“It’s in the Eyes” – Drama and Performance within Anime

by Branko Burcksen

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The pioneer filmmaker Eisenstein once compared the function of montage to a mask in a type of Japanese stage play called Noh and the same face depicted in a wood carving as an advertisement for the show. The actual mask in the play looks like a natural face with appropriate size and dimensions of the facial features whereas the same face in the wood carving has distortions and exaggerations much the same as the difference between a realistic portrait and a cartoon caricature of the same person. Eisenstein used the analogy of the Noh mask and the wood carving to explain how montage allows an editor to distort and exaggerate time, setting and even the face of an actor in a movie by cutting from a head shot to an extreme close up. He spoke specifically of cutting between shots, but the comparison to drawings of a face hints at another level of editing within a shot that has been little explored, at least in the West.

Cartoons are not just for kids. It is a truth largely accepted but little utilized by most filmmakers to its full potential. Most cartoons aimed at adults never stray far from comedy no matter how serious the issues it tackles in favor of satire over drama in the case of shows like South Park and Family Guy. A small handful of cartoons like 9, The Triplets of Belleville, Persepolis and The Illusionist stand as testaments of mature, serious cartoons aimed at adults. Though terrific, stellar films in their own right, there is an emotional expression that they never fully utilize.

When we think of the moments in truly moving pictures, we imagine the outstanding performance of an actor like when Charles tears apart his wife’s room in Citizen Kane or King George VI stumbling to give a speech to the people of England in The King’s Speech. However, cartoons have there moments of tenderness too. No one will ever forget the death of Bambi’s mother or the passing of Carl’s wife at the beginning of Pixar’s Up and, in a true testament to an animated sitcoms emotional reach, how Fry’s dog never stopped waiting for his master to come home after he was frozen for over a thousand years in Futurama. So what makes a tearful cartoon different from another award worthy live action movie? To be quite simple, it is the performance. No, not the performance of a real actor but how a character is allowed to express how they feel.

As we watch a man break up a room or stumble over simple sentences, we are moved by what the character is doing. In the case of Bambi and Up, what we see are near wordless wide shots of a little dear lost in a snow swept forest and an old man mourning the loss of his wife set to simple dramatic music. In other words, it is the editing, score and cinematography that moves us, not what the individual characters are doing. They are a perfect example of what Eisenstein proved montage could do. It is not that cartoon characters are incapable of expressing these feelings themselves. The fact that cartoons have so much comedic range testifies to just how versatile they are, but either because of stigmatism or ignorance, filmmakers have not extended that range to more serious and dramatic expressions.

In some respects, cartoons carried on where silent films left off when talkies came on the scene. The Illusionist and the other cartoons mentioned above are good examples of the same type of body language and mise en scene that allowed Chaplin to express such a wide range of emotions without uttering a single word. When sound seeped into cinema, it added a new level of expression that until then had been limited to the live stage. An actors voice inflections and the ability to hear the words of an actor gave a whole new believability to cinema.

Early animated shorts integrated both sound and the free flowing movement of cartoons to bring the silent film stars’ visual body language to new heights. While cartoons were set loose to portray their comedic chops, in longer form feature length films, their dramatic heft stayed more or less the same as silent films for close to a century of cinematic history.

One area where animation did try and catch up with live action though was in creating movement. Even in the early Disney films there was a strong emphasis on full animation and copying the simple live action technique for the sensation of moving through a space by dollying in and out with a camera with the development of the multi-plain camera. It was not until computers integrated with filmmaking that this sensation became more believable in animation. Throughout the evolution of cinema, there has been a strong emphasis on bridging the divide between the limitless visual capacity of animation and the realistic depictions of live action. Only in the last several years with advanced performance capture technology in movies like The Lord of the Rings and Avatar running alongside the incredible artistry and imagination at animation studios like Pixar have the two worlds of animation and live action begun to merge.

This creates no shortage of debate and speculation about what qualifies as a performance and how true to life a cartoon can really be, leading to the question of whether dozens of award bodies in Hollywood will ever recognize an actor whose real face is hidden behind a computer or an innovative animated film with their highest honors. On the other side of the Pacific though, a different side of the story has been developing.

Japanese cartoons, or anime, most often recognized by its characters with large doll like eyes is less represented and more marginalized than Western cartoons and often for good reason. When not seen as cute and dumb, it is shown as violent and explicit. Adult? Yes. Mature? No. Browse the anime titles available on Netflix and they will often fit into those categories with little quality or integrity worthy of someone’s time. However, this reflects a truth all too common for most art whether it falls into books, movies or television: the vast majority is bad and substandard. On the other end of the stick though, because so much anime reach such incredible lows, a good handful of them (the same as with movies and television) are exceptionally fantastic.

Anime shares some aspects in common with Western animation. Most of it is aimed at children or people ranging in age from middle school to college. They are often funny, exaggerated, feature whacky, over the top situations with many focused on science fiction and fantasy elements. The differences start with the fact that most anime are television series. The demographics for most of these shows are small like one being aimed at elementary school kids, another at middle school boys, one series targeting high school girls and a fourth at men in or just out of college. Most of them also feature a continuous storyline like a serial drama with plenty of melodrama packed in, making it seem more like a soap opera than a situation comedy. Not that many series air in primetime or are watched by a large audience. Most air late at night for only one season, which usually lasts between 13 and 26 episodes. Through all the muck, stigma and mediocrity though emerge some gems in every season.

Anime also does one thing more often than any other type of cartoon with such explicitness: showing people cry. Returning to the issue of lack of dramatic performance in Western cartoons, openly crying done in a serious tone is pretty much nonexistent in American animation. There is plenty of comedic crying or mock mourning, but the second a scene needs emotional weight, it returns to the montage and relegating a character’s grief or sorrow to atmosphere like Bambi and Up.

A few titles that come close to the type of crying that anime does so readily occurs in Beauty and the Beast when the Beast slams the door to Belle’s room behind him, ordering her to come down to dinner, and she falls on the bed weeping. The reality of her imprisonment finally sinks in, but the camera pulls away as she cries to transition to the next scene, and when we return to her room, she is nearly done. In Family Guy, Brian, the family dog, cries in the bathtub because he believes his life is worth less than that of a human. Likewise, in the last episode of season one of the animated version of The Boondocks, Huey begins to tear up when he prays for his friend who is about to be executed. What all three of these instances share in common is that they convey the characters’ sadness, but they are never the emotional center of the scene the way Kane rips apart a room or the King of England speaks into a microphone. The filmmakers put these depictions of sadness into these moments to inform the audience about what the characters feel though the scenes have other points to them besides a character’s emotions. That works for those sequences. They execute them well for there intended purpose, but they are no moment of grieving like in Bambi or Up where we return to the same situation.

None of these movies or TV shows express a character’s emotions in bad or poorly executed fashions. The trouble comes when this seems to be the only way cartoons go about expressing serious moments when there are so many more possibilities. Spirited Away, the anime film by Hayao Miyazaki, shows a scene where the young girl Chihiro visits her parents in a pigpen after they have been transformed into hogs. Right after, her friend Haku gives her some food, and as she eats, all the feelings that she had been holding back come pouring out. She cries uninhibited. Stuffing her face to try and fill her stomach as all her pain comes out. In a similar scene of true grief, at the end of an episode of Neon Genesis Evangelion, a young Major named Misato comes home to find a voice message left behind by her estranged lover before he was assassinated. As she listens to his confession, she realizes what has happened and begins to fall apart, leaning on her table and burying her face in her arms as she cries.

Both these sequences feature music, but unlike a montage where it would drive the emotion, it instead compliments the action. The score does not drown the characters voices out. Since the 1960s, anime developed its own cinematic tropes for portraying moments of sadness.

Like in the rest of the filmmaking world, in anime, eyes bear a huge importance for connecting an audience to a character and a story. With such large eyes, it is not difficult to add reflected light to a person’s pupils, highlighting the water on their eyes, which an animator can wiggle to give off the impression that their eyes are welling with tears. Just like in the most extreme dramatic moments of a live action film, the outpouring of a person’s tears precedes the full breakdown where they howl or collapse on the floor. Anime also offers subtle variations besides the waving reflected light on the pupils. One quite common approach involves an extreme close up of a person’s cheek, shown from the side, with the eyes out of shot where a single tear runs down the cheek. In another, the camera lingers on the ground just beneath their face as little drops fall to the floor. (This example can be seen in the same scene from Evangelion.) The benefit of animation allows filmmakers to make moments like these more apparent without requiring actors to tear up on queue. It is also not difficult to believably portray a character crying in the rain, which is another common trope of anime.

However, not all crying is serious. Anime sticks in plenty of comedic forms of sadness from tears coming out the eyes as little fountains or waterfalls waving down the cheeks, which can also express joy. A characters mouth could also suddenly enlarge to cover more than half their face in the shape of a deformed bean to clearly represent someone’s overreaction. Even the extra-reflected light on the pupils can be changed to express glee or delight. It all comes down to a question of context. What does a scene require?

When the advancement of CGI at last allowed performance capture to emerge from the other side of the uncanny valley of dead eyed Polar Express endeavors, the path split in two directions. On one side, you see a complete mirror image of reality in the case of the ape in Jackson’s King Kong or the age back process of Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy in which we recognize performance captured characters’ all naturally proportioned anatomical and facial features. On the other, we have characters with larger than normal eyes and exaggerated bodies with that of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the Navi in Avatar that are basically photorealistic cartoon characters. So why has this split emerged?

It does not often occur to us how vast and powerful the human imagination is given that pretty much everything surrounding us in some way traces back to an idea in the mind. That capacity allows us to see objects and people in the ever-shifting shapes of the clouds. The same tactic applies to seeing a smiley face from nothing more than a circle with two dots side by side near the top and an upside down arched line near the bottom. That concept drew classical, simple cartoon characters like Mickey and Bugs on the other end of the uncanny valley against photorealistic images. We retained the appeal of that type of approach all the way into the 21st Century where photo-real, cartoon-like characters in the vain of Gollum can give dramatic performances in scenes like the argument between two sides of his personality from The Two Towers just like anime characters can, fueling the debate about whether to honor these accomplishments during the awards season. Because this type of performance capture exists in a grey area between animation and live action, it sides steps the lack of dramatic performances in more cartoons, yet it shows how effective they can really be even to a majority of Western audiences.

In his review of United 93, film critic Bob Mondello talked about consciously using the technique of noting how a scene was shot, edited and scored during the most intense moments of the film to lessen their impact, which did not work for the final twenty minutes. In the real world, people can be scarred and traumatized for life because reality can sometimes be too much for us to handle. Some great films compose such intense scenes to overwhelm the audience with the reality of a situation like the events aboard Flight 93 or the torture of Christ in Mel Gibson’s The Passion. Other times, the intensity of certain types of actions can overwhelm the actual point of a scene, which is why one of the sequences in Kill Bill Vol. 1 was done in the anime style to avoid an NC-17 rating. Likewise, some of the deeds in South Park would be abhorrent no matter how they were done in live action instead of being funny. Anime goes a similar route with their material too.

In Evangelion, fourteen-year-old children pilot giant robots, go through horrific experiences and are physically exposed in ways that would be indecent in live action. Yet much like overlooking the age of the boys on South Park to see the humor, Evangelion uses those moments for comedy and exposing the sexual tension during puberty as well as dramatizing how a monstrous situation forces young people to grow up on an epic, large scale canvas. In an interview about the anime film Grave of the Fireflies, film critic Roger Ebert notes a scene where a little girl, starving to death, makes mud pies. He talks about how different that depiction would look in live action. Seeing an animated drawing of a starving child has a different effect than images from a documentary of starving people in a developing country.

When we look at a simple drawing of a cartoon character, our imagination projects the necessary emotion for us to believe that figure is a real person for the course of a story. A cartoon character is the distortion of a person the same as montage is the distortion of time and place. The emotional impact of a character’s entire life fit into four minutes in Up can be just as great as an old man tearing up a room in real time in Citizen Kane.

All movies distort time though. Even in Russian Ark, an entire feature length film technically shot in one long take, still travels through more than a century of history. Montage, in some respects resembles more the way our thoughts and memories work like the way nostalgia edits out the bad bits of our past to make it seem more appealing. The renowned montage of Potempkim with the massacre on the steps presents a horrible situation in the way memory would organize a chaotic reality, conjuring our own feelings of mortality in such a situation. The distortion of montage makes us more empathetic to the characters. Whereas with Kane in the bedroom or the De Niro character in Raging Bull, punching the wall of his jail cell, yelling “Why?” invokes our sympathy for someone we watched drive themselves into a corner. Montage is able to keep so many unrelated shots together with the accompaniment of music.

Music can conjure strong feelings in us even without the aid of lyrics or images. Simple chords have become the melodies of famous songs. Likewise, we attach meaning to simplified versions of objects like the famous flower petal like shape of a heart symbolizing love. Put a little detail into two circles next to each other, and you can create eyes. Music creates a rhythm and a tone for a montage that tells the audience how it is supposed to make them feel. In a similar vain, if light reflected on the eyes is animated to wiggle around, it tells the audience the owner of those eyes is sad. In those respects, we see how montage can induce our empathy and how tearful eyes, breaking apart a room or hitting a wall provokes sympathy.

The major difference between the room tear up scene in Citizen Kane and the climatic address in The King’s Speech is that though both center on great performances, one has our sympathy for a frustrated man in two shots, and in the other we empathize with the King, begging that every word comes out right as the music swells and people all across the nation are shown listening. We know montages can make us empathize with what happens on screen, and an uninhibited performance with no music and minimal cuts also opens us to sympathize with a characters plight. Cartoons in motion, just like montage, distort an aspect of reality. So what happens when one distortion of reality like cartoons combines with a set loose performance that shows the emotional culmination of a series of events like the room break up in Kane?

In the anime series Clannad, a construction company rescinds a job offer to the young man Tomoya because his alcoholic father was arrested for robbing a store. He and his girlfriend Nagisa visit him in jail where Tomoya chastises him for continuing to interfere with his life. When his father remains unresponsive, he storms out with Nagisa close behind him. Outside, he beats his fists against a stone wall, his knuckles beginning to bleed with Nagisa grabbing hold of him and trying to get him to stop. It ends with the two holding each other in their arms, collapsed on the ground and against the wall on the verge of tears. As the scene closes, Tomoya asks Nagisa if she’ll marry him, and she replies, “Yes.”

Just like the prison scene in Raging Bull or the tearing up of the bedroom in Citizen Kane, we sympathize with what happens to Tomoya and understand why his anger and frustration come out this way. No music plays through this whole scene, and nothing is done over the top unless the fact that cartoon characters act it out counts. However, we also empathize with Nagisa because she tries to stop the man she loves from hurting himself. Like her, we do not want to see him hurt himself even more because a difficult situation was made worse for him. If this scene had been done in live action, the realism might overwhelm either our sympathy for Tomoya or our empathy for Nagisa when the purpose of the scene requires a balance between both. The point is really to show how much Tomoya needs Nagisa and how much she really cares for him, so we understand why these two people now realize they want to be with each other the rest of their lives. For a cartoon, the violence is already pretty down to earth, and a more realistic image of bleeding knuckles, blood on a stone wall and two people desperately pushing against each other could easily tip the scales.

Avatar, in some respects, represents the latest culmination of combining the strengths of animation and live action. Throughout the near entire history of the cinema, animators went and continue to go to great lengths to imagine the most believable and full movement of a character. Editing is a process unique to cinema. A good editor can cut a sequence where the audience never notices the change between one shot and the next, or an editor can make it more obvious as montage often does. Animators likewise can animate very realistic movement, making the audience believe they are watching real movement. Animators also produce movement that defy logic or physics, but this is not limited to mere exaggeration.

Besides characters with large eyes, anime also has a reputation for limited animation. True, watch any anime and the character movement in no way resembles the full animation of Disney, Pixar or the snappy, consistent motion of TV shows like South Park or Family Guy. Anime often does not try to reflect the motion of real life. However, with less animation, it brings a different kind of sensibility to character believability.

In both stage and cinema, filmmakers sometimes parse the expression of a character out of a given situation in the form of a soliloquy, aside, voice over or breaking of the fourth wall so the audience receives information the other players are not aware of. Adaptation put this to great effect with the Charlie Kaufman character played by Nicholas Cage when he VOs Charlie’s stream of consciousness thoughts. Another character in the film though warns against the over use of voice over to get a person’s thoughts and feelings across in what is by principal a visual medium.

Anime utilizes tons of various types of visual queues that inform the audience about how a character feels or what they think that is not apparent to the other characters. One character might turn away from the others, facing the camera to hide a change of expression or begin talking to themselves, almost like they are addressing the audience. Sometimes the other characters are aware of what that person is saying but not about their sudden change in expression. In fact, it is not uncommon for a character’s expression to go from serious or straight to sarcastic or comedic.

In a scene from the first of four new films of Evangelion, Misato and protagonist Shinji are lost in huge base. As Misato tries to figure out where they are, Shinji comments that they have been through this place before. Misato’s expression changes from the typical anime eye style of large detailed pupils to smaller and simpler colored ones without the white of the eyes to note frustration and dislike. Instead of the full animation common in the West where an animator would gradually lower the brow above a character’s eyes and the ends of the mouth to make a frown, the animator dissolves from one pair of eyes to the other. Shinji is never aware of Misato’s change in expression, suggesting it is meant to inform the audience about her sudden change in attitude. The exaggerated nature of her expression also tells us it is meant to be humorous.

In real life, our feelings can change from one instant to the next. We may be having a good day, all joyful, and then we see a newspaper headline saying a city was bombed and our whole mindset will change to shock and concern. Reading on we may learn no one was killed, so a feeling of relief sinks in. Other times, we must hide how we truly feel, keeping the same face through a whole banquet even after we hear little snippets of information telling us our partner cheated.

Anime visually portrays this instantaneous inner process of our feelings by cutting from one facial expression to another instead of going through all the beats of full animation or instigating a voice over. Often, this “cutting” from one expression to the next happens within the same shot with the result being the characters performance is edited rather than animated.

This process is put to masterful work in the anime series NANA. Two girls with the same name, but polar opposite personalities, meet each other on a train and strike an unlikely friendship. In that one scene, they go back and forth between drama and comedy with almost no effort. As they drink beer, one girl proposes they do a toast. When the other girl asks what they should toast to, the first girl’s face cuts from a face of delight to one almost devoid of any detail other than two dots representing her eyes looking down in contemplation. When she proposes they toast to her boyfriend passing a tough exam, the other girl’s face cuts from a straight face expression to sarcastic and dismissive. Cutting back to the first girl, she looks tearful and hurt, but this is shown as simple and exaggerated, meaning it is supposed to look funny. When she then suggests they should toast to each other, the other girl’s face goes from dismissive to delighted, leading to her noting that they are both named Nana.

This technique propagates an incredible balance between comedy and drama. The versatility of expression allowed to these characters results in performances virtually impossible in live action. The point is not always to show how the characters act with each other but how they act to themselves.

Filmmakers in the West have shown the beauty and brilliance of how animation blends with our sense of reality just as editing can seamlessly cut from one shot to the next without us being aware of it. However, Eisenstein proved that even when cuts appear obvious, their distortion of reality brings forth whole new meaning to a sequence. Likewise, images that are clear distortions of reality hold whole other possibilities. The only unfortunate truth though is that too few of those possibilities are explored or acknowledged here.

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Author: Branko Burcksen

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  • Charles

    Wow…what a wonderful article! Thanks so much for writing it – after wading through blog posts and sports/entertainment articles and columns day after day, it’s nice to read an impressive piece like this about anime and animation.

  • Miguel Douglas

    I agree Charles, this is a great piece concerning Japanese animation and its usage of visual queues to highlight emotion within characters. I think the comparisons Branko brought up concerning Western animation and anime contain elements not often discussed seriously within anime fandom, which I’m glad he does so here.