We all know it when we see it - that moment in an anime when the animation suddenly transforms from its normal, plain self into a fluid, amazingly beautiful spectacle that takes our breath away. It might be a pivotal battle, a long-awaited love confession, or (fittingly enough) a magical girl transformation. And then, when it’s finally over, we pick our jaws up from the floor and marvel at what we witnessed. What just happened? and, why can’t anime be like that all the time?
This momentary leap in animation quality is called “sakuga”, which literally translates to “drawing pictures”. But in industry terminology, sakuga refers to these special segments of an anime that the studio dedicates a disproportionate amount of money and effort to so that they’ll look absolutely astounding. These moments tend to be the most important parts of the show, like opening themes and the aforementioned fights, story climaxes, and transformations. Showrunners want to leave a lasting impression on viewers by putting the animators’ effort where it really counts – in these concentrated moments of pure aesthetic pleasure.
It’s almost universal throughout all anime that some of the best animation will be used in the opening theme. After all, this is the first impression that viewers get when they start watching, and it’s a great chance for the studio to show all that this series has to offer. Spectacular battles, snippets of important scenes, dances, magic, or whatever else they want the anime to be known for. And since the opening is repeated every episode, that hard work certainly won’t go to waste.
- Episodes: 51
- Aired: April 2008 – March 2009
In a gothic-inspired world where monsters and witches terrorize the populace, there’s only one way to fight back. Demon weapons, who are humans that can transform into things like scythes or guns, partner with their wielders (called meisters) to keep Death City safe. The Death Weapon Meister Academy, led by Lord Death himself, teaches pairs of teenagers to work together as meister and weapon. We follow Maka and Soul, a meister-weapon duo who face new challenges when they learn that an ancient evil is sleeping underneath the city.
Soul Eater is a highly stylized show, evoking Western comics and Halloween imagery more than traditional anime designs. Its first opening, Resonance, is well-known as one of the best anime openings ever because of its upbeat, spooky tune and the fast-paced action that moves perfectly to the beat. By putting so much time and effort into this opening, Studio Bones were able to show off fluid movement and impressive camera work that promised viewers a fun, slightly dark shounen anime overflowing with effortless style from beginning to end.
Soul Eater – Official Opening 1 – Resonance
Pivotal Plot Points
For the most vital points in an anime’s story, studios want to make these moments memorable by pulling out the best animation they can muster. They’ll show every conflicted emotion on a character’s face when they reveal a big plot twist, every small hitch of breath during a declaration of love. If done well, these scenes can last forever in the memories of every fan.
Mahoutsukai no Yome (The Ancient Magus’ Bride)
- Episodes: 24
- Aired: October 2017 – March 2018
In an idyllic recreation of modern England, magic and sorcery lies just underneath the surface. An enigmatic mage named Elias buys a depressed Japanese girl named Chise at an auction (don’t think about it too much) and hopes to raise her as his apprentice and eventual bride. Little by little, Chise and Elias explore this mysterious world of dragons and fae folk and learn more about each other every day.
Even though this anime has gorgeous animation all the time, Chise’s return home to Elias in episode 12 was nothing short of breathtaking. Her clothes shift and ripple from the abundance of magic, the fire spirits cast soft shadows on her face, and her graceful dance through the sky pairs beautifully with the remixed opening theme playing over the entire scene. When we first saw her explode out of the ribbons of fire into Elias’ waiting arms, we knew their relationship was something special.
Chise Takes Flight | The Ancient Magus’ Bride
This is cheating a bit, since anime movies have astronomically higher budgets than weekly TV shows, but it’s true that studios pull out all the stops when it comes to movies. Whether it’s a standalone film or a special addition to a normal anime series, these works are designed to impress the viewer. Perhaps the most famous would be Studio Ghibli films, which incorporate hand-painted backgrounds and exhaustively researched settings to fully immerse the viewer in their fantastical worlds. But of course, they’re not the only ones who can serve up sakuga in movie form.
- Episodes: 1
- Aired: July 1988
Akira is one of the original masters of sakuga. The entire movie was animated at 24 frames per second, which is much higher than the standard rate for animated movies. This phenomenally labor-intensive technique made every moment of this classic movie look fluid, realistic, and downright amazing. Special mention goes to the motorcycle chase from the beginning and Tetsuo’s grotesque transformation near the end. The sheer amount of talent and man-hours that went into the making of this movie is staggering, and it shows in every single frame.
AKIRA – 25th Anniversary Edition – Coming Soon – Trailer
As for why an anime can’t have this high standard of quality throughout its entire runtime, we have to take a quick look at how much money anime studios have to produce their shows. Unlike American studios, which receive from $350,000 up to multiple millions for each episode, Japanese studios only get around $123,000 to $300,000 per episode. This means that anime has to take shortcuts to save money for their important sakuga scenes. Tactics include only animating eyes and mouths in a dialogue scene, outsourcing work to inferior studios, reusing footage, airing embarrassingly bad animation on TV and then cleaning it up for the Blu-Ray and international releases, and much more. This kind of corner cutting was especially prevalent in the days of hand-drawn cel animation, but still continues to this day.
In the modern anime landscape, where the tedious process of hand-drawing each frame isn’t necessary anymore, it’s easier than ever for studios to create higher quality animation at a low price. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean that every show made these days can be sakuga-tastic. In fact, the advent of computer animation gave studios even more ways to cut corners! One of these is using computer graphics to portray a complex object in movement, like a giant monster or a vehicle. CG can look beautiful and blend seamlessly with 2D art, but at a lower budget... it doesn’t tend to turn out well. Anyone who remembers Initial D will know exactly what we mean.
Initial D First Stage
- Episodes: 26
- Aired: April 1998 – December 1998
Takumi Fujiwara’s tofu delivery runs are way more intense than he initially bargained for: his father challenges him to drive around a mountain pass at top speed without spilling the cup of water sitting on his dashboard. The local street-racing scene notices his talents, and soon, he finds himself entwined in the high-stakes game of drift racing.
These days, Initial D is best known for its Eurobeat soundtrack, hilariously over-the-top scenarios, and bad CG cars. To be fair, it’s from the late ‘90s, but the transition between flat 2D characters and low-poly cars zooming along mountain roads is jarring to say the least. Though even today, it’s still very difficult to find a happy marriage between 2D and 3D animation in anime.
Initial D Anime Trailer Full Version
Sakuga is all about spectacle – it doesn’t affect the story or even necessarily the overall quality of a show, but it does provide the kind of amazing experience that we crave from anime. Whether or not it’s worth the stunted effort for the less important animation is something that can be debated series by series, but we’re just glad we get our sakuga moments at all.
What are your favorite sakuga scenes? And, just for fun, what are your favorite clichés of bad corner cutting animation? Let us know in the comments, and thanks so much for reading!