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.