How To Define the “Best-Looking Anime”

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Visual Cohesion and Flow in Anime:

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What I love about animation as a medium (and what makes it my medium of choice when it comes to watching and analyzing stuff) is that there are so many different elements which go into creating it. Having so many different components means that there are that many more ways in which animation can be done right; but it also means that there are that many more ways in which it can be done wrong. Anime reviewers tend to look at all of the different elements which make up an animation, and then attempt to qualify how well each of those elements was handled. They tend to follow a system which looks something like this:

Story, Art, Sound, Character, Enjoyment, and Overall. Personally, I find these kinds of broad categories to be wildly unhelpful. Aren’t the characters a part of the story? Isn’t enjoyment derived from how well all of these elements were combined–making it pretty similar to Overall? What does it mean to have good story, or good art or sound? In the interest of creating a more helpful metric to go about judging these things, I think it’s important for us to look at animation in a bit more depth, and to really think about all of the different elements which comprise it.

In this video, I’ll be tackling the “Art” category, though I think it’ll be much more helpful if we refer to it as, “visuals.” After all, any part of a show can be called art, but I think “visuals” makes it pretty clear that I’m talking about what the viewer is literally seeing on-screen. I’ll be breaking the visual elements down into six categories: Animation Quality/Directing, Background/Setting Design, Character/Mechanical Design, Shot Composition/Flow, Color Design/Digital Processing, and Consistency; and then describing how each can be done well, or done poorly.

  1. Animation Quality/Directing

Animation quality is probably the easiest thing for the average anime critic to notice about a show’s visual design. After all, it’s not hard to tell if the images on-screen are moving with a lot more fluidity and detail than what you’re used to seeing in TV anime–which, if you’ve watched a lot of it, is little to none at all. Most anime is pretty cheaply made and stationary–so when suddenly everything on-screen is moving, it tends to stand out a lot.

However, while a high level of movement can be impressive in itself, I think that animation directing plays a much bigger role in creating memorable moments, and in making sure that the animation makes sense and flows well. Examples of great animation directing are all over the place; go watch a Sakuga MAD or any fight scene animated by Bones, and you’ll witness some incredibly well-choreographed, timed, and animated sequences. However, I think it’s possible to have animation with high-quality movement that ends up being unmemorable thanks to lackluster direction. Not everyone will necessarily agree with my picks, as I’ve seen others praising these works for their animation; but personally, I don’t feel that these shows stack up in comparison to other, similar works.

Black God, or Kurokami, has been known pretty much exclusively for the highly fluid animation of its fight scenes. However, I’ve always found the fights to be really confusing and unmemorable due to their awkward use of space and low-impact attacks. Every fight looks like it’s happening on a 2-dimensional plane, even when that obviously isn’t meant to be the case, and the individual attacks have no real sense of punch. Compare this against the famous sword duel from the final scene of Studio Bones’ Sword of the Stranger. Every single swing of the blade feels dangerous, unique, and memorable, as the characters navigate a huge and easily-understood space. I’m not saying that Kurokami sucks for not matching up to one of the best action scenes ever animated, but it definitely lends some perspective to how things can be done much better than when Kurokami provides.

For an even more extreme example, a film which bothered me to no end with its animation was Nerawareta Gakuen. The best way I can explain it is that the film is overanimated, to an extent where none of the movement feels natural. Instead of looking cool, it’s mostly just awkward–and the entire film is like this constantly. Compare that against one of my favorite animation cuts in Space Dandy (which happens to be from the same animator who did that scene from Stranger). This scene comes in the middle of an otherwise mostly normal-looking episode, and stands out because the livelihood of the animation fits with the theme of the song and the scene surrounding it. These cuts are super-memorable, even though the characters move almost too much, because it feels natural in the scene for them to move that way.

Again, I do think it’s impressive any time that a show can feature highly fluid and detailed animation–but I think that the truly well-directed animations are the ones that stand out above all the rest, and deserve to be recognized for just how special they really are.

  1. Background/Setting Design

This is also pretty easy to figure out. Some shows have really interesting and well-illustrated backgrounds and settings, whereas others take place in perfectly generic copy-pasted schools. However, this is another case wherein there’s a difference between backgrounds which are just drawn well, and those which are also designed well–which I’ll get into through some examples.

Guilty Crown is a show with a lot of highly-detailed and intricate locations which I found to be completely unmemorable in the episodes that I watched. I never felt like I had a real sense of where the action was taking place, because all of the locations just seemed like generic blown-out buildings and futuristic slum fare. There’s no real sense of atmosphere or personality to the setting, in spite of how well-drawn the backgrounds are.

Compare this against the art in another sci-fi thriller with lots of futuristic slums, Texhnolyze. This city is not only filled with detail, but it also carries a persistent atmosphere of grime, despair, and poverty. Everything has this worn-in and rusty look to it, which constantly gives you the impression that this place and the people in it have completely gone to shit. More than anything in the show, the tone of the setting is what really gets into your bones and sticks with you when watching Texhnolyze, because it’s such an uncomfortable yet impeccably crafted setting.

Having just the right sense of design and use of detail can be the difference between a memorable setting and a generic one. I have seen thousands of cookie-cutter anime schools in my day; yet I can instantly recognize the school from K-On because of how it was filled with so many little details, and made to look like a real, specific location–because it literally was based on an actual school down to a photographic level. I’m confident that if I visited this school, based solely on having watched all of K-On, I could find my way to the music room without any assistance, just because of how memorable the landmarks of the setting were in the show.

  1. Character/Mechanical Design

This is where things get a little bit more complicated. Again, I think it’s pretty easy for most people to tell the difference between memorable designs and generic ones, though the range of what the audience prefers will ultimately come down to the individual. On the technical level though, it’s definitely true that there are certain designs which translate well into animations, and others which do so with much more difficulty.

Most of the worst examples come from anime adaptations of manga and light novels. After all, when it comes to non-moving pictures, it tends to be the carefully crafted and detailed drawings which attract the most attention; and care is given mostly to how cool the characters will look on the page without any thought to how those characters would move in 3-dimensional space. If you’ve looked at pretty much any light novel covers and then looked at their anime adaptations, then you’ll have seen how the animation team had to compromise the prettiness and cleanness of the original designs in order for them to work in animation; and even then, a lot of the time it’s just impossible to make them look right consistently. I always think of Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai as an example of a series which has gorgeously attractive character art that completely falls apart when drawn from different angles or put into motion; or Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure as a show that gave up on trying to have its characters move, and just went with having the most stylistic still frames possible at all times.

It’s for this reason that most original anime tends to favor designs which are less complex and difficult to draw, and more rely on having a few memorable characteristics that set them apart. For instance, the cast of Gurren Lagann are each known for their iconic outfits, accessories, and color palettes, more so than for being beautifully drawn in individual shots. Kill la Kill is a show which rides this line perfectly, with characters that work well in animation, but have such memorable costumes and body types that they stand out in illustrations as well.

I also threw mechanical design in with this category, simply because it follows the same principles as character design, and is also an important part of creating memorable visuals in shows which incorporate mechanical elements.

  1. Shot Composition/Flow

I’ve already made a separate video about what good visual flow looks like in animation, and on how rare it is to see shows which handle it exceptionally well. It’s also pretty rare to see shows which handle it exceptionally poorly, but if you want the perfect example, look no further than Gundam G-Reco. Despite being excellent in just about every other visual category, the flow of its directing is so awkward and jarring that the majority of scenes are completely incomprehensible. The flow is bad enough to almost completely kill the entire show.

Shot composition, meanwhile, is more about the attractiveness of each individual frame, and has a lot to do with creating good flow in itself. This is one of the things which doesn’t carry over quite as poorly from manga as a lot of other elements do, considering that manga also has to concern itself with panel composition; but we can start to see tons of really awkward and bland shot composition when we look into low and mid-grade light novel adaptations.

Because the average light novel consists mostly of characters sitting or standing around talking, a lot of their adaptations have a really awkward time figuring out how to make those scenes visually engaging in animation. We get a lot of scenes of characters standing around awkwardly and talking forever, which just feels boring and lame to watch.

One director and studio who have banked everything on making these types of conversations interesting through shot composition is Akiyuki Shinbo and studio SHAFT. This team has long been infamous for trying to cover up their lack of animation budget and largely stationary scripts by throwing as many strange and visually engaging frames at the viewer as they can muster–and a lot of the times, it works out really well. The Monogatari franchise has managed to be one of the most visually engaging TV anime out there in spite of being almost exclusively dialog-driven and fairly light on movement altogether.

However, you don’t have to go down the road of experimentation just to make a conversation a bit easier to watch. Check out this scene from the first episode of Baccano, in which the layout of the shots and location, the acting of the characters, and the overall aesthetic manages to be engaging on its own, without anything really moving around or any crazy stuff going on.

Shot composition can also be used to convey deeper emotions and subtleties in the storyline when used well. Hideaki Anno is arguably the master of shot composition in anime, with Neon Genesis Evangelion being his magnum opus. He can convey the sensations of loneliness, distance, and solitude that Shinji feels just by his position in the frame, and brings tension to exposition scenes in the first episode just by cutting off the eyes or mouths of the people talking, to give them a more mysterious and unsettling presence. If any series is really deserving of a shot-for-shot analytical breakdown, it’s that one.

  1. Color Design/Digital Processing

This is a bit harder for me to explain because I don’t completely understand it myself, being the most uncoordinated person on earth when it comes to colors. Still, even though this aspect doesn’t get talked about much in anime criticism, I think it’s pretty easy to tell when a series makes excellent use of colors or has a cohesive and distinct palette, versus looking kind of awkward and janky like a lot of shows from the early 2000s had a tendency to.

For another example of a show that did everything right except for colors, but then also did colors perfectly at times, I’m going to, perhaps controversially, look at Space Dandy. Some of the settings and color designs in Space Dandy, especially in the early episodes, are kind of bland in comparison to the show’s awesome designs and godlike animation. For instance, the interior of Dandy’s ship or the Boobie’s restaurant have this implacably unappealing color scheme that just did not work for me at all.

Luckily though, Dandy is a show that constantly changed up its visual style, and incorporated the ideas and talents of a huge number of creative minds; so we also get stuff like episode eight of season two, which had some of the most attractive and memorable setting and color design that I saw in 2014. I’m always a fan of bold, high-contrast blues and reds and the like, so this episode was like a visual feast for me.

Digital processing is also something that I don’t really understand, other than that UFOTable have mastered it somehow, and by golly is it impressive.

  1. Consistency

This is pretty self-explanatory, but it’s also one of the biggest hurdles that most anime have to face visually. Anime production occurs on a constant time crunch by severely overworked and underpaid teams, and it’s easy for everything to go wrong even in a high-budget productions. If you’ve not started watching Shirobako, then I advise doing so, as it exists as a sort of guide to all of the things that can go wrong to effect the consistency of a show’s animation. A lot of older anime especially tend to fall apart when it comes to consistency, since every frame had to be totally hand-drawn from start to finish back then, which only complicated the process further. I’m not sure there exists a TV anime which is both visually impressive in every category and consistently good-looking to boot, though Cowboy Bebop, Space Dandy, and Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex probably come the closest.

I’m sure that there are more ways in which a show’s visuals could be broken down further, and bear in mind that while I am a diehard fan of animation, I am not actually an animation student, so there may be some more technical terminology and theory behind the things which I’ve described here. That said, I hope that this quick rundown has been enough to help you to break down the visual component of animation in more depth, and that it can lead to some deeper and more interesting criticism on the subject. I certainly intend to share more examples of shows which use some of these elements well in the future, so stick around on my channel if you want to see more breakdowns of this nature.

By the way guys, I’d like to give a massive thanks to everyone who supported my channel over the five days that it was suspended in the past week. It meant a lot to see that so many people cared enough about my content to try and fight to get it back; and that definitely helped motivate me to keep pushing to reclaim it. In case this happens again in the future, I highly recommend following me on twitter, where I post any updates that I have on the channel, as well as generally tweet about the shows which I’m watching and stuff like that. You can also follow my channel Digibro After Dark, which is where I put out the video giving the details when my channel went down, and also where I’ll be sharing the details of how I got it back.

As always, if you want to help me to be able to continue creating this content, then consider supporting me by becoming a patron or by sending donations via paypal; and once again, thanks a ton to everyone who has continued to support me through all of this, both financially and otherwise. I love you all, and I’ll see you in the next one!

1 thought on “How To Define the “Best-Looking Anime”

  1. An important dimension that a lot of people seem to miss is whether the anime will look good by the time the people who read the review come around to it. There are way too many flash-in-the-pans who people look fantastic now, but in a year? 3 years? They’ll look hokey and outdated, since the impressive stuff won’t look impressive at all anymore (everyone will be doing it, as the state of the art progresses very quickly). Limiting your review to your current impressions can easily be selling your audience short.

    So what I guess I’m saying is thanks for writing a bit more in-depth about this stuff, so people can grasp why things like framing and the “feel” of the animation are often more important than simpler concepts like fluidity of motion.

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