Japanese honorifics confuse us Westerners. The closest matches we have are Mr., Miss., and other addresses. Unlike English’s polite addresses, Japanese honorifics denote social standing and relationship between the speaker and the listener. They don’t remain constant. I am always Mr. Kincaid in formal Western affairs for example. But in Japan I could be Kincaid-kun, Kincaid-san, or Kincaid-sensei depending on social context. Like Western salutations, Japanese honorifics can be used sarcastically or arrogantly. Ore-sama, for example, roughly translates to “my magnificent self”.
Dropping an honorific is a sign of a close relationship and seen as insulting if you don’t have permission. You see anime characters make a fuss about this and the use of their first name whenever this happens without their consent. The rule of thumb: when in doubt about honorifics, ask.
In anime you see –kun and –chan tossed around as much as the honorific –senpai. The other common honorific –san is used when just being polite. In most translations I’ve read, this honorific is dropped. Calling someone by their surname is considered a sign of respect or fondness here in the West (but then it can also be used sarcastically), so keeping with the Japanese practice of last-name first automatically confers polite respect in Western translations. Calling Hideki Tanashi by his last name Tanashi means we don’t need to attach the san to it. In fact, using honorifics too much in English translations can be off-putting for people.
-kun is reserved for young men. You’ll see female anime characters use it to refer to guys as a signal of endearment or familiarity. Guys will refer to men of lower rank with this honorific. In this regard, –kun replaces the old -kohei honorific of thesenpei-kohei, superior and under-class, relationship. In many cases of anime, the childhood female friend will use -kun to refer to her male friend in public or use his last name without an honorific while in public. You’ll see her refer to him on a first-name basis whenever there is a love interest developing. When she slips in public, it usually makes for an embarrassing scene.
You can notice the levels of closeness between female classmates (who use -kun those most) and the male classmates by paying attention to who uses the honorific and who uses -san. Those who use the more formal -san may not like the male in question, or could be trying to cover up her feelings through polite coolness. Anime, particularly romances, focuses on social subtext. The childhood-friend character type may use -san to show her anger through her polite exterior. Of course, body language and manga/anime’s tendency to over-explain helps make the subtext clear. Remember, Japanese society emphasizes harmony, and this creates subtle ways to express feelings through the use of honorifics.
Now –chan stands as the female version of -kun but with cuter connotations. It is also a sign of closeness and used to refer to girls, pets, and small children. When attached to a nickname, such as Crane-chan, it works closer to saying “Little Crane.” -chan ties to youthfulness, smallness, cuteness, and innocence. As with -kun it shows the social relationship between characters. When a character uses it to refer to pets or objects, the honorific shows she has an innocent personality. It’s something little children do. However, -chan can be used derisively. For example, calling a prostitute by -chan can emphasize her lack of cuteness, youthfulness, and innocence.
Anime girls often refer to each other, particularly if they are friends, by -chan. Guys too may use it to refer to girls they view as cute. A guy using a girl’s first name is reserved in anime as a sign of an intimate relationship, which is why you’ll see characters titter and gasp when a slip happens in public.
–chan refers to children of both genders. Considering it roughly means little, this makes sense. With animals, neko-chan can refer to a cute cat or a kitten. Finally, -chin comes from -chan and is used exclusively by close female friends to refer to each other.
As a story progresses, you can use honorifics as a way to gauge relationship and emotional level. If a character moves from using -chan or -kun to –san, to refer to another character, you know that character is upset over something. First-name basis usually gets attention from other characters, particularly if it is out of the blue. The level of intimacy it denotes, especially in public, can be seen as a declaration of love. It acts as a verbal kiss. Sometimes, a rebellious character, usually a guy, will use a first name in order to break with polite convention and express his rebelliousness. You’ll see characters react with shock to his break with politeness as he verbally gooses them. In many anime, he eventually becomes the protagonist’s significant other.
Characters who are referred to with the -senpai honorific may sometimes reduce to a -chan or -kun when entering a relationship with an under-classmate. This doesn’t happen often, but a shift in honorifics in this way shows the development of such a relationship when the under-classmate starts to use the more familiar -kun and –chan.
For being small words, honorifics carry a lot of meaning. They reveal a character’s affection, or lack thereof, for another character. Shifts in their use helps anime viewers determine how the character’s feelings are shifting while subtext like body language help determine whether or not the honorific is used sarcastically or as a Freudian slip.
Otaku culture likes to use these honorifics. Although not as used as -senpai, many otaku use -kun and -chan. The most common error involves the use of the first name instead of the last name as is proper for Japanese honorifics. But in some cases it works just fine too. “Little Rose” and other diminutives keep the spirit of the honorific–that of affectionate familiarity. However, the use of these honorifics in otaku culture stresses their status as a subculture. In this case, honorifics denote membership more than familiarity between speaker and listener because no other subculture in the West uses Japanese honorifics on a regular basis. So even if they are not used properly in the context of Japanese culture, otaku use of honorifics still marks them as members of the community.
Recently, the creator of Rurouni Kenshin Nobuhiro Watsuki admitted to possessing child pornography (Baseel, 2017). He told the police that he likes young teens about the ages of 13-15 years old. Possession of such materials, according to the Act on Punishment of Activities Relating to Child Prostitution and Child Pornography and the Protection of Children, is punishable by up to one year imprisonment or a fine of up to 1 million yen. The Act doesn’t cover drawings, animations, or games. It focuses on images of actual children (Umeda, 2014). In response, his publisher is putting his current work on hold. Japanese publishers are quick to distance themselves from anything that resembles a crime (Baseel, 2017).
The scale shows popularity of a search with 100 being highly popular and 50 being half as popular. “Teen” has been a fairly popular to highly popular search for a long time. Taken from Google Trends.
The word “teen” has been a popular term since Google started tracking its data–see the chart above. Of course, most of these searches are innocent. Pornography accounts for about 4% of websites and 10-15% of searches (Ogas, 2012). This information may be a little dated. Many pornographers get around child pornography laws by having legal-aged women dress–erhm, undress–as teens. These videos and images cater to men who seek women to emulate their school-boy crushes (Paul, 2005). Of course, these women are legal adults selling a fantasy and not the real deal as Watsuki was caught possessing. But the data suggests Watsuki’s attraction isn’t uncommon. For most of history, girls married older, sometimes much older, men as soon as the girls had their first periods. It was a sign of adulthood, even if it was at 13 or 14 years old. If we were from that time frame, we’d wonder what the problem was. I don’t write this to defend Watsuki’s actions. I find such behavior deplorable (as with pornography in general). At the same time, we need to understand context. We agree today that such behavior is wrong and unlawful, but that also wasn’t always the case. Each view impacts how we would consider Watsuki and his work. There are some who still hold onto the old, historical view of adulthood and sexual attraction. I ponder if these men may have a neurological reason, but I digress. We don’t know from the current information if Watsuki shares this historical view. It wouldn’t provide any defense; it would help explain why he would put his career and creative life’s work in jeopardy.
We could look into how otaku culture and child pornography mix–remember that Japan’s child porn laws do not cover anime or manga–but let’s focus on how reputation and writing tangle. It looks possible that Watsuki’s work will be blackened by this. I’ve already seen some people wonder if it’s okay to still like Rurouni Kenshin in some discussion boards and comment areas. How much does a writer’s character matter when it comes to a work? Is it okay to like a work from a writer that is…unsavory? The second question assumes a pattern of behavior instead of a mistake that can be corrected. In Watsuki’s case, there isn’t enough information as I write this, but his admission suggests an pattern of attraction for the young instead of a recent habit.
Photo of Alice Liddell taken by Lewis Carroll in 1860. Alice was his inspiration for Alice in Wonderland
Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll the author of Alice in Wonderland, is believed by many to have been a repressed pedophile. But this view isn’t without contention. Many people believe it comes from a projection of modern views onto what was, perhaps, a common practice in the Victorian period–photographing nude children (Woolf, 2010). How much of the tangle of reputation and the author’s work is our own projection? How does it make you feel that Lewis Carroll photographed nude children? How does that change your view of Alice in Wonderland? It has led some to analyze Alice for signs of repressed sexual feelings toward children. It is possible that Rurouni Kenshin will undergo the same. The trouble with this, as anyone who does literary analysis knows, you can read in what you expect. This confirmation bias mixes with the projection of modern sensibilities.
Of course, in the case of Nobuhiro, it is okay to project modern sensibilities because he lives in the modern era. This event is similar to the Bill Cosby sexual abuse and harassment issues in recent years. It has tarnished Cosby’s work to the point where it has all-but disappeared. I suspect Rurouni Kenshin will share a similar fate among the wider anime fandom. Tony Yao over at Manga Therapy (2017) sums up how all but the most hard-core Rurouni Kenshin fans will likely treat the work: “To be honest, I think it’s fine if fans don’t support Watsuki’s works. I don’t care anymore because I have other series that take up my mind at the moment.”
For those of us who create, whether it’s writing books, writing manga, creating videos, blogging, or any other creative work, Watsuki’s poor decision should give us a warning. Reputation matters. It tangles with your work and a mistake (or a pattern of behavior) can ruin your work. It takes years to build trust and only a single catastrophic mistake to lose that trust. And when it comes to creative work, trust is a part of it. You may enjoy the story of Rurouni Kenshin, but you are also trusting that the story is as it appears. As with Lewis Carroll, once that trust is broken or cast into doubt, you won’t view the work in the same way. Although Lewis Carroll’s pedophilia is up for debate, I can’t read Alice without seeing signs of it. It ruins a story I once liked.
As a fellow creative, I feel more sorrow than disgust toward Watsuki. After all, its possible his life’s work may be disparaged and, worse, forgotten. He has broke his trust with many of his fans. In short, Rurouni Kenshin won’t be the same even if Watsuki never has another issue with child pornography. It is possible publishers may not publish his work again. The event will impact his wife and family too.
When it comes down to it, all the questions I’ve asked are for you to decide for yourself. Is Rurouni Kenshin tarnished because of Watsuki’s behavior? Have you moved on and don’t really care? No matter how you answer the questions I’ve posed, remember that Watsuki is human as are those who remain fans of Rurouni Kenshin. Liking a work with a tarnished author doesn’t tarnish the fan. Otherwise, there would be millions of people tarnished because of Alice of Wonderland. If you are a creative, take Watsuki’s poor decisions to heart and develop your moral character. Your work depends on it.
Set in an alternative world, Izetta pits magic against World War II technology. The story follows Izetta and the Archduchess of a small country Eylstadt as they struggle against the empire of Germania. The anime focuses on Izetta and her relationship with the Archduchess, Finé. It’s basically a light yuri with action and political intrigue. They have a close relationship with mutual dedication, which causes them pain as the conflict wears on.
Izetta the Last Witch focuses on the problem of escalating violence. Finé uses Izetta to defend the small duchy, and her power as a witch overmatches most technology Germania has. Izetta can throw tanks and use medieval weapons to stop bullets and shells. But she is limited to areas with ley lines, veins of magic that she taps to power her spells. Finé’s decision to use Izetta as the ultimate shield starts an arms development race which ends with Germania building a nuclear bomb that uses crystallized magic as its fuel. The nations resisting Germania have their own concerns about Izetta’s powers, driving them to research their own counters to her magic and escalating the bloodiness of the war.
The story captures the way technology snowballs during the course of World War I and World War II. Even after war finishes, the level of escalation remains. Just look at our world. At the end of World War II, nuclear weapons were the apex of escalation. During the Cold War, this continued with hydrogen bombs of ever increasing destructive abilities. In the past, defensive measures developed to combat better weapons. Leather armor became chain mail which became plate armor up until guns rendered plate armor obsolete. After a certain point, offense became the only defense. The only deterrent to nuclear weapons was more nuclear weapons.
Izetta the Last Witch captures this trend. Finé’s duchy had fortresses and defensive lines throughout its lands, but Germania’s superior weapons overwhelmed those defenses. The duchy was unable to build any defense that could counter the weapons. Izetta entered the fray as an offensive-defense strategy. Fortresses and old methods of defense became worthless much as bomb shelters were rendered useless with nuclear weapons. Izetta becomes a symbol of modern war and its almost magical ability to destroy. However, Izetta has a conscience.
The story also features the idea of loyalty to one’s country. Finé is surrounded by people who are willing to give their lives to defend her and the country. Their loyalty even appears blind at times. Even Izetta is willing to die to protect Finé, which cuts Finé to the core. She feels as if she is using Izetta, despite the fact Izetta is serving Finé by choice. Arnold Berkmann, a Germanian officer, provides a counter view to this loyalty. He seeks merely to live and has no true loyalty to his country. The story paints him as despicable for his selfishness, but I found him an interesting and even sympathetic character. He simply doesn’t want to die and doesn’t value his country more than his life. His is a viewpoint that criticizes the virtue of dying for one’s country.
However, Berkmann’s self preservation hints at an interesting fact about war: if no one was willing to die for the idea of country, war wouldn’t happen. War only happens because people are willing to fight and die on behest of a ruling body or person (such as Finé’s countrymen) or an idea of country (such as Germania’s idea of empire). However, if people would value their individual lives more than these two aspects, war would be harder to pursue. Berkmann doesn’t begin with this idea, but events in his part of the story breaks his dedication to Germania’s empire and king. He realizes his country wasn’t worth his life and decides to do whatever is necessary to survive, fortunately for Izetta and Finé.
The anime touches on the idea that self-sacrifice becomes fruitless if the country loses the war. Many characters give their lives in the battles and espionage, but their deaths do little to change the ultimate course of the conflict. Only those in power, such as Finé and Izetta, have the power to shift the conflict. The soldier that dies defending his home, only to have his home obliterated anyway, died fruitlessly. Of course, all of these themes, questions, and commentary are held in the subtext of the story. Characters don’t fall into philosophical musings. Instead, the anime ponders these ideas through its visuals–dead defenders failing to defend their homes–and indirect commentary by characters like Berkmann.
Izetta and Finé’s relationship brings sweet moments to a rather serious story, and the relationship keeps the social commentary from being too overbearing. The commentary happens around the pair, often without their knowledge. As for the anime itself, the animation is solid and the armaments are mostly accurate. It’s an interesting alternative story about World War II. Unfortunately, the anime falls into the usual, tired fanservice comedy. Normally, I just overlook it. After all, nearly all anime anymore has these tired scenes (can’t writers think of anything different then accidental nudity as “humor”?), but these scenes felt out of place and jarring with the greater events. They only serve to sexualize Izetta and downplay her strength as a witch-warrior. This happens often in anime whenever you have a female character. These women are sexualized to make them more palatable for segments of the male audience. It is tired and has no place at all in a story like this. Anime has a problem with rampant fanservice and camera pans over a female’s chest or bottom. It undermines the storytelling and the characters. But that’s an issue for the medium in general and less with Izetta: The Last Witch. The story does what anime does–it doesn’t break new ground–but it has enough interesting subtext and observations about war that it is worth a watch.
Orange is one of those stories with many layers. The only way to discuss them is to spoil the story so, well, you’ve been warned. The story follows a group of friends who receive letters from themselves 10 years in the future. The letters explains the various regrets they have surrounding a boy named Kakeru. Kakeru, it turns out, commits suicide. The letters outline the various events that each writer thinks caused, or at least pushed, him to kill himself. They outline various actions that could, perhaps, stop him. At the center of the strategy is Naho, the main protagonist. She has a crush on Kakeru, as he does with her. However, this being a high-school anime, she’s pretty dense, and Kakeru keeps to himself in order to keep from hurting those he likes. The letters urge Naho and her friends to break his walls, and to push Naho and Kakeru together.
Regret acts as the centerpiece for the story. Small regrets sometimes blossom to large–Kakeru’s suicide. But the story shows how every decision–and in the case of Naho, indecision–adds up in ways that can’t be predicted. Regret comes from hurtful outcomes and missed opportunities. However, as the anime shows, missed opportunities can often be beneficial. Orange makes a fuss over Naho’s inaction. She’s hesitant and fades into the background whenever she can. Yet, her letters demand she take the lead when it comes to Kakeru, forcing her to push beyond her usual behavior. Her regrets come from her inaction. I’ve had mild regrets over missed opportunities before I considered what I gained. For example, I didn’t go to prom or date in high school. I was a nose-to-the-grindstone workaholic. Now, many would think I’d have regrets surrounding such decisions. I’ve pondered how things may have turned out otherwise, but I gained most of my computer skills, interest in art, interest in writing, self-awareness, and self-acceptance during this period. I may have gained such by being more social, but I doubt it. My point: regret comes from misplaced expectations and misplaced understanding.
Every decision has cost and benefits Orange touches on this too. Kakeru’s suicide ends with Naho and her friend Suwa marrying and having a family. While they have regrets, they also have happiness and share a closeness forged by Kakeru’ death. All of the friends are also bonded by their shared memory of Kakeru. Suwa is the most interesting character of the bunch. Some criticism leveled at the story deals with how Naho, Kakeru, and Suwa have more personality than the other friends. who fall into the usual anime stereotypes. But when you have only 13 episodes, some cuts have to be made.
Suwa has the most regret and conflict in the story. He has feelings for Naho and knows from the letters that he marries her. He even has a photo of his future family. However, this happens only if Kakeru dies. He decides to push aside his feelings for Naho in order to save Kakeru’s life. In a few scenes, Suwa wrestles with this and wonders if there is a way to save Kakeru without encouraging Naho’s relationship with him. However, his letter suggests it isn’t possible (as does the letters of his other friends Chino, Hagita, and Murasaka). He hides his pain and feelings behind a smile and takes on an elder brother-like role. As anyone who has tried this knows, it’s difficult to set aside such feelings and encourage your interest to have a relationship with another. Some reviewers have criticized Suwa’s character as unrealistic, but they miss the subtle signs of his pain in various scenes. It’s not easy for him, but he doesn’t want to risk Kakeru’s life.
Suwa is an interesting portrayal of masculinity. He’s the standard athlete and desired by the high-school ladies. But he’s sensitive and thoughtful. Of course, Orange is a shojo story. Kakeru, for that matter, is thoughtful. Neither are impulsive as shonen would have them to be. Shojo focuses on feelings and relationships, whereas shonen focuses on action with relationships and feelings mostly sidelined. Suwa is who I wish more shonen protagonists would be–there’s no impulsive behavior or yelling from him. He also doesn’t believe action is the best solution. In several scenes, he steps back and lets Naho fumble her way through. He appears only when she needs support instead of leading the charge. Now, some of this is because she’s the main character, and shojo likes nice, supporting male side characters. But after I’ve watched a series of shonen, his character strikes me as refreshing and seriously needed in male-oriented stories. Suwa is masculine as masculine should be–sensitive, thoughtful, and not impulsive. He’s not selfish, and he’s strong enough to restrain himself. Restraint takes strength most shonen characters, as powerful as they are, lack.
But back to Orange. Kakeru walls himself away from others in order to protect them from himself. It’s a common idea in female-oriented stories. She is the only one who can break through his fortress and enter into his heart. However, he isn’t necessarily distant. He acts as a normal moody teen up until he wants to die. His suicide attempt is prompted by finding his mother’s phone. She too killed herself after he sent her a message telling her to stop bothering him. He finds a draft response where she apologizes to him and explains why she didn’t want him to join sports clubs and other aspects of Japanese school life. How often do we hear how people didn’t see a suicide coming? Calls for help are only clear in retrospect–which Orange points out with the letters. No one saw the signs until after Kakeru dies, filling the friends with regret about how they failed to pay attention to him.
Regret hangs over all of us when a friend or loved one dies. Our minds are keyed to notice the negative, including memories. We think of all the times we wronged or neglected our parents, friends, spouses, and other dear ones. Orange has this running through it too. We take life for granted and assume people will always be there. We assume we have time. Yet, as the Bible states (and all the major religions of the world) life is but a vapor, here and gone without warning. Unlike Orange, we don’t have letters from our future selves to help us. And so we will have regrets. We will make mistakes. We will take people for granted. We will fail to see signs of pain, and some of us will miss signs of suicide. However, regret isn’t negative. It is a natural part of feeling love and compassion.
One last theme we have to touch: uncertainty. As the friends of Orange follow the letters and change the outcomes of various events, they start seeing futures the letters didn’t foresee. This uncertainty troubles them. They worry they could still make mistakes that would end in Kakeru’s suicide. However, together they push on regardless. Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of life. No one can predict the outcomes of our actions and our inaction. But what if we could know those outcomes? Naho worries about choosing wrong and recreating the outcomes in her letters, causing her to hesitate. She worries about creating new, negative outcomes too. It’s better to not always foresee the outcomes of our decisions. Otherwise, we’d likely not make them in the first place.
As for the anime, it isn’t without problems. It goes out of its way to explain how the letters travel through time to an alternative universe. Some reviews I’ve skimmed spoke about how the story’s backpedaling of feelings annoyed them–I found it realistic. Backpedaling is what people do when feelings are difficult. However, Orange is worth a watch if you are interested in the themes I’ve discussed. It is a character driven story that offers lessons shonen stories need to take to heart.
On its surface, Silver Spoon appears to be another one of those the-countryside-is-idyllic-compared-to-the-city anime. However, the anime has a clear view of the challenges of rural life, including perpetual farming debt and even the brutality of farm life. It also has a heart to it, focusing on several moral lessons: appreciation for life–including livestock that die so we can eat, the idea of true friendship, and the difficulty of balancing life goals with reality.
Yuugo Hachiken enrolls in an agriculture school to escape the demands of his strict father. Being a city-kid, he has no idea what he’s getting into. Silver Spoon traces Hachiken’s change a from nerdy, brooding spaz to a somewhat more mature person. I say somewhat because he fits squarely in what I call the annoyingly impulsive protagonist. He’s earnest, which draws people to him, and kind, but phew, he is full of emotional outbursts and fits of impulsive stupidity for being a supposedly smart character. As the story progresses, he does little to improve in that regard. The story even acknowledges it as “teenage boy drama.” But aside from his meatheadedness, the story focuses on the challenges of farm life from helping cows birth calves to butchering pigs to cheese making.
Hachiken eventually moves from a people pleasing yes-man to having a desire to focus on helping his closest friend and love-interest Aki Mikage. Friendship plays a central role in the story as Hachiken develops his first true friendships with his fellow farm-students. Hachiken takes time to understand that friendship isn’t a transactional relationship. Everyone on the farm wants each other succeed and so share their knowledge, help, time, and food freely. Even the upper-classmen randomly hold grilling events for everyone in the area. And all they want is their produce, whether it is meat or veggie, to be appreciated by someone. Silver Spoon doesn’t play on country-simpleness, however. Each of Hachiken’s friends have their own struggles and concerns, such as farm debt, that they keep to themselves. In fact, the anime shows that best friends are those that willingly share your worries. Hachiken, in an effort to prove himself worthy of their friendship, is a busybody in this regard before he settles into sharing Mikage’s burdens and becoming her closest friend.
The anime speaks out against transactional relationships that are fairly common today. People seek relationships as a means of getting what they want from others. In Hachiken’s case, its vindication and a way to ease his self-doubt. However, he quickly learns that isn’t friendship. Many of the farmhands around him cover his chore mistakes, offer knowledge, and look out for him without seeking anything in return. It’s just something people do. Hachiken drives himself too hard in an effort to seek their approval and pay them back, landing himself in the hospital despite their warnings. Only then does he realize his actions were based on his transactional view of friendship. Giving without expecting anything in return is the sign of true friendship. Friends also stand in support when facing challenges, even when it comes at personal cost. When Mikage shows her agony about her expected role in taking over the farm, ignoring her dream of working with horses, Hachiken wants to do anything he can to help her try for her dream.
Dreams, life goals, play significant roles in Silver Spoon. Hachiken is troubled by how he doesn’t have a dream while those around him does. All of his new farm-friends apparently have goals they are working toward. However, reality sets in for most of them, hampering or ending their dreams. Hachiken takes reality hard when dreams are crushed, and he goes off on his emotional tirades whenever his farm-friend remains stoic. He rails against reality while his farm-friends accept it. Most are pleased they managed to work toward their life goal, even though they can’t obtain it. That isn’t to say it doesn’t hurt them. Mikage, on the other hand, never worked toward hers. After seeing dreams get crushed under reality, she wants to try for hers. It is better to try and fail than never try at all.
Much of the dynamic in these conflicts comes from Hachiken’s achievement focus. Grades were his life before going to the ag-school. Because of this, failing to achieve a dream, no matter how far-fetched like his friend Komaba’s dream of being a professional baseball player, cuts into him. However, he soon learns the striving is more important than attaining. We need to pay attention to this lesson. Too often we focus on attainment rather than the journey. When we fail to attain, we feel like failures and forget all the benefits of the journey. Striving toward a goal that you fail to reach still allows you to come away with more achievements than if you didn’t strive at all. Throughout Silver Spoon, Hachiken feels as if his life is finished because of a single failure. He comes to compare this to livestock that are sold to the slaughterhouse if they are hurt or fail to perform. However, he realizes that even livestock can have second chances, such as a horse jumping an obstacle in a competition. A single failure doesn’t mark someone forever.
In fact, only through failure can we learn.
Silver Spoon addresses the callousness many people develop. Before Hachiken, the farm students thought little of killing and butchering animals. Hachiken is troubled by this and struggles to eat the meat from these animals. But he realizes a true appreciation for the animal’s sacrifice–and enjoying the flavor of the meat–ensures the death isn’t in vain. His hesitance toward death instills the same respect in his friends, and they grow the appreciate the animal cost of farming even more. That isn’t to say they didn’t care for their animals, but Hachiken broke through the callouses that had built up toward the end result of their animal care.
Silver Spoon made me consider my own relationship with meat. Now, I grew up in a rural town. I hadn’t seen cattle or pigs butchered, but I had seen deer, squirrel, fish, and other critters butchered. However, the supermarket has put distance between us and the animals in ways that disrespect the animal’s death. Americans eat large, unhealthy quantities of meat. This would change if we had to raise and then butcher the animals. At the least, we would gain a deeper appreciation as we see the gang on Silver Spoon achieve.
The anime points out how its good to bring in an outside perspective. We have the habit of not seeing what we consider normal or that which we see everyday. Think about your room and a nice shiny poster or figurine or piece of furniture. You noticed and appreciated it while it was new, but over months and years it faded from your consciousness. It became a part of the everyday. Hachiken breaks this problem for his friends because everything about farming was a new experience to him. It gave a new perspective for those who can’t see farming for farming any longer. Through Hachiken, they gained a deeper appreciation for farming and their dreams. Mikage, in particular, sees her fate isn’t sealed to the ranch and gains a deeper appreciation for the ranch at the same time.
Silver Spoon, unlike many agriculture-anime, doesn’t wear its idyllic goggles. It shows farm work as long and exhausting, debt-troubled and structured. It also shows farm work as friendly, cooperative, and teeming with simple pleasures like farm-fresh pizza.
Anime and manga uses its own visual language to show a character’s inner thoughts and feelings. The visual language isn’t always easy to understand for those new to the medium. Some expressions, such as happiness, are easy enough, but how do you show a character has an upset stomach from anxiety? What about dismay?
Anime and manga uses a minimalistic style to build character expressions. The style, thought to be influenced by Walt Disney, pulls from Japan’s own art history. Namely, it pulls from ukiyo-e, or woodblock prints. These woodblock prints used Japan’s minimalistic portraiture it inherited from China and made the images widely accessible to the public. The simplicity of the style (which is by no means easy to achieve) allows manga artists to quickly suggest emotion, but the simplicity has limitations not found in more detailed styles. In response, a visual language developed to overcome these limits–sweat drops, beady eyes, popping veins, and other stylizations. The problem is how this language, like any language, has to be learned. Luckily, visual language plays on how the mind understands images.
More than the Face
Facial expressions aren’t limited to the face. We know body language influences how we understand a person’s intentions, but anime takes it further and uses hair and backgrounds to show expressions. Cowlicks and hair accessories are common additions to expressions. Background patterns flavor an expression.
For example, the base expression above is a happy laugh. Her eyes are closed and the upward sweep of her eyelids lend to the feeling of happiness. Downward sweeps tend to look sad. The upward sweep suggests how human eyes crinkle and close when we laugh or smile. But how do we express even more happiness? We could exaggerate the smile more, but after a certain point it moves from happy to unnerving as we pass beyond the bounds of natural expression. So manga artists added backgrounds. The middle image uses stylized flowers and butterflies to increase the happiness level. She’s feeling light as a butterfly and as happy as a spring flower opened to the sun. The movement of the icons behind her makes it feel as if she is shaking her shoulders as she laughs (and all without the typical motion lines). The third image replaces the butterflies and flowers with hearts; she is feeling happy and loved. Backgrounds flavor expressions to the point where I consider them as much a part of the expression as the mouth and eyes.
Cowlicks work similar to backgrounds. Most of the time they clarify and strengthen what the character is feeling. Let’s look at a few examples.
Cowlicks work similar to a dog’s tail or cat’s tail. Surprised or shocked expressions appear even more, well, surprised or shocked when a cowlick sticks up like an antenna. If this was a video, the cowlick would quiver. Of course, this only works after a neutral cowlick pose has been established. Antenna hair won’t look like shock if the hair is always standing on end. Cowlicks can animate independent of the character’s facial expressions, betraying the true feelings of the character. This allows the author to show when the character is hiding their true feelings from other characters. There isn’t a set standard for how cowlicks show expressions, but generally they droop when a character feels sad. They will twitch much like a divining rod when a character is curious and spin when the character is confused. Of course, antennas are common. At times, antennas are combined with spinning to show alert curiosity or confused shock, depending on the situation. Context matters with all expressions.
Anime and manga fans will see these expressions as self explanatory, but for some people, the simplicity of the face still requires a little deciphering. Think of these expressions as building blocks. Anime character design has interchangeable parts that can be combined to create complex emotions. Eyes and mouths are the most important aspects. Because the style uses few lines, even a slight change in a part of a mouth line can create a different expression.
The style also likes to exaggerate these standard expressions to the point they become stylized, even for an already stylized visual language. First, let’s look at standard expressions.
Neutral expressions serve as the baseline for a character. Some characters always wear a smile, for example. They don’t always show natural temperament. Some characters use a certain expression as a way to hide their inner feelings.
Introverted characters tend to have what some would call sadder default expressions or, ehem, a “resting bitch face.” Both of which are demeaning and come from a bias toward a bubbly extrovert exterior.
Happiness has, perhaps, the most variation of all expressions. There are various degrees of happiness, from a slight grin to over-the-top manic joy. Happiness can also develop a creepiness to it when a smile extends far outside of normal boundaries. This can mean the character is plotting something devious. Smiles can hide emotions. In fact, this is a common theme throughout slice-of-life and romantic anime. A slight tear in the corner of the the eye can suggest how much the character hurts behind the smile. Now add in background as we’ve discussed, and you can see how sometimes an anime smile isn’t as straightforward as it appears. The character’s neutral expression also factors into the smile. A default smile means the character has to use larger smiles to show their happiness (or hide their pain). Whereas a smaller smile on a “sadder” neutral expression can mean just as much as a large smile on a bubbly neutral face. And the larger smile may well hide larger pain in the “sadder” neutral character.
Context matters, and anime comes from a culture that focuses on subtext. The Tale of Genji and Snow Country are good examples of how subtext tells the story within Japanese literature. In both stories, there doesn’t appear to be much of a plot. However, the plot happens in what is not said or done. Everything is implied or indirect. Characters rarely say what they mean or truly feel. Anime uses this tradition as well within its dialogue and its expressions.
Anime sadness depends on the eyebrows. When a person is sad, the eyebrows will arch at forehead, and the eyes will close to various degrees. The more closed they become, the more tears will flow. Of course, in some scenes, the eyes will remain open, but more naturalistic anime will have the eyes close when the character cries. The angle of the eyebrows, mouth, and eyes are what denote sadness. Happy tears will keep the upward arch of the eyes and a smiling mouth. The eyebrows also won’t meet in the middle of the forehead as we see above. The mouth and the amount of tears determines the degree of sadness. I drew these examples with the girl biting her lip, but full on crying often involves a “laughing” mouth with its corners tapering downward rather than upward. Its a matter of what you want the character to portray. Fighting the tears, as the above examples do, shows more inner turmoil than full-on, open-mouthed crying. She is trying to resist an overwhelming emotion. It depend on what your story needs. But because anime and manga uses few lines, each one counts; you need to think carefully about how each line contributes to your goal.
Anger is closely related to sadness–eyebrows matter. The eyes and mouth can be similar, but the eyebrows angle down, forming a V at the forehead. The eyes will also scrunch. If you compare the eyes of my examples, you will see they are similar to eyes in the smiling examples, but the eyebrows shift the expression of the eyes. Like sadness, the mouth determines the degree of the expression. Lips pressed tight, represented by a horizontal line, can show inner tension. The character is getting close to exploding or suppressing their feelings. In the other example, she is dressing down another character. Her mouth is open and teeth are exposed, suggesting threat. Notice how the corners of the mouth angle down. Sometimes upward corners can send mix messages to the viewer, like the character is amused while angry. It depends on what you want to portray. Teeth can lend threat to the expression, which is why sometimes you will see fangs as part of more stylized expressions of anger. Teeth suggest the character wants do bodily harm–the more pointed, the more harm.
Anger can be combined with tears in the corners of the eyes for more subtext. Tears can mean the character is hurt or she is the type of person who cries when angry. Guys too can cry when angry. Blind rage requires a more stylized depiction.
Anime and manga has a habit of breaking from naturalistic expressions in order communicate what the character feels as clearly as it can. For those who aren’t used to the visual language, the abrupt deformations can be jarring and confusing. It can include characters suddenly growing larger than other characters, growing enormous heads, or becoming big-headed dwarfs–known as chibi. Most of the time, it involves exaggerating the standard expressions we’ve examined.
Manga and anime also uses visual accent marks to shift the stylization or standard expression. The popping vein and sweat drop number among these marks. They work similar to how accent marks above a letter shifts how its pronounced. That’s why anime’s images are called a visual language. They speak to us in the same way words do. In any case, let’s look at some examples of stylized expressions and how visual accent marks can shift the character’s emotions.
Most stylized expression deal with the eyes. Anime eyes are already far from being natural looking. Large eyes are used throughout modern anime because of their expressiveness. They feel innocent and offer a wide range of emotion as they open and close and stylize as in the above examples. Empty circles show a character is overwhelmed by events or another character’s stupidity. It suggests the character’s mind has shut down. Dead eyes appear when a character is completely and utterly overwhelmed by events. Beady eyes show shock. The human pupil enlarges when a person is stressed or afraid. Anime eyes typically have large pupils, so beady eyes simulate this response by drawing only the pupil. They also look as if the character’s mind has shut down, just like the overwhelmed and dead expressions. The last expression hearkens back to Warner Bros Looney Tunes. The character is feeling dizzy, as if the world is spinning. A floating spiral near the head, as shown in the example, sometimes appears to emphasize the sensation.
Anger- Popping Vein
Variation of “Sick”
Most of the time, a popping vein supplements an anger expression, but blind rage is a common way of showing anger as well. Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist often has this expression. The character is literally blind because of the lack of pupils. Sometimes the mouth become stylized as a box-shape and fangs will sometimes appear too. The popping vein, or cruciform, is one of anime’s most common accent marks. It represents the vein that pops out in some people’s temples as their blood pressure rises. Of course, anime will place the veins over the hair, on the hands, and other spots. Popping veins are a step between standard anger and blind rage. They will sometimes appear in a neutral expression to show increasing irritation or anger. Usually the character explodes after two or three popping veins appear.
Sickness, or anxiety, is an obscure accent image. Vertical lines descend from the forehead to show how a character’s mind feels heavy or how they are feeling ill. Sometimes blue or purple coloring joins the lines. Sometimes this accent is used to show depression. It depends on context and the normal behavior of the character. I added a few squiggled lines to clarify the sick feeling a little more. Most of the time, the forehead lines will stand alone. They can appear over the character’s hair.
The sweat drop shows distress. It appears across all expressions, including happy expressions and angry. In our case, our it accents our shocked expression. Our girl had seen something she wishes she could unsee. The length and size of the sweat drop suggests the level of distress. It will grow as the feeling increases. Sometimes, you will see a series of small sweat drops that increase as the distress increases. You’ll see the sweat drop when a character witnesses another character acting annoying, perverse, and generally out of sorts.
Many people new to anime get confused about the seemingly random nosebleeds characters experience. Nosebleeds are visual shorthand for perverted thoughts. Female characters have them, but male characters are best known for having them. It’s not unusual for a guy’s nose explode into a fountain of blood when he sees a scantily clad lady. The sudden explosions are suggestive of–well, to put it academically–seminal discharge. The association of sexual arousal with a bleeding nose allowed artists to show the feeling on the face (and avoid censorship of male arousal and the inability to obviously show female arousal). Because anime focuses strongly on facial expression over body language, the nosebleed makes sense. The nosebleed uses a part of the face that has few expressions associated with it. After all, with the eyes and mouth already working overtime, they couldn’t clearly show sexual arousal without causing confusion with other expressions.
Embarrassment is the only common expression that uses the cheeks. Well, to be fair, we could consider this expression related to the eyes. Embarrassment usually appears close to the eyes, but we will count it as a cheek expression. Embarrassment involves a series of lines or a splash of red on the cheeks. It has various exaggerations despite being stylized already. The red tone can spread across the entire face, or the character’s skin from the neckline up can turn red to show their extreme embarrassment. This is a common expression in romance or action stories with romantic elements. Embarrassment can combine with other expressions, both standard and stylized, to create embarrassed anger, embarrassed sadness, and other combinations. Sweat drops and popping veins can also combine with it to add distress or irritation. As you can see, manga allows characters to express complex emotions through visual sentences across the character’s face. But this only works for readers who are familiar with the language. It can become a confused muddle otherwise.
Fanged, cat-like mouths appear most often on female characters. These types of fangs don’t associate with anger, which can be confusing. Rather, the character is feeling catty–mischievous. The difference is how the mouth takes on a cat-like appearance, but this doesn’t always happen. Feeling catty also associates with a female feeling sexually aroused or having perverse thoughts and enjoying how her target squirms under her attention. You won’t see embarrassment mix with cat fangs. The character is feeling too confident for that.
This expression shows why the nosebleed became associated with sexual arousal. The mouth is overloaded with expression, so cat-fangs can be confused with anger or some other emotion if the reader isn’t familiar with the character’s personality. Sometimes you will see guys feeling catty, but most of the time such men become chibis to show their perverse antics.
The last common exaggerated expression is the tear fountain. This is a reference to Looney Tunes and other American animation styles that feature this exaggeration.
Fountains or streams of tears erupt from the eyes, but it is used for comedy effect rather than express serious sadness. Tear fountains disappear as fast as they appear in most cases. The fountains go from the spurts as the example shows to the more common streams down the cheeks. This exaggeration doesn’t intensify the emotion. Naturalistic tears are sadder than this, whereas most other exaggerations increase the feeling. Instead, this expression allows authors to show funny sadness or fake tears, allowing naturalistic tears to retain their meaning.
Anime and manga have other expressions that involve body language that aren’t readily understood by new viewers. They combine with the facial expressions we’ve examined. Sometimes you will see series specific expressions, such as in the Tales video game series, that build on anime’s common expressions. Authors often have their own visual languages, such as in the long-running One Piece series, but those special vocabularies are beyond the scope of this article.
Children and immature characters use akanbe. It involves pulling down one lower eyelid and sticking out the tongue. Its a childish gesture similar to thumbing the nose and waggling your remaining fingers. Akanbe is a corruption of akai me, or red eye–referring to the red of the shown lower eye lid.
The word orz represents the pose rather than naming it. The pose is that of complete defeat. The person collapses to their hands and knees under the weight of an event. The posture sometimes involves a sick expression.
This odd expression involves the character abruptly transforming into a pencil sketch or some other primitive cut out shape. This expression is used for extreme surprise, shock, or feeling dumbfounded. This typically shows up as a comedy relief and in reaction to something another character says or does. Usually only the audience is aware of the shift, but sometimes even the other characters notice the shift in look for more comedic effect. It is, perhaps, the most stylized of all anime expressions. It resembled modern abstract art.
Anime’s Visual Language
Visual language seeks to tell a story using images that create a type of standard alphabet. For the most part, anime has its own standard alphabet of expressions as we’ve examined. Large eyes, simplified noses, simplified ears, simplified mouths, and other features all serve as visual words that can take a little practice to read. Many of them are easy to understand, but some, like the nosebleed, aren’t readily understood. Anime’s style lends itself to flexibility and variety despite appearing familiar. That’s why it’s a language. Familiar words combine in unique ways, or they may combine in well-known, even cliched, ways. But the words themselves remain the same, just as anime’s few nose designs remain the same. If you are drawing your own characters, experiment with the language. Combine the visual words or exaggerate them. The visual words I discuss here aren’t the only ones available to you. You can also make up your own language like many mangaka and video game series have done.
Drawing in the style is akin to writing by hand. Some people have better calligraphy than others, but as long as the words are legible, the message can be understood. So too with visual languages like anime and manga’s language. A poor-quality anime drawing can still communicate the feelings of a character as long as the visual words are present and in the correct positions. The point of language is to communicate an idea or an experience to another, whether the language is vocal or visual.
Anime’s visual language includes words beyond the facial expressions we’ve examined. Akanbe and orz are just a few of those words. Poses of various types, scenes of electric power lines, and other common conventions of anime expand the language. Many of these visual words have changed over the course of anime. After all, languages change, but the end goal remains: to tell a story. And storytelling is what unites us across cultures and languages.