Sakuga Espresso is a daily column about appreciating great animation in a format short enough to be read along with a shot of Espresso. ☕️
What makes a scene stand out? How do the drawings convey emotions?
Join us as we breakdown what makes stunning animation.

Illustration by Guillaume Carobbio

Like our content? Feel free to support us on Ko-Fi!

Sakuga Expresso #16 – Arcadia of My Youth

Among the many things he’s known for, legendary animator Yoshinori Kanada left his mark on anime history with his innovative way of drawing effects : lightning, smokes and explosions. The most recognizable aspect of his style is the very angular way he has of animating them, as is visible in this cut from Sailor Moon S.

The lighting bolt that opens the cut takes on a variety of shapes and irregular angles that are emphasized by a series of contrasts : the bright yellow against the dark background and, in the impact frames, red and black against yellow. As these rays move around, they create a sense of perspective that highlights the composition with the character at the center – this helps create visual flow as the light then comes back on the character who begins morphing. Again, it irradiates light in all directions as it slowly takes the form of a unicorn. But while the unicorn’s body takes on circular shapes, it’s still shining and the bolts of light still flash everywhere across the frame.

As the unicorn flies away, it produces smoke ; the shape of the smoke is pretty interesting as well, since it starts in a triangular fashion, then after an impact frame, it quickly moves away from the camera. The smoke effects and the rays of light contrast against each other (dark smoke/bright light, circular/straight trajectories) to create even more dynamism. The key idea behind this cut is geometry : these very bold shapes are what Kanada is famous for.

However, Kanada was also immensely creative, and he did not limit himself to just one kind of effects. In opposition to his geometrical style, he also developed what I’d call “liquid fire” which plays on a very different impression : see this cut from Arcadia of My Youth. As the ship on the right explodes, the flashing green light takes on the very straight shapes that are characteristic of his geometrical style. But the explosion itself starts as just a circle, before going off in all directions. Straight white vanishing lines accompany the eye into depth, following the other ship’s movement, but what’s really impressive here is the movement of the flames.

As he often does, Kanada creates movement just with color : yellow, orange, black, and a brighter white flare effect. The colors form large spans that move irregularly, like waves, in all directions along the surface of the frame. The impression given here is not that of fire, but rather of liquid magma. Rather than an explosion and flames, it’s more like another scene of morphing where fire takes on a life of its own and transforms into some sort of beast. The way he gives his animation its own autonomy, as if it were running without control, is one of the traits of Kanada’s genius.

Sakuga expresso #15 : Re : Cutie Honey

How do you make a fight scene look as awesome as possible ? It’s simple : you just have to make everything move. But then if everything moves all at once, the viewer might not understand anything about what’s going on ! To this, Hiroyuki Imaishi might answer : who cares, as long as it’s cool. At least, that what I think he had in mind when he animated this jaw-dropping scene from Re : Cutie Honey.

The idea behind Imaishi’s style is simple : it’s to make each frame be as intense and striking as possible. To achieve it, you don’t necessarily need more images, you just need to use them well. The start of this cut is a good example of this : if you look at it frame by frame and start counting, you’ll notice it’s animated on ones… but in a very peculiar way. As the weapons of the two characters clash, the lightning casts long shadows. First, you’ve got to acknowledge that’s a strong composition emphasizing the power of the fighters ; but what’s interesting is that the same three frames are repeated during the whole shot : one of the two fighters, one of the lightning, and one of their shadows. That’s a smart move : because this is on ones, the viewer won’t notice immediately that these are the same images over and over, and it saves the animator his time, while still creating a strong impact.

But the real fun comes after that. The combatants separate from each other and Honey starts jumping around to counter-attack. In the first shot, notice how she begins by moving away from the camera, then comes back towards it as she strikes – but as her opponent parries, she’s moved from the right to the left of the frame. That’s an incredibly dynamic trajectory, but what’s amazing is that it doesn’t stop here : Honey does a barrel roll (while flying !), again moves away from the camera and jumps back towards it. The mastery of depth displayed is absolutely impressive, but from a less technical standpoint, this also contributes to put the viewer in the very middle of the action, something that becomes even more obvious in the next shots, as Honey rushes past the camera multiple times. The spectator is a part of this, and it is as awesome as disorienting.

But while it’s chaotic, that doesn’t mean it’s not fun : on the contrary, this is how the animator manages to make it as entertaining as possible. If you just close your eyes for an instant, you may lose sight of what’s going on : with Imaishi, you have to be hooked to your screen, or not watch it at all.

This becomes obvious as Honey, who’s flying back and forth, takes on a wild variety of poses and shapes : one of them has made this cut famous, when Honey becomes some sort of flying spaghetti, or a set of rings rotating very quickly. But even after that, as she jumps behind her foe, her extended arms and legs form a series of angular positions that are both funny and impressive. Their accumulation makes Honey look clumsy, as she barely evades the attacks ; but at the same time, her agility and speed are beyond comparison – just like the animator’s, whose creativity here and visual humor make this the best example of great animation.

Sakuga expresso #14 – Yu Yu Hakusho

We’ve talked about the idea of “off-model” on this series before : to ensure that, in a show where different animators with different styles work together, the visual identity stays the same, the anime production process has some special measures. One is the animation director : often the character designer, he corrects all finished cuts to ensure that they’re good enough and all follow the same style ; another is the characters models. Each animator works with detailed character sheets made by the character designer which he refers to when he’s drawing.

However, sometimes, the animator doesn’t respect the character sheets, and the animation director doesn’t do corrections. That’s often intentional : by allowing the animation to go off-model, the animation director lets the animator’s personality completely express itself. That’s a double-edged sword, because some viewers might react badly to the different style of some scenes, and unknowingly call that “bad animation” because it’s not consistent. On the other hand, going off-model lets the animator more freedom to play with shapes and create dynamic movement. That’s precisely the case of this cut from Yu Yu Hakusho, animated by Shinsaku Kozuma.

The show’s character designs are normally very angular, especially Hiei’s, whose face is just a triangle. But in this cut, Kozuma totally disregarded it, and Hiei becomes completely circular. His face and ears get rounder, and in the first shot, he stretches on the frame in an almost unnatural manner – which helps, however, make his running more dynamic. 

As the camera faces Hiei, this becomes even more pronounced : he jerks from side to side in an elliptic movement, his open mouth makes a big circle, and even his spiky hair becomes curved and less pronounced. As he runs to attack, his body becomes almost gelatinous and seems to lose its consistency – but his movement stays fluid, which is apparently the animator’s priority here. If you add to this the stark contrasts in lighting (blue/red and black/white) and the much more angular fire effects of his attack, you get a cut that uses strong oppositions for the sake of expression. 

While off-model and this kind of wobbly animation are surely disconcerting, that’s precisely their strength : they surprise the viewer, and end up leaving a strong impact, which is what sakuga is all about.

Sakuga Espresso #13 – The Tale of Princess Kaguya

One of the defining characteristics of The Tale of Princess Kaguya is how textured the entire film is. The climax of the titular princesses’ emotional journey is brought to life an amazing scene by the animator Shinji Hashimoto. The young Kaguya flees her home in a furious sprint. She is is angry, hurt. But how do we know that?

Part of it is the story/dialog contextualization, but I would argue that the actual emotion lies within the texture of the lines. At the same time, animation is the story. How something plays out, the actors on screen, the actual story only plays out if it is drawn. With animation, the animator is an actor, a cameraman, an artist, the special effects crew, and (last, but not least) a storyteller.

So let’s examine the clip:

Nothing in this shot seems stabilized. The camera is bouncing, almost struggling to keep subjects in frame. We cut to the moon as is fights (and fails) to stay centered. The ground shifts, straying up and down from the lower third of the picture. Princess Kaguya becomes reduced to a flailing, geometric figure. Her run is frantic, crawl-like, animalistic. It’s instinctual, without a goal, with no focus other than just running.

The background/foreground is inconsistent. The Princess is lost, and must stay lost. Where the frame to stop, it would allow us a viewers to orient ourselves, take in our surroundings. But that is the message of the scene; it’s all too much for Kaguya to take in at once. Her home changes. Her social circle, shifting. Shes maturing into a woman. So much has happened in the film up until this point. Her surroundings are never the same. As she navigates through this tumult, she stumbles, loses her footing, and falls.

All of this is owed to Hashimoto’s brushwork. The unruly, unpredictable nature of painting with a brush exacerbates this message. It speaks to the emotional instability of the character, bringing us into her world and showing us her perspective. This brushwork also provides a rhythmic pulse to the cut, as stands of hair are repeatedly brushed back by the wind, as dirt is clawed from the ground, fabric taking flight. Details become lost, foliage reduced to singular strokes of the brush. But yet the texture remains.

Story-boarder and character designer Osamu Tanabe was the brilliant mind to strike a balance between preserving details in the art while stripping away all other unnecessary details in a minimalist expression. To do this, the animation was drawn small, then enlarged. This method allows the natural grain to breathe life into the animation, capturing the lively spirit of art being made right before your eyes. But more than that, it speaks to the emotional integrity of the art.

It’s a moment where the everything, style, technicality, and feeling come together for a greater whole.

Sakuga Espresso #12 – Miraculous Ladybug

Every morning, my daughter wakes up and asks for two things: chocolate milk and Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug & Cat Noir. It’s how we start every morning, and I can’t complain, the show isn’t that bad for a CG kids’ show. But come to find out there originally was an anime project planned by Toei, I had to check it out. Turns out, it’s animated really well!

Unfortunately, all that exists of the project is a 2013 PV (short for preview, basically a trailer/concept reel), but some of these cuts are absolutely superb! Today’s clip is no exception! Presumed to be animated by Toei ace, Naoki Tate, what caught my eye was the movement and perspective used to give this action sequence a smooth (yet exciting) flow.

We start of with Ladybug’s heroic leap from above, stylishly tumbling and twirling into a kick. The smears and snapped key poses work together by contrasting each other. Let’s look at the former first. Half way through the fall to give a sense of energy and speed, Ladybug becomes one noodlely smear with only her head having a recognizable shape. Immediately there after, the latter kicks back in, snapping our heroine into a voguish pose (even sneaking in a wink). All of this happens rather quickly before the end of the jump, as Ladybug’s knee comes towards the camera.

On the technical side of things, there are a couple of core animation principles at work here. The first being ‘Slow in & Slow Out‘, a technique used that eases our eyes into and out of an action. We have plenty of time to establish that Ladybug is falling toward the camera, which allows us to focus more on how she is falling.

Another technique employed in this shot is the use of closure, or the mind’s ability to assume movement between the drawings. I mentioned the “noodlely smear” – anatomically, the isolated drawing makes no sense, but since we are used to assuming movement, we interpret the split-second frame as speed, the motion being too fast for us to track. A real life application would be the blades of a fan, they move too fast to track individually, but that doesn’t stop us from ‘seeing’ the movement.

The rest of this scene boasts impressive ‘camera work’. I put that in quotations because in 2D animation, there is no camera. This poses the obvious problem of ‘moving the camera’, since there is no camera to move. Instead, the animator must draw each frame with a shifting perspective.

Even with a stationary object, this would be a challenge, but factor in an action sequence with rapidly moving subjects on screen… now you see just what an impressive feat of animation this is! Each subject has to remain anchored enough that the shifting perspective makes us (the camera) feel like we are the ones rotating around the action. And yet not too anchored as to feel stiff and inappropriately heavy. It’s a perfect balance that’s simply miraculous!

Sakuga Espresso #11 – Neon Genesis Evangelion

It’s not every day that you get to see an animator’s raw creative and unbridled ability on display. What I mean by that are these little moments when the animator has such complete creative control over what they are drawing – today’s cut from the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion is such an example.

It’s not every day that you get to see an animator’s raw creative and unbridled ability on display. What I mean by that are these little moments when the animator has such complete creative control over what they are drawing – today’s cut from the final episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion is such an example.

It’s no secret that the finale of Evangelion ran into production issues (putting it lightly) during its finale. A large portion of those final two episodes was incomplete, to the point that ‘next time’ previews for each respective episode were unfinished, having only rough key frames (some of which never made it into the episodes and was instead moved to the conclusive film) to show. That said, the story boards too were in a similar disarray.

The animator for the cut we’re focusing on today, the legendary Yoh Yoshinari, had this to say about the storyboards:

There were only brief indications about the content on the storyboard… The context was quite special too. The production was hard-pushed, and we didn’t even know if the episode could air in time, so it almost felt like we could draw whatever we wanted to.

Interview with AnimeStyle, 03/2013

Looking at the original storyboards for this cut, we can see that Yoshinari is being quite modest when he says “brief indications”. Instructions in the margins are vague, to say the least. Director Hideaki Anno’s notes boil down to phrases like, ‘use different color markers’ and ‘some transformations here’, the most detailed being a ‘flappy metamorphosis’.

Using what little he has to go on, Yoshinari works his magic, as he goes through a series of shapes and forms seamlessly. To achieve this, Yoshinari alternates between animating on the 1’s and 2’s (a new image every one to two frames respectively).

It’s really quite lavish the way he does so, having explosions of movement and transformations between shapes on the 1’s, and solid forms on the 2’s. The slower (on the 2’s) animation allows the forms on screen to retain a sense of weight, and gives our eyes a rhythm to follow so we rest can catch up.

The other element that makes this piece of animation so special is that the lines scene are the actual marks made by Yoshinari, untouched by post processing effects or even transferred onto a painted cel for that matter.

Instead the actual genga (original drawings) was passed though a tracing machine. That rawness of the art speaks to the rawness of the story on screen. Our protagonist, Shinji, does not know what to make of himself, and thus the animation reflects that.

But notice how each form has roughly the same amount of mass. Shinji is still the same value no matter what his shape is. The art encapsulates the message of the show. ☕ 

It’s no secret that the finale of Evangelion ran into production issues (putting it lightly) during its finale. A large portion of those final two episodes was incomplete, to the point that ‘next time’ previews for each respective episode were unfinished, having only rough key frames (some of which never made it into the episodes and was instead moved to the conclusive film) to show. That said, the story boards too were in a similar disarray.

The animator for the cut we’re focusing on today, the legendary Yoh Yoshinari, had this to say about the storyboards:

There were only brief indications about the content on the storyboard… The context was quite special too. The production was hard-pushed, and we didn’t even know if the episode could air in time, so it almost felt like we could draw whatever we wanted to.

Interview with AnimeStyle, 03/2013

Using what little he has to go on, Yoshinari works his magic, as he goes through a series of shapes and forms seamlessly.

To achieve this, Yoshinari alternates between animating on the 1’s and 2’s (a new image every one to two frames respectively).

It’s really quite lavish the way he does so, having explosions of movement and transformations between shapes on the 1’s, and solid forms on the 2’s. The slower (on the 2’s) animation allows the forms on screen to retain a sense of weight, and gives our eyes a rhythm to follow so we rest can catch up.

The other element that makes this piece of animation so special is that the lines scene are the actual marks made by Yoshinari, untouched by post processing effects or even transferred onto a painted cel for that matter.

Instead the actual genga (original drawings) was passed though a tracing machine. That rawness of the art speaks to the rawness of the story on screen. Our protagonist, Shinji, does not know what to make of himself, and thus the animation reflects that.

But notice how each form has roughly the same amount of mass. Shinji is still the same value no matter what his shape is. The art encapsulates the message of the show. ☕ 

Sakuga Espresso #10 – Haikyuu!! To the top

For the finale of Haikyuu!!’s fourth season, Sachiko Fukuda presents us with some action-packed cuts. This scene, in particular, shows how her style has evolved throughout the series, inspired by Takashi Mukouda.

The dynamic run at the start is breathtaking: the tempo of the animation suddenly accelerates the rhythm of the match. The immersion is accentuated by the camera angle, which focuses on the character’s legs and ending on a closeup of the deformed, stretched foot, which allows for an impactful transition to the next cut.

The wind effects, coupled with smears, enhance the strength put into the initiation of the jump.
The rhythm of the scene abruptly slows down as Hinata is in the air, leaving us to admire Hinata, the animation of his clothes and hair highlight his pose and prepare for the highlight of the scene: the hit of Karasuno’s 10.
The sequence is very reminiscent of the following scene by Takashi Mukouda.

Notice how, from 9 seconds onward, we have a similar closeup forerunning the jump, followed by the use of special effects to enhance the jump’s impact. The use of smears, as well as the model’s deformation through stretching, supply the speed, put into the action.

I love how the similarity of the two scenes serves narrative purposes. By successfully achieving the same jump as Hoshiumi shows his growth as a character and how close he is to become a Little Giant, like his Senpai. At the same time, it shows Sachiko Fukuda’s development as an animator, who is herself catching up to her senior.

After Hinata’s anticlimatic failure, the subtle smears when he lands are a great detail emphasizing the strength put in the jump.
The heavy use of speed lines in the last cut, as well as the frenetic movement, accentuate the comedic aspect of the attack’s failure ending the sequence with as much intensity as it started.

Sakuga Espresso #9 – Dragon Ball Super: Broly

I think my favorite part of the clip for today’s Sakuga Espresso has got to be the first 15 seconds of Ryo Onishi’s cut from Dragonball Super: Broly. I find the way Goku moves absolutely captivating, so bouncy and child-like. I remember watching the clip when I was sitting out on my porch, sipping coffee, and the smile that came to my face. The entire spirit of Sakuga Espresso!

What Onishi has achieved is grade-A character acting. There are several elements that are perfectly balanced to bring this moment to life. From the character designs and storyboards, to the actual animation itself – it all comes together as parts of a greater whole.

Examining the animation, Onishi’s timing and sense of weight are fantastic – or you could say that Onishi’s timing is the sense of weight. The speed of ascent and fall on Goku’s jump has a very real pulse that makes his presence on screen feel physically weighted.

A perfect number of frames are spent on the squash and stretch during the closeup of Goku’s feet as he flexes and springs into the air. That squash and stretch is an essential building block of animation to depict mass and rigidity, and here it’s faultless.

But as we zoom out, we see more than just Goku bouncing one foot to the other, his shoulders raise and lower, he whips his head to loosen his neck – he’s preparing for a fight. What pushes this animation over the top for me is that it’s a very ‘Goku thing’ to do; the animation is portraying the personality of a long established character in a way that feels honest and authentic.

Pat of this is owed to the character designs of Naohiro Shintani. The previous designs of Tadayoshi Yamamuro are more detailed and intense, where as Shintani is more rounded, friendly, and playful; more like the original Dragonball look in my opinion. That plays in very well to the actual movement Goku opens with as Broly is powering up, it’s playful and almost childlike.

Another boon of the Shintani designs is that the use of shadow becomes more coded. The more shadow, the more intense the emotion. And in a series like Dragonball, that’s a very effective style. Notice how shaded Broly is compared to Goku, establishing him as the threat in this scene, while Goku remains virtually untouched by shadows, keeping him lively. ☕