Sakuga Espresso is our 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

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Sakuga Espresso – Dirty Pair, Satoru Utsunomiya

What makes a good action scene? That’s a question filmmakers, animators, critics and fans have been asking themselves for sometimes now, and there’s as many answers as there are people. But maybe there are a few general parameters that we can identify which, used in one way or another, give a scene its character and, perhaps, make it pleasing for the viewer. The following scene from the 1987 movie Dirty Pair: Project Eden provides a good example to explore at least 2 related ideas: readability and rhythm.

The sequence here is close to the climax of the movie: it is the final duel between one of the protagonists, charismatic thief Carson D. Carson, and Bruno, the servant of the evil mad scientist Dr. Wattsman. This little bit of context is necessary to briefly introduce Carson’s personality: who he is as a person influences how he fights. In other words, this isn’t cool action for the sake of it, but this remains character acting – a piece of animation that conveys information about the character. Satoru Utsunomiya, the animator behind this fight, is the one who seems to have struck this balance and, after having understood Carson as a character, who proceeded to create this cool action scene.

“Cool” is also the word that defines Carson: a sort of gentleman-thief, he is strong, good-looking and charismatic. His usual demeanor is usually nonchalant, but he’s also a pro and you can feel that he remains aware of his surroundings: this is precisely the case here. Carson’s very first movement is to come in the frame, notice Bruno’s surprise attack from above, and immediately jump back – he’s very reactive. Timing and posing here are key: the framerate modulation is very complex (basically switching very quickly between 1s and 2s), but the basic idea is as follows. Carson enters quickly and rather fluidly, and then the timing gets more irregular as he comes very close to the camera and suddenly stops, before everything slows down when he jumps back.

There’s a very close attention to the way Carson moves and his body behaves throughout the entire sequence. In the shot between 0:06 to 0:09, his tension is visible in his movement: he’s making slight movements of the arms and shoulders, alternatively trying to evade or perhaps making feints. He never stops moving, creating excitement, anticipation – and surprise, when he suddenly gets hit by his opponent as the spacings also get unexpectedly much wider.

The excitement – which, once again, naturally derives from Carson’s cool attitude – is also produced by a series of ornamental effects which code this scene as an amazing, futuristic fight. First is the sort of flash produced by the contact between Bruno’s lightsaber when it touches the railing, at 0:02. Then, in the shot on Carson, there’s both the dynamic deformations – notably the wobbly smears on his hand as it speeds past – and the elements that emphasize cool stillness, notably the Kanada light flare on Carson’s knife. The sort-of slow-motion impression created by the black frames in the middle of the movement only reinforce all that, as they emphasize the impact of each “real” frame.

These effects reappear at the end of the sequence, the climax of the fight where things suddenly get more abstract. We get a series of extreme close-ups which highlight the radiance of the lightsaber or reflections on Carson’s weapon; and then a series of black, red and white impact frames serving as background to splashing liquid effects. They are undoubtedly splashes of blood, but the pink color, the irregular timing and the unrealistic shapes and poses really make them look like a display of cool animation more than anything.

For this unexpected move towards abstraction, it’s necessary to celebrate not just Utsunomiya’s animation, but also Kôichi Mashimo’s direction. The animation and storyboarding work as a perfect duo, and not just because the fighting choreography must have been at least partly decided at the storyboarding phase. As viewers, we’re never bored but don’t lose track of what’s going on either: this is at least partly thanks to the alternance between close-ups and wide shots, which enables us to get both a general grasp of the fight and a close understanding of each fighter’s sensations. This is the storyboarding, but the animation also plays a part: for it to remain easy to process, Utsunomiya clearly decided how much information should be prioritized in each shot. In the wide shots, the characters’ faces are only approximate – making it easier to create that sense of constant motion. In the close-ups, not only is the motion itself different (relying on extreme poses rather than absolute fluidity), but the drawings are as well: although some of those details are blink-and-you-miss it, we get treated to beautiful smears, speedlines and fabric folds in many frames. The sense of detail is also anatomical – Utsunomiya’s hands, the way fingers move, skin and hair are carefully depicted, are simply beautiful.

The ability of an animation sequence to work always depends on a variety of factors: the narrative context, the storyboarding and layouts, the animation itself… Here, we get all of that in a tense and exhilarating fight that is both superbly planned and put in motion. But there’s another element, though it may be only subconscious for some of the viewers who haven’t seen the movie or aren’t familiar with 80s animation: the exceptional dynamism of this scene comes from the various technical elements I’ve highlighted here, but also from the fundamental novelty of their use. This scene is relatively early in Utsunomiya’s career (his first key animation was in 1984, 3 years before), and it already exhibits all the key elements of his style, one that takes anatomical realism as its foundation to develop a sense of constant, natural movement supported by unrealistic elements such as smears and deformations. One year before Akira, and two before Gosenzosama Banbanzai, the seeds of Utsunomiya’s aesthetic revolution were already blooming – and would keep doing so for artists who, like Mitsuo Iso and Norio Matsumoto, decided to walk in Utsunomiya’s footsteps.

Sakuga Espresso – Sailor Moon, Hisashi Kagawa

During the production of Sailor Moon, duos of episode directors and animation directors were one of the main factors in the development of different styles and individualities throughout the show. One such duo whose style would become notorious is Mr. Kunihiko Ikuhara and Ms. Ikuto Itoh.
Another emblematic one was the tag team of episode director Kazuhisa Takenouchi and animation director Hisashi Kagawa.
Hisashi Kagawa’s style as an animation director on the show stands out, especially if you look at the characters’ faces; you notice their chin’s soft angles, resulting in shorter, rounder heads distinctive of his style. Not only do the faces have more volume to them, but it also helps highlight the various range of expressions and making them more impactful.

Examples of faces in a Hisashi Kagawa episode (#20) and in a Nakamura Akira episode (#13) with more elongated faces.

The duo collaborated a first time on episode 20 of the show, then would meet again on episode 25, a pivotal moment to the story as it introduces a new story arc and a new main character, Sailor Jupiter.
Together, they were in charge of her transformation sequence, which would need a lot of attention since it is a BANK sequence.

According to Mr. Kagawa, there was a particular body flow in Mr. Takenouchi’s storyboard. Inspiration was taken from martial art movies which can be seen in the impactful poses.
The sequence opens with light flares reminiscing of Kanada-style effects, but strangely enough, the following lightning effects are not. Mr. Kagawa did not want to overpower the character’s flow with the effects, and admittedly he said he “did not think about the effects too much.” I think that also leaves enough room for the character and the poses to really stand out and be the center of the show.

Kanada-style light flare

What strikes me most with this transformation sequence is that it has the most sexual feel compared to the other ones in the first season. This was done so intentionally as Mr. Kagawa said that he thought people would pay more attention if there was a somewhat erotic feel to it. One tool used to evoke such a feeling was an effect called a BL Shadow.

BL Shadow is an effect proper to the celluloid era, consisting of a pitch-black shadow. You will also find such an effect in digital age anime that tries to replicate a retro aesthetic, such as in Gurren Lagann.
This shadow has impressive suggestive power. “Does she even wear anything under that skirt?” is the impression it leaves. I am sure this sequence has helped define sexual preferences for many boys and girls.

Sakuga Espresso – FLCL Progressive, Yuuta Araki

“Was there a need for a sequel?” is a question that comes up frequently. FLCL Progressive is a show which often gets harshly criticized. After all, succeeding one of anime’s most expressive and unique shows paints a target over your head.

FLCL made an impression not only through its themes, story, and compelling characters but mainly through the appeal of its visuals and the vast array of techniques used throughout the show to great effect, making it a cult classic to this date.

A lot of criticism towards FLCL Progressive is that the moments where it pays homage to its legacy feel like shallow attempts at nostalgia bait with no originality and that the moments where it diverts too much from it don’t feel like what FLCL is “supposed to be”. Many argue that the show does not present the same creative freedom and experimentation feel as the original does.
I feel like much of the criticism done to the show is done in bad faith. The analysis of the show’s themes and story will be left to a future article. For now, let’s focus on the visuals.

Episode 5 of FLCL Progressive is an episode that struck me from its very first seconds. The digital finishing, going for a rough crayon line, made it immediately stand out from prior episodes.
This is only one of the many aspects that make the episode memorable—Suezawa Kei’s directing and storyboarding successfully stay in touch with the spirit of FLCL while showing off the talents of a new generation of artists.
The scene which interests us today was animated by a friend of director Suezawa, a fellow member of the Mysterious Anime Group, Yuuta Araki.
Even though I could have chosen many scenes in this episode, I think this one makes the best use of the episode’s unique aesthetics.

The abundant use of smears and speed lines blends naturally with the rough outlines of the finish. They add a lot of intensity to Ide’s movements while still staying grounded in a certain sense of reality, or should I rather say coherence, despite how cartoony they are.

Haruko’s movement and depictions further enhance this feeling. They defy the logic of physics and go over the top in how cartoonish they are; she goes from one point to another without any intermediaries. The stark contrast with Ide grounds him in the realm of the believable. His movements are bound by a realistic sense of weight which Haruko is exempted from.

This drawing by itself is what makes the scene so compelling to me. Despite staying on screen for only two frames, it works exceptionally well on so many fronts. First of all, in regards to visual storytelling, it shows how mischievous Haruko’s character is through the catlike features of the figure and just how silly the drawing is overall.
From a technical standpoint, it makes perfect use of the conditions in which the episode was produced as such a result could only be achieved through digital painting.
I love the playfulness and creativity used in this scene, seamlessly connecting the visuals and themes. It’s a great example of a scene that looks great and carries a lot of infra-verbal information, which I find is a quality found throughout FLCL Progressive.

Sakuga Expresso – Gundam Unicorn, Takashi Hashimoto

What is it that makes effects animation so pleasant? Why do we find such pleasure in the movement of natural phenomena (fire, smoke, water) or scenes of destruction (explosions, debris)? This is an especially important question for Japanese animation, since it has historically developed without adhering to the Disney-inspired credo of the “illusion of life” and the way it favors character animation understood as “acting”. Since effects are fundamentally not alive, the way they work and become enjoyable is necessarily different: we can’t say that it is “lifelike” or “emotional”. In order to understand what is effects animation, how it functions and why we like it, let us turn to the work of one of the greatest effects animators in Japan: Takashi Hashimoto.

A first basic – and for that reason, crucial – element in the pleasure created by effects animation is probably that we just enjoy things being blown up. In a scene such as the one above, taken from Gundam Unicorn, there is no wide-scale destruction but the way the explosions play out is beautiful in its own right. There is visual symmetry, such as in the shots between 0:05 and 0:08, but also a distinct sense of rhythm created by the animation. The debris work here is minimal, and we have little information relating to exactly how much is being destroyed; but just seeing the explosions play out in sequence creates both accumulation and a certain kind of harmony.

If we like things being blown up, it is that, to some extent, destruction expresses power. In terms of animation and cinematography, there are multiple options to convey this feeling and to make the viewer share it – whether as a victim or someone who takes part in it. Here, ideas such as scale are created through variety: rather than just one huge explosion that sweeps everything away, we are treated to a series of explosions seen from different perspectives: sometimes very close, sometimes more distant.

In such a scene, most animators or directors would just do a few explosions that they would copy and paste over the screen: they would basically repeat the same few frames in cycle. If the cycled animation is good enough, this device would be perfectly effective, and no more work would be needed. But Takashi Hashimoto went the hard way, as every single explosion in this sequence is unique. This brings us to the second appeal of effects: diversity and singularity.

As noted earlier, effects are not alive, and it is impossible to imbue them with “personality”. But they still have an individuality of their own. It comes from the way they move and are drawn, and ultimately from the individuality of the animator. Here, it is not only the shapes of the explosions that vary, but their motion: Hashimoto has taken the way each explosion affects the others into consideration, which means that no explosion exists separately from the others. Let’s take two examples.

The first is the two explosions in the background at 0:04. They are both animated on 2s, which enables Hashimoto to use a sort of alternate movement: when one explosion moves, the other doesn’t, and vice-versa. This keeps the movement constant, even though there are immobile frames. And then, a third explosion happens in the foreground – it is closer to us, and to give that impression, it is animated on 1s.

The other example is the explosions at 0:09. At first, we have two symmetrical explosions – both on 1s. Diversity is kept mostly through the colors, as the explosion on the left is mostly made up of smoke (and is in darker brown), while the one on the right seems like it contains a larger combusting core (and has more orange). On the pole between the two, we first have a bright blue flash – a strong contrast which signals the bomb going off. Then a yellow flash and a new explosion in the middle, first a bright yellow that progressively darkens as it expands and cools down. During all that process, the new explosion pushes the billowing smoke on the sides further, having them almost disappear under the blaze.

I just discussed color a lot here, and that brings us to a third element: texture. Effects, and especially explosions, are particularly dense objects, that one may very well break down in a series of small, constituent parts. You can decompose water down to each single droplet, and an explosion to each particle of smoke and debris. Hashimoto is no stranger to this approach, but here he decided to focus on a different kind of detail: what happens in the explosion itself, in terms of movement and physical forces.

What makes Hashimoto’s explosions distinct is the way they seem to inflate, as if each explosion gave rise to another, new explosion within itself. To create that impression, Hashimoto puts a lot of importance on the coloring, as it is the color gradients within the explosion that suggest shapes and movement. Here, the hues go from bright yellow to orange and red until dark brown, suggesting different levels of heat and different physical states (from a blaze to thick smoke).

For such a sense of detail to work, the animator must be in close contact with the coloring staff; but he must also work in tandem with the compositing artists. Indeed, here we have different color hues, but also different levels of brightness, under the responsibility of the photography department. The last shot of this sequence is a good example of the synergy between animation and compositing: the far-off explosions are once again extremely bright, and we see a series of small debris flying all around the screen. They themselves emit some light, while there is another layer of almost transparent smoke on top.

This is probably the case for all effects animators, but because Hashimoto has such a sense of detail, compositing is a key step in making his animation what it is. When the animator is working with a competent staff on a good schedule, the results are awe-inspiring; when the conditions aren’t as good, they may be disappointing as the animation vanishes into a blur.

Animation in general is ridiculously complex: the creation of movement frame-by-frame, involving extremely diverse people, all with their own expertise and interests. Moreover, each category of animation has its own requirements: what one expects from character animation is not the same as what one expects in effects. Here, Hashimoto’s animation uses three principles: power, singularity and texture. One might add two other governing ideas of his general philosophy: fluidity and reference-based realism. 

What, then, does this amount to? To come back to our original question, how do these “principles” create pleasure for the viewer? In my mind, the answer is as follows. Like all figurative animation, effects animation recreates the movement of objects – here, of natural phenomena. In realist animation such as Hashimoto’s, we are not only impressed by the scale and destructive force of the explosions: we are also shown their internal workings. Through the animation, we can apprehend in visual terms the interplay of physical forces such as weight and heat.

The key word here is force: if we go even further, it is possible to say that effects animation is all about energy. Indeed, what is an explosion but pent-up energy that is suddenly released? What is enjoyable, then, is that, in the course of its release, this energy takes on varied, unexpected, and sometimes truly beautiful shapes. Character animation is also about energies – the “illusion of life” philosophy often presupposes an inner life force – but those are constrained by the shape of the body. Such is not the case in effects: they are a domain of pure freedom, where the driving force behind both the animator and the objects they animate are liberated.

Sakuga Expresso – Dennou Coil

Mitsuo Iso’s Dennou Coil is regarded as one of the best and most impressively animated series of the 2000s. And this is no surprise since Iso, himself a legendary animator, brought some of the most talented artists of the industry on the series, some veterans and other younger, rising talents of the time. The sequence I’m going to analyze here was handled by one of the veterans, Takeshi Honda: a longtime collaborator of Iso at the time (although they stopped collaborating after conflicts on the series), he was character designer and animation director on the series. With Iso and, among others, Toshiyuki Inoue (who did the layouts for this scene), he is considered to be one of the major artists of the so-called “realist” school. Here, I will precisely aim to interrogate the notion of realism which, as we will see, does not primarily come out through very fluid animation, very precise drawings or photorealistic designs. Instead, Honda’s work here is a lesson in verisimilitude, as it creates extremely convincing acting through smart posing, choreography and detail. 

To provide some context, this sequence is taken from the opening scene of the episode. It is our introduction to some of the main characters of the show: Yuuko, her sister Kyouko and their cyber dog, Densuke. It is therefore an important moment on a basic narrative level: the occasion for the viewer to get acquainted with these characters and their personality.

Moreover, it’s important to make some comments on the character designs, originally by Iso and reworked by Honda. At first glance, they are very simple, especially around the face which has few features aside from the essential hair, eyes and glasses. Their very round features emphasize their youth and make them very easy to animate. It is rather in their clothes that complexity slips in: as we can see in the sequence, they are full of folds, especially for Yuuko who has a plaid skirt and a knot on her uniform. All these details add lines and make the characters more difficult to animate. As we will see, even though drawings are more dense as a result, Honda’s animation manages to make a strength out of it.

But before that, let’s talk about the first highlight of this sequence: the storyboarding (by Iso himself) and layouts (by Toshiyuki Inoue). They can both be summed up under the general term of “choreography” – that is, how the movement is distributed throughout the scene. The second shot, where all three characters move out from their seats, is already quite complex: it is low angle, requiring complex perspective work on the animator’s part. It is made all the more difficult by the fact that Densuke and Kyouko move into depth, to stand behind Yuuko. Then, we get a more simple shot, with all characters from the profile. And, after a cut to Densuke, we get another complex movement towards the camera.

In terms of acting, the focus of this scene is the difference between the two girls. The older sister is taller, thinner, and preoccupied because she’s in a hurry. The younger sister is more playful, and seems to think that everything is a game – even the seriousness of her sibling. She litterally re-enacts what her sister does, but imbues it with a childlike dynamism. All this is conveyed by the drawings and animation.

In the second shot, Yuuko almost doesn’t move: she’s just trying to get her bag. Her stretched position emphasizes the wrinkles on her clothes and her motion, a cycle, is almost rigid. On the other hand, Densuke and Kyouko move all the time, and quite differently. Kyouko first stands on her seat, then jumps and seems to bounce when she touches the ground. But the real highlight is when she turns: whereas Yuuko is drawn in a very simplified, geometrical way, Kyouko’s body is very detailed. This is especially visible in the shading, something exceptional in a show with a very subdued color palette and very little shades: for me, the highlight is the shade on the girl’s arms, neck and back. Through this, Honda wanted to convey an impression of volume, to emphasize the physical presence of this girl standing very close to the camera. This is supported by the timing: Kyouko does her jump on 2s, but the end of her movement is on 3s. In other words, the motion slows down a bit and each frame is stressed so that the viewer can really take in what’s going on.

In the next shot it is posing, rather than timing, that conveys personality. Once again, Yuuko’s movement is minimal: her upper body just rotates on her hips and she drops the bag. On the other hand, Kyouko does wider movements: she looks at the bag for a few frames, then her face suddenly starts beaming, she picks it up in a sudden motion and drops it on Densuke in a very dramatic gesture. Each extreme is very well marked, and the link between each is created by a fluid arc on 2s. All this perfectly leads the viewer’s gaze from right to left and perfectly expresses the girl’s playful character. The gag in which the girl “gives” the bag to the dog illustrates in a fun way how she’s trying to imitate her sister. Although he’s just a “cyber” dog, Densuke’s frantic and slightly smeared movement just has the kind of playfulness and energy you’d expect from an animal. The dog and the camera’s left-right movement also leads our eyes in another direction, anticipating the next shot where Yuuko is now the focus.

It is there that the relative complexity of her design becomes an expressive device. She is in a hurry, running, burdened by a series of bags on her back and side. All the stark, straight lines of the folds and creases of her clothes create a lot of visual information, too much for the viewer to immediately take in: the effect is that of disorder and unrest, as if the young girl didn’t have the time to tidy up her appearance. Here, the timing on 2s and close spacing doesn’t create fluidity and volume, but instead increases the amount of variations in the folds’ patterns and makes it even harder to appreciate. The animator is in full control, but we feel that the character isn’t.

After that, as a final element of contrast, is Kyouko’s run. Once again, her movement is based on arcs: she leans left to pick up her bag, then does a turn towards the right which gives her just the right momentum to start running. Although the movement is rather complex, it’s all in one go, with almost no extreme poses as it was the case earlier. And now, Kyouko’s expression is more focused and serious, as if she were once again trying to imitate her sister.

This sequence is extremely short, as it lasts only for 30 seconds. But it teaches us a lot about the meaning of the expression “character acting” – a surprising one since animated characters are ultimately drawing and shouldn’t “act”. As we saw here, the work of the animator is to create a sense of verisimilitude and personality: manipulate the drawings in such a way that we can feel what the characters feel. The way it is done here translates a complete mastery of every aspect of animation: complex layouts delivered by even more competent animation. It is this incredible synergy between some of the greatest geniuses in the Japanese animation industry that makes Dennou Coil so special: every single moment of this 26 episodes series is filled with the same amount of talent and personality, on both the animators and characters’ part.

Sakuga Espresso – Tiger Mask W – Naotoshi Shida

Happy new year everyone, we are back from our holiday break! And what better way to start this year than by talking about our favorite feline, Tiger Mask!

Tiger Mask W is a show that impressed me through its fight choreographies which really bring out the spectacular side of wrestling.
I knew I was in for a treat as I watched the fight against Red Death Mask in episode 4, which ends with an intense sequence featuring a blood-soaked Tiger Mask and some beautiful stills and poses.

Tiger Mask kicking Red Readth Mask mid-air
Tiger Mask with blood drenched mask

Another great feature of the show was how it handled its legacy, following the steps of the two legendary TV series Tiger Mask and Tiger Mask Nisei, be it narratively by making use of already established characters, thematically by including real-world wrestlers into the show like its predecessors or even visually by paying homage to the original show’s iconic looks.
For example, the show digitally replicated the original show’s thick pencil lines, symbolic of Keiichiro Kitmura’s designs.

From the fight serving as the show’s climax, this scene, animated by Dragon Ball era veteran animator Naotoshi Shida goes some steps further to pay homage to the previous show’s vintage looks.
The execution of the first blows is reminiscent of some of his first scenes on Dragon Ball, but the elongated poses remind very much of the first Tiger Mask show.

Tiger Mask kicks The Third
The original Tiger Mask
Tiger Mask jumps away from The Third

Then there are also these Kanada light flares, reminiscent of early 80s anime and Tiger Mask Nisei. I don’t think there was any intent beyond something in the likes of “it looks cool and vintage,” but it is interesting to note that Yoshinori Kanada did contribute some Genga to the Nisei series.
Even the few black and white impact frames convey an impression of classic pre-2000 Toei action.

Kanada Light Flares as Tiger Mask prepares to kick

What I like most about this scene and how it plays with these aesthetic choices is that they leave a faint impression of a vintage style, but they do not feel old and incorporate themselves ideally alongside the modern visuals. As such, in an age where franchises are milked dry to the bone, I think Tiger Mask W showed a respectful way to continue on the path laid by its predecessors.

Sakuga expresso – Kids on the slope

When you ask people what “sakuga” means, chances are they’ll answer “good animation” or “animation that stands out”. And this sequence by Bahi JD certainly does stand out. And not only to us Western sakuga fans: also to the Japanese viewer. The animator behind this cut, Bahi JD, comes from Austria; and apparently, when this scene featuring Japanese high schoolers aired, many spectators reacted by saying “Japanese people would never look like that !” That way, Bahi JD made himself a name as one of the first major foreign animators working on anime.

The reason why these characters apparently don’t move like Japanese is because of how expressive and outgoing they seem to be. In the first shot, the boy coming in from the left suddenly calls his comrades with his arm out and starts jumping. He’s so bouncy it’s almost like he’s on a trampoline. The same could be said of the girl in the next shot. What’s amazing with her is that she never stops moving : she comes in the room, makes some signs, and immediately darts back out. She does that in one single movement and almost loses her balance as she turns. In the last shot, the bouncing return as the different boys and girls run in the hallway, full of excitement.

What’s also worth noting in this cut is the idea of depth, and how the animator leads our eye in the frame. In the first shot, the boy entering from the right looks towards the left, and the other boy turning back with a curious look on his face. His movement is also very characteristic, since he sways back and forth to keep his balance. The second shot plays on the same idea, but reverses the positions : the character coming in the frame is in the back, while the girl tending to flowers is in the front. As she’s being called, she starts and her long hair flies around a bit, highlighting her movement. And finally, the last shot, in the hallway, is all about depth as the characters run towards the camera. Here, it’s actually difficult to make out different planes of depth as the characters are moving in all directions : jumping from left to right, running towards us… 

All this jumpy character animation makes this cut look like a sudden explosion of movement and fluidity, and it’s what makes it so exceptional. But more than anything, it’s how much it’s suited to what’s happening : the excitement of these high schoolers that are so amazed that they stop moving like Japanese would and just start running everywhere.

Sakuga Espresso – Heike Monogatari

The ninth episode of Heike Monogatari has particularly struck me through its visuals. The following scene, which serves as the climax to the battle between Taira no Atsumori and Kumagai Naozame, is representative of some of the aspects that made this particular episode so appealing.

The build-up to this particular scene presents some great animation. However, what strikes me most about this one is not its animation but its direction and storyboarding by Ryohei Takeshita.
While the struggle of the battle of going on, the focus is on the action and movement. The scene is thought out to let the animator’s mind express himself. But as Kumagai Naozome hesitates to finish his foe, the directing changes to a much stiller, cinematographic approach, and the emphasis shifts to shot composition and timing.

The detail that made me rethink how I viewed this scene is the rack focus when the Heike’s troops approach. Because anime is not shot with an actual camera, the intention of reproducing such an effect shows the will to emulate cinema.

The very intrusive shots put us right in the intimacy of these characters and their internal conflicts, amplifying their emotions and intentions’ expression through such framing.

Close-up on Atsumori's face

The wider shot of the character lying in the water, the prolonged timing, and its stillness do a great job expressing Kumagai’s hesitation. Even though the characters are still in that scene, there is always a sense of movement. In this case, the flow of water and the reflection of light on its surface.

I can’t help but think of Akira Kurosawa’s filmmaking, which would often take a similar approach to include elements of movement, such as rain pouring in the background of scenes where the foreground would stay still. It allows, in my opinion, for a better appreciation of the flow of time despite the lack of action. In this case, helping to understand the internal struggle the warrior is going through.

A wide shot of Atsumori and Kumagai Naozome

As we cut to a close-up of the galloping horses’ hooves, a sense of urgency emerges, and the rhythm at which we cut intensifies exponentially. We feel that Kumagai is backed into a corner and has to make a decision until, finally, he gives the final blow.

Rather than showing us the violent strike, we cut to a shot of two albatross flying, reconciling with a calmer rhythm. The birds are a beautiful metaphor as albatrosses are thought to carry the souls of the dead at sea. Them flying through the middle of the shot as Atsumori’s lifeless body is sinking underwater is a poetic way to portray the passage to the afterlife.

Albatross fly by as Atusmori's lifeless body sinks

The scene ends with a fisheye shot on Biwa, which once again exemplifies the use of cinematographic techniques, that can be found throughout this episode, mainly through the use of lighting and lens flare.

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