Anime basics-post #1 (Background illustration)

After considering several alternatives, I decide to use this daunting title anyways, since it is a real eye-catcher. I would like to make clear however that despite the title, this article is not meant to be “educational”. Rather than trying to define and “teach” the basics of anime, it is more a personal account of what I consider to be the key elements of modern Japanese animes that viewers should be aware of. My goal for this article is to help readers better enjoy watching anime by picking out the “shiny little things” commonly present in most titles.

In this first post, I shall discuss a critical element and point of interest in anime: Background illustration (背景 haikei).

First of all, I want you to consider the scene below from the legendary Hayao Miyazaki’s (宮崎駿)classic Spirited Away 千と千尋の神隠し):

The famous "train on water" from Spirited Away (Spirited Away)

I believe a fair amount of us (including myself) were drawn into the world of anime by watching Spirited Away- if not the train scene specifically. The story at this point is as simple as Chihiro taking a train to Numasoko, where the good witch lives. The entire background is consist of a single train compartment, plus endless water, cloud and sky. Without any complexity, there is something profoundly attractive about this scene- something so powerful that it makes us revisit it again and again (if one doesn’t find anything attractive about this scene, chances are anime is not his/her thing). I once had a discussion with a friend who does not watch anime but is nevertheless impressed by the train scene. What he finds so cool is a soothing feeling of “clean air and water”, as he puts it. This “cleanness” is simple yet emotionally overwhelming nonetheless, almost delivering a “curing” effect when combined with the powerful composition of Hisaishi Jyo. I consider this a prime example of the magic background illustration could work in anime titles.

Naturally, background illustration is an indispensable part of practically any work of animation. We have seen a lot in western animation: from simple, generic backgrounds such as forest, grassland and cave, to magnificent landmarks such as the castle in The Beauty and the Beast and pride rock in The Lion King. However, the scenery settings mentioned above are little more than “stages” upon which the story unfolds. It is obvious that the “train on water” in Spirited Away is more than just a stage and carries great importance by itself. So, what is exactly that importance and why does it impresses us so much?

The school window shot from EP9 of Haruhi. The less-than-straight forward atmosphere of that episode is mainly built through background illustration (Suzumiya Haruhi no Yuutsu)

In my opinion, a simple answer to the question is that background illustrations are often delicately unified with plot and emotion in a Japanese anime. More than just a style, delivering emotion directly through meticulously illustrated background environment is practically a trademark of anime as a genre. Also we should constantly remember the fact that different from making something with camera, even the smallest objects that appear in an anime are there on purpose. Illustrators plan like a director (more so considering the details involved), imagine like a screenwriter (to fill voids of space not specified elsewhere),  and draw like a… illustrator. This is no doubt a series of challenging work deserving lots of respect.

Over the top illustration in 5cm/s, rich in emotion through artful realism

A prime example of excellent illustration is Shinkai Makoto’s 5cm/s (秒速五センチ, byousoku go senchi). Throughout the one hour film, quality of background illustration is over the top: so rich in realistic details it even makes character illustration somewhat inferior in comparison. Take the following screenshot from 5cm/s, for example. In this scene, Sumida decides to confess her feelings toward Touno and is expecting him after school. One could easily appreciate how painstaking the illustration is. Through two layers of classroom windows, we could vaguely see distant objects on the other side of the building. Meanwhile, reflection of trees is clearly present on the window, thus expanding the implied space dramatically. The lighting is also carefully designed that it defines the tone of a lazy summer afternoon immediately. The realism in this scene not only makes the world believable and immersive, but also generates a soothing yet tense feeling, which effectively builds up the mood of the story. Similar attention to detail in 5cm/s also dwells in the film’s rendering of Tokyo landscape, railway stations and inside of buildings as well. It is fair to say that the main topic of 5cm/s such as loneliness in a big city, physical and psychological distance between people and nostalgia of youthful times can never be delivered en force with generic, rough-outlined background illustration of Western style animation.

The much loved scene from 5cm/s, doesn't it give you the urge to pay a visit to the beautiful city of Tokyo? (warning: artistic rendering, real life might differ)

Realistic as it is, what’s more powerful is the “extraction” and abstraction of beauty from daily-life objects in anime illustration. Images are often enhanced with aggressive use of light, shadow and high level of contrast, delivering a refreshing sensation. This sensation is best felt through the genre’s obsession with blue sky and white clouds. According to a video interview of Ishihara Tatsuya, the director and head producer of Kyoto Animation, the image of crystal blue sky could instantly give people a “bright, shiny” feeling (“輝いている” in Ishihara’s words)through contrasting with clear-cut shadows. Blue sky is not the only “cliche of beauty” in anime though. We also see images with more Japanese elements such as pink cherry blossom trees in spring, orange-filled sunset sky in Autumn, first snow in Winter against a grayish landscape and many more. Culturally specific or not, all images mentioned above are not only soothing and calm , but also able to deliver implied emotions such as happiness, loneliness, etc.

That is not to say there is no illustration of messy, dirty environments. The artful expression of anime often could give them a “slick” feeling, delivering visual pleasure from another angle. For example, the atmosphere depicted in the 2007 anime Sora no Kyoukai  (空の境界) is almost entirely dark and dirty, with an air of blood-stained murder scene throughout. However, it is still impossible to ignore the charm radiating from highly-detailed background illustrations even when being overwhelmed by the “thriller factors”. On a side note, there are indeed many works of grotesque in anime illustration, and they could get really, really disturbing…

Blue, blue, blue sea and sky is an eternal theme of Japanese anime (Air)

It is also a point of interest how anime titles present real life locations. For enthusiasts, there is even a popular activity calledbutai tanbou (舞台探訪), or seeking out the real location where the stages of their favorite anime titles are based on. Anime producers in recent years seems to exploit this interest by purposely using real-life locations for reference in drawing. Thanks to this trend, a certain elementary school in Shiga prefecture (K-on!), a rural railway station near Kanazawa city (Hanasaku Iroha) and many other nameless locations suddenly became attractions and visited by tens of thousands of anime fans. A truly surprising boost to local businesses, the popularity is impossible without the pleasant, unique art style of anime’s background illustration. Maybe we can all hope that one day some anime illustrators shall pay a visit to our hometown?

To know more about background illustration in anime and the work behind it, I suggest Makoto Shinkai’s art book Sora No Kioku (空の記憶),  which features original background illustration for two of his major works: The Place Promised in Our Early Days (雲の彼方、約束の場所)  and 5cm/s. Also for those who are curious, check out which is the homepage for a Japanese company professed in background illustration projects and have involved in the production of several major titles.


2 responses to “Anime basics-post #1 (Background illustration)

  1. I like this article, it’s expresses my own feeling for me in a better way. Don’t quite understand the Haruhi scene though, why did you choose that scene? What were the people doing in there? In Haruhi I’m most impressed with the hill road to the school, which repeatedly appear in episodes. The road scenes seriously made me want to live in that town :).

  2. Pingback: One of the better “top 50 anime ops” compilation… | Vancouver Anime Fan

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