very easily establish both depth and speed. The physical camera may be still but is carried rapidly and wildly through the trajectories of the missiles.
The Itano circus elicits space and speed through the ballistic pathways.
Shinya Ohira is a master at animating with a view to compositing, using a myriad of layers in complex interaction with distinct timing and multi-planar movements to give his shots an unparalleled cinematic quality. When he draws a character running, they don’t just follow a run cycle across the screen, they lunge to and fro in multiple dimensions, coming closer to the camera and farther. He also favours characters running into the shot from behind the camera, or into the camera. These kind of shots not only serve to place you in the scene but can also implicitly portray movement into depth.
Shinya Ohira’s animation creates a world of depth through many layers in complex interaction
Ohira is one of the only animators I have seen who animates a whole world within his cuts, a world of space infinitely deep and wide.
Ohira creates depth through multi-dimensional movement of many layers, but, as I have discussed, true sense of movement into or out of depth is always going to be extremely difficult to obtain while you have a static background layer. One way to get around this is to do away with the static background and animate every layer. This is known as background animation.
One of the first people to really start unveiling the potential of background animation in anime is Masahito Yamashita, whose part in the climax of Urusei Yatsura Beautiful Dreamers grabbed a lot of people’s attention. The sequence followed Lum flying through the school, with the feel of the camera following. The fact that you felt like you were zooming into the world along with her gave the sequence that depth and cinematicness typically missing from anime.
Masahito Yamashita’s turned heads with his thrilling background animation in Urusei Yatsura Beautiful Dreamer
Others have built on this over the years and it has become a go-to tool in anime’s repertoire to deliver wow-factor sequences. Interestingly, 3DCG backgrounds are starting to replace this particular art-form. While I admit they are probably better suited to most such applications, there’ll always be something special about this kind of cut. I suppose the fact that every line and shape is drawn frame-by-frame means there’s an unconscious energy in the unpredictability of it all; at any time, our perception of space can be turned on its head – the edges of the walls or the stairs could bend and and warp into new perspectives. When we see a background we can trust that it’s going to be static, but in these shots there’s nothing you can trust to do what you expect, it’s all in the hands of the animator.
Background animation can deliver movement into depth but it also seriously undermines the potential for depth between layers. Instead of the detailed, painted backgrounds, suddenly the background has to be simplified into looking like a cel (for all practical, commercial purposes anyway). This means there’s no obvious distinction between background and foreground. In one sense, this serves to make the shots feel flatter. Although the camera is moving into depth, our eyes don’t penetrate into depth in the same way.
When the feel of depth between layers is suppressed, this can be referred to as flat compositing. This is an intentional style in which both background, foreground, and all layers in between are given equal prominence on the screen. Instead of aiming to draw your eye in to some point of depth, your eyes are encouraged to wonder and take everything in holistically. Background animation usually implies flat compositing because the background feels like a cel in the same way as the characters acting over it might (in fact in many cases they are the one layer). In other cases, it’s about harmonising background and foreground.
Urara Meirochou brings it background to the fore with a harmonised vibrancy
Flattening in composition minimises the sense that the background is further away than the foreground, one of the fundamental notions underpinning the more traditionally cinematic approach. A key facet of this is depth is colour. As Urara Meirochou (and many other anime in recent) years attest to, when the background art is coloured with equal vibrancy to the foreground it removes the most intrinsic sense of depth and brings both into a single layer of perception, flattened. Many other anime carry this look very well.
There’s flat, and there’s superflat. A term coined by the artist Murakami, he drew from a number of Japanese sources to define an art movement that highlights the beauty of flattened depth. Hopefully I can explain what that means in the context of animation! One of the first things he cited was animation by Yoshinori Kanada – his ubiquitous fire dragon erupting from the volcano from Haramgeddon.
Kanada’s fire dragon defines form through shapes of colour rather than clear linework, a facet of Murakami’s superflat art movement.
The style of Kanada’s fire dragon feeds into a major element of Murakami’s superflat look, and that is the supression of outlines that define depth. The painted colours of his dragon are drawn with geometries that signify body and form without the use of clear lines. It’s a beautiful abstraction but our minds can still unpack the relative colours into the three-dimensional figure.
This flat kind of compositing is very explicitly used in the Dirty Pair movie opening. Essentially the idea is to portray the scene as flat, drawing your eyes to patterns and colours to unpack the space between layers that were projected into the flat surface at the screen.
Super-flattening in the sense of Murakami’s work goes a step further by breaking the rules of perception and flattens multiple perspectives of an object into a single orthogonal view point. SHAFT’s Bakemonogatari exhibits striking compositing that follows this superflat style – notice the sheer flatness of the imagery. Even thought there are clearly layers from a functional anime perspective there is no inherit sense of depth. Furthermore, even though we are looking dead-on at the shot, it hints at diagonal perspectives all throughout its artwork. The objects like houses and desks do not feel oriented in a real 3D space but exhibit 3-dimensional traits in their flattened form.
Bakemonogatari’s compositing and artwork flattens a sense of different perspectives in a ‘superflat’ manner
Both with Bakemonogatari’s superflat, schematic art and Urarara Meirochou’s equalised background and foreground, they feel very different to look at than your typical anime. That’s because most anime chase that cinematic perspective, setting your eyes up for a journey into the depths of the shot, whereas this flat compositing has your eyes drifting and meandering across the image, taking it in laterally.
With the healthy growth of the sakuga community over the last year or so, there has been a kind of awakening in the western anime community. Suddenly, people understand the talent behind animation and appreciate the value of creative and technically difficult movements. From my experience though, the discourse around the final presentation of an anime, the gravitas of its visual appeal, can lack the same sophistication. The visual side of anime production tends to be talked about as either ‘art’ or ‘animation’, however the overarching approach to tying the two together is just as important.
Both animation and art need to be consciously tackled with the goal of producing a sense of depth or an attractive kind of flat aesthetic, and then photography must harmonise all of the elements with well-crafted compositing. That’s how you get anime that pack the most powerful visual punch, when animation, art, 3DCG are all singing in chorus.
Frankly, this is where the role of the director steps into the limelight. With the sakuga communities’ general focus on key animation, it may often seem as though the director is more of a paper-pushing producer than anything else. However, the best directors can exert their creative power by harnessing all of these elements to reach a final vision for the visuals.
If anything, I hope this post might prompt someone to think further about the interplay between art, animation and photography rather than focusing on them independantly.
A murder scene seemingly foretold by the events depicted in a Boys Love doujinshi; a mysterious, prescient voice that talks through a radio; a key without a lock; an unexplained mass-suicide; a conspiracy to manipulate the human race with global mind control; a young girl who enacts black magic through an invisible man – if any of this is grabbing your attention then this may be the anime for you. A dark, twisted and irreverently convoluted science-fiction mystery, Occultic;Nine is a wild ride that is well worth your precious time. However, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking otherwise if you had only seen the first episode or two.
Occultic;Nine is probably the most polarising and under-appreciated anime of the current season, and it has nothing to blame but itself. Yes, the rumors are true. The series is very hard to watch in its early stages. The characters are either dry or deeply annoying (especially boob girl and talk boy), and the show drowns you in what feels like a barrage of nonsense. In its first two episodes the series hits its audience with layer upon layer of detail and obscurity. Because it’s so fast an frenetic with how it lays the groundwork of its story, it doesn’t feel like it will ever calm down and reach any kind of cogent ‘point’. I’m here to tell you that it does.
Once all the pieces are put into place, the show very quickly starts to unravel itself, and when it does it hits a glorious stride. Plot thread after plot thread are harmonized in a coalescing symphony, building a really gripping momentum. Since about episode 5, I have been hooked, with each episode revealing another exciting turn of events and bringing characters together into a single plotline. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but it’s certainly true that a lot of the stuff in the first couple of episodes I thought were pointless drivel are turning out to be really interesting. Every detail in this show has significance.
There’s something really unique about the way this show tells its story. It’s not the often gaudy visual style it leans on, the unusually fast dialogue, or the offbeat sense of humour – it sits deeper than all of that. Occultic;Nine hits a rare sweet-spot of answering burning questions in its patchwork of mysteries at the same time as throwing a kink into the story, a twist that adds a whole new dimension to it all. Being able to unravel a mystery at the same time as building it is the storytelling magic that makes Occultic;Nine so enjoyable. This series is written by the author of Steins;Gate, but the way it unfolds actually reminded me more of a different author’s work – Baccano. I loved Baccano for much the same reason – there’s such an energy in stories that feel like they’re ever expanding while also gaining focus.
Accolades for this go to the light novel author and Steins;Gate creator, Chiyomaru Shikura and company MAGES., namely ‘Morita to Junpei‘ 森田と純平 (real name: Junpei Morita ). This is not, would you believe, the 60+ year old voice actor no prior writing or production credits, as ANN has concluded, but a wholly different person of the same name (born in 1981). Morita to Junpei has, at a high level, done a stellar job unwinding this tightly packed story into a short anime series, although he will certainly regret the info-dump approach of the first episode. I say ‘at a high level‘ because the story is often let down by is script.
It’s a good thing voice actors aren’t paid per word, or this series would never have got off the ground. It makes no apologies for being an absolute talk-fest at times, cramming in an obscene amount of high-speed dialogue. When the show gets in the talking groove for too long you quickly zone out and eventually the words all blur together into this kind of distant, screeching background noise. The scenes in the cafe are particularly guilty of this. In that godforsaken cafe, conversations seem doomed to end up as competing, inane monologues.
Fortunately, when the show isn’t being a talk-a-thon, it’s delivery is absolutely top-notch. Despite it’s overall mystery notes, it has a real penchant for its scary scenes and can quickly make you think you’re watching a top-tier horror anime (if such a thing exists). As a horror buff I really appreciated how these scenes got under my skin. The fear didn’t come from over-the-top violence, jump-scares or ridiculous monsters but from genuinely unsettling situations and ideas. Everything to do with the ‘kotoribako’ is just awesome. I’ll never look at a box the same way again.
Again, these frightening sequences were delivered with well-honed aural and visual production deisgn. This sequence in episode 6 was my favorite example of this. The creepy squeaking noise of the box, the way the luminescence of the torch sways realistically, the way the kotoribako slightly shifts its form, oozing blood as it does, barely able to contain the atrocities within.
Moreover the suddenness of the whole situation is deeply unnerving – in plain sight in the middle of Tokyo such a horrific thing is transpiring. This episode was the effort of Masashi Ishihama, well known as the director of Shinsekai Yori. An excellent post about his style and talents has already been written over here, so I won’t digress. Other director/creator highlights include:
Noriko Takao (高雄 統子) on episode 7 ( former kyo-Ani now Idol M@ster director), who made the brief psychometry scenes leave a lasting impact with a rush of rich, intriguing and creative visuals.
And Mamoru Kanbe (神戸 守), the director of Elfen Lied and So Ra No Wo To, who took the idea of being edgy and experimental a little too far. This is an unfortunate example of when the visual voice of a production shouts over the top of its content instead of supporting it.
On the whole, Occultic;Nine’s visuals trade nuance for impact, creating a world with rich colours, lavish detail and unpredictable cinematography. The animation from A-1 Pictures is unfailing in quality, though rarely becomes the star of the scene. The storyboard, layout, and finishing touches often come together to make the show deeply engaging and a thing of beauty.
Occultic;Nine seems to be doing a very good job of alienating its potential audience, thrusting itself to the very fringes of the late night TV fandom. That’s why I felt compelled to tell as many people I can that it has a lot to offer if you can look past its first impressions and persevere through some of its more inane moments. If you enjoy a good mystery, or even just an intricate plot, this is well worth forging ahead with.
If you’ve seen Koutetsu no Kabaneri I think it’s safe to assume you noticed that a few times every episode, a particular shot would rear its head as particularly beautiful and well-drawn. I know a lot of people, myself included, found the effect a little jarring – in addition to blowing me away with those special shots it made me realise how bland it looked the rest of the time. That said, it got me wondering, how did they achieve the effect, and perhaps more importantly, why? I did a bit of digging, and what I found has given me a lot more respect for what they were trying to achieve and the skill and effort that went into these ‘make-up animation’ shots.
The story of Kabaneri’s animation style all starts with the drawings of one man, Haruhiko Mikimoto. Mikimoto was a major formative player in the 80s anime aesthetic, working extensively alongside Shoji Kawamori, he was responsible for the character design work for the original Macross and the subsequent sequels up until the Macross 7 series. He also designed the characters for GAINAX’s seminal Gunbuster OVA. As a designer who is pure illustrator rather than of animator origins, the degree to which he was embedded in the anime look during the 80s was certainly unusual. He was even credited with animation director (Character Director, specifically) on Super Dimension Fortress Macross, which is definitely rare for a non-animator, and kind of unheard of nowadays. He has a gentle art style that lends itself to beautiful girls, with an element of realism and a soft beauty, his designs stand the test of time.
Since his heyday he has bowed out of the anime industry to some degree, but has remained active as an illustrator and manga artist. Fleeting chances at a major comeback have slipped by over the years, the most recent being the designer for the adaptation of his manga, Tytania. Sadly, that series fell far short of being a grand success. He had previously stated that he thought he may not get any more opportunities to design in anime due to the fact that he pursues the use of shadow and delicate line-work to express his characters which runs counter to the direction of the industry, tending to favour simple designs with crisp lines.
This all changed, however, when the director of Kabaneri, Tetsurou Araki, reached out to him for his individual style to mark a triumphant return to the medium. To help his revival of his classic look, he discussed with director Araki what they could do on Kabaneri and came up with the idea of not using the standard 1 or 2 grade shadows but instead using ‘0.5 grade shadows’. Before getting into the hype ‘0.5 grade shadows’ buzz term, let me quickly touch on what shadow grades mean.
Basically most anime is done with 1-grade shadows, back in the 80s and the 90s to some degree, the design work and aesthetic was such that it was popular to ramp that up to 2-grade shadows. This means you have 3 dimensions of shading that the key animators have to apply to their drawings. 1 grade usually means a character can have one shade of shadow, 2 grades means they can have a deeper level of shadow within a shadow. These grades have different predefined coloured lines/shading within the genga.
In this image, you can see that the character is drawn to 2-grade shadows. There is a shadow shading on the hair (1影) and then a deeper shade (2影). They have also used a highlight shade (ハイライト).
You might be confused then as to what 0.5 grade means. How can you have half a grade? Apparently, so was Mikimoto, who originally thought that shadow would be used sparsely and with somewhat faint colours so as to not make them too bold. However, the idea was to diminish the clear definition of shadow lines altogether. Put very simply, the concept of 0.5 grade shadow is that instead of producing anime with rigid, line-defined areas of shadow, the animation would have the feel of an illustration, using soft gradients and brushes to apply shading.
As you might imagine, this is a massively ambitious shift in the production norm and very difficult to apply. If you are familiar with the work of a key animator you would know that their work is taken by someone else to be digitised into computer format before being coloured. The lines of the animators guide the colouring staff as to how the shading and highlight should be applied. This means that the key animator cannot simply apply gradient and brush shading directly in their key-frames. To tackle this approach, director Araki had to reform the production process itself with the creation of a brand new production credit, the ‘make-up animator’
A kind-of similar credit already exists, and is also used in Kabaneri, called Special Effect (特殊効果). Special effects also involves touching up the digitised drawings but is generally used for mechanical objects such as guns or mecha. Director Araki allowed Kabaneri’s special effects artist, Chiemi Irisa (入佐芽詠美) to share some examples of her work on twitter, offering a rare glance of the position at work. What a different show Kabaneri would have been without this!
But the make-up animator credit is different in a number of ways. The most obvious distinction is that it’s being applied to characters, sometimes in motion, rather than static objects. As you can imagine, illustrating people and mechanical detail require a very different skillset. However,the differences aren’t purely cosmetic (pardon the pun) – the make-up animator has a much bigger part in the animation production process.
Normally, the key animator’s drawings are in-betweened and digitised and then passed on to touch-up and colouring. Once the colouring is done, the Special Effects role steps in and adds detail, as seen in the above picture. The make-up animator, however, takes the reigns from the in-betweening stage, being responsible for the digitisation, colouring and then their own brand of beautification. Various techniques are applied to transform a normal cut into more of an illustration following the ‘0.5 grade shading’ philosophy. Brushes, special linework, and gradient colouring are digitally painted to evoke the gentle, delicate artistry of Mikimoto’s original illustrations.
The example below shows this being applied.
In this case, you can see that the genga is already quite detailed and uses 2-grade shadows, plus highlights. These shadows and highlight lines defined by the genga are strictly coloured in the next section by the make-up animator. The final image shows the completed frame with the ‘make-up’ effects applied.
This example clearly shows the application of digitally painted brush, shine and soft lines on the face, hair and eyes. They really are applying make-up to bring out the beauty of the character and the 0.5 grade shading is a clear part of that. In the final image, the shadows are no longer clear-cut levels but naturally gradient. The result is quite stunning and does reflect the soft beauty in some of Mikimoto’s illustrations.
This work was done buy a team of Make-Up Animators led by Sachiko Matsumoto with a series-wide credit of chief make-up animator. Sachiko has been thriving in a the photography/compositing area of production for some time, doing great work on Guilty Crown back before WIT was spawned from from I.G. The surprising shift to a more drawing-based role that even involves work with in-between drawing is made possible by her original fondness for drawing and her art school graduation.
Sachiko looked deeply into Mikimoto’s illustrations, observing the radiance that comes from his blurred colours and the soulful highlight in his pupils, and the way his hair feels like one long, gentle stream. She also drew inspiration from Osamu Dezaki’s harmony cuts, where the shot turns into a painting with cel and background seamlessly coming together into one artwork. This inspiration is very clear in some of the made-up shots.
If anyone remembers the remarkable, completely over-promising trailer for Kabaneri? If not, I’ve inserted it below. The extensive use of make-up animation and special effects in every shot of this trailer was a massive part of its wow-factor (and subsequent over-hype).
The studio invested in a new piece of software called 「TVPaint Animation」for this work on the trailer. The software is for digital genga, providing a lot of advanced tools including a range of brush effects.Only a small team of people with digital genga experience were at WIT studio and they had a lot of trial an error with learning the software. When the production started on the full show, they were pulled together to form the make-up animator team.
Kabaneri’s Make-up Animators
松本幸子 市万田千恵子 藤井苑美 広瀬いづみ 山﨑千恵
中愛夏 (from episode 9 onward)
The limitations of the make-up animator approach is that it would be a prohibitively expensive undertaking to do it frame-by-frame for whole sequences. Where the trailer could afford to deliver a concentrated, uninterrupted hit of highly touched-up animation, the series fell well short of this. Despite the hype surrounding this new credit, the reality was that it could only be applied to certain key moments, mainly money shots of the characters. The team worked on about 10 cuts per episode.
While those cuts certainly look fantastic, I think the overall experience for a lot of people was a jarring one. Those spotlight moments, it turns out, also tend to illuminate how bland and flat the show looks like without its make-up on. I have no doubt that, especially given it’s poor production values further into the series, their workload would have been better refocused on the basics of dynamic and expressive animation. That said, I cannot fault it as a marketing technique – the trailer certainly rammed this series into many people’s ‘must-watch’ baskets, and I have no doubt that those made-up ‘money-shots’ of Mumei did a lot for her bishoujo marketability.
Director Araki is guilty of putting hype and sales pitch over making a good anime, but he’s also guilty of boldly trying something new in the production lifecycle, and trying something new for all the right reasons. The make-up animation wasn’t thought-up to make production easier or more efficient, it was dreamed up to take the look and feel of 2D animation to a new level of beauty and prowess and to conjure the tender beauty of an old pro’s illustration work. Sometimes in the anime medium, whether an attempt like this was a technical success or not is far less important than the fact that people cared enough to try.
And who knows, maybe make-up animation may well become another staple weapon in the young Wit Studio and director Araki’s arsenal when they tackle their next big project.
It was late at night after a long week. Lying on the couch with my partner powering through a few episodes of anime, my eyes were starting to close on their own as sleep overcame me. It was at this point that I was introduced to the 13th episode of the boisterous TV anime adaptation of Needless. Suddenly I was wide awake, eyes pried open and fixated to the screen. Right off the bat, there was something very different about this episode, something uniquely exhilarating.
I didn’t know this going in, but when I looked up the staff after the episode finished I was astounded to see that the episode was pretty much the handiwork of just two people, and those creators were none other than the devious duo of Seiya Numata and Kyuuta Sakai!
Before Seiya Numata was swallowed into the eternal pit of no escape that is Milky Holmes, he was a star animator making waves across the industry with attention-grabbing cuts on a myriad of works such as Tora Dora, Gurren Lagann and Higurashi. His ability to pull of dynamic action made him a popular choice for handling fight sequences. His scenes often divided opinions due to his unusual style, but he certainly made a name for himself. His fight from Toradora turned a lot of heads.
Personally I’ve never really been a huge fan of his brand of animation style with its gelatinous warping and stretching, but I admire his magnetism as an animator. He is a devotee of the original charisma animator Yoshinori Kanada, frequently referencing his work and chasing a kindred creative freedom. Alongside Jun Arai, he forms a central pillar to Needless’s aesthetic, which is an uninhibited ode to Kanada and his epoch. Numata exerted a lot of influence with the role of ‘Design Works’ throughout the show as well as ‘Technical Director’.
And it’s difficult to talk about Numata without mentioning Kyuuta Sakai, his sister-in-arms who he brought into most of his projects around this time and has a strong personal friendship with. Sakai is probably a name fresh in most people’s minds as she is the accomplished character designer for the brand new hit Re:Zero. She is now pretty much exclusively a character designer/chief animation director and thrives as an illustrator.
Probably a key uniting factor between the two is their shared fondness for drawing sexy young girls, and the term ‘lolimator’ was coined for them during their days together. If you don’t believe me, the first Needless ED, also featured in this episode is their work and one of the most carnal, intoxicating hits of fanservice I have ever been fortunate enough to witness.
Before Sakai went to White Fox with her work on Steins;Gate, these two were inseparable, and this episode of Needless is one of the best things to come from their early union. The episode is directed and storyboarded by Numata, and, excluding oversight from the chief animation director, entirely and exclusively key-animated by the two of them. It’s a concentrated hit of the Numata and Sakai pair!
As a result, the episode stands out clearly from all the others. Numata’s storyboard and direction immediately make an impact, forgoing convention to deliver an episode that is uniquely tense and weirdly intimate. Numata takes the idea of a stage-play approach and runs with it, focusing on the dialogue and expressions of the characters to the exclusion of all else. There’s no attempt to hide this approach – the episode opens with the room darkened like a stage and all the characters placed under a literal spotlight. Many cuts are plane with an audience line of site, and dramatic lighting is abused like nothing else.
The style actually reminds me of early Akiyuki Shinbou with it’s Ikuhara-esque shots and focus on striking colour design. Numata applied bold neon colouring to many of his sense to deliver the sense of exaggerated drama and also a cool-factor. Some of the shots definitely delivered.
In addition to the darkness enshrouding the scene and the striking lighting, Numata applies a focus on intense facial expressions in close-up which includes detail such as sweat forming and rolling down people’s faces. This all makes for a potent sense of tension and claustrophobia despite the vast open room the events occur within. The moment in which the main villain makes his entrance in particular casts a palpable sense of dread making for one of the most suspenseful moments Needless ever had.
The animation itself is surprisingly active given the fact that it was only key animated by the two of them. Numata works his usual magic with the action highlight that features frenetic movement, spinning camerawork and distorted drawings to ram-home a sense of force. The portion of the fight that is completely upside down is one of those quirky moments that really defines Needless.
One of his most memorable cuts from the episode is not from an action scene but rather this pretty inexplicable cut of Setsuna’s nose bursting into a nosebleed with the intense rage overcoming her. This is an example of Numata’s contorted style works really well as her face twists into this sharp glare of focused fury. I challenge you to find my an anime character looking more angry than this.
The cuts that were presumably handled by Sakai meanwhile were simple fluid animation. The smooth moments stood out to help build up the sense of excitement and differentiate the episode from the normal limited kanada-school style of the rest of the series. There’s also this indescribable sense of style to her movements. Stepping up to being a prolific animation director indicates that she was a powerhouse animator back in her day on the front lines. She apparently has a special skill where she holds both pencil and colour pencil in the one hand and can swiftly use the colour pencil to add shadow lines.
My rewatch of Needless has been an enjoyable affair on the whole, but this episode turned it up a notch, from mildly bemusing to genuinely exciting. Seiya Numata’s unconventional design sense and bold stage-play approach combined with the animation goods delivered by partner-in-crime Sakai make this a grandstand episode.
This episode is not only one of the most condensed examples of Numata and Sakai working together, especially when you include the ED that was exclusively handled by them, but it also appears to be the climax of Numata’s extensive involvement in the series with no major credits on any episode thereafter. He is technical director and a design contributor on the show throughout, but no front-line involvement as an animator. Beyond just Needless this is the most interesting work I have seen of Numata’s in terms of storytelling and direction.
Sometimes an anime struts along that is charismatic from beginning to end, a complete package that is so much more than the some of its parts . And sometimes a more run-of-the-mill series can break form and produce a wondrous episode that you can neatly lift out and up onto a pedestal. But once in a while this glory lasts only a fleeting moment – a shot, a cut or a scene that punches through and reaches a short-lived apex. These posts are dedicated to those honorary instants.
I have already lauded the animation power of Mob Pscyho through my reviews of its standout episodes 1 and 8, but there was a particular beat in episode 10 that stretched my jaw to the floor. I’m talking, of course, about the fire scene. Fire is one of those raw, innate pillars of effect animation that we have all been exposed to many times over our years of service in the anime fandom. Alongside water, lightning and smoke, fire has been the pursuit of many a talented animator and it’s tempting to think it’s been rendered in every possible way already. From the sparse and boldly coloured forms of Yoshinori Kanada and Masahito Yamsahita’s flames to the intense realism of Mitsuo Iso’s carefully crafted billowing fire, this is a field with a rich creative history. Yoshinori Kanada’s fire dragon is one of the most iconic, oft-homaged pieces of animation ever created.
So it’s rare that quality fire animation can jump out and make an impression these days. It certainly did here. This sequence, lasting only a couple of minutes, stole the show! The roaring, intense heat of the fire enveloping the characters, and at times the whole screen, could really be felt. And it’s not just the way the fire looked and moved in any conventional sense – it’s the way it really felt like it was sucking the characters in to this epicenter of unimaginable inferno, whipping around them and blasting them like a furious storm.
The opening cut, handled by animator Kazuto Arai exemplifies this, with the fire bursting down the hallway and washing over Terada drowning him, and soon the audience, in a sea of heat. The aqueous movement of the fire was very deliberate, with the animator using shots of the crashing waves of the ocean for reference.
Straight after that we’re into the more sketchy style with more conventional flickering flame motion. After being awash with flames we’re now in the hearth, surrounding by burning flame. This part is more conventional but straddles a good balance between realism and animation abstraction and has a more classically ‘mob psycho’ feel to it with its rough pencil lines.
The next shot is distinctly digital genga apparently from web-gen animator, Shin Ogasawara. I have always had a soft-spot for web-gen effects animation. The fact that is is digitally drawn means that it is not drawn with lines forming shapes but directly painted with digital brushes. This means that it’s so much easier to create fluid and intricate effects animation such as splashing colours and leaping sparks. This strength of digital animation is used to good effect here creating a layered and fast shot of the fire that helps to convey its intensity.
And finally the inferno retreats to a fireball as Terada entraps his opponent. This is the best animation of the scene, with fine, detailed linework and a swirling, pulsating movement that’s so reminiscent of Hironori Tanaka that it’s thought to be uncredited work from him. He has a habit of going credit bare on many series, so it would not surprise me for him to turn up here. The tail end of this fireball scene raises the bar again, however, with a segment that is a cut above the rest in terms of intensity.
Although the movement and linework is similar to the previous gif, can you feel the difference in animation power? There’s just something more visceral and violent about this fire; it burns brighter and with more fury. Although there’s definitely still clear defined grades of colour, the linework is less crisp, instead the colours flow into each other in an undulating blur of heat. This is probably as close as you can get to actually being burnt watching anime. The depiction of the figure within the flames is also different, less fine lines and more thick, dirty graphite flickering out of form. I sense the magic of Kameda here. Although he’s not credited with genga this episode, there’s something about the scrawled figure and the ashy debri after the fireball dissipates that makes me wonder! Perhaps he just supervised this part of Tanaka’s (or whoever it was) work.
But what is so interesting about this is that this furnace was depicted by so many animators. In your typical anime this whole sequence would be probably be given to an effects animator specialist and that one animator would create the whole feel of the fire. But Mob Psycho’s mantra is to use different anime styles and techniques to keep the audience on their toes, never knowing what the visuals are going to do next. I suspect the choice to split this up and let several animators realise their own creative ideas of how the fire should look was very deliberate.
Arai gave the feeling of suddenly being overwhelmed with his crashing wave of heat, Ogasawara depicted its powerful speed while the animators of the fireball sequence, whoever these nameless heroes may be, really ramped the intensity up to the next level.
Yoshimichi Kameda is undoubtedly the pedestal animation force behind this series. Although he was responsible for the character design, he did not take up the credit of chief animation director that usually accompanies this. Generally the chief animation director is the single overruling source of truth for close-ups and facial shots of their character designs so they spend their time furiously correcting and supervising the work of the episode animation supervisors below them throughout the whole show. For a series like New Game, the precise appeal of the beautiful characters is a major selling point, making this role critical. Mob Psycho has no such aspiration, instead Kameda’s drive for the series was to allow it to thrive on chaos and disorder, whipping a cacophony of different animation styles into a charismatic chorus, a heaving, messy swell of excitement. He is best placed to do this closer to the front lines; serving as animation director for an episode allows him to supervise the animation, not just the drawings.
Episode 8 is the only episode since the first that he taken up arms, to orchestrate the animation of a Mob Psycho episode. The results are astounding. Much like the greatest of the great charismatic animators before him, Kameda has again surpassed expectations, blowing to pieces the conventional anime style and making it his toy.
Kameda has proven himself a great animation director because he has been able to weave each of the animator’s individual styles into a cohesive tapestry of animation. In my view, there is no one grand-standing piece of animation – all of the more prominent animators’ styles are celebrated with equal gusto. Usually when you get a charismatic animator on an episode, their segment stands out like a sore thumb. This episode makes it into my list of greats because only a show like Mob Psycho with an animation director like Yoshimichi Kameda could we get an episode so invigoratingly animated that the individuality of the animation doesn’t feel at all idiosyncratic.
Both in terms of his drawings and his movements, Kameda’s animation style is rough, gritty and visceral. In his break-out work on Full Metal Alchemist Brotherhood, that grit, that rawness made the sequence where Roy Mustang incinerated a certain character (spoiler dodge!) unforgettable. It took the glamour out of death and perfectly reflected his vengeful frame of mind. In Mob Psycho, Kameda’s roughness both compliments the playfully dirty design manifesto of the series but also, more importantly, takes the glamour out of his battle sequences. While other shows portray sleek, cool fights, Mob Psycho degrades and brutalises those involved in the skirmishes. This plays nicely into Mob’s stand-point of not wanting to fight and hurt others.
Kameda obtains this roughness in his work through a variety of techniques, including the use of an Ukiyo-e brush and rough pencil work. One thing is for sure, his genga are the anything but clean:
Let’s see CG do this!!!
This style has clearly been imparted to the key animators who worked on this episode, who have implemented it in different ways. Bold, brush-like lines, sketchy pencil marks, scraggly linework and dirty smears are pervasive throughout the episode. There are several moments that nail the style so perfectly that you get the sense that Kameda made divine intervention as supervisor and roughed up the genga himself. Such moments are fleeting but very carefully interspersed at impact moments throughout the action so that you feel the force of Kameda without him betraying the style of the key animator.
Probably the tidbit of animation that grabbed me the most this episode was this:
The way the hackled lines undulate with a kind of electric energy, as if yearning to explode into formless scrawl is a powerful statement of Mob’s wrath. Again, I feel Kameda’s hand in this but I’d love to know how this cut turned out this way! Sakugabooru has it included as part of Yutaka Nakamura’s scene, but I can’t be sure.
I was fascinated to see Yuuto Kaneko at the top of the genga list for the episode (meaning he contributed the most). Kaneko is one of the most ascendant young animators associated with studio Trigger who came onboard as part of the Little Witch Academia training project after jumping ship from GAINAX. He proved himself by becoming a core animator on Kill la Kill, and reaching the status of a stand-out animator on Kiznaiver and Luluco. He also contributed to episode 3, but this is in my view his best work to date. In particular, this sequence was astounding.
Although much noise has been made about Yutaka Nakamura’s piece at the climax of the fight, this segment was perhaps more interesting animation wise, the rough deformation and sketchiness of it being classically Mob Psycho. Kaneko has adopted a strength from his Trigger brethren Akira Amemiya and Imaishi that plays neatly into Kameda’s aesthetic – the crayon-like thick lines, chalky effect dashes and pencil scrawled smears are incorporated into his animation to spectacular effect this episode.
Another segment that caught my eye was likely by Akira Yamashita (presumed so because he tweeted about drawing the delinquents with a picture of a particular pose). If this is is indeed his work, it’s also very impressive and revels well in the dirty feel of the episode. The crass contortions of the faces is so fun to watch in motion and his drawings feature a lot of rough line detail and charcoal style.
Of course, I can’t forget to mention the climactic finish to the sequence, handled by none other than Bones resident star animator Yutaka Nakamura. Nakamura rarely fails to produce exhilarating animation, and this is far from an exception, with some smooth background animation, an explosion of effects and weighty, realistic kinetics as Mob throws his opponent down. To top it off there’s a fade to formless sketch as mob’s fury hits its pinnacle.
Topping the web-generation episode 5, this takes the cake for being the best animated episode of Mob Psycho and even managed to squeeze in our first taste of legitimate plot with the introduction of the evil organisation, Claw. I am not expecting that crown to be passed on until the final episode, which will almost certainly be spearheaded by Kameda again and sit in BONES’ all-out sakuga finale hall of fame. Key Animation：