Oddities of the Anime Style

I really like anime. I don’t get to watch it as much as I’d want, due to my finances being sparse, but I still really like it. I even like it enough to overlook some weird details about its style, even though anime’s pretty diverse visually. And so, in a response to this piece I wrote a while back, here are 5 trends about anime’s style that I find bizarre, yet amusing:

1. Side-mouth-I’ll begin with the most bizarre of them all. You ever notice how whenever a character’s head is shown from a side-angle, their mouth is still centred? As in, the animators were careful to get everything else about the head right, yet wanted the mouth to still be noticeable? I see this in cheaply-made action and/or slice-of-life anime, and it’s always made me giggle. Because, when you get down to it, it’s weird to see a mouth contort like that.

I’m sure some of you fail to see the big deal, so think about it this way: take that same face, contorted mouth intact, and flip it so the character’s facing the audience directly. Now have said character speak. It looks weird, no? It looks creepy too, right? People in real-life don’t have mouths that contort like that, so it’s funny to see it done in anime. (Unless you have some kind of condition, in which case…my sympathies.)

This is one of the weird anime-isms that big-budget studios, i.e. Studio Ghibli, buck with their characters. They recognize that in order to properly immerse the audience, the animation has to be believable. It doesn’t have to be truthful, it’s still fiction, but when your character’s talking from a side-angle, their mouth shouldn’t contort. It should be relatively-consistent with the direction the character’s facing. But then again, what do I know? These characters’ mouths generically move up-and-down, which leads to…

2. Mouth flaps-You knew I’d mention this, didn’t you? I’ve not only covered it before in rants about anime dubs, but it’s an easy detail to poke fun at. I get why it’s done: anime’s a cheap art-form, and it saves costs. It’s also one of the reasons why Western animation’s so much more expensive to produce than anime. However, as with side-mouth, it begs the question of whether or not it really makes sense.

Think about it: the typical mouth flap in anime only moves up and down. The exception is that 5-10% of the time when it stretches to the sides like an elastic, and even then only when the character’s singing or emphasizing something important. Alternatively, as in BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad’s case, the characters always talk like that. I dunno, it’s still kinda weird. At least, I think it’s kinda weird.

Fortunately, unlike side-mouth, I can easily adjust. Anime’s still fiction, so characters are granted some level of creative interpretation. I mean, you have loli teenagers who go around fighting giant monsters with the power of love in some of these anime! I can suspend my disbelief about the characters’ mouths if I can accept that, right? Right?!

3. Mouth expansions-Right when you thought it was safe to stop obsessing about mouths, here I come with yet another complaint! (Don’t worry, this is the last time you’ll hear me complain about this.) Ever notice how anime characters’ mouths grow really big when they’re excited or happy? Like, to an unreasonable degree? Isn’t that a little off-putting? I think so!

It’s strange that expanded mouths are what bother me so much, isn’t it? I mean, side-mouth? It’s weird to see that contortion, but I can live with it. Lip flaps only moving up-and-down? Again, weird to see, but I can live with it. But mouth expansions pull me from the experience?!

That last question was a tad hyperbolic, I won’t lie. But I can’t help finding it weird how characters’ mouths, even in high-end films, expand like that. Wouldn’t that hurt in real-life? I know that anime’s not real, but…wouldn’t it hurt anyway? Because it absolutely hurts to look at!

4. Invisible noses-Moving on from the mouth, let’s focus on the mysterious case of the anime nose. Why’s it mysterious? Because it’s non-existent from a certain angle. The rest of the facial features are present, mind you, but the nose? It’s present when the character’s face is sideways, but when facing straight…it’s nowhere to be found. Unless you’d consider a small dot between the eyes and mouth a nose, I’m not sure.

This one’s less a function of budget and/or laziness, and more the evolution of the art-style. Believe it or not, there was a time, way back in the 70’s and 80’s, when the anime nose was clearly defined. Over time, however, the nose became less and less obvious as the face became more stylized and detailed, to the point where, by the 2000’s, it was nowhere to be found. Strange, huh?

To be fair, the anime nose is still visible in some anime genres. Shonen and Seinen have actually enhanced it via shadows and shading. This is especially apparent in the Fullmetal Alchemist franchise, where the noses on characters, particularly adults, are so noticeable that it’s easy to get distracted by them and wonder if they’re part of the characters themselves, or a character on their own. If you want proof, watch any clip and argue otherwise. I dare you!

5. Manga Iconography-Now we go full-circle from a rant that I wrote a while back. While I’ve warmed up ever-so-slightly to Manga Iconography, to the point of accepting that it exists, it still creeps me out to see it in comedy. The human body and/or face is already pretty expressive, it doesn’t need to be overdrawn for laughs. I’d argue that smart animators can milk laughs without Manga Iconography, but who am I talk? I can’t even write a novel without getting frustrated.

It wouldn’t even weird me out if the Manga Iconography used made sense visually. Some of it I sorta understand, like spiralled eyes symbolizing dizziness or fatigue, but alligator fangs? A swelled head? Off-model running? Who comes up with this, and can I have some of what they’re smoking?

I think the worst is when movies, like Mamoru Hosoda’s earlier work, use Manga Iconography. Because while it might be “endearing” on some level in TV anime, it’s also a time-saver. Movies, which have bigger budgets and higher expectations automatically, shouldn’t be employing these time-savours. If you have to cut corners, why not scale-back a bit on the insanely-detailed character models? So long as your characters are aesthetically-pleasing, it won’t matter in the grand scheme.

And there you have it: 5 bizarre design choices in anime. If you’ll excuse me, I have to contort my exaggerated mouth that only moves up-and-down to the side of my face while searching for my non-existent nose and wondering my eyes are spiralled from fatigue.


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