No matter what art teachers like to say, manga is indeed an art form. As an amateur artist and as a person who studied art for four years, I can safely say that manga is very much an art form and like all art forms it goes through different movements and styles adhering to the time period. So with this article, let’s explore how anime’s art style has changed over the decades.
The best place to start this journey is the catalyst of modern anime: Mighty Atom–or as it’s better known as with Western audiences, Astro Boy. Originally released as a manga in 1952, it is said that writer Osamu Tezuka took inspiration from Disney animations, especially that of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which released 15 years prior. Oddly enough, Tezuka and Walt Disney met and Disney said he would like to create something similar to Astro Boy. The series was adapted as an anime in 1963, keeping very much to the original manga style; however, anime in the ’60s didn’t have the iconic eyes which are synonymous with the manga style. Whereas the eyes were big, the pupils were very basic–a simple black iris. Its seen with Tezuka’s other well known series Kimba the White Lion (Oh the controversy!) as well as other anime released in the ’60s such as Judo Boy and Moomin.
Fast forward a decade or so, and we begin to see the notable features of the anime look. The 1979 Mobile Suit Gundam series and The Rose of Versailles begin to add colour into the already large eyes. It could be argued that the coloured eyes in The Rose of Versailles is due to the fact it is set in France, and therefore, the look of the characters needed to be more European. But this change has carried forward with anime where Mukokuseki is commonplace. Having eyes of different colours can be useful for two reasons- different colours can make a face more expressive and having different colour eyes can add to a character’s personality (red eyes = evil, purple eyes = mysterious) alongside allowing for more differentiation between similar looking characters.
The ’80s started to bring about anime’s biggest change–when anime divided into different genres. (You can read more about codifying anime in fellow writer Michael’s History of the Genre series.) Just as eyes can reflect a character’s personality, the art style can portray a certain mood which in turn is used on varying genres. Take, for example, the world’s most depressing anime film–Grave of the Fireflies–and something very light-hearted such as Damekko Doubutsu. The art does a very good job of portraying the tone of each. Grave of the Fireflies is well known for its heart-wrenching plot–the story of a teenage boy and his younger sister trying to survive during the Second World War. Naturally, the overall tone of the film is very sombre, and the graphic detail emphasizes this feeling. This is at the heart of the traditional Ghibli style, where the human characters are drawn pretty simplistically but detail is given in the correct places at the correct time, depending on the situation–and, of course, the genre. Contrasting this is Damekko Doubutsu. Whereas it is not an anime from the same time period, it is a great example for the expressing how art and genre go hand in hand. Colours are bright, backgrounds are drawn in a very cartoony manner, and the characters themselves are drawn in a way that emphasises that nothing on the show is to be taken seriously. Hell, the character designs look like they’re nothing more than humans in animal costumes when they are in fact supposed to be animals; that’s how little the series is supposed to be seen as serious. Now imagine the two art styles of Grave of the Fireflies and Damekko Doubutsu switched. Exactly. The tones of each would not work. Imagine it: Setsuko malnourished and crying out for her brother in bright tones and an animal onesie or Sakamata, an orca who wears a rubber ring because he can’t swim, in dark tones and detail. Doesn’t really work does it? Genre will always affect art style, and due to the sheer increase in genre divisions since the ’80s, anime styles have continually adapted to their new classifications.
Moving forward through the ’80s, anime transformed more into what we see today: semi-realistic features such as more detailed noses and “normal” hair seemed to be replaced with simplistically drawn noses and the hair we all know and love as the infamous “anime hair.” Akira Toriyama seemed to pioneer this style with the Dragonball saga. His character designs had traces of the ’70s look with the understated dark eyes (with the exception of some characters such as Bulma), but he fashioned the hair to defy gravity. Just take a look at Goku and Vegeta. Most of their look appears normal: dark eyes in proportion and smaller noses, then everything gets a big pile of “What the hell?” when it gets to the hair. For the most part, Toriyama’s hair designs are pretty normal bar the colour choices, but Goku’s just isn’t. I have a belief this may have been the starting point for subsequent unrealistic anime hair. Just look at the 90s anime: Yugi in Yu-Gi-Oh, Edward in Cowboy Bebop, Tai in Digimon. The list goes on.
As mentioned earlier, anime drew inspiration from Disney and vice versa so it’s no surprise that it was in the ’90s that Disney was entering their golden era with the releases of The Lion King, Aladdin and Little Mermaid. Disney’s art style had adopted a softer and friendlier look, taking some techniques from anime. I mean, just look at Simba. How adorable is he? Even the humans characters seem to have adorable eyes. No wonder Jasmine fell for Aladdin and those puppy dog eyes. Anime’s art style followed suit to this in the new millennium. Eyes were very much a prominent feature of manga-style anatomy. The style had more of a fantasy look to it, meaning hair and eyes could take on pretty much any form- moving from anime’s more realistic roots. Fair to say, this may be due to the sheer boom in fantasy anime in the 2000s–the art had to of course keep up with it. A great example of this would be Fullmetal Alchemist (an all time favourite series of mine.) Despite the very comedic moments, for the most part, FMA can be pretty heavy on the drama. The art doesn’t follow this pattern as it would with Grave of the Fireflies. Instead the trend is in the various big eyes of different colours that the 2000s revolutionised. Edward Elric, the comedic serious of the show, still has really big eyes. Golden eyes at that. It proves that anime art started to move from portraying itself based on genre and went with trend instead. Love Hina, a much cheerier anime for instance was released as an anime series three years before but the art style remains pretty much the same, especially with the eyes. The only noticeable different is that a vast majority of the eyes in Love Hina are dark. This, however, can be down to the fact it is set in Japan, while Fullmetal Alchemist is based on an alternative Europe therefore needing the different shaded eyes for authenticity.
Slowly through the 2000’s the eyes gradually got larger to the point where it is not uncommon to see eyes which are half of a character’s face. Hell, The Queen and Her Slave from Romantic Beauty even parodies this with a skit about a huge contact lens. This is what I would call anime’s modern movement. Relatively little has changed in anime design since the early 2000s. The only differences are how the aforementioned eye size increase and how clear and sharp image quality is. This is due to HD technology and to anime being coloured via computers now. Whereas the old look hand painted look will be a timeless missed classic, there is no denying that modern colouring methods are stunning. To truly appreciate it, you have compare reboots of old series. InuYasha and Sailor Moon are proof of how much the quality of anime art has improved over the decades and will more than likely continue to grow.
…Except Pokémon. That art style got worse with time.
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