A Second Glance

April 24th, 2009 – Culture

Anime Characters Don’t Really Look Western

The above video clip was recently posted to the forums. It is an odd music video mini-rant about how people keep saying (and writing, and discussing) how anime characters look Western. She (he?—for ease of discussion, let’s assume it was a she) brings up and refutes the biggest arguements for anime characters being Western, and its worth looking over her shoulder at the original arguments and her reactions.

Big eyes. Apparently the arguement goes, that since anime characters have large eyes, and Westerners have large(r) eyes, anime characters are Western. However, there are a couple problems with this. One point the YouTuber brought up was that Westerners don’t actually have bigger eyes, and to some extent I agree with her. While her juxtaposition of squinty white men next to wide-eyed Japanese girls was a bit anecdotal (men generally have narrower eyes, don’t they? Especially in anime) it is true that the size of Western/Eastern eyes doesn’t differ much, though the shape does. Besides, NO ONE has Fruit Basket sized eyes.

The YouTuber also brought the good point that eyes are big because bigger eyes express emotion better. This is born out by the fact that the biggest eyes occur in the girliest manga, where it is considered strange if the main character isn’t functionally manic-depressive. The more realistic an anime’s art style – Ghost in the Shell, Grave of the Fireflies – the more normal the eye size. Also, large eyes are used for girls and girly manga because our brains are wired to think of large eyes in small faces as cute – it is the same proportions as puppies, kittens, and human children.

Hair color. Anime is known for having absurd hair colors. Since Northeast Asians all have black hair (which they don’t, actually. Shades between red and black are all possible, though the former is unlikely) , anime characters must be Western. WRONG! Even ignoring the fact that Japanese kids often dye their hair kinds of crazy colors, it’s not like Westerns have pink hair either. Also, as the YouTuber points out, hair color and style is often used to help identify characters, especially in shojo manga where most characters are pretty and thus look remarkably similar. Plus, it is also possible to get anime without funky hair colors – Maison Ikkoku comes to mind. The craziest hair is usually connected to fantasy and sci-fi.

Light skin. Now, I’m willing to concede the fact that Northeastern Asians generally have slightly darker skin (though their standards of beauty have them bleaching it while we tan, so it’s all relative) but there’s more than enough variation that seeing a lighter skinned character in an anime doesn’t say much about their race. The YouTuber also brings up the point that pale skin is prized in Japan, and has been so for centuries. Light skin is a sign of beauty.

The YouTuber also give the somewhat related point that the profile of Westerners is very bumpy (eyes, brow ridges, etc.) while Northeast Asians have much smoother profiles with picture evidence. And, since anime characters have smooth edges to their faces, they are clearly Japanese. There is some merit in this, though there are also problems. Anime characters’ faces are probably smooth to make them easier and faster to draw. Also, Western standards of beauty prefer much thinner faces, which means more prominent facial structure.

She also mentions that fact that the Japanese generally find it easier to cosplay and that their idea of beauty, for both men and women, differs significantly from Western standards. In Japan, men are perferred to be slight and a bit delicate, while in the West the ideal is very masculine. Women in Japan’s ideal is the idea of kawaii – very youthful, almost childish, with light skin, while women in American are tanned, busty, and unhealthily thin. Both of these ideals are very obviously bourne out in anime. In the showing this semester, even the “manly characters” (e.g., the King of En, Kamina) are still much prettier and slight than they would be in a Western cartoon.

The YouTuber brings up a few more minor points, but this is the bulk of her argument, and it is a good one. I’ve definitely heard – from my father no less – that anime characters look Western. But, the more you think about it, the less they look Western and the more they look…like anime characters. Nothing more, and nothing less.

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3 Responses to “A Second Glance”

  1. beru says:

    I am not a Cornell student, but I found this website when I was searching for opinions about Evangelion from the U.S. I am a student from an international school in Tokyo.

    Regarding the video and this article, I suppose that most characters in anime never occurred to me as being Westerners unless they were particularly intended to be so.

    Of course, “attractive” in really typical Japanese standards is, as you said, big eyes, small faces, tall noses, long legs, etc. I will admit that in Japan, we stereotype that these are characteristics that all foreigners have, but of course, there are Japanese people who have these characteristics as well (look at most models).

    Also. flat faces are not considered to be beautiful in (modern) Japan, so I don’t think that the face line mentioned in video has anything to do with trying to make the characters look Japanese but instead is just like that because it’s easier to draw the picture.

    Probably the girls with big eyes in the photos were products of アイプチ (eye putty) or surgery, but of course there are many people in Japan who have big eyes naturally.

    About light skin, in traditional culture, it is considered beautiful, but more and more young people prefer to tan in Japan, especially in the summer. But most people have naturally light skin, unless they spend a lot of time in the sun, so I guess that is evident in animation.

    But when it comes down to it, thinking about these things isn’t really necessary for Japanese people. Most anime characters are Japanese, unless they are specifically supposed to be something else. If they have Japanese names, Japanese lifestyles, or Japanese settings, they are Japanese.

  2. beru says:

    Beru –

    The series Peach Girl actually does discuss tanning and such. The character Momo is tan, though not from her own will. She is always concerned about being liked and having the issue of not being liked by men because she is stereotyped as whorish due to her tanned skin, versus her friend and rival, Sae, who has pale skin and is considered to be cute and much more pure. What you are thinking of are Gyaru, which do tan, but it’s mainly to differentiate themselves. Gyaru, particularly Ganguro, is on it’s way out. Part of the appeal now is Gothic Lolita and Visual Kei, which preaches paleness more than anything, which is much more in line with Japanese beliefs of pale skin = beautiful than tan skin. Actually, Tan Skin in Japan usually is more in line with the stereotype of being an airhead or a slut, similar to the Blonde stereotype in the US.

    In addition, the flat faces stereotype is STILL more attractive, still due to the amount of anime that you’re going to see as well as Japanese culture by and large. As the video stated, Japan is a culture that places more value on Cuteness (kawaii or moe) rather than the US which places more value on being ‘hot’ or ’sexy.’ The standard of beauty in the west is a white standard of beauty, as opposed to Japan, where the standard of beauty is clearly Japanese. If anything, the Japanese are actually very ambivalent towards Westerners and their looks.

    Also, the eye putty – all it does is add an eyelid fold. It doesn’t make the eyes actually any larger. There are a lot of Japanese people that do naturally have larger eyes, with or without surgery. Part of the Western standard of beauty is thin eyes, but what matters is light colored eyes. Larger eyes are often more dynamic and more in line with cute.

  3. Kurisu says:

    Such a strange thing, I’ve never heard of this… Japanese want to be white? Why would they? We are strange and interesting, but most of my Japanese friends consider the average foreigner of any country to be…well.. socially uncouth. We typically aren’t good enough for them. Haha, I think the problem is the opposite.. I think a lot of Western youth want to be like those pretty, cheerful Japanese girls, who always seem so happy. As fashion-forward and popular as the anime girls.

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