Naruto Shippuden #167 is perhaps the industry leader when it comes to divisive anime episodes. There are a variety of reasons for this. Some argue that Studio Pierrot, the creators of the anime, added too much content into the battle while other counter that there wasn't much to this battle in the original manga. A portion of the fanbase argues that the animation is amazing while many say that it’s the worst the series has ever seen. Today we'll be taking a closer look at this episode and analyzing some of the statements made against it from a sakuga standpoint and how the animation was used to tell the story.
The Man Behind It All
You can’t really talk about this episode without discussing Atsushi Wakabayashi, the episode director, animation director and storyboard creator for the episode. Atushi has had his hand in animating and storyboarding various ending themes throughout the Shippuden series but episode 167 marked his first credit appearance as an episode staff member. Now you may be thinking, “this guy is a rookie! Why would they give him such an important episode?!” However, that’s only part of the story. Atsushi also served these roles for episode 133 of the original series... the climatic battle between Sasuke and Naruto which many would praise as easily the best animated episode in the original series.
One hallmark of Atsushi style is his use of exaggeration, both in movement and character models. Atsushi uses these elements to create incredibly stylized battles that push the action far past the limits of reality and to realize the emotions of his characters. While many of the scenes that people take issue with in 167 aren’t key animated by Atsushi himself, it should come as no surprise that he isn’t exactly asking people to tone down their personal style in these areas.
The Role of Style in Animation
Depending on your views on anime, you may or may not consider animation an artform. Perhaps it’s simply a means to an end and maybe you feel like when adapting a manga, every element should stay as scene-for-scene, shot-for-shot identical to the source material as much as possible. If so, to each their own. However, when viewed through the lens of sakuga, animation becomes an artform and the individual styles of the artists are something to be treasured and appreciated. Would you tell Picasso to chill out with all of the blocks and triangles? Do you think he’s legitimately unaware that the world doesn't look like his paintings? If someone were to have hired him to paint an important scene in a book, similar to how Atsushi was placed in charge of one of the most important segments in the Naruto manga, do you think they want him to abandon his style?
For this episode, the stylings of Atsushi and his animators are the desired effect. It’s not a case of the episode being handed off to a rookie or “bad animation” slipping through. Rather, this is Studio Pierrot calling in some of their top talent and giving them artistic freedom to create one of the most pivotal episodes in the entire series.
Visual Style vs Animation and Frames vs Scenes
I believe that many often use these terms interchangeably when they are two sides to a coin. You can assess the visual style of something from a single frame. Animation however, is different. Animation, and thus sakuga, is about how things move. While a single frame can be used to key in some of the visual stylings of an animator, how they use these in motion is what truly matters. I can understand someone not liking the visual style of Atsushi and his team of animators for this episode. That’s very much a to each their own situation. However, that is not the animation. To post a single frame up and say, “this looks off therefore this is bad animation,” does a disservice to the animator.
Additionally, animation is meant to be seen in motion. A single frame on it’s own may seem odd, but when we watch anime, our eyes aren't keying in on single frames. We are taking it in as a whole. An odd frame may make much more visual sense when taken as part of a whole rather than when removed and presented on it’s own as the end all be all representation of the full product. A parallel would be reading a recipe for a cake and seeing that salt is in it. Would you eat a teaspoon of salt on its own and use that as the sole basis for evaluating the taste of the cake? Probably not.
Using Sakuga to Tell the Story
Before we go any further, watch this episode! It’s viewable on Crunchyroll as well asHulu. As said earlier, you can’t judge animation from still images and you will get much more from what follows if you’ve recently seen the episode.
Animation for animation’s sake can be interesting to look at but what truly sets this episode apart for me is both how incredibly fluid, expressive, and dynamic it is in addition to how it conveys both the epicness of the battle and the emotions of the characters.
The animation is used to great effect at showing just how epic the battle between Kyuubi Naruto and Pain actually is. Scenes such as the one on the left where Konoha has been reduced to a massive lake in the wake of these two going at each other really drive home the point of that has escalated to far more than two ninjas in a tussle. The waves are crashing and Pain is struggling to stay afloat, yet the battle continues on with each attack topping the previous one.
When combined with music, voice acting, and sound effects, the animation and visuals of this episode create something far greater than sum of its parts. Every element is working in tandem to drive home the emotional content and raw power of this battle and what it represents for the characters within. While this article certainly won't change everyone's opinions on the episode and even I can admit that some of the art in this episode is undeniably off kilter, but I hope that some can walk away with a better appreciation of the artistry within episodes like this and a better understanding of the role that animators andsakuga can play in shaping a story.
Next week, we'll be switching things up a bit and taking a look at a handful of hopefully up and coming animators and the pet/student projects they've created!
William Taylor loves him some bad ass fight scenes and can't wait to highlight some of what's out there in the world of sakuga. You can find on Twitter @mrsickvisionz and posting anime related nonsense on Tumblr at In My Lifetime.