Ask John: Is Today’s Digital Anime Inferior to Vintage Analog Anime?

Ever since the year 2000, anime has gone down the digital path, getting rid of traditional cel animation completely. And I’ve noticed that ever since this transition, most anime do not have the same cinematic feel of anime produced with cels on film. Anime looks less-detailed, may have too much use of CG – no matter how it looks, or just looks plain cheap (unless there is an exceptional budget involved). My question is, do you feel that digicel animation has ruined the cinematic integrity of most anime today? What are some of the irks it gives you, if any? What type of animation do you prefer overall, cel on film or digicel? And what are some current digicel works you feel maintain the feel of anime done with cels, if any?

To be honest, I don’t know what percentage of contemporary anime is still hand painted on acetate cels, if any. Undoubtedly a large percentage, if not all, contemporary anime is hand drawn then colored with computer paint programs and animated via computer rather than having thousands of hand painted cels individually photographed. It’s commonly presumed that Japan’s anime industry has moved to digital painting because computers make coloring and animating faster and cheaper. Few fans known, though, that according to “Otaking” Toshio Okada, the majority of Japan’s anime industry abandoned traditional cel animation because the German factories that produced clear sheets of thin plastic at an affordable price stopped making acetate cels, forcing the anime industry to turn to computers to deal with the shortage. So the computer revolution has only changed the technical production process behind anime, not exactly anime itself. Anime still starts with writers composing stories and screenplays, and animators hand drawing each frame of animation on paper.

Many English speaking anime fans tend to complain about contemporary digital animation and the use of computer created imagery in anime. I feel the need to stress that anime is more than just a visual style. Most anime fans are aware that anime has a wide range of visual styles. While we think of shows like Tenchi Muyo and Chobits and Cowboy Bebop as typical anime- big eyes, big hair, soft lines and angles- visuals styles like those of Angel’s Egg, Dead Leaves, Windy Tales, and Alexander are also anime, even though they don’t look anything like conventional anime. What viewers comprehend as anime is a combination of visual design, writing, editing, music, and direction. A program like Teen Titans may copy the visual look of anime, but it’s still not anime because it doesn’t contain all of the components the make up anime. So being preoccupied with the visual look of anime can hinder one’s appreciation of exactly what anime is. Anime is a form of visual Japanese storytelling. The fact that an anime may not look exactly as some fans prefer it to look doesn’t diminish its status as visual Japanese storytelling.

According to R.O.D. director Kouji Masunari, these days Japanese viewers find computer graphic rendered mecha trendy, but still prefer that characters look like traditional 2D cel animation. Robots and mecha in recent shows like Sousei no Aquarion, Zoids, Transformers, Divergence Eve, Bakuretsu Tenshi, and Last Exile have all been computer generated graphics. But during the same time period, mecha and robots in shows including Godannar, Xenosaga, Jinki Extend, Fafner, Gundam Seed Destiny, and Eureka 7 have all been designed to look like traditional 2D paintings. CG rendered objects in anime stand out because they don’t look hand drawn or painted, so they clash with the visual style of most anime. Since these CG rendered objects stand out, we think that they’re dominating anime, but under close examination, that’s not actually the case. Traditional 2D robots and mecha are still as vital in anime as they ever have been.

But I’ll admit that contemporary digital anime does have a different feel than vintage analog anime. Color in contemporary anime is sharper and crisper than it used to be. In fact, as an example, the color separation and resolution of the Air TV series is so striking that many fans seem to confuse the visual look of the Air TV series with exceptional animation quality. The visual impact of Air is so striking that it becomes misleading. It’s simply difficult to consciously realize that vintage anime going as far back as 1980s titles like Birth, Crusher Joe, and Leda actually have better animation quality than the Air TV series, although certainly the Air TV series looks sharper and more vibrant than any vintage anime. There’s a certain intangible warmth and soul in the look of traditional cel animation that’s not present in today’s digital animation. I don’t think that very many modern anime fans consciously realize their own perceptions, but I think that many modern anime fans notice that contemporary anime looks and feels too clean and precise. The look of a lot of contemporary anime feels sterile, sanitized, and too slick because it’s just so perfect that it doesn’t have the feeling of hand crafted drawings. At the same time, the digital animation revolution has, I would say, allowed for significant advances in the visual quality of anime. The intricately detailed backgrounds of Aquarion and the watercolor painting look of Hachimitsu to Clover would have been virtually impossible in TV anime a decade ago. Although I don’t know which, if any, contemporary anime are still made with hand painted cels, there are current anime series that do have the look of traditional cel animation, free of the gloss and precision associated with digital anime. Fans looking for very traditional looking anime may find what they’re seeking in current shows like Tsubasa Chronicle, Gokujo Seitokai, Mar Heaven, Koi Koi Seven, Peach Girl, Major, and Gakuen Alice, just to name a few.

I do have a personal fondness for the rough, hand made look of anime from before the digital era. Anime from the early 1990s and before looks and feels more like art that was painstakingly created by artists manually doing every part of the production. But blatantly dismissing the effort that goes into contemporary anime, or the quality of contemporary anime, is short sighted and rude. As it always has been, anime is artwork created by caring artists. It’s a well known fact that Japanese animators aren’t paid well. So why do they do what they do? Because they love anime, and love creating art. I find it highly disrespectful of those caring artists to say that modern anime isn’t as good as vintage anime, or that all modern anime is unoriginal and uninspired. The basic qualities that make up anime are the same now as they’ve always been- intelligent and involving stories, intriguing characters, exciting action. The visual look of anime is only one part of anime. Criticizing the quality of all contemporary anime based on just its visual look is highly superficial and shows a lack of understanding and appreciation of anime. And considering that anime has existed for more than fifty years, there’s more vintage, fully hand crafted anime available to selective fans than any single viewer could watch in a lifetime. The look of anime has evolved, but I wholeheartedly believe that the integrity of anime as Japanese animation is still fully intact.


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