It is not often an anime really rocks the boat in terms of visual quality or animation style, but a recent title to attract attention as just such an anime is the recently commenced anime 魔法遣いに大切なこと ～夏のソラ～ / Mahou Tsukai ni Taisetsu na Koto – Natsu no Sora, or Someday’s Dreamers – Summer Skies (for once I think the English title is much better advised), the second series of the franchise. In particular, the magnificent scenery in this anime has turned heads, but after the initial impact, there are also voices critical of the work’s visual quality.
This is an interesting topic and I think it has some interesting aspects, but first you may wish to familiarise yourself with just how spectacular the backgrounds look (the screens I took here are high quality to emphasise this):
The stills do not do the anime justice – it is actually a lot worse overall than they suggest; the environments are completely static, the attempts to animate things turn out miserably (the animators had particular difficulty with trees by the looks of things), and the characters don’t seem to fit too well into such lush backgrounds, being rather simple in design, and also being none too fluidly animated.
In its defence, there are clearly moments where the characters are supposed to be secondary to the environments they are placed in, but this is not evenly perceptible throughout, I feel.
Regarding the actual content of the anime – seeing as I only watched it to see the animation it is a little unfair of me to comment, but certainly it is an anime which revels in bucolic sentimentality, and thus of little interest to me; and even with the animation it is rather unstimulating.
The consensus (on 2ch at least) seems to be that these backgrounds are little more than post-processed photographs (harshly likened to a trace), though the animators try to play up the amount of work done, saying the photos where only used for “reference”. There is probably much truth to this, since it really does look as if the original photographs are relied completely on.
On balance, it looks as if Someday’s Dreamers has perhaps a unique visual style based on photorealistic backgrounds, but that technically it is none too accomplished, and the overall visual style suffers from a mismatch between stunning backgrounds and disappointing character design.
It would be interesting to see if such lush backgrounds could be combined with more fantastic settings and better animation; if so, I think they would start to come into their own, particularly with environments which could really be gawped at (the works of Tsutomu Nihei spring to my mind, but that is only one example).
My suspicion is that what they have accomplished is too far towards the “apply a Photoshop filter to a photo” end of the scale, so actually creating an original illustration out of photographic elements might not be feasible with this method. What a pleasure it would be to be proven wrong.
Perhaps a more interesting development is evident in a different, if allied, medium: the latest generation of anime styled games.
In reviewing Valkyria Chronicles I was particularly struck with how close the machinima type animation came to traditionally developed animation; it seems within a generation or two of the technology this style of CG animation will have surpassed what can (economically) be accomplished with the traditional methods, which has some potentially interesting implications for the gap between anime as a non-interactive medium and games as an interactive one.
Of course it also has positive implications for the level of resource intensiveness involved in creating anime, which unfortunately tends to impose strong restrictions on the level of scale required to put out a quality product. In short, I would look for any real advances in animation to come from the maturing field of CG animation (whether pre-generated or realtime), which is lately being applied in visual styles more diverse than the previously entirely dominant attempts at photorealism (ala Final Fantasy) or mecha animation.