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 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.

Sakuga Espresso – Honey and Clover

Tetsuya Takeuchi’s solo key animated episode 7 on 2005’s Honey and Clover is one of the classic works of 2000’s anime, and no doubt one of the best showcases of character animation from the period. In this slow-paced and quiet drama, Takeuchi could fully express the sensibilities that made him so special: an attention to the little motions of the body and the way they are able to convey emotion. This tendency, and Takeuchi’s ability to create a sense of bodily volume and presence situate him in a realistic lineage. But there’s something more to his animation: he does not simply try to reproduce the real physical properties of bodies or create some kind of photorealism. There’s an added quality to his drawing, a sense of quiet but pressing expressivity that makes the motion so special.

Because Takeuchi’s character animation here relies a lot on conveying emotion, it’s first necessary to understand this sequence in context. It is a tense conversation between Mayama and the woman he has an unrequited love for, Rika. In this scene in particular, Mayama is about to leave Rika for an extended period of time, but before that, he offers her a bracelet that’s the sign of his love for her, and promises that he will be back.

Rika is a thin, sickly, physically and psychologically hurt woman, whereas Mayama is a tall, bright young man. They are stark opposites, something visible in their character designs. But Takeuchi, who took some slight liberties with them in his solo episode, made this idea even clearer in this sequence. The second shot (from Rika’s point of view?) shows us Mayama bent over reading a magazine. The regular, wide curve of his large back already evokes height, but the fact that his shirt seems to be too large, especially around his thin arms and small, schematically-drawn hands, creates an opposite impression of someone ill-at-ease, not in the right position or situation.

Although we don’t see Mayama’s face, his contrasting feelings of hesitation and determination come off quite clearly. In a heavily modulated sequence that lasts for just a few seconds, Mayama suddenly closes his magazine, puts it back on the table, hunches back even more for a sigh and pauses. Then, the way he bends over and quickly rises up highlights his height and weight, and the apparent difficulty he has making up his decision of going to talk to Rika: the movement starts very slowly, on close spacings, with Mayama’s back still bent. But then the spacings suddenly get wider for a few frames, and slow back down when, finally up, Mayama starts looking for the bracelet in his pocket.

As Mayama walks towards Rika and the camera, Takeuchi once again put a lot of care into expressing weight, this time slightly exaggerating it: Mayama’s body and arms swing by left to right a bit too much, as if he was himself trying to act out some kind of weariness. This then brings us to the center of the scene: Mayama engaging the dialogue while giving back Rika’s car keys, and then offering her the bracelet.

After a few establishing medium shots, the camera settles on close-ups of Mayama and Rika’s hands. This emphasizes the awkward, sudden physical contact, but also requires some more work from the animator who had to convey in more detail the volume and motion of the hands. It’s really the sense of awkwardness which prevails here: such a gift is unexpected, and it’s clear that both Mayama and Rika don’t quite know how to react properly to what’s happening.

The actual motion of Mayama putting on the bracelet is rather simple and fluid, but the real highlight is when he takes his hands out, slightly caressing Rika’s arm and hand in the process. The deliberate timing and detailed anatomical linework allow us to appreciate this moment and what it means to both characters. But the real emotional reaction we see is Rika’s, as her fingers slightly contract and retract once they’ve lost the touch of Mayama’s hand – as if they were unconsciously reaching for it. This is where Takeuchi’s “twitching” kind of animation comes to the fore: both characters’ hands constantly move, in small bursts of barely perceivable motion. Although hands might not tremble in such a way in this kind of situation, this continuous but irregular motion perfectly conveys the feelings at play here: a short moment of intimacy, brief shivers of excitement and apprehension, the tension between two individuals who know each other’s feelings but try not to hurt them. 

The second part of this moment is more sudden, as Mayama seemingly took his decision and acts more decisively: he tightens the bracelet around Rika’s wrist, so that it never leaves her – just like his feelings for her. The shapes and motion are once again very detailed, but they’re also more fluid and sudden. Mayama’s motion is less delicate and caring: it seems like he’s not searching for some however brief physical contact anymore, but confirming his feelings both to himself and Rika.

Takeuchi’s character animation, although it can go in much flashier directions, is the perfect fit for this kind of subdued, subtle moments. There may be exaggeration to the way he adds as many little movements as possible, but in instances such as this sequence, it’s limited, kept just to the right limit. This here is a kind of emotional realism, that exhibits a perfect balance between round, voluminous designs complemented by fluid motion on one hand, and more schematic linework that works best with more erratic timings and irregular movement. It is delicate work, one that plays on the smallest of details and impressions – a perfect fit for such a scene where all the emotions come through the positions and contact of bodies rather than words.

Sakuga Espresso – Mob Psycho 100

This beautiful cut from Mob Psycho 100 has a lot going for it: free, loose effects animation; a smooth and excellently-designed camera move; and some hilariously expressive cartoon faces!

However, what I’d like to bring our attention to first isn’t any of those, but rather the excellent color design and compositing that ties the whole shot together. This cut serves the narrative purpose of revealing Mob’s psychic abilities to us, the audience, so it’s fitting that the most bright and colorful thing in the room is the result of Mob’s power. When being exorcised, the spirit flashes a wild variety of neon colors in rapid succession, while sparks and flashing arcs of electricity surround it in a rainbow glow. Interestingly, the color palettes and compositing effects seem to change at a faster rhythm than the drawings, creating what I like to call a ‘sub-drawing movement’ that heightens the intensity of the scene without taking away from the vitality of each keyframe. 

Speaking of keyframes, let’s take a moment to appreciate how excellent these drawings are! First let us consider the loosely-scribbled crackles of electricity that spring up in an instant and disappear just as quickly. I am especially endeared to the looseness with which these bolts are drawn: their rounded bends and jagged edges remind me of lines I myself have made when scribbling wildly to revive many a nearly-dead ballpoint pen! 

Despite the lack of care these effects may seem to reflect, I feel that these effects function well in a unique way: the wobbly looseness of the effects animation here contrasts nicely with the precisely-drawn lines of the shifting background, and perhaps also help emphasize to the viewer how effortlessly Mob wields his psychic power. 

 

Our appreciation of the looseness of this cut’s effects may be further deepened by the knowledge that this animator (or group of animators) can draw extremely well when they want to. There is an incredible amount of care put into conveying the solidity of the swirling spirit’s form as the camera rotates around it. Look at the way the thick contour lines overlap one another and taper off to depict a form that bubbles, twists, crunches, and overlaps itself! The short, scratchy lines on the inside of the form even begin to convey a texture I imagine being something like stretched taffy. This over-exaggeration of form helps sell the spirit’s otherworldly nature, while also reflecting the animator’s excellent shape design and solid drawing skills being applied in a playful, free way. 

The intensive planning put into this shot shows not only in the drawings and compositing, but also in the excellent movement of the camera through the scene. The viewer starts the scene positioned roughly from Mob’s point of view, but when the exorcism starts our point of view shifts and begins mirroring the same spiral motion as the spirit. It’s almost as if the animator/director imagined a literal camera getting swept up and carried away by the same spinning psychic energy! The camera’s path of motion does a good job of highlighting the important secondary aspects of the scene: Mob’s bored expression, Reigen’s confident stance, and finally the scared couple huddling together. Near the end of its arc, the camera is momentarily obscured by two more unknown objects, but these obstructions are so brief that they mainly act as creatively-designed ‘impact frames’ for the final explosion. 

All of this together makes for a shot that is exciting, gorgeous, and satisfying to rewatch. Animation at its finest – and, certainly – funnest. 

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.

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