Ani-Mania: Discussing Anime as an Art Form

Initially, I’d planned to do a write-up on Mahou Shoujo Puella Magi Madoka Magica, as I finished re-watching it recently. However, since I couldn’t muster up anything, I’ve decided to tackle a subject so surreal it had to be discussed eventually. It effects all of us anime fans, after all, even if not directly. In other words, let’s examine anime as an art style, complete with pointless ramblings and meaningless diatribes from yours truly.

The origins of anime style aren’t entirely clear, but it’s accepted that the current form takes cues from the late-Manga artist Osamu Tezuka. Dubbed “the father of anime”, Tezuka’s to thank for everything from how the studio system is run, to how shows are laid out, to even the designs of the characters. The style’s varied and evolved somewhat over the years, as any lasting art-form does, but the core components have remained relatively close since the 60’s. Why don’t I zero-in on these character designs, and give my two-cents on what they mean to me; after all, they’ve had a profound impact on how I view anime, even as a kid, so what better way to understand them?

Let’s start with the most-recognizable part. Like with real people, you can quickly pick out who a character is/where the character is from, their age, their gender and even their nationality by his or her face. For an adult male, there’s a squared-off jaw and a well-rounded forehead…usually. (Moe and chibi are a bit different, but I’ll get to them later.) The jawline is clearly-defined, the cheeks and temples are squared-off, it’s pretty easy to tell if a character is an adult male. The female adult head is smaller and not as square, but it’s also pretty refined. If you start reversing the ages for males and female, the head looks less and less refined. This is because kids have faces that are still developing, hence they’re pointier, looser-fit and smaller.

I think it’s worth noting a common critique about the homogeneity of the anime head: it generally looks like it’s designed from a cookie-cutter. Western animation does a lot of this too, but at least its styles are varied. Even in different genres, unless-once again-it’s chibi or Moe, anime heads are almost pre-built to fit a mold. This leads to the complaint many Western cartoonists have with anime style: that it’s too similar across the board, making it easy to reproduce.

Surprisingly, I don’t mind. Yeah, a little diversity would be nice, but that doesn’t mean the style is uninspired. With a lot of Western shows, the art isn’t particularly detailed or interesting. Sure, it’s varied, but with that variety comes plenty of genericness and uninteresting design choices. Anime knows what works, so it keeps finding ways to make that feel fresh and interesting. Think Disney Princess, except anime style.

There are also exceptions: chibi, for example, has large, bobble-like heads that are disproportionate in size to everything else, even the adults. It looks weird initially, but I don’t consider it to be any stranger than, say, those bobble-head figures that peopled collect. Moe is also an exception, as all the heads have a uniformly “pudgy” design. They look babyish, which can be more irritating on a personal level than chibi, but even then it has its uses.

As for the facial features, that’s where it gets tricky. Anime favours the “Porcelain Doll” approach when it comes to facial anatomy, so everything is clean. Even an elderly face is relatively wrinkle-free compared to real-life, which strikes me as both logical and disappointing; on one hand, animation is an exaggeration of life, so liberties will be taken with the characters. But, on the other hand, there’s a missed-opportunity in not showing the ruggedness of a face tattered and worn by time, and I think it adds a layer of beauty to a person when he or she ages gracefully. Then again, I’m against having plastic surgery for the sake of maintaining youth, so what do I know?

Anime eyes are interesting. Being a fan of Walt Disney, Tezuka was no stranger to admitting that he incorporated a lot of features of early Disney films and shorts into his work, and this has carried forward in the decades since. The size has varied over time, but anime eyes tend to be big, exaggerated versions of real eyes. Where as real eyes only cover-if I remember correctly-about 1/60 of a person’s face, an anime character’s eyes can span anywhere from ten to twenty times that. This is done to make the characters more expressive, although it can be a little jarring. I remember one of my initial problems with anime, back when I didn’t take it seriously, was that the characters’ eyes were freakishly big. It’s in recent years that I’ve realized that Western animation is guilty of that too, so perhaps it was bias.

The anime nose, honestly, is even more interesting than the eyes. There are exceptions, but it almost seems like it’s been shrinking with each passing decade…at least, from a frontal view. The sides are still noticeable, but at a forward glance it almost looks invisible. Either it’s a small hook, a dot or two, tiny nostrils, never the full nose. If it weren’t for the shadow of the nose, you wouldn’t even know it’s there! You’d think, “What, did the animators give up?” every time you’d see a modern anime face, which is funny and disturbing simultaneously. My theory is that the eyes are slowly swallowing the nose.

Then there’s the mouth. That’s one feature I’ve never understood about anime. Well…that’s not entirely true. I get the whole “lip flaps moving up and down, except when they stretch to the sides” part, that’s obvious: anime is usually drawn before the voices are recorded, so it saves times and energy. The only exceptions are singing and emphasis, but those are rare and far-between. That’s not what confuses me.

No, what I don’t get is the whole “small mouth/big mouth dynamic”, as well as the awkward side-mouth ordeal. Basically, a character’s mouth will open really wide sometimes, but really small others. And when they face to the side, the mouths curl to the side to make it look like nothing’s awkward. Except it is; in fact, if you were to draw the mouth like that constantly, it’d look freaky. And as for the small mouth/big mouth ordeal, can someone please explain the difference?

Anime hair and ears are interesting too, namely because a good chunk of the time they’re covered by the hair and aren’t visible. Which reminds me, does anime hair grow longer? Or is it destined to remain static and unchanged? I know the wind causes it to blow sometimes, which is a detail I’ve always liked, but…um, does it grow? Feel free to address that question in the comments.

While we’re on the subject of hair, what’s with the funky colours? Ignoring the fact that Japanese people really only have shades of black hair, shows taking place in other countries, or dying your hair to suit your personality, what’s with the funky hair colours? Blue, orange, green, pink, purple, the list goes on and no one questions it. It’s as if no one cares! But I care, and until I get my answer I refuse to stop asking! I’d make a remark about the hair overlapping the eyes and eyebrows too, but that’s a stylistic decision.

As far as body parts go, I have two observations that tie into one-another. The first is that anime breasts, most-notably in fan-servicey shows, have a tendency to hang unnaturally from a woman’s chest. I’m not sure if this is to, like I said, attract horny men, but it’s never sat right with me. It’s as if animators are trying to compensate for female breasts being unattractive, except that that’s not true and actually sends a negative message about attractiveness. Besides, have you ever thought of how uncomfortable it’d be for someone with gigantic breasts like that? Men never have to worry about that, so it reeks of double-standards.

Speaking of bizarre, genitalia are almost always censored in Japan, even in pornography. I get why, but the censoring is pretty lazy, with black bars and pixelations covering what are clearly private parts. The exception, again, are breasts. Which also reeks of double-standards, since breasts are no-less attractive than any other private part. Either go all the way with your crappy censoring, or don’t censor at all.

Finally, we get to the two aspects that interest me the most: hands and feet. For reasons that I won’t get into, I was always self-conscious about my hands and feet growing up, so it’s only natural that those would be what I’d gravitate toward first. Hands are pretty simple, in that they’ve always been slender and graceful. The fingers are what’s really evolved, however, going from Tezuka’s original design of short and stubby to the current design of long and fine-tuned. They’ve always looked weird though, especially since real fingers aren’t like that, as I’ve even pictured my own hands looking that way on occasion.

Anime feet, on the other hand, are the opposite: stubby and short. To be honest, they rarely look right anyway. I get why, feet are hard to draw, but it’s always bugged me how they usually look blobby, pinky-toe-ish, Romanized (i.e. arched) or barely even rendered. And the few times they’ve looked good was strictly fan-service. It’s disappointing, as feet, particularly toes, can be equally as expressive as fingers. It’s a real missed opportunity.

Overall, however, the anime figure looks like a romanticized version of reality. Which is fine, but I can’t help wondering if people take that as a sign of true beauty. Because it’s not, anime isn’t real-life. People are beautiful in their own way, much like anime characters, so acknowledging the latter over the former can actually be dangerous. Still, I guess a little bit of anime every-so-often isn’t too harmful-

I’ll stop before I get uncomfortable. In closing, anime characters have their own unique designs. Join me next time as I discuss something more interesting/less bizarre, but for now…go watch some more anime, okay?


Popular Posts