Sakuga Fans Need More Carl Sagans

In a recent blog article on the site Wave Motion Cannon, blogger tamerlane laments two aspects of how we talk about anime. First, he discusses lack of appreciation (one might even say disdain) that many American fans and experts of animation have towards anime. Second, he argues that sakuga fans (essentially fans of especially expressive, dynamic, and powerful Japanese animation) aren’t doing enough to help spread appreciation of the animation in anime. On these general points, I completely agree. Whether it’s anime or manga, the technical skills of Japanese creators are often unfairly get derided, labeled as being full of shortcuts and cop-outs. Anime defies the rule books of animation that people take as gospel, so critics prefer to point a finger at anime rather than the rules themselves. Similarly, I also find that sakuga fans can often sabotage themselves, but one thing that tamerlane might not realize is that in his very post are those risky elements, that which makes sakuga fans, perhaps unfairly, seen as an insular group.

To start off, I want to highlight a couple of  lines from the article:

That is, strip away all those aspects of animation that have superior alternatives elsewhere – story, music, draftsmanship – and look at what’s left. That is animation.

Animation shouldn’t exist for its own sake, certainly, and there’s no shortage of animated films that are as vacuous as they are pretty, but without any way of meaningfully differentiating itself from other forms of art it might as well not exist at all.

In other words, animation should do what is uniquely suited to it, otherwise there’s no point. It’s simple… or not.

The problem with such a sentiment is that, while it might seem like the proper way to view animation, there are serious limitations to pinning a medium down to what is unique to it. Granted, it’s not a bad way of viewing things. An artist might want to push the boundaries of the medium, and in doing so create something great. However, it leads to what philosopher and scholar Noël Carroll refers to as an over-reliance on “medium essentialism,” where in trying to emphasize the qualities of animation that cannot be replicated elsewhere one ends up ignoring the “common” aspects that can also empower a form of artistic expression. Comics scholar Thierry Groenstein describes comics in general similarly, that it is because comics are a mixture of elements found elsewhere that it can create interesting outcomes. Try telling someone who plays visual novels that they should either read a book or play a real game. Try telling someone that they shouldn’t enjoy Inferno Cop because of its intentionally terrible animation (though I have to acknowledge the possibility that one only begins to appreciate Inferno Cop if they are a fan of the act of animating itself).

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I don’t believe tamerlane means to come across as so completely essentialist, and at the very least he points out that the two schools of thought discussed in his article about animation (anime vs. Disney-esque animation) are equally valid. However, I think it’s still important to focus on the idea that to be a fan of animation (or anime) is to be a fan of the construction of animation, that it is of the highest priority for anyone who calls themselves a fan of animation. In response to this, I would argue that, while it might be impossible to just ignore the act of animating outright, one’s interest in animation can rightfully be defined by elements outside of appreciate of technical or expressive skill.

I’m going to use myself as an example. I am not the average anime fan, and I have what I would call a fairly passable understanding of sakuga and animation. I can’t necessarily recognize an animator’s work just by seeing a cut in isolation, but I appreciate Kanada, Umakoshi, Itano, and so on. However, appreciation of animation is but one facet of my interest in anime, which I would more generally describe as a fascination with the interaction of ideas and emotions across Japanese animated cartoons and their narratives, and given limited time I do not prioritize it above all else. I leave that up to the experts, whether certified or self-proclaimed, because even if they’re the latter their passion leads them further.

In fact, the reason I started looking into animators is because of Ben Ettinger, the guy behind the blog Anipages. Based on his writings, he is very clearly a fan of animation in the same sense that tamerlane and other sakuga fans are. He knows the names of the animators. He can recognize their work. He looks into the most obscure and even uninteresting shows to find strong animation. However, most crucially, I don’t sense hostility from his writing, or the idea that his way of viewing things is the right way or the only way.

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The problem comes when sakuga fans, as ambassadors of quality animation, deride the uninitiated for not “getting it,” or not understand the values of others. This can only serve to push their potential audience and potential comrades further away. If there is not an actual inability to relate to non-sakuga fans, it can appear to be the case.

It’s not my first time reading what tamerlane has to say about anime or animation. A couple of years ago, he commented on some Kill la Kill posts of mine, and expressed that one of the issues was that the characters weren’t fun to watch, tying this into his passion for the act of animation, while also stating that those who enjoyed the series only had weak reasons to do so. I disagreed on the simple basis that, while I could recognize some of the weaknesses he mentioned, they weren’t a deal breaker for me, and what I valued in Kill la Kill was still very present and very strong. However, this also gave an image of tamerlane as someone with a very specific and at times contentious point of view, so much so that I almost chose not to read his post.

I want to emphasize two things based on what I just said. The first is that, if I had ignored his article based on past interactions, I would have been the stupid one. It would have been an example of me judging someone purely through some brief internet talk where communication was marred by a number of factors that weren’t just on his side. I think it’s more than possible to see both sides, or to disagree about one thing while agreeing on another, but most importantly I believe it’s possible to respect the other side.

The second point is that not everybody can ignore their initial impressions, and how one communicate to others as fellow human beings can be just as important as what you have to say. I know, because I struggle with this to. I understand what it’s like to be frustrated that others don’t share my point of view, or to not be able to express myself well. However, at the end of the day, positioning one’s own reasons for liking a show as just inherently better will always rub people the wrong way.

Even if accusations against sakuga fans are unfounded, the impression one gives when communicating can plant that idea in the reader or listener’s head, and whether you’re talking to hostile skeptics or people eager to know more about animation, driving them away by telling them to get on your level is only going to convince a few. Sakuga fans have to speak to other fans on their own terms and empathize with them. And if not, they have to at least let their passion come across in a way that is not confrontational. Sakuga fans need more Carl Sagans, and if not him, then at least some Neil deGrasse Tysons, who can be both snarky and personable.

I’m going to leave off with some screencaps from Episode 3 of Aoi Honoo, a J-drama about the school where many future luminaries of the anime industry came from. Though obviously different from real life interactions and conversations, I think it’s worth nothing how Anno Hideaki (or rather the actor who plays him) is shown to express his love for animation, in spite (or perhaps because) of his lack of social skills.

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5 thoughts on “Sakuga Fans Need More Carl Sagans

  1. This is a very well-considered response and I feel obliged to respond.

    I’m glad you picked up on the emphasis on medium specificity (or “medium essentialism”) since I feel like that’s a debate that’s worth having. Blame it on my reading way too many modernists as an undergrad but my way of looking at art is in large part determined by their worldview. Art is a ‘question’, a ‘struggle’, a ‘conflict’, and while even Adorno recognized that the lowest forms of expression are still tinged by human spontaneity, I largely agree with the idea that art should be constantly challenged for what inherent value it provides and that the best way of resolving those challenges usually involve discussions of medium. Others take a more open and diplomatic view and while I certainly don’t think we should all fall into a single paradigm (after all, the medium essentialism of American animators was the main target of my critique), for my purposes this approach best clarifies what I find valuable and what I don’t. Art theory is a lot like politics; you’re trying to unite a fractured constituency under a single ideological banner.

    I should also clarify I don’t go as far as someone like Clement Greenberg in this stuff. I tend to look at engagement with medium as a necessary but not sufficient condition for greatness. There’s plenty of animation that engages with the materials of their construction but devolves into a kind of formal exercise, thoughtless and vapid. On the other hand, while Gurren Lagann may not be the ‘purest’ of Imaishi’s works, the thematic layering provided by Nakashima’s script pushes it over the top. And medium itself is not so simple an issue: the demands of a rotoscope film like Waking Life differ greatly from a show like Mononoke, a TV anime with barely any in-frame movement (though quite a lot /between/ frames). But I’d say that, on the whole, a lack of engagement is a bigger problem than too much.

    You conclusion, that we need more Carl Sagans for sakuga, is something I’m in complete agreement with. Animation is often talked about in a dry, technical manner without regard for the aesthetic or human values it can convey. Sakuga fandom often comes across like bureaucratic filing and sorting, which is not how the artists themselves feel when they’re animating. We need more of a critical culture around animation, just like we need animators with greater knowledge about art and culture in general.

    As for those Kill la Kill comments, when I started my account it was mostly dedicated to shit flinging and fuckery, something to waste time during boring lectures. Not that I don’t still do a lot of that but now it’s confined to Twitter. For longform articles like this I’ve tried to prune my tendency towards polemics. It’s good to turn of the troll instincts every once and a while and have a serious discussion.

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    • it’s not just animation, though. if you ask anyone their favorite composer that doesn’t dwell in classical music, you’d probably get hanz zimmer, howard shore, etc. the same will happen if you ask about directors and such. anime just doesn’t have that much of a big impact on the US as much as other countries, and with good reason – it birthed cartoons and movies. why would it need to? other countries didn’t so that could be the big reason why the US isn’t as amazed as the other countries are.

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  2. Good sakuga is always something I appreciate, but whenever I read reviews or fan reactions, nobody really notices or cares about it or even mentions it. For me, it’s not about elitism or “this proves the show is good/bad”, it’s just about wanting the animation medium to progress and stay creative and interesting, and if good (and/or expensive) animation is ignored for long enough, the industry will decide to do away with it entirely since it’s clearly all a waste of money, and instead just outsource everything, keyframes and all. I don’t want anime to turn into something like a lot of western TV animation, just assembly-line stuff with barely any artistic input or expression (but it sure has LOTS OF FRAMES!!).

    Something that warms my heart the most is whenever I see some amateur fan-made western animation or animation or tumblr and youtube or whatever, and they clearly take lots of creative influence from some of anime’s most dynamic directing (very important!) and animation, just to show that there’s more to animation than copying Kricfalusi (newgrounds gag animations) or even Disney. Maybe they’ll find their way into some studios one day? So my view is, with more appreciation of sakuga across the board, the whole medium could slowly improve.

    I guess the problem is that there’s nobody really doing that in, like you say, a “Sagan” way, to really be personable and persuade people to get invested in it. I don’t know how likely that ever happening is though. It’s just such a niche interest. Aoi Honoo was fantastic about showing that enthusiasm. We need a college aged Anno making youtube videos.

    Here’s a good video series though, in case anyone is reading this and is new to sakuga: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LLNHSrJoqFM
    http://sakuga.yshi.org/post

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  3. Nice article. Thomas Lamarre actually addressed Carroll’s critique of medium specificity in his book The Anime Machine. Lamarre does insist on specificity in analyzing how anime thinks technology. But to avoid its teleological pitfall, he offers to think in term of (under)determination rather than determinism. He insists that there is material limit to animation, but the limit actually implies an indetermination at the center of animation, a gap or delay that becomes a space where thoughts, emotions, and affective response can emerge. I think the discussion he presented is quite interesting to think about.

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  4. Just want to chime in about Sakuga fandom in general, I do think it’s a natural extension of both deeper understanding of art and insular reaction to established animation scholarship & perception that never viewed “Anime” as respectable animation art. We all know that majority of animation scholars, historians, and critics never respected “Anime” as a legitimate part of worldwide animation family.

    I don’t believe that Sakuga fans intentionally searched for well expressed animation to prove legitimacy of anime as respectable animation in technical sense, but they just happened to discover the beauty of animated movements from their favorite animation medium and they want to talk about like other like-minded fans.

    For personal anecdote, I’m not a hardcore Sakuga fan who recognize and categorize which animator worked on what scene, but I had developed my own interest in animation aspect of Anime in my early years as fan. I developed interest in which animation director (Sakuga Kantoku) worked on which episode of a certain TV Anime and I started to communicate that interest to other fans. At that time, anime fans of 80’s and 90’s simply viewed their animation as this cool unique form of entertainment from Japan that appeals to their taste and sensibility than the same visual art of Western animation. So me talking about how character models look slightly different from one episode from others is like I was speaking gibberish to them.

    Of course, Sakuga fans have this tendency of collecting and categorizing whatever flashy movements and animators behind it. Their singular obsession and low social skills turns away casual observers for being aloof, but it evens out as there are hardcore western animation fans and critics themselves have myopic view of their own. It is unfortunate that some Sakuga fans are like still that and I think it’s more of maturity issue.Even young Hideaki Anno had myopic view that all animations were cels, but being exposed to an animation festival opened his eyes. As for me, I have been enjoying numerous indie feature animations from local film festivals.

    I do agree that we need Sakuga fans versed in other animations from the world. I do think that watching and enjoying animation from others parts of the world, not just Japan, will make that fan truly as the fan of animation medium. I think being too obsessed with one form of media is not healthy as there are infinite ways for artists to make artistic expression and entertainment. Decades from now, there will be another form of animation which is different from anime and it will just as interesting and engaging. I can’t predict future, but just look at history. We moved from cave paintings to computer graphics, so who knows what’s going to be next art medium that will stir the hearts of young people?

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