Sakuga Animation in Anime

Highly stylized sequences in anime

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 pronounced SA-ku-ga.

For the uninitiated, anime is a catch-all term for animation from Japan. The term stems from an abbreviation from the word "animation." Anime was produced by and for Japan for decades as a local product, with a distinct look and feel to the artwork, the storytelling, the themes, and the concepts.

 Over the last 40 years anime has gone international, attracting millions of fans and translated into many languages.

Differences Between American Animation and Anime

American animation typically uses original animated motion, and is animated frame by frame. In contrast, anime uses a lot of so-called "cheats," such as long scenes in which only the mouth of a character moves during an important monologue, or depicting rapid motion with a character frozen in an action pose against a swift-moving background.

Most anime is produced on tight budget restrictions and with little time to spare. As a result, over the decades, anime studios have developed a vocabulary of artistic tricks to fall back on as a way to speed up the production process.

Tricks to Save Time and Money in Anime

The most common trick is to simply skip frames -- to animate only every other frame, or every third frame, so that some degree of motion can be shown at the expense of fluidity.

It's also possible to save money other ways. A scene of two people talking can often be animated by nothing more than having the character's mouths moving, or padded out with a pan of a static background shot.

The most egregious examples of such corner-cutting tricks are when the animation just becomes flat-out bad (typically a sign that the work in question was farmed out to a cut-rate studio).

Anime fans often poke fun at shows for using these tricks; very occasionally, a show will even poke fun at itself for doing this.

Using Sakuga For Dramatic Effect

The other end of this spectrum, however, is when the animation becomes exceptionally expressive and fluid -- when every single frame is animated, and the movements themselves are closely-observed and realistic (or, failing that, spectacular to look at). This is what's known as sakuga. Action-oriented shows tend to have the most instances of sakuga, but there are many examples of dramatic shows using them as well -- for instance, to highlight an exceptionally emotional moment.

Opening and closing sequences of shows typically feature sakuga (which sometimes leads to jokes about that being where the majority of the animation budget is spent, especially if the rest of the show isn't as fluid).

Sakuga sequences are often anthologized by fans into unofficial video compilations, which might be organized by show, animator, season (e.g., winter 2010), or theme.

Some shows or films notable for having sakuga in one or more episodes:

  • Revolutionary Girl Utena
  •  (multiple shows)
  • Sword of the Stranger
  • Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann