The answer is obviously that it depends on the viewer’s taste–but the conversation surrounding anime visuals has grown increasingly accusatory as of late, with many visually-focused viewers insisting that anime’s first and foremost job is to present good visuals, because anime is a visual medium. This would seem like a reasonable stance to take, were it actually true.
Painting is a visual medium. In a painting, the quality of the visuals is literally all that matters, because it’s all that’s on display. But anime is most often fully written, voice acted, scored, and given sound effects on top of conveying things visually. Really, it’s an audio-visual medium, and most of that audio consists of dialog, which is written in text. Yes, it’s possible to make a great anime with no audio or writing at all; and if you kept those things and removed the animation then it would cease to be defined as anime–so in that regard, animation is the most important element; but that’s completely semantic. Drama CDs are proof positive that you can make a story work with every element of anime besides the animation.
So while I think that anime visuals do matter in that they’re necessary for something to even be considered anime and to showcase the full appeal of the medium, I don’t think that they necessarily have to be amazing–or even that it doesn’t make sense for someone’s favorite show to look like dogshit–because anime is a lot more than a visual medium. And in fact, I think most of what makes anime special is its cultural identity, and specifically the kinds of stories and formats that the medium provides.
I often hear people derisively state that if you don’t care about the visuals in anime, then why not just read a book? But this ignores structural elements, like that anime is usually split into 22-minute chunks that air once a week, which is a MASSIVE part of how they feel to consume, as is the pretty consistent series length between different shows. A book doesn’t have the ability to control the pace of its consumption in the way that anime does, and simply isn’t capable of communicating the same density of information and sensations that sound and light can provide.
Manga has no sound and usually no color, and is consumed differently; comics tend to focus on a narrower range of subject matter and have no sound as well. Film is generally not dissimilar to its anime counterpart, but live-action TV is very different in terms of what kinds of stories it is likely to tell. Not to mention there are some stories which just wouldn’t make sense in any medium other than animation, even if that animation isn’t particularly well-done.
Take, for instance, the original Pokemon anime. Looking back at that show, the level of jank in its animation is almost astounding, from the constant reuse of footage, to the off-model character art, to the looong stretches of episode that aren’t even really animated at all. But when you take a step back and ask yourself what is the appeal of Pokemon, it is obviously the Pokemon themselves being cool and cute, and wanting to know about them.
Pokemon would be horrendous as a live-action TV series or film, because the cartoon animals would be so unnatural to the show’s world. It would feel fundamentally different as a manga series, wherein the Pokemon wouldn’t have voices, or colors, or a memorable soundtrack backing them. It wouldn’t be right as a drama CD because obviously seeing the Pokemon is the main part of their appeal. It works stunningly as a video game, but the appeal of the game is so much more complicated and different from that of the show that they can hardly be compared–at least not until the later generations wherein technology has allowed them to more closely resemble one-another.
So while the visual element is integral to the appeal of the franchise, it doesn’t even really matter that the animation and art is so often sloppy. If the things that are appealing about Pokemon are what someone wants out of a piece of art, then it’s not at all unreasonable for them to think that Pokemon is the best anime. Of course, I personally feel that Pokemon has gotten better than ever before with its latest season, Sun and Moon, specifically because it has such strong visuals; but if someone told me that the original show was their favorite, perhaps just because the original 150 Pokemon are the ones they like, then I couldn’t blame or look down on them at all. I certainly wouldn’t tell them to go read a book about Pokemon.
Log Horizon doesn’t have the strongest visuals, but seeing all of the unique armor sets and background locations, and the mere existence of the opening song, elevates it above the original light novels. Some anime shows which actually could make sense as live-action series, like Rakugo Shinjuu, are better off as anime just because of the incredible budget that it would take to tell the same story effectively in live-action, as opposed to just drawing the multitude of era-appropriate settings and visual metaphors. Personally, I think that visual novel readers who get mad at anime fans for refusing to read the supposedly superior source material just don’t appreciate the world of difference between a story that you have to click on to control the pacing of, and which goes on for an indeterminate amount of time, and one that paces itself as best fits the story, with music that is tailored to the length of the scene instead of looping ad nauseum while you read, and which tells its story within a set time frame which doesn’t allow the author to just spiral out onto every random tangent in their character’s heads.
Point being, simply, that there is a lot more to anime than just visuals, and there is a lot more to anime visuals than just being of exceptional quality. For some, it’s just the fact that the show is able to communicate something which other mediums either aren’t capable of, or would handle fundamentally differently, that makes anime appealing.
Let me know how important visuals are to you in the comments. Are there any shows that you love in spite of their visuals, but which you don’t think would make sense in other mediums regardless? Share this video with anyone whom you think would appreciate it, and support me on patreon where I offer shitloads of bonus content. Follow my big playlist of all the video I make on all my channels if you want watching youtube to become a full-time unpaid job, and thanks again for watching, I’ll see you in the next one.
Things like fluid animation, staying on-model, and having thin lines are among the least important things you can consider when it come to anime visuals. Coherent, clever, and dynamic visual *direction* is where it’s at. A lone still image can convey more than the subtlest and most technically impressive body language animation.
I still vividly remember clumsy scenes like Vash the Stampede holding his arms up into the light, but I struggle to recall a single proficiently-animated bit of body language. Would-be impressive action scenes like Tohru vs Kanna can also completely fail to lead the eye and convey what’s going on because of crappy storyboarding/editing, and yet a few smash-cuts of Shinji screaming at his out-of-control Evangelion still haunt me.
And speaking of screaming, audio is where you get the bulk of your emotional conveyance. One piercing scream can be enough to completely sell a scene, while tons of smooth animation just leaves you numb after a while. Inferior animation is forgivable if there’s grand, sweeping music or stellar VA work convincing you that this silly vampire-vs-priest showdown means something. Conversely, the moment the VAs, foley, or music fail, it’s hard to care about anything that’s going on. Sure, an awful still-frame can have the same effect, but how often does that really ruin a scene compared to the audio leaving you cold?
Likewise the writing is far more important than the visuals, so much so that even something like Hero Academia can keep people watching tournament after tournament because the writing isn’t as atrocious as we’re used to. Who cares if the visuals are lovely when you feel no emotional attachment to anything going on, or find yourself enjoying writing your own replacement script for what you’re watching instead of just enjoying it?
Visuals are honestly just one small piece of the whole, and far more “bang for the buck” can be offered by other things. Anime fans seem to really struggle with that notion, and I suspect it’s largely because it’s easy to wax idiotic on a qualitative level about things like line thickness or on-model animation, but hard to do so for more important things. What else do we have to compare most anime on, after all? They’re hardly trying to be anything special beyond having a cool character or cute design or the latest pop megagroup in the OP.