The story thus far:
Alright guys, there’s a thing on ANN where established internet personality Erin Finnegan writes about Japanese animation. These writings are usually followed by a bunch of forum responses, and those are usually complaints about whatever she said. This time the forumites complained so loud that she wrote a supplementary post explaining herself, but here’s the short version: Erin reviewed the first part of Casshern Sins, a dreary little number from back in 2008, and amongst her flurry of criticism towards the show, she called the animation “cheap.” People allegedly exploded on the forums over this (I can only guess from her reports; you don’t expect me to read the ANN forums, do you?) and as a response she left a few tweets, as well as that post I linked above. The post outlines some basics about animation that you should know if you have eyeballs, but for people who don’t notice things, it’s something of an eye-opener from an insider who knows what she’s talking about.
However, I take issue with her perspective towards this whole thing. That being, she constantly compares the standards of Japanese TV animation to American TV animation. You see this a lot with animation professionals in the States, and quite honestly I feel it’s a little wrong-headed. Japanese animation came out of the dirty, muddy hole that was Japanese society in the post-war era. From day one, all they wanted were manga-like pictures on the screen, and they wanted them on the cheap. Everyone was in the shit, so entertainment had to be pumped out by the truckload on shoe-string budgets to entertain bored people who had no money. So naturally anime developed its own cheap visual shorthand due to low budgets, and those same production styles persist to this day.
What I’m trying to drive home with this oft-repeated history lesson is that the approach to making anime is fundamentally different than the approach to making American cartoons. This can be said for both Western and Eastern approaches to artwork in general, but I’ll save that for another time.
This isn’t to say that anime hasn’t moved beyond being cheap entertainment. Erin highlighted Steamboy in her post, which was a ridiculously expensive movie to make. Similarly, production houses like Kyoto Animation have shown just how many key frames one can pack into a 24 minute TV episode. However, that is not the norm. In lieu of drawing lots of pictures to define clean, fluid motion, anime tends to fall back on more detailed and expressive designs to stimulate our senses. Furthermore, the skillful arrangement of well designed still shots, the tasteful use of negative space, and the overall frugal approach to anime production is one of the medium’s defining traits. It’s a fundamental part of it. Sure, at times cheap anime can just look bad, but when done well, very beautiful things can blossom.
So, is Casshern Sins cheaply animated? Yes, but what Japanese cartoon isn’t? Cheap doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing. Less is often times more, and I feel more people need to get that into their heads. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a thrifty, stripped down production. And I personally don’t mind Erin finding fault with the other aspects of Casshern Sins. Honestly, I found the show to be a bit of a chore myself. But citing cheap animation as a negative seems like a lost cause, since all Japanese animation is cheap, and has been that way since the very beginning.
There’s nothing wrong with that.
I am under the impression that most professionals who work in American production houses are so locked into the rules they’ve learned, that they are unable to fathom that our buddies in Japan may have just written a completely different rule book. It’s been entertaining the masses in Japan for the past 60 years, so they have to be doing something right.