Behind the Trend of Huge Eyes in Japanese Anime

by Yukako Ikezoe

There have been controversial debates going on about why characters in Japanese manga have huge eyes. Do such huge eyes in Manga mean that Japanese people are craving for them?

Having read Terry Kawashima’s piece, “Seeing Faces, Making Races: Challenging Visual tropes of Racial Differences”, I also started wondering why the eyes of characters in Japanese manga are big, even though I had never strongly questioned that before. Readers from Western countries might have wondered about the looks of characters in Manga because the characters’ features are similar to the features Caucasians have, including round eyes or blond hair.

Thinking about the real purpose of this kind of trend from the perspective of Japanese myself, I would say that is not because Japanese strongly desire to get big eyes like Caucasians, but rather because big eyes are one of the most important techniques to express characters’ minds and make it easier for readers to observe its minute movements, since only iconography and visual languages are used to let readers read what characters are thinking. Therefore readers can easily read characters’ thoughts by looking at their facial expressions with unique movements of their eyes.

There is a proverb “目は口ほどにものを言う” ,meaning that “the eyes are the window of the mind”, or “the eyes say more than the mouth” in English. This thinking also makes us consent to the trend of large eyes in Japanese Manga. Making up for sounds or animation which enable us to understand situations and feelings of characters more easily, various movements of eyes are also a center tool for writers as well as for readers. Using large eyes can be considered as one of the essential tools or techniques to add affluent expressions on characters.  Inspired by Disney cartoons, Osamu Tezuka known as a talented Japanese manga writer, also started using that technique in order to emphasize greater expressions of characters. His works then have been the basis for all manga today. In spite of the fact that the way of drawing characters was also influenced from the West, a reason is not always the strong desire of Japanese towards Caucasians, but rather Japanese manga writers adopt the Western styles into their drawings.

I am always amazed by that technique when reading manga since characters with various expressions on eyes give plenty of punches and enable me to empathize with the manga world in which only visual languages and pictures are used. Japanese writers uniquely use huge eyes as a technique to add greater emotions on characters, which is still putting many manga fans from all over the world into a trance today.

References

Tabatha Butler.(2013). How Walt Disney Influenced Anime. Retrieved from http://themovieblog.com/2013/how-walt-disney-influenced-anime/

12 thoughts on “Behind the Trend of Huge Eyes in Japanese Anime

  1. Pingback: Why do Japanese animation or anime characters have big eyes? | Why The Facts?

  2. I found this article while searching for an answer for why manga eyes are drawn so big. I always thought it was just an artistic technique until recently when I actually met a real Japanese woman with “manga eyes”! Well, not quite as large as that, but large enough to make me wonder if there is a certain percentage of the Japanese population with this trait, which may have inspired the artistic technique.

  3. People exaggerate just exactly what Osamu Tezuka contributed to anime, and it definitely wasn’t the character models. I’ll give you that Tezuka influenced the storytelling and animation techniques of anime and manga as well as the imitators of his art style, but anime has looked very different from Disney and Tezuka styles since it’s debut.
    Look at Osamu Tezukas typical Disney like style then contrast with smaller eyed and more detailed and realistically proportioned anime like half the Gundam series, Macross, Naruto, JoJo, Fist of the North Star, Berserk, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Square’s and Atlus’s art styles etc, and then try to make sense of the idea that Disney and Tezuka had any influence on anime’s visual style. It’s the shape of the eyes that makes anime it’s distinct style, the size varies. If the eye size was all that made something anime, it wouldn’t be a style distinguishable from western cartoons. You can see a direct contrast of the two styles in Kingdom Hearts and Naoki Urasawa’s manga, Pluto, a re imagining of Astro Boy in a vastly different modern anime style. There are at least as many anime without big eyes as there are with big eyes. Anime is not by default the “big eyes” look that a surprising number of people ignorantly believe it to be, and obviously has absolutely no resemblance to any Tezuka or Disney style.

  4. Actually, Japanese anime historically is a cheaper imitation of American animation, in technology and technique. If you want to look into the history of artistic history of “Big Eyes” and how they’re drawn, I would suggest you look at Bambi, the animation character that set the standard of Animation (and later Anime).

    The American Occupation brought many things to Japan, including Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Baseball, etc – things that were once banned by by the Japanese Emperor (worshiped as a god in Imperial Japan). So it was with Animation. When the American Occupation decided to OK screening of Bambi to the film was shown to the general Japanese populace as well as soldiers and American populace in Japan.

    It is hard to convey what a watershed this was – just as it is hard to convey to later generations the watershed moment of a picture of General Macarthur over what the Japanese populace always assumed was a “god” of their religion.

    You’re a Japanese kid in Imperial Japan. Take a look at Japanese animation of the period in the 1930s and during the War, the animation that the average Japanese kid and most adults would see through their lifetime. Yes, SOME American animation like Snow White might be seen by the aristocracy, but for the general populace, Imperial Japan keeps them from being exposed to what it considers American “propaganda”, especially in the late 1930s and World War 2. Then the Japanese propaganda about the superior Yamato Master Race infused with Shinto and Bushido (Yamato Damashai), Flying Geese formation, Greater Asian Co-prosperity Sphere, etc, etc, etc.

    The Japanese think they’re the best in the world.

    But their world ends. They’re defeated, conquered, and occupied.

    And then are shown Bambi (vintage 1942) by their conquerors. The animation technology, the quality, the style, the storytelling, etc is like NOTHING they’ve EVER seen before.

    To Americans, it’s wonderful, but hardly earth-shattering. American kids and adults have been watching Looney Tunes, Warner Bros and Disney for a long time https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X2tgbncOoMk

    But to Japanese? In some ways, it might be soul-crushing, and it others it might be exhilarating. Bambi quickly becomes VERY popular to the Japanese. Exposed to the artistic styles of their conquerors, the Japanese populace inevitably followed the trend of the popular film, including the artistic style of Bambi and his cutesy “Big Eyes”, palettes and color which were seamless without drawn lines, frame rate so high that stutter was imperceptible to the human eye, etc, etc, etc. Nascent Japanese animators and studios quickly followed suit to exploit this demand, imitating this now iconic Disney character and its style, a style that became emblematic of Japanese culture, like so many other things that were born in arguably the greatest cultural changes/reformation in Japanese history.

    That is how modern Japanese anime was born. It may not be the Truth the Japanese (and certain kinds of Americans) want, but it is the Truth they deserved.

  5. Japanese cartoon https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=icVu-acHlpU from 1936.

    The technique, styles and animation technology are knockoffs from Steamboat Willie (1928, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBgghnQF6E4&t=337s), Felix the Cat (1924, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eSE5hzTyIo), the Fleischer Brothers (1923, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tQf5qOvEEBA), etc, etc, etc.

    Walt Disney was creating Snow White (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HI0x0KYChq4) a year before 1936, and released it in 1937, a year after this Japanese knockoff came out. . There are countless innovations in Snow White, stylistically, industrially, and technologically that the Japanese had mostly only HEARD of, but were largely ignorant of, especially the watching general Japanese populace. As an example, take a look at the panoramic background as it moves in THREE dimensions while the Dwarves head home; Snow White’s “cartoon” world has physical DEPTH. There are even better examples throughout the Snow White film where there are multiple levels and elements of depth incorporated (and earlier American shorts). Walt Disney explained how they did this, and how they were advancing the technology, in an educational film decades later: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=34&v=kN-eCBAOw60.

    The Japanese cartoon from 1936, doesn’t even hold a candle to a minor animation short Walt Disney released that same year (1936, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yUDc78znrLM). Japan always lagged behind trends – it rarely ever makes them – and nobody came close to Disney studios (although the Fleischer Brothers made good showings, for example, in 1939 with https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F6j0EbS7skc).

    ALL animation today from the Japanese industry is made using digital painting/inking and software tools that were developed in the US? I think the first Japanese animation to utilize Disney’s digital rendering tech (which was developed a decade before) was Ghost in the Shell, after Disney had already used it for years in its renaissance period beginning in the mid-80s for some of its most breath-taking effects from Black Cauldron’s litho-film APT cells and digital imagery to Beauty and the Beast’s flying camera view in the castle ballroom.

    To this day, all the software and techniques Japanese studios use from Ghibli to Sunrise are either clones or licensed from companies held by Disney to Adobe. Americans don’t do 2D anymore ever since Treasure Planet’s “failure” due to a number of factors, costs being one of them. Americans have “moved on” for better or for worse. But ultimately, Japanese studios will continue following the industry standards in America – it’s always been this way. Japanese studios are historically about a decade behind their American counterparts, due simply to the nature of waiting for someone else to innovate, watching it “mature” in the market place, before the Japanese think it’s “safe” to “adapt”. That’s the Japanese business model; always has been: they wait for other people to take the real big risks, then reap low-risk (and often still-lucrative) rewards.

    It’s the same old game, regardless of the industry: “You invented a color TV? I’ll copy it without paying the full/any developmental costs, then sell it back to you for half the price.”

    American 2D animators from the 70s to 80s predictably closed shop like all the other “old stuff”.

    The Japanese business model has its benefits, but such a business model should not be overstated as something that stands alone or is “unique. It doesn’t, and isn’t. Because at the end of the day, it inherently relies on – it is the epitome of – “Imitation”

  6. Anyway, getting back to the “Big Eyes debate”, there really is no “debate”, merely revisionist history.

    If you want to know where the Japanese got the idea to draw “Japanese anime eyes”:

    https://drawinghub.com/tut/how-to-draw-manga-eyes-25154

    You won’t find the origins in Japan.

    You’ll find it here:

    https://s.yimg.com/ny/api/res/1.2/QbrsqRs5dqcXOLxYZHU0nA–~A/YXBwaWQ9aGlnaGxhbmRlcjtzbT0xO3c9NjIwO2g9NDg2/http://media.zenfs.com/en-US/homerun/xovain_204/a0eba034da81e05fb9819c8d03a8ce7b

    Screened in the Occupation of Japan following the World War II and vintage 1942.

    Bambi [and Dopey, among others] was extremely popular in Japan’s Occupation. Small wonder that Japanese animators adapted their styles to satisfy the demand for those kinds of characters among the Japanese populace. It was quite literally the catalyst that gave birth to the modern japanese entertainment culture.

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  8. Pingback: Naomi Osaka appears whitewashed in ad campaign for sponsor Nissin Foods — The Undefeated

  9. The explanation given regarding the eye size of the Anime characters is understood, but on the other hand there are those of Japanese decent who yearn for larger eyes. This can be contributed to the Western culture. Evidence proves that many Japanese people indulge in eye surgeries to have their eyes size enlarged to look more European. I am a firm believer that we are not suppose to look alike but embrace and love our ethnic differences. The European facial features are thrust in the public eye constantly brainwashing other cultures into believing pale skin and European facial features is the hallmark of beauty.

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  11. Pingback: Visit Japanese Cartoon Shop ANI*CUTE for Japanese Character Toys

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