I’ve been meaning to explore this subject for a while now. I read a lot of your reviews. A lot. And I see a clearly story centric trend in them. Design and production elements are clearly not given the same weight as creative ones. Even when it comes to fanservice. And that’s when they are mentioned at all. I’m not implying that this is a bad thing by any means, I’m just as guilty (which is weird, I’ll tell you why later). It is however an interesting trend. I don’t really read professional anime reviews anymore so it may not be as true for them.

anie reading paper
that’s what professional publications look like, right?

As we all know, anime is clearly a multidisciplinary art form. Of course the narrative and story elements are an important part but so are the myriad of technical aspects that go into crafting an enjoyable show. Anime is meant to be a sensory experience as much as an intellectual one. If not more. Without the images, animation, soundtrack and voice acting, it really wouldn’t be the same thing.

Moreover each of those aspects breaks down into a myriad of other smaller components, all requiring their own skills and tools to bring about. Images don’t boil down simply to pretty character designs. These must stay consistent with movements and angles so details have to be carefully chosen. Backgrounds need attention to is you don’t want that weird and cheap effect that makes it look as if the anime is shot on green screen. Colours can deeply affect the emotional resonance of a scene or even the story at large. Lights and shadows add depth, help you see better what’s happening and add to dynamic realism which in turn helps with suspension of disbelief.

Personally, I’m a bit less sensitive to audio but I’ve often pointed out the drastically underrated importance of environmental sound design. I think we all know a great voice actor can go a long way in adding to the enjoyment factor of a series. And some of you will occasionally suggest anime on the merits of the soundtrack alone.

anime headphones
I am a headphone killer…can’t keep em alive more than a few months

Point is, the story is part of a much bigger whole, and the most technically simple part at that. Heck, even I could write a story. It probably wouldn’t be great but I could do it. That’s way more than I can say about anything else I just mentioned.

And I feel like I should point this out now, I think I attach way more importance on these aspects than the average fan. From what I gather, there are many anime I really enjoyed because they were well made that others disliked because they were not written that well. Despite all this, I still find myself dedicating much more space, time and passion on average, to the plot, dialogue or characters. As I said above, a good number of bloggers hardly mention practical elements at all unless they’re particularly bad. Why?

I don’t know. This isn’t unique to anime. Although movie reviews and critiques do tend to pay a lot of attention to acting, everything else, including direction and editing is usually presented as secondary to story. I pretty much never see book reviews discuss cover art or paper quality unless they’re making a sarcastic point. Even manga reviews don’t always mention the art. That’s most of the thing!

what do you mean overreacting?

Sorry. I got a little heated there.

As I mentioned, this lack of consideration for technical merits is baffling to me. Ok, I can kind of understand when it comes to book reviews. Those elements change from one edition to the next (throw in eBooks and you have a whole different world) and they are somewhat immaterial to your enjoyment of the end product. This said I would be smitten by a reviewer that gave out the paper weight used with every hardcover edition of whatever they were reviewing….

But why aren’t we …no let me correct that, why aren’t I paying more attention to the production values of anime? I obviously care about them. In my defense, I think that part of it lies in the fact that when done right, all the technical components of a series are supposed to seamlessly blend together in order to create one smooth cohesive experience you can immerse yourself in. Being inconspicuous is a mark of quality. Second, like most people, if a story grabs me, my imagination takes over and pushes everything else out of the way. So while an exceptionally well crafted show won’t stop me from enjoying a wonderful plot, a great narrative will distract me from technical merits.

That’s not fair. There are tons of people working really hard on those.  I can’t promise I won’t get lost in stories anymore but I will try to pay more attention to everything else that goes into making a great show. And at least for today, I would encourage you to do the same.

happy crying
an illustration of appreciating good storyboarding

42 thoughts

  1. I try to bring up the technical stuff when I can think of anything to say about it other than “That was impressive” or “That was kinda lame.” I know I tend to lean hardest on the storytelling stuff because -as I’ve made no secret – I went to school for writing and storytelling. So it’s my area of expertise. I try not to talk at length about things I don’t know much about unless they strike a particular chord with me. But I definitely appreciate all the little technical things that go into creating any multimedia project.

    Speaking for other people, part of it does likely come from the fact that blogging in this form is, itself, a written medium. So there’s just a natural tendency to be in “writer mode” and thus unintentionally lean harder on a story’s writing than anything.

    That said, I find that it’s a bit of a weird relationship. As far as I’ve seen, anime is just about the only medium where this is really a thing. Books aside, for… well… obvious enough reasons. And manga, of course. In the case of manga, it probably comes from the fact that the artist and writer are generally the same person. And the art is just given a pass on it being the creator’s “style.” After a certain amount of times given to pointing out things they do, one does run out of stuff to say about the same bits of tech. But to the actual point, I find that the writers are often the unsung heroes of… well… pretty much every other medium. Often underappreciated in the fields of film, television, and were almost *never* talked about in videogames until very recently. I don’t know why it is that anime has this effect. Possibly because of how animation has always been perceived in the west as a “Kid Thing.” So the point comes along that anime (most of it) is clearly *not* for kids. And thus the emphasis is put on looking at the storytelling as some kind of subconscious means of combating the idea that it is. Which has led to a sub-culture that pretty much only looks at that one aspect… or I’m looking too far into it. I dunno. S’why I prefer not to talk about that which I’m not well versed.

    1. A few commenters have mentioned not the medium of blogging lending itself to the discussing storytelling rather than colours or something of the type and the lack of expertise on subjects other than writing. These are probably exactly the reasons bloggers discuss plot over art.
      For myself, it applies less. I studies optics and colour theory but never litterature. So I don’t know why I would try to dissect narratives. Maybe it’s more of a question of doing what everyone else does

  2. I always reserve a paragraph or two for the animation, visuals and character designs in my reviews as I do think it is important to let readers know if they are going to see something exceptional or an absolute eyesore, or if the visuals are the best thing about the show or if the characters are sadly generic.

    Sometimes I’ll mention the music, sound design and voice acting if it is warranted but usually they tend to be a much of a muchness in that area – not to mention I can’t distinguish one seiyuu from another like some people can. 🙁

  3. With the few anime reviews I have, I try to tick off a bit of everything in about 1000 words, so I don’t think my non-story preferences shine through too much. I’m also insensitive to audio because of my preference of turning off the volume and reading subs if I have a choice in the matter (which makes it easier to focus on the story and visual aspects, thereby allowing me to finish watching faster, among other reasons).

    That said, it’s hard to figure out where certain staff’s influence begins and another’s ends, because anime is a group job more than manga is, so it’s hard to go “I’d like to praise so-and-so who was responsible for so-and-so production aspect” without knowing what their little quirks are. That’s why I don’t touch on production much – misattribution is a nasty thing to clean up on the internet.

    I do agree with Edgy’s words for the most part. If you really value production and visual aspects, you should hang out more with Callum May (Canipa Effect), Atelier Emily and those sorts of people, the sorts of people who …although then the neck of the woods you already occupy would be missing an Irina, and that would be a very sad world indeed.

  4. This was an absolutely incredible post that’s got me rethinking how I write reviews.
    When watching something, it’s so easy to forget just how much work and talent has gone into every little detail of both the characters and the world. Ultimately, every piece of anything, from it’s story to it’s production details, work in tandem to make a great product… well, great.
    It’s so hard to avoid falling into the mindset of ‘everything else can be shrugged off so long as the story is good’ mindset. I completely agree that everything should be taken into account when looking at the overall quality of any piece of art. It’s super difficult to keep track of every little detail, but a great production will make the effort absolutely worth it, at least for me.
    Thanks for writing this. It was incredibly thoughtful and well written, and I’ll definitely be taking a few things away from this. Great job, dude!

    1. I’m not entirely sure I agree. I do get where you’re coming from but I personally have enjoyed plenty of anime with little or not very good stories

  5. All these points and more are why I often look more to element-specific (ex. “The use of setting in _____”) posts about a show rather than a full-on review. Obviously, these posts are able to hone the focus on one specific element. But also, there’s simply too much to tackle and comprehend (not to mention judge, my goodness) in a single anime, I agree!

    Within the past couple I’ve had a focal shift. Not only do I try to write about themes in anime more often, but that’s what I find myself attracted to as well when I see an article floating around in Twitter. I enjoy writing them, and I really enjoy reading them. But they’re also harder to write due to the level of competency needed to discuss that single element, which is probably why we don’t consider minor elements like production value, key animation, sakuga, sound effects, and the like unless they stick out.

    To compensate, I usually try to invite the soundtrack composer’s name into my reviews, or even mention a specific moment where I liked a given creative element’s usage. It’s all about balance, and that in itself will always be a challenge for us reviewers!

    Thanks for the thoughtful post—I’ll have to consider bringing in some of these points next time just for people like you and me who appreciate the nitty gritty of this fascinating side of anime!

  6. This is a little difficult to talk about for me. There’s degrees of creativity all over the show, with in-between animators probably having the least creative non-administrative jobs on the team. Storyboarding, scene composition, animation and art direction, key animation, sound direction, composing the score – all of those are at least as creative as the writing, and in many shows more so. I’m far from an expert, and I’m completely deaf to sound-direction, unless it’s stylistically heightened (and thus meant to be heard), as it was, for example, in Ping Pong – the Animation.

    So the true technicalities, the grunt work so to speak, is important, too; but it’s not the corner stone of any animation. All things being equal, good work is better than bad work – that’s obvious. But at the same time, for me, you get away with a lot of shoddy work, if you have your priorities straight. One of my favourite studios is Studio Gokumi. They often have really cheap shows where the production slips awefully and very visibly, but that’s never the case when it matters. They seem to have a good sense of priorities, accept when they can’t matter, and consciously focus on the important scenes. Some of their bad scenes even feel to me like winks to the audience; a sort of cheeky apology. It’s easy to forgive this if they know what they’re doing.

    This season Gokumi does Tonari no Kyuketski san, which seems fairly consistent in quality so far. As far as this season goes, it’s somewhere near the middle field. A competent and entertaining 4-koma CGDCT show, with lots vampire genre jokes. What I love most about the show, though, is it’s colour theme. It being about vampires there are a lot of night-scenes, and the scenes playing by day often have a sharp distinctions between light and shadow. It’s not intrusive, but I really like that aspect of the show.

    This season my favourite scene composition is definitely in Bloom into You. The framing all through the show is just so on point; the point-of-view switches (we hear different inner monologue at times) are carried well, too. Camera distance and scene partitioning, body language.. everything’s spot on. A not-that-distant second is Gridman, which also much fun to look at.

    The Slime show almost entirely relies on its production values. The story isn’t exceptional; it’s important that the slime be cute; the show rises and falls with that. The same goes for the support cast. People say the story’s great, but I find it competent at best (they’ve read the web-novel, light novel, or manga, though, which I haven’t). However the production is really fun. Slime transformations are fluid, and the little blob is very expressive, and the voice acting is really cute, with the voice actress pulling off a 30-something salary-man at times. And there are fun touches, like when the slime transforms into a wolf and lets off an intimidating howl, the show lets the voice-actress howl along (it’s inner… “monologue” somehow doesn’t feel right here…), giving the scene a goofy charm.

    The most balanced show seems to be Run with the Wind; nothing stands out because everything’s great. You really feel like you’re there. An expert could probably tell you more.

    There’s a lot to like this season, and it’s quite a relief after last season was (with few exceptions) a dud.

  7. I can think of several anime that I’ve enjoyed primarily due to their technical merits. Violet Evergarden occurs to me as one; while I did enjoy its story, it wasn’t a creative story. The primary draw of the series was its ability to deliver beautiful scenes, beautiful music, and to sort of mechanically deliver emotional moment like a neural network trained on a certain genre of fiction. Nagi no Asu kara would be another; it had absolutely beautiful music, and excellent artwork, but was actually very similar in Violet Evergarden in that it had a very interesting premise which it failed to explore the interesting parts of.

    The problem with anime like that is that they aren’t unique, I think. An anime with a good, novel story is good in a different way than any other anime with a good, novel story, by definition; a well-made anime without a good story is good in the same way as another well-made anime.

    There are still lots of anime with good stories that I enjoyed more because of the excellent production, though. Shoujo Kageki Revue Starlight, for example, or Hyouka, Flying Witch, Kimi no Na Wa, Sora Yori mo Tooi Basho, et cetera. Even if anime with a good story and bad production can be memorable in a way that an anime with a bad story and good production can’t, I think it takes both to be excellent.

    1. See I think Terror in Resonnance failed a bit in natrative but I remember it well because if the amazing sound design. It brought those images to life for me

  8. Ultimately I watch anime for the stories because I love stories. While there are some elements anime brings to the table that a movie won’t or books can’t, what I’m looking for are characters and stories that I will get swept away by. I do enjoy reading posts where others have focused on the more technical aspects of anime because I do learn a bit from it and it makes me pay attention to some things I might otherwise miss, but realistically that isn’t my focus as either a viewer or a reviewer.
    Though, Boom Into You might be an exception. I’m really loving how the direction in that is helping to elevate the story.

    1. I know what you mean…like i said I also get swept away by stories. Then I watch documentaries on how difficult animators jobs are and I feel bad…

  9. Writing is technical too though! Pacing, dialogue, tone, thematic development…
    I just don’t think that in a multifaceted medium we should try to look at components in isolation. Visuals and sound should optimally work in tandem with the story. Or at least, not hurt the narrative.
    Many say that Violet Evergarden is beautiful. What I remember of the visuals is the times when they ruined the climactic scene of an episode with an overused camera flash. That bright white light taking over a scene felt like a laugh track from a sitcom or an overly loud sound effect of a jump scare- there to tell the audience “This is EMOTIONAL!”
    Assassin from F/SN Heaven’s Feel is a character I feel would have been totally different if the sound or visual design had been anything less than stellar. He has such a presence, narrative and visceral.
    Most of the people who make a fuss about visuals in the anime fandom are either shounen loving newbies or long term elitists. The casual blogosphere doesn’t attract either, so maybe that’s why you feel like production is under-appreciated. Also, we’re mostly literary types here. Sometimes we just get so lost trying to imagine ourselves in the show, feeling with the characters, we never stop to think about just how COOL that perspective shot is!
    … well, that might just be me.

    1. I felt that Violet Evergarden could have done a lot more with its story, particularly by focusing more on the challenges of Violet’s reintegration into a peaceful society. But I can’t deny thinking that the artwork itself was beautiful, often stunning. It at times reminded me of 91 Days, another anime that didn’t fully explore the various avenues available to its story but had amazing artwork. . .

    2. “Writing is technical too though!”

      Very true. I think the primary division isn’t “creative” vs. “technical”, but “what I understand” vs. “what I don’t”.

      I believe most of us have had serious language classes over many years where we learn about genre, themes, POV… Setting, tone, atmosphere… Dialogue, characters passive or active & their growth… We’ve covered all the components of a story in depth at school.

      We’ve generally learned little about the audio stuff, and even less about the visual stuff.

  10. I think bloggers in general focus more on things that are related to text because well, we post written texts. Anime Youtuber however might actually mention more about the technicalities behind the anime production. For example, Under The Scope really pays much attention to background arts and colours of an anime and I personally really like his videos.

  11. That was an interesting post. I do look at both the aspects of both the technical and creative side in any movie or series I watch. As an author myself, the storytelling, plotting, and characters are easier for me to critique. There have been some anime series that I really liked that had okay or even mediocre animation like Yugo the Negotiator for example. However, there are some big-budget sakuga-fests that I can’t stand. There was a great quote I remember from a review on the movie Steamboy: “All the money in the world cannot buy you a great plot.”

      1. I agree, Ruth. The animation was amazing, but everything else wasn’t up to par. It’s a shame because it had so much potential, but it’s nothing like Otomo’s other works like Akira or even Roujin Z.

  12. I tend to get lost in the story. But I also need to realize that music and art is a part of me getting lost. I wish I knew a bit more but sometimes I can only recognize that is is “beautiful”

  13. I like to consider myself a balance of both, but I REALLY prefer it when an anime decides to favor one side or the other instead of becoming a meh of both worlds. If an anime has a big enough budget, they can do both for sure, but for me, if your budget is limited, then it’s better to ration your technical budget to VERY important scenes.

    One great example of technical rationing is every TRIGGER show ever. Kill la Kill looked cheap as all hell, but the comedy and the super smooth transformation sequences stood out and made themselves memorable. Another show I think of is Kemono Friends, which had no rations at all, so instead, they poured all their efforts into making a great narrative.

    Point being, while it would be nice to have a balance of both, most shows have to make the choice of where to pour their efforts into on certain episodes. I much prefer having one or the other suffer for a little while if it means a much more memorable package as a whole. Nothing is worse than trying to do both without the means and ending up with a story and animation that is simply “okay.” Go all in!

    1. Kudos on your choice of examples! I can’t imagine better ones to bolster your argument.

      1. Oh it looked stylin, for sure, but in the animation department, there were definitely a lot of cut corners. A lot of frames were sacrificed to meet deadlines, and I know that because Kill la Kill was the first show I ever heard of where they were animating episodes on the fly! See Episode 4 and 22 for the most egregious example. The cheapness makes it more charming, imo.

  14. Good points, all. I try to mention good artwork and music choices, but a mention is all I give. Honestly, I’m not familiar enough with the mechanics and processes of most production elements to comment upon them any more than that, whereas I can explain how a story moved me. Maybe that’s why most reviewers don’t dig deeper on those fronts?

  15. That’s why I’m grateful the sakuga community exists- it’s one step closer toward appreciating the technique of anime 😃

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