Those that follow the Japanese animation scene closely would know that the so-called ‘UFO’ has made a decent number of appearances in the past year and a half. The UFO’s resurgence presents us with an opportunity to draw some connections between it and other techniques to figure out where it fits in in the bigger picture of anime. Pinpointing the precise origin story and history of this animated phenomenon is likely to be an impossible challenge but it is possible to gain a better understanding of how we got here.
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For readers who are not familiar with the term, the ‘UFO’ has been the informal label for a change in form which involves the subject being depicted as a fast-moving disc for a brief period of time. Over time, multiple approaches to animating the UFO have developed, from Yutaka Nakamura and Harumi Yamazaki’s traditional frisbee-shaped version to the razor wheel style of Arifumi Imai and Riooo. Its presence often comes as a welcome surprise with it popping up in action sequences across the board in mecha anime such as Star Driver as well as long-running battle-shonen anime like One Piece. The UFO has made appearances far and wide – it might even be in your future favourite battle sequence next.
The UFO is not new. Although many who are familiar with the UFO associate it with the action animators of today, there are examples of it going as far back as the 1990s. The action-adventure OVA Ninja Cadets showcases a model of the UFO we are quite familiar with today, with its rounded core and protruding exterior to represent the might of the character’s fierce eight-legged opponent. This may not be the first-ever UFO but it reinforces the idea that anime has gone for the approach of making objects and people appear simpler and more distinguished for decades on end.
The concept of anime altering the form and size of people and objects is not particularly new either. The cuboid-shaped debris that we all know too well from our favourite action scenes are an example of how anime often reduces shapes into much more basic and recognisable ones. In the case of cuboid-shaped debris, a much more natural pattern of destruction is substituted with larger, uniform chunks. Similarly, the UFO attempts to do the same by reducing the character model down to a fast-moving disc shape, making it a lot easier to trace for the viewer. As cliché as it sounds, sometimes less is more.
Besides their aesthetic beauty, in some cases, they can contribute towards the progression and rhythm of a fight too. Ken’ichi Fujisawa’s cuts in the grand showdown between Shimazaki and Teruki in Mob Psycho 100 II utilise this shape of debris as a means of transportation, smoothly moving the battle from one area to the next. The same can be said for Yutaka Nakamura’s contribution to the movie Fullmetal Alchemist: Conquerors of Shamballa that involves the character Envy being unwillingly relocated across the screen via a chunk of debris. How exactly does this relate to the UFO? Similarly to this method of animating debris, the UFO can be said to have a functional purpose and not just an aesthetic one; in many cases, it allows subjects to move swiftly from point A to B and move the progress of the fight along with it.
Although not exactly the same, the quick portrayal of characters as a ball-shape can be viewed as an arguable cousin to the beloved UFO. Very similarly to the disc we know and love, the ‘ball’ on many occasions relies on using easily recognisable colours that allow the viewer to still follow on with the action, while still understanding that those in the shot are moving at an incredibly fast speed. This is something we have seen within modern action on multiple occasions, from one of Tatsuya Miki’s contributions to the concluding episodes of Black Clover, to Toya Oshima & Kai Ikarashi’s representation of Gridman and of course Yutaka Nakamura’s iconic cuts in One Punch Man’s first season. If anything, the UFO feels like it only builds on this idea of simplifying character models into faceless and much more compact versions of themselves.
Perhaps a more distant cousin to the flying disc in the anime space would be ‘henkei’ or ‘transformation’ sequences that are often found in mecha anime. This all depends on the mech in question, however some of these sequences do resemble the UFO that we are familiar with, like Walter Gundam’s transformation which can be seen in Mobile Fighter G Gundam’s first opening. However, the massive difference between the two would be that one is simply an artistic liberty taken to portray a subject, while the other is a genuine feature of the giant robot.
So what exactly do all these links teach us? They certainly make it clear that the UFO is not particularly an ‘innovation’ in the Japanese action animation meta, but it is in fact a logical step up from what is already being experimented with. The UFO is an example of what anime has always done – push the boundaries of space, shape and form. Although it may not exactly be the shiny new device we were hoping for, its resurgence is still a welcome one and a reminder of how creative the meta can really get. With that being said, those who have popularised this technique should not be discredited because they did not ‘invent’ it since they have allowed us to learn a rather valuable lesson. The recent proliferation of the UFO highlights a very important point about the anime industry and art as a whole – everything is inspired by something, or to phrase it differently, no technique emerges completely out of the blue.
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