Visuals Matter in Anime

Did that title blow your mind? There are few more obvious statements I could make. To be honest I struggled with it quite a bit. I just couldn’t figure out how to explain what I wanted to talk about in one sentence. Let me give you the context:

Beyond the boundary

normally looks don’t matter but…

I have now read 3 articles more or less in a row stating that visuals where either a very important thing to modern day anime fans or The most important thing. And then these articles went on to explain that this was “bad” and responsible for the decline in quality and creativity of storytelling in anime. I’m pretty sure at least one of them was implying that modern viewers lacked wisdom and attention spans to appreciate quality. There was a snide tone to the lot really. It also went into the old vs new debate but that one is for another day. (Preview: I think that 90% of humans prefer things that have nostalgic feelings towards….)

Today I would just like to share my views on the relative worth of visuals in anime. And by visuals I will not be talking about specific design elements because the actual quality of designs tend to depend way too much on individual tastes for me to base myself on. Instead let’s talk about the level of detail and consistency in said designs. How expansive and varied colour palettes are. Background details. Variety in characters and settings. Fluidity and quantity of actual animation and CG integration. I figure that roughly sums up most of the elements that we usually associate with “visuals” in anime. I bet I forgot something super important and you guys are going to school me in the comments. Go ahead, I deserve it.

With regard to how important I personally consider these elements to be. Well, super important. Honestly, it’s one of the main reasons I watch anime instead of western animation or live action. I really like moving pictures and I find the attention to and mastery of visuals in anime difficult to match outside the medium. Can I still enjoy an anime with what I consider subpar visuals, definitely. But they have to have something (character, plot, comedy…) to make up for it. And I can also enjoy an anime with what I consider a subpar story if the breathtaking visuals make up for it. I go to museums too. Those are almost entirely visuals cause apparently you’re not supposed to touch the paintings, or so the keep telling me….

 

This is just my personal take. You can of course assign as much or as little importance to visuals in anime as you’d like. I have no business telling you how to enjoy it. Neither does anyone else in my opinion.

I just wanted to look at this double insinuation that enjoying anime for the visual aspects is 1) somehow indicative of a lack in the viewer ( lack of intellectual sophistication, lack of knowledge, lack of mental stamina…) and 2) contributing to the overall decline of the anime industry.

Of course what follows are only my thoughts on it.

First, I really don’t see the correlation between liking art and being intellectually lacking in any way. I know that we make fun of people saying they only look at the pictures when they read books but ‘cmon… It seems to me that if a person particularly enjoys one medium over another, it’s likely that they are drawn to what makes that medium unique. Without the animation, colours and audio, most anime is a manga, and without the pictures, mangas are books. If someone is choosing to watch the anime instead of reading the manga, it’s most likely because they like the animation and visuals. That doesn’t seem surprising to me.

 

durarara-manga

sometimes they are both anime and manga…whoa!

I know some people are going to say it’s because they don’t like reading or because it’s “easier” or “quicker” to watch anime but I don’t really buy that. Ok the reading part may be true for some but a lot of us watch subs where we still have to read all the dialogue and under pressure at that. No matter how convenient streaming has gotten it’s still way easier to throw a manga in your bag that you can read anywhere and although it may be quicker to watch movies than read the books they are based on, I find it’s the opposite for manga. I can usually read the equivalent of 3 to 5 episodes worth of manga in the time it takes to watch a single episode of the same show (depending on the adaptation.) For instance I recently read all of the available Given manga in a bit l under two hours and the events of season 1 end a bit before the halfway mark. So basically, I read about 2 seasons worth (24 eps) in less than two hours.

Considering this, I really figure that we pick anime because we like what it has to offer over other mediums. And in the case of manga, where the actual stories become almost identical, a lot of what makes anime different are the visuals. This is a long way for me to say that I personally think it’s pretty natural to consider visuals as fairly important in anime….

What about the argument that it’s ok for them to be important but they shouldn’t be the only thing that matters? Once again I’m not really qualified to tell people how to enjoy anime but I have to imagine visuals aren’t the only thing that matters to most fans as I’ve seen beautiful anime flop frequently enough while less visual impressive series thrive in popularity. So I can only guess that the average viewer values other elements as well.

handshaker_scene

I haven’t watched this but it looks really pretty

Fine then, what about this idea that if we put disproportionate importance on visuals, it encourages studios to put out badly written anime as long as it looks good. And therefore, it leads to loss of overall anime quality.

Again I’m not sure about this one. I guess it’s possible but it seems to be based on a few assumptions I don’t share. One being that it’s “easy” to create a beautiful anime. Or at least easier than to create an engaging story. Which is why studios would naturally choose to make something visually stunning rather than narratively engaging if they have the choice. And I have not really seen any true evidence of that. Of course this is just personal observation so I really could be wrong.

To me writing a good story is hard, it takes talent. But the same can be said for creating a beautiful image. Or for putting together a fluid animation. Or for voice acting a part convincingly and emotionally. Basically, all of these artistic elements are difficult to create and I don’t know that any one is empirically harder. There are tons of talented artists out there but just as many writers. I personally know dozens of fanfic authors. Some are truly great at it.

But it also goes to budget. Generally speaking, it’s usually way more expensive to make a visually impressive anime, regardless of the story it’s attached to. I understand the argument may be that studios won’t be as demanding from their script writers if they can make up for weak plot or characters through stunning imagery but why would they want to since it’s way cheaper to simply make script revisions.

barakamon-02-seishuu-tamako-naru-miwa-calligraphy-writing-brush-comedy

then again I do think writing is magic!

And I do think studios use visuals as a form of fanservice to give their prestige projects the best chance possible. But I think they do so because they believe that the series will be enjoyed by fans. The anime industry is sort of volatile, a few flops can hurt a studio. But big budget flops can be devastating. To purposefully greenlight a project that executives honestly think is a bad story and then pour tons of resources in it, is plain stupid from a business standpoint.

You could argue that the expects are out of touch and picking scripts that are subpar but to think they are doing so on purpose because they plan to rely on a huge production seems unlikely to me.

I guess a further argument could be made that fans watch bad stories only because they are pretty giving the impression that those are the types of stories we want to see and that creates more bad stories. That sounds like the most reasonable argument. And maybe I’m just part of the problem but I haven’t seen that many great looking animes which I thought were badly written. In fact, I’ve seen some great anime with so so visuals but almost all the bad anime I’ve even also had unimpressive productions. The only exception I can think of off the top of my head is Maiyoga (poor show) and you can’t really argue that it was popular with fans….

This is why for me not only should you like anime for whatever reason you happen to like anime. Heck if you only care about how shoe lace physics is handled then you do you! Also please start a blog because that sounds fascinating! But in general, I’m not yet convinced a focus on visuals has had any negative impact on the anime industry.

Just my minimally informed opinion though. Except the like whatever you like bit. I stand by that!

Mayoiga

Irina

I'm much nicer than I seem, we should be friends!

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19 Responses

  1. Jiraiyan says:

    I generally prefer anime to manga. However, I have favored specific manga series over their anime version due to the differences in quality. This happened with Naruto, Bleach and One Piece. Even though the One Piece animation is well done, I still prefer the manga. I also favor what is called Sakuga animation, when watching anime. I have a hard time enjoying anime without good animation, unless the story is magnificent.

  2. David Boone (moonhawk81) says:

    When I reviewed episode 3 of Fire Force, the fact that visuals matter was the crux of my argument about ep 3 showing a sexual assault. Because without the context of Tamaki’s backstory, as given in the manga, all we anime viewers saw was Shinra groping her. Twice, underneath her clothing. And since anime is a VISUAL medium, I called it like I saw it: sexual assault. The visuals led me to that conclusion because, in anime, visuals ARE the story. . .

  3. Dawnstorm says:

    I don’t know. I often find it difficult to tell where the visuals end and the story begins. Often, the shows that I find well written, I also find visually appealing. Not necessarily from the promo art alone (case in point: Ping Pong the Animation). But there’s more to the visuals than just an art style that may be to your liking or not. Storyboarding, for example. Or cinematography. Or photography (how you integrate various levels of the art). I imagine if you have a well written story it’s easier to tell what goes where on the screen. This season, for example, Stars Align is not only one of the prettiest shows, it’s also one of the best written ones. Great visuals can go a long way to support characterisation. In Stars Align, for example, I was able to predict a part of glasses guy’s personality, simply from the way he was drawn and animated, and a single short (but impactful) scene with his mother and brother. Good visuals support story, and a good story makes it easier to have good visuals. They’re not independent.

    Similarly, for example, I think both the story and visuals in Violet Evergarden were mediocre. To be sure, the technical polish of the visuals in VE was impeccable (you can rely on KyoAni for that), but I felt much of it was just resting on visual clichés. There were definitely episodes that were visually more impressive than others, and there were some very effective cinematographic choices here and there. But mostly you had the expected visuals attempt to evoke the expected emotional beats, and mostly it didn’t work on me. I’m not trying to say the show had either bad writing or bad visuals: just how the visuals and story affect me tends to work hand in hand.

    But Violet Evergarden also raises another question: what counts as good visuals to begin with? For me, impeccable technique, to me, isn’t sufficient (and that goes for writing, too). A standard polish job can look good in isolation, but feel sterile and boring in context.

    And then there’s overwrought visuals. You posted a screenshot of Handshakers and said it looks pretty. I hope the makers of the show see this, because they don’t get to hear this often. I personally didn’t last a minute before the head ache started. A full CGI mess, where you often can’t tell foreground from background, and background (or foreground, who knows?) can desolve into into a… kaleidoscopic something. It’s definitely unique. I haven’t seen much of it; I think I might pass out if I tried, but then that’s my motion sickness and photosensitivity. It didn’t work for many people. There’s a sequel, but it wasn’t advertised it as one. Yeah, visuals are important, and they ruined this show’s reputation. (From what I heard the story doesn’t salvage anything, but doesn’t make it worse either.) If you’d like those visuals, I suggest you watch this show, because I doubt you’ll see anything like that elsewhere. And even if you don’t end up liking it, it’s at the very least interesting. (I probably would have watched more had the show not threatened my physical well being more than any other I can remember.)

    Also, that Totoro picture is quite the find.

    • Irina says:

      I chose that handshakers puc very carefully. I enjoy undermining my points in my pictures…it’s not healthy…

      Unrelated, stars allign was one of my most anticipated shows this season and my heart sunk when it wasn’t on any of my platforms. This comment really rubbed some salt in yet also makes me really happy that my instincts where right!

      • Dawnstorm says:

        Oh no, now I’m nervous about mentioning seasonal stuff… (It really is the best new anime this season, though. So far, good enough to own, I think, so if it ever comes out on Dvd/BluRay…)

  4. The combination of being in another language and having visuals be such an important aspect means I both love and hate anime. I can’t exactly put it on the background (unless I’m rewatching) but when I do watch, I know I’ll WANT to be fully in. That’s probably why I have such a hard time sitting down and just binging because I hate having my attention being pulled away from something I enjoy by chores or work. I ONLY watch anime in times where there is very little stress.

  5. wingking78 says:

    Funnily enough I’m currently rewatching Saekano in full for the first time since it originally came out, and the very first scene of the prologue episode has two of the characters arguing over this exact topic, as they debate the merits of a harem anime where one girl praises the fluid animation and cute character designs, while the other girl criticizes the writing and even pulls out the “this is why the anime industry is declining” argument almost exactly as you described it.

    Personally I’m a bit outside this debate because for me the characters are always the most important thing in getting me attached to a series or not, and for good characterization in animation, the writing and the visuals both have to be sharp. An irritating character who looks gorgeous or a deeply complex character with the screen presence of a radish aren’t going to hold my attention for very long.

    • Irina says:

      I’m also a huge sucker for characters. But a good character can take a long while to properly build up. I end up watching a lot of shows for character potential that never gets realized…

  6. AK says:

    I don’t know why this is a controversial stance, but yeah, I agree. Anime is a visual medium, so the visual aspect matters. Same with games. Not that I need every game I play to have amazing graphics; there are some great games with very simple 8/16-bit graphic styles, but those can look good too. It all depends on what you’re going for.

  7. kimchisama says:

    It takes me longer to watch an anime that I don’t find “appealing” however if it is a good story it will always win me over. I may hem and haw about taking that jump but I know in the past I always ending up liking and it would come down to story. And the visuals usually really fit with the story.
    Like Mob, One Punch, or Soul Eater. It took me a good while to watch them but in the end they are some of my favorites and I like the visuals now… I guess I’m happy that my mind can be changed. Or I’m just flaky.

    • Irina says:

      I like naive visuals but I admit there are some shows I discount on looks alone. What’s the point if watching pretty boy shows if I don’t find the boys pretty? How shallow do I sound???

  8. Inskidee says:

    OMG. The mass majority of people who i’ve met/talked to have argued the exact opposite claim while I argued yours (fiesty argument I tell ya). Its nice knowing that there is another person out there in the vast sea of people that also cares about art in anime.

    I personally find myself unable to watch anime that have an art style i’m uninterested in no matter how good the anime is. Two sad examples are Psycho Pass and Soul Eater; both I realllyyyyy wanted to watch and invest myself into however the art begged to differ…

    • Irina says:

      See the art style (architecture especially) is the main reason I picked up soul eater! Different strokes!

      • Inskidee says:

        Oh wow! I’ve never heard anyone compliment the art in Soul Eater (I hear it looks really nice in later episodes, i’ve never heard compliments on the starting episodes) so its really nice to know your view. To each their own!

        • Irina says:

          Hey I also picked up Mob Psycho for the visuals

          • Inskidee says:

            OMG sameeee. The art style is so unique to the anime. I’ve personally never seen an art style like Mob Psychos before; Its just so creative and beautifully animated. It gives me Ping Pong: The Animation vibes visually.

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