ThunderCats and the impact of Japanese animation on film

The ThunderCats opening, Ryan argues, is one of the best pieces of animation ever. Here's how it predates modern, CGI action scenes...

The introduction to the original 1980s ThunderCats TV series is one of the greatest pieces of animation ever produced.

Take a look at it again: the speed, the fluidity, the colour. How the movements flow into the music. The way the animators have gone for visual impact rather than storytelling logic. For the kids sitting in front of the television watching ThunderCats for the first time, who didn’t yet know who Cheetara or Lion-O or Mumm-Ra were, this opening sequence was simply an assault of back-flipping muscular bodies and flashing lights.

You don’t have to know exactly who the ThunderCats are – all that matters is that they look heroic and cool. You can tell who the villains are because they’re all amphibious and boggle-eyed where the heroes are feline and poised. Look: the heroes have their own fortress which also resembles  a cat.

The villains live in some sort of dank, benighted pyramid where a gigantic, muscular hooded corpse comes lurching out of the shadows and starts screaming directly into our faces. You can tell the corpse is evil because of all the lightning and yelling.   

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ThunderCats first aired in 1985, a period where it was common for American children’s shows to have at least some of their animation farmed out to Japan. The original 1984 Transformers series, for example, was brought to life by Toei,  a studio which had already animated such domestic hits as Devilman and Mazinger by the middle of the 80s. Lesser-known US series The Centurions was animated by Tokyo’s Sunrise Inc.

ThunderCats was created by Tobin Wolf and Leonard Starr, while its animation was handled by Rankin/Bass Productions – a company which often collaborated with Japanese animators when making its numerous TV shows and features. The 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn may have featured an American story and a western voice cast, but it was drawn and painted by Topcraft, the studio that animated Nausicaa Of The Valley Of The Wind with director Hayao Miyazaki that same year.

Like just about every animated TV show from the time, ThunderCats‘ opening sequence provided a shop window for the next 20 minutes or so. And, like rival series He-Man, ThunderCats was a collision of sci-fi and fantasy – a good-versus-evil battle between the agile heroes (Lion-O, Cheetara, Panthro, Tygra and so on) and the Mutants of Plundarr. The intro also featured the requisite anthemic theme-tune, this one written by Bernard Hoffer. 

Whether they were for Ulysses 31 or Jem And The Holograms, these opening sequences were vital for capturing kids’ attention. Often, they presented a level of action and energy that could only be hinted at in the body of the show itself – with animation being such an expensive medium, the makers of these series simply couldn’t afford to show endless scenes of explosions and mayhem. To save costs, excessive character movement had to be kept to a minimum, while cunning techniques like looping cycles of frames – or, cheaper still, panning the camera across a static image – were often employed.

These opening sequences, on the other hand, gave animators the opportunity to let their imaginations run riot. A distillation of a show’s purest essence, their brevity allowed for the kinds of swooping movements and wild angles that simply wouldn’t have been achievable in the quickly-produced, low-cost world of animated TV shows.

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As a showcase for pure technique, the original ThunderCats opening is arguably the best of its era. You only have to look at its pedigree to see why: it was animated by TopCraft, a studio which created the aforementioned Nausicaa and contributed to the likes of Lensman, the Macross movie Do You Remember Love and Gatchaman (better known here as Battle Of The Planets) before its closure in 1986. 

As ThunderCats producer Ethan Spaulding pointed out in an interview with MTV, the show has a surprising, little-known link to Studio Ghibli – one of Japan’s most respected animation studios and the home of Spirited Away and Totoro genius Hayao Miyazaki.

“The original show was done in Japan, and many people probably don’t know that,” Spaulding told MTV. “A lot of the artists went on to be in Studio Ghibli, and worked on [Hayao] Miyazaki’s first film. So ThunderCats does have a footprint in Japanese animation.”

Among the animators who worked on the ThunderCats opening was Masayuki Yamaguchi, whose other credits reads like a tick-list of the best anime of the 80s and 90s. Highlights include the cult classics Gunbuster and Doomed Megalopolis, three Evangelion movies, the Fist Of The North Star TV series, odd-ball comedy Project A-Ko and the beautifully-made space drama The Wings Of Honneamise.

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Another animator on the intro was Tsuguyuki Kubo, who came up with ThunderCats‘ character designs and would later go on to become animation director on Naruto and Bleach. With talent behind that working behind the scenes, it becomes clear that the ThunderCats opening sequence is something more than disposable kiddie-fodder.

“But wait,” you may be thinking. “One of the best pieces of animation ever produced. Really? Does it really stack up against the best of Disney, Studio Ghibli, Winsor McCay, the Fleischer brothers, Bob Godfrey, Ralph Bakshi, Don Bluth, Chuck Jones or Sylvain Chomet?”

In its own way, I’d argue that it does – and for two reasons. Number one: pure technique. A level of care and pure love has gone into this 70-second scene that only becomes clear when you start to look at individual frames. If you don’t believe me, head to YouTube and watch the opening again at the slowest possible speed. Only then can you start to see some of the stunning moments that only appear on the screen for a fraction of a second: the look of panic on a mutant’s face as it passes by the camera in extreme close-up. 

The riot of colour that splashes across the screen as WilyKat throws one of his tiny explosive charges directly at our faces. 

These touches weren’t put in because they were mandated by a committee of people in suits – they were drawn and painted because the artists wanted to create something cool-looking. Every bolt of lightning and wisp of smoke was placed there with the knowledge that 99 percent of the audience would never even notice them; the artists created them anyway because they wanted to.

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Then we come to reason number two: the ThunderCats intro does things that simply weren’t achievable in any other medium, and were barely considered by other animators outside Japan. When western animators dealt with movement and flow in hand-drawn animation, it often involved dancing, running or flight. Animators at Disney or other American or European studios seldom dealt with the kind of kinetic, explosive action more widely seen in anime.

Nor did western animation tend to have the camera moving in and out of a scene with the fluidity of the piece we’re discussing here. Consider the Night On Bald Mountain scene from Disney’s Fantasia, which is perhaps one of the most fascinating pieces of American animation of its time.

Its animators deal with intense contrasts of light and dark, using a mixture of techniques to create something genuinely spectral and eerie. But notice how the camera moves: the motion of the characters is astonishing, yet the camera remains largely static, only occasionally moving across or zooming in slightly on the action. It’s a convention which remained intact for much of western animation through the 20th century, partly due to tradition, and partly because creating such movement with hand-drawn animation was so expensive. When you’re shifting the perspective of an entire scene, everything has to be redrawn in every frame – a time-consuming and technically difficult process.

In Japan, animators generally draw fewer frames per second than Disney – the movie Akira being a notable exception – which means they sacrifice a little smoothness for greater mobility. This is all there on the screen in the ThunderCats opening. For a crude sake of comparison, take a look at the action scene below from Disney’s The Black Cauldron – a film released in 1985, the very year ThunderCats first aired.

The fluidity of the animation is undeniable, particularly compared to ThunderCats. But look again at the shading and the way the characters move through the scenes – look at how the backgrounds and the camera remains static as the hero rushes across them. Now look again at the ThunderCats intro from about 30 second onwards: it’s rougher-edged, but the camera’s constantly moving, the perspective shifting on a dime from close-up to long shot.

At 36 seconds, we’re introduced to Cheetara. We start with a first-person view as the camera rumbles across a rocky battlefield towards a group of clashing goodies and baddies. The shot moves seamlessly to a side-view of Cheetara hurtling through the skirmish, striking mutants to her left and right. The heroine then takes to the sky, and the camera follows her as she performs an effortless backflip… 

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This isn’t the typical language of action cinema, or even typical animation techniques as developed by those pioneers in early 20th century America, but one partly inspired by manga and comics, and ultimately given a life of its own by Japanese animators in the 70s and 80s. It’s the kind of action that would only become possible in live-action cinema in the late 1990s, when such directors as the Wachowskis borrowed the imagery of manga, anime and Hong Kong martial arts cinema to create The Matrix.

That film’s then-revolutionary bullet-time technique, which allowed the camera to dance around and through characters in slow-motion, was already being explored in Japanese animation well over a decade before The Matrix emerged in 1999. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that the style of anime has inspired an entire generation of filmmakers since; in the likes of The Avengers and now Captain America: Civil War, we’re used to having seamless cuts, long takes and rapid-fire editing in our action movies. Back in 1985, this kind of thing was unheard of.

The advent of CGI means we now take fast-paced, assaultive battle sequences for granted. Even some bigger-budget TV ads now look like Hollywood action films. Yet long before the computer-enhanced sparkle of modern superhero movies, I’d argue that 70s and 80s anime provided the blueprint, the rough sketch, that later filmmakers would follow. Above all, I like to think of a generation of young directors and CG artists sitting in front of their boxy televisions, mesmerised by the ThunderCats intro, its colour and movement subtly burning itself onto their youthful imaginations.