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.
- Speed lines
- Abstract Background Patterns
- Eye symbols
- Crying large tear drops
- Sparking a rivalry
- Popping vein
- Sweat Drop
- Cat Mouth/Fangs
- Nose balloon
- Ghost coming out of mouth
- Bleeding nose
- Falling flat
- Colored lines dropping over character
- 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 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.
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 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.”
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.
This is another iconic symbol. It means the character is anxious or confused. The number and size of the sweat drops shows the degree of the emotion. Sometimes these are used with a blush across the character’s face to show embarrassment. Blush colors determine what type of embarrassment is being experienced. Blue blushes are severe embarrassment mixed with anger or depression. Red blushes are romantic embarrassment. Both blushes and sweat drops can be occupied with a popping vein if the character is feeling angry embarrassment. When combined with shocked eyes, like the example image, it shows how the character feels stunned and/or confused about the situation. Perhaps its best described as an “What is this?” moment. Sweat drops appear in the same locations as popping veins.
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 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.
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.”
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.
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…