Taste the rainbow.

One hundred percent of the three of you who decided that this post was worth the time to click on are no doubt wondering what the hell this is and why it is at all worth reading. That’s an excellent question that I should really start by answering except, er… what the hell is this? That’s the defining mystery of our time. In truth, the idea is that Random Curiosity could use more editorial content to distinguish it from, let’s say, a wordier Reddit, except I don’t really know what the difference is between an ‘editorial’ and ‘Passerby writes whatever’, and it’s an easy guess which one we’ll inevitably end up with. Long term plans? No clue; we’ll discover this column together! In the short term, since this is the first edition of a not necessarily welcome addition to Random Curiosity, let’s start with a safe an easy topic. By which I mean we’ll be talking about: race in anime! No don’t leave, it’s better than it sounds. Because while in the 3D, real-life world one should never define a person by colour, in 2D, anime world one can always define a person by colour. Like this:

Sailor Moon: the grandmother of colour-coded casts.

Yes, we’re going to talk about the magic of technicoloured character design. Most RandomC readers are, I’m sure, regular anime watchers, and are used to the distinctive anime aesthetic (Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Weird Hair), but the uninitiated often cannot understand how, even in dramatic works, anime can get away with looking… ‘cartoonish’. In particular, too bizarrely colourful. I would say, though, that that in character design colourful is okay, colourful works, and in fact colourful is pretty great. Look again at the characters in that promotional image for Sailor Moon Crystal. With no prior coordination between them, each of these characters sport not just distinctly coloured outfits, but also distinctly coloured hair. Which is great for the audience (especially the really scatterbrained ones i.e. me) because one these characters can just pop up in the middle of an episode and with just one look remember, ‘Oh yeah, the pink one.’ instead of worrying about useless things like name or personality or plot significance. Despite this obvious utility, colour-coding characters is almost exclusive to cartoons, and in particular anime. No director is going to start on a movie and decide that ‘colourful cast’ is a literal expression and put in an order for green hairspray.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But they don’t.

Obviously, there’s that need to conform to reality (overrated, by the way), but reality also comes pre-packaged with useful human details like distinct facial features and subtle blemishes on the skin that do not always transfer easily to animation. Humans are uncannily skilled at recognising faces—prosopagnosia is a disease. Faces are our number one tool for distinguishing between people, but imagine having to draw all those tiny details from every single angle when making an anime. It’ll drive the animators mad. Madder than they already are. No, it’s much easier to simplify the character designs and exaggerate just a few features instead. Like colour! And so the anime standard for faces.

Not that all anime are obligated to conform to generic features. But it does take more work, and is arguably rarely necessary. Take Joker Game, a show about international espionage set in the War that sometimes hinges the plot on details like the unique shape of a spy’s ears. Note their obvious attention to differentiating faces:

Clockwise from top-left: Some Chinese, a Britisher, a Russian, a Martian.

Really stands out compared to other anime, doesn’t it? But Joker Game is historical fiction, arguably even a period piece, and together with its genre means it has a clear purpose in representing these details. The racial features helps the audience identify each side of the great geopolitical struggle. But in an anime that just needs to have a foreigner, one hardly needs to go so far. Consider another show from the same season:

Spot your Aryan overlord.

The non-Japanese is the blonde one. Because of course she is. Blonde hair has become something of a genre convention in anime, with the blonde character having a very high chance of being foreign, part foreign, or at least dyes their hair. Blue? Perfectly natural. Blonde = Western. That’s just easier for everyone involved, right? The animators have a shorthand, and viewers like me won’t have to worry if art errors are racist.

It’s possible that I am begging a question here, though: that default anime designs are Japanese. Sometimes I hear people criticising a show’s aesthetic with complaints along the line of, ‘none of these characters look Japanese!’ even though the show invariably features a cast of exclusively Japanese high school students. But I’ll say that anime characters definitely look entirely, authentically Japanese. To Japanese people. Let me steal a demonstration from Genshiken here. Tell me, what’s this?:

9001 hours in MSPaint, that’s what.

It’s a person. Well, it’s a scribble, but it portrays a person. No Rorsharch test here. Actually, one small test. What’s the stick figure’s race?

Japanese, of course. That is, if you’re Japanese.

Is it not fascinating how a circle and some wobbly lines can fully represent a human being? That’s because human brains are very willing to ascribe human qualities onto near anything (which allows Pixar to anthropomorphise everything from cars to fish). And then once we’ve subconsciously decided that, ‘yeah, this stick figure is human,’ we project our inner image of a human being onto the figure, filling in details that aren’t actually there. So, that circle is a head, of some sort, which probably has a face, of some sort. It is the same kind of thing that happens when we read text—this text, even!—and read it in a certain voice in our heads even though, of course, there is no accompanying sound. And we do it as well every time we see a cartoon person, from the stick figure to a stylised anime design. Bottom line is: anime becomes strangely subjective. Remember that anime is made first and foremost for a Japanese audience, and Japan is more or less a homogenous society. Their default image of a human being—what they would project onto an anime character—would be Japanese. And it is from this frame of reference that anime characters look as they do.

This is why I would argue that anime is a distinctively Japanese phenomenon. Sometimes there are discussions about whether something made outside Jaapan can be ‘anime’, whether a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender can be called ‘anime’. Honestly, probably not. It’s not a slight against those shows, nor to say that dirty gaijin like us cannot enjoy anime (spoiler: I’m not Japanese. Not even a little). But there is an entire cultural force behind anime. Perhaps it takes a society so uniform to produce an art style so colourful.


      1. Wellp, according to Wikipedia…

        Reddit was founded by University of Virginia roommates Steve Huffman and Alexis Ohanian in 2005.

        And the “About” page for RandomC says…

        This blog was originally started by Omni in late 2004 on Blogger in hopes of having a place to write about what he watched.

        RandomC wins! 😀

        (Personally I’ve only been reading stuff here since 2007, but hey. I can accept that stuff existed before I found it. Sometimes. 😉 )

  1. Wow, I’m one of the chosen three who got to read this! What did I win and where can I get it?

    So, first of all, good job on this new column, Passerby. I’m eager to read the continuation of this post as I really like this editorials on RC. (Stilts’ ‘My Way or the Anime’ posts were really interesting and thought-provoking, it’s just such a pity that nowadays he’s too busy to write them more frequently)

    Back to the topic, colour-coding may seem sometimes a bit ‘childish’ , but I really like that in anime as a medium, the free utilisation of the whole colour palette in character designs can express and symbolize the character’s main personality traits, or even their worldview to a degree.

    Faolin Eye
    1. I would like to write more of ’em as well. I’ve missed doing ’em, and even chased Pa-kun away from a topic I wanted to write. Just yeah, time has been brutal lately. The more editorials he posts, the guiltier I’ll get, and hopefully vice versa. Hopefully we’ll end up with more overall!

  2. Passerby, you disappoint me. I thought this was going to be an article to defend the colour pink! XD

    I see the point of the anime style being very Japanese, but your reflection treats it as an isolated phenomenon. Despite the continuistic theories, the influence of American comics and especially Disney films in manga (that is, the modern comic trend born after WWII) can’t be overlooked. It’s understandable that some people not familiar with anime are surprised by the designs, since they evolved from previous conventions that didn’t have Japanese audiences in mind precisely.

    It’s ironic, in a way, that manga and anime were influenced by American products, and now it’s Japanese art which influences them. Still, I agree that it doesn’t make those American cartoons anime, the same early animes weren’t Disney cartoons. Comics and animation are more than just a drawing style; themes, values and storytelling count too.

    1. Pink is great! All hail pink. There.

      I discuss the same thing with Pancakes further down the comments. I of course do not deny the schools of animation influence each other, nor insist that anime exists in a vacuum. And I do not mean to imply that art is the only thing that makes anime anime. I simply note that the intention of anime as Japanese, for the Japanese, may influence it in ways that we may not appreciate, and perhaps in ways the creators may not appreciate.

  3. Now after seeing Anime I’ve wanted all the hair colors to come into real life and be common place. The World needs more color and variation, not the same old same old. And for the Japanese and others with one default hair color they need it even worse than America, after all tons of Japanese already lighten their black to some degree. And I’m exited that enough of one group of people are actually wearing the pink, green, blue hair colors that my local drug store actually carries them now in permanent dies. But it needs to spread out more, wake up world we need more variation and pretty colors. In America up to now the off colors often have been ugly punk colors but the Drug store ones now are the pretty ones.

    Hey Japanese take the fear factor out and decide what color each day of the year should be wearing and we will Japan to look like Anime.

    By the way what ever culture looking down on Anime their is in Japan, that is not the Governments position. The Government in Japan pushes Anime fairly hard, in example when Huffington Post started a Japan edition Anime was one of 5 major Japanese products mentioned. And for at least two years, three years ago in EPCOT here at Disney World the official government run Japan section featured Anime art inspired by Japanese art in the museum.

    Now Chu Feng: B.E.E brodcast at the same time in China and Japan but I have read that this new China product falls under the heading Manhua but that used the same characters as manga in Japanese and Manhua has won Japanese Manga awards and the term Manga derives from Manhua so you could say the words translate into each other. But what is this new animated form not produced in Japan to be called when the differences from Anime are so small.

    Chu Feng I would say was not bad, not great and seams to be discontinued at episode 6 for now, web comic much longer assumed. It was quite violent and reading how a lot of violent Japanese Anime recently have been banned I wonder if China pulled the plug for that reason.

    1. Anime is definitely a Japanese cultural export (as Hollywood movies are for America), and as such is a dimension of Japan’s soft power. How that affects import controls, though, I can only guess at. China, in particular, is quite strict about the influx of foreign media, but is at the same time also quite strict about the display of violence and other subjects it considers antisocial. And, of course, the intermix of culture in East Asia has always been a mess.

  4. Nah mate, anime characters are Australian and that stick figure looks like an attack helicopter.

    Jokes, but I do feel the whole color palette thing is a way for designers to use the “show don’t tell” rule in their own unique way. One anime I think aptly demonstrates the use of colors is Madoka Magica. I could be thinking into it too much, but the characters are obviously color-coded and their color I believe both represents their attitude, and to various extents the roles they play in the story.

    Goodwill Wright
    1. Nope you’re overthinking things, colour is often used to visually represent character types in anime. Probably one of the most famous (as the article title highlights) is pink hair. Pink is often used on girls to indicate feminine traits, from sweet and caring all the way to borderline personality disorder and the yandere archetype. As Passerby mentions, this is done to simplify character identification and (in a sense) elevate audience association with a character. Do not have to explain as much regarding personalities when the colour lets you know at a glance what to reasonably expect.

  5. Heh the artistic tropes, about the only way I personally keep track of anime characters these days. Unless the show really piques my interest, I find myself using the visual appearances as they are there for–identifying characters. After a while the names sort of bleed into themselves unfortunately 😛

    Although anime is distinctively Japanese, I’d argue it’s more due to setting and story lines than the art style. Unless dealing with rotoscoping or deliberately “realistic” art, most anime characters are ethnically nebulous and could fit easily into any Western series. Elements such as large eyes and over-expressions simply enhance the emotional reading of characters, and barring certain Japanese eccentricities (school uniforms, crazy hairstyles, idols) all feature to some degree in our cartoons. Crazy and colourful? We have that. Distinctive character designs? We got that too. Change a few elements and your moe loli waifu would quickly become an American farm girl. Japan, if anything, simply took these concepts and perfected them.

    It’s why, IMO, anime cannot be labelled solely by art. Series like Avatar, Wafku, and RWBY, when exclusively analyzed on artwork are clearly anime/anime inspired–it’s difficult finding anyone who would think otherwise. What makes these productions ‘not anime’ is their trappings, characters, story plots, and world settings. One key example is character archetypes. Although not a hard and fast rule, animated Western shows (not cartoons) typically feature more complex character development and growth out of a singular archetype, while Japanese shows often stick to tropes to provide character development (giving rise to labels like the -dere groupings).

    The main point here is that–technically–art alone does not make a series anime. Without the Japanese cultural trappings, anime’s borders wouldn’t be so clear cut. Although the anime “style” is Japanese by origin, the crossover and influence on our productions is such now that anime is no longer an exclusive Japanese phenomenon. Nice little example of this is moe school girls. Although clearly (and infamously) Japanese, I can foresee a day not too far into the future when an American show uses the style in a distinctively American school setting. American made, American intended, yet employs moe school girls for characters. Going to be hard like hell not labelling that anime using mainstream definitions 😛

    1. Just my personal perceptions, but I see enough noticeable difference between Eastern and Western art. Well, at least when it comes to the the animation spectrum. This is usually contained in the line work and use of perspective.

      I notice that Japanese animation tends to use much more abstract angles and camera perspectives while western animation commonly reminds me of what you would see in a TV drama series. Lots of wide shots and following shots. While Japanese animation use lots of cuts in their compositions.

      As for line work, most western cartoons are more obviously drawn using vectors while anime is drawn using pixels, or scanned in other cases. Of course, I think Toei is an exception but most anime have very dynamic and varying lines. It becomes more apparent if you take a screenshot, then run the shot through a couple of filters and zoom in.

      I see lots of people say that Avatar looks a lot like anime but personally I think it looks nothing like anime. I think it looks like Avatar and I don’t really associate it with western or eastern animation. Outside of what the facts tell me.

      I agree though that art does not make an anime, “anime”. Although it may play a part depending on the person you are asking. However there are definitely certain tropes, archetypes, design and settings used most notable in anime than there are in other media.

      Goodwill Wright
    2. Certainly, I would not argue that art alone makes anime either. Anime is a package deal; setting and story obviously are big parts, and work with other stylistic elements. But while it is the nature of art to imitate art, I would argue that ‘inspired by anime’ is not the same as ‘is anime’. Anime itself drew a lot of influences from Disney, but anime has also walked its own path and we can observe that there is a distinction between the art styles of either. And, as Goodwill Wright notes, there are technical differences.

      My main point in the last paragraphs of the article, though, was that anime is made specifically for a Japanese audience by Japanese creators, and that intention (which may not always be evident to us), in art or otherwise, is a defining part of anime.

  6. The Anime artist are very good at a type of caricature (without
    the grotesque overtones normally associated with the word.)

    They are also (IMHO) amazingly good at details that are easily
    missed by other animators. I user to think the eye-tooth was
    just an artistic addition to a character that was never visible on
    a real person. Then, one time I was watching something completely
    un-Anime and wow! The person had that real-life feature (and it
    wasn’t part of the “costume”).

    The Japanese have a well earned reputation of being very detailed
    in their work. True story :: Way back an American company (this
    was before outsourcing became the downer that it is today) sent a
    complicated metal fabrication (i.e. completed part) to a company in
    Japan to “see if they could duplicate it.” Of course, everyone was
    expecting a disaster to be returned, because – hey, it was made with
    American Ingenuity, right? Well, we got the part back; think left and right.

    The part they returned was a complete mirror copy even to the use
    of left-handed screws. This was in the days before CAD and automated
    computer tools to just “flip” a design.

    Yup, we were bested. And they earned our respect.

    It is one of the reasons I enjoy Anime (of course there’s low quality
    Anime as well) because there are subtle detail included that add
    so much to the experience.

    Great article Passerby, love to read more!

    1. Certainly, anime can do detail, and can run the gamut in terms of design. On my part, I’m always fascinated by anime that have very detailed, hyper-realistic sets but more simplistic, stylised character designs. We don’t see contrast like that very often outside of animation.

  7. Heh, nice read but I wanted to point out that many Hollywood costume designers and directors actually do color-code their characters. Mad Men is a particularly strong example but Western culture does have it’s own preconceptions of color and personality stereotype. They don’t get the hair color but if you pay attention to clothes, accessories, and room settings, many many western movies and tv series do exactly this.

    TvTropes has an interesting column on the same topic based on western media: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/GoodColorsEvilColors

    The major difference between western live-action media and eastern animation is really just of degree, for the reasons you did cover. Additionally, it’s easier to create a drawn world in which it looks believable for someone to have green hair and much tougher to create a live-action contemporary world in which someone (naturally or normally) has green hair. But it is very easy (and common!) for costumers to consistently place characters within color-schemes which are not screamingly obvious but still add to the audience’s assumptions of the character.

    In short, a good costumer and set designer on a quality production will always plan on a controlled color scheme for each recurring character as both a shortcut for exposition and for emphasis.

    What can we do to encourage them to get the hair color spray? Cuz that’d be awesome!

    I’ll just end by saying I get the theme thing with coordinating hair and clothing color; nevertheless, I do have a passionate hatred for color theming which includes eye color. Pink hair, pink costume, pink weapon, pink power effect, pink room, pink mascot, pink jewelry, we get it! Can’t we have a nice tiny piece of contrast? Pretty green/blue/purple please?

    1. Certainly, I’m not denying that live-action media don’t make use of colour, especially as symbolism (and, indeed, if you put on a pink costume you’re the Pink Ranger). But animation’s ability to go beyond the confines of reality that make it unique. Compare, for example, some anime to a live-drama adaptation of the same work (try Negima; we have some pictures of both versions); anime colour schema are a creature unto itself. Or try comparing a manga, a black-and-white medium even today, to its anime adaptation. Colour goes beyond symbolism to become a completely defining feature.

      Which is not always a good thing, sure; as you note, a character doesn’t necessarily need to be that pink. But it’s something anime can do, and sometimes they choose to go all the way.

  8. Once again, ain’t no such damned thing as ‘eastern’ animation. Japanese stuff is Japanese stuff. Korean stuff is Korean stuff. And stuff from mainland China is stuff from mainland China. Even stuff from Taiwan is respective to Taiwan. What we do in the South-East, the South, the West or even in Central Asia has nothing to do with the Far East. We’re completely different cultural zones altogether. Why exactly you guys tend to insist on conflating this baffles me as a native. Even I hesitate to lump ‘the West’ as ‘the West’. Cuz even in Europe and the Americas there are different parent cultures and they all have different ideas on things.

    In any case, color-coding is an interesting idea. It’s like how when we think of ‘sci-fi’, ‘cyberpunk’ or ‘space’, we tend to think of the colors green, or blue, or even red, orange or brown, or y’know somewhere along that spectrum. And that this goes down to the lighting, the feel and look of the sky and such. For instance, what I heard Spielberg did with the film negatives of Minority Report is that he soaked the film negatives in some kinda liquid which gives off its unique washed-out and faded colors.

    Nishizawa Mihashi
  9. I’ve thought before it might be interesting to catalogue all (or at least, a lot) of anime shorthand like blonde = Western or straight bangs = psychic.

    The eyetooth thing I’m not sure on. Sometimes it seems to be there to denote ‘wild’ characters, but then sometimes it’s just on cute girls for moe?

      1. When you see a real-like example, you’ll understand it clearly
        (look around for examples, you’re bound to see some). Think
        of it as a badge of innocence (not a measure of intelligence).

  10. Interesting read, certainly more diverse than just episode reviews. Don’t get me wrong on that one, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But, this oozes more creativity and gives me a bit more insight on your thoughts about a topic of choice, which is a great thing, as you chose the topic because you had your share of thoughts about it. This also reminds me of similar posts that Stilts used to write (which I don’t think he has done for a good half year or more), which I’ve always enjoyed reading. Although his topics were a lot… Stiltsier. (Yes, Stilts, I’m looking at the article on twintails)

  11. I pretty much only clicked on this because I saw ‘Miscellaneous Whimsey’ and thought ‘Oooh, what a nice term, I wonder what this will be about’, really, but this was very, very interesting to read. I’m happy I clicked on this and read it.

  12. More of your silliness is always good in my book. So please just ramble on, and I will be there to read more of your delightful ramblings.

    Since we are already on the topic of praising the merit of your silly writing. I would like to let you know that you are also at your silly best when you are ranting. Sometimes, I almost wish for the anime you blog to be bad. I guess that it is because the badness allows you to be more offbeat to entertain yourself while you are writing (since the anime itself isn’t providing much of the entertainment.) I read your blog on Endride like 3 times even without bothering with the actual anime for once. This doesn’t mean that there should be a special feature on bad animes (unless you fully consent to the idea of torturing yourself), but I always enjoy it when you go full snarky and silly on whatever topic.

    1. I must make clear: I take no pleasure in an anime turning bad. In fact, it breaks my heart. But I do try to make the process more entertaining (mainly for myself). If it means readers get some joy out of it, I’m pleased to hear.

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