That Darn Iconography!

Last time, I mentioned how anime was great at depicting injuries. In doing so, I unintentionally slandered Western animation’s reputation. To compensate for that, I’ve decided to discuss something about anime that I can’t stand. I’ve been meaning to for years now, yet have kept hitting roadblocks along the way. And since this isn’t easy to discuss, I ask for forgiveness in advance if I’m a little disjointed.

Anyway, I loathe Manga Iconography.

I assume most of you have no idea what I’m talking about, so I’ll explain:

To give context, Manga Iconography has been around for a while. Like Gekiga, (or realism, which has also been around for a while,) Manga Iconography is a style taken from, you guessed it, Manga itself. It consists of quick, jerky and reflexive expressions that convey visual comedy, and it’s used in genres like comedy, action and slice-of-life. It’s also, being a cheap method of animating facial expressions, really popular, particularly in anime shows.

You already know what Manga Iconography looks like. You’ve seen it frequently in anime, even if you’re not aware. And even if you’re aware, you’re probably not sure what it’s called. You probably think it’s “how anime is in general”, and you “never question it because that’s the style”. But if you’re still confused, not only has TV Tropes compiled a list, but I can even give you a few examples from the top of my head:
  • Large sweat drops when the characters are unsure of what to say.
  • Fanged teeth when the characters are angry.
  • Pupil-less eyes when the characters are dumbfounded.
  • Forehead bulges when the characters are frustrated.
  • Eye swirls when the characters are dizzy.
  • Tear fountains when the characters are over-exaggerating their crying.
  • Nosebleeds when the characters are aroused.
Need I continue?

I haven’t even begun listing half the examples of regularly used Manga Iconography because, well, I’m not sure how to describe them all. They’re simply weird styles of expression Japanese animators use to make otherwise serious moments lighthearted and silly. What could’ve been a real moment of remorse instead becomes a moment of comedy. What could’ve been a real moment of anger instead becomes a moment of comedy. What could’ve been a real moment of confusion instead becomes a moment of comedy. And what could’ve been a real moment of dizziness instead becomes, you guessed it, a moment of comedy.

And, quite frankly, I’m sick and tired of it being so overused. To better understand why that is, take dizziness. The Manga Iconography route would have the character’s eyes swirl rapidly, except the swirls would be literal, not figurative. They’d look like real swirls for the character’s eyes, in other words. The character would either shake off the swirls, or would sit there dazed until someone came to his or her rescue. Basically, the purpose of those swirls is to get a laugh, and if timed correctly it might be successful.

Now, let’s reimagine dizziness realistically. The eyes would still be there, but they might swirl slowly in circles. The character would feel light-headed. He or she might collapse and bump into something on the way down. If timed right, it can even get a laugh or two. But, most importantly, it’ll look like genuine confusion. And for someone like myself, that genuine confusion makes a difference.

Okay, that’s not the best example. After all, dizziness is rarely funny when drawn realistically, it’s a matter of timing and staging. But the point remains: the better the reaction looks, the more believable it is. The more believable it is, the greater the level of immersion. Because, like with injuries, animation is largely about immersion. It’s a visual, moving art, after all, so it has to be. But since that immersion is reliant on believability, then it makes sense that the characters be believable too; after all, what good is a character who can’t sell emotions?

The additional downside to Manga Iconography is that it robs the character of his or her, or its, natural expressiveness. Because the face is naturally expressive and meant to create connections with others. By using Manga Iconography, you’re removing that natural expressiveness and replacing it with something foreign, something alien, something that requires context to understand. I don’t need context to know that a scratch on someone’s face means injury, but I do need context to understand fanged teeth or swirled eyes.

I’ve heard the argument that anime adapted this from Manga. Which makes sense with the whole “Manga” part, but here’s the problem: anime isn’t Manga. I’ll repeat that for emphasis: anime isn’t Manga. It’s a different medium, complete with different rules, advantages and limitations. In Manga, you’re dealing with still images that don’t support movement, hence the need for the iconography. But in anime, a visual medium complete with actual movement, it’s unnecessary. You can experiment with fluidity of action, so the iconographic aspect is moot and distracting to the eye.

Then there’s the issue of Manga Iconography being a lazy way of selling emotions. After all, it’s cheap to draw, and anime is budget and time-constrained, so it saves energy. But if anime is so time and budget-constrained, then why is every anime character so detailed? Doesn’t it make more sense to scale back the detail and focus on the believability of the characters’ faces and actions? This bothered me even when I was younger and didn’t understand what anime was: why spend so much time on a character’s buckles and whistles, and yet so little time on his or her reactions?

Of course, you could argue that Western animation uses some variant of this iconography in its shows and movies. And yes, that’s true, but there’s a difference: it’s infrequent and flows better. It never gets in the way of realistic character expressions because of the fluidity of the animation. That’s not to say that I like any more, I don’t, but at least it’s not distracting like it is in anime.

Remember, immersion and believability go hand-in-hand, something Western animation understands. No budget for fluid facial expressions? Scale back. That’s why so many Western cartoons look so cheap, yet flow so well: the animators understand the need for real body movement and believable faces. That’s not laziness, it’s being smart.

But many people like Manga Iconography enough to support it, so what do I know? It’s not like Japan will listen to me. And it’s not like I’m fully against the concept, as it can work in shows that are strictly about weird gags (see Ouran High School Host Club, for instance.) For the most part, however, especially in worlds relying so heavily on realistically-drawn characters, it’s jarring and takes me out of the experience to see a character oversell a reaction, i.e. overact, for laughs.

I guess that, in the grand scheme, it’s not such a big deal. Animation is animation, cheap or not, West or East, and I guess I have to put up with Manga Iconography. Which I have, to an extent. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, as I’ve slowly come to recognize that immersion is as much about writing as it is fluidity of movement. But that’s not to say that it doesn’t still bother me, because it does. I only wish it bothered enough other people that something could actually be done about it…


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