Suddenly I feel like talking about direction in Japanese cartoons (Part 1: Shot Composition)

I’m not a real filmmaker like some of my friends are, nor have I studied film in any great detail. I have however seen Casablanca, and I know what both a pan and a tilt are, so I figure I’ll talk about filmish things in the context of Japanese animation.

There are few anime out there that stand out as really great in my eyes. More often than not, what pushes an anime from good to great is the direction. When I talk about direction, I’m talking about pacing, scene composition, the framing of shots, and things like that. Ever since I started watching anime, these aspects have always jumped out at me when they were really well done, and as a result I have turned into someone who talks out of their ass about things like shot framing, scene composition and pacing.

The show that really brought my attention to direction in anime was Neon Genesis Evangelion. Right when I popped in ADV’s dubbed VHS, I noticed something different in what I was watching. There was a real attention put into its presentation– the animation was well done, each scene was expertly composed, and there was no shot that was boring. Evangelion’s direction isn’t totally consistent across its 26 episodes and 2 movies, but on the whole it more or less encompasses what I like as far as direction goes.

Oh, don’t worry. This post won’t be just Eva spooging. I’ll spooge over Shinbo and some random KyoAni show, too.

Shot Composition

What grabs me first about a show’s direction is usually unique shot composition. In Evangelion’s more arty moments, one notices an abundance of faraway shots, shots without characters, and at times shots that make good use of strange camera angels and contrast-heavy lighting. The most striking aspect about Evangelion’s shot framing is how Anno & The Krew put a strong focus on the environment around the characters, and it really helps to involve you in the show. Some of my favourite shots in Evangelion are those of characters in large, empty rooms; which serve to reinforce the pervasive feeling of loneliness present in the series. I could go on and on about the significance of certain shots in Eva and their meanings but that’s better saved for another blog post.

While Evangelion certainly is an arty piece, it rations its use of stupidly arty shots. They are dropped when needed– sometimes in rapid succession, and sometimes not. The genius dreamteam SHAFTxSHINBO, on the other hand, make each shot an artistic masterpiece. Even before Shinbo joined SHAFT, his work was a sight to behold. Hurricane Polymar is a very shitty cartoon, but Shinbo’s direction is wonderfully experimental; and The SoulTaker is an assault of awkwardly framed shots with strange colour palettes.

While I haven’t seen it for a while, I maintain this amazing team’s best work is Tsukuyomi ~Moon Phase~. Tsukuyomi is a weird beast that mixes Shinbo’s SoulTaker antics with wacky slapstick stuff, and it’s almost the greatest thing ever. You’ll have shots that present the main group’s house as TV show set, sometimes complete with visible light fixtures and cameras. Then in the next episode you’ll have the team charging Count Kinkell in an art museum where everything is blue, purple and green with checkerboard patterns everywhere. Not to mention that each shot is framed impossibly and can only be pulled off in animation. That’s creativity.

Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuuutsu is another one that rations its use of shots that only dumbasses like me appreciate. While the show certainly didn’t catch on for its use of shots like the one pictured above, that’s exactly what attracted me to the show, along with its great production values and certain well-endowed bunny girl… but I’m getting off track. Haruhi is more or less a normal show–it just happens to have really clever writing, great animation and a cute, lovable cast. However, there are shots in the arm of really interesting shooting.

For instance, there is that one infodump episode– the one where all the weirdos are coming out to Kyon. In each of their explanations, the person doing the storyboards makes it so you won’t be bored out of your skull when Koizumi talks about Secret Agent Espers or whatever. Each of those scenes are made interesting either by how they’re shot, or how they’re composed. Nagato’s explanation utilizes large amounts of text, Mikuru’s explanation plays with frames rates, and Koizumi’s explanation just has really cool shooting. These instances are few and far between, but happen often enough that I consider the show’s direction to be well above average.

I was going to make this post about more than just shot framing, but I’ve already hit 700 words, so there will be a part 2 and part 3. Hopefully.