Anime’s Visual Language

Anime and manga have a unique visual language that conveys character emotions and thoughts. Many of us “regular” anime watchers are so familiar with these symbols that we don’t give them a second thought. These symbols (like the vein popping out, as shown to the left) can make anime confusing for people new to anime. I found my first experience with chibi swaps jarring and uncomfortable. Some symbols are easier to understand than others. We will cover the most common and incomprehensible symbols in this article.

Easily Understandable

  1. Speed lines
  2. Abstract Background Patterns
  3. Eye symbols
  4. Crying large tear drops
  5. Sparking a rivalry

What happened?

  1. Popping vein
  2. Sweat Drop
  3. Cat Mouth/Fangs
  4. Nose balloon
  5. Ghost coming out of mouth

What the….?

  1. Bleeding nose
  2. Falling flat
  3. Colored lines dropping over character
  4. Chibi deformation

These and other symbols appear in various degrees in anime and manga. Some genres, such as comedies and “slice of life” stories, show them more often than others . Action and drama occasionally use these symbols for comic relief, for example Bleach or Death Note.

Speed Lines

Speed lines are lines that appear in the background or over a character to denote speed. Speed lines are more common in older anime than in modern anime. Speed lines are used to keep the feel of reading a manga or simply keep the animation budget down. In modern anime, where action is expected to be crisply animated, speed lines are used for comedic effect or to accent an intense action sequence.Speed lines are common in American comics as well. They are simply a good way to convey motion in a motionless media.

Abstract Background Patterns
Sometimes in scenes the background abruptly switches to an abstract background. This swap is used to emphasize what the character is feeling. Often the background is composed of symbols from our list above. Swirls are used when a character is confused or overwhelmed. Speed lines are used to show the character’s energetic mood. Backgrounds vary based on context. Most of the time, they are easily understandable.

Sometimes these backgrounds are animated to further show what the characters are thinking or feeling. Fast animations or twirling spirals show how quickly the character’s mind is working, much like gears in a clock. Wavy lines show irritation or upset emotions. Colors such as bright red are used for anger. Darker colors like purples or blues are used to show the characters are feeling sick, upset, or depressed. Background swaps are usually abrupt.

Eye Symbols
The eyes in manga and anime are used to convey a wide range of thoughts and emotions. Eyes have gotten larger since the 80’s and allow artists to show emotions clearly…if you know the icongraphy. Most tend to be obvious from reality. People’s eyes lift up into arcs when they are happy and fall downward when sad. Pupils constrict and eyes widen when we are scared. In anime these subtle queues are exaggerated. The slight upward or downward arc becomes a complete arc. Constricted pupils and widened eyes become enormous eyes with tiny dots for pupils. Some symbols are not so obvious, however. X’ed eyes or spiral eyes are used to show dread, illness, and confusion. Sometimes the eyes completely disappear when a character bows their head in sadness or depression. The eyes are replaced with vertical lines and blue or purple colors to show depression or sadness. Eyes with sparkles and white dots are cute. Often they are flashed to help a character get their way. Think Puss-in-Boots from Shrek.

Many of the eye symbols in anime have made it online as emoticons:

  • ^_^   very happy.
  • -_-    apathetic or irritated
  • O_O  afraid. very awake, surprised
  • O_o   confused and mildly disturbed by something
  • @_@ confused, dizzy or overwhelmed  – in anime these are spirals
  • X_X   dead figuratively or literally

Crying Large Teardrops
This one is pretty self explanatory. Waterfalls of tears shows how upset a character is. Most of the time it is used for comedy. Normal sized tears are more common in dramas and more serious scenes.

Sparking a rivalry


This one is pretty easy to understand as well. Anime and manga just takes the phrase literally. Two characters glare at each other and a spark passes between then. Soon after they fight. This is usually used when 2 characters first start their rivalry. This is common in shows like Pokemon and Yugioh.

The Strange

The next set of symbols are a little stranger for people new to anime and manga. They are not as easy to understand as speed lines and eye symbols. Like eye symbols, these symbols are iconic to anime. Anime’s icongraphy ( as it is called) nicely conveys emotion and thoughts… but only if it is well understood. To those of us used to them, they seem natural. It is easy to forget that anime is extremely exaggerated compared to most other art styles.. Most symbols are visually showing phrases we say such as “wound up” or “forked tongue.”

Popping vein


Technically speaking this symbol is called a cruciform popping vein. Like other symbols it is exaggerating reality. When some people are irritated or angry veins tend to pop out as their blood pressure increases. Often on their forehead and hands. As more popping veins…pop out… on a character, they are growing more and more irritated or angry. Most often these symbols show up on the heads of characters ( over their hair  etc) and on clenched fists. Rocking cruciform veins show winding irritation or anger. These characters are “wound up” as we like to say in America.

Sweat Drop

This is another iconic symbol. It means the character is embarrassed. The number and size of the sweat drops shows just how embarrassed they feel. Sometimes these are used with a blush across the character’s face. Blush colors determine what type of embarrassment is being experienced. blue blushes are severe embarrassment mixed with anger. Red blushes are romantic embarrassment. Both blushes and sweat drops can be occupied with a popping vein if the character is feeling angry embarrassment. Sweat drops appear in the same locations as popping veins.

Cat Mouth/Fangs

This is one of the odder ones. Abruptly characters (usually female) swap in a cat mouth or grow fangs. This swap doesn’t mean the character is a cat demon or a vampire. Rather, she is feeling “catty.” This is yet another literal visual interpretation of a common phrase. Cat fangs or mouths just show the character is feeling mischievous.

Nose Balloon
Nose balloons are the Japanese ZZzzzzZZz symbol. The character is sleeping. When the balloon pops, the character wakes up. I am not exactly sure where they got this symbol, other than a snot bubble.

Ghost coming out of mouth

This is a play on the saying “scared to death.” This symbol often looks sort of like the character it belongs to. The ghost usually appears when someone is extremely shocked or horrified. The character isn’t usually actually scared. More like shocked to death. These scenes can involve someone trying to stuff the soul back into the body for further comedy.

Finally, these symbols are the most jarring and difficult to understand at first. They involve drastic (very drastic) changes to the look and feel of the anime or manga before jarring the viewer back to the more “normal” style. These abrupt switches can leave new viewers lost, but each has specific purposes in conveying situations and emotions.

Bleeding nose


Anime characters seem to just spout blood from their noses at random times to have the blood disappear like it never existed. These nose bleeds can easily kill a normal mortal. Nose bleeds are one of the more obscure symbols. They represent perverseness. As to why anime and manga artists selected nose bleeds is a matter of opinion. Censorship may play a role. Or their mothers always told them, “if you have dirty thoughts you will get a bloody nose.” Just like your mother told you that “if you don’t behave you will get nothing but a lump of coal for Christmas.”

Falling Flat
Japan is known for having earthquakes, but that isn’t what is happening when characters randomly fall on their face. Falling flat is a way to show irony or a reaction to a (bad) pun. I have felt that way about some jokes and puns I have heard.

Colored Lines dropping over character/Color Face
This symbol is very situational. Similar to backgrounds these lines and color fills represent the thoughts and emotions the character is feeling. Red vertical lines typically mean anger or embarrassment. Blue wavy lines shows awkwardness, depression, or sadness. Purple shows shock and feeling sick in the stomach. Horizontal lines can mean the character’s attention is grabbed by something. These lines are accompanied by sweat drops, popping veins, and other symbols. They are rarely used alone. Their main purpose is to emphasize the other symbols.

Chibi deformation


This is the most troubling of symbols for new viewers. The style change is so drastic it makes you wonder if you accidentally sat on the tv remote! These short, round and cute versions of characters are called chibis. They are used to convey a comedy break in an otherwise serious story, a very ironic situations, and just generally lighthearted scenes. Some comedy anime are done entirely in the chibi style. They are meant to look like dolls or children to lend silliness to a scene or storyline. Chibis are just fun.

There are other symbols in anime such as people sneezing when they are being talked about by others. In America we say our “ears are burning.” A small white mushroom shaped cloud is exhaled when a character is relieved about something, and there are many more. Anime’s visual language is what sets it apart from other animation styles. The symbols give anime its charm. At first they come off as just plain weird, but over time and repeated exposure the symbols feel natural. They clearly show what characters are feeling and thinking. A single sweat drop is better than a verbal explanation. Anime is already (in) famous for characters explaining their actions and shouting the names of their attacks. “Wind SCAR!” “Over NINE-THOUSAND !” Like they’ll never see that attack coming…

Ergo Proxy

Earth is a wasteland. Ravaged by consumption, humans avoid the environment in domed utopian cities. In one such city, called Romdo, a series of murders committed by AutoReivs, androids, disrupts the delicate utopian balance. Re-I Mayer and her AutoReiv Iggy is assigned to investigate. A young immigrant named Vincent Law and a mysterious virus called Cogito seem to be behind the events. Re-I soon discovers something far more sinister than a simple virus driven murder linked to an immigrant without a memory: something called a Proxy.

Ergo Proxy is a gothic cyber-punk story laced with questions about the role of humanity. In the domed cities, every human has their place. Each is a gear in the grand machine of civilization. Ergo Proxy recalls works such as Orwell’s 1984. Re-I quickly finds the difficulties that result when the gear refuses to turn. Ergo Proxy follows Vincent Law’s efforts to return to his birth city in order to recover the memories he lost. Re-I leaves the safety of the dome to pursue him and the truth about Proxy that tugs at her.

The series also examines our relationship with machines and consumption. Every human in a city is assigned their own AutoReiv, which serves to keep them in their place within the grand system. Everyone is grown in artificial wombs to serve just a singular purpose in society. Consumption is encouraged to distract from any thoughts that may lead a person from their purpose. Over the course of the series, Re-I finds the webs behind the structure of civilization.


Re-l Mayer

Inspector Re-l Mayer of the Citizen Intelligence Bureau is in charge of investigating a series of brutal murders apparently committed by AutoReivs infected with the Cogito virus. She is also the granddaughter of Donov Mayer, the Regent of Romdo. Given her privileged status, she expects respect from people around her, and speaks as such. Re-l accompanies Vincent on his journey in order to learn more about the mysterious Proxies.

Vincent Law

An immigrant from Mosk working for Romdo’s AutoReiv Control Division within the Temporary Immigrant Sector FG , set up to hunt and dispose infected AutoReivs. Vincent appears driven to become a Model Citizen, but ultimately fails to suppress the burden of his traumatic past and flees from Romdo. He seems to have a deep connection to the second Proxy, having left his necklace at the scene of the first Proxy site.


An infected Companion type AutoReiv owned by Raul Creed and Samantha Ross, Pino served as a surrogate child to the couple. She was scheduled for decommissioning after the Creeds were granted a real baby son by the government, but the untimely deaths of Samantha and her new son prompted Pino to flee Romdo. She accompanies Vincent on his journey.

Ergo Proxy is darkly beautiful. It is futuristic goth with its feel. The creepy atmosphere and suspenseful story keeps the viewer enthralled. The story becomes a little confused at times. The animation is fluid and alive despite the washed out colors and dark atmosphere. The series is claustrophobic and intimate, adding to the suspense. The opening theme is hauntingly beautiful.The characters are likable and complex. It is gothic like a cathedral: darkly beautiful but also vibrantly lit by the sunlight of its characters. If you can ignore the garbled storyline.

Mobile Suit Gundam 00

Rebirth begins through destruction. The year is 2307 AD. Fossil Fuels are depleted. In response, the nations developed massive solar power arrays that orbit the Earth. The heavens are connected to the dirt through three orbital elevators.Each elevator is controlled by one of the three power blocs: the Union, Human Reform League and the AEU. Nations outside these blocs are out left as just proxy battlefields for these powers.Despite the technological advancements, humans still do their human things: nationalism, competition, and war. Celestial Being seeks to end those human things.

Gundam 00 follows the exploits of Celestial Being’s crew and Gundam pilots, referred to as Gundam Meisters. Celestial Being is the brainchild of the long deceased Aeolia Schenberg. Celestial Being is an organization armed with Gundams, mobile armor suits (mechs or mecha) that are decades ahead of current war technology. Using these devices the organization stages armed interventions to force the nations of Earth to disarm and stop war. They quickly learn violence only breeds more violence as the Gundam technology is leaked and the nations of the world begin an arms race with each other and Celestial Being. The United Nations join together to end Celestial Being, only to cause a separate set of problems and violence. Of course, all is according to Aeolia Schenberg’s master plan. The dead man’s intentions does not stop with the elimination of war…

Gundam 00 is in the mecha genre of anime. Like most stories in this genre, it focuses on the pilots of the machines: how they grow and develop in the face of their conflicts. Gundam 00 revolves around the 4 Gundam Meisters, Setsuna F. Seiei, Lockon Stratos, Allelujah Haptism and Tieria Erde. Each of them are haunted and driven by their pasts. Setsuna, for example, was a child soldier in a civil war. Each deeply desire Earth to turn away from war for their own reasons. Often those reasons become obsessions. Like most mecha, the machines become extensions of the characters that pilot them. In many instances the machines are inseparable from their pilot (So much so that Setsuna even calls himself a Gundam).

The animation is crisp and colorful. The characters are nicely developed although a bit stereotypical; they change in often drastic ways in response to events. The dialogue is lofty and unwieldy at times: a common problem with the mecha genre. If you can ignore the impossibility of the physics, the combat scenes are fast paced and enjoyable. There are some romantic side stories between some of the characters, but the series stays focused upon the struggle to survive and end war. Episodes are rarely dull. The story is blistering and the crescendos vibrantly violent. As events unfold, viewers have no choice but to ride on the GN particles.

Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop opens in the year 2071, a time when Earth is damaged from a warp gate accident and mankind has terraformed and colonized the inner planets. The series follows the mishaps of the spaceship Bebop and a group of bounty hunters. The show blends the wild west with science fiction where bounty hunters are the cowboys. Episodes revolve around attempts to net a bounty by the Bebop’s crew. Throughout their misadventures Jet Black, the owner of the Bebop, and his partner Spike Spiegal pick up additional crew members and mouths to feed. Despite their best efforts to live in the moment, each member of the Bebop has a past they cannot avoid. Particularly Spike’s past as a syndicate enforcer causes trouble for the crew.

The series is a pleasing ride on the battered steel stallion Bebop throughout the wild west of space. From crazed bombers seeking television time to millionaires keeping boredom at bay, the bounties and characters the Bebop crew encounter are just as varied and eccentric as they are. The cowboys gallop from the new earth of Mars to the distant and barely habitable moons of Jupiter. Now if only food and fuel wasn’t so expensive or if some members of the crew would just leave…

Cowboy Bebop follows the exploits of the 5 crew members. While there are central characters such as Julia and Vicious to the storyline, they make only a handful of appearances.


Faye, Spike, Ein, Ed, and Jet

Spike Spiegal is a former member of the Red Dragon Crime Syndicate. Trained as an enforcer, his skills in combat, firearms, and as a pilot are vital to the few successes the crew has with bounties. Despite his carefree attitude, he is haunted by this past in the syndicate and his relationships with Julia and Vicious.

Jet Black is a former Inter-Solar System Police officer who left the force out of disgust. He chose the life of a bounty hunter to mete out justice in a world of corruption and red tape. Jet is also haunted by a past, particularly the memories of his girlfriend Alisa.

Faye Valentine is a mysterious gambler that joins the Bebop uninvited. Slowly she becomes attached to the crew and often leaves only to return. She remembers nothing of her past but is chronically pursued by debt collectors.

Edward is the genius computer hacker. Despite appearance, Ed is a girl. Ed offers her expertise in return for becoming a member of the crew. She quickly begins looking up to Jet as a father and Spike and Faye as older siblings.

Ein is a “data dog.” Equipped with enhanced intelligence and computer abilities, Ein subtly assists the crew throughout the series. With the exception of Ed, everyone considers Ein an average mutt.

Cowboy Bebop deals with the themes of camaraderie and avoidance. Most of the characters grow to appreciate the friendships they establish with each other. Although, no one on the crew freely admits this. Each of the characters have a past they thought they left behind. Despite their efforts these pasts return and force a confrontation. Cowboy Bebop teaches that pasts, particularly troublesome ones, cannot be ran away from and must be resolved at one point. One other theme that is a comedic source is chronic lack of money and hunger.

Cowboy Bebop is considered a classic. The blend of Wild West and Space Age creates a pleasing and believable world. While the animation is becoming a little dated, it still stands up as one of the best. The characters are painfully human and identifiable. The planets are harsh and nicely varied. In short, Cowboy Bebop is one of the pinnacles of anime.

Valentine’s Day in Japan

On Valentine’s Day in Japan, girls give chocolate to the boys they like. Girls also buy inexpensive chocolates for their friends (girls and boys).  If they have a crush on a boy they might make their own chocolates and wrap them in pretty paper. Gift giving is important in Japan thats why it is important to wrap a gift nicely.

But what about boys? Don’t they have to give stuff to the girls they like? Boys don’t give gifts on Valentine’s Day. They have to wait til White Day arrives on March 14th to make their move. So ladies, that means that the ball is in our court.
On White Day boys are obligated to return gifts of white chocolate to all the girls who gave them chocolate on Valentine’s Day. Quality counts. The type of gift tells the reciever if the guy is interested or just wants to stay friends. Boys don’t have to give white chocolate, the gift can be anything as long as its white. I remember a cute manga in which a boy gave the girl he liked a white hair ribbon. That is good news for those of us who don’t like white chocolate.
Remember that Valentines day is not just a holiday for love but also for friendship, so share the chocolaty goodness with your friends.


Every college student needs a computer who can carry on a conversation.

Chobits, created by Clamp, tells the story of Hideki Motosuwa, a student trying to qualify for college. Hideki dreams of a girlfriend and a persocom, an android used as a personal computer. One evening he finds a trashed persocom with long flowing hair. He lugs her home, turns her on, and discovers something is wrong with the apparently custom built system. She can only say “chi” which is what Hideki promptly names her. At the advice of his neighbor, Hiromu Shinbo, he takes the newly named Chi to Minoru Kokubunji, a persocom genius. Minoru suspects Chi may be one of the Chobits, a legendary series of persocoms programmed with free will and emotions. But Chobits themselves are little more than rumors and whispers on the Internet.

The major part of the story involves Hideki attemping to teach Chi how to speak, concepts, and social behavior. Over time, Hideki discovers his feelings for this lifelike machine. Chi also shows and emotional depth she isn’t supposed to possess as she slowly reciprocates Hideki’s feelings. Just what is Chi? How can a machine feel emotions? What does it mean to love a machine anyway?

Chobits is set in the same universe as Clamps’s Angelic Layer. It takes place a few years after events in that story and continues Angelic Layer’s exploration of human machine relationships. Chobits also has some crossover branches with Clamps other works: Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and xxxHolic.

Chobits, despite the comedic and uncomfortable situations the innocent Chi places Hideki, focuses upon the serious theme of love. Although sexuality is a source for laughs, the love of Chobits is not sexual in nature. Chobits examines what it means to love someone for who they are. In the manga but not so much in the anime, Chi is unable to have intimate relations. Such action would cause her memories to be erased, essentially destroying who she is because of the placement of her “On” button. Although there are hints that it is possible for Chi to be intimate with her “one just for me” after she achieves full self realization, she can only achieve that self realization in a relationship with someone who cares for her well being as opposed to a purely sexual relationship.

Chobits also examines how machines can replace relationships with other people. In several scenes, people are walking along side their persocoms and only speaking to them. Persocoms are programmed to imitate desirable human behavior, becoming the ideal companion. This ideal can prevent people from making efforts to establish true human relationships.


Hideki Motosuwa is a 19-year-old student attemping to get into college by studying at a cram school. He struggles to make ends meet in addition to his studies. He is an honest and kind person who thinks more about others’ well being above his own. In particularly he cares for Chi’s well being.

Chi is a persocom Hideki finds in a pile of trash. She remembers nothing about her past and is completely helpless when Hideki finds her. Hideki spends most of the story teaching Chi how to be human. The story takes a turn when Hideki buys Chi a children’s book series that interests her: A City with No People.

Peppered with awkward, funny, and often sexual situations, Chobits nicely balances comedy with its more series themes of love. The series is enjoyable and touching. The second half of the series is stronger than the first as it explores the moral implications of relationships between humans and artificial intelligence and exactly what it means to be human. The series has high production value: beautifully colored and detailed with smooth animation throughout.