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.