Wakfu: French Animation, Japanese Style

by tigermanifesto


Because anime is my partner’s main field of academic study, we have lots of lengthy discussions about it. Anything from its link with Japanese power projection to subculture formation and, of course, aesthetics, might pop up in these conversations. One of the more fascinating talks we’ve had recently was sparked by a curiosity we found on Netflix. Wakfu is a French show produced by Ankama Animation, the TV production arm of Ankama Games, which produces the MMORPG on which the program is based. Though I want to mostly discuss the spinoff special episode directed by Eunyoung Choi and featuring the design talents of Masaaki Yuasa, a bit of background on the show itself is in order. That will be the content of this post, while Choi’s “Noximillien” special will be the topic of the next one.

As mentioned, Wakfu is based on an MMORPG of the same name, which was published in 2011. The game adopts the aesthetics of Japanese animation and an isometric camera perspective. Its setting liberally mixes anime and Western fantasy tropes––swords and sorcery, anachronistic technology, a smattering of humanoid fantasy races, etc.––and all of it is rendered in Adobe Flash. Unlike many shows that use the venerable animation software, however, Wakfu has a fairly appealing look. Animation is not the most fluid, and tends to flitter around awkwardly, something I know from experience is difficult to avoid when animating in Flash. Overall, however, the production quality is respectable despite an often dissonant English dub job. I’m not sure if I’ll be finishing the show and don’t have much to say about its story or characters, at least not after just two episodes and the special. To tell the truth, the show feels fairly generic and uninteresting at this point. However, there are larger issues of context and aesthetics I thought worth exploring.

The United States is no stranger to television shows that lift anime aesthetics, and often narrative conventions, wholesale. Avatar and its successor Korra are the most prominent examples, with numerous others borrowing elements to a greater or lesser extent. France has also produced a couple of shows in this vein, including the off-kilter Totally Spies, a strange teen-girl filtering of spy movie clichés that miraculously ran for six seasons and cultivated a global fan following. Wakfu, because its premise was generated from a role-playing game, hews closely not just to anime as an aesthetic but to a particular brand of adventure fantasy that appears in both shonen––young boys’––manga and anime and related media, especially video games.

Anime itself, in its infancy, derived from artist Osamu Tezuka’s melding of Japanese visual art conventions with the style of Walt Disney’s animated films. Huge expressive eyes and rounded features defined much of this look, and though the Disney influence has been diluted throughout the decades, Tezuka’s role in creating anime itself, the production industry, and the markets to which it caters still retains considerable influence. Japan’s ballooning postwar economic expansion and large domestic population provided a material basis for the creation of a powerful animation industry.

Combined with an increasing international profile sparked by American fear and admiration of its state-corporate economic model in the 1970s and 80s and the proliferation of VHS and other recorded means of copying and distributing media cheaply, fan subcultures in the West sprouted up. These eventually provided the energies and target market for a whole Western industry importing and translating Japanese comics, television, and, more rarely, theatrical film. Eventually, American and other Western production firms attempted to capitalize on this perceptibly growing fanbase by creating animation that looked Japanese but wasn’t, and therefore could be more precisely controlled and pitched to young audiences in the United States and Europe. As mentioned earlier, their efforts have produced some notable successes.

What Wakfu is doing, therefore, is creating another Westernized iteration of a Japanese cultural form. I previously compared this wave of borrowing from Japan in Western animation to the nineteenth century vogue for Japonisme in painting. There are a few issues here worth commenting on.

  1. Anime’s Cultural Portability: It’s often remarked that human beings in anime often appear European despite being in most cases Japanese characters. There are representations of specifically racialized subjects in anime, often just as embarrassing and stereotyped as early American animation––but for the most part human beings appear light skinned with large eyes. This does not indicate that they were meant to be perceived as European, and in fact it’s usually easy to tell when an animation from Japan wants you to know that a character is, for example, an American. But the lack of specificity inherent in the art form, the ability of Euro-American, Japanese, and French audiences to immediately identify with the characters in anime probably contributes to its exportability and flexibility.
  2. Anime’s Origins as an Import: As mentioned, the aesthetic seeds of manga and anime are both native to Japan, in particular the thriving modern commercial art scene in Edo and Meiji era Japanese cities, and to American animation. In fact, much of Japanese modern culture was imported or even imposed “from above” in order to modernize the country as quickly as possible and help to “catch up” with the core capitalist countries. Nevertheless, the strength of Japan as an empire, a colonial power, and a capitalist country in its own right allowed it––contrary to most other nonwhite nations––to manage this “catching up” and to subject it to its own interests. Now, it is even able to project its own cultural values and brands into the rest of the world.
  3. Wakfu as a Domestic French Production: As a final note,we should recognize that, with the exception of the Choi episode that will be the topic of the next post, the entirety of Wakfu was produced in France, which is not even true of most American productions that outsource the more tedious labour to South Korean or other SE Asian countries. Whatever the debts it owes to the anime tradition, it remains a thoroughly and specifically French creation, one that, like Tezuka, borrows what it likes from another country’s traditions while subjecting these aspects to domestic needs. The quality of the show aside––on which I am not decided––it represents one of the stranger symptoms of capitalism’s extension and autonomous development in Japan.