In recent years, a studio known as Polygon Pictures has been making noticeable ripples with the use of CG in the anime market.
Though they have not made many titles yet, the ones they have made are certainly recognizable amongst seasonal anime watchers, including 2014’s Knights of Sidonia and the currently airing Ajin.
However, there is one major difference that sets these works apart from everything else airing: they are constructed entirely with CG, rather than drawn with traditional 2D animation. Character models, buildings, particle effects: everything in these anime is made to simulate a realistic 3D world much like our own.
And I absolutely despise them.
The debate over full-CG anime, and CG in anime at large, has been growing with every passing season, some calling it a bold step forward for the industry, other proclaiming it to be the death of anime itself. Neither of these points are correct, but I tend to lean more in the direction of the latter due to my experiences with Sidonia and Ajin, as well as the countless implementations of CG in other traditional 2D series. I have a particular dislike for using CG characters to fill in a scene, exhibited in several popular anime such as Parasyte -the maxim- and Fate/Stay Night: Unlimited Blade Works.
To clarify my point, I don’t think that CG is inherently bad, as I’ve seen many instances where it works really well, such as Toei Animation’s Expelled from Paradise.
Even in shows like Sidonia and Ajin, I do like some of the character designs and the way action scenes flow, but my problem with these shows comes down to a single word: immersion, a term that applies not just to animated works, but the entire collective mass we know as entertainment, from books and manga to movies and video games.
The primary function of all fictional media, with the exception of deliberately non-conformist and avant-garde storytelling, is to immerse the audience in the story and convince us that, within its own universe, the story that is being shown to us is real and believable. As one might imagine, this is a fairly difficult feat, especially in animation, where nothing is actually tangible and is entirely made up. Despite this, most anime are still able to convince you that their worlds are real and alive.
The bottom line is that characters and objects should move like we expect them to move.
If you ever want an easy test to see how good a given show is at this, examine a character’s walk cycle and ask yourself if that’s how people actually move. Obviously there are some limitations on how immersive an animated series can be, and comedic scenes do something entirely different with immersion, while sakuga moments purposefully ditch immersion entirely, but for the most part, good animation moves like we think it should.
The problem with CGI anime, CG characters in particular, is that they are inherently immersion-breaking by nature.
The term “uncanny valley” is a phrase referring to a phenomenon where something is very close to resembling a real human, but isn’t quite there yet, causing us to experience a sense of discomfort and revulsion. The Polar Express and other animated film by Robert Zemeckis are perfect examples of how this phenomenon works. We understand that these characters are supposed to be real, but because they fall just shy of being perfect imitations and their movements are just slightly awkward, we immediately recognize them as fake and reject them entirely, as opposed to 2D characters that exist entirely within their own realm of design.
In anime, CG characters almost always lie somewhere in the uncanny valley.
Janky walk cycles, unrealistic movement, and bizarre facial expression completely shatter any immersion that the show is trying to create. No immersion means little to zero engagement with the story, and when that happens, the story is essentially dead, no matter how well-written it is. This is extremely unfortunate because the story for Ajin is actually really good. The three episodes of the anime that I watched had really solid presentation on the story and character end of things, and I’m already five volumes into the manga because of how much I like the story. If Ajin had been picked up by Madhouse or ufotable or even Bones, then this could have been a really good anime, but because it’s Polygon Pictures and it’s all CG, it’s just mediocre.
Full CG TV anime do not have the ability to create something immersive at this point in time and probably require at least another four to seven years of perfecting and fine-tuning the techniques involved, plus a very above average budget, before they can stand on their own. Full CG movies, however, are very close to achieving this goal. While not 100% solid when it comes to immersion, Expelled from Paradise still manages to maintain itself for the most part, and Appleseed Alpha has some of the best CG characters that anime has ever made. Even Final Fantasy: Advent Children has more convincing human characters despite having been released over a decade ago (though I have some less than stellar things to say about the CG monsters).
This, however, leads into yet another problem with CGI anime characters.
It would not be much of a stretch at all to say that traditional anime character designs simply are not compatible with CG models. The plain face, huge eyes, small nose, and semi-defined lips are extremely difficult to successfully translate onto a 3D model since these traits were designed for a 2D environment. When they’re translated into 3D, the characters look flat and synthetic, like they existed in a 2D space originally and were then pulled into a 3D realm.
It simply doesn’t work, which is one of the reasons why the animation for Appleseed Alpha does work. Even though the original Appleseed was done in traditional 2D animation, Alpha switching to full 3D with more realistic character models feels less jarring that if they had stuck to the original style of character designs. As for Expelled from Paradise, I’m honestly not exactly sure how they were able to pull it off since the character designs in that are even more traditional than in Ajin. Perhaps it simply had a ton of money and talent to spend on the project, considering that it was also backed by nitro+, a company that has extensive experience with video game design, or perhaps it’s because it’s so vivid and colorful that it was able to distract us from the immersion-breaking movement, as opposed to the dull and drab palettes of Sidonia and Ajin.
The sad part is that this mediocre animation doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.
Other all-CG studios like Sanzigen have started to produce their own full-CG anime like Bubuki Buranki, and the shows that are being adapted by Polygon Pictures have really popular source material, and thus the anime are also really popular. Additionally, based on how these shows are being licensed, it seems fairly possible that the streaming giant Netflix has some stake in this branch of animation succeeding; it seems far too much of a coincidence that Netflix has the sole streaming rights for both Sidonia and Ajin. Even the American-produced web series RWBY has gained notable popularity in Japan, spawning its own spin-off manga, and will no doubt influence future animators, though even in this case I find it more immersive than anything by Polygon Pictures because there’s as much style and pizzazz jammed in as possible.
Hopefully I’m wrong and the future of 3D anime is only a few seasons away, but for now, I’d much rather watch something made in Source Filmmaker.