The very first aspect of anime that draws fans in, well before they’re acquainted with characters, Japanese culture or the music, is the visuals. After all, anime is animation, so it is crucial to know how to dissect and analyze all those flashing, moving pictures on our screens.
1) Art. Stylistically, Japanese artwork in manga and anime is very unique to the culture. Sure, Japanese manga artists were heavily influenced by Walt Disney during the first half of the 20th century (the Disney film Fantasia is often cited among older Japanese animators as classic reference material), but manga and anime have taken Disney and improved upon it. Today, contemporary Japanese drawings are erasing the stereotype of “big eyes, small mouth” and have seeped their way into Western entertainment (i.e. American comics produced by Marvel and Dark Horse today showcase many of the same styles and principles).
So how does one tell if the art used in a particular anime is good or bad? The normal determining factors in judging art help to separate the wheat from the chaff: clean lines, aesthetic character designs and detailed backdrops. But inevitably, the real determination is more subjective and less tangible: does the artwork match the anime? Would the comedy in His and Her Circumstances, Dragon Half and Azumanga Daioh have been as humorous if super-deformed characters (childlike body with enormous head and overly exaggerated facial features) weren’t used? Do the old-school Studio Ghibli character designs (muted, brownish outlines and less distinguishable, less angular facial features) work with their brand of films? Are Ebichu the Housekeeping Hamster and My Neighbors the Yamadas better off without simplistic, chicken-scratch drawings? Do the themes and atmosphere of FLCL benefit from spastic art styles that vary wildly from scene to scene? These are the type of questions that a good anime critic must ask, and the answer will likely be completely arbitrary and speculative. But that is when personal preference and experience play key roles.
2) Animation. Let me make it clear right now that low frame rate does not mean bad animation. Let me also make it clear that mouth movements not synching with the words spoken is not bad animation, either; laziness, perhaps, and even attributable to the style of animation predominant of the culture. Most anime, aside from contemporary, high-budget movies and OVAs, have low frame rates by most animation standards. Much of this is due to budget constraints that television series are forced to work with, and the rest is because anime, in the end, is just manga’s more dynamic counterpart; to maintain the same feel of the manga, a more slide-show approach is applied in anime. This technique is indicative of Japanese film making in general.
Smooth, seamless animation from high frame rates can definitely add to visual appeal, but that alone doesn’t make good animation. Look carefully at the minutiae: do the characters’ limbs move seamlessly, do blades of grass wave gently in the summer breeze and is the hustle and bustle of big city life convincingly portrayed with chaotic commotion? How do the realistic movements and expressions of the characters in Grave of the Fireflies compare to reusing cels to simulate action in Dragonball Z? It’s those small details viewers normally overlook that add tremendously to an anime’s visual appeal.
3) Cinematography. This category encompasses numerous subcategories, including choreography and camera placement. These visual cues are more difficult to spot than art or animation and require a keen director’s eye to master, but nevertheless they are critical to making the art and animation flow on screen.
Great choreography is mostly used during action scenes, like coordinating a dance routine. An anime that uses outstanding choreography to add fluidity to its fight sequences is Angelic Layer, most notably the battle between Hikaru and Blanche in episode 13. Just about every detail of this scene is done to maximize tension, including a rhythmic cadence of the attacks to the phenomenal use of segue to transition from one scene to another without missing a beat. Another example would be the battle between Guld and Isamu in Macross Plus. Well-choreographed action scenes are like poetry in motion.
Camera placement is tantamount to facilitate the right mood in a scene. In many forms of cinema, directors will place a camera from a worm’s eye perspective to give an important character the appearance of great size; likewise, cityscapes and vast, cavernous abysses are viewed from afar or from a bird’s eye vantage point to convey space and isolation. Very subtle tricks, sure, but screwing them up can ruin the visual effect of any scene.
In Metropolis, director Rintaro pays homage to the grand scale of a city by panning the camera away from the characters; works great individually, but done too often and scenes drag unnecessarily, and that fragile pacing could easily be disrupted, as is the case here. In Aquarian Age: Sign for Evolution, a scene involves two characters sitting in a restaurant with the camera positioned behind one of them. However, where this scene fails is a lack of proper perspective in relation to the characters and the camera; the character closest to the camera is actually drawn smaller than the one further away.
A classic camera device taught in most film schools is the infamous shower murder scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Most amateur directors would have used special effects to show the knife plunging into the unsuspecting woman in the shower, but Hitchcock knew well in advance that such an approach would not do this dramatic moment justice. He never actually shows the woman being stabbed, instead focusing violently from the woman to the knife to the ripping of the shower curtain and then finally to the drain, where water and blood wash away in a horrific menagerie of colors (no small feat for a film shot in black and white!). Hitchcock correctly assumed that quickly panning the camera in a cacophony of images would impact the scene much more than merely showing the murder itself. While such a technique has yet to be successfully reproduced since (often imitated, never duplicated), be it in live-action or anime, I mention this as an example of what fantastic camera work can do.
While certainly not a requirement for good anime reviewing, I would recommend attending film and drama classes, offered at just about every liberal arts university across the globe. Knowing the work and creativity that goes into producing great eye candy will go a long way to helping a reviewer relate to the techniques used in many anime.