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[sakuga analysis] Ushio from Clannad is a well-animated character

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Love it or hate it, here’s one thing Clannad undeniably excels at: character animation. If you observe the visuals closely, much of the characterisation is expressed through body language and subtle visual cues. Even when the anime goes for low-brow, physical humour, the characters’ entire bodies remain quite expressive and dynamic. This is in contrast to the rather “stiff” delivery in most anime comedies.

If you don’t believe me, just observe Nagisa’s drunken scene and Chitoge’s one in Nisekoi. It boils down to the same joke, but there’s a world of difference in the delivery. It’s not so much that Clannad is more skillfully animated (although this is definitely true), but rather the storyboards themselves were conceived with quite different intents in mind; each shot in Clannad draws attention to the movements of all the characters inside and outside the frame, leading to a natural escalation of the situation, whereas Nisekoi’s scene is full of choppy transitions from one key frame into another.

Clannad’s visual strengths were particularly noticeable in the After Story portion of the tale, especially as far as Ushio’s characterisation was concerned. It would have been so easy for her character to become Generic Moeblob #85934, especially given that her role in the overall narrative is mostly one of symbolic importance. Yet Ushio never failed to have presence whenever she was onscreen, and much of this comes down to the way her body movements were animated. It was clear that the key animators put extra care into making her move like a real child.

Let’s go through some of Ushio’s establishing scenes in episode 17, which was directed and storyboarded by Teruyoshi Yoneda.

It takes almost a full minute before we see Ushio’s face after she’s first introduced. We see fleeting glimpses of her running throughout the house. The music slowly builds up as Tomoya moves out of the shadows. At 0:24, light streams in through the window, but then quickly dims as Tomoya sadly mutters Nagisa’s name. Yet still, the music doesn’t fade away, and soon enough Tomoya hears Ushio’s footsteps again. He moves quickly, and the anticipation builds. When Ushio’s face finally inches into view, light streams in through the window once more. The camera pans up quite purposefully here, firmly establishing the link between Ushio’s appearance and the new-found brightness in Tomoya’s life.

This introduction makes a strong impact, but we don’t get a clear picture of what Ushio is like as a child until the second half of the episode begins. Tomoya and Ushio share a stilted exchange, but it’s not until Ushio begins moving again that the viewer – and Tomoya – get the impression that she’s actually quite energetic.

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In case the implication wasn’t clear enough, Tomoya spells it out for us a second later:

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As the episode goes on, a few skits show that even if Ushio is a shy and withdrawn child, she definitely doesn’t act much older than her age. She trips in the hallway, breaks her toy because she doesn’t understand the concept of delayed gratification, and is a picky eater.

Her childishness doesn’t just express itself in the script, however. Notice how she plays with her food in this scene (esp. at 0:43 and 0:54):

Speaking of Ushio’s eating habits, she doesn’t hold her chopsticks properly yet (this scene’s from episode 20):

vlcsnap-2016-05-08-20h49m51s0You can see that she’s trying to balance the food on top of that chopsticks instead of holding it between the two sticks. It looks like she has her forefinger and middle finger both placed on top of the sticks, instead of holding one stick between the two fingers as you’re supposed to. Try holding chopsticks that way and you’ll find that you can’t actually bring the chopsticks together properly. Now that is attention to detail.

If there’s just one thing that rings false about Ushio’s body language, it’s that she doesn’t look around very much. From my experience dealing with young children, even well-behaved kids are prone to turning their heads around a lot, especially when they’re in a new place. I guess when you’re five, you’re not very good at processing things with your peripheral vision.

Other than that, though, I find Ushio to be an extremely well-realised character. I don’t mean to say that she acts like a realistic child – she is way too well-behaved for that. Rather, her body language captures the essence of her solemn yet cheerful personality, which is the part of her character which matters to the narrative and its themes. You can figure out what kind of person she is just from watching her move in any given scene, even when the script doesn’t explicitly draw attention to those traits.

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The more I delve into the animation medium, the more I find that “good writing” can’t be easily separated from “good animation”. Cool-looking special effects can’t drown out the effect of a poorly-scripted scene, but visual framing does shape how we respond to the scripting. I have no idea how Ushio comes across in the original visual novel, but she really came alive on the anime screen because the animators put clear thought into how to visually express a child responding to their environment. Had she lacked screen presence, her key scenes would likely have fallen flat, no matter how well-conceived they happened to be.

I also believe that animation speaks louder than words. For example, even when removed from context, any viewer can easily appreciate the non-verbal storytelling at work here [OBVIOUS SPOILERS FOR EPISODE 21]:

If you think that it’s just the sad music that makes this scene effective, try watching it with the sound muted. You can still feel all the weight behind Ushio’s steps. Walking is much harder to animate than it looks – to express the full weight of the action, you need to consistently convey the motion of the character’s hips and pelvis, rather than just moving the legs. It’s also important to note here that the center of gravity is constantly shifting as Ushio stumbles further and further forward. Even when you can’t actually see her legs moving, you can still perceive the momentum shifting.

(As a side note, this episode was storyboarded and directed by Noriyuki Kitanohara, who animated the infamous running scene in Nichijou as well as this hilarious scene in Full Metal Panic! FumoffuThis guy has obviously mastered the walking/running cycle!)

So what’s the takeaway message here? If it occurs to you that an anime character is well-written, try paying extra attention to the way the character expresses themselves visually. Even with limited animation, you can make characters respond to their environment in ways that will make them come alive to the viewer. In fact, it’s because animation is limited that the viewer can appreciate the artistic intent behind any form of character animation.

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The eponymous heroine of Cardcaptor Sakura is another example of a well-animated young girl

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the end, I’m sure that some people find Ushio’s character rather flat and emotionally manipulative, just like the rest of Clannad. I certainly don’t believe that Clannad is flawless myself – there are loads of problems with it! Still, I hope that even Clannad’s detractors can appreciate the level of craft that went into its visual storytelling. If the story immersed you, then on some level the animation probably helped you relate to the characters. I’m surprised that Jacob Chapman didn’t mention it as one of the reasons why Clannad made you cry.


(n.b. I wrote about Clannad today because it’s a family story and I was originally planning to write a post around a Mother’s Day theme. But then I got caught up in the fascinating nitty gritties of animation, so I shifted the focus of the piece entirely. Oh well, Happy Mother’s Day, everybody!)

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Posted on May 8, 2016, in Anime Analysis and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 21 Comments.

  1. One of my favourite things you have written this year.

    What’s frustrating about character animation is this double-layered conundrum of explaining good character animation to others, and understanding it myself: I either find myself totally missing stuff (like this: I perceived Ushio as a relative plot device moe-bot initially as well, despite liking AS a lot), or find myself speechless when I try to explain why that lakeside scene in Tamako Love Story was so effective as a character driven scene.

    It must be frustrating when your perfected artform is almost invisible: I don’t see many people jizzing over sound design and good foley around here.

    Guess the best I can do is keep watching and keep listening, since one of my favourite feelings of enjoying animation is finding the right words to EXPLAIN why I do to someone else, either in words published on the web’s void, or in person.

    • It must be frustrating when your perfected artform is almost invisible: I don’t see many people jizzing over sound design and good foley around here.

      You bet. Sound design deserves way more attention than it currently gets, especially when you consider that the sound effects in any given anime production are created within the studio.

      As a side note, my brother is a music teacher who dabbles in sound engineering, and it’s amazing how he can pick out all the different elements and techniques used in a sound production. I think you need specialised training to be able to do that, but most anime fans simply don’t have that.

  2. Hm…I hadn’t thought about observing young children to compare – don’t see that many of them around, admittedly, at least, not kids around 5yo. I probably should have watched my little nieces and nephews at that last big family gathering…

    Back on topic though, the episode commentary for #17 had Ishihara talking about how they wanted to make sure Ushio was animated like a real child rather than the kind of ‘cute anime child’ that we often see. One secret to how they did this: one of the episode directors apparently recorded video of his(her?) daughter or niece and brought it in for everyone to watch.^^

    • Haha! It doesn’t surprise me that they based Ushio’s mannerisms off a real kid. I know that KyoAni has a tradition of filming/photographing the settings and reference materials they need, although that’s pretty common for animators in general, from what I understand.

      As for dealing with young children… I’ve been tutoring primary school-aged kids on the weekends for about a year now, so that’s where I get my “qualifications”. But really, even if you don’t have much exposure to kids normally, you’re bound to see kids if you go out in public. Just try observing the way they move from time to time.

      • Yes, basing animation off real-life footage is standard fare for most if not all animators. From listening to Pixar film commentaries, the animators would film themselves acting out scenes, while also keeping a cam to their face to note the facial tics during stress or extreme excitement. Camera movements and angle choices were also simulated in this manner before 3D models and environments are even generated. Pete Doctor’s Up actually sent the animators crew up Mount Roraima for artistic research (note just how out of reach that place is, hours flight from any civilisation). I guess precision and passion to one’s craft are what drives KyoAni’s more reliant nature on real footage research, compared to other less polished animation productions and its animators.

        • To me, it seems far more common for Western film productions where the voice recording is done first precisely because they want to get recordings of the actors for animation. That said, even in anime, I know that most/animators do it for some key scenes, at the very least. For example, the musical performances in both Your Lie in April and Kids on the Slope were based on real performers, and it shows. But KyoAni stands out as a studio that pays attention to this even for basic, everyday scenes. I remember marvelling at a few scenes in Hyouka where they had detailed and different character movements for actions so simple as everyone getting up from a table or walking down the street.

  3. Ahh, this brings back memories!
    Y’know, the first time I watched Clannad was when I entered the anime world back in my first years of high school, so I didn’t really pay attention to the effort put in by the animators, but it sure helped me feel stronger about the main events!
    Even though Ushio didn’t really behave like a normal child in key points of the story -she was just too perfect and well-behaved- this makes me think how a character’s personality doesn’t only come from how they’re written, but also how they’re animated (in the case of anime). A person’s character is also understood by their mannerism, so couldn’t we say the same for a well-animated character scene?

    As of now sakuga isn’t yet something I’m interested in, -I mean- I can appreciate it when KVin post some clips from an anime, but I’m not one that goes out of his way to search them. That said, some scenes can really make me FEEL. Since we’re talking about Clannad AS, think about the “train scene” at the end of episode 19 (if I remember correctly). It’s really emotional and probably one of the few moments where tears weren’t only used to make the scene more sad in a Maeda show.

    • I have a funny relationship with Clannad. I first watched the first part of After Story years ago when I was first getting really into anime, but then I stopped keeping up with the English DVD releases, so I more or less forgot about it. The other day, I picked it up again and found myself appreciating the visuals much more this time around.

      Sakuga fandom is something that you have to gradually ease into, I find. There’s a ton of names to remember. Even now, I can’t say I know all the important figures, nor am I very good at identifying animators just from their styles. Just pick out bits of animation that interest you and look up the names associated with your favourite productions. Learning the animators’ names is just a way of helping you put a human face to a work of animation that makes you FEEL (as you put it).

  4. Wow. A really interesting read. I’ve seen people talking a bit about sakuga whenever I’ve been on twitter. Perhaps I should look to invest even more time into learning more. There’s probably some things I can pick and apply to my art.

    • Yes, if you’re an artist, I recommend learning a bit of animation technique even if you don’t plan to become an animator. It’s a great way of learning how to express motion and dynamism in your drawings.

      • Haha, that’s true. I’m always looking out for different things to learn when it comes to my art. I always feel its good to keep an eye out for ways that I can grow an improve as an artist. And animation definitely seems like something to take a look at.

  5. Great post, Frog-kun.

    I find it sad that many people seem to miss what’s behind animation. A lot of people think that animation quality = the amount of detail put into it or fluidness. While those things contribute to it, there is much more to consider. Such as, character animation. Hardly ever I see someone even mentioning it when talking about animation. But it’s actually something crucial.

    Voice acting is not the only ‘acting’ there is in anime. ‘Acting’ also comes through the character design and the animation. The way a character moves might break or break a scene. I recently remember, for example, a certain scene in KimiUso in which Kaori was crying. The voice acting expressed that well, but the way her face moved was just so dull and such visible contradictory to the VA, the scene did not get to me.

    Even the way a character walks can say a lot about him. The animators can play with the timing, spacing, poses, etc. They don’t need to follow reality, they can create new ways to move, and that’s what so great about animation.

    That’s why even if a series does not have lots of the so-called ‘sakuga’, it doesn’t mean it has bad animation at all. It’s just that people can only see that when it comes to animation. Take for example, Hibike! Euphonium. Most people praise its animation by saying that Kyoani has a big budget or it is fluid. In my opinion, that’s very far from the real strength of that anime’s animation. What I liked the most about Hibike! Euphonium was the anticipation. How KyoAni knew how to prepare the viewer for a special moment, how it build up to those beautifully and strongly animated scenes. H!E knew how to make the viewers pay attention to those moments, it was clear when the following moment would be a very important one, and that is indeed a very important aspect of animation. Those scenes would have probably half of their impact if they just threw it up without preparing the viewers. It’s like the slow beginning of a song setting up for its strong refrain.

    • Yep yep yep, I agree with all of this. I will also add that even if people aren’t very good at noticing specific animation techniques, good animation does still have a strong effect on people on a subliminal level. So I like to think that the good work of animators doesn’t go entirely unappreciated.

      • That’s very true, too. The impression of a person from any anime is always and inevitably affected by the animation. Most people are just not aware of that fact.

  6. This is why I love KyoAni so much, they always have a knack for emphasizing on the mundane. Rather than abusing special effects and weird camera angles without substance, KyoAni’s every single animation always mean something, despite seemingly simple. They are a master at subtle visual cues, a visual storyteller.

  7. KyoAni really pays attention to every detail. Great observation post. I never noticed that.

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