Listen to anime fans discuss the quality of a given title, and there’s a chance the term “sakuga” will pop up. Used to roughly describe the quality and difficulty of artistically creating the illusion of motion in animation, sakuga has gradually gained prominence among hardcore anime fans around the world, in no small part due to resources like Sakugabooru and just increasingly convenient access to anime. It can also be a contentious subject among anime fans, namely because its idolization can come sometimes across as either excessively niche or obnoxiously elitist. As many elements of art tend to be, sakuga is prone to passionate discussions about a very subjective thing.
I find it useful to frame surrounding fan discourses by comparing them to other areas of art and entertainment. With sakuga, the question of its “true” value is actually quite reminiscent of an ongoing debate in another area of entertainment: pro wrestling. There, the buzzword is “workrate”–defined roughly as “the quality and difficulty of creating the illusion of a wrestling match.” Sound familiar?
While there are many styles and schools of wrestling, the origin of the workrate debate stems from the difference in style between the larger and historically more widely viewed promotions, most notably WWE, and the smaller indie promotions. Because many of the indies are filled younger wrestlers inspired by veterans touted for their often spectacle-heavy styles, indie wrestling has a reputation for being filled with athletes who want to showcase their skill as many difficult-to-execute or dangerous/dangerous-looking actions as possible, e.g. a Shooting Star Press off of a ladder, to entertain a hardcore wrestling audience. In contrast, the more traditional wrestling organizations tend to value storytelling over technical execution, in part due to the desire to avoid or mitigate injuries, but also because simpler moves surrounded by a narrative can be understood by a wider audience.
Whether in anime or in pro wrestling, an attack can have more significance when it carries meaning through context. The anime Digimon Tamers features a scene where a demonic Digimon named Beelzemon performs a move called “Fist of the Beast King.” On its own, it just looks like a cool but generic technique. However, it’s also a move used by a Digimon named Leomon Beelzemon had previously cruelly slain, and Beelzemon’s own usage of it is a product of his remorse over the pain he created in Leomon’s partner.
Similarly, when wrestler Kenny Omega performed a Golden Star Powerbomb, a Bloody Sunday, a Styles Clash, and a One-Winged Angel on his opponent to win the G-1 Climax tournament, he’s recalling his history as a wrestler the history of the Bullet Club faction he led at the time. Both it and the Beelzemon scene are examples of visual storytelling. However, when the topic becomes “what’s more important, the technical performance or the story being told,” and one ends up choosing a side, the tension between the two becomes more evident.
The anime Neon Genesis Evangelion is somewhat infamous for using severe animation shortcuts in certain scenes, notably long elevator sequences that involve a single frame of animation left onscreen with some ambient noise. In a way, it almost can’t be called animation, but it’s surprisingly effective for conveying a sense of interpersonal tension or awkwardness among the characters involved. For storytelling purposes it works, but to a sakuga fan, this is simply what they’re not looking for. They take pleasure in the difficulty involved in visual storytelling. They’ll often watch an anime they weren’t invested in, simply because of the quality of the animation.
In wrestling, Hulk Hogan is one of the biggest names in history. For most of his career, he’s utilized a very simple style consisting of basic striking moves and holds, but his ability to capture the audience through those simple gestures is arguably second to none. To workrate fans, however, they’d choose a technical masterpiece with little buildup or context over a Hogan match, because wrestling to them is about seeing what is possible.
There’s a certain purity to wanting to see art or performance for the sake of it, without needing an underlying narrative, and often involves a much deeper dive into a subject—the domain of the dedicated fan. There’s also a sort of “insider” appeal derived from using industry terms like sakuga and workrate. The ability to appreciate these technical and creative aspects of their respective fields is something to be valued. And yet, the fact that this appreciation is ultimately about valuing the human skill involved is precisely what makes prioritizing such things over storytelling a potential issue. The people working meticulously animating and doing the craziest wrestling moves are often doing so at the risk of their health, and finding an ideal balance between the two is better for longevity. That balance is not necessarily the fault of the people involved, as workplace conditions and salary go a long way, but the question of whether it’s better to be a sprinter or marathon runner in life arises nevertheless.
There’re some interesting shared features here, but I think the comparison breaks down in your last paragraph when you invoke safety.
As I understand it so long as wrestling’s a live performance, there’s never going to be a way to eliminate a significant amount of the risk involved in the most athletic and startling moves. But (again, as I understand it) there are no tasks in animation (or sound design, compositing, &c &c) which inherently *have* to be done at a dangerous speed. And indeed from what I hear much good animation is precisely the result of *better* working conditions, in which people have the time to practise their craft to a higher level, with less stress and more room to experiment. There’s an ethical question about wanting to see someone leap from a great height onto someone else (or whatever) with great skill that doesn’t arise from wanting to see someone animate well. And if the anime industry was a world of marathons and not sprints, to adopt your closing metaphor, the result wouldn’t be less adventurous animation, it would just be fewer anime (in return for safer, happier workers, and probably better craft).
I’m not a sakuga fan or a wrestling fan, so I’m happy to be put right if I’ve missed something here.
I agree that the last comparison only goes so far, but it’s largely about the pushing of limits and the price that can be paid with overwork or going too far. A safer wrestling style saves the body over a long-term period, while good working conditions (e.g. allowing animators to get sleep and be paid well) can lengthen those careers. It’s less about literal drawing speed and more about forcing animators to do a lot for little.
The problem with this discussion is elevating sakuga as a purposeful aspect of anime. Frankly, that’s more a side effect/baggage in which a small portion of anime fandom has latched on to. You can create good, appealing anime without any hand-drawn animation, and if anything that’s the elephant in the room in which this meaningful comparison misses out. “Workrate” is not having an existential crisis.
I think it’s really best to have a proper balance, whether you’re talking about sakuga or workrate. With sakuga, it’s nice to have tons of great animation moving about fluidly that looks amazing, but I won’t really care to watch any of it if it’s attached to a story that I don’t care about, which tends to be the case with the sakuga-beloved anime that people focus on. Similarly, while I can appreciate a wrestling match filled with outstanding athleticism & spots, if there’s no reason for me to care about the actual wrestlers, then it’s hard for me to fully get into the match; I’ll take a match that isn’t quite as spectacular, but has characters or a storyline that I’m invested in.
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