Ever since Sakugabooru’s beginnings, and especially once we launched this Sakuga Blog, people have been approaching us asking for tips to get into animation appreciation. We’ve been building a solid foundation of 101 production knowledge you need, but there are some daunting steps after you’ve generally grasped how anime is made. One of them stands out in particular, since it’s the least intuitive one and ties into the particularities of the Japanese industry; the room for expression individual key animators are given has led to fans getting used to identifying their cuts, which might seem like dark wizardry to the eyes of a newcomer. Today I’ll be compiling a series of tips for beginners who are curious about that, to explain how to approach this situation – and perhaps more importantly, why you shouldn’t worry about it.
- The shapes of the drawings: Unsurprisingly, the first thing you should do when trying to identify an artist is look at their drawings. Facial expressions, hair, fabric, they all have their individual tells waiting to be uncovered. Animator reels and artist tags on Sakugabooru will be your greatest assets here; by observing someone’s work in isolation, noticing recurring patterns becomes way easier. I suggest people start by looking at effects animation – not only is it a major element in anime’s visual repertoire, but it’s also very suited to picking up idiosyncrasies. Unlike characters and props, there are no model sheets to follow for explosions, meaning that there’s extra freedom for key animators to do their own thing. As long as it’s not heavily corrected by an animation director, smoke, water and the likes are excellent outlets for personal voices.
If there’s something I want to make clear it’s that you don’t have to stick to fan favorites and popular figures. Animators like Yutaka ‘yutapon’ Nakamura are well known and easy to identify, but you should focus on creators who resonate with you. These personal tells are very common after all – from Kazuhiro Ota’s arcs presents all over his Toei work to Takashi Kojima’s irregular FX curtains, there’s way more to Japanese animation than Kanada Dragons and the other five terms that are always brought up.
- Animation timing and the feel of motion: Examining static elements is far from the only way to study animators, as you might have imagined. There are aspects that only surface when in motion, which is how you’re supposed to experience the work to begin with. The concept of timing is less straightforward than the shapes of drawings, but it’s something you instinctively grasp. And while animators modulate the flow depending on what they want to convey – speed, impact, delicacy, eeriness – they still have their own leanings. For the sake of simplicity I’m including aspects here that aren’t quite the timing but relate to how these cuts feel in motion; I’m not just talking about approaches to animation like the Kanada Style then, but also feelings like elasticity. And as I said previously, feel free to explore creators who personally appeal to you. It’s obviously easy to identify Hiroyuki Imaishi’s wild motion, but there are many more animators with strong presences you can detect – Tatsuya Sato’s bold animation befitting emotional outbursts that I recently wrote about, Ryoma Ebata’s stylish movement that has been enamoring people as of late, Masayuki Nonaka’s bouncy work… Don’t limit yourself to popular names and other people’s favorites!
- Credits: If you have been into the world of sakuga for a while, chances are that this sounds like a no-brainer which seems silly to even bring up. For newcomers, though, this is a fundamental step that they don’t always think about. When people make their educated guesses as to who animated what, they don’t do it based off the massive pool of active key animators in the industry, but by looking at the much smaller list of artists credited on that particular episode or film. By taking the hints obtained from those first two points and examining the group of animators at hand, the list of suspects is reduced to something much more manageable – if you’re lucky, straight up just one individual, giving you an easy end to this guessing game. This is no flawless approach since some people choose to animate uncredited for a variety of reasons, but those are exceptions you’re better off not worrying about for now.
- No shame!: And since we’re dealing with the attitude more than the methodology at this point, I feel it’s also important to stress out that there’s absolutely nothing wrong with getting it wrong. The entirety of Sakugabooru’s userbase has been off at some point. Sakuga Blog’s team have made mistakes. The frankly amazing Japanese experts have also made plenty of wrong assumptions. Even animators themselves often hypothesize about authorship and can make mistakes about artists they personally know! I’ve received plenty of messages by beginners with sound guesswork that happen to be wrong because that particular animator just wasn’t involved, and those might actually make me the happiest; proof that there’s no magic or even restrictive talent at work here, and that all fans can quickly start identifying styles they’re fond of. We all joke about it, but there really is no downside to being wrong about something as inconsequential as this. Don’t be afraid to start making your own deductions. You can even approach the animators themselves on social media, since for the most part they’re absolutely delighted when they see people all around the globe appreciating their individual work.
People who only just started paying attention to the hands behind the anime they enjoy are bewildered by the idea of correctly guessing the key animator in charge of one scene. That’s something I personally experienced at one point too, so I’d love to make the learning process easier for new waves of animation fans. This short guide won’t grant you mystic eyes of sakuga perception overnight, but hopefully it’ll put you on the right track as to what to look out for and explain which attitude works best. There are way more factors that determine an animator’s style than those I talked about of course, from their usage of layers to their distinct approach to layouts, but there’s no point in overwhelming beginners with more complex matters.
And with that out of the way – why? What’s the point of identifying animators to begin with? Authorship is of course important; this is particularly true for people actually pursuing animation as a subject of study, as well as archival projects like our Sakugabooru. But when it comes to serious academic endeavors a confirmation is needed – be it through the artists themselves or another reputable source – so a trained eye isn’t enough. What about fans with no scholarly pretensions then? Casual appreciation also benefits from this knowledge, since no creator can fully distance their own being from their output, and understanding the former can be critical in grasping their oeuvre. There’s a catch to this as well, however; this is only truly relevant with holistic approaches, and arguably less of an issue with animators and more about directors. The vast majority of anime discussion, no matter the aspect it focuses on, revolves around specific moments and titles, not the entire careers of artists. And while knowledge about an artist and their influences will help you understand the features of a particular cut, its value as a piece of animation is inherent. On a scene-to-scene basis, you won’t really gain further appreciation of the art by knowing whose hand created it.
To recap things then, the ability to correctly guess animators is a flawed tool for specialists, and a very situational skill for fans, only really useful when they want to explore a creator’s entire output. That being the case, how did it become a fundamental aspect of the sakuga fandom? The truth is that it never was, it simply got perceived as such because it’s a practice unlike what any other groups of fans do. Anime allows you to identify individual key animators with relative ease and thus become attached to them, but it’s important to keep your priorities straight. Being able to spot animators is a neat consequence, never the actual goal. It will allow you to properly credit artists who deserve it, as well as make it easy for you to follow people whose style you enjoy through different series. And yet, a name can’t escape being just a detail. Never forget that everyone’s favorite creator, the animator with more uploads than anyone else on Sakugabooru, is our dear Artist Unknown.
You can tell it was a serious post because there’s no awful pun in the title. Well, kinda.