COME ON AND SLAM, AND WELCOME TO THE KJAM
(For maximum effect, listen to your Quad City DJs remix of choice as you read. Or you could try today’s recommendation!)
illegenes: I mean, forget about calling K the Guilty Crown of the season – a title I’d still place on SAO‘s head rather than this one’s. K is a hilarious, oversaturated mess. But it’s great! We’ve got skateboarders! Loli girls! Naked cat girls! Gang wars with the police which include (but are not exclusive to) giant swords in the sky! And a lot of bishounens! K stands for Kool. With Kool Aid colors – it’s a shame though, that while K strives to be something different in the animation area, it mostly fails (yes, it sometimes succeeds). Why? Let’s take a look at the understanding of color mechanics.
The world of color is vast and brilliant as it is beautiful – color is the ultimate tool in animation, as it gives not only the atmosphere nor depth of a scene or the surroundings, but can often be used as a medium for storytelling and symbology. To understand how color works, then, is important. Color can be separated into four areas: hue, saturation, temperature and value. Hue is range of color on the color spectrum: from a red-orange to a yellow-green to a purple-blue. Hue is what makes the possibilities of color mixing endless. Saturation is a change in contrast – the more saturated a color is, the more vibrant and contrasted it is. Contrast is the difference between light and dark; thus, in having a saturated color, you lose neutrality, but gain ‘blacker blacks’ and ‘whiter whites’. Temperature is defined by color families and groups. Warm colors, like red, orange, and yellow, are paired together while blue, green, and purple are also paired together under the cool color group. Lastly is value. Value is the shade of color used. The value of a color can range from the ‘lightest’ shade – such as a pale, sky blue – to the ‘darkest’ shade, such as navy blue. Value is important in that it gives a field of vision and depth to any 2D object. In using all of these four elements, color can define the composition of a painting (or animated scene) through rhythm, emphasis, variance, and harmonization.
So now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at the use of foreground, midground, and background, which are elements to cover a three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional platform. Foreground is what appears closest to us, background is what appears to be the most distant, and midground is of course, in between. In combining all three on a flat surface, you can create all sorts of interesting angles of depth and perspective.
At this point, you’re probably asking: How is this all related to K?
The problem with K is this: it establishes no harmonization, no rhythm and emphasis. It is a variance of greens and blues (with an occasional purple) but nothing else. As such, the foreground and background are skewed and distorted with. You see the color wheel up there? K is restricted to the blues, violets and cyan-greens. There’s no warm color anywhere.
But wait, Natasha! That’s monochrome! Ah, you’re mistaken. Monochrome is where a single color is used as a base and the value is played around with (see: the American cover of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix). What K works with is analogous color. Basically, it picks three-four colors that are all next to each other on the color wheel and uses the same amount of saturation and brightness for those colors. This isn’t always a bad idea, but analogous colors should only be used when one color is dominant and the rest of the colors act as buffers – to downplay and create contrast, variance, rhythm and emphasis. Unfortunately, this is where K gets it wrong. It uses the same range everywhere to the point where it’s because there’s no warm colors, or proper use of value, which ultimately results in no balance. The only way to see this is for some screencap comparison, so let’s take a look at Guilty Crown, which also is notable for its saturated colors, obsession with vibrant blues, and use of value.
In the final episode of Guilty Crown (spoilers?) there’s a lot of blue used. We can compare of how the hues and saturation is manipulated to give this effect:
As well as this one:
Both caps are blue. The first one can be noted for its saturation, which creates some decent contrast and emphasis of color. The second cap is also blue, but is in deeper value and thus denotes the change in atmosphere as well as lack of contrast (there’s a lot of neutrality as nearly everything is the same shade of blue, without saturation). The foreground stands out from the background. Why is this? Guilty Crown does not restrict itself to analogous color, but plays with temperature – in other words, color groups. It’s because of this that it can mess around with different color palettes that are dynamic and create a unique atmosphere.
In K however, the same shade, saturation, hue are used in both the foreground and background, which are, well, the same. There’s no variety. In a show that is obviously trying to do something different, and boast about it, you’d think approach would have an equal emphasis as technique, but K forgets that: it just focuses on the technique without understanding the basics. And thus, you have something like this:
As said before, the hue, saturation, value and temperature of the foreground as well as the background are almost the exact same. The same palette is used throughout, even for exploring different parts of the city. There are no buffer colors to support the saturated cyan-greens and vivid blues. Even the darker shades are still contrasted, lacking neutrality. There’s no balance, and it’s not even in terms of shading either – no reds or yellows are mixed in to soften the bleeding effect. The result? A lot of blue, but a lack of dynamic atmosphere (and a little bit of your eyes hurting).
The problem doesn’t stop here, though: the saturation that floods throughout every scene is also sometimes misused. Even when the colors are saturated, the contrast (remember how I talked about whites being whiter and blacks being blacker?) is dimmed, which results in a lot of tacky visuals.
The reason for this is simple: a budget constraint. Using plenty of colors which are splayed across every frame in a 25 minute show costs a lot. By dimming the whites, you’re making your show less expensive. The darker the color scheme is, the less pixels used. And in a show where everything else is extremely contrasted, scenes like this really show out for the worse.
But! Despite having a difficult time with color schemes, K does get some things right. On a different level with aesthetics, K actually succeeds. Two areas which came off as especially strong to me were camera angles and a detailed background of the city life and mechanics. How about that fish-eye take? What about the fact that the show can actually control the amount of blur and slow motion used in fight scenes? How about the designs of the train system? What about instilling city life into the atmosphere without making ever scene feeling cluttered and useless? What about the amazing detail of the city itself – from the vending shops to the skyscrapers? K obviously has plenty of creative output: it’s just about making sure that creative output is consistent and is spread across all elements equally.
So all in all, what does this amount to? K misunderstands color fundamentals, but also has a tough handle on its budget because it’ll spend a lot of money on creating a 10 second fish-eye visual at the cost of dimming some of the only non-blue scenes in the episode. This is of course, the first episode, but in anime, where pilot episodes are aimed to be aesthetically pleasing and hook us on the spot, K on one side messes up quite spectacularly. On the other side though, it manages to experiment with camera angles, effectively experimenting with visuals as it strives to be different. The special effects are used properly and the animation itself doesn’t lose consistency anywhere in the entire episode. The question is, does it really separate itself as something completely new? That’s something we can only answer with later installments. Let’s just hope for now, that K doesn’t bite off more than it can chew, on both a visual and story-wise level.
wendeego: Say what you want about K, but there’s no mistaking its ambitions. This is a show with a distinct visual identity that knows exactly what it wants to be: everything. Just about every popular anime trope of the past few years, ranging from secret organizations to psychic powers to bishonens and scantily clad women, is mashed together into a bonanza of original content that’s almost too generous in giving the audience what they want. It’s an obvious attempt at a crossover hit: episodes are streaming simultaneously on Animax as they release in Japan, and the show’s steeped in the same jazzy, Western vibe that informs the work of popular directors such as Shinichiro Watanabe (of Bebop and Champloo fame.) It would be tempting to group it together into the same made-by-committee field most recently occupied by Guilty Crown, but what K has that Guilty Crown lacks is a free spirit. To put it simply, K is an anime so packed with tropes and experimental animation and attitude with a capital A that it only could have come from a gang of very talented creative minds who believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing. That is the show’s greatest strength, but paradoxically, it’s also its greatest weakness.
Simply put, the little things K does right are almost completely negated by the bigger things it does wrong. Natasha already pointed out earlier how even though K gets its cool bits of experimental animation down, coupled with some really nifty and imaginative fight scenes, it screws up something as basic as its own color palette. It’s the same on a story level: some of the individual bits and pieces are great, but the greater picture is skewed. One of the most common things I’ve heard from fans of K is that the opening of the episode does a fantastic job of “showing, not telling”–that is, delivering an enormous amount of information through inference and background detail rather than through expository dialogue or narration. This is true, to an extent. Much of the first episode has very little dialogue at all, but despite this a lot of the details of the plot and setting are either understandable or easily guessed from the hints given. By the end of this first episode, we know that a metaphysical war is being waged in the city by opposing gangs, that a police force of sorts is attempting to stem violence on both sides, and that a school-kid (or is he?) named Shiro is caught up in the middle of it.
The problem is that while the general outline of the plot is apparent, the motivations of the characters are vague. By the end of this episode, we’re been given an enormous cast of cool-looking characters to keep track of, but we don’t understand any of them. Even Shiro, who the viewer is presumably supposed to identify with, is completely opaque. “But that’s supposed to be a mystery!” you might say. “They’ll explain all of this later, for certain.” But the thing is that when it comes down to it, K isn’t a mystery series. Shin Sekai Yori is a mystery series, and while that show has pretty weak character development thus far it’s given a bit of a reprieve by the fact that its sense of atmosphere, one of the most important aspects of its chosen genre, are top-notch. On the other hand, K is a straight-forward blockbuster, and there’s an assumption with these kinds of stories that you should be able to empathize with at least some of the cast. To take an example from what is probably one of K’s great inspirations: Baccano! keeps its cards very close to its chest in the opening episodes, but its cast is immediately distinct and understandable from the get-go. K’s plot works superficially, as a promising arena for various bishonen to do battle in. But the actual, bona-fide storytelling in itself is remarkably sloppy.
With the anime industry in the state that it is (see: WHO IS IMOUTO, etc.) it’s tempting to pounce on shows like K that try and overpower the viewer through sheer charisma. I don’t think K is a good show at the moment, but it certainly thinks it’s a good show, and it carries itself well enough that maybe most of its viewers won’t care. It’s built out of the spare parts of enough other shows your typical anime fan might recognize as “good” that it might be able to keep this act going for a while. But when it comes down to it, the fact remains that a gang of very talented creative minds who believed wholeheartedly in what they were doing made an anime, and that anime was K: a shamelessly derivative tale of urban warfare fought by boy bands with psychic powers. I respect the obvious love and dedication that K’s creators have put into this show. But wouldn’t it be great if instead of choosing to retread material already worn into the ground this past decade, GoHands threw everything to the wind and chose to make something legitimately new? I’d love it if K surprised me, but at the moment I honestly doubt it has that tool in its arsenal.