Having spent yesterday and today hesitating on whether or not to buy the special edition Cardcaptor Sakura movies, I decided to sit down and watch some episodes of Cardcaptor Sakura, to see if it would swing my decision one way or the other. As of now, it’s still undecided, but just like every other time I’ve decided to re-watch Cardcaptor Sakura, I was reminded of how good the show looks. Years from now, the show will still look good. And this got me to thinking about the way time relates to an anime’s visuals.
In animation, there is a race to see the visual quality of animation improve over time. Though it’s not as drastic or hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated. This is a dangerous way of thinking, as it assumes that the shows you like today will be considered inferior in ten, twenty years. One might say then, that “timelessness” is the ideal to pursue, but at the same time I don’t think “timelessness” of visuals is necessarily a good thing. Much like how making anime for an international audience can take away some of the uniquely Japanese aspects of anime, I think a similar problem can occur when the creators of a show try to isolate it from its own time. At the same time, this isn’t an excuse for a show to look bad or have poor art direction and using either “timelessness” or “representative of its time” as an excuse.
Different shows seem to approach this issue of time and its relation to the animation quality. In Cardcaptor Sakura, it’s the well-thought-out “camera” angles, transitions, and just the way the show flows naturally from scene to scene and action to action that makes it stand the oft-mentioned “test of time.” Koutetsushin Jeeg and Re:Cutie Honey, both updates of 70s Nagai Go works, merge the visual cues of 70s anime with a modern sense of perspective and consistency towards animation. Casshern SINS, a current show, takes an interesting approach. Its main character is said to be immortal, and to show this the design of Casshern references anime throughout the decades. Casshern himself is a 70s anime character, while his hair and musculature are similar to 80s characters, his figure and facial features are reminiscent of 90s bishounen, and the overall aesthetic of the show is very modern. Anne of Green Gables, a 1979 anime series directed by Grave of the Fireflies director Takahata Isao (with Miyazaki on staff as well), is an adaptation of an already well-known novel, and though there wasn’t a lot of resources in animation at that time, they worked with what they had to make the show very engaging.
“Working with what you have” may not always produce the best or most well-remembered shows, but I think it’s an important step in making a show whose visuals will be well-remembered years down the line when what was once cutting-edge will become as old-hat as wearing a skinned sabretooth tiger. One thing that Cardcaptor Sakura, Koutetsushin Jeeg, Re:Cutie Honey, Casshern SINS, and Anne of Green Gables have in common is that you can see the sheer amount of effort put into these shows. Judging “effort” is tricky business, and might even be scoffed at as impossible or even arbitrary, but when there’s this much effort involved I think you can’t help but notice. And when people, year after year notice this, that’s when a show’s visuals can be called “timeless.”
Though if you don’t aim for “timeless” art direction, that still doesn’t mean your show cannot be great.