That Little Something About Anime You Can’t Put Your Finger On

This writer was introduced to anime in the mid-1970s via an afternoon TV show known as Star Blazers. I and my siblings would rush home from school and park ourselves in front of the TV to catch the latest episode. Even back then, I knew there was something different about the look. I just couldn’t put my finger on what it was.

Now in my mid-fifties, I think I have finally figured it out. For the record, I am not a rabid anime fan. In fact, I am ambivalent about both anime and manga. But I do have to study them to do my job. Some recent research into anime revealed something about its look and feel that I had never realized before. I think I now understand that little something I couldn’t put my finger on 40+ years ago.

More Realistic Proportions

Before I get into what my research revealed, I think it is important to point out one of the main differences that separates anime and manga from other forms of animation and illustration: the realistic proportions of the characters’ bodies.

In so many other animations and illustrations – especially those aimed at children – proportions are purposely altered. In Disney’s classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, all of the dwarfs have disproportionately large heads. The same is true of the characters in Pixar’s The Incredibles.

Even classic cartoon characters like Popeye, Rocky and Bullwinkle, and anything from the Looney Tunes catalog are drawn with disproportionate body features. The explanation for this isn’t clear. What we do know is that manga and anime pioneers wanted their art to be distinctly different from its American counterparts. They purposely chose to draw with proper proportions.

A 2D-3D Hybrid

With that understanding, let’s get to what I recently discovered in my research. If you step back and look at anime or manga characters as separate from the scenes they are presented in, you can see that there’s something odd about their facial features. Yes, they are proportionally correct. Yet they still don’t look right.

Now, go back in your mind’s eye and add in the surrounding scenery. Gaze at the face of a character and then place it back into the context of the surrounding scenery. Maybe it will hit you like it hit me: anime and manga are almost a 2D-3D hybrid.

Artists know that drawings and paintings are 2D by default. They also know that the easiest way to give depth and texture to a 2D image is to add shading. The interplay between shading and lighting offers the perception of depth even when an image isn’t really 3D.

In anime and manga, there is very little effort put into shading facial features. Thus, faces look rather flat. You don’t see the effects a sharp jawline would otherwise have on a person’s image. You don’t see the slight shading under the eyes that would indicate an older age.

A Different Perspective

None of this is to say that anime or manga is lacking in artistic quality. It is simply to say that the two forms offer a different perspective. Perhaps that’s why so many people love anime and manga. Maybe that’s why companies like Umai have no trouble selling everything from anime T-shirts to iPhone cases.

In the modern culture, people love to be different. Anime and manga certainly are that when compared to Western animation. And in terms of visual presentation, now I know at least one reason why the characters look so different. I can finally put my finger on it.