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!
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:
- The Effect of Color on Conscious and Unconscious Cognition
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.
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.
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!