In recent months, many critics in the Anime community have shared their thoughts on how to evaluate the quality of animation in storytelling. Thus saving us all from the great tragedy of independent thinking and coming to our own conclusions.
While many good points were raised, I feel they tended to overlook a rather important point. Animation, like sound design and tone, serves to establish an atmosphere through which the story presents itself. If these elements do not sync with each other it causes an inconsistency and disconnects the viewer from what they are watching. This dampens any impact the work may have had. Being a visual medium, Animation in anime plays the largest role in maintaining the atmosphere of a story, and results in the most beautiful of train-wrecks when it fails to. While I understand animation, like all art is inherently up to the viewer, I would also argue no one was particularly open to the bold and fresh re-imagining of Teen Titans Go. In my personal experience, most shows suffer from this inconsistency fall into three categories: First, the stories themes clash with the Author’s personal style. Second, improper usage of new technologies introduced to the animation market. Third, Character design.
The first point, the source imagery clashing with the director’s personal style, is a bit of the rarity in the anime industry. Anime directors who have garnered enough influence to the point that they can be identified by their style tend to work on original projects in which they have complete creative control over. Most of the examples of this aesthetic blunder that we have come from individual scenes or episodes, such as the infamous episode four of Gurren Lagann or the Naruto vs Pain fight in Naruto. However, in recent months we have been provided with an example of an entire series that suffers from this dilemma in the form Masaaki Yuasa’s Devilman Crybaby.
While from a technical standpoint Crybaby is a visual masterpiece, Yuasa style has a tendency to dampen the more visceral and unsettling imagery that the series is known for. Yuasa is famous for his use of a free-flowing, minimalist, and surrealistic art design. While fantastic in expressing raw emotion and internal conflict, such as in Tatami Galaxy, it does not work when it is supposed to darker imagery.
Because Yuasa’s character models move more fluidly than the human body, your brain is able to distinguish what you are watching is completely disconnected from reality, causing images of gore and body horror to come across as silly. In the same way CGI looks less convincing than practical effects in film. The Yuasa’s simplistic art-style also hampers the potential impact of scenes, as gore lacks the level of detail necessary to be convincing. Unlike most other rules in cinematography, the rule for gore is the same in animation as it is in live action; the more believable you make it, the more it will disturb your audience. The moment you require your audience to make the conclusion that they should be disturbed by what you put on screen, you’ve lost your audience. Yuasa himself has gone on record saying his art style is influenced by the works of Tex Avery, creator of the Looney Tunes. The Looney Tunes, like Yuasa, are famous for their fluid and fast animation techniques. This fast and unrealistic sense of movement allows them to get away with horrendous acts of violence, and still come across as funny. Tex Avery may have produced some great animation, but you never felt sad when Daffy Duck took a shotgun shell to the face.
Yuasa’s work also contains elements of Fauvism, a twentieth century artstyle which prioritized color and style over realistic values of impressionism. Again while beautiful in nature, Fauvism isn’t exactly a good choice to portray imagery which is supposed to shock and disturb the viewers. Its uses color as an element independent of the subject matter, and places individual expression of any form of rules or consistency. Neither of these elements are associated with cinematography techniques used in establishing dread or fear. So when the protagonist Akira return from a spree of murdering demons, as an act of revenge against the death of his parents, it’s difficult to convey the brutal nature of this moment when demon blood is mustard yellow. Instead it just looks like he beat the shit out of a hotdog vendor for screwing up his order.
Hyperviolence and heavy themes are capable of being portrayed in a truly unsettling way in anime but it needs to be done in a way which makes the violence have weight, and so the violence itself has to look realistic. For example, Hellsing Ultimate is able to portray violence in a dark and unsettling manner while still being a heavily-stylized piece of anime. Characters models are consistent and always move in anatomically feasible ways, creating the illusion these characters have actual anatomical structures which can be ripped apart. It also helps the gore is heavily detailed to the point every bone shattered is shown in excruciating violent detail. Simply put, Ultimate succeeds, where Crybaby fails because it creates a convincing image.
I personally have nothing against Yuasa and enjoy a fair amount of his work, but if the goal of the story is to shock and disturb the viewer, you’d be better off with a director with a more grounded style. The abstract art of Francisco De goya’s “Cronus Devouring his Children” may do a better job of conveying the primal nature of this act, but it will never be as disturbing as the heavily-detailed, baroque piece by Peter Paul Rubens of the same name.