Backgrounds are primarily responsible for giving an impression of the world that the lead characters inhabit. They inform the viewer not only of where their focus should be at what time, but also give a certain framework through which to view the main characters, and determine the lenses that they look through while in their world. Backgrounds also take, in most cases, both time and money, specifically when there are other people occupying the same space as the main characters. Usually, the larger the amount of people needed to occupy a background – in a more crowded space like a school assembly or heavily-trafficked Ikebukuro – the more those denizens become a simple pattern. It’s a visual shortcut, allowing the viewer to easily understand that the area is densely-populated while continuing to identify where the main characters are at all times.
There are many different ways that an anime can tackle the background population problem. Above is a screenshot from the recent Kyousogiga, which uses the crowds of the Mirror Capital to frame the actions of Koto and company. There are three distinct types of background characters: fully-articulated humans, as seen in the far left, brightly-colored chessboard mirror shards, as seen in the far right, and black stick figures with round heads like pushpins. Note that the third type of Mirror Capital inhabitant is located in the foreground of this particular shot, but the arrangement of the non-main characters – in addition to the architecture of the building – works to focus attention on Koto, and her two “brothers” Ah and Un, in the center of the image.
Acchi Kocchi (pictured above) uses a different approach, choosing to display atmospheric perspective through the use of Ben-Day dots, making the background lighter than the foreground, where the action is taking place in full, undiluted color. The effect is two distinct sets: one which is occupied by unimportant background characters, and the colorful foreground of the main characters. Where Kyousogiga uses its background characters to show the every day oddities of the Mirror Capital, as well as the fact that it is densely-populated, Acchi Kocchi uses them to solidly separate its leads from the rest of their classmates, turning them into a pattern or fabric.
From the moment that Mikado Ryuugamine comes to Ikebukuro from Saitama, he is surrounded by grey blobs of humanity. They are indistinct teeming masses that surround not only Mikado, but other main characters when they are in the spotlight. In this way, Durarara!! is able to save a bit of money – by not fully articulating its background characters – and easily allow the viewer to identify where they should be looking and when. Only characters that are important to the immediate narrative – for example, in the scene shown above, Mikado is surrounded by agents of Namie Yagiri, who are additionally given more weight than the greyed-out mobs – have color and detail.
However, even as his life is threatened, Mikado has a trump card in the faceless crowds. In an urban area defined by color gangs (Blue Squares, Yellow Scarves, etc.) Mikado has created a “colorless” gang in The Dollars, a loosely-arranged group whose origin lies in anonymous internet chat rooms. As he calls upon their aid, their position as colorless blobs changes to reflect their importance.
Color floods the scene, with the entirety of Ikebukuro suddenly populated by people. As soon as they receive Mikado’s text message they blink into existence, forming a different background fabric for Mikado. Now that they are, in one sense, allied with him, he sees them as colorful individuals as opposed to dreary representations of how lonely his move to the city has often been.
Meganebu! combines the heavily-stylized approach shown in Acchi Kocchi with the dramatic effect of Mikado’s reveal in Durarara!!. Throughout the series, students who were not part of Akira Souma’s Glasses Club or their supposed adversaries in the student council, were shown as flat purple cutouts.
This offers an easy, and stylish, visual shortcut in establishing that others do exist at Himaraya Third Technical School, but they are unimportant to the Glasses Club and their activities. Like Mikado, Akira and company do not interact with the masses much. The other characters in Meganebu! who are given detail are their teachers, former student turned café owner Tetsu, the student council members, and their lunch lady, Sachie. Notably, all of these side characters, save a few of the student council members, wear glasses. Meganebu! is an insular world defined by Akira and his proclamation of, “No glasses, no life!” and the series’ art is specifically designed to reflect this.
Only when members of the student body put on glasses – supplied by the Glasses Club’s treasure hunt for their school’s culture festival – do they appear as people and not purple blocks. Their existence becomes a literal interpretation of Akira’s mantra, “No glasses, no life.” Additionally, this preps the student body to further help the Glasses Club later on in the episode. The entire school unites through glasses. It’s just as cheesy as it sounds, but also emotionally effective, thanks in large part to the art shift from background patterns to detailed individuals.
Backgrounds have always been the bane of my existence as an artist. Make them too intricate, and they could take away from the subject of the piece. Make them too simple, and it reeks of laziness or lack of development. A good artist will use the background to frame that which they want to focus on – or give equal weight to everything, which is another objective in and of itself – drawing attention to both the subject and what they are doing, as well as the world that they inhabit. In turn, the world created by the background can further inform the viewer of the subject and how they see their world. Meganebu! impressed me with its ability to do all of these things, and presumably save a bit of money on the side as well.