Anime has its own visual vocabulary that can be hard to understand. Anime makes use of line, color, and deformations to convey emotions and action. Most anime watchers take these pictorial words for granted. Some, like speed lines, are easier to understand than a character suddenly sprouting cat fangs or having blood bursting from the nose.
These oddities come from manga where artists had to figure out ways to convey inner emotions and action using limited methods. Unlike prose, where you can get into the character’s mind, manga has the reader on the outside. Because of this, artists worked out ways to convey a person’s thoughts using external cues. After all, thought bubbles can only do so much when space is limited. Manga’s design emphasizes fast, cinematic reading. It sits between books and film, so it uses as much pictorial words as possible, just as film does.
Let’s look at some of these techniques.
How would you show action in a frozen medium like manga? Artists will sequence action across various panels to lend the illusion of motion. It works the same way as in anime, except the manga artist can’t draw hundreds of frames and have the reader make a flip book of them. Instead, they rely on speed lines combined with action key frames—the most important moments of action. Think of speed lines as visible air swirling because of the character’s movement. They can be used for comedic effect or accent an intense action sequence.
Abstract Background Patterns
Sometimes the background of an anime will abruptly change to patterns of flowers or stripes, or other images. What the patterns mean can depend on the context of the anime. Some images have meaning specific to a certain story, such as floating stylized heads of a certain character laughing. Changing the background in this way emphasizes what the character feels: energetic, sad, happy, concerned, sick. Fast animations or twirling spirals show how quickly the character’s mind is working, much like gears in a clock. Wavy lines show irritation or upset emotions. Colors such as bright red are used for anger. Darker colors like purples or blues are used to show the characters are feeling sick, upset, or depressed.