You know, for a medium made in Japan, anime characters don’t tend to look very Japanese. Though, I’d argue they don’t look much like any human in real life. While the art style varies from artist to artist, the general portrayal of larger than life eyes with perfectly miniscule facial features is pretty unanimous. And, well, it doesn’t look like it’s trying to mimic any particular aesthetic. I’d go as far as to say that’s the beauty of said animation style, in the first place.
See, here’s the thing: the reason why anime characters don’t look Japanese is because anime is just an illustrative style where the characters are designed to look ideal to the Japanese populace. And with the way it is marketed, the animation style needs to be simplified to a certain degree. Hence why there isn’t a lot of variation, and why the characters don’t look inherently Japanese. They are an abstract version of Japanese people’s beauty standards, crossed over with the remnants of the classic Walt Disney style of animation. Combine the two and you have anime.
But why is it so ubiquitous? How did anime nail down one of the most iconic and recognizable animation styles of all time, to the point it has become its own genre in film and media? When you look at the trajectory of animation in history, there has never been an art style that a nation could truly claim as their own, except anime. In Japan, all animated works are called anime, even foreign 3D productions from companies like Pixar. So, the description for anime is yet another thing, with no one truly agreeing to a consensus of what makes an anime, an anime.
But here’s the thing: Anime itself is a very distinct style that does consistent releases over a short period of time. So, the character designs have to be simple enough to redraw frames fast, while still keeping everything unique. On top of that, it has to appeal to their target demographic, which is Japanese. This is why anime characters don’t look Japanese, but an idealized version of them. So, let’s break down this preference in another segment of F.Y.I.!
Anime: From ‘Foreign Cartoons’ To A Multi-Billion Dollar Industry
So, the popularization of anime didn’t happen overnight, and anime itself took a long route to becoming what it is today. The earliest pieces of Japanese animation happen to be a commercial, all the way back in 1917. But the anime character designs we’ve grown accustomed to today were fully conceptualized by Osamu Tezuka, who was inspired by the Disney wave in the West. However, that’s not to say the style is completely borrowed. Quite the opposite, actually.
Animation had been a thing since the early 1900s in Japan, but the idea of having an entire company based on creating animated works is what led to the eventual rise of the first Japanese animation company, Tōei Dōga, in 1948. Though, you might know it today as Toei Animation, home to series such as Dragon Ball, Mazinger Z and Sailor Moon. The Super Robot craze came and promised a lot more profit than what a regularly watched series could have given, leading to decade old franchises such as Mobile Suit Gundam to really cement themselves as mainstays.
And then came the Economic Boom of the 1980s, which really led to anime becoming a household term in Japan. The advent of manga, catering to men and women alike, led to more and more anime being produced, commercializing the industry like never before. And for a while, it felt like this was as good as it was going to get. Anime was pretty big locally, with features like Studio Ghibli movies getting the occasional nod internationally. But nobody anticipated the appeal becoming a global phenomenon.
Anime Characters: Appealing The Japanese And Beyond
So, how did an animation style that was so vague in its character designs become a mainstay of global pop culture in the 2010s? The characters were clearly designed to Japanese preferences, right? So, how did the rest of the world catch up to the potential of anime? Well, there is a lot more to it than just ‘broad appeal’.
As previously discussed, anime characters are deliberately designed a little more simplistically when compared to other popular animation styles because it’s easier to animate on a whole. So, anime characters don’t end up looking completely true to how a Japanese person would look, but they do inhabit beauty standards preferred by Japanese people. So think brighter skin, larger eyes, clean colors, etc. But because there are so many artists and mangaka out there, who add their own spin to the traditional style, we get more variation.
This became heavily evident in the 1990s, when anime started incorporating more and more people of different colors and ethnicities. Like, it was scarce but series like Oh! My Goddess, Nadia Of The Blue Waters and Revolutionary Girl Utena started gaining traction for featuring characters of darker skin tones. However, anime truly exploded internationally thanks to the advent of the Big 3, shounen anime that became the backbone of anime’s popular rise into the mainstream.
And that included Bleach, which featured multiple characters that weren’t just colored differently, but even styled in a way that made them stand out. An example of this was Kaname Tōsen, who not only had dark skin, but braids and facial features that were clearly Afro-American inspired. Then there was Yasutora Sado, who was canonically Mexican and drawn to resemble his heritage. So, there were plenty of characters in that anime, and not a lot of them looked Japanese. Because often, they weren’t.
Though, this was still in the early stages of anime getting big. Nowadays, we have many examples of distinct and varied anime that have become appealing to audiences that aren’t strictly Japanese. Though it’s not just the looks that matter here. A lot of what attracts people to anime is how relatable it can be. The feelings of otherness, a sense of longing or nostalgia, all of those are very distinctly humane and grounded in reality. Like, not everything has to be a Shounen-inspired fight fest, 24/7.
The heartfelt stories, and emotions that these anime characters might be going through, are universal. There are just some anime out there that transcend arbitrary things such as age or creed. So, while some had the misconception that anime was strictly for children, that was never the case. There are plenty of anime that you can’t show to a younger audience because of their violence or maturity rating.
But then, there are many that invite both children and adults to look and get their own meaning from them. There are so many anime that feel so simple, but raw with their deliverance. I know I talked about Studio Ghibli before, but there’s a reason why there are parents in this world right now, Japanese or otherwise, that still watch My Neighbour Totoro with their own kids. So, it’s no surprise that many anime characters now have different character designs to be more inclusive of the newer international audience that has started enjoying them.
In the end, maybe anime characters did start out being an abstract version of what Japanese people considered ideal. But anime has gotten much bigger than its host audience. So, it incorporates its new audience as well. While you might say that early anime has a bit of an issue with ‘same face-ness’, that certainly isn’t the case anymore!