The cheapness of the SHAFT aesthetic

Anime is a cheap medium. If you think otherwise you’re lying to yourself. However, one of the things that separates mediocre work from superb work is how you’re able to use your limited resources for maximum artistic effect. A studio that does this wonderfully is Studio SHAFT.

Generally, when faced with a tight schedule, limited staff, and not a lot of money, things become dire. Since normal animation studios have no such thing as artistic vision, what usually gets produced as a result of these circumstances is something unwatchable. Or, at the very least, something very mediocre looking. Anime is primarily a business, so people have to do work to pay the bills (or as much of their bills as those animators can pay with their shitty salaries) and bigwigs upstairs want to make money. However, this doesn’t mean intrepid groups of young men and women at certain studios can’t make a stand and produce something great on a shoestring budget, and that’s exactly what SHAFT does with every single show they produce.

SHAFT’s situation is the very definition of dire. Up until Tanabata of last year, they were producing all of their TV shows out of some random studio space. They now have their own office building, but it’s still rather small. To make it worse, it seems they have a limited amount of staff, and are allotted not a lot of money with which to make cartoons with. But despite these hardships, SHAFT has found a way to make really good, visually interesting shows. SHAFT doesn’t see limited resources as an obstacle. It’s an opportunity.

Those with keen eyes will notice that the various visual aesthetics and motifs SHAFT has created between all of their productions are mostly born from lack of resources. In the early days of Japanese animation, this was very commonplace. People  had the desire to tell grandiose narratives, but had very little money with which to do it with. However, despite these limitations, creators of years past were able to make shows that may look clunky now, but told stories filled with heart and soul. I think SHAFT does a good job of taking this founding principle of “making more with less” to heart, but at the same time puts a more modern, complex and cool spin on it. Instead of relying on poorly animated cuts of animation or doing a simple talking head close up, SHAFT mixes it up. Still images are usually framed in an interesting manner, colours are used in imaginative ways, and at times photos and live action are brought into the mix. Staple Stable is a very cheap opening,  but it’s unlike something one usually sees out of the anime industry (that said, I prefer Kaeri Michi).

I think (and this is a stretch) this respect and utilization of founding mindsets from years gone by is because SHAFT is very much connected to the past. It’s apparent in a lot of the works they adapt. Along with being one of the best anime comedies ever, Pani Poni Dash does well to salute a lot of old favourites from years ago. Natsu No Arashi’s plot is tied to the WWII era, and at the same time the show is filled with a lot of references to classic Japanese pop music. Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is probably the most obvious offender, with the written dates still claiming it’s the Showa-era, and the general style of everything in the show confirming this. Their recent Bakemonogatari looks more to the future, but it’s still littered with references to timeless Japanese comic characters from over 50 years ago. SHAFT also really likes archaic numerals.

This attitude to cartoon making is simply one of the many things I love about SHAFT. While I would like to see their visual stylings executed with  more money behind them, their current stripped-down, minimalist and striking approach to animation should be looked on as a template for how other studios should do their work. I’m not saying they should crib the same visual tricks, but they should make use of everything they have and put their best forward.

And this, my friends, is why Shinbo Akiyuki and SHAFT are saving anime.

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16 Responses to The cheapness of the SHAFT aesthetic

  1. VZ says:

    Hidamari Sketch is my favorite anime produced by SHAFT. Popotan is my second.

    IMO I find that SHAFT shows are great screen cap fodder but most aren’t that funny.

    That said, I’m thinking of getting Pani Poni Dash, He Is My Master and Negima!? on DVD.

  2. Shii says:

    I was recently rewatching Digimon Adventure, and I was struck how a show with (1) zero budget and (2) a plot that didn’t go much beyond “sell lots of knockoff Tamagotchis” somehow developed into a fantastic soap opera with a lot of heart. It’s all in the imagination, not the budget.

  3. manga says:

    When Shaft run out of money, time they make a episode filled with black screens.

    Sure their animation quality is top notch and it only gets better and better every year. That´s why I keep watching. They make good shows. It would be better if they tried to make it less random filled and less one colored screens. Or fanservice shots like they do in one of the Negima?! OVA with the beach.

  4. Glo says:

    There’s a good chance that this is the best post of the year. You pretty much summed up every possible reason as to why I love SHAFT. It’s DIFFERENT. I love different.

    SHAFT incorporates so much more (ideas I guess?) into making their shows than others, and I feel like they think outside the box a lot more than others do. I don’t really want to echo everything you said here, so I’m just going to stop now.

  5. hashi says:

    Wonderful post. Wonderful because I agree, of course. I often find myself defending shows against people who seem to me to judge anime too much on the basis of how much and how smoothly things move. Shinbou Akiyuki is the master of making aesthetically excellent anime on the cheap. (I prefer to use the man’s name, rather than subsuming him under the Shaft studio, since I’ve always thought, rightly or wrongly, that he himself is the wellspring of all this.)

    That having been said, my sense of humor and his are quite different. Bakemonogatari is the first Shinbou comedy that I have enjoyed for more than a few episodes. I think the humor was in the source, and Shinbou just did a great job of translating it into anime. Up to now, I have preferred the ef shows made by his collaborator, Oonuma Shin, to the work of the master himself.

    In any case, creating great effects cheaply is a virtue, because it enables a director or a studio to make a profit, and therefore to keep making shows.

  6. wah says:

    Oh, I totally agree about SHAFT’s current aesthetic being all Shinbo’s doing. I’m actually more interested in Shinbo than I am in SHAFT (here’s my Shinbo tag), but I do enjoy the collective SHAFT mindset. I need to watch a pre-Shinbo SHAFT show like Popotan to see how different their work was. Also, keep in mind that SHAFT has been in the industry since the mid-1970s, working on Sunrise robot shows and Castle of Cagliostro…

    That said, I love all of Shinbo’s work, and really do not care for ef or Oonuma Shin. Well, Shin’s comedy contributions to Pani Poni and the rest are fine, but the man can’t do drama. Or maybe the source material just wasn’t to my liking. Anyway, I’m not a big ef fan. I think SHAFTXSHINBO’s best output is Tsukuyomi ~Moon Phase~.

  7. wah says:

    Excuse me, just sucking some SHAFT cock.

  8. digitalboy says:

    Absolutely, SHAFT is tied to the past, especially the big Shinbo himself. (I remember reading in the PPD inserts that Shinbo came up with all the old-school references, Oonuma I think it was came up with more of the modern ones.) But I can’t probably tell you much you don’t know.

    I’m supposed to do a post (by request) about how Shinbo is the modern Otaking and how the SHAFT dudes reflect the GAINAX dudes at some point….

  9. Kairu says:

    Is this some Bakemonogatari post?

  10. says:

    They are pretty amazing visually, but how good a show will be depends entirely on source material. I find their best work to be SZS as the original manga is good and the art lends itself well to visual fuckery.

  11. 2DT says:

    You’re right that that last point is a stretch, but it’s a good way of putting everything together. Particularly with Natsu no Arashi: Not only does it reference old Japanese pop albums, but the character designs (which surprisingly got a lot of flak) are also more reminiscent of the 90s. It’s touching, in a way, like love letters to the past.

    Anime doesn’t need to be “saved” (and who from, is my question), but Studio SHAFT is certainly keeping it real.

  12. omo says:

    Well, it’s great that people like Shaft’s works. I don’t think it’s a good thing that they’re basically forced to resort to some of these production tricks since it’s either that or bust. The oddity is that even with success of their works, they keep on having production problems and have to produce things cheaply.

    However the last point about “putting best foot forward” is kind of dumb–I’m sure everyone out there does. The problem is realizing their goals when a studio sets out to produce a show. I’m sure they all take monetary and time concerns into plan, right…? It’s because of the great work Shinbo and others do that make their stuff tick, not so much because of the quality of the source material nor is it because the lack of money and time! Quite the contrary, actually.

  13. wah says:

    >>2DT
    In retrospect, I probably should have said they are “aware” of the past, but I thought “connected” sounded cooler… But they are very much aware of the past–more so than others, I think–and it adds a certain quality to their work that I also like. Also, I totally forgot about Natsu no Arashi’s designs. Maybe because I just got used to them. I really like them, though!

    The saving anime joke is something I yanked from Colony Drop because I have no creativity. But I do honestly think SHAFT is pushing the medium in the right direction.

    >>omoikane
    If you notice, the technical aspect of their work has gradually been getting better and better… with Bakemonogatari selling out nationwide maybe investors will think to throw more money their way in future.

    Also I don’t mean to attribute this cheapness as to why SHAFT is GOOD, it’s just one aspect that I respect about them.

  14. dm says:

    Yay!

    Rewatching Yamamoto Yohko (dir. Shinbou, studio: JCStaff), it’s become clear that many of those things we love Shinbou/SHAFT productions for are Shinbou, not SHAFT, though I’m sure, over the years, that Shinbou’s become quite influential within the studio. Others at SHAFT may be responsible for the cel-graffiti (scribblings on blackboards in PPD and Negima!?), but Shinbou seems to be responsible for the use of color, odd framing and odd perspectives.

    That he’s able to do so much with so little makes it easy to see him as a great creator, if you can see past the lack of movement to the quality of the imagery.

  15. TheBigN says:

    “Well, it’s great that people like Shaft’s works. I don’t think it’s a good thing that they’re basically forced to resort to some of these production tricks since it’s either that or bust. ”

    This is why we should give them more money somehow. \o

    Even if you could say it’s an act of desperation, what comes out is still some of the more “interesting” stuff that anime has to offer; if not in story and character, then definitely in things like appearance and atmosphere. And that’s not a bad thing at all. I only hope to see how things would be if SHAFT had more money and more people for Shinbo to have fun with.

    Shii: Digimon Tamers rocks Adventure’s socks off.

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