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hotly contested as the race that video games have gone through, it’s not uncommon to hear from people that a show looks outdated.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.
I think CCS really starts to look good once you get into the second and third seasons. The first season was pretty decent, but there were /a lot/ of instances of reused animation. And I mean stuff that’s not magical girl stuff. Like shots of Sakura walking up and down the stairs and stuff.
It didn’t bother me at all, because the show itself is great.
It is important to distinguish animation itself from other qualities of anime. While the fluidity of the animation and graphical capabilities might have improved over the years, some things, such as scene composition and editing, still remain the same, and new anime are not necessarily better than old ones in those aspects.
Interesting thought about Casshern – I’d never really thought about his character design like that. His whole look is very much more of the 70s, though, with sketchy lines and big hair (which wasn’t just an 80s thing!) – have you seen the 90s New Casshern OVA? He looks very much like an early 90s anime character there.
I don’t think that REAL animation quality speaking in the uber-geeky sakuga sense has got massively better over the years. I suspect the advent of digital animation means that inbetweening has become easier (Bee Train, for instance, produce impossibly smooth animation at times), but even older shows can still have moments of surprising beauty, not to mention movies from the 70s and 80s (Ghibli, anyone?). There are quite a few recent shows with great animation (as in movement etc., not art style) that look decidedly retro at times – Masaaki Yuasa’s Kemonozume and Kaiba, Noein, and now Casshern Sins for instance.
It’s funny, I can’t even imagine CCS being old, but then it must be pushing about 10 years or so now? The show looks great and is well animated, so it’s not a massive surprise it’s holding up well, which a lot of 90s shows really don’t from a technical stand point (Slayers, for instance).
People who know there’s more to anime than counting shades
PS. Wait, why didn’t you buy CCS after watching it? Why are you undecided?
I remember when I re-watched Akage no Anne a few months ago I was actually really surprised at how good it looked and felt. The animation in so many series from the 90’s make me want to just go face->keyboard, but there, anime so very old, and animation is better than in most of anime that was created long after. (And that’s just one of many reason for why it’s my most favourite anime.)