So, you are one of the millions of anime fans around the world. You’ve seen the classics like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Cowboy Bebop. You’ve been inspired by the manga of Fullmetal Alchemist, Attack on Titan, and Dragon Ball. And you love the work of Studio Ghibli, Toei Animation, and Kyoto Animation.
Yet, you feel as though your love for anime and manga needs to find a new outlet. You’ve exhausted nearly everything that Crunchyroll or Funimation has to offer – and your parents have told you off for watching too much Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. You want to get a bit more creative.
That’s easy enough.
Japanese animation – the thing we know as anime – is one of the most distinctive styles on the planet, recognisable at all times. And to replicate this style – and to add elements of your own creativity – is merely a case of breaking down its elements. And, ultimately, practising hard.
If you can imagine yourself as a character designer for Gainax, creating some of the most popular anime characters of the future, or producing a new anime series all by yourself, it’s that last point that’s going to matter. You ain’t gonna get anywhere without putting a lot of time into it.
If you’re not this serious, then you have it easier. If you have just watched Death Note, Code Geass, and Mobile Suit Gundam and want to try to replicate these images yourself, then let’s get going.
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The Anime Art Style.
We’ve said that the Japanese animes have one of the most distinctive styles in global pop culture. You’d know almost immediately that any of the characters from a manga series or from any anime shows are from this particular style.
This applies right across the board – from Hayao Miyazaki to Osamu Tezuka, from Yoshiyuki Tomino to Akira Toriyama. Whilst all of these artists have very different styles, many of the features of their work are similar. And it is these features that you’ll need to get to grips with if you are going to be an anime or manga artist yourself.
But what is it that defines these artworks? Let’s take a look.
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The Big Hair.
Now, you’ll find very few anime characters that do not have incredible hair. This will usually be big, unconventionally coloured, and will change quite dramatically from scene to scene.
Apparently, the ‘wow’ factor of anime hair comes from the importance of the cover illustration in marketing manga books to kids. The most eye-catching, intriguing, and dramatic were the comics most likely to sell.
As a result, the whole anime industry started competing in terms of hair – just for the sake of making a striking cover.
The Important Features.
All good, but the thing you are asking is how to best to render this yourself in your own drawing.
In short, you’re aiming for spikes, primarily, and you’re aiming for any style that will make the character look cool, interesting, or exciting.
And then you have to think about how this hair is going to move from frame to frame. Because anime hair moves a lot – and it expresses a lot through its movements.
Finally, you need to consider seriously the colour that you are giving to your character’s hair. Different colours have different symbolic meanings related to the nature of the character.
In this way, blue is the colour of peace and calm – or of coldness. Red is the colour of passion and aggression. So, think about this before you give your character’s hair a colour. It’s not just random!
The Large Eyes.
Perhaps the major characteristic of Japanese manga and anime is in the eyes. You’ll have noticed this well enough yourself.
In anime, all of the character action takes place in the eyes, which are usually oversized (although, with Miyazaki, they are not so much). They are given an emotional range and depth that is really quite striking for a single aspect of the cartoon face.
The history of anime owes this particular characteristic to Osamu Tezuka, often referred to as the ‘god’ of anime. His series back in the sixties – most famously Astro Boy – shaped the way that artists have drawn their characters ever since.
This is consequently where you will need to pay most attention when you are drawing your own anime characters.
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But remember that what is important here is that female characters often have different shaped eyes to the male ones. Compare Sakura, from Cardcaptor Sakura, to Goku from Dragon Ball.
Whilst the female characters usually have wide, round eyes, the males get something of a more aggressive look through the use of straight lines. These convey something of determination, focus, and aggression.
However, in moments of confusion, naivety, or surprise, regardless of the gender, the eyes open wide.
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The animators of the best anime series pay a lot of attention to the emotional range and depth with which they endow their characters. Anime characters should not just be empty shells that speak – as they often are in western film. Rather, they should have a realistic and engaging development, as well as an incredibly likeable side.
When drawing your anime characters then, you need to be able to give them a range of different emotions. And you’re going to be doing this through the eyes, through the movements of the hair, and through a series of recognisable tropes from which you will be borrowing.
The eyes, as we have said, are the important bit – and some psychologists have argued that this is because, in Japan, the eyes are, outside of anime, the centre of emotional expression. Across the range of emotion, you’ll need to create a different eye.
Yet, the eyes work in tandem with the wide range of tropes used through anime to express different emotions. There is one for pretty much everything, from embarrassment to arousal, from intensity to confusion.
In panic, characters often lift off the floor and their facial features disappear. When angry, the characters are drawn surrounded by black lines. And when in pain, parts of a character’s body will swell or will have a crossed plaster.
For more of these tropes, check out Morisaki Norimi’s ‘How to Draw Manga’ series.
You’ll have to get used to these. But, ultimately, you will be able to use them with surprising and hilarious effect.
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There’s one final thing to consider in relation to the emotional capacity of the character. That’s moe, a Japanese slang term referring to the feeling of affection – or attraction – to a particular character.
You’ll have noticed that many of the characters from anime – particularly the ‘magical girl’ category of character – are unbelievably cute. This is deliberate, and this is what is known in Japan as moe.
It’s deliberate because it is a useful tool in making anime popular. Cuteness sells. Think of Pikachu’s shape and smile – this is moe. Or the large of eyes of many female anime characters.
One of your characters from your own anime will benefit from sharing some of these features.
Animating Your Anime Character.
All of the above holds well enough for manga characters. But whilst manga is the still, page-based version of this most famous of Japanese artistic styles, anime requires some movement. It is animated after all.
For any of you that have tried to produce animations yourself in the past, this complicates things a little. Obviously.
Yet, you’ve chosen a great style with which to practise your animation. Because anime uses one of the simplest styles of animation around.
Back in the day, in the earliest moments of anime, animators such as Tezuka were looking for cheap and quick ways to animate their characters. This, apparently, was due to his working with a group of inexperienced staff – on a tight schedule.
However, the animation technique stuck. And this, again, has become one of the most characteristic features of anime.
In comparison to Disney’s ‘full animation’ techniques, anime has traditionally done something a little bit different. And this is all down to the things called ‘cels’.
Cels, used up until the beginning of this century, are transparent sheets – or celluloids – upon which a frame of the animation is drawn. These need to be pretty much unique, as they are things that tell the story.
Whilst ‘full animation’ would use something like eighteen different cels a second in their animations, limited animation used much fewer – say eight, or even less.
Whilst the animations themselves were consequently not as fluid, this didn’t really matter. Because, the idea went, if you suggest that movement is happening, the audience will receive that impression. And more cels just means more work.
Consequently, Japanese animation was much more cost effective. Because whilst Disney would produce, say, twenty thousand cels per half an hour episode, limited animation cut that to about two thousand.
So, sit yourself down. Just another 1999 frames to draw!
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