This is the second blogmas I’m spending with you all. The second time we get to sit down together and just chat over the holidays about nothing and everything. I really appreciate it. It makes the snowy season just a tad bit warmer.
It really is a comforting exercise for me to just sit down at my computer and share whatever may be going through my mind. Sometimes it comes out a bit wonky but we always find a way to have a nice chat about it. Today for example, I wanted to explore the significance of the colour white in anime.
I’ve previously tried to gleam the meaning behind the frequent presence of water and water motifs in the medium. I threw out a lot of theories and I think all of them apply to a certain degree. I’ve been meaning to explore more themes in that way.
Of course, colour theory has always been an interest of mine and specifically black and white. Both of these non colours tend to hold a huge significance across cultures but can be interpreted very differently. As the world outside my window is currently a beautiful shade of white (which will be grimy grey/brown by evening…), how about we start by shiro.
First let start by the sometimes ambiguous cultural associations of the colour white. In many Asian countries, white is a colour of mourning. A solemn colour meant to mark serious occasions.
Traditional Shinto religion associates sanctity and purity with the colour. White stones often mark sacred places dedicated to Yokai and just like in western ceremonies, white clothing is worn at weddings. But white is also associated with death, as the bodies of the deceased are dressed in that colour for their journey to the other world. As such it holds a dual role of both serenity, introspection and celebration.
Also, decoration that mark joyful occasions will often be predominantly white or white and red. I’m not sure if this means anything but google tells me white is the most popular colour for cars in Japan.
Basically, white is a popular colour that can mean a lot of things. Salary men and students almost always count a white shirt as part of their uniforms. In fact, here’s a random picture of Tokyo and you can see how much white there is. I know, let’s get a random picture of New York as well:
This proved nothing!
OK but what about anime?
Well as far as clothing goes, those white shirts are pretty omni-present as well. It’s safe to assume that the only significance there is: this is a fair representation of Japan. Sailor Uniforms are also predominantly white. No duh..
However, characters in all white clothing are fairly rare. Usually a girl may have an all-white dress to show her as a young or innocent character. It can also be used as a marker to show a person is unpreoccupied by such things as clothing or appearance and therefore chose a simple colour. I almost said practical, but we all know how difficult it is to keep whites, white!
Honestly, it’s simply too common a choice for me to get any significant patterns. Instead, let’s focus on something a bit rarer but still frequent enough for a good sample size. White haired characters.
Putting aside old folks, in my experience these are extremes but pretty much always *special* in some way. That white-haired fellow is magical and will eventually save the day or betray us all. Maybe both. Why limit ourselves?
We can think of characters like Inuyasha, Kanade or Allen Walker. These are generally benevolent but surprisingly powerful and unique within their own world fiction. And they do bring about a lot of heartache and destruction in their path.
On the other hand, you have the White Hair, Black Heart trope for a reason. When it comes to mysteriously delicate and attractive young men, white hair is a very bad sign. Anyone here seen Berserk? Point is, whether purposefully or not, white hair is bad news. Powerful bad news, which is never a good combination.
So how did a colour associated with spirituality and purity come to be so frequently used with unsavory characters? On the one hand, there’s a certain subversion of expectations. By now, it has become the norm though, so I would really start switching surprise bad guys to pink hair instead.
On the other, it may be a contrast with black. Since black hair is considered the “normal” colour in a lot of anime. One that is supposed to denote an average character, inconspicuous and unremarkable. Occasionally, it can signify traditional Japanese beauty standards as well. So, by choosing the opposite, you have a character that is outlandish, foreign and in some respects *other*. All of this is quite suspicious, wouldn’t you say?
Of course, a weirdo like that shouldn’t be trusted! Even in western culture we have the notion of the “evil albino”. Lack of pigmentation means something went way wrong. And so, at best, these characters a slightly mischievous or morally ambiguous. At worst, they’re complete monsters whose Psycho Pass remains clear no matter what.
Hmmm, I’ve been hitting the eggnog hard lately, I might need a little help to bring this all together. Just kidding, I don’t do dairy!
What did we learn from all this kids? Not much about the significance of the colour white in either Japanese culture or anime. But that you should always steer clear of handsome young men with white hair. In the end, I’m pretty sure that was the actual valuable lesson here.
So this holiday season, stay safe out there and don’t trust anyone with white hair or a red suit!
9 thoughts on “I’m dreaming of a Shiro Christmas – The Significance of White in Anime (12 days)”
Somehow I expected to see an exploration of the prevalence of the name Shiro (and variations thereof) in anime. Doesn’t there seem like a lot of them? Off the top of my head; Shiro, the black paladin in Voltron, Shiro the sister in No Game, No Life, Shiroe the protagonist in Log Horizon. Wikipedia lists 10 Shiros in fictional characters and I’m sure there are actually more than that. I am assigning you to look into this intriguing theme.
One of my favorite anime dad’s is Shiro from Ao no Exorcist… OK on it!
This is a spectacular post. I never really considered the use of white in anime, but your posts does a great job of highlighting it. 🙂
Thank you! Hope you’re having a good december
Akise Aru from Future Diary definitely was the ‘other’ when it comes to his sexuality and purpose in the narrative… though Kaworu from Evangelion is his predecessor in that regard. In fact, Future Diary’s author has a super obvious love of Evangelion, that can even be seen in the themes and characters of his stories!
I think this season’s ssss.gridman is taking the ‘special’ white hair to the extreme… just saying!
The prototype of white=special in anime for me will always be Kimba the White Lion. Ah, childhood memories. (Might be the oldest anime I’ve seen: 1965/66. I checked: they broadcast it in 1977; I was 5 to 6 years old.)
I have never seen it but I certainly hear about it often
Excellent final screen-cap! Where is it from?
It’s an anime within an anime – Persona 4