Japanese audiences have long responded tepidly to the use of extensive computer graphics (CG) in anime. Even as CG has become the global standard for animation studios, anime fans prefer their homegrown artists to stick to labor-intensive 2-D illustration techniques and cel animation — or to at least create work that looks like they did.
Case in point: Director and designer Shinji Aramaki’s “Appleseed” film franchise, based on the best-selling manga by Masamune Shirow (famous for “Ghost in the Shell”). The three-film series has grown increasingly digitally enhanced since its inception 12 years ago, with meticulous 3-D character and set designs and blockbuster visual effects.
The second film, 2007’s “Ex Machina,” had double the budget of the first, was produced by Hong Kong-to-Hollywood director John Woo, and featured costume designs by Miuccia Prada. Yet both it and the more recent “Alpha” installment (2014), while garnering praise and interest abroad, have been relatively minor releases at home.
If Pixar, Disney, DreamWorks or any other overseas studio produces animation, Japanese moviegoers will embrace their round and pliable Elsas, Baymaxes and Minions. But the message to domestic creators has been clear: Leave photorealism to the foreigners.
Over the past two years, that resistance has finally started to weaken, according to Shuzo John Shiota, president and CEO of Polygon Pictures Inc., Japan’s oldest CG studio. Founded in 1983, Polygon has decades of experience working with overseas producers, including Hasbro and Disney. But at home, it was effectively walled off from the anime business. In Japan, CG was chiefly for game cinematics, commercials, live events (like Aichi Expo 2005), and Pachinko.
“We’ve only really been a part of the anime industry for the past couple of years,” the 48-year-old Shiota tells me at a meeting in his Tokyo office. “The industry and the fans are very particular about what they consider their own. But things have changed. Through technological and artistic advances, we’ve been able to create imagery that’s more acceptable to the market.”
Shiota points to a perfect storm of coincidental anime releases in 2014-15 produced by Polygon and two other Japanese CG studios, Graphinica and Sanzigen, that he believes transformed perceptions about digitally crafted anime: “Knights of Sidonia,” “Expelled from Paradise” and “Arpeggio of Blue Steel.” All three earned strong followings domestically and, perhaps more importantly, the unofficial anime stamp of approval.
“That created the momentum for the industry to notice digital animation as a pure force of its own. There has been digital animation used in anime over the past decade or so, of course. But before, it was only used piecemeal. It never got traction on its own.”
Part of the problem has been the all-too-scientific (read, precise) nature of CG technologies themselves. Originally developed by an art director at Boeing to simulate the human body in flight, CG emerged as a tool for exact replication — not flights of the human imagination.
Shiota cites the two biggest challenges for CG producers — capturing the lighting used in anime (“it’s a kind of symbolism; no real world is lit like that”) and the detailed, sometimes outlandishly entertaining facial expressions particular to anime characters.
“In animation (in general), you have to create different worlds, a different believability,” he says. “You have to squash and stretch and create things that don’t really happen. And the world of anime is an even further stretch. The market here is just crazy about the type of expressions they want from their characters. In the past, that has totally depended upon the artistic abilities of animators drawing by hand.”
The key toward reproducing anime-style expressiveness has been the advancing sophistication of “facial rigs,” the software tools used by CG animators to render the nuances of an illustrated character’s face. The created rigs grow in diversity and style and are then stored in facial libraries. Sometimes artists hand draw over a rig to achieve a particular movement or look; other times they deliberately break the rig to find the right expression.
“It was a huge leap for us to use CG for the main character (of ‘Knights of Sidonia’). Previously it was only used in the backgrounds, or for cars or stuff, and just as a reference. It was always drawn over.”
Polygon’s relative outsider status enabled the studio to bypass many of the traditional routes of anime production. To fund “Sidonia,” Shiota and his colleagues abandoned the standard production committee model of investment, in which a group of typically eight or nine partners finance a project to minimize individual risk. Instead, they decided that they would invest in creating their own intellectual property, alongside two other companies, Kodansha and King Records. They went straight to Kodansha for the manga rights, and straight to Netflix for distribution.
Polygon’s latest release, “Ajin: Demi-Human,” based on a manga series by Gamon Sakurai, debuted on Japan’s MBS television network and Netflix Japan last month. This spring, it will become only the second anime series after “Sidonia” to be streamed worldwide exclusively by Netflix. The studio is now booked with anime productions until 2018, and has become what Shiota calls “a real power” in the anime industry. Still, his experiences with global markets and industry bubbles have made him cautious.
“At the end of the day, we don’t want to be constricted to a certain genre,” he says. “I mean, we would love to play in the world of the Pixars. We’d take it. But it’s extremely difficult, and we’ve got to be realistic.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.