The reason Japanese anime is receiving international attention in the animation world is not just because of the design sense of the characters or mecha. Rather, the animation technique that brings these concepts to life is a huge factor.
This technique that gives Japanese anime its characteristics is called SAKUGA (作画). Including everything from the production schedule, hand-drawn SAKUGA technique is unique in the animation world. It is SAKUGA that embodies the originality of Japanese anime.
In Japan, animation is evaluated using the expression “good SAKUGA,” which can mean more than just being accurate and detailed, but also having a surprisingly high level of animated quality or expression.
The Japanese animation technique of SAKUGA is explained here.

The Different Stages of SAKUGA

Below are the main roles found in traditional Japanese animation production. Nowadays, due to the mass production of anime, many of these roles have been divided into more specialized roles.

Key Animator (原画 genga)

the animator who draws the layout and key frames for an animation.
SAKUGA (作画) usually refers to the images drawn by the key animators.

Inbetweener (動画 douga)

the one who cleans up the key animator’s drawings and creates the inbetweens that are inserted between key frames. This is called NAKAWARI (中割).

Animation Director (作画監督 sakuga kanntoku)

the supervisor of the key animators for one episode. The animation director is responsible for maintaining quality of the animation and gives instructions to revise the key animators’ characteristic drawing styles in order to fit a set model for the animation.

The animation director draws up a revised version of the key frame on a colored sheet of paper called “revision paper.”

  • A supervisor who is only in charge of characters is known as the Character Animation Director or CHARA-SAKKAN.
  • A supervisor who is only in charge of mechanics is known as the Mechanics Animation Director or MECHA-SAKKAN.
  • A supervisor who is only in charge of special effects is known as the Special Effects Director.

Generally, an animator’s career moves up from inbetweener to key animator to animation director, but this is not always the case. There are people who are talented as inbetweeners or key animators and become well-known professionals within their respective specializations. Thus, as a general rule, roles within production do not necessarily signify hierarchical rank.

The Key Animator’s Job: Creating “SAKUGA”

The key animator’s job is described as follows.

  1. Design and draw the layout based on the instructions in the storyboard. The elements to be animated and the original background picture are color coded, the framework is drawn and the relationship between the camera work and movements of the subjects are determined from start to finish of each cut.
  2. Extract the essence of a movement (of characters, etc.) and draw a key frame for points that are crucial to creating that movement.
  3. Write the “time sheet,” which includes directions for the timing of key frames, insertion of inbetweens, and the shooting procedure for the animation.

The Key Animator’s Individual Style

Generally, the idiosyncrasies and individual style of the key animator are revised and made uniform by the animation director. But there are occasions when the animator’s design and unique movements are adopted without any modifications, even when they differ from the director’s storyboard instructions.
Oftentimes, such decisions are made when the animation director finds the original key animation adds a different appeal to the production.


The 70’s and 80’s were a relatively liberal period for Japanese anime. There were many cases where the personal touches of key animators were broadcasted without any modifications. Particularly in the mecha and special effects field, the amount of time and labor of the SAKUGA was a reason many drawings were left unrevised. As a result, anime fans began to recognize the uniqueness of SAKUGA and came to study and respect the individual style of key animators.

Areas Covered By an Individual Key Animator

In American and European animation companies such as Disney or Les Armateurs, often each key animator is assigned to his or her own character or effect, and therefore several key animators work on a single cut. In contrast, in Japan, a single key animator is allocated work by the cut, and is principally in charge of character animation, as well as effects

For this reason, the animation director must grasp the strengths and weaknesses of each key animator and assign each cut in a way that best demonstrates the animator’s abilities.

For example, the key animators that are skilled at recreating explosions and splashing water will be assigned cuts with more battle scenes and natural phenomena, respectively. Key animators that are proficient at drawing delicate facial expressions are typically assigned dramatic and emotional scenes in which characters express their feelings.
(*In some cases, in order to create a more delicate and precise image, the characters, mecha, and effects are assigned to key animators who specialize in each and the work is divided in a single cut. For CG modeling and digital effects, which are not within SAKUGA, other specializing animators are assigned.)
In this way, the quality of the entire image is raised through increasing the power of each cut and drawing out the key animator’s SAKUGA POWER to its limit.

This is one factor that separates Japanese anime from other the animation of other countries.

Where the Pegs are Located

During the drawing phase, animators work on paper that is fastened with three pegs. In Japan, the peg holes are located at the top of the paper, while the U.S. and Europe use a bottom-peg standard.