3D CGI – A Lustrous Future for Anime?

Welcome to another special anime article! Here, we are going to take a look at one of the number one questions asked – particularly by journalists – about the Japanese anime industry.

As 3D animation slowly becomes more accepted in animated series, while the cost of 2D animation and animators becomes harder to manage, is there a real, and possibly even likely possibility that animation will soon be a majority 3D CGI industry?

As we recently reported, there was some fantastic anime to end 2017. The Summer ’17 Cycle produced our 2017 Anime of the Year in Kakegurui, while the Fall season saw the start of potentially two of the biggest series of this year in The Ancient Magus’ Bride and Black Clover. However, it’s a tiny, 16-minute short that was released in between these two traditional anime sequences that probably attracted the majority of mainstream attention.

Blade Runner Black Out 2022 - CGI in Anime

A Future Black Out

Accompanying the theatrical release of 1982 sci-fi reboot Blade Runner 2049, three short films were released. The final one of these was a Japanese animated short, directed by Shinichiro Watanabe. All three short films are available online for free – you can watch Black Out here.

Cowboy Bebop by Shinichiro Watanabe - CGI in AnimeFor those who are new to our blog, I have made it clear before how huge a fan I am of this creator. Arguably the leading TV anime creator of the last generation, Watanabe has an awe-inspiring catalogue of series. From cult classics like Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo, to more subtle shows such as Terror in Resonance, this man has built an incredible, overwhelming amount of respect for himself through his work. Generally, there’s not many people in the world who understand the anime industry quite like him.

As part of his work with the short film Blade Runner Black Out 2022, Watanabe was interviewed about his creative process behind it. However, at the end of the interview Watanabe is asked what he imagines anime will look like in twenty years time. Before going on it’s worth noting that his answer is wholly optimistic about the future of the global anime industry. You can draw you own conclusions from the interview here. However, without any prompting, Watanabe discusses one topic more than anything else regarding the future anime industry: the decline of hand-drawn animation.

There isn’t as much hand-drawn anime across the world… and there are a lot more done in 3D.

(Shinichiro Watanabe, 2017)

Watanabe is an old-school anime creator, and it is likely that his views echo that of the vast majority of anime fans, both of TV series and films. 2D hand-drawn animation holds the artist’s emotion inside every frame. It has special qualities to it, and it should be preserved.

However, Watanabe admits himself that this may not be enough for it to survive.

2D animation is on the decline. Consistent stories about the lowering incomes and tightening budgets in anime production continue to emanate from Japanese studios, and the effects of this have been viewed for a long time in TV anime series. 3D figures, particularly in mecha anime – machines, robots and the like – are now common place and widely accepted, despite many of the genre’s most famous work – Evangelion, Gurren Lagann – being completely hand-drawn.

However, up to now, it is fair to say that a future in which almost all anime is created using 3D technology as opposed to 2D animation as it is today is both unfeasible and unwanted. The question remains: how can a CGI-produced series deliver the same feelings and emotion – as Watanabe put it himself – that makes anime as lovable as it is?

Enter the Land of the Lustrous.

Land of the Lustrous - CGI in Anime

Land of the Lustrous CoverAvailable at the time of writing on Amazon Prime Video, Land of the Lustrous is a lesser-known series from the Fall ’17 cycle that ended the year. It didn’t attract the crowds that series such as Black Clover, Magus’ Bride or even Blend-S managed. However, as part of my research for our 2017 Anime Awards I asked the anime community what their favourite series were, and the most popular choice for Unexpected Success of 2017 was this!

Our full review for this series will be available shortly in the next Anime Pocket Reviews, but I can say now that this is a great anime series.

What is most interesting about Land of the Lustrous, however, is that it is almost entirely created using 3D CGI. Yes, we’ve seen – and are fans of – the machinima-style RWBY web-series, but while that has an air of amateur-ness about it even now, LoL is a fully fledged Japanese anime series that just so happens to be created with models as opposed to drawings. This is an important series, at least for me personally, because for the first time I have seen many of the questions I had about the legitimacy of mass 3D anime answered.

You can watch the series’ trailer here (no subtitles).

Land of the Lustrous manages to achieve a great level of intimacy and humanity despite not being drawn. Watanabe’s argument that 2D animation holds a special kind of emotion connected to the artist might be right, but this series proves that with the right characters and story the same can be achieved without any drawing whatsoever! The CGI technology allows LoL to use light in a much more atmospheric way, and the dazzling colours help create an incredibly visual series. The combat scenes are strong, and the characters, despite being models as opposed to an artist’s drawing, are really engaging. The comedy was what really impressed me – without any ability to use visual gags such as transforming faces or anger marks (there is the occasional sweat drop), the series still managed to produce fantastic slapstick comedy thanks to the gangly bodies of the characters.

Land of the Lustrous does such a good job that it now feels like it would have been a lesser series had it been done traditionally. Like many people, I agreed with Watanabe for a long time – the whole point of animation is that it’s hand-drawn, which makes the shows feel very personal and human no matter what the subject matter. However, Land of the Lustrous has changed my view, at least a little. It would be interesting to see a realistic series done in 3D style, but as far as fantasy is concerned, so long as the story is good, I have no complaints against more anime being done through CGI in the future, especially is it helps support the anime industry and make it more sustainable going forward.

Land of the Lustrous - The Future of Anime

Have you seen Land of the Lustrous? If so, has it changed your views on 3D series, or do you still believe that 2D is the only way forward? What other CGI-heavy series deserve recognition? Let us know your thoughts on the issue in the comments, and subscribe for our upcoming review of this series in APR Ep.45!

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