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Art Matters in Anime, Damn It! - - OTAKU COMING HOME

Why do fans keep asking about this? How is it even an issue? Alex breaks it down, real simple, for you.

Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...

Does art matter in anime?” This is a question I’ve run into with disturbing frequency in my 15 some years of watching this stuff. In fact, I've just recently been posed this very question in the comments section on this fair site.

As a fan, this confuses and frustrates me because so much of what I love about these Japanese cartoons we spend our time staring at is the way they look. However, perhaps more to the point, as a visual artist, this question fills me with a deep and powerful existential dread that what I do is unappreciated or irrelevant - - even to fans of my work. It’s a bit like telling a chef, “I don’t care about the way food tastes. I just use it for nutrients.”

So enough of the suspense: there is no question that the art in a visual medium absolutely does matter. I say this, not only because I happen to love art, but also (primarily) because anime and manga rely on images to convey their story. As a visual approach to storytelling, anime and manga artists have an additional set of tools to get across important information, establish characters, engage you in the world they’re creating, and hopefully make you give a shit about what’s happening in their work.

So here’s a quick breakdown of where art matters to anime...

CHARACTER :

How a character is drawn conveys personality. This is pretty basic stuff, but the shape of a characters face and eyes, the color of their clothes and hair, and so on, can tell you a lot about them. This can be used to quickly establish roles of characters or play with audience’s expectations of what a character will be. This is especially helpful when a “bad guy” turns out to be a trusted ally (for example: every shonen anime ever).

This is an easy one. Simon on the left is made of rounded shapes, big eyes, primary colors, and rosy cheeks. His expression is concerned, but determined. What a plucky lil' guy! Viral on the right, though, is a monster with cat eyes and pointy teeth. You know at a glance who to trust.
This is an easy one. Simon on the left is made of rounded shapes, big eyes, primary colors, and rosy cheeks. His expression is concerned, but determined. What a plucky lil' guy! Viral on the right, though, is a monster with cat eyes and pointy teeth. You know at a glance who to trust.

DYNAMIC STORYTELLING :

Manga frequently relies on splash pages, close-ups, detailed setting images and layout to convey importance or heighten the impact of a scene. Tezuka often used series of small panels to guide your eyes quickly across the page. Anyone who’s watched even a little bit of anime will notice the abundance of epic establishing shots, or close-up reaction shots. These tell the audience in a not-so-subtle way to “pay attention to this part” or “gasp at this epic shit!” It actually does draw you into the story more effectively.

The top panel in this BLAD OF THE IMMORTAL page captures the tension just before the action begins. The size of the panel, the detail and lighting all support this, as we're lead into the scene by the attacker. On the right, the titular castle from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, crawls across a mountain side, showing us just how far the actual castle is from civilization; as well as how lurching, intricate and jumbled the structure is.
The top panel in this BLAD OF THE IMMORTAL page captures the tension just before the action begins. The size of the panel, the detail and lighting all support this, as we're lead into the scene by the attacker. On the right, the titular castle from HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE, crawls across a mountain side, showing us just how far the actual castle is from civilization; as well as how lurching, intricate and jumbled the structure is.

TONE :

Long sequences without dialogue are used to establish tone and setting powerfully. Consider the beginning of PRINCESS MONONOKE, when Ashitaka is riding through the forest, trying to lead the infected boar away from his village. Or the scene later on, when the Forest Spirit brings him back to life. There is very little dialogue in these scenes, and they’re both more powerful for it.

The forest in PRINCESS MONONOKE is important a character as the wolves or the boars. The detail and attention paid to the backgrounds is part of what makes this movie a success.
The forest in PRINCESS MONONOKE is important a character as the wolves or the boars. The detail and attention paid to the backgrounds is part of what makes this movie a success.

In GHOST IN THE SHELL, we watch the mechanical construction of Kusanagi's body followed by her waking up in her bedroom, rubbing her eyes and putting on her coat in an entirely human way - - all of this without a word of dialogue. This simple sequence conveys so much about both who and what she is, what kind of story you’re in for, and what the themes of the story will be.

Later in the film, there’s a beautiful sequence of shots of the city in the rain. Skyscrapers standing monolithically, canal boats bobbing, a plane flying overhead... all of this setting a great tone and making the world seem completely realized and believable.

This montage sequence in GHOST IN THE SHELL is one of my favorite parts of the movie. That reflected plane creeping across those windows is at once spooky and soothing!
This montage sequence in GHOST IN THE SHELL is one of my favorite parts of the movie. That reflected plane creeping across those windows is at once spooky and soothing!

INDIVIDUALITY :

The look of anime is largely what sets it apart from other cartoons, comics, movies and games. I was drawn to anime initially by the fact that it looked completely different from anything I’d seen before. Sure, I dug deeper and found stories I loved that keep me coming back, but what sets anime and manga apart immediately is the look. There’s a different approach, a different sensibility, a different set of goals from American comics, art and culture.

From the delicate line-work of CLAMP, to the over-the-top high fantasy of BASTARD, these designs are interesting, unique and eye-catching.
From the delicate line-work of CLAMP, to the over-the-top high fantasy of BASTARD, these designs are interesting, unique and eye-catching.

ANIMATION :

Yup, the art of animation is at the heart of this genre. These are Japanese cartoons after all. Anime, at its best, has some of the most dynamic, well-realized, exciting, and fluid animation you can find. It's also home to some of the laziest, phoned-in, half-assed crap that I’ve ever seen. Being able to tell the difference is part of being a fan of this stuff, and forming an opinion about what you like is part of being a thinking human being.

Would you still love Miyazaki’s movies as much if they weren’t gorgeous to look at? I know I wouldn’t.

IT’S ALREADY IN YOUR EYES :

You have to look at the damn thing - - wouldn’t you rather it not look like dog shit? Since you are watching or looking at something, you owe it to yourself and the creator to pay some attention to the artistic choices. You’ll understand it on another level and actually enjoy it more!

Which of these STREET FIGHTER images would you rather look at? The one where Ryu looks like a smug owl in eyeliner with brown fire for hair, or the one where he looks like Ryu?
Which of these STREET FIGHTER images would you rather look at? The one where Ryu looks like a smug owl in eyeliner with brown fire for hair, or the one where he looks like Ryu?

Yes, it is possible to tell a story without pictures. If you’re looking for a way to get a story into your brain without having to look at any images, I recommend reading a book. I hear libraries are full of the things, and with the exception of the covers, many are completely image free!

As otaku, we’ve all chosen to watch cartoons and read comic books, so art is intrinsically unavoidable. If you choose to ignore the art in anime, manga, or any visual medium, you’re ignoring at least 50% of the work.

If you don’t care about the art in your anime, then you don’t care about anime. It’s as simple as that.

Disagree? You're wrong, but feel free to let me know in the comments section below.

Alex Eckman-Lawn is an illustrator and comic artists from Philadelphia. Check out his site - -alexeckmanlawn.com - - rumble with his Tumblr - - dudenukem.tumblr.com - - and hit up his Twitter: @alexeckmanlawn

buhssuhton Jan. 7, 2013 at 11:49 a.m.

style doesnt bother me, since every artist have unique drawing styles, but it's the quality that bothers me the most. It's been long time but I remember reading Elfen Lied manga series, and far as I can remember the drawing were goddamn awful. Also there were manga series that made me say 'Oh, come on. Even I can draw better than that.' or 'Did person just started manga career?'

On the other side, people who say art doesnt matter probably experienced series with amazing art style horrible story line the ones that makes you 'WTF did I just read/watch?'. As Tom ans Sam pointed out previously, animation doesn't matter sometimes. My personal example is Oh Great's Tenjo Tenge or Airgear, amazing art and amazing details but I could not keep up with story line. The last thing I want to watch or read is one with amazing art with really uninteresting story, especially harem. That reminds me, Hanaukyo Maid Team.

ComicMan24on Jan. 7, 2013 at 12:29 p.m.

Of course the art matters. Whoever says otherwise is lying. Sure a great story is nice but a great story alone can only do so much. And the same goes for the art of course. As you said, anime is a visual medium so it is only natural that great animation matters.

AgentJon Jan. 7, 2013 at 12:59 p.m.

Yes on art mattering in animation. However, I've always argued that it matters less than style in video games. Even games working on ancient hardware can be beautiful, as long as the art designer has a strong idea of what he wants.

That said, I do love strong style in anime as well.

AURON570on Jan. 7, 2013 at 1:04 p.m.

For a second I thought you were going to talk about art being referenced in anime. Haha.

Anyway, I agree. The visual art of anime is essential to it's medium. It's just as important as the music, voice work, story and writing. Try to think holistically people.

Aleashaon Jan. 7, 2013 at 1:35 p.m.

I agree completely art is a big thing for me its what makes certain ones stand out, now sometimes they are hit or miss as far as content and story line but I still appreciate the beautiful and talented art. As for styles I have my preferences with sharp contrasts, lines and edges but I can still appreciate the many many styles out there.

rubberluffyon Jan. 7, 2013 at 2:07 p.m.

Having an interesting and striking visual style can really help. The studio doing the current Jojo's Bizarre Adventure anime really get this, what with the manga being incredibly strange regarding color schemes and poses and such. A good example from the most recent episode:

If I were to get ripped in half, I can only hope it happens half as fabulously.

sickVisionz moderator on Jan. 7, 2013 at 3:44 p.m.

Couldn't have said that any better myself. There is a faction of anime fandom that prides itself on completely disregarding every visual element of anime and manga that separates it from a screenplay and I've never really gotten that. Art isn't everything sure, but it's definitely something.

Disagree? You're wrong...

This is a classic.

Elfenlied1012on Jan. 7, 2013 at 4:27 p.m.

Agreed, I've always felt though what matters most in an anime is entirely based on what the said anime is trying to accomplish. However, good and strong art has never harmed an anime and always improved it. I agree greatly, but I won't say its the end all be all for everything. I'm in fact legally obligated to say that being that my favorite manga is Elfen Lied which has horrific art.

Marshal Victoryon Jan. 7, 2013 at 5:10 p.m.

Ilustration style matters in a visual format . Always.

But story telling is a art unto it self as well.An again art is just opion.To say a visual style doesnt matter for a manga/comic or animaiton or anime well thats just opion not based on personal tastes.Illustration style matters so much that it shapes the story before any word is heard or read.

Shorter: In a visual world grafics matter.

CuttableFurballon Jan. 7, 2013 at 5:52 p.m.

I feel that art style and presentation go a long way in a medium that is heavily based on art. That being said, I believe that you can have a very beautiful anime/manga that is visually pleasing and different from everything else, but if the story is sub par then it will only be good. I think to be a great anime/manga you have to strike a good balance with visuals and story. I will say that if anyone says "Art isn't important in an anime", then anything they have say after that is null an void.

Kino88on Jan. 7, 2013 at 6:01 p.m.

as some one who just got done reading the manga "Domu" a child's dream,

YES ART DOSE MATTER! BIG TIME!!

AURON570on Jan. 7, 2013 at 9:30 p.m.

@rubberluffy: omg you made me instantly want to start watching Jojo. Is it available online anywhere legally?

rubberluffyon Jan. 8, 2013 at 11:32 a.m.

@AURON570 said:

@rubberluffy: omg you made me instantly want to start watching Jojo. Is it available online anywhere legally?

Unfortunately no, and I think this is unlikely to change since it's been 13 episodes already. Probably because the show is a licensing landmine what with using a Yes (as in the British classic prog-rock band) song as the ending and almost every character name being a band/song reference (there's a main character named Robert Edward O. Speedwagon and that's just one example). Fansubs are the only way to go unless you're willing to dish out something like 100 bucks for each japanese bluray volume which supposedly will have english subs, but that's gonna be 9 volumes total.

It's a lot of goofy fun that takes itself seriously while not taking itself seriously. Plus you get scenes like this:

(the frog is totally cool with this)

AlexEL staff on Jan. 8, 2013 at 6:01 p.m.

@rubberluffy: this is the best gif i've ever seen....

rubberluffyon Jan. 9, 2013 at 1:50 p.m.

@AlexEL said:

@rubberluffy: this is the best gif i've ever seen....

It's just as ridiculous in context as it is out.

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