Ever notice how when you watch an anime, suddenly, the animation bumps up and characters start to move more fluidly? That’s sakuga. If you google the term, this is what you’ll get:

Sakuga (作画) (lit., “drawing pictures”) is a term used in anime to describe moments in a show or movie when the quality of the animation improves drastically, typically for the sake of making a dramatic point or enlivening the action.

It’s an animation bump. It’s where most of the budget goes. It’s when the animation directors decide to call in the big guns. The key animators who have been in the business for years. So when are you most likely to see sakuga?

Opening Themes

I’ve mentioned it in a previous post, but allow me to reiterate. Opening themes are important, especially in anime. They set up the story, the tone, and the overall quality of the show. And that’s why so much time and effort is put into it. It isn’t uncommon to have a single key animator work on an opening theme, especially if they’re one of the more talented artists in the industry.

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Shounen Maid (2016) – 8bit; Key Animator – Ryouma Ebata

Ending Themes

Yet another topic I covered and expanded upon in a previous post. As with opening themes, ending themes are also a great way for animators to show off their creative chops since the opening already covered the basis of setting up the show’s premise. And just like openings, it isn’t uncommon to have a single key animator working on an ending theme.

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Beyond the Boundary (2015) – Kyoto Animation; Key Animator – Naoko Yamada

 

Action Sequences

Usually the highlight of most shows, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so much time, effort, and money is put into these specific scenes. This is where animators can go all-out: play with camera angles, exaggerate movement, make that punch look as painful as possible. For an action sequence to really stand out, it needs to be flashy, fluid, and really fun to watch.

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One Punch Man (2015) – MADHouse; Key Animator – Yoshimichi Kameda

Emotional Scenes

Like action scenes, emotional scenes can have a huge impact on the narrative. Where action scenes are meant to be enjoyed, emotional scenes are meant to tug at the viewer’s heart strings. It’s meant to have us sympathize with the characters’ plight; maybe even get us to shed a few tears. What can really sell an emotional scene are the character’s movements and expressions. The way their eyes shine as tears begin to form, or how their lips tighten as they belatedly try to hold back tears. It humanizes them and makes it easier for the viewer to relate to them.

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Ano Hana: The Flower We Saw That Day (2011) – A-1 Pictures; Key Animator – Nozomu Abe

Transformations

A staple for any magical girl (or boy) anime. It’s bright, it’s flashy, and if it’s self aware enough, even campy. The transformation sequence is as much a highlight for this genre as the actual magical battle that follows. It’s also a great way for animators to fill in some time during the show if they’re too burnt out from animating the ensuing fight sequence. With that in mind, it’s a given for these transformations to be well animated, especially since they tend to be recycled for the episodes that follow.

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Star Driver (2010) – Studio Bones; Key Animator – Hironori Tanaka

Character Animation

This is when a character’s personality really shines. It’s the way they move, walk, or express themselves. An animator’s ability really stands out when they’re able to expertly highlight a character’s emotions or inner turmoil. This can be done through a few simple, yet well drawn key frames of a character’s expression changing from worried to relaxed, or going the extra mile to add flavor or depth to the character’s inner struggle. In the gif below, Hironori Tanaka is able to expertly capture a young teenage boy’s social anxiety by illustrating an image of him literally drowning, representing his insecurities and inability to speak up before literally breaking out of the water, symbolizing how he’s slowly coming out of his shell.

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Tsuritama (2011) – A-1 Pictures; Key Animator – Hironori Tanaka

And that’s sakuga. It’s fluid, it’s breathtaking, it’s animation at it’s best.

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