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The Failings of Anime
By Ron Ferrara
Yes, there is such a thing. Now I'm usually one to write about why I love anime in the capacity that I do, but I've found the more I watch anime, or engage in anything for that matter, the more I realize where anime is lacking. I'm going to try to look at this in a fair, objective manner, giving no prejudice to either Western or Eastern-style animation. Both have their weaknesses, both have their strengths. Of course, that by no means makes them automatically equal, but it doesn't make one overwhelmingly superior over the other either.
Part one, the animation. It's true when they say anime is a form of "limited animation." In recent years, with more and more anime showing on Japanese TV, anime has held this rule more than ever. Anime is an extremely limited animation style, also read as "lazy animation." They hardly animate anything in anime. It's true. The animation is limited to the absolute minimum required, and they use many tricks to make it seem as though the scene is more animated than it really is. Don't believe me? OK, here's a test. Grab your favorite anime TV series, since I'm speaking primarily about the majority of anime, which are TV series. OAVs and movies are higher budget productions and therefore are better animated and the "lazy animation" style isn't as noticeable. Pop your favorite anime TV series into the player. It's better with a DVD, because you're going to want to turn the audio track on Japanese and any subtitles to off. Why do this you ask? First off, if you watch it in English, your brain will be translating words into thoughts and you want to be concentrating on the animation, not the story or dialogue. If you know a fair amount of Japanese, perhaps you may want to place the audio on mute, but you won't get much entertainment value out of watching the anime now. Secondly, no subtitles because your eyes will be distracted from watching the translation at the bottom of the screen, and that's no good either. Focus and concentrate on the image in front of you. I think I should make an observation here. Anime fans who watch anime in English dub I believe are able to appreciate anime more for what it is rather than have a need to watch it presented in entirely the same fashion as the Japanese would. Reason being? Their eyes are not straying from the main source of animation, which is the center of the screen. One problem I have with English dubs is that the voice actors lack the talent of the Japanese seiyuu. More on this later. I've later observed that I was forced to watch the animation more, which is quite frankly, limited. I wonder if anime fans who exclusively watch subtitled anime are fooling themselves into believing the animation is better than it really is. After all, they're too busy looking elsewhere to pay close attention to everything else that's going on.
So is the DVD in the player, audio on Japanese (or mute for you fluent Japanese speakers), and subtitles off? OK, anime DVD... PLAY ON! *skipping the watching part* So what did we learn? Depending on the year and budget of the animation you watched, you might have noticed a few things. The Japanese aren't animating a whole lot. And the frame rates aren't a constant 30 per second either. Here are the facts: (1) Japanimation runs at an average of 24 frames per second, with main objects animated at 8 to 12 fps and background objects as low as 6 to 8 fps. (2) Japanimation often hide or use tricks to conceal that fact that nothing in the frame is being animated. Such as: the speaking character's back is turned to eliminate the need to animate mouth movements, or a sequence such as someone running is simply looped animation, or a sideways moving shot or a shot zooming in on a character is not animated, but rather the camera moving over a single cel. (3) Japanimation makes no or little attempt to align the mouth movements to the actual dialogue. (4) Most anime cels are drawn in Korea.
Surprised by any of that? It's all true. The lower frame rates you could have guessed on your own, as it saves money and allows for greater detail in other areas. The tactic of concealing what's actually animated has actually become an art form on its own, giving anime its look and style people appreciate, even if it is a cheap trick to save even more money. The mouth movements not even attempted to align with the character dialogue is also obvious, and I've never understood why Americans have such a need to do something the Japanese never intended. More on this later. And yes, most cels are drawn in Korea. Again, to save money. Perhaps the key cels are drawn in Japan, but the fill-ins are done in Korea and I believe that in recent times, quite nearly the entire anime series is animated in Korea, with the Japanese merely creating the story and basic design elements. Because of all of this; a single anime episode costs 1/2 to 1/3 what an American cartoon episode costs. Furthermore, more money and time can be spent on more essential areas, such as story and animation detail, like an actual layer or two of character shading.
So anime is lazy animation. That doesn't make it inferior to American animation. In fact, the Japanese have integrated the style seamlessly into their storytelling. They're taken a weakness and turned it into a strength. Most people enjoy that slower pace of anime, the fact that not everything has to be moving at every possible moment. It makes it seem more realistic, more mature and "adult." American animation, by contrast, has a need to keep things constantly moving. Detail doesn't have first priority, but fluidity in animation does. One could say Japanimation is well drawn and poorly animated while Americanimation is poorly drawn and well animated. This is of course hugely over-simplified, and I just made the word "Americanimation" up. But then again, let's look at the demographics. Japanese anime is targeted at quite nearly any audience, with more anime being produced for young children and teenagers, with some spillover to the early 20's group or even older. American cartoons are targeted almost exclusively at young children. If you compared American cartoons and Japanese anime meant for children, you'd see similarities. For example, we'll use the children's anime Doraemon. It's been a long running anime since 1973, with the first series having 27 episodes and the second (starting in 1979) with over 850 and still airing to this day. Doraemon resembles American animation more than it does Japanese animation. There are fewer animation tricks used to save money, but the actual art direction isn't much better than an episode of School House Rock. It's meant for education purposes.
Now let's compare series for a slightly older audience. Dragonball Z is a popular Japanese anime. I would use something like Transformers or G.I. Joe, but both those series were animated in Japan (who probably turned it over to Korea), so I'll use Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (which I have no idea on who actually animated it, so I'm breaking my first rule and assuming the Americans did it). Now it's been a long time since I've watched either, but whereas Dragonball Z might have had better artwork, TMNT didn't use endless frames of looped animation either. The storytelling was always "beat the bad guy," which for DBZ took a season and for TMNT took an episode or two. And here we see the differences in two cultures' storytelling. I won't lie to you, Japanese storytelling is better. While it's merely a matter of opinion, I feel the Japanese don't throw the entire story at you within the first five minutes and resolve the plot within the last five. Getting back to the point, Americans cater to a different audience than the Japanese do. In looking at Dragonball Z or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, it's pretty simple: a group of heroes have to work together to defeat the enemy and usually teach a valuable lesson somewhere in the middle of it. But when American animation stops working for older crowds (usually when junior high school students graduate to MTV), anime simply changes its style to better suit this older demographic. Americans never learned that lesson, although you could make an argument for Beavis & Butthead and South Park.
The Japanese wrote stories to entertain older audiences, and the characters changed from talking animals and overpowered superheroes to normal people. Once in a while an anime like X will come along and give regular humans superhuman abilities, but let's face it, nothing else has quite been made where nearly the entire main cast can blow up a moon by pointing their finger at it. Limits do need to be set in order to establish some drama. Anyway, a lot of anime are about an outwardly normal boy or girl, usually wearing their school uniform, who has been surrounded by a half dozen beautiful women/falls into the cockpit of a giant mecha/transported to another world/bestowed with mythical powers. I think that surmises 90% of anime today. This is the majority of what the Japanese pre-teens and teenagers watch, and what most Americans have been exposed to. And the Japanese have been using the same stories for the past thirty years. Yes, they've run out of ideas, but no less than we American have with our movie industry. But the same as our movies can still be entertaining even if we've seen their plots 100 times or more, anime can still be entertaining even if one more pink-haired, fuku-wearing Japanese schoolgirl appears on screen.
Within the past 5 years, although it has almost always been true since it's beginning, anime has grown increasingly abundant. In 1995, one could name all the anime that premiered on television that year, since there were only slightly more than 30. In 2001, there were close to 90 newly premiered anime. The reason being? Animation strategy has become even more lax. Less and less is being animated as the Japanese learn what is nonessential and cut it out. The advent of CG helps this trend of creating more anime than you can possibly ever watch. Still, the animation quality has gone up. This is possible because where they're saving money in one area; they're putting it into another area. While things may run at a low frame rate, the detail per frame has increased. And because backgrounds are almost entirely CG nowadays, even more detail has been added to the main characters and objects. In the past (also known as the good old days), you had A cels and B cels and C cels. The A cels were the good ones, the cels you would show probably more than once. B cels were for important or exciting sequences that would get ratings. And C cels were the bulk of the animation. A great example is Macross. A cels were used in the opening, the reused footage (Valkyries launching, reflex cannon firing, and Daedalus attack, et cetera) and some of the more important battles. B cels were used during all the other combat sequences and the poor C cels were relegated to everything else, including the romantic interaction between characters. At times, Macross looked incredible. At others, it looked worse than Go Nagai's 1972 Mazinger Z. Mobile Suit Gundam had the same problem. Macross was 1982 and Gundam was 1979, but even at times, Gundam looked better than Macross. Back that long ago, everything was cel-drawn. There was no nifty CG. And you had to make sure your anime could sell product, or you weren't getting any funding. Hence the heyday of mecha anime during the 1970's and 1980's. And mecha sold very well in Japan.
OK, so anime has at the same time gotten less animated yet somehow better over the years. Admitted, the stories today are all the same. One series about a boy with his mechanical maid comes out, and the next week there are four more just like it. It's all competition. Sometimes you get something a little different. Like RahXephon, but even that has been criticized for being too "Evangelion." Other times, you get a clone, like Ai Yori Aoshi. Even I'm having a hard time getting through that one. I'm not saying Ai Yori Aoshi is bad anime, it's just that I've seen it all before in Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo! and Love Hina. But let me discuss something else. There has been a recent influx of what I like to call "crack anime." It's those anime that are designed for a slightly older audience, yet make no attempt to shade anything nor detail any character beyond a single outer black line defining body shape. You know what I mean. Kodomo no Omacha anyone? I simply cannot watch it. It really gets to me; it takes where anime does not rate very well, and exploits it. Lots of fast, jerky movements and characters bouncing off walls everywhere, like the main cast is on... crack. Kodomo no Omacha might have started it. But then we had Jungle wa Itsumo Hare Nochi Guu, which I also could not watch after a few episodes. Then Azumanga Daioh, which I refuse to watch at all. Di Gi Charat isn't entirely the crack anime style, but I don't know who was in charge of the art direction in that short series, because everything short of the cat girl cast is a mere oval shaped thing with a face. Even Excel Saga uses this style of animation part of the time, but as long as it's not constant, I can tolerate it (plus, I think Excel Saga parodies this short of thing more than it actually makes use of it for budgetary reasons). Gainax's Ebichu (which was done on a dare, by the way) has art I myself could draw better, and I'm maybe a 3.5 at best on a scale of 10. I dislike this style because it reminds too much of childish American animation, which as we all know, has to keep things moving in order to keep the children watching. Children have short attention spans, so I understand the need for this, but the reason I don't watch most mainstream American cartoons (besides being a little under my age group) is because this constant moving image takes away from individual cel detail, and why I've said American animation is poorly drawn but well animated.
Let me explain more on that. The Mona Lisa is superbly drawn and horribly animated. Indeed, it's one of the finest works of art ever created by man. But it's the worst animation I've ever laid eyes on. It doesn't move. Not an inch. It just sits there and looks incredible. Now on the other hand, Stick Fighters (www.xiaoxiaomovie.com) is extremely-well animated but as well drawn as, um, stick figures. Which would be considered the better work, all things considered? Chances are, da Vinci's Mona Lisa is the better work. Why? The artwork's detail is astounding. It may not doing anything but look pretty, but it does that better than any other painting in the world. Now, Stick Fighters is well animated. The figures may be simple, but they move with surprising fluidity and realistic motion. But still, we've learned something through this basic example. Detail is more important than animation. Perhaps this is why anime has gained greater success in Japan than cartoons have in the US.
Now, I'm not putting down Disney or Warner Brothers. We all watched Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse when we were kids. And we enjoyed it. But now for some observational analysis. Anime may be called "limited animation," and they would be right, but if anime is limited, then American cartoon use a "non-solid" or "fluid form animation." Anime saves money by not animating what doesn't need to be animated, even if that person is standing still with their mouth open staring at the same large alien while the main character says his lines for the next five minutes of why they're attacking and what his place will be even though he's not sure of himself and his abilities (it's humor folks, try to keep up). By the same token, American cartoons don't even bother with characters that are properly shaped. Big heads, spaghetti-thin arms and legs, and characters that resemble sponges... everything flies in American animation (it's for kids and they don't care as long as their entertained, yada yada yada). OK, so anime is no better, not with these perfect model bodies and entire visible spectrum-colored hair and big Bambi eyes. But you have to give anime some credit. At least it's not all super deformed as the majority of American animation seems to specialize in. Warner Brothers didn't really try to fix this either. All their characters are bipedal forest creatures, with the occasional midget Elmer Fudd or dwarf Yosemite Sam. Even Disney's early characters were animals. However, Disney did do normal human beings, but here's where I call American animation as being "non-solid form." Watch any Disney film starring a human cast. They all move very realistically, and without any jerky movements. Perhaps just a little too fluid. No human is that smooth-moving all the time, but I'm getting off track. Everything in Disney, and I do mean everything, has the consistency of a water ballon. Everything flows, everything moves and reacts. Nothing is ever solid. In Mulan, all the Chinese soldiers were wearing armor. It might as well have been cloth because it flowed like silk over their bodies. In Lion King, the lions moved like real lions would (testament to the budget and research Disney can afford to do beforehand), but there wasn't a single bone in any of those lions, as their forms flowed like a tan, shag carpeted, silicone breast insert. Where's the form? Where's the solid shape? Why is everything moving so smoothly and at the same speed? Can't anyone move with some haste? Disney can afford to do all these studies on actual human and animal movement, but they can't keep a leg muscle the same shape or give it a different 'hardness' than a long skirt. It's all too liquid. Nobody can ever react too fast because then it would require less than 30 fps to animate him or her, and by God, Disney may become a little like the Japanese.
Not that anime couldn't use some Disney in it either. I'm not saying anime characters all have to have their jaws move when they talk now, but perhaps with a bigger budget, we could get some flowing hair or skirts that didn't loop the cels over and over again. Maybe we could get a hyperactive character that could contain more frames of animation than a flipbook. I think the answer lies in the best of both worlds. But the way it is now, it's all where these companies spend their money. It's like an RPG; you only have so many resource points for your character. What strengths and weaknesses do you want? You can balance it all off, but nobody wants well-rounded. It's better to specialize somewhere. And that's why these two styles of animation are so radically different and yet seek to do the same thing. I think on average, all things considered, the Japanese have the better animation style. Even when limited to a small budget, they can still come out with a quality piece of work because it costs them less per minute of animation to do so. But all that penny (or yen) squeezing will not make any difference without some sort of story, and I believe that Japanese are doing better in that area as well because they've expanded their animation to include age groups that no animator in America would even consider animating a work for. Still, anime is a limited style, and it has its faults. Again, I think the best animation would be a joint effort between Americans and the Japanese, but it would be difficult to meld these two styles, and something would suffer as a result.
I've talked at length about the animation. Now for something else. This is exclusively the fault of the American front. It's the enigma of bad English dubbing. Now I know what most fans are saying. It's either a) damn straight! or b) you dub-hating critic! Here's where I come off saying English dubs of Japanese anime aren't that great on the average. First, let's use a little example. When was the last time the Japanese cast was given a bad rating? Who even rates the Japanese cast? We fully expect them to be without flaw (and for the most part it's true). Sure, some seiyuu garner more respect than others. Almost everyone, including the American anime fans, knows the name Megumi Hayashibara. I can near guarantee you that a random Japanese anime fan would not know, nor care about, the name Tiffany Grant. Here's the thing: the Japanese get more of a budget than we do to hire voice talent. It's as simple as that. Do you ever hear of anyone complaining about Disney's newest animated film's voice cast? No never, Disney and Warner Brothers can afford names like Kevin Spacey and Eddie Murphy, and when you have professional actors giving the voices, you know you have a good dub on your hands. Furthermore, the Japanese market merchandise to sell when their anime is released. They gain additional funding from the sale of these products. American companies do not. They money they make is exclusively from the DVDs they sell. American companies have to settle from what they can afford, and quite frankly, is less than the best. Even Transformers had better voice talent than most English dubbed anime being sold today. Transformers had toys to sell. Hasbro gave funding to Transformers, and as a result Hasbro was allowed to produce Transformers figures (the molds of which they bought from Takara in Japan). Watch Transformers the movie, and you'll see names like Leonard Nimoy, Orsen Wells, Casey Kasem, Jon Moschitta and Robert Stack. Or for those who don't know, that's Spock, the "War of the Worlds" guy, a popular radio disk jockey, the world's fastest talking man and the host of Unsolved Mysteries. These people are celebrities in their own right, hence why Transformers the movie was such a good dub. When you hire professionals, you get professional results.
Here's another point. Most Japanese seiyuu can sing. They sing because singing hones the voice and when using your voice, you want it to sound clear and without any scratching or squealing. When giving an animated character a voice, you sometimes need to strain your voice. To do this without sounding like a frog or a high-pitched squirrel, you need to have a voice that can handle a large vocal range. Furthermore, the Japanese release CDs with "image songs," that is, songs sung by the characters. Groups like DoCo (the Ranma 1/2 girls) show that Japanese seiyuu can form bands and find success using the characters they played in anime. To drive the point, American voice talent cannot sing. They do not train their voices to any great extent. They do not have a professional acting career nor are they known to any great extent beyond what they do as voice talent. There may be one or two exceptions to this rule; admitted, I do not follow the lives of these people. And I do not hate English dubs. I enjoy a good dub as much as the next person, but it's so hard to find a good dub. I'm quite hard on actors and acting. Do you know who I think a good actor is? Al Pacino. Robert DeNiro. Jodie Foster. Anything less than the best and I'll pick them out on their faults. American anime VA are about 100 miles from the type of actor Pacino is. There's no comparison. English dubs of the past were better than English dubs of the present because those cartoons sold products beyond just the VHS tapes. G.I. Joe and Transformers sold toys. That made money. And it's all about money in this industry. ADV Films does nothing else but anime VHS and DVD. They can't afford who Disney or Warner Brothers can. The answer is simple. Not easy to accept, but simple.
It's not the fault of American dubbing companies. They're trying their best. But they're also trying to make a profit. The only way they can make that buck is though the sales of merchandise, which are the video sales. Nothing else is selling, nor would it sell. Nobody wants English voice cast image songs. Nobody wants to buy an American Megami magazine. Manga is an exception, but manga can only fail in the translation, and translation is far easier [and cheaper] than proper cast selection for an animated series. Yes, there are a few anime songs in English that aren't half bad. Some of the original Sailor Moon music for example. Even Magic Knight Rayearth should deserve some praise. But does anyone really want to buy an OST featuring Brian Drummond singing Zechs Merquise or Vegeta's image songs? Sorry Mr. Drummond, but someone needs to hand you a lozenge. If Frank Sinatra ever sings the Evangelion ending theme for the OST, let me know.
Occasionally, we get a good dub, but only because it was professionally done. Princess Mononoke is an example. Again, professional talent yield professional results. Once in a while though, a dub comes along that exceeds expectations. A dub that, maybe through a fluke, is as good as it possibly can get. El-Hazard is an example of such a dub. It's the first dub I've heard of that has actually been considered to be superior to the Japanese. It's that good, although I don't concur to that degree. I think El-Hazard is a good a dub to the equal of the original Japanese. I'd gladly watch either. No preferences here; El-Hazard's audio menu might as well be random choice. But while I'm doing this, let's categorize the dubs (I'll try to use English dubs most people have heard for themselves or heard about from reputable sources):
10) El-Hazard - An excellent dub as good as the original language it was presented in. A hard task to do, but possible with enough talent.
9) Ranma 1/2 - A good dub, but a level or two below the original language. Nothing wrong with it by any means, but the original pulls ahead in a few areas.
8) Princess Mononoke, Cowboy Bebop - Also a good dub, but it has its flaws. Listenable, although some performances might be over the top or too flat.
7) Tenchi Muyo!, Gundam W - A dub better than most, but there are some major differences between the original and the newly dubbed version. Lacks the true intent of the original's voices.
6) Mobile Suit Gundam - Merely a decent dub, some voices may remain truthful to the original but lack of talent is apparent.
5) Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust - Not a good dub, but not wholly awful either. Could have been better if the actors had more acting experience.
4) The 08th MS Team - Considered by some to be a good dub, but really, the actors are subpar and inadequate.
3) The Vision of Escaflowne - The actors are plainly not the proper choices. Minimal performance at best.
2) Dragonball Z - It is quite clear these voices are straining themselves giving any sort of effect.
1) Outlaw Star - The entire cast is grating and the whole production was underfunded.
*Note: A lot of these titles were shown on Cartoon Network's Toonami block of programming. I think that makes them recognizable. Also realize the dubs have nothing to do with the quality of the show itself. Even an excellent anime can receive a bad dub.
These dub ratings apply to everything. Most DVDs nowadays come with more than one audio track. Ever listen to Arnold Schwarzenegger in French? Hey, there's a bad dub right there and it's not even in English! The same way we can't afford our best for anime, the French can't afford their best for American action movies. Or why old Godzilla movies are constantly made fun of (starting moving your moving your lips silently and then throw in "Look, there's Godzilla!" somewhere in the middle of it). Listen, I'm not blaming American voice actors for being "less than the best." This isn't wartime and these people aren't risking their lives. They're just trying to make a living and I'm sure they're all trying their hardest to give their best performances. Names like Wendee Lee and David Lucas are pretty decent talent; these people deserve some credit. But there are differences between the way American dubs and Japanese dubs are done. The Americans usually record one voice at a time, so the only interaction is the actor, a microphone, a glass wall, and the director. I suppose this is a point of criticism for being the stupidest thing you could possibly do to an actor. Name any movie that films a single actor at a time. The Japanese, on the other hand, record quite nearly all the actors sitting together in a recording room. This allows for interaction between each other, and when one actor says something, the responding actor can answer accordingly. Perhaps this is why the Japanese dubs generally have more emotion to them, because the entire experience is more emotional within the process itself.
Let's put a spin on this. How good do you think the Japanese dub of The Simpsons is? No, I'm serious. Think it's as good as our dub? I bet if nothing else its sounds funny and would be a riot to watch. But still, is there any chance The Simpsons Japanese dub holds a candle to our English cast? Not a chance. I can imagine Homer has the deep voice all Japanese dads do and instead of saying "Doh!" he says "Oy!" I wonder if the Japanese ever consider the true intent of the character personalities through the sound of the English voice cast. Do you think they have discussions on English versus Japanese Simpsons cast? Does that sound a little obsessive and ridiculous to you? And here we come to our final point on this topic: we're watching cartoons boys and girls. If the Japanese seriously try to get down to the little things that make the English version of The Simpsons better than the Japanese version, then I suppose our cultures are not as different as we all may think. I believe that everything is best left in its original language, whether that be anime or a Chinese kung-movie or American soap operas. If you want to watch it in another language, that's just fine and dandy, but I think the rational-minded would agree that something may be lost in that changeover of language. Nothing ever translates directly, and sometimes the very sound of the original language conveys the emotion of the scene more than the words do. Such things cannot be carried over in the re-dubbing process.
I've talked animation style and I've talked English dubs. There are not many shortcomings of anime. I can't say I have much of a problem with anime any more than that, although I could also say neither of those are problems either because I a) like anime's art style and b) if I dislike a dub I simply don't watch it. I could go into more episodes per DVD or release dates or more accurate subtitles, but that sort of thing varies from anime to anime and from company to company. Despite everything I've said above and the way I've dissected and analyzed everything, anime is still my number two hobby. Nope, it's never been number one, but it's always stayed a consistent two. I don't think it'll ever drop below that ranking, even though I'm one to observe all the faults and errors and little minor nitpicks that might seem to add up to a lot. But really, they're all superficial. Long live anime and long live otaku fandom.
Please send all comments, criticisms, praise and death threats to: firstname.lastname@example.org. I won't reply with a hard drive-formatting virus, I promise. And I apologize to the actors or companies I may have personally insulted while writing this article.