The Art of Hand-Drawn Japanese Anime: A Deep Study of How Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira Uses Light

Ani­ma­tion before the days of mod­ern com­put­er graph­ics tech­nol­o­gy may impress today for the very rea­son that it had no mod­ern com­put­er graph­ics tech­nol­o­gy, or CGI, at its dis­pos­al. But if we real­ly think about it — and we real­ly watch the ani­mat­ed mas­ter­pieces of those days — we’ll real­ize that much of it should impress us on many more lev­els than it already does. Take, for instance, Kat­suhi­ro Oto­mo’s 1988 cyber­punk vision Aki­ra, one of the most beloved Japan­ese ani­mat­ed films of all time and the sub­ject of the Nerd­writer video essay above, “How to Ani­mate Light.”

Aki­ra, says Nerd­writer Evan Puschak, “is well known for its painstak­ing ani­ma­tion. Every frame of the film was com­posed with the clos­est atten­tion to detail, and that gives it an unmatched rich­ness and soul.”

But he points up one qual­i­ty of the pro­duc­tion in par­tic­u­lar: “I see the film’s many lights, their dif­fer­ent qual­i­ties and tex­tures, as a pow­er­ful motif and sym­bol, and a vital ele­ment of its genius.” But ani­ma­tors, espe­cial­ly ani­ma­tors using tra­di­tion­al hand-paint­ed cels, can’t just tell their direc­tors of pho­tog­ra­phy to set up a scene’s light­ing in a cer­tain way; they’ve got to ren­der all the dif­fer­ent types of light in the world they cre­ate by hand, man­u­al­ly cre­at­ing its play on every face, every object, every sur­face.

“The lines between shad­ow and light are dis­tinct and evoca­tive in the same way that film noir light­ing is,” Puschak elab­o­rates, “and like in film noir, light in Aki­ra is inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to the city at night.” In the dystopi­an “Neo-Tokyo” of 2019, elab­o­rate­ly craft­ed by Oto­mo and his col­lab­o­ra­tors, “author­i­ty is as much a blind­ing spot­light as it is a gun or a badge” and neon “is the bit­ter but beau­ti­ful light that sig­ni­fies both the col­or­ful radi­ance and the gaudy con­sumerism of moder­ni­ty.” And then we have Tet­suo, “at once the pro­tag­o­nist and the antag­o­nist of the film, a boy who gains extra­or­di­nary psy­chic pow­er” that “so often pro­duces a dis­rup­tion in the light around him.” When the end comes, it comes in the form of “a giant ball of light, one sin­gle uni­form white light that eras­es the count­less arti­fi­cial lights of the city,” and Aki­ra makes us believe in it. Could even the most cut­ting-edge, spec­tac­u­lar­ly big-bud­get­ed CGI-age pic­ture do the same?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Phi­los­o­phy, Sto­ry­telling & Visu­al Cre­ativ­i­ty of Ghost in the Shell, the Acclaimed Ani­me Film, Explained in Video Essays

The Exis­ten­tial Phi­los­o­phy of Cow­boy Bebop, the Cult Japan­ese Ani­me Series, Explored in a Thought­ful Video Essay

How the Films of Hayao Miyaza­ki Work Their Ani­mat­ed Mag­ic, Explained in 4 Video Essays

The Ori­gins of Ani­me: Watch Free Online 64 Ani­ma­tions That Launched the Japan­ese Ani­me Tra­di­tion

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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