Not so long ago I had a reader comment that no one really cares about colour in anime unless it’s extreme. Like in NGNL or Great Pretender (which has not yet been released here so I can’t tell just how extreme it is). I’m paraphrasing. Now this is an awesome person whose opinion I really respect. So I can’t deny that it hurt me a bit to read, since I basically talk about colour in anime non stop. It’s by far the technical aspect I mention the most and I tend to be on average more interested about the production side than a lot of anime fans I know, as it is.

I really hope that I haven’t been boring everyone with all that colour talk. This said, even I forget just how much impact colour has in anime and how studios use it for both aesthetic technical purposes and non verbal storytelling. So I figured I would talk a bit about what draws me so to colour theory in anime and maybe I can pique some of you guys’ curiosity as well!

anime excited
OMG!!! vermillion!!!!

Of course the most basic use of colour is aesthetics and mood. It’s no coincidence that Slice of Life and Moe shows tend to have softer palettes with a lot of pastels. It’s meant to be relaxing, easy on the eyes, it subconsciously primes the viewer to unwind and calm their mind. It’s soothing. On the other hand, more saturated colours and ones that use a more primary base (closer to red, blue and yellow) are supposed to have the opposite effect. Sharpen the viewers focus and get them in a slightly more agitated state. Perfect for a show that’s about to dole out half an hour of pure action. These are basics that have been followed by the industry for so long that seeing an anime from one genre rendered in a palette usually associated with another is immediately noticeable and tends to draw the fans’ attention.

There is still a lot of debate on the subconscious effect of colour in the area of psychology research, but it’s a currently growing field. It’s why so many fast food restaurants have a visibly red theme. A few links if you got weird interests like me:

Beyond the supposed subconscious effect of colours due to the way our brains react to the frequencies, there are the very established half conscious acquired interpretations of colours we each have through years of cultural bias. Almost everywhere red is considered somewhat violent and aggressive. Put in an all red background and you have the feeling something bad is about to happen. It’s the colour of blood and as such it’s been used forever in art to symbolize pain and conflict whether directly or symbolically. By contrast blue is the colour of the sky or a particularly clear sea. It’s open and free and soothing, maybe a little cold. The exact same scene on an all blue background has a very different effect on the audience. This is true of any colour really. And that’s where colour coding comes in.

sailor moon
Rei has a fiery personality? You don’t say…

On a practical level, making an object or character a very different colour from the rest makes them stand out. It draws the eye to that element. It’s an easy way to make sure the audience notices an important detail. For scene with a lot of movement, it also makes it much easier to follow what’s happening and who is who so that people don’t loos the flow of a battle for instance. Unless you want your audience to not be sure who’s winning and who’s losing, then making each stand out from the background but be very similarly coloured to each other is a great way to go. If you choose symbolic colours on top of that for a bit of colour coding, you can pepper in some information about the scene or character in that way also. It’s a very practical tool.

Colour coding has been used in cinema since cinema’s been coloured. I’ve spoken before about the very common Red Oni/Blue Oni trope in anime. This season Kuhn and Rak are a pretty good example of the genre in Tower of God (I’ve mentioned it before but in general Tower of God has an excellent palette. Some really great choices!). I also once wrote a whole post about the colour coding in ACCA 13. I particularly liked it because it’s a re-purposing of traditional magical girl coding like in Sailor Moon and Madoka but used in such a different context. Since the colour coding in those shows is so blunt they also usually tend to use a very straightforward palette with little gradients in order to really maximize the message. Whereas series like BSD, Durarara or even Double Decker will use much more drastic gradients or even contrasting colour gradients as their characters are much more shifty and dual natured.

Green is a particular interesting colour when it comes to symbolism. It’s nature and life and freshness. You can use it to give a character an air of innocence and, for lack of a better word, purity. But it’s also jealousy! Usually darkening that green a bit or adding more yellow than blue and you have something toxic instead. When green is used to tint ambient light in makes a scene look decidedly unnatural and everything that happens in it becomes a bit more tense. Like something is just off. Psycho Pass used a light green filter to heighten discomfort and tension very effectively.

K also used a lot of atmospheric tints

In a way, colour is one of those elements that is really proper to the animation. Like voice acting. It’s a chance to add and mould the narrative in a way that is specific to the anime and can’t be found in other mediums (for the most part). Most anime is adapted from black and white manga. Sure some of them have coloured covers or something but that’s not necessarily binding. For instance, Natsume has very clear silver hair on the covers of the manga. The anime could easily have made him a silver haired character and I bet he would have looked great. But I can clearly see why they chose the dark ash blonde instead. Natsume’s human world is very mundane, and that’s an important part of the story. It informs his character and reactions. So the humans within the anime are very naturally coloured with shades of black mostly brown and dark blonde hair and variously brown eyes. The more outlandish colours are reserved for the Yokai elements of the story. The contrast between the two and how to reconcile those two world is one of the core elements of Natsume, and it resonates even through the choice of colour.

I really love that. Here’s a wacky example. I’m currently reading Ran and the Gray World. The illustrations are beautiful and the covers are coloured. But, and this might sound weird, I don’t think those colours suit the story. If I were to adapt it, I would choose an expanded classical palette with a lot of high dark to light contrast gradients. I would avoid too many different coloured or rainbow gradients. I know it’s real pretty and would invoke the sense of magic and all that, but I don’t think that’s what this story needs. Think something like Beyond the Boundary. Except I would switch out the pink and coral emphasis of the palette to blues and teals. I would do this because it goes with the themes I find the most interesting in the story and the character traits I want to highlight. It would also clearly give the sense of setting and epoch I would want for this story. I could explain it in more details but that would be very long and spoil a bit of Ran and the Gray world.

But that would be just a touch of my interpretation in an already existing story. In the end, that’s what I like most about colour in anime. It’s a bit of expression from the animators and director that’s free from the source material and most likely from studio interference. Cause it’s just colour! And it can be used for practical applications on top of that. As a big fan of non verbal story telling, colour is one of the elements I find the most communicative.

I’m not sure I manage to interest anyone else in colour theory but I really want to go  figure out colour palettes for all my manga now! That was super fun!

Rini 3 (12)
This is the most colourful Rini I have


33 thoughts

  1. Your posts about color are some of the most interesting posts to me. They’ve given me things to think about and even changed the way I look at anime, as well as other forms of entertainment. I’ve noticed subtle little things even in live action shows from West and East such as characters who are or who “want to be” couples are dressed in similar or even the same colors, and others who are antagonists are in very different palettes. I’ve learned a lot from your color posts, they’ve given me another way to look at entertainment, and I hope you never stop sharing your amazing insights with us!

    1. That is so kind of you to say. And I love social queues being communicated through wardrobe colours. That rocks

    1. I’m not sure where your generations split is.I guess there has been sme digital decay but I find many shows from frm the 80s have really vibrant colors. In fact it can make them look dated at times

  2. When I think of bold color I think of Kimetsu no Yaiba and when I think of softer color I go with something like Aoi Hana. Or Liz and the Blue Bird. LBB has an amazing use of watercolor-like rendering. I seem to feel like most serious yuri uses softer colors.

    The rainy greens of Kotonoha no Niwa leave me in awe. I remember thinking it was the most beautiful anime ever made.

    OTOH, Madoka reminds me of stuff I took in college that was printed on blotter paper. Those are not bad memories, they’re very interesting memories.

    Vampire Slayer D was a visually dark anime. Bright color really meant something.

  3. I seem to remember it was either me or Dawnstorm who said this…but I can’t remember on which post, because lately I’ve had time to write out comments for several posts, including yours.

    I’ve written about colour and its meanings a bit as well – off the top of my head, I had posts for DanMachi and Madoka – so you’re definitely not alone there.

    As for sound design (mentioned in a different comment) and other audio elements, I have this habit of watching anime on mute – I know, Astral was like, “You’re missing out on a crucial part of the experience!” when I told him – and so I don’t really notice it. I’m much more attuned to visuals…and typoes in subs…(possibly?) as a result of this.

      1. They’re not entirely out of the question, it’s just that I don’t take that option if I can help it – which is a lot of the time, because subs are the generally easier option to produce. If I manage to get both, I’ll listen to a bit of the dub to experience it – generally critical moments, such as character intros – but opt for subs for the main watch.

  4. i’m no expert on color, but i agree with you that color is very important when it comes to anime. People tend not to notice the impact color has on them as it’s not as obvious as sound or something happening on screen, it’s a passive effect, but it can be used to set moods, convey the general atmosphere of the screen and so much more.

  5. Colour theory is very interesting. But I have a problem: I’m pretty sure I have aphantasia. I can’t imagine what colours look like; I store this exclusively as abstract information. So to the extent that topics necessitate colour imagination, I’ll have to store information until I actually get to apply it while watching anime. Colour coding doesn’t require much information, so it’s easy to understand. But “softer palettes” vs. “more saturated colours” is harder; I can only hold the difference in my mind as an extreme binary, but it’s almost never like that in real shows. And when I’m trying to compare shows (say, Rokuhoudou vs. Mushibugyou), I can’t without actually looking up screen shots, and even then, I’d need the pictures side by side for the best effect.

    That’s why those screenshot posts are so valuable. I get the colour theory together with examples at hand. It’s still sort of hard for me to contextualise them against other shows, but at least I know that’s what it looks like.

    Differences between colour pallettes are easier to remember when shows mess with them deliberately, by giving a scene-to-scene contrast. An example would be the first episode of Kotoura-san, when they shatter that filter, and the world suddenly looks a lot brighter. (I can’t describe the filter, because all I remember is the difference: “the world suddenly looks brighter”.)

    I didn’t notice Great Pretender having a particularly extreme colour palette, but they do sometimes do funky stuff with background textures, I think. It’s a very pretty show.

    1. I didn’t know you had aphantasia. That has to change the impact of anime. Maybe not in the moment but in the lingering impression…
      I’m looking forward to Great Pretender!

  6. Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super are shows I know use a lot of colour theory! There is quite a few similarties to their aura’s/hair colours and the science of Chakra’s.

    One of the best uses of colour I found when it steered away from the tropes. In Full Metal Alchemist during the Maes funeral scene. Normally these scenes are greyed out and the world becomes more dull as if the world is about to end .. as it reflects the characters.. but there it was perfectly clear weather with an actual beautiful sunset and a tranquil colour a shade of coral making the scene feel almost idyllic. Showing how Maes was somone who did not matter that much to the bigger picture in the world.. the world moved on like nothing really happend.

    But to Mustang the world was grey.. it was his tears were the rain. I like how that colour created a dissonance from what we are used to.. How it creates the illusion for a moment that Roy would be fine like he said.

    The same can be said for Madoka where the more colorful the more dangerous it tends to gets. It always makes me more surprised when shocking stuff happens because you expect it to be darker when the bad stuff happens. It lowers my alertness!

    I do like when it amplifies emotions as well but I really love it when colour is used to subvert expectations!

    1. Madoka uses colours to enhance a sense of disorientation. It’s quite impressive. It also uses traditional mahoshoujo colour coding. Great palettes all around.

  7. “I really hope that I haven’t been boring everyone with all that colour talk.”

    Posts about color usage, and your other posts about technique and production topics, are among my favorite. So, I’m not bored at all! Quite the opposite.

    I’m afraid I don’t comment very often on those posts because the topic is way outside of my areas of expertise. But I still enjoy reading them.

    1. That’s what counts. A lot of my favourite posts leave me with nothing to say since they said it all…

  8. You may also think that using a good combination of colours usually improves the overall taste of the anime, but you will be surprised by the fact that there are some animes which heavily focuses on monotonous coloring or using contrasting colors like black and white, red and black etc. That helps to give the anime a sort of its own ‘identity’ and gives off a different kind of experience to the viewers. Take an example of Death Note and Steins;Gate. There may be more out there!

    1. There bare a lot. Colour palette as a form of visual identity is always a very strong visual feature to make a show remarkable, I think

  9. We always talk about art as something where we use colors, but using colors is itself an art. Its a precious skill, something intangible. This topic is not that much discussed, because people don’t usually think at that level when it comes to the use of colors as a way of “expressing something”. What you have written, has helped surface the importance of strategic coloring and depiction. And that, I feel, is great!

  10. Honestly, color and shading choices fascinate me as I watch anime. They contribute so much to the overall mood and feel of a work, whether they be in or out of harmony with the actual story. . .

  11. I like reading your analyses of colours in various anime. It’s something I never really pay attention to myself, but I’m actually more attentive of it now that I’ve been reading your reviews. It is admittedly a bit funny (in a good way, I promise!) whenever you do these super observant breakdowns of the colour schemes, just because I would’ve remained completely ignorant of those things if you didn’t mention them, and your passion for the subject really shows in your writing. It’s something most viewers (including myself, until recently) tend to take for granted, despite being so fundamental. Good colour coordination is to visual art what the bass guitar is to music: the average listener doesn’t notice it when combined with all the other instruments… but if you were to remove the bass segment from the song, they would almost certainly notice that something was wrong right away.

    I guess that entire paragraph was just a really long way of saying you shouldn’t be discouraged by that one comment… so, uh, yeah. Keep us in the know about that stuff– someone has to!

    1. YAY! You know, I’m the type of person who watches those YouTube videos of colour blind people seeing colours for the first time and cry…

  12. I love your color posts! I love getting into those nitty gritty details that most people don’t notice because it helps you appreciate it more.

    I mean, I wonder the same thing about music in anime. I love talking about it, but it’s very seldom discussed in the fandom. The most you’ll hear people say is “oh the background music is nice” or “I liked/disliked this OP”. It’s weird to me, because I think the music plays a vital role in both TV and film in helping you get invested in a scene and feeling the characters’ emotions.

    1. That’s true. sound design and score can make a huge difference. For me, the score of Blast of Tempest did the show a huge disservice. It made the tone so needlessly dramatic in my opinion! But I’m bad at noticing music so it’s great to read about it

  13. Just wanted to pop in and say that I’m definitely not bored by your writing about color in anime, and color can be used subtly to great effect. It certainly doesn’t have to be obvious or in the forefront to contribute to the look, feel, or mood of an anime, in my opinion.

    Having the experience of someone you respect bluntly disagree with something you consider important to your consumption of media can really suck (I’ve been there). I hope that person has an opportunity to reconsider and maybe broaden their perspective!

    1. Oh it wasn’t confrontational or anything. It was a general statement. I’m happy to hear others also like colour!

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