Howdy, everyone. Hope you’re all in good shape and we’re all gonna be around long enough in this cold war 2.0 shitshow of ours. In the meanwhile, let’s talk about how we talk about animation and fundamentally misapproach it in a lot of ways.
“Sakuga” is a term that by now, is no more just an entirely niché word but only a half-one. Originally refering to the term “animation” but just in Japanese, it was, at some point, adapted by the Western anime fandom ‘sphere and then attributed to good animation specifically, with a sakuga fandom sprawling forth, a.k.a. the nerds out there who are really just that much into identifying and categorising specific animators’ (or other staff member’s) works, ideally through highly individualistic clips and excerpts from anime.
This all in all over the years started out on a smaller scale back when 4chan’s text boards were still around and you still had dedicated sakuga blogs like raito-kun’s (just to give you an idea of this kind of stuff) and nowadays has an entire booru with an according blog on the ins and outs of artistry and production conditions attached to it. So far so good. Folks showing genuine interest in something in pursuit of a greater understanding are something I find to be very sympathetic in our day and age of quick Internet ironic one-liners with big statements backed up by little knowledge. Looking at you, anime YouTubers, MAL posters and redditors. Simply put, there are people who recognize good animation when they see it (a skill less spread among anime fans than you might think) and turn it into a science.
Except, and this is my point, it’s not really a science most of the time and when it is, it’s so banal it reminds me more of data storage.
There are two fundamental issues with sakuga “discourse” if you will that a lot of people fall into.
1.) Soulless Staff List Posting
2.) Guessing Animators And Treating Guesses As Fact
First of all, let’s delve into the former, shall we?
Staff list posting refers to the act of spreading the word on who’s in charge of a specific anime episode in this case. Which per se isn’t a bad thing, especially for research and archivation purposes. The problem is that, for some reason, some people perceive it as this oh-so-serious and important thing to the point where it’s just a tool to go through the motions for Internet cred.
In the most absurd scenario, there are people who just… don’t watch anime. But will post episodic staff lists and state how good this episode surely will be that… they have no intention of watching. What? Do you even like anime? It becomes an exercise in itself. Like people who don’t care about a topic but only about the analysis itself, delivering output bereft of any opinions. It’s un-anime anime commentary if you will, excluding any holistic or emotional approach and that’s just kind of insane. It feels like dissection for the sake of it rather than engagement with art. Or are you just in this for the artsy recognition twitter points? Posting staff lists isn’t even any kind of effort or artsy anyway. It’s just copypasting information. I mean, if you’re the dude transcribing names from Japanese into romaji, alright, you deserve all the credit. But the rest of the pathetic lot? They might as well be automated bots. All they do is go through the motions. Watching anime? Boring. Copypasting? Exciting. I wonder if this is similar to masturbation to yourself.
The posting of staff lists with the least amount of insight possible that just barely meets the bare minimum with comments like “Honda Suzuki, who is a good friend of Toyota Mitsubishi, has worked as an assistant director on episode #03 of Forgettable Seasonal Anime Fluff Entertainment so there might be some parallels to That One Episode From That Other Anime Five Seasons Prior You’ve Already Forgotten About” is just nauseating. This is what happens when you have words but nothing to say. These people add nothing of value and have little to show for apart from excel sheets that contain a lot of names and corresponding episode numbers. It’s embarrassing, really. Some of the biggest dumpster fires of anime get intellectualized like that all in the process of not caring.
Will this ever change? Probably not. Correct and truthful staff knowledge is not very accessible due to the language barrier and most production insights kept behind close doors. And this is why so much of Sakuga Truthery resorts to guessing and pretending that you have The Know based on the very limited information available. Staff lists get posted a lot because they’re accessible. They require no hard-to-come-by knowledge, insight or effort. Going out of your way to talk to animators, extracting knowledge from them and translating staff interviews is what this should be about but that would kill about 99% of the community so we can’t have that. Not that I care all that much about sakuga anymore compared to 10 years ago or so but it’s an observation I’ve made. I mean, I occasionally translate staff interviews. I think that’s cool. Because I feel like I’m adding additional value and these are also pieces of media that I care about. Which is the complete opposite to vomitting names into the ether for things you don’t care about. It’s also a whole lot closer to the actual behind the scenes processes.
And this is the next of my problems. A lot of what’s being said is not straight from the horse’s mouth but just theorycrafting on which part was done by which person. This in general is conflated with the issue that with bigger projects, most of what’s in them get attributed to The Main Guy. That’s not exclusive to sakuga nerdism of course. It’s almost impossible to find a movie review without the reviewer attributing everything in the film to the director. The scriptwriter, if anything, might get a small mention. Critics act as if they could somehow reverse engineer who was in charge of which decision through the mere act of watching and that entire notion is ludicrous and disrespectful to the other staff.
But that would kill the simple-natured strong statements with scientic flair and that’s a no-go. Film criticism would have to admit that at best, with production commentary, it desperately flails in the dark with simplistic, reductionist statements. And we can’t have that, can we? For the writer, the critic, the person of knowledge is God.
If anything, it reminds me of those dregs who really like to be pretentious about the Dark Souls franchise and will tell you that everything they didn’t like in Dark Souls 2 stems from the fact that Miyazaki wasn’t directly involved with the game and then ramble on about an A team or a B team (which is seen as lesser because who doesn’t have an officially designated Bad Team at his workplace), even though FROM SOFTWARE themselves have stated that they shuffle teams and organize them based on demand and challenges (you know, the way a company does) but never let official sources tell you better, they don’t know anything!
The same applies to sakuga discourse to a certain degree. Luckily, most people there won’t ever foolishly attribute the whole of everything to a director. But it’s not entirely unheard of actually.
One anime that fell victim to this logic was Kare Kano. Throughout the years, even The Internet’s Most-Trusted Anime News Source (competitors: kinda zero, let’s be honest) That Also Doesn’t Pay Its Interns (more zeros for everyone, yay!) has kept spreading the notion that Hideaki Anno, the creator of the Evangelion franchise, was in charge of direction for the first 18 episodes and then quit because of bad relations with the manga author or something. You can of course imagine what kind of damage that does to the perception of the work. Except that’s factually wrong and a glance at the credits tells you as much.
It’s not just ANN, though. We had all those auteur connoisseurs and sakuga experts back in the day doing a group rewatch of Kare Kano, with all of them agreeing to drop it right when “Anno steps out” and the ones having seen the “non-Anno” episodes stating that they are so much worse and just “lack the Anno directing and you can tell”.
And when you have “science” about applying individual animated cuts to certain individuals based on guesswork, things get a lot shakier.
The above tweet was especially hilarious because it turned into an online shitshow of a flamewar between ANN staff finally getting to fight back against all these years of (entirely deserved) ridicule, making comments along the lines of “You don’t have the wisdom you always claimed! You’re pseudo-intellectual, elitist posers!” (factually correct), which then met the retaliation of “Oh yeah? You’re shit at your job in general and don’t ever get anything right!” (also factually correct).
Yet how could this be? You care and you research and yet you’re still wrong? Well, that’s just how life works at the end of the day. Just because something makes sense doesn’t mean it’s true. You’re writing reality fanfic based on educated guesses. It feels a lot like when the football world cup gets going and every fatass in front of the TV acts like THEY know why a team has performed in a certain way and pretends to be the national team coach. Which all ironically feels like it’s just one step above the good ol’ “the animation is good/bad because of the budget!!!” shit that these sakuga connoisseurs themselves (rightfully) despise so much.
Also, let’s be honest for a second, it’s really hard to tell who animated what anyway since almost every modern anime makes a lot of effort to make every episode look consistent. This isn’t Yu-Gi-Oh! DM where animation directors made so much of a difference in style you could safely point out which episode was done by whom.
These things are touted as facts because they make sense and follow an internal logic but many things in the world do despite not necessarily being true.
At the end of the day, no matter how educated the guess, it’s still just a guess. You’re building layer upon layer on a foundament that might just be wrong and then everything collapses.
I guess it’s like this because it’s a pick between having nothing to say and making ‘educated’ guesswork. People try to inject meaning into something even as shallow as your average seasonal anime through many means, some of them being 5.000 words long posts on the existence of self in Haruhi Suzumiya, others this kind of guess-the-staff gambling and it’s really not more than that. At the end of the day, the anime industry is a business like any other, you might as well guess why something was done in an excel sheet in a certain way at the local office job – sure, you can come up with a theory that makes sense but that doesn’t mean it’s true. It’s theorycrafting.
I guess people play this game of making assumptions as it’s become part of their identity – but I’m not sure if your identity should revolve around something like that, least if it’s all a gamble on whether you’re right or not. Because see, this is the fundamental issue: You literally don’t know what you’re doing.
You’re pretending you can see inside a black box. News flash, you can’t. You are not omnipotent. Just another guesser on the Web 2.0 who makes up pieces of information on the Internet according to his limited knowledge and world view. Kinda like the playground kids whose dads work at Nintendo but the adult version of that.
The core problem is that these people want a more meaningful way to engage with fiction beyond “X was good because of reasons A, B & C” but that requires so much more than they are capable of/than what is accessible to them so it just becomes a game of make-believe. You have words. You have the biggest words. But you won’t take responsibility for them.
But that’s alright because once you take into account that half of sakuga discourse is based on nothing and might be completely wrong, the entirety of it crumbles so it’s an unspoken agreement to just go on with the process. Art cliques live from incestuous validation. If everyone agrees on the nonsense voodoo hand reading, it becomes a truthful analysis.
But I get it, you need the twitter credentials and hipster points. Anime is seen as low-brow after all. You want to be taken seriously at the dinner table and if not that, in your online circles. And who cares about the pursuit of truth anyway. This is about you pursuing self-worth after all and what better place to do that than people trying to intellectualize art in their circlejerks.
I for one find all of this to be incredibly cumbersome and annoying. You either have staff lists that don’t say anything or commentary with great statements with no basis to state anything on. And while I do understand the interest in the craft of animation as a whole and very much appreciate that there are people willing to go the extra length to specialize in a field wherein the average anime fan has no clue yet always the loudest voice (remember when Fate/zero, as unanimated as it was, was hailed an animation masterpiece because of ufotable’s post-processing? Or Naruto vs Pain? Or that TTGL episode?), it’s certainly not for me as I just find it nauseating to seasonally pretend to care about forgettable trash like Akebi-chan or Bisque Doll getting the luxury treatment so I can gush over shows I wouldn’t even consider to pay attention to otherwise. It’s like watching Idolmaster and having your brain rot in the progress as you’re turning a component of that show into science. Most seasonal anime are so bad the mere act of trying to engage with components of them on an analytical level throughout three entire months sounds bothersome to me. The many sakuga MADs back in the days were certainly more refreshing than that. But hey, if you like that, more power to you! You do you.
But it’s not all that bad. A lot of people are aware of what I’m saying. Several of the most outspoken writers know Japanese and even have contacts with animators. Some animators have twitter accounts and state which parts they worked on. Sakugabooru discerns between verified and unverified contributions. And, in general, I consider it a plus that this kind of angle gets elaborated on in the first place and even spreads knowledge about the industry’s barbaric mismanagement and poor treatment of its workers with the mass output of seasonal anime and exploitation of vastly underpaid man power equally on the rise. A critical lense at big MAPPA projects like Attack on Titan and Jujutsu Kaisen is always welcome contrary to the Internet’s collective teenager screeching at these shows about screeching teenagers. In 2022, anime fandom and Japanese animators are more connected than ever, to the point even where production messes from MAPPA and CloverWorks will contact you if you just put “animator” in your twitter bio to rescue their insane schedule. Alright, maybe that’s not necessarily a good thing per se but when you have Wonder Egg Priority episodes where half of an episode’s animator names stems from anitwitter, you sure get a feeling of connection between the medium and its international fandom. And that’s a wonderful thing.
So go ahead and strive to be a glorious smear instead of the filthy inbetween you are.