How do you create the ultimate anime? Buy the best director and the best writer and give them infinite time and infinite money? Seems like that’d be obvious, right? Obvious, but wrong.
Leaving aside auxiliary questions like how one can actually judge who the best director and best writer are, there’s a much more fundamental problem with that idea. It’s an thought I often find expressed in critical circles, that the best successes come simply from good talents being able to do what they really want, free of any constraints. It’s the ideal of creative freedom unchained and free to race around the world with gumption and gusto.
The problem with this idea is that it’s too much yang and not enough yin, and it neglects the fact that a lot of the most creative ideas of our time have only come about because people didn’t have the materials or editorial approval to try their first choice and ended up doing something totally new. And how the choice that spends the most money isn’t always the choice that’s best for a particular show. Creative constraint is the polar opposite of creative freedom, but almost as vital in the production of powerful anime.
First, I want to talk about one of the most prominent examples in anime; the conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion. If you think End of Evangelion beats the TV ending of Eva, this probably isn’t going to be a happy column for you.
When coming to the end of the Eva TV series, Hideaki Anno had a problem. He had an ending in his head he wanted to animate. It would take about 2 hours to show, 100 times that many man-hours to produce, and a significant budget. What he had was 2 standard TV slots, a fraction of the budget he had had for other episodes, and a few weeks to put it all together. Now, here’s an important point, a point where a lesser director would have produced a hollow shell of the same thing. But Anno changed courses considerably, decided on an approach focusing on Shinji’s psyche rather than the story’s grand resolution. It was an attack on the problem he had to address scaled to what he had, using a whole lot of black-on-white and still frames. The result? A 40-minute barrage of stream of consciousness (and a hilarious 5-minute interlude) that will go down in stone as some of the most communicative animation ever made. And it’s animation that explicitly would not have happened had Anno had the time and money to go full hog.
And saying more with less is simply an art
That’s far from the only example. Let’s take a more modern, pedestrian example: comedy/battle series Bento. Bento was produced by David Production before they hit pay dirt on Inu x Boku SS and Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. So they weren’t exactly rolling in dough at the point when they started making this series. How did they handle a lack of budget in a series that was supposed to feature a lot of tense battles? Take a look at this fight scene (the fight scene starts at 1:38, if you don’t want to wait). Notice that, while there is motion used in a couple key shots (Wizard dodging the boar, the final scene where Yoh goes 3 on 1), a majority portion of the 3-minute fight fight is just still frames with cameras panning or clothes/hair swaying. But does it feel boring? No it don’t! It’s as dynamic as a wolverine in a room made of rubber. And why? Director Itagaki Shin uses shifts in camera angles throughout the show to build a feeling of motion and keep the viewers tense while saving money at the same time. Scenes flash by at a mile a minute and it doesn’t matter that they’re not superbly drawn or realistically fluid; the pacing and dynamics of the angles covers every hole the action scene has. Too, the close-zoom focus most of the camera angles perfectly captures the backroom-brawl atmosphere the series as a whole aims for. I’m not saying these fight scenes are necessarily better than the fight scenes in the latter half of FMA Brotherhood, but they definitely fit perfectly with the show, and they’re the kind of thing that could lose their edge if the series budget was doubled and every shot was continuous-take full motion.
This is the only frame this punch uses, but who cares?
A little bit of background for my third example: To Heart is a 1999 dating sim adaptation made back in the day when backgrounds were pre-painted watercolors and budgets for slice of life series weren’t that big. While it wasn’t exactly strapped for cash in the same way that my first two examples were, it illustrates a different point; even in series where a major focus is the cute characters, using still frames counts for a lot. One scene that sticks with me from the series comes from the end of a date between two character who feel fairly different levels of affection towards one another. After the two finish up their date, they’re eating lunch at a cafe. The girl is trying to start a conversation with the guy, but he’s only sort of engaged, and she gradually starts to feel more and more awkward as she realizes her bigger plans aren’t really going to work out. As this conversation occurs, the camera follows her gaze – avoiding eye contact, looking at the drinks sitting on the table. In doing so, the camerawork in this scene drives home the nuance more than the dialogue does. Would showing fidgeting or awkward body language also have showed the same thing? Maybe, but then you have the added nuance of the guy (who’s fairly perceptive of body language) catching on to how she’s feeling, complicating the scene and driving it away from its original direction. Plus, the nuance hits twice as hard on the delayed realization that choice pushes upon you.
It takes touch to reveal emotions without showing faces or being symbolic
When a creator gets more resources, it unquestionably raises their creative range. But considering what low-cost methods would work well for a particular scene is like considering castling in chess. It may be a boring strategy, but there’s a reason why it’s there, and not even a genius pro player’s going to get too far if he has a passionate anathema towards a king jumping over a rook. It’s no sense being able to use advanced techniques if you stop using the basics because you can. And I feel that, while modern anime is on average better from the stuff that was airing ten years ago, it’s missing this more often than not.
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Shinbo is probably the epiphany of creative constraint for the modern era. What makes the art direction of SHAFT productions so unique and consistent largely boils down to it saves money.
I think it helps to some extent that the staff at shaft been practicing the method for a while. This occasionally has some consequences I’m not a fan of, but good things do come out of having people focus on the benefits of techniques that happen to save money. There’s even a trickle-down benefit happening now that some former shaft rookies (Oonuma Shin and Kenichi Ishikura) are doing their own stuff which incorporates the hardcore savings style with more traditional aspects of direction.