Anime Iconography
Jeff Boman and Jennifer Wand · From fps #8 · June 28, 2006 | As Westerners, when we see a cartoon character's eyes grow wide and pop out, we know the character is shocked or frightened. When the eyes project arrows toward an object, we know they are studying something intently. This isn't because real people's eyes usually pop out of their heads or change shape, of course. But it makes sense to us due to iconography, a sort of visual code language that lets us know through simple images how characters are feeling. North America has one such language, but Japan has another, and some of the iconography in anime may slip past a viewer who's not familiar with it.

Historically, anime was made with a lower budget and fewer resources than American animation. Visual cues saved the resources to animate a character in full, but they also created a unique iconography. If you watch a lot of anime, you'll see these shortcuts used with great frequency. They don't appear in everything, but they do show up in enough works to make them an iconic tradition.

Anime Iconography 101 is all about age. Unlike North American animation, where the character design is generally consistent throughout the production, it is a frequent practice in some anime to use a great variety of styles within the same work. The level of "cartoonishness" of a character's features depends on that character's age—both physical and emotional.

Anime Iconography 201 is about emotions. It's important to recognize that icons are not necessarily tied to the gravity of the emotion. Emotions that are truly significant in a story—the serious cases of embarrassment, love and sadness—are shown in a much less cartoon-like way. For instance, a truly sad character will not display a waterfall of tears, but a subtle shimmering of the eyes. Sometimes even the silliest anime will occasionally give way to deeper emotions; it is completely consistent for a romantic comedy to have a dozen amusing iconic facial features in one scene, but then use more realistic drawings and movement in a more serious scene.

Certain emotions are represented differently in North American and Japanese animation, but the sentiments are universal.

Want to read the rest of this feature?

You'll find it and many other articles in the June 2006 issue of fps, available for only $1.49 US.
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