I've always been curious where the large eye small mouth form that I love so much came from. I did some research and this is what I came up with.
The History of Anime
“The Japanese animation industry is a $5.2 billion dollar industry” (Rowley). It has a history that spans over nine decades, one world war and countless trends of the Japanese people. Anime as a form of art and entertainment has spanned nearly one hundred years as a means of social commentary and created a unique visual style. To understand how Anime is a means of contemporary commentary, it is essential to examine the events that have shaped its form and function.
Anime started in 1914 in Japan. The Japanese borders were opened in 1854. This made the animation techniques that developed in the West easy to transport to Japan by 1914. “The earliest works, inspired by the American and European pioneers, were produced by film hobbyists. The very first three animated films created in Japan fit on one reel and were between one to five minutes long.”(Patten) The content of these works were primarily of old folk tales and samurai legends. In the 1920s, Japanese animators started taking more ambitious steps increasing the length of the films up to three reels. Some imitation of American cartoons began as well. Common adaptations of Felix the Cat started to arise. In Figure 1 (below), it is clear to see how Japanese animators were influenced by American animators. The Black and white style was a must but the rounded heads and animal adaptations of people was Japan’s first signature to making a style all to their own. Despite the mimicking of American styles many of the films remained about Asian folk tales and traditional Japanese stories.
In the 1930s Anime started to gain more appeal. The one to five minute shorts about common folk tales gave way to a more Western like style. The change in style meant that Anime was now going in a comedic fashion used to lighten people’s moods on intense topics like war. In 1934, Mituyo Seo produced an 11-minute cartoon called Private 2nd-Class Norakuro. The cartoon was an adaptation of Suihou Tagawa’s newspaper strip about animals as military officers. In 1937, after Japan went to war with China, the government made a mandate that all productions were to be approved by the government. Because of this mandate Anime took a turn towards militaristic propaganda. It was a goal of Anime to put together shorts that could promote Japan and Japanese efforts during World War II. After World War II, in 1947 Anime made a huge jump in popularity. It also developed the style which is most recognized today. This is attributed to the efforts of one man, Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was a factory worker during the war and was on his way to becoming a doctor when he started to mimic American style cartoons. It was in 1947 that Tezuka created the popular graphic novel, Shintakarajima (New Treasure Island). This novel laid the ground work for the contemporary art forms of Anime today with his signature large eyes and heads. In 1963, Tezuka produced the first internationally popular Anime called Testuwan Atom, later to be adapted in the United States as Astro Boy.
In 1970 Anime introduced its most popular style of work yet: Mecha. Mecha, which is short for mechanical, involved large robots that were used in times of war. The TV series Mobile Suit Gundam debuted in 1979 giving rise to a huge audience that brought new viewers to the art form. Also in the 1970s a theme variation started to show itself through Anime. Writers began to twist the good guy/bad guy roles and relationships. The idea of a troubled hero presented itself in shows like Lupin Sansei where a human infected with a demon had to use the evil inside him to defeat other demons.
Finally in the 1980s and 1990s Anime took another stride into popular culture. Akira, a film released in 1988, brought viewers into a post apocalyptic Tokyo where biker gangs ruled the streets and a young boy begins to develop psychic powers. Akira’s release found huge success with Japanese audiences as well as the foreign market. The movie brought new viewers to the genre and an even larger fan base began to develop. Anime felt a second boom in the 1990s due to the film Ghost in the Shell.
Learning to recognize anime is important to see how its history can been seen even today while still being used as a form of social commentary. Recognizing Anime is not difficult, just learn what exactly the visual characteristics of Anime are. Anime, as it currently is, is traced back to Osamu Tezuka. We should look at the decisions he made when he first started to animate as the basis of the visual characteristics. As Sanchez has noted, Tezuka used the influences he had as a child to make his first drawings. He felt that large heads and expressive faces were going to be very important to his stories.
“The unusually large eyes especially were of note, as Tezuka wanted to be able to display a range of emotions for his characters, and felt that large eyes were essential to achieving this.” (Sanchez) These choices were going to be the base works that current anime design is based off of. Enlarging the head so that more facial expressions could be seen is a strategy still used today.
In Figure 2 (again, seen below), it is clear how Tezuka’s decisions have remained true even today. The main character in the center is a classic example of the large eye and slightly larger head style. It should also be noted how the Anime style takes on a males view of the idealistic female form when referring to its female characters. Many of the characters have enlarged breasts, shrunken waists and fit and tone bodies. Anime has also been noted to have male characters that are often feminine in nature and appearance. In Figure 3, the lack a strong jaw line and facial hair contribute to the feminine approach to the effeminate male form. It might also be noted that this character doesn’t have overdeveloped muscles as one might expect to see after seeing the idealized female form. It should be noted that these are generalizations about the form and examples of more realistic proportioned characters can be found. In some cases it is essential to use an idealistic form to show a social commentary. Currently the Anime form is in a trend that makes the effeminate male the ultimate evil and a masculine male hero character must overcome him.
Anime today covers many social topics and genre. It has always tried to be used in some manner of social commentary. In the 1930s we saw how Anime was used as war propaganda. In the 1950s and 1960s it was a developing style breaking away from the American notion of animation while still taking some cues from Disney and other U.S. companies. In the 1970s a break from the “Kawaii” culture in Japan began to be seen. Films like Akira started to show Japanese frustrations and comment on social issues. The idea that Anime didn’t need to be just for children developed and new genres developed.
Sanchez talks about the break from children only to a more adult themed show. The show Cutey Honey features a large breasted female that changes appearance at her will. Today shows like Ouran High School Host Club comment on the issues of femininity and gender roles as one new female student is mistaken for a male and asked to work in a Japanese host club to pay a debt off. Also shows like Mai Hime, the story of a female in high school who develops powers to fight off creatures that threaten the world, address gender roles for heroes and even cover homosexuality in a high school setting.
Anime is an art form, an entertainment business and a means of making social commentary. Its long history has allowed it to develop and change into the billion dollar industry it is today. The clear large eye-small mouth style pays homage to Anime’s beginnings while subtle manipulations in artistic form addresses topics like homosexuality and gender roles allowing it to be the contemporary Japanese art form it is today.
Hsiao, Amber. “Anime Industry Reaches Tipping Point” Asian Week 4.5 (2007): 29.
Patten, Fred. “A Capsule History of Anime” ¬Animation World Network. 1996.
Animation Magazine. 12 April 2008.
Sanchez, Frank. “History 101: The History of Anime” ¬Anime Info 2003.
Anime Info. 12 April 2008.
Rowley, Ian. “The Anime Biz” Business Week (June 27, 2005): Cover Story