Thursday, August 11, 2022

Animated Ways

A lot of talk has focused recently on mediums. What exactly causes a piece of entertainment or an idea to fit in a specific medium? Is it stubbornness from the creator, or is there more to it than you might think? Their decision would depend on many factors, but mostly on whether or not the medium fits the story they are trying to tell. Thus, action stories work better in prose when the story involves more than focus on set pieces, and cartoons work better when the animation allows movement and focus that requires the visuals other mediums cannot rely on. Everything has a purpose. (Except CG! It still looks fake and doesn't carry any story to best any other medium. Everything CG does would look better with practical effects or 2D animation. Sorry, guys!)

One thing we have to remember: every story has a reason to be the medium it is, even if you don't see it yourself. The bigger problem are those on the outside that will prejudge any creation solely by the medium it is created in. This is a fear of art, and it is not healthy in creating a sustainable scene or building any future.

We need a reassessment. Not just on mediums, but on what art is meant for in the first place. We have lost the plot.

There are still people in this day and age that refuse to grasp the purpose of art and entertainment as either more than a silly waste of time or propaganda meant to rouse the troops to your side. Even worse when it can be weaponized against you and your own neighbor by an industry that's sole purpose of existence is supposed to be to serve you. Now they exist to turn family against family and friend against friend, all over issues that can't even be discussed in private company or rational conversation. Everyone else is the enemy, all the time. How did it get so backwards?

The problem is that art and entertainment, even though it is meant to connect, is frequently made by either an individual or a smaller group of like-minded folk who have the herculean task of breaking through the wall of noise around the culture to make any impact. The industry, whether music, movie, book, or whatever, was supposed to do the heavy-lifting of breaking through while the creators worked on creating. Theoretically, this is so the artist can focus on the art.

Theoretically. We know how well theories not based in reality turn out. We're living it today as we are ruled by industries that hate us.

In essence, those in charge are deliberately going against their purpose. Therefore, it is rather useless, not able to give creators anything to justify their existence.

Much is told about how these industries have stifled creativity in the past, but not much on how the original purpose was to keep creators focused with their eyes on the prize without having to be distracted by nonsense. They were supposedly made to allow art and entertainment a place to thrive. Obviously, they don't do that anymore. Eventually that purpose warped into them becoming master over a slave caste that is so buck-broken it will do anything for scrap of clout in an industry that wouldn't care if they were found dead in a ditch tomorrow. All to live the myth of artist as some sort of priest class.

We've seen this happen in the book, comics, music, and movie, industries, but we haven't talked much about another key one: animation. This is mostly because a lot of people still to this day undervalue it as an art, including those actually in the industry. They will make and defend the lowest quality work (cheap work their corporate masters assigned to them, by the way) and attack anyone who points out the emperor's lack of clothes. Especially if it's the audience complaining. Why aim or strive for higher standards when you can live off scraps and make substandard product? At least they preach the right messages to the cattle, though.

But how did this happen? When did animation get to be so easily controlled and thrashed into obedience like a whipped dog? Wasn't this the medium back in the 1990s known as the wild maverick space where anything could happen? It was. This obvious yet ignored shift goes back a long time. But it has always had a reason, mostly because it was ignored as an artform by the mainstream. It still is, actually.

Author Rawle Nyanzi recently brought this piece from animator Maxwell Atoms to my attention, creator of personal favorite cartoon The Grim Adventures of Billy & Mandy. Here he is asked about the shift in the animation industry from trying to entertain into trying to educate over the last decade or so. The question and response aren't framed that way, but this is how it comes off, especially years after Mr. Atoms' series was forcibly ended despite its popularity.

That industry doesn't really exist anymore.

What he describes is exactly what the entire western industry has become: safe corporate product meant to educate children. But is that ever what animation was made for? Is that the only thing it is allowed to be? Why, and who decided this?

It comes down to lack of respect for the form. There isn't anyone in charge of the industry anymore who cares about the art of animation, and the people let in by the suits see it as nothing more than a tool to be exploited. So that's what it has become, much like every other form today. It is a weapon to be used against the audience, and not one to work for them.

You'll also notice that the "Disney ideal" he mentions is not an ideal of Walt Disney. This is a modern invention. Walt Disney's works contained villains and objective evil to contrast his good. His very first feature film's villain is based off the most well known villain of all-time and was suitably slain to reach the happy ending the story needed. This ideal Mr. Atoms is speaking of is the one the corporation has now, and wishes to foist on everyone else.

Many will say that these companies are just trying to make money, but they are not. The moral shaping and attempts at ideological propaganda exist to create utopia. You are dealing, once again, with Utopians. They believe that by portraying the world in a certain specific way in their art that they will change existence to be "correct" and all world ills will be solved. Who cares if it is barely animated with bad designs and cliché-ridden scripting: it is doing Good Work for the Cause. If you doubt there is a Cause I would suggest you look up any interview with any of the people currently with a series at Cartoon Network or Disney. They will quickly spout all the correct buzzwords and propaganda their masters require of them. They certainly aren't going to complain about pay or working conditions when they are doing the task assigned to them by their masters! FIAWOL!

All of this is because the clout and the image of priest class is too enticing for certain people to resist, and the industry enables it.

If this writer sounds a bit bitter over the issue it is because I love animation as an artform. It can depict entire worlds and ideas in a visual way that movies, not even with computers, can do, and it allows a level of freedom that live action or "realism" can't quite manage. In essence, of all the visual mediums, it offers the most potential. And it is currently being utterly squandered by juvenile materialists who just want their ideological fix.

Nothing about this form, by the way, precludes that it must be a "kid" thing, but neither does it mean it has to be a subversive thing like it is today. There is a middle ground that has been lost along the way, probably with the 20th century's obsession with discarding everything before we've even bothered to try to tap into its full potential. By rushing towards the future, we forgot the past. Animation is one of the crown jewel inventions of the 20th century that came in with cinematography, and yet we've let it become this. The form can be far more than just dick and fart jokes or bad political and social programming. But it hasn't been that in a long time.

Where did that shift start? Many would argue it has always been there, underneath the surface. After all, animation was made by normal people with urges, faults, and passions, of their own. Certainly they had thoughts or ideas they wanted to express outside of the status quo of their day. They did it through their animation, and this all eventually shaped the perception of what the form still is for some people to this day.

The below four part series on "subversiveness" in animation is worth watching. It was aired sometime around the year 2000, so it was near the time "adult animation" became infected with South Park and Family Guy clones, where it has been trapped ever since. I suggest watching it while keeping in mind the contents are very graphic and NSFW. I am not joking, a lot of the material can get as close to XXX rated as you can without getting removed from YouTube. Oddly enough, most of that material is actually black and white.

This is "Cartoons Kick Ass: A History of Subversive Animation" and it goes a long way in showing how the medium got to where it is today.

Part 1/4

Part 2/4

Part 3/4

Part 4/4

If one still wishes to dismiss animation, or any artform, as useless or not worth paying attention to after seeing this, then they are not serious people. Even by the time you get to the end of the above documentary you can see how unchecked subversion divorced from any conversation or relation to reality can lead to a dead end of insanity. There wasn't anywhere left to go. It's no coincidence the western industry is dead now.

Tables can only be flipped so many times before they break apart. By the end of the documentary, you can see the sign of the times of audiences "no longer being offended" and "everything being on the table" to shock and awe the audience. You certainly don't see that now, so where did all those people go? What even was the point of all this to begin with?

Two decades later, and what did that attitude build? What did it lead to? Even the documentary basically says it lead directly to internet porn and therefore took most of the appeal of the subversion away. What can be more shocking than outright pornography? This is what happens when you put the most important aspect of your medium on anti-social aspects instead of any higher aim. It isn't that you can't use elements like blood or sex appeal to reach wider audiences, you very much can, but it must be part of a bigger plan than just to "shock" like some cheap gimmick. Gimmicks only work a few times before they grow old and stale.

Just being "free" to do "whatever you want" means little if it's not attempting to connect with anyone except to inflate your own ego. Unfortunately, this is the one thing that has carried forward from the subversive days so many see as a Golden Age. What you want is all that matters, and anyone who complains is some kind of chud normie or whatever that is getting in your way. At no point is there an attempt to try to understand or appeal to someone outside of yourself. This is what leads to death, especially in art scenes. You can't grow if you deliberately cut off all your roots.

A lot of people, especially in the west, get mad when you bring up Japan, but they have always known how to use these over the top and potentially "dangerous" elements far better to tell a story than the west has. At least in the comic book and animation world, they have always been far better at using offensive and dark subject matter to connect with their audience. Partially because their motives do not seem to come from such an obviously angry and bitter place.

As an example, there is a manga series called Apocalypse Zero (the Japanese title is "Kakugo no Susume") from a ways back. It was given a short anime OVA back in the day, but it's practically unheard of in the west today. This is a series that uses both hyper violence and sexual content, two things very easy to get wrong, in a way the glorifies neither while also not demonizing violence or sex at their base level. Confused? Don't worry, I will try to explain it. This series is in fact is so good at what it does that it manages to bake this balance into the general themes of the story itself which is very impressive. All of this exists in a simple hero tale that takes place at the end of the world.

I'm not the most knowledgeable on Apocalypse Zero outside of having read the manga, but this is a work that ran from 1994-1996 and manages to feel like one that is much older. Taking in the tradition of Violence Jack or Fist of the North Star, Apocalypse Zero uses the end of the world post-apocalypse setting to establish a breakdown of modernity which leads the story to focus on what it is about civilization that truly matters, and what it is that drags us down. Such a thing can always be an excuse for soapboxing, especially in modern OldPub, but this one avoids that minefield pretty handily while giving the audience exactly what they came for.

The main character is Kakugo, a trained monster slayer, who roams post-Earthquake Japan with a battle armor (named Zero) given to him by his father. Here he comes across "Tactical Fiends" which are mutated humans that have become little more than beasts ruled by their urges and sick desires. This is where a lot of the extreme content springs from, showing the twisted minds and desires of those given in to hedonism in their despair at existence. They must be stopped before they kill even more of the swindling number of innocents still alive.

Kakugo, however, only has his code of honor and manhood to drive him forward. He is a very masculine character, devoted to justice and protection of the innocent, where evil must be stopped at any cost. Despite the end of the world, he embodies an aspect of human dignity and courage that everyone else struggles to maintain. Kakugo is seen as even more of a relic in a world that is full of them, at this point. His focus on truth at the expense of worldly distractions (or unworldly, as it may be at times) is what allows him to be the warrior and guiding light that people need. He is the direct opposition of everything he faces, which is perfect for a hero story.

Where this is reflected in is the antagonist of Apocalypse Zero, Kakugo's brother Harara. Harara is trained in the art of killing monsters much like Kakugo is, except he wishes to destroy humanity and has gathered the tactical fiends and many other warriors under his wing to do it. The real contrast, however, is that for some reason Harara's body has been morphed into that of a woman, on top of his complete attitude shift of who he once was. In every way, he operates as Kakugo's mirror opposite willing to use anything and anyone as a tool in his bid to wipe humanity off the map. I'd explain why that is, but it's fairly involved as an explanation and would more or less require explaining the events across all 100 chapters. What is important is that their conflict will decide the fate of the world. Which character's ideals are stronger?

The hyperviolence and sexual content also relates to how their martial arts work. Much like Fist of the North Star involves exploding insides or diced flesh, Apocalypse Zero involves a sort of energy wave that goes through the body to expel organs forcefully. This plays into the theme of Guts in the martial arts and action sense that drive such stories and how one must control themselves or be lost to their baser urges. The sexual content works much the same way, usually as either temptation (hilariously ending one scene as Kakugo literally tells said character to get out of his kitchen because she is unhygienic) or as someone who has given into their primal lust. It says a lot that despite this content, the series never feels dirty because it all has a purpose in the overall piece.

If this sounds similar to how series such as Berserk or Vagabond do such things then you would be correct. The main difference is that Apocalypse Zero is a lot more in your face about it in a way that makes a lot of people uncomfortable. It is a hot-blooded action series, and being extreme as can be in relation to the tone is important. Unless you have a strong stomach you will not make it past chapter 1, never mind making it through all 100.

It should also be stressed that violence is justified if it is necessary, and wholesome relationships are considered good to have. There is no rejection of either as "wrong" or however they would portray such things today. The story ends basically saying this all could have been avoided had a single family had not torn itself apart for base material glory. Temptation is a weakness, as is greed and lust for power. You are here for much higher things.

There is more I want to talk about, but can't without really describing everything that happens. Apocalypse Zero goes to some crazy places, but it never falls off the wagon or gets too out there. Nonetheless, life and death, God and salvation, good and evil, and corruption and purification, all play a role in what elevates the story to higher places. As it goes along it gets harsher and more over the top, but the themes only strengthen as you watch Kakugo put through the ringer of this dying world in an attempt at one last chance to save it from its baser urges. Apocalypse Zero is so good at this that I had to remind myself it didn't actually come out years before it did, especially when you remember the types of western comics that were being made at that time.

The greater point here is that Apocalypse Zero contains all these things "subversive" works claim they want to have and thrive off of putting in their material, but is far better at using them than pretty much all the above examples in the documentary. There is no comparison. It does this by having a purpose, themes, and a general aesthetic that is uniquely its own. Even if it has similarities to manga classics like the already mentioned Violence Jack and Fist of the North Star, surely big inspirations for the writer, it stands completely on its own and should probably be just as big as they are. Why it hasn't yet reach that level yet is anyone's guess.

This is an example of art through entertainment. It is meant to be entertaining and pleasing to an audience, but has a bit more to it for those who wish to dig in and find it. This is more than just trying to mindlessly tweak people's noses and not much else. The west would do good to understand that instead of just flipping the same table over for an eternity.

There has to be more to art than just being shocking and subverting. At some point you have to have some sort of aim, even if it's a basic one like Tom & Jerry with a barebone rivalry or Fleischer Superman with a simple hero plot. They hold up due to this and much of the material in the above documentary does not, because it was never meant to. You cannot sustain a scene like this and, lo and behold, they didn't.

Nonetheless, it's all over now.

You have one side of the aisle that sees animation as a tool to fix or even warp people, and the other side that dismisses this artform entirely as trivial and disposable. Now where have you seen that before? Neither side is attempting to create art--they are either fighting against reality, or ignoring it. Animation could be so much more than it is today, but it's not, because one side cares more about subversion and propaganda against normal folks and the other side thinks it's meaningless kiddy fluff meant to be a babysitter. Hint: it's not either. It's an artform. It's only as good as you let it be, and we've not let it be much for a long time.

Once again, if we wish to grown beyond where we once were, we're going to have to see things from a different angle, to consider ideas and tactics we never even considered before. Art needs to be able to inspire, and it can only do that if it is given the support to thrive. This can't be done if those in charge see it as nothing but a tool for ideological subversion, a paycheck, or a waste of time for dumb people. Art is not a gimmick, so stop treating it as one.

We have many more roads to travel ahead of us. It's time to stop blocking them all off for no real reason. Art, like God, always wins in the end. We just have to let it through.


  1. Great post. Apocalypse Zero sounds exactly like the kind of art a lot of us have been talking about: elements, including edgy ones, used in purpose of a solid moral core. Animation generally has definitely become lame.

    My 10-year-old son has gotten into Spider-Man lately, and he’s been watching the mid-90s cartoon I used to watch. I had forgotten how good it was. Sure, the animation isn’t world-class, but the stories are action packed adventure tales that don’t dumb things down for kids, OR make the villains misunderstood miscreants who really aren’t bad. Fun show and no wonder he enjoys it. The only modern cartoons that have enthralled him have been Avatar: The Last Airbender and (don’t laugh) Ninjago, which was really good for the first 8 or 9 seasons.

    Fantastic piece. I’d love to see a renaissance in animation led by people who understand truth, beauty, goodness, and art. This is, obvious, not the modern millennial progressive side, which is soulless and believes in nothing, not even what they profess to believe.

    Keep fighting the good fight J.D. I love these long-form pieces.

  2. That series of YouTube videos on the history of subversive animation were a great find. Kricfalusi comes across as an interesting contrast to Bakshi. They both want to make subversive content, but Bakshi at least seems to have a better sense that if you don't have some point you want to make, some truth you want to highlight, all that is left is prurience.

    1. Bakshi did make things like Fire & Ice and the animated LOTR that are still beloved today.

      Both are also upfront about what they are making, they do not set out to fool people into swallowing something they don't want to ingest.

      You can see the line of succession that led to where we are today through them, even to the point where both are not very well liked by the industry (even before John K's controversy) and have already been ditched for the newest, hottest thing.

      It just shows what a focus on "subversion" gets you in the end.

  3. Truth to the Power
    Speaking of cartoons: your humble opinion on Blue Sky's Robots? Because the funny thing is that in hindsight, the bad guy's plans are closer to what are you noting with the whole "peope who hate you" concept rhater than doing it for profits (even if that's just earlier in the movie)

    1. I haven't actually seen that one.

    2. Maybe this link can help:

      Remember, must be a in depth analysis or something

    3. Granted this is more of an overview, but this is one person's pretty good take on it, and I think alludes a bit to the bad guy's plans:

  4. JD

    This is a great post. Much to reflect on.
    Just to digress, I'm not opposed to CGI but it needs to be used sparingly and needs more human input to mitigate uncanny valley effect

    In your previous post about cartoons, you mention that activist who managed to persuade Congress to pass a law effectively killing Saturday morning cartoon. Did that law slap shape present day attitudes of cartoonists and executives?


    1. CG, in my opinion, should be used primarily as a way to boost practical effects. It has it's uses, but a crutch is not what it should be used as.

      My main issue is that there is no reason for it to be leaned on as much as it has been, especially as a medium for animation. Toy Story wouldn't be any different in 2D or live action. It would be the same movie. Aside from being technically more impressive, there isn't much of anything done with it that makes it unique from either of those two mediums. I don't know why that's so controversial to say. Think of what 2D or talkies were doing 25 years after they began in earnest, and look at what CG has been doing after the same amount of time. I just don't see why we continue to use it.

      I would not be surprised if much of the issue with the industry came to be that it was run by Charren types who neutered the form while also convincing creators this newer safe grey goo is somehow revolutionary and edgy. The same people that guffaw over the generic "Family Guy" style being rehashed everywhere get really defensive if you say anything similar about "CalArts" in the same way. Much like OldPub or AAA gaming, no one in the mainstream is really doing anything interesting in the medium, but you're not allowed to point that out.

      It's a bizarre time to live in.

    2. JD,

      Thanks for the reply. I agree with your perspective about CGI. The one example where it'd work is to create a super humongous battle fleets a la Lensmen or Galactic Legends.
      Looking outside of North America, cartoons look better and have a more coherent storyline. Again, I wonder if the North American attitudes towards f comics and thus cartoons as low class, crude even dangerous by lit snobs.


    3. Oh, it's very simple. The reason that CG is used more than 2d animation is that it is significantly cheaper and easier to make.

  5. Another excellent post. And Maxwell Atom's reply is personally as haunting as it's true.

  6. Good article. I appreciate your treatment of "mature" topics and how they can be explored without just being for shock value and stale jokes.

    I think though that even a lot of people using "sex appeal" not for shock are still in somewhat suspect territory. "If you'd look hideous in that skimpy outfit, covering up is charity; if you'd look good in that skimpy outfit, covering up is modesty."

    It is kind of funny how similar it sounds yet how different it is in practice to say "This is a good story and I learned so much from it" (e.g. great classics such as LOTR or The Merchant of Venice) vs. "This story is designed to make people learn" and it just turns into a preachy mess (dreck undeserving of a mention yet omnipresent).

    I will say however that while I'll give you that CG can look horribly fake, dated, or weird, I'm inclined to say CGI actually works best in some instances because of its odd bridging of more realism with imaginary stuff. It's true that basically any Pixar film could be done in 2D animation, but I love how certain details such as the natural beauty in UP are portrayed almost photo-realistically while most of the movie is more cartoonish. This old review of Finding Nemo likewise contends that the underwater scenes look gorgeous in it because of the added realism. For me, even the best 2D animation tends to look less real and much flatter; 3D animation gives a sense of depth and realism and extra texture that fools the brain and makes scenery and action simply feel more real. And it allows for some extra detail without killing the artists as much. Stop-motion animation can have many of the same benefits, it is true, though it usually seems suited to less realism, and also takes a ton of work.

    Not that I dislike any particular animation medium per se; I am impressed by and enjoy good examples of each while loathing the wasted potential of bad examples. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, and it seems to me that consistency is key to avoiding the uncanny valley effect. Poor textures or models or vacant expressions can stick out and ruin otherwise solid efforts.

    2D animation has the advantage of being perceived by the brain as least realistic, so it can get away with a lot more before it seems uncanny, mixing more and less realistic elements. It can basically depict anything the mind can imagine. Negatives include incredible amounts of work for detailed scenes, potentially choppy frame-rates, and temptation to seriously over-stylize.

    Stop-motion has the advantage of depth and detail being real, so the artist doesn't need to worry about that, just making smooth movements. And it allows for great creativity in media choices to fill in a scene. Negatives are rather similar--potentially over-stylized, choppy motion, and uncanny valley when done wrong.

    CGI has advantages similar to stop-motion in that scenes can be "built" and then panned around inside without requiring redoing all the details. It feels more immersive and takes care of light and shade. It can also create pure fantasy, though it is somewhat physically constrained by the models. Potential negatives include easily looking cheap or uncanny when done wrong, and while it can take less time it can also spiral out of control chasing detail or gimmicky effects.

    (Ironically, coming full circle, I've noticed that very early cartoons such as some of the first Looney Tunes made often seemed to have little plot and focus on effects, such as trains running away down hills, because animation itself was the hot new thing.)