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View Full Version : How come Japanese cartoons don't look like Japanese people?


msmith537
07-09-2001, 12:56 PM
Whenever I see an Anime movie or show, I'm always struck by the fact that the characters often look more European or American than Asian. Any reason for this?

AHunter3
07-09-2001, 01:12 PM
You probably don't realize it, but I think what you're really asking is "Why don't Japanese cartoons portray and emphasize those features that differentiate Asians from Europeans?"

Captain Amazing
07-09-2001, 01:29 PM
Well, they do. In anime, IIRC, Europeans are drawn differently.

Tamex
07-09-2001, 03:02 PM
I used to wonder the same thing, msmith537. But, then, as I kept watching more anime, a strange thing happened--the characters started looking more "Japanese" to me. Perhaps it's in the way they act, or the fact that, especially since I've gotten a DVD player, I now watch much more subtitled anime with the original Japanese voices. I can kind of see now how the characters might look perfectly Japanese to a Japanese person, even if they look a bit "European-American" to my perspective.

So, why the wildly different hair colors, instead of the black or dark brown that most Japanese people have? Well, I think it's to keep things visually interesting. The way I've heard it, the practice started in manga (Japanese comics.) Manga are usually drawn and printed in black and white. If you have so many black-haired characters, it becomes hard to tell them apart, so some characters are drawn with "white" hair (which I, as a "European-American", would probably classify as "blond".) When the anime is created that is based on that manga, the creators now have a whole range of colors to use to keep things interesting and keep characters straight. If the anime is more reality-based, they might use hair colors that real people (including Europeans) actually have, such as black, various shades of brown, blond, or red. Sometimes, this is explained as a character who dyes his/her hair (blond Ritsuko from "Neon Genesis Evangelion", for example) or is not of full Japanese ancestry (auburn Asuka from the same series) and sometimes it isn't explained at all (blond Sailor Moon). If the anime has aliens from outer space or something like that, then they will use whatever colors they want (green-haired Lum from "Urusei Yatsura").

"Ranma 1/2" is an example of an anime that uses hair color to keep characters straight. Ranma is a boy who has a curse on him--when he is splashed with cold water, he turns into a girl, and when she is splashed with hot water, she changes back into a boy. His girl-form looks just like him, except she is a little smaller and has very large breasts. When Ranma is a boy, his hair is black, but when Ranma is a girl, her hair is bright red. There seems to be no curse-related reason for the change in hair color, and, in fact, the color change is not noted in the show itself. It is simply there to help the audience keep girl-Ranma and boy-Ranma straight. You can imagine that girl-Ranma's hair is "really" black if you want to. (It is black in the manga.)

As for the big eye issue...well, this is an anime convention to make the characters seem more "cute". (If you notice, babies and small children have large eyes in proportion to their heads and large heads in proportion to their bodies. Same is true with anime characters.) Perhaps they are indeed emulating large, round, and multi-colored "American" eyes...my mother, who works with a lot of Asians, says that that is the one physical trait that her coworkers tend to admire about Caucasians. However, they are also emulating infants of any race. "Cute" is important in Japan.

I have also noticed that background characters in crowd scenes tend to look more stereotypically "Japanese" to me--black hair, small (and sometimes even squinty) eyes. The main characters are drawn the way they are to stand out from the crowd.

Remember, it probably seems just as strange to the Japanese that American cartoons feature walking, talking ducks, rabbits, bears, dogs, and mice :).

Ura-Maru
07-09-2001, 03:27 PM
Not really a _great_ debate, but . . .

Originally posted by AHunter3
You probably don't realize it, but I think what you're really asking is "Why don't Japanese cartoons portray and emphasize those features that differentiate Asians from Europeans?"

Or even, "Why don't Japanese cartoons portray and emphasize those features that I think differentiate asians from europeans.

From that perspective, you'd expect Japanese characters (as a group) to be the most "generic" looking, with other ethnic groups (in general) having whatever features the animators most associate with those groups. Such as Europeans having lighter hair and long noses. Which is, generally, what you do find.

This is exactly why in, say The Simpsons, caucasians are yellow-orange, and often have hair that blends into their skin, but blacks, Indians, and asians have more realistic skin and hair. Caucasians are the "default," so the animators don't go through much effort to make them "look caucasian."

And sometimes they do. ('look asian,' I mean) More realistically drawn anime, such as Perfect Blue or Ghost in the Shell do often have recognizable ethnic groups.

That being said, what mrsmith357 was probably asking is "Why do anime characters tend to have oversized eyes and brightly colored hair?" (No one ever mentions the little checkmark noses when asking the 'why don't they look' question . . .)

And the main answer here boils down to the fact that people in anime (and in the vast majority of cartoons from other countries as well) are heavily stylized.

Eyes are big mostly for the same reason that American cartoons cartoons tend to have oversized heads, and American comic book characters have small heads. Eyes and mouths are the two main expressive features on faces. (anime mouths are usually tiny in their default state, in the but get much bigger when needed to express something)

There's some backstory on this that you're probably not interested in unless you're interested in animation history, so I'll spare you the whole Disney-Tezuka-Nagai speech and leave it at "and the round eyes started because very early anime was heavily influenced by early Disney characters, and continued because after a while, that's what all the other animators were doing."

Also, there's the "Default" thing, so there's no reason to narrow them to make them look 'asian,' though they are of course drawn differently for different character designs.

The hair thing is stylization in a different way, used to distinguish characters, and imply personality. Over time it got more exaggerated, as big hair became more common, and just branched out from there.

The "default" thing applies here, too. "Black" hair has different highlights and shades, and if most of your characters have dark hair, it makes sense to emphasize the highlights instead of focusing on the "dark" part.

"Black" things in general, and black hair in particular is difficult to draw without exaggerating the highlights. Which is why Superman has blue hair in comics. Otherwise he'd have a halo of pitch darkness around his head, and that really wouldn't fit him, would it? :) Not sure if this really applies, but I thought I'd mention it, anyway.

Of course, there are several common "styles" in anime . . . -long obsessive rant removed by editor. You'll thank us, really-

--
"'Look Polish'?"
"Maybe it's 'Look! Polish!'"

regnad kcin
07-09-2001, 03:57 PM
Ill point out that the noses in Japanese cartoon ARE in fact asian.

I recently bought a new pair of glasses (in Europe, by the way) which doesnt have the little "pads" on the sides but in fact sits squarely on the bridge of the nose. When my girlfriend, who is Japanese, tried them on, the thing sat down so low she was looking over the top of them. She then pointed out that she, like most asians, has no bridge of the nose. Shes right -- her nose kind of stops half-way up to the eyebrow.

Now go back and look at all of those Japanese cartoons and notice that they only draw the "shadow" UNDER the nose and not the "shadow" on the SIDE of the nose that you make when you draw noses as an "L" like shape for honkies.

astorian
07-09-2001, 04:11 PM
Here's an analogy that might help. ABBA were Swedish. The Scorpions were German. Julio Iglesias is a Spaniard. Why, then, have they made most of their recordings in English?

Hint: The USA is by far the world's biggest market for pop music. If you REALLY want to make big bucks, you have to appeal to Americans. And that means you've got to sing in THEIR language.

I suspect Japanese animators have similar motives when they draw generic, non-ethnic-looking characters. This is nothing new, after all- think of Speed Racer and Gigantor, and the other popular Japanese cartoons of the 60s. Most of the characters looked Caucasian because the animators wanted their shows to be popular in America, and figured Americans would be quicker to embrace characters who didn't look Japanese.

Tamex
07-09-2001, 06:05 PM
Originally posted by astorian
I suspect Japanese animators have similar motives when they draw generic, non-ethnic-looking characters. This is nothing new, after all- think of Speed Racer and Gigantor, and the other popular Japanese cartoons of the 60s. Most of the characters looked Caucasian because the animators wanted their shows to be popular in America, and figured Americans would be quicker to embrace characters who didn't look Japanese.

Mmmm....maybe. But, I'm not so sure.

Perhaps this may have been a factor in something like that international marketing phenomenon "Pokemon". I have heard that the whole "getting rid of Brock and replacing him with Tracey" fiasco stemmed from the fact that some people didn't think that Americans would like Brock's squinty eyes. It turned out that Americans really liked Brock's character, squinty eyes and all, but the Orange Island episodes featuring Tracey were already made. Therefore, it was a while before Brock could be brought back.

However, I don't think that most anime characters were designed with Americans in mind. Remember that many anime series got their start in manga, which is definitely created for a Japanese market, and any American market is certainly secondary. The characters in manga look very much the same as their anime counterparts. If there is an American influence, it probably comes from Disney, as Ura-Maru mentioned.

Rumiko Takahashi, the creator of "Urusei Yatsura" and "Ranma 1/2", has mentioned that she's always been amazed at the appeal of her work in the United States, especially since "Urusei Yatsura" in particular deals with aspects of Japanese mythology that are unfamiliar to many Americans. The characters in these series in particular were not designed with American appeal in mind. And, I would guess that Japan is still a much larger market for anime than the United States is. If the style did not appeal to Japanese people, they wouldn't use it. That it happens to appeal to certain Americans is just a bonus.

If they were really creating anime to appeal ultimately to a general American audience, they would avoid homosexuality, nudity, written kana characters, Japanese food, and other things that are often edited out when anime is shown on American television.

regnad kcin
07-09-2001, 09:11 PM
I agree. Most Japanese animation is for a Japanese audience that, by the way, eats up VAST quantities. Its a national obsession.

The STRANGE thing is that something that is really so Japanese has become as popular as it is here. We 'murcans tend to crank out our own "culture" in most fields. Dont tell me Pokemon isnt through and through Japanese weirdness!

Pyrrho12
07-09-2001, 11:33 PM
People tend to view members of their own ethnic group as normal looking, while those not belonging to this group are defined by their differences from it. There's a name for this phenomenon; I learned about it in psychology class, but I can't remember what it is.

It comes down to visual cues. A caucasian viewer may associate small eyes and black hair as being key to Japanese appearance. Since anime characters don't have these cues, they are seen as not looking Japanese. The Japanese audience, on the other hand, doesn't need cues to tell them that the main characters are Japanese. There may be visual cues, however, which tell that certain characters belong to other ethnic groups (Belldandy is clearly caucasian; Ed appears to be Chinese).

dangermom
07-10-2001, 01:21 PM
My research on the subject ended up in a book, the title of which I forget, that had some interesting points to make.

When manga got started, the authors of girl-stories wanted their characters to do interesting things, so often set them in a fictionalized Western setting in order to get around traditional girl behavior. This contributed to the kind of European look (along with the hair-differentiation thing listed above). In many stories, the blond ones are kind of suspect, and black hair signals normality or trustworthiness (as a very general thing, with plenty of exceptions...). Overall, you'll find a lot of blond magicians and bad guys. Girl-Ranma's red hair also tells you that she isn't the real Ranma.

The romantic girl-stories also started the huge eyes thing; the bigger the eyes, the more emotion could be conveyed. Thus, the sensitive characters are usually the ones with the biggest eyes, and bad guys don't usually have them. This, too, is a general thing with lots of exceptions.

I don't think appeal to Americans had a lot to do with it; I understand artists are often floored to discover that their stuff sells in the US.

Another interesting note is that characters with occult powers are sometimes seen wearing crosses, because Christianity is seen as a weird, slightly occult thing--just as Americans tend to be suspicious of polytheistic religions. 100-pound Gospel illustrates this too.

Tabris
07-11-2001, 02:33 PM
The idea that most anime characters look "American" is a common misconception. Stopping to REALLY think about the typical stylized anime appearance will reveal the truth:

They barely even look HUMAN, nevermind American or Japanese. :)

C'mon. Huge eyes, tiny lipless mouth, weird nose, physics-defying hair in bizzare colors, and so on. Freaky, I tell you!

Anime is highly stylized, often in a relatively culture-neutral way. The features are exaggereted to the point where they don't really reflect any ethnic group accurately. And because it's human nature to project our own identity onto what we see, Americans perceive the stylized anime characters are American-looking, while Japanese generally see the characters as Japanese.

There are exceptions to this, mind you; some anime are drawn in a much more realistic fashion, in which case the ethnicity of the characters is apparent. Also, some series actually DO feature non-Japanese characters. (Take Duo Maxwell from Gundam Wing) But in general, my point stands.

Gaudere
07-11-2001, 04:10 PM
[Moderator Hat ON]

This is not really a Great Debates, IMHO; it might make a fun GQ if there was a hard-and-fast answer, but since there's a lot of opinions and arguments being made, I'm sendning it to IMHO.

[Moderator Hat OFF]

Gozu Tashoya
07-11-2001, 05:33 PM
From AnimeNation's "Ask John" column. Of course John often strikes me as pulling info out of his, um, out of thin air, and doesn't like breaking his columns up into paragraphs that much, so take his answers w/ a grain of salt.

Why do Anime Characters Have Unnatural Hair Colors? (http://animenation.net/news/aj-index.php3?id=236)

Why Do Japanese Characters Have Big Eyes? (http://animenation.net/news/aj-index.php3?id=153"]Why do Anime Characters Look Occidental?[/url]

[url="http://animenation.net/news/aj-index.php3?id=41) (Not as good an answer as the Occidental one, btw.)

And, hey, why not? Why Do Anime Girls Have Big Breasts? (http://animenation.net/news/aj-index.php3?id=180)

I think there was something that pissed me off about that last one, but I don't remember what. Oh well.

Gozu Tashoya
07-11-2001, 05:38 PM
Heh. Don't need target attributes in vB, huh?

Why do Anime Characters Look Occidental? (http://animenation.net/news/aj-index.php3?id=153)

Sublight
07-11-2001, 11:33 PM
Often, when the artist wants to show that a character is a westerner (as opposed to a generic character who just happens to be blond), they draw the person with a large nose and an extra circle around the pupils of their eyes. They also usually have them speaking very heavily accented Japanese with lots of random English thrown in.

What's interesting is that non-Japanese Asians are often portrayed the way westerners might imagine "orientals" (small straight lines for eyes, etc.)

--sublight.

DKW
07-12-2001, 03:39 AM
It's really a matter of individual style more than anything. Rumiko Takahashi (I own a whole bunch of her works, BTW) uses a somewhat abstract style, to the point where the characters don't look like any ethnic group in particular. I noticed too that, probably because she has SO many works with an almost incredible number of characters, many of them look pretty much the same. (I read some of Wasted Minds, and I swear the entire main cast was ripped straight from Maison Ikkoku.) Kosuke Fujishima's characters look Japanese but with the stylistic features used by many others (big, bright eyes, exaggerated postures and expressions, floating sweatdrops, etc.). "Serious" anime uses realistically proportioned characters for the most part; cf. Fist of the North Star or Jojo's Bizarre Adventure.

Of course, with the really cartoony stuff, all bets are off. I've seen a few episodes of Samurai Pizza Cats, and it was as tripped-out as Tiny Toon Adventures. Pokemon isn't quite in the same league, but it's close.

Gozu Tashoya
07-12-2001, 03:44 AM
Y'know, it frightens me seeing Fist of the North Star being categorized as serious anime. Good head exploding fun, if you ask me. :D

That is a good point, though. You know, about the proportions in serious anime and all?

Ah geez, I'm going to sleep....

puk
07-12-2001, 09:41 AM
Originally posted by Tamex

Perhaps this may have been a factor in something like that international marketing phenomenon "Pokemon". I have heard that the whole "getting rid of Brock and replacing him with Tracey" fiasco stemmed from the fact that some people didn't think that Americans would like Brock's squinty eyes. It turned out that Americans really liked Brock's character, squinty eyes and all, but the Orange Island episodes featuring Tracey were already made. Therefore, it was a while before Brock could be brought back.


Hmmm, funny you should mention this. I believe Pokemon is not really Japanese. I think it's an invention of Wizards of the Coast and is as American as apple pie. WotC wanted to make a game a-la magic the gathering that would apeal to kids. The names/anime style are there for marketing purposes only.


Has anyone noticed that the badguys in manga and anime allways have teeny weeny squinty eyes?

puk
07-12-2001, 09:43 AM
OK, sorry I just checked the site copyright notice (http://wizards.com/pokemon/main.asp?x=intro). Says Nintendo right there at the bottom. Marketing is still pretty damned good though.

Tabris
07-12-2001, 12:19 PM
Uhm, yeah. ^_^;; Pokemon was initially a Japanese video game created for Nintendo's Game Boy by Satoshi Taijiri. (For whom the main character in the game was named) The marketing blitz here OR there didn't even come into it until the game had become rather popular.

Additionally, the anime is also authentic. I've seen it raw. (The incomparable Megumi Hayashibara is great as the female half of Team Rocket) Any other shtuff may or may not be Japanese, though. I'm not sure.

On another topic, bad guys DON'T always have squinty eyes. Many do, but there's plenty of villains who don't (often though not always comedic villains) as well as protagonists who do. It depends on the genre, and sometimes the series. Also how you define "squinty" eyes. ^_^

Gozu Tashoya
07-12-2001, 01:31 PM
Besides that, they expected Pokemon to do rather poorly. Reportedly, everybody was surprised by its popularity.

And what does it mean in, say, a cultural imperialistic sense, when we think that Pokemon is as "American as apple pie"? :eek:

DKW
07-13-2001, 12:11 AM
KKBatousai - By "serious" I meant "mean to be taken seriously", i.e. anything stylistically opposite of the likes of Takahashi and Fujishima. Sorry I couldn't think of a better example than Fist of the North Star...haven't seen much anime lately.

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