What Sakugabooru isn’t

Pic not related, but cool (Dangaioh, 1987)

Sakugabooru unquestionably stands among the good things which’ve emerged in anime talk since I started watching. These days, even non-specialists use it: people like me, who aren’t sakuga fans. This fact is a credit to the site and to the team who run it. They have a Patreon. I subscribe myself.

With a wider audience, though, comes a greater risk of misunderstandings. I’ve learned a little more about Sakugabooru recently—all those long days indoors, see?—and I thought I might try to offer some notes for inexpert, lay viewers like me.

As with any body of preserved works, one can usefully ask what the selection criteria are. As an experiment, why don’t you go to the site now and track them down?

Have you tried? If you did, you’ll have seen that there’re none overtly stated. This has advantages! I genuinely don’t point this out as a criticism. Collection sans overt criteria might offer a sensible route forward for a fan-led effort. No doubt establishing any overt criteria would prove fiendishly difficult, to say nothing of then using them in practice.

Non-experts should note the implications, though. When visiting the site, we access what has been found, submitted, and approved in a black-box process. What’s available on Sakugabooru is shaped by uploaders’ choices of what to study, and what to upload, and by moderators’ choices about what counts as notable.

You can’t necessarily expect to trace an animator’s career through every sequence they’ve done by checking Sakugabooru, and the sequences present for a particular anime don’t necessarily cover all the notable pieces of animation in that title.

When we visit, we don’t access:

  • an archive of all of an animator’s works
  • an archive of all the animation which might be in some way noteworthy
  • an archive of all the things which look good in animation without necessarily being good animation in the narrow sense (an idea I should really expand on, one of these days)
  • even, necessarily, a representative sampling.

As a result, among other things, the site to some extent shares anime fans’ general tilt towards the present and away from the past. Our focus on the present cuts across different types of interest, and affects those who study animation closely just as much as anyone else.

We might note in passing some more conceptual knots.

First, uploaders can cut frames or even entire shots from sequences. Perfectly good reasons can justify this—it can help to hone a clip down to exemplify one particular person’s work, for instance—but it does add another layer between us and the animation in its original context.

Second, the site’s tags do not map one-to-one onto reality in some neat way. (What could?) Someone who’s not very clued-up, someone like me, can easily take these things as rigid markers. But they represent concepts other humans created to interpret the world.

Consider ‘character_acting’ vs ‘fighting’. On the one hand, there’s a contingent of anime viewers who focus on fighting to the exclusion of character acting. On the other hand, a contingent who (if you ask me) over-prize quiet scenes, refusing to grasp that sometimes a quiet thing is not subtle, but boring.

Synthesis: worthwhile fighting is character acting; anyone who has watched good action filmmaking without prejudice knows this. Maybe, then, character acting isn’t so different from fighting, too.

Take a further step back: ‘character’ doesn’t exist. Craftspeople designed these artifices to do things in an audience’s heads, and I don’t see that to understand animation we need the present-day idea of fictional character, derived from eighteenth-century dramaturgy and nineteenth-century realist fiction. There are, after all, plenty of worthwhile pieces of animation which have no characters. And just think for a moment on the implications of calling it ‘acting’! Are we clear on who’s doing the acting here?

Of course, these terms work. We know (say) fighting when we see it. I don’t suggest that we retire them. I wouldn’t dare suggest that from my ignorance even if I thought we should. That these words and phrases to some extent create the things they seek to order doesn’t mean they actively betray us. I simply suggest we remember that they’re creative, not simply reactive.

Third and last, this all raises a question: who is Sakugabooru for? Dedicated sakuga fans? Unknowing passers-by like me? (I grin at my initially thoughtless use of the lay–clerical metaphor above, in my third paragraph.) Animators? For all these and more, one hopes, but as the site grows in reach it might have to negotiate some tensions between the interests of these groups.

* * *

In writing this out, I certainly don’t mean to say that Sakugabooru is bad, or that its team should organise it differently. In any case, it’s their site, and their rules apply. Goodness knows I couldn’t set up an animation repository, let alone face the thankless task of moderating it. But those of us who don’t cultivate animation expertise should bear in mind that Sakugabooru is like any other exercise in human collection and categorisation.

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