Perfecting anime: What makes the difference?

I’ve never seen someone talk about a ‘perfect’ piece of art except as an exaggeration. Even when we’re totally ‘satisfied’ by what we’ve watched, we’ve already accepted that after a certain number of rewatches we’ll come to find something in what we’ve seen that sticks out as a fault. Still, as much as true ‘perfection’ in art is an illusion, it’s something every creative person thrives for: the exact execution of what they have in mind.

But with a process as multifaceted as anime production, how can all these individual visions flourish in the way they want to?

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There’s been an over-reliance in anime criticism on focusing on the members of staff whose names stand out more than most: Mari Okada often gets credited for more than she contributes. Film analysis tends to thrive of exposing the secrets of the craft of one great director after another, and there’s much to say about what visionaries like Makoto Shinkai and Naoko Yamada have brought to Japanese animation over the past decade. But when we talk about anime as a creative product, we have to put the idea of a community first – key animators, background artists, voice actors and so many more roles come together to bring a show to life.

A core difference between animation and cinematic film is a matter of apparatus. In his book The Anime Machine, Thomas Lamarre asserts that in order for criticism and scholarship on animation to be effective, it must understand that the mechanisms involved in creating anime are different than those for films shot through camera equipment. As much as anime can be read through many cinematographic lenses, its fundamental apparatus is distinct. There is no camera in animation, no singular technological ‘eye’ moved from shot to shot around a continually existing body of material to view. Rather, characters are re-composed for every new key frame, and there are multiple illustrators and correctors for the different stages of the animation process. The storyboard may plot out angles of perspective, but the life of the characters is the product of the creativity of these different animators, and the actors who then provide a voice to them. It is easy for the diversity of talents that come together in forming an animated ‘character’ to be lost among concerns over who had the ultimate say over who they were or how they were ‘meant’ to be portrayed.

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It’s worth returning to the apparatus theory that underlines much of modern film criticism, for ideas towards how the collaboration between creatives in anime could be best expressed. In a canonical article on the Ideological Effects of the Basic Cinematographic Apparatus, Jean-Louis Baudry emphasizes that the art of film is executed through the denial of one of its most important facets – ‘difference’. Cameras shoot footage at a certain number of frames per second; in order for a film to be produced, these frames must be taken as images, and the emptiness between them negated. Baudry writes:

[…] on the technical level the question becomes one of the adoption of a very small difference between images, such that each image, in consequence of an organic factor [presumably persistence of vision] is rendered incapable of being seen as such. In this sense we could say that film […] lives on the denial of difference: the difference is necessary for it to live, but it lives on its negation. […] The projection mechanism allows the differential elements (the discontinuity inscribed by the camera) to be suppressed, bringing only the relation into play. (42-43)

Baudry talks of the ‘difference’ between frames, but his emphasis can extend to the distance between different camera angles and further beyond into considering how animation functions through its own denial of ‘difference’.

A common concern for fans of the aesthetics of animation – particularly its capacity for character acting – is when characters are rendered off-model. While some shows operate off liberties being taken loosely with character’s appearances, others strive to be more uniform, and collapse when a face in one shot doesn’t look nearly as well-rendered in another: this is a common result of production issues, like those Orange faced midway into its airing. When this happens for a show where we’re led to expect conformity, we’re not only reminded of the artificial aspect of the work. We’re given the impression that it’s incompetent, lacking unity. Inconsistency between key frames signifies a ‘difference’ between one vision of a character and another, which can disrupt their agency entirely.

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There are other possible effects though: occasionally alternating to chibi-fied versions of characters, often seen in slice-of-life shows, can convey a positive sense of artifice and unnaturalness that maintains our focus because those chibis have their own uniformity, while playing upon a difference that is emphasized rather than denied. Even more ‘serious’ shows like Gakkou Gurashi can use this to their advantage; the characters’ attempts to make fluffy slice-of-life antics, in order to escape the reality of the apocalypse, is intensified by the use of chibi cut-ins during these lighter scenes. The ‘difference’ between the characters and their chibi expressions, rather than disrupt continuity of creative vision, enhances the range of performance the girls can possess on-screen.

This relationship between one expression layered on another feeds into a dynamic of animation as a whole. When I attended an exhibit on ‘Anime Architecture’ earlier this year at London’s House of Illustration, I was drawn to how the drawings on display explored a sense of process as much as they expressed the artists’ visions on society and its potential futures. The backgrounds for Rintaro’s Metropolis were drawn in split layers which were then composited together. While studying these illustrations, the process leapt out at me as a microcosm for anime production as a whole – it’s not about perfecting one particular layer or another, but perfecting how they come together: it’s all about composition.

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Like the layers of Metropolis, animation is not wrought through a single lens, but instead brought together through a diverse range of creative engines whose differences are negated in order to form a singular product. Anime is produced in layers, and these are composed onto one another in a process wholly different from cinema. This cooperates with another layer of composition; as Lamarre observes in The Anime Machine:

[…] anime worlds or anime cultures that blur the boundary between production and reception, with fans participating enthusiastically in the dissemination of products and in the transformation of media and narrative worlds (xiv)

There is much to say about the history of artforms like theatre being driven in part by audiences as collaborators, but only in the age of new media – the internet, the memetic drive for the deconstruction and reconstruction of images – have we seen the creativity of fandoms become so influential on how anime is expressed and received worldwide. How else would Kemono Friends have received such acclaim? How would Yuri on Ice have dominated social media without the obsessed artistry of its fandoms? A single director will still have a vision for their ‘perfection’, but the expression of anime is a case of compositing countless layers of expression and reception into a tumult of constantly renewing creative energy. Anime necessitates the coming-together of countless different dreams and desires.

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If compositing is the mainstay in a medium rather than a singular perspective, then perfection is not an individual’s viewpoint – the ‘eye’ of one beholder – but rather a matter for the multitude. It must be the negation of the differences between all the components’ own visions of perfection. A particular piece of sakuga may fulfill its creator’s wishes, but it must co-operate with other aspects in order for its beauty to be registered by the masses. A character designer may favour one character most, but the ‘best girl’ is the girl who appeals to a vast and various sea of desires for virtual performance.

While the denial of ‘difference’ drives cinema, it also fuels the way we appreciate animation. Shirobako makes a great example of how many different parts there are to producing anime, and how distant some can be to others. But they all come together, and we all come together, in a sense of unity that defies the difference we all share in our own personal visions of perfection. Those are dreams, hopes, illusions. But in the composition that anime brings – of creators, fans, collaborators – there’s a perfection to be found that outdoes all our individual desires. Anime is ‘perfected’ in how it brings people together. It’s essential to the very foundations of its production. And there’s nothing better than being part of a community for something you love.

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