A week or so ago I decided to revisit a Japanese anime that I loved when I was a kid: Saint Seiya.
The rewatch has been a surprising experience because the anime not only is still very fun, but the art style can still be amazing today. I went digging for some volumes of the manga, and this is one of those RARE cases where the adaptation (the manga comes first) is way, way better than the original. The anime does the exact contrary of what typical adaptations usually do (that is, downscaled, simplified versions). For example you’d expect the armor complexity to be simplified for the anime, compared to the manga. It’s the opposite, the anime armors have been redesigned and are way more beautiful and complex than they are in the manga. The same for the story, where in the manga some scene can be thrown away in a handful of pages, in the anime it’s much better developed, with inspired direction, great use of music, much sharpened tension and lofty drama. It’s no wonder that this series was popular all over the world. It’s plain obvious that the team behind it had many talented people.
In fact, this anime is so great that I began seriously wondering WHAT THE FUCK happened to Japanese animation in recent times.
Look at this. Here’s a screenshot from something done in 1987. Almost 30 years passed, and this is a common television series, not a movie or an OAV:
And now look at how it becomes in a movie from 2005:
ARGH! WHAT HAPPENED?! Twenty years and everything’s gone to shit.
I’m pointing at this because I see more of an overall, pervasive trend, instead of a single case. There’s something beautiful in how the old anime were drawn, the medium itself and the physicality of it, those ink lines that are never uniform but more coarse, with a varying thickness. More organic to the image. Colors and light more natural compared to brightened, flashy ones and the sharp cut lines of modern animation. That first shot from 1987 looks as beautiful today as it did at the time. It doesn’t become obsolete.
Of course I’m aware there’s plenty of good stuff today, amazingly drawn, colored and animated, but I also see the pervasive trend that is widespread around the most common, commercial series, and that’s the bad part. Saint Seiya WAS a common, commercial and popular series. There’s something in how anime were made in those past years that makes every shot so beautiful and that instead looks plain ugly and flat in modern animation. As if all life and soul have been sucked away.
See this other example from a more recent Saint Seiya series (or this other one):
And compare to this:
Or even compare this and this. They seem from a completely different source, but only two moments just a few episodes apart. Yet, the second one, even if displaying a much lower quality, retains the charm of those bold lines. A charm that is completely gone from modern anime. What I mean is that it’s not just a matter of quality and detail, but of the actual texture, the physicality of the work itself, the tools used. You can take any anime from the eighties and they all have that special something, a beauty that is timeless and unsurpassed.
Of course there’s more to this discussion. It’s about technology and art, and it is common across the media. It applies to anime as it applies to cinema. The film grain of some old black and white Super-8 Kodak film gone out of production just can’t be achieved now. The secret is that movies can be better than life. Reach for an ideal dimension that is more. The medium itself, the process, has a unique beauty to it. Its own soul and unique aesthetic. Modern technology achieves higher fidelity and realism, but it also loses something in the process. Realism can be a value, but it does not have to be. Modern processes replace obsolete ones.
Something invaluable is lost. Things get better but there’s always a loss. A beauty irreplaceable, but forgotten.
(Since I’m taking screenshots as I watch, you can “manually” browse them. Currently they start from http://cesspit.net/misc/anime/seiya03.jpg and they go up to 39.)