FIVE-TONE SHADING, or A Perspective Which Lacks Perspective

By now I assume a good number of you have seen Paul “Otaking” Johnson’s fansub angry docurant. This is not about that. This is about his exceedingly idiotic post on what makes anime look good.

In his comic/tutorial, Johnson here first showcases how the anime of the 80s is superior to both western cartoons and modern anime because of the level of shading and detail used. He can have his own opinion on what looks good. That’s okay. My issue is with the fact that his opinion lacks perspective.


The problem here is in the examples he gives of GOOD-LOOKING 80s/90s ANIME versus UGLY MODERN ANIME. On the good-looking side is Top o Nerae!, the original Record of Lodoss Wars, Gunnm, and Macross: Do You Remember Love? On the bad-looking side is Naruto, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist.

Hmm, wait! Something seems odd here…

Top o Nerae!: OVA
Record of Lodoss War: OVA
Gunnm: OVA
Macross: DYRL: MOVIE

Naruto: TV Series
One Piece: TV Series
Fullmetal Alchemist: TV Series

All of the examples that Johnson gives here of GOOD-LOOKING ANIME THAT HAVE NOT BEEN SURPASSED are shows with HIGH BUDGETS and short productions, whereas the examples he gives of modern anime, where the SHORTEST show is Fullmetal Alchemist at approximately 50 episodes, are all television programs, with Naruto and One Piece having run for much longer. On top of that, the 80s were a much more prosperous time for Japan in general, so it is no wonder that anime would have more budget. OF COURSE those shows would have more complex shading.

Even then, this is not the only faulty point with Johnson’s FIVE-TONE SHADING rant. Johnson acts like it is MODERN ANIME which has cheapened itself to the point of using such simplistic, “Disney-esque” shading (and he’s already a dumbass for using “Disney” like it’s a bad word), when in fact the entirety of anime has been against him all along! By saying that five-tone shading is the only visual style that really matters, you invalidate the entirety of the 60s and 70s in anime. According to this, Rose of Versailles is worthless visually. So is Gundam. So is Tiger Mask and Kinnikuman and Voltes V and so many other shows because they lack multiple-toned shading and that sleek look which permeated 80s OVAs.

Even worse, the 1980s disagree with Johnson, where shows such as Votoms and Zeta Gundam also lack shading on everything but backgrounds. Hell, Johnson posts an image of Misa from Macross: DYRL as an example of SUPERIOR anime aesthetics but fails to acknowledge the fact that the ORIGINAL MACROSS TV SERIES had simplistic shading on par with shows like Fullmetal Alchemist.

It’s one thing to have a preference for certain styles, but it’s another thing entirely to tout one’s position using an “us vs them” mentality. There are no “good old days” of FIVE-TONE SHADING and to believe that it existed is to be delusional.

24 thoughts on “FIVE-TONE SHADING, or A Perspective Which Lacks Perspective

  1. I remember you and I were talking about this bit the day he released the videos, and while I generally agree with him regarding the fansubber practices (though I have to disagree with his advocacy for the superiority of flipped manga), once he starts to delve into how he’s refused to watch modern anime because it all looks so terrible, he loses me. He did an interview on the GeekNights podcast where he essentially stated that the problem is due to digital painting techniques.

    I can understand what he means; while it’s true that you can still approximate the cel-drawn look (see: Slayers Revolution), it’s a lot more work to do so and most shows don’t bother. At the same time, you’re right about the lack of perspective. When asked, he admitted that he hadn’t really seen very many of the recent theatrical anime releases of note such as Paprika or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and doesn’t seem to be aware that Yoshiaki Kawajiri is still doing work that’s pretty darn similar to what he’s been doing over the last twenty years. In fact, he doesn’t really watch anime at all anymore because “it’s all so ugly.” Statements like that are why I feel proud to say I’ve never dismissed a series based solely on its artwork. Granted, the artwork typically implies a great deal of things with regards to the show’s CONTENT, but it’s not like I’m rejecting Strike Witches outright because of the art in and of itself.

    This is yet another one of those annoying cases I run into all the time where I’m forced to disagree with someone based not on their conclusions, but their reasons for reaching it. If that makes me a pedantic argumentative jerk, so be it.


  2. It is very clear what he is doing. He is just trying to attract attention to himself and, perhaps, make profit along the way, by making arguments that are false and that are likely to spark the responses. In fact he admits it himself by saying, “Let the flamewar begin”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think recently saw Top o nerae! after encountering this guy’s five-tone rant. It doesn’t use five-tones in the actual film (or doesn’t do so very much).

    It does it in the promotional art, which is where his examples come. So, not only is he contrasting OVAs with TV series, he’s contrasting promotional still paintings with animation.


  4. Well, just to make sure nobody’s confusing matters, his arguments against fansubber practices aren’t exactly false, and as far as that goes he admits that he doesn’t expect to change any fansubber’s mind. He mainly did it for his own satisfaction, which is the polar opposite of doing something just for attention the way Avatar of Wrongdom Paul Thomas Chapman (who is NOT Paul Johnson) does when he decides to publicly announce his hate for objectively awesome things like Spider-Man 2 and Hard Boiled for dubious reasons so he can be EDGY. I’ll bet money he didn’t like The Dark Knight either on the grounds that the villain wasn’t Killer Croc or something.

    Some people might say that the tone of that fansub manifesto detracts from the message because everyone’s just going to attack you personally instead of your argument. On the other hand, the only thing being civil gets you is ignored.


  5. His arguments against fansubber tactics aren’t “false” because they’re his opinion. They are, however, overly rigid in terms of how translation actually works, overgeneralizing of entire time periods of fansubbing based on a small number of questionable examples (at least one of the “new” subs I think was actually a troll sub group), and academically dishonest because he conveniently ignores the entire other subset of translation theory that actually agrees more with the things he’s complaining about.

    His egotistical attitude and the fact that he actually gives interviews in which he rants about weeaboos ruining the anime and manga industries, all while simultaneously looking like a pretty big weeaboo himself due to things like the subject of this post, are only icing on the cake. Unfortunately they’re also a distraction–people complain about these things because they’re more obvious, so he and his supporters can claim that these are the only objections and therefore his argument is flawless.

    Also seriously, is he even a well respected translator? Page me when he can prove he’s got, say, even half of Alexander O. Smith’s game. Speaking of dynamic equivalence.


  6. >>In fact, he doesn’t really watch anime at all anymore because “it’s all so ugly.”

    I fucking hate guys like this– guys who call themselves “otaku” (and in his case “otaking” wtf) yet they have only watched a handful of OVAs that they rented at Blockbuster back in THE GOOD OLD DAYS.

    I mean seriously dude :(


  7. It was alright to listen to his fansub opinions (they are after all, his own), but I won’t listen to any shit he says anymore since he thinks “new anime is so ugly”. That’s like saying I won’t buy new books ’cause the covers are ugly and I’ll stick with Shakespeare.

    And way to go, comparing a 300-ep kids show (One Piece) to an adult anime like ROLW or M:DYRL.


  8. Foolishness! My arguments are sound and I can argue and back them up with empirical evidence from any given angle. And for one thing, I’m watching Zeta Gundam now and it most certainly DOES have shading… and lots of it at certain times. And Using Disney as a bad word is quite acceptable in terms of my argument… as my argument is about SHADING (which Disney has none of). If I said Disney’s actual animation quality was shit, THEN I’d be talking out of my ass. But I didn’t say that.

    As for “unfairly using OVAS and movies,” well, I’m currently making a new one to redress this criticism. It pits old anime TV show still against modern movies and OVAS such as Batman: Gotham Knight, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, Prince of Tennis movie and Tekinkonkreet or however the hell you spell it. High budget, high production value modern stuff. And guess what? The TV stills have more shading, variable line width, more depth, colour and richness of detail. And I promise you I’m not making that up.

    One more thing…
    Being a translator, I recently translated an interview with Mamoru Oshii for a certain magazine in the UK, regarding his upcoming CG-ised redo of Ghost in the Shell “2.0.” I can’t give too much away until it’s out on the shelves, but Oshii himself states that there simply isn’t the talent or the dedication anymore to draw anime as detailed as the olden days. In fact, he says that he loves 2D, hand-drawn anime, but regretfully will have to bin it in favour of 3D CG soon enough, because that’s what people want to see. So argue with me all you like, but Mamoru Oshii knows more about animation that anyone on this board, and he states that it is (quote) “Impossible to do now what we did back then” with the current level of talent and production in Japan’s modern anime industry. He also says thathe completed Ghost in the Shell (the 1995 original) in 10 months, whilst anime movies now take 2-3 years, and states that anyone who thinks anime production has “advanced” from what it used to be is sadly mistaken.

    @anarki – Why would I need to “stfu” after watching Code Geass? It’s just an ugly looking, washed-out and grey Clamp show, inferior in artwork and shading to their earlier works such as Rayearth.

    @wildarmsheero – I’m glad you’ve been keeping such close tabs on me that you know exactly “how little” anime I’ve watched. And we didn’t even have Blockbuster in the UK back then, I don’t think. In any case, I have watched an absolute shit stack of material, old and new, and the new TV anime constantly makes itself look inferior to 80s TV shows.

    @Daryl Surat – Cheers. At least you seem to realise that, unlike (most) fansubbers, I wasn’t doing this to get attention. Besides, as this operation has proved, all things like this serve to do is to get people calling you a “British fag” rather than praising the ground you walk on.

    @dm – You realise that the barely-shaded picture of Kira from Gundam Seed was promotional art from a Newtype cover, yeah? And it was being contrasted against a still anime screengrab of an 80s movie. So your argument doesn’t really hold up as things were going both ways. And even when they’re moving around like greased lighting in Gunbuster they still have three or four tones as standard. The new Gunbuster has barely one tone even when it’s a still shot. And the shades it has are grey.


  9. I think people’s objections have more to do with the self-defeating notion that a particular style of art– indeed a single particular technique– is empirically superior, all the time, every time, for everything. It just comes off as weird and obsessive, not to mention the stacked-deck examples that everybody’s talked to death. I first saw this comparison on 4chan, long before the documentary. I honestly assumed it was a troll, had a good laugh, and moved on. Unlike the fansub documentary, it’s extremely hard to take the argument seriously.


  10. @ SUb – I don’t understand. It’s hard to take the evidence of your own eyes seriously? Remember, most people my age got into anime for one reason above any other – the visual style. It simply looked more detailed and well shaded than anything mainstream Western. To people like myself, who literally love the art style of anime that turned us into fanatic “otaku” as it were, to have that style ripped away and replaced with something cheaper, less detailed and inherently tacky is a very big issue itself.

    Imagine if you liked thrash metal, and suddenly every thrash band decided to start doing reggae. You’d be pissed about it. Now imagine that you try and tell people that this is sheer madness and play them some old school Metallica to try and show your point… and they all call you a “troll.”

    Besides, the 80s-mid 90s “golden age” era of anime that I’m citing wasn’t stuck in any one particular style. I’m not saying that ONE style is best the whole time… we had countless styles to choose from. Madhouse looked so different to Rumiko Takahashi, and so on. We had massively differing styles from super SD (Dragon Hal)” to hyper realistic (Space Adventure Cobra, Golgo 13, etc). The thing they had in common was that all had vibrant colour and extremely rich shading. Now, Naruto is held up as a paragon of artistic excellence, and this isn’t something I can just lay down and accept.


  11. lol assburgers.

    If you want to waste your time convincing others that THEIR TASTE SUCKS that’s fine. I like a lot of the modern stuff better because certain genres just appeal to me more—- as far as I know they didn’t really do the whole lighthearted/slice of life type of thing back then in the golden age (one of my favourite shows is “Kamichu!” which has some very nice, fluid animation).

    (And I am by no means a fan of Naruto, but have you seen some of the segments Norio Matsumoto animated?).

    I think that maybe you kind of relax and not get angry over other’s people taste in cartoons.


  12. I’d hardly think that anime studios using digital painting instead of cels is like a thrash metal band doing reggae. That’s just a gross mistake. There are still anime that look distinctly different to each other, even without five tone shading, and there are still good anime out nowadays. Saying you don’t watch anime anymore because of this is like not listening to rock music after the mid-seventies because of synths…


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  15. I’m a fan of both old school and modern anime . I have no problem with the five tone shading however when it is overused, it’s a completely different story just look at Paul “Otaking” Johnson’s own artwork and you’ll see what I mean ( no hard feelings mate)


  16. Why does it even matter what he wrote? He is entitled to his POV regardless of what it is just like we all are. The only thing that matters is what sells internationally, period. If the cost to create one style is not supported by the market, then that style will be replaced with something more economical.


  17. Also for the record I love the golden age of anime. And yes I totally agree what drew some people to anime is the unique visual styles but that was then in the 80s…. However I know full well true cel shading has gone the way of the dodo just like full animation in most animated movies. Ultimately, there is no point in fighting it, accept it and move on. Life is too damn short to bitch about things we cannot control. Can’t we just appreciate and enjoy the anime created by talented professionals? Seriously, whatever that type of anime is, share it, enjoy it, and support the industry; do not be a cheap @ss who steals.


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  19. I’m with POtaking. He may not be quite good enough an artist to pull off what he aspires to yet, but his examples from actual anime productions are impeccable. Also, his own projects are meant to be overwrought in the same way opening animations and pachinko machine eye-catches are, beyond the practicalities of a long series.

    That earlier anime lacked modeling doesn’t matter, because the medium was progressing (getting better over time, not just changing). What’s been happening to design and animation in Japanese anime since about the tail end of the 90s is more of a regression, even as the technology has made much more possible. Crying “budget” is bullshit too, unless you mean the time budgeting that has modern studios dragging out thirty minutes of actual animation over some thirty episodes of television just because time has to be filled.

    I do think we can do something about it, too, Rokku. Paul has been doing something for over a decade now, and so can any other artist working in an anime or cel-shaded styles (like the folks at Udon Studio, fi). Even more anyone whose comic/manga/light novel work catches the interest of an animation studio, since production quality standards like that can be a point of negotiation. If you’re not an artist, simply observing the obvious (rather than arguing against or trying to quell the criticism because “life is too short”) is enough.


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