Animation as a Medium

I’ve been a huge fan of anime and animation in general for my whole life so I thought I’d use this space to share a few of my thoughts about a medium that I love.  (By the way, all the clips I added here are pretty short.)

At this point, becoming enchanted by Disney’s animated films as a young child is practically a universal experience and an integral part of growing up.  However, Disney style animation that caters towards kids is not the only kind of animation out there.  Over the last two decades Japanese animation, or anime, has seen a steady rise in popularity here in the west. And in particular, its popularity has exploded over the course of the last six years.  Back in 2012, the anime streaming service Crunchyroll had a mere 100,000 paying subscribers, making it a niche streaming service that catered to a relatively small community of fans.  However, last month the service announced that it had reached the 2 million subscriber threshold, a massive 20-fold increase in 6 years. The service now boasts over 45 million registered users and is one of the 10 largest online video streaming services out there (though it obviously lags behind leaders like Netflix).

statistic_id594952_number-of-crunchyroll-subscribers-2012-2017
This charts the number of paid subscribers to Crunchyroll from September 2012 to February 2017.

Animation as a medium excels at telling stories that are fantastical in nature.  What really makes it shine is that it immediately creates a level of separation between the fiction on the screen and reality.  The fact that the show is either hand drawn or rendered immediately sets up an expectation that the world inside the story is different from reality, which makes it easier for the audience to suspend their disbelief.  To add to this, the nature of the medium also allows for the seamless integration of magical effects into the fabric of the show. When a live action show wants to add effects, the effect must usually be computer generated and then added in after filming. But, the juxtaposition between a computer rendered effect and a live actors and settings can often feel jarring and take away from the immersion.  And, an effect created at the time of filming using real-world techniques lacks the mysticism and feeling of wonder that is so important in fantasy and fairy tales for the simple reason that it can be explained with real world physics. It is far easier make an effect feel like it belongs to the world of the story in animated shows as the artist simply has to draw them both in the same art style.  Also, if we take a look back to old classics like Cinderella, many of the effects in these films probably would have been impossible to do in live action with the technology of the time. For example, I can’t imagine the fallowing scene where Cinderella’s dress transforms would have been feasible in live action with the technology available in the 1950’s.

Another benefit of the medium is that it allows for the creators to have a great deal more artistic freedom.  Creators can get away with more exaggerated expressions and actions in animation than they can in live action, again because of the separation from reality. We expect real people to act in a certain way, but the same expectations are far weaker for those that are animated.  What can reasonably feel like a hyped up battle scene in Dragonball Z would probably end up as just a bunch of dudes screaming way too loudly at each other in live action.

This is a clip from an anime called Nichijou that uses extreme and absurd reactions to great comedic effect.  Such a reaction could never even be considered in live action. It’s just not feasible and would make no sense if the show wasn’t animated.

Finally, animation in the west has this stigma as being a children’s medium.  And to be honest, with how successful Disney has become, it makes sense. But animation isn’t a medium that’s made just for kids.  Over the years it has also been used to depict topics far beyond what would be appropriate for children.  I think the best example of this would be the 1988 film Grave of the Fireflies created by Studio Ghibli and director Isao Takahata.  Yes, this is the same studio that brought us wholesome classics such as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. But whereas those two are great children’s movies, Grave of the Fireflies is a devastating and heart wrenching drama about the true costs of war.  In this movie, animation transcends the medium and strikes at the heart of what it means to survive as a human.

Grave of the Fireflies is a fantastic film. I definitely recommend watching it, but be warned, it will make you Sad.

Youjia Wang

Edit: I noticed that in a place or two I accidentally forgot a

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