Anime continues to be revered by fans as one of the most fluid, lifelike, and expressive mediums and a global standard and inspiration for animators everywhere. Western Traditional 2D animation is increasingly seen as lazy, cheap, and uninspired compared to Anime. Of course, the real story is never that simple. The story of anime, and indeed animation in general, has been a surprising one of one crucial “deception” and startling upheaval across both sides of the Pacific Ocean.
A series of frames from a run sequence from Little Witch Academia, from Studio Trigger
But first, we have to explain animation as a visual medium. Animation is a series of images that create motion when played in sequence. Anime typically runs at top frame rates of 24 frames, or images, per second. Traditional 2D animation, where every single frame is hand drawn, means that every single part of an action sequence is carefully hand placed. Each frame of an animation is a work of labour in itself – in fact, anime industry practice is to pay animators their salary by each keyframe they produce.
Now let’s take it back, way, way back, to 1937. Decades before anime even existed (the first japanese full color animated feature film, The Legend of The White Serpent, by Toei Animation, was released in 1958), Disney had released Snow White, the first full length cel-animated feature film, which would go on to be the highest grossing film of the time (adjusted for inflation, it remains the highest grossing animated film of all time.) following up with further films such as Pinocchio (1940), Dumbo (1940), and Snow White (1942), Disney follow a simple animation ethos: emphasizing motion and fluidity as far as possible: creating full, 24 frame per second creations.
At the time, “Anime” as a cultural phenomenon didn’t exist. It was nearly impossible for Japanese companies to compete with foreign firms like Disney with massive bankrolls, and Japan lacked the built up animation expertise and budgets to fight toe to toe with them on their own terms. They needed to find a way to create shows that could compete with giants like Disney at a fraction of the cost.
THE GREAT DECEPTION
“Anime” is the Japanese term for animation. Used by the west, it refers to the unique style of animation unique to Japanese productions. But as a technical term, it might better be referred to as “Animation without Animation”.
The great solution for Japanese productions would come in the form of “Limited Animation”, a set of techniques that would vastly reduce the number of frames required to create television broadcasts. Reducing the frame rate (Referred to as animating on 1s, 2s, 3s, etc. as in every 1st, 2nd, or 3rd frame) could reduce production costs proportionally for a sacrifice in fluidity. Creating animations frames that could be reused, avoiding action sequences that would require too many unique frames, animating only mouths of characters speaking – these techniques would sacrifice movement to save time and budget – audio and visual cues would help maintain the illusion of motion even as actual motion was increasingly cut out of the process.
Machikado Mazoku, one of the surprise hits of Summer 2019, could be described at times as a glorified powerpoint presentation
Audiences loved it, and increasing budgets and expertise allowed Japanese studios to increase the complexity and detail of their characters even as the old style of “full animation” was abandoned. To creators, Anime was a set of tools, a means to an end of creating a competitive product with a limited production. To audiences, Anime meant a lots of new domestic productions that were no longer crippled by the production concerns of the past. And as the market grew more and more from post-war economic regrowth, as well as increasing expertise, Anime became increasingly realistic, pervasive, until it became the nearly ubiquitous cultural and aesthetic force it remains today.
Kyoto Animation’s Violet Evergarden (2019) features extremely detailed, lifelike characters and high quality color composites and filters
Where did Disney go?
So what happened to Disney and the dominance of western animation?
The 90s was a profitable period for Disney with massive animated hits The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King (1994), but they had never forgotten the financial malaise of the 70s and 80s. They needed a way to create animated shows for cheaper. In 1995 they found one.
In 1995, with the release of Toy Story, the world’s first 3D animated feature film, an irreversible shift would occur in Hollywood. As increasing technical expertise in 3D graphics and increasing computational power converged, 3D animation became an increasingly viable commercial medium. The advantages were obvious: so long as you had a rigged model, animating a character’s motion was as simple as posing it in a few set frames and providing enough computational power to render the animation. The software could handle interpolation of every key frame in between to create a smooth motion. 2D animation was increasingly abandoned in favor of this approach, especially as rendering became increasingly lifelike.
Nowadays the familiar western animation studios are mostly 3D – Pixar, Dreamworks, Walt Disney Animation Studios (Some, like Studio Laika, responsible for Coraline and Kubo and the Two Strings, have focused on stop-motion).
What about TV animation?
For Western TV animation, Toon Boom (which provides a rigging technology that allows for cheap, quick animation) ended up being the solution to most. The approach was cheap: create rigs with a set palette of fixed body parts (head parts covering a few expressions, for instance), and allowing the animators to move them and interpolate between keyframes proved reliable and efficient enough for shows like Johnny Test – giving a satisfactory enough result to please the relatively simple demographic of young kids tuning into channels like Cartoon Network. This was compounded by a glut of Canadian studios constantly producing shows to fill timeslots. With few exceptions, such as 2005’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, quality was mostly left to the hands of feature films, which were increasingly fleeing to 3D animation.
The great upheaval was complete. At the same time that Anime was becoming a cultural phenomenon, to the point that they were edited and dubbed into syndication on western channels, as Sailor Moon, Futari wa Pretty Cure, Cardcaptor Sakura, or even Robotech, western animation was increasingly to the realm of “Cartoons”.
A new world had formed: a world where the throne of 2D animation had transferred to Japan, all off one simple deception – and a host of powerful economical factors.
New World, Same Old Problems
A comparison of two still shots from Studio Feel’s 2016 Dagashi Kashi, and Tezuka Production’s 2018 Dagashi Kashi
Ironically, now that the Anime industry has expanded and reached saturation, it continues to face the same problems of production budget and expertise it had faced from its very inception. Studios face increasing pressure to cut increasing corners and take less financial risks.
Anime fans are no stranger to production making or ruining shows they like, with announcements like One Punch Man’s switch from Madhouse to J.C.Staff, or Studio Wit announcing the end of their work on Attack on Titan (likely to focus on their similar, in house property, Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress) sending reverberations through the fandom.
Even as studios like Kyoani, Trigger, Bones, Madhouse, David Pro, Shaft (which has also been plagued by production issues) aim for new heights in animation, studios like J.C. Staff, A1 Pictures, White Fox, and countless others continue to produce low quality shows designed to capture a quick buck. The number of safer financial bets like adaptations of existing properties, and sequel glut (the first FOUR most watched series this season (Fall 2019), according to MyAnimeList, are sequels, and the first SEVEN are adapted properties from Light Novels or Manga).
There are exceptions: Trigger’s successful crowdfunding of extra duration for their OVA sequel to their Little Witch Academia OVA short, or the critically acclaimed Masaaki Yuasa directed and Netflix funded Devilman Crybaby – but these mostly remain exceptions to the bleak landscape of television anime, dominated by adaptations, sequels, and other financial constraints.
In the end, a surprising amount of productions come down to the brass tacks of profits and losses. And for an industry that the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) valued tat ¥2.4 trillion domestically and ¥2 trillion internationally in 2005, its unlikely for that reality to change anytime soon. Until then, animation studios will keep finding ways to keep squeezing every single frame in cost.