The golden age of anime is widely considered to be the period of time during the late 70s to the late 80’s for a number of reasons.
The success of Space Battleship Yamato brought the space opera sub-genre to anime and established Leiji Matsumoto as a legend, who later went on to create the memorable Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Yoshiyuki Tomino’s Mobile Suit Gundam ushered in the era of the real robot which played a huge influence in the creation of SDF Macross. The release of Robotech in 1985 was a pivotal moment in history as it brought the Macross franchise to the United States.
On the movie front, Miyazaki and Takahata established Studio Ghibli after the legendary Nausicaa in 1984. The OVA format also brought many niche shows to home video such as Megazone 23 and Bubblegum Crisis, ultimately allowing a means for directors to experiment with the medium. All of this culminated with the release of Akira in 1988, perhaps the most influential anime film of the decade.
As one can see, the 80’s certainly had its fair share of masterpieces. However, one thing that is often times overlooked is the actual animation itself. During the time, most shows were animated in the traditional style of painted cells. Digital animation existed, but it was not until Macross Plus and Ghost in the Shell of the 90s in which it began to see its surge into prominence.
And that, in my opinion, is essentially why the golden age ended when it did. Yes, the economy had a huge part in it; so did the death of Osamu Tezuka in 1989. But the real reason was due to the emergence of digital animation, which essentially nullifies what makes animation so great. 1995 was a pivotal year. In the United States, Pixar’s Toy Story established a lasting belief of the superiority of digital animation. The days of classic Disney were more or less over. In Japan, Ghost in the Shell was the first popular movie to combine CG and cells which prompted many animation studios to start expanding their computer graphics department.
One would think that animation should progressively increase in quality as time goes on, and that has largely been the case. The 2004 Tetsujin-28 Go looks better than New Tetsujin 28 Go from the 80’s, which in-turn looks better than the original Gigantor from the 60’s. However, this is slightly different when factoring in CG. As I understand it, CG does have its merits. If done right, it has potential, adding another dimension to action scenes and full circle panning. If done wrong, it’s basically a cheap means of drawing via computers what one had to do by hand in days past. The key word here is cheap. Animation studios use CG not because its better, but because its cheaper . Thus, instead of a linear trend in animation quality versus time, we get a dip in the quality at around the 2000s when CG first became widely popular but no one new how to properly use it (eg. Gundam Seed).
Furthermore, when comparing Japanese and American animation styles, one difference is noticeable. Japanese animation on average, feature less frames per second than their American counterparts. I’m not just talking about things like Shrek or The Incredibles which are animated in full CGI at 29 frames per second. Even simple TV shows such as Justice League, X-men, even Spongebob feature more fluid animation than most Japanese anime which are animated at 8 frames per second [again, need citation].
Does that make American animation better? Not exactly. What Japanese anime lose in in-between animation, they make up for with the “money shot.” First pioneered by Toei animator Yasuo Otsuka, these “money shots” are essential key frames in which the most detail is poured into. In my opinion, it is this “money shot” that makes animation the great thing it is. The iconic shots, sometimes held for extended periods of time, is what we ultimately etch into our minds, not the fluid animation, not the realism. Digital animation allows for fludity and realism, essentially upping the in-betweening, but not so much the key framing. American animation is slowly becoming more like live action, which totally defeats the point of animation.
As an example, take a look at Hollywood’s live action adaptation of DC Comic’s Watchmen. The movie sought to faithfully adapt many of the key scenes that made the comic book so great…
What ended up happening were loads of slow motion scenes, some of them were appropriate, while a lot of them felt awkward. This is the penalty for trying to capture the nuances of a comic in live action form. Especially Watchmen, a 1 volume graphic novel widely considered to be one of history’s greatest. The fans expect the same level of grandeur from the film as they first experienced first reading the comic. That simply is not possible in a live action environment where people are real and scenes move fast.
Now lets look at the basis of animation that is the storyboard. Better yet, let’s examine why a lot of us enjoy comic books and manga. They are essentially novels, with visuals attached to them. Not any visuals, but the “key” visuals.
Theres a reason why this scene is in slow motion. It’s because in the original comic book, this was a pivotal scene. In comic books and manga, people are allowed the freedom to stare at a particular important scene for as long as it takes to fully appreciate the gravity of such scene. In live action, they try to keep this nuance, thus, it is rendered in slow motion. What happens when we bring these comic books and manga to the animation medium? Essentially, still pictures become moving pictures. What happens when we bring moving pictures to full CG? Well, for the most part, they are still moving pictures, they just move a bit faster and with more fluidity.
These are the scenes which we remember the most. The scenes that evoke the most emotion and the scenes that seek spirituality in the art form. Mere still frames that capture the essence of the show.
The pen and paper brought the idea to fruition. Animation brought these ideas to life. But the idea remains an idea, to be interpreted differently by different people. In Grave of the Fireflies, we don’t see children starving to death amidst World War II ravaged Japan, we see the “idea” of children starving to death. The further anime shifts to full CG, the further the line blurs between animation and live action, and the further we lose the purpose of anime in the first place. This is why I really believe the Golden Age ended when it did. We had lost the ideas sprung from animation as a whole by shifting towards realism. I’m not saying anime today is worse. In fact, I think anime as a medium for storytelling is as strong as ever. As a visual and artistic medium however, the 80’s were truly the Golden Age.