Anime’s possibilities have multiplied with the growth of digital 2D animation, both in terms of techniques available and accessibility. This industry has more tools at its disposal for more people than ever, but how did we get to this point? Who are the main people responsible for all this change? And how did they convince both industry peers and audiences that this was a valid path worth heavily investing on? That’s what we’re here to address in a very special anniversary!
The growth of hand-drawn digital animation has made the anime ecosystem a much richer place. The movement behind it helped tear down walls to make the industry more accessible, and on a technical level, adding a new method of production with its own set of quirks has enabled new styles that either weren’t feasible before or straight up weren’t possible via traditional means. Anime’s most outrageous isolated showcases of animation in recent times, the likes of Fate/Apocrypha #22 and Boruto #65, tend to be mostly digital spectacles. Even some of the more consistently strong productions rest on the shoulders of digital animators, proving that we’re past the time when one-off bombastic demonstrations were all this subset of artists were capable of. Fans have come to celebrate this phenomenon, for the most part accepting this new current in the industry as a very positive move. However, the current widespread usage and generally warm reception weren’t always a given for anime’s digital 2D animation. Far from that! 10 years after its initial broadcast in Summer season of 2008 we find ourselves at the perfect time to look at the way the tides began to turn with Birdy The Mighty: Decode, but also all the changes after that point. Let’s return to the project that sort of started it all.
I say sort of because, as you can imagine, that team didn’t conjure up new production methods and an entire industry trend out of nowhere, even if it was a pivotal moment for anime. The term webgen (short for web generation, adapted from the Japanese equivalent web系 to underline the generational aspect) is becoming commonplace now, even though it’s losing its actual meaning. Useful as a descriptor of course, but it’s perceived to have a series of implications – like being a still unified movement or intrinsically digital craft – which aren’t necessarily true, the former in particular. Back then, however, it made plenty of sense to refer to this new group of people bursting into the industry through a new path that hadn’t been used before as the web generation; it was supposed to highlight that they’d bypassed traditional training procedures and gotten into professional anime by posting their short clips online and attracting attention that way, hence why they were also referred to with the more to the point term of gif animators. The internet enabled the creation of hubs for aspiring animators and young artists who simply wanted to have a fun time, similar to those you might be familiar with in western communities. Amateur artists created sites not just to share they own work, but also with the intention of hosting clips by people in similar situations. Rather than being an intended goal, being noticed by some of the professionals they idolized in the first place was a happy accident.
Who were the pioneers of this movement, then? Kenichi Kutsuna won’t allow anyone to forget that he was the first webgen animator, since that’s a badge he can very proudly wear. But the figure that write-ups like these usually revolve around is Ryosuke “Ryochimo” Sawa, generally agreed upon to be the first digital animation leader in anime. And that’s something he achieved without any formal training in animation, which set the tone for what webgen artists would be like for a long time. All Ryochimo knew about animation was self-taught tidbits he’d looked up for minor tasks in the videogame industry, where he bounced around at the time. He used that knowledge to start putting together some very limited clips, but his adventurous spirit always pushes him to experiment further and so his work kept on becoming more ambitious. That’s when he crossed paths with another key figure: multitalented creator Osamu Kobayashi, who heard about Ryochimo through some of his online illustration acquaintances while he was assembling a crew to produce BECK in 2004. And with no hesitation whatsoever, Kobayashi recruited him to draw key animation for his show – no training as in-betweener, no listening to Ryochimo‘s claims that he actually couldn’t draw people at all; I’d like to note that among the complete newbies Ryochimo met in the project there also was ex-Toei superstar Yuki Hayashi, if anyone’s still doubting Kobayashi’s scouting skills. Anime would have eventually moved towards the convenience of digital animation either way, and the lack of manpower would have forced the industry to open up the floodgates even against their wishes, but the transition started faster and on better terms because of a few people ahead of their time.
If there’s one problem with being able to think outside the box like that, though, it’s that sometimes people are so revolutionary they end up within a system that genuinely isn’t equipped to deal with them. And thus Ryochimo, digital innovator par excellence, found himself drawing analog after entering the industry – the earliest reminder that we shouldn’t always assume webgen equals digital animation, as deeply tied as those two trends are. Despite joining this world by the hand of innovators like Kobayashi and later experimental animation icon Satoru Utsunomiya, the production pipeline simply wasn’t prepared to fit the needs of artists like him. This strengthened his desire to develop tools and instruct newbies, an attitude that’s been shared by all of anime’s digital animation forerunners. Nowadays we have multiple robust animation suites for artists to choose from, but for a long time western people shuddered at the thought that most of Japan’s digital animation was crafted using Flash. The truth is that it was the likes of Ryochimo (who had a very clear understanding of the difference between the west’s use of Flash as a production system vs their application of it as virtual sheets) who created plugins, shared settings, and essentially tweaked it all to make it into the tool that him and his peers needed at the time.
And so they gradually started being able to introduce digital hand-drawn animation into professional anime projects: Utsunomiya’s Genesis of Aquarion #19 and Naruto’s 9th opening under Tokuyuki Matsutake are among the most noteworthy achievements of this budding digital movement in that period, but the one project necessary to understand their final preparation step is 2005’s Noein. Series director Kazuki Akane has always thought big, sometimes more than his team can handle, and for this project he went out of his way to nurture an environment where the animators’ individual voices wouldn’t be silenced; Studio Satelight (its Osaka branch in particular) was an incredible hotpot of idiosyncratic animators at the time, enlisting not just these digital newcomers but also outstanding artists like Hiroshi Okubo, whose pursue of three-dimensional camerawork in animation turned out to complement that group very well… and also was eventually corrupted into GoHands’ modern output, but let’s forget that horror story. Ryochimo himself had attracted the attention of the one and only Norio Matsumoto, who mentored him and has for a long time fostered this new wave of digital artists he saw lots of potential in since the start. The result was a fascinating show we’d love to return to for some fun analysis at some point, but in the context of the growth of digital 2D animation, its role was mostly setting the foundations. Ryochimo came into contact with traditional top animators and began filling the gaps that his lack of proper training had left, even allowing him to pursue more realistic animation in high-profile works.
After further growth alongside traditional animators, young and old, this crew’s next major project arrived in 2008. Director Akane returned for a more unassuming yet immensely charming project: a modern take on Birdy the Mighty, a 80s scifi adventure series that had already received an OVA adaptation by Yoshiaki Kawajiri of Ninja Scroll fame. Anniversary aside, the reason why I chose their Decode adaptation as the true start of anime’s hand-drawn digital era despite the previous events we’ve documented is that it was the first full-length project that held that at its core; digital craft wasn’t an afterthought or a quirky addition, but rather the main pillar of its production, even if by sheer volume it was still impossible to outdo the analog output. Ryochimo used his position as character designer and chief animation director to create a digital-friendly environment for up-and-coming artists, even exploiting the fact that A-1 Pictures still was in its infancy and thus didn’t have much of an established identity to get away with extreme experimentation. Over the last couple years I’ve seen fans expressing surprise at the unashamedly digital work seen in A-1’s Fate/Grand Order commercials and their follow-up on Fate/Apocrypha – a fair reaction considering the studio’s modern output overall, but it’s fun to recall how the company (unwillingly) played such a fundamental role in establishing that style to begin with.
Although its follow-up Birdy the Mighty: Decode 02 is rightfully considered a stronger offering, as it tends to happen when you’re trying out new tools, both seasons are an engrossing animation achievement that we also should dive into more concretely at some point. But to keep things concise, its success relied on ambitious digital experimentation built on the shoulders of traditional masters like Norio Matsumoto, who of course returned to keep on tutoring this generation. Extremely idiosyncratic newbies like Tomoyuki Niho were accompanied by more traditional up-and-coming figures like Ryouma Ebata, even giving more responsibilities than ever to talented analog artists like Isao Hayashi. The biggest scouting success, though, was recruiting the still green Shingo Yamashita and entrusting him with plenty of important work. Yamashita arguably became the final major icon in this first wave of webgen artists in an immediate manner; his knack for dropping lineart altogether in a way that naturally suits digital drawings and yet create something that clearly conveys a feeling, those expressive abstract blobs of emotion he already showed in Birdy, was held as exemplary work for aspiring artists. And much like the other key figures from that first generation, Yama‘s also personally focused on advancing the tech and instructing newcomers, constantly chasing new goals and transmitting his findings to others.
The Birdy aftermath was the most glorious chaos imaginable. Its biggest legacy is validation after all; just trying out the tech on a major scale was obviously valuable, but it’s succeeding at that which convinced many other creators that it was a worthy path. More and more aspiring digital animators began chasing the same dream, while at the same time directors became more receptive towards this idea. It was no longer something only avant-garde creators would rely on: these webgen artists started being respected as a useful asset by the industry at large. But I’d be lying if I painted that gradual process as an always pleasant adventure. Birdy already found itself in a controversial situation, especially due to the aforementioned Niho, whose geometrical yet free-flowing animation in episode 7 of Decode 02 got flamed on the internet so hard that the team was forced to redraw most of the episode in a more conventional fashion for its DVD release; for those curious about the changes, we’ve compiled both old and new versions on sakugabooru since the contrast is admittedly very interesting. Now I won’t deny that there is such a thing as taking experimentation too far within narrative works, but the pushback against this group of animators was dyed by inflexible narrowmindedness – as seen by Naruto Shippuden #167, somehow still one of the most controversial episodes of all time. It was entirely key animated by director Atsushi Wakabayashi alongside Norio Matsumoto, Shingo Yamashita, and Kenichi Kutsuna, with some clean-up help by other digital animators who have turned out to become renowned figures of their own, like Shingo Natsume, Kenichi Fujisawa, Shintaro Doge… The result was a raw display of emotion like the franchise had never seen before, in the form of an extremely kinetic battle. And to this day, the loudest fan reaction to that is the screams that they ran out of money so it sucked.
I want to make clear that criticisms about the lack of fundamentals of webgen artists shouldn’t be conflated with misguided, absurd complaints about things daring to be different. Lacking the traditional training, and in some cases any proper artistic studies whatsoever, has left plenty of young animators with obvious basic issues. On top of that, the internet has fed into self-indulgent sakuga culture in a way that wasn’t even possible before. There have been youngsters acting as copycats for as long as animation has been a thing, most notably in Japan with all the Yoshinori Kanada followers over the years, but that phenomenon escalated to new levels with the internet. It’s much easier to find your idol’s work online and submerge yourself in it, communicate with other big fans all the time, and eventually draw animation that is first and foremost meant to please animation fans who enjoy that exact same trend as you do. That’s an undeniable phenomenon, no matter how you feel about its repercussions. But at least personally, I believe that the issue isn’t that as much as it is failing to follow that up with some guidance. Ryochimo and company were quickly taken under Norio Matsumoto’s wing and absorbed the knowledge behind the quirks that had attracted them in the first place. They developed their own styles and then began mentoring their own followers, who improved greatly under their watch. If we do have young artists who storm into the industry with blatant self-indulgence and then fizzle out, which I won’t deny, the problem seems more related to this industry’s failure to train its youth. Allowing people who didn’t follow traditional paths into anime to add their unique touch, even if that’s unashamedly copying other people’s quirks they might not fully understand, is something positive. And so is following that up with proper guidance so that they can channel all that new energy properly.
What has changed then, if digital animation spectacles nowadays are generally much better received? I’d love to argue that something has changed in the anime community, but as much as I believe that sites like ours have helped shift some attitudes, the change came from within. For a while though, things evolved in the same direction. The second wave of webgen creators had their predecessors (and by proxy their icons) as the goal to chase, meaning that their arrival didn’t entail massive stylistic changes. Directors fond of young talent like Hiroshi “ahoboy” Ikehata noticed the immense potential of the digital youth and started recruiting them alongside emergent analog stars to create some of the most powerful animation cocktails of the late 00s and early 10s. At the same time, new digital figures like the previously mentioned Natsume and Tatsuya Yoshihara started consolidating themselves as new leaders, gathering now very popular animators like Shingo Fujii, Ryu Nakayama, Shun Enokido, Takahito Sakazume, and so on.
The old guard stayed strong as well, as seen by Ryochimo‘s paradigm shift in the form of Yozakura Quartet: Hana no Uta (and to a lesser yet breath-taking degree, its OVA predecessor Hoshi no Umi). The first episode, anime’s first full-length showcase of 100% digital key animation, was Ryochimo‘s declaration of intent. The show is bouncy and colorful in inherently digital ways, to the point that it feels like the first true realization of the possibilities seen in Birdy. Its action setpieces are unmatched in scale and intensity in ways that equally feel like they’d have never been achieved through any other means. But rather than feeling content with that, it also constantly challenged itself; the 10th episode directed by Shingo Yamashita is a showcase of his current desire to destroy the wall between animation and photography departments, imbuing his work with a warmth that simply isn’t an option for artists who turn in their key animation and never see it again until it’s on-screen after being manipulated by many people. His holistic vision is one of the most exciting prospects in the years to come.
It’s only been in recent times that change has arrived, mostly because of two big reasons. First we have the normalization process: the anime industry has finally caught up with the technology, so now many projects are embracing hand-drawn digital animation workflows simply for the sake of efficiency. The usage is no longer synonymous with wildly idiosyncratic cuts, since it’s also used for plenty of standard-looking sequences, and even has started being used to draw in-betweens on a large scale. Though most anime is still drawn on paper, all projections say that sooner rather than later we’ll get to the point where tablets and similar devices will take over. And when those digital users do get wild in ways that indicate the format of their work, people appear to be more receptive of those quirks simply because they’re everywhere now. The characteristic flat webgen effects are now commonplace enough that they’re perceived as just another entry in anime’s visual vocabulary, meaning that digital animators have proved to be stubborn enough to convince anime fans. No small feat.
Jokes aside though, the biggest change has actually been a consequence of the mentality majorly held by the third wave of webgen animators. And one single name explains everything: Yutaka Nakamura. The number one idol of up-and-coming animators all around the world has led to a very different set of quirks which happen to be less disagreeable for the viewers who value consistency; when artists tried to imitate Matsumoto and Utsunomiya’s deformations without truly grasping the very calculated reasoning behind those pieces of animation, the loose result often put off the more close-minded folks even when it was arguably excellent work. The situation is different now that we have very energetic young animators putting out rough cuts that they’re glad get polished by more experienced individuals, because their goal is to channel Nakamura’s more sturdy art. Sure, an excess of yuta-flavored impact frames can feel silly or even tonally dissonant depending on the context, but it’s way less likely to offend viewers who demand polished art. And as I’ve argued before, we’re now even experiencing a fourth wave, featuring digital animators who are all about costumbrismo (ちな) or those who combine that expressiveness and daily life acting with grand action (Nakaya Onsen). There’s no longer a unified webgen collective, and anime’s become better for it.
So what’s next then? I believe that the final wall has been torn down by making this into an international phenomenon. That worldwide Nakamura adoration, multicultural celebrations like Boruto #65, none of this would have been doable without the internet opening up countless new doors. And even though the digital artistry itself isn’t mandatorily part of the deal, it’s more often than not tied to it to the point that lines blur. It’s now possible for young artists all over the world to be noticed while they’re still students and be officially contacted to do remote work. Even within Japan itself, noticing trainees and amateurs with attractive styles before they venture into the industry is perfectly doable – if we can do it, imagine what talented management staff are capable of. Actually, you don’t have to imagine, just rewatch the latest Black Clover opening made by complete newbies, including a high school student. Bold production managers like Shouta Umehara, once behind Dogakobo’s exceptional lineup of youngsters and now in charge of A-1 Pictures’ most ambitious animation efforts, are really exploiting the possibilities of anime in 2018. If this catches on, we’re in for some glorious big changes.