The Lenses Through Which We See a World

meganebu!, glasses club, crowds at hima high reflecting light through glasses lenses, crowds, hima high school students

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.

kyousogiga, capital craze comic, koto ah and un, koto in kyousogiga

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, place to place, tsumiki miniwa

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.

durarara!!, drrrrr!!, durarara!! episode 11, mikado ryuugamine

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.

durarara!!, mikado ryuugamine, mikado and his cellphone, the dollars

mikado ryuugamine, durarara!!, the dollars

the dollars, durarara!!

the dollars, durarara!!, mikado ryuugamine, namie yagiri

ikebukuro, durarara!!, the dollars

mikado ryuugamine, durarara!!

the dollars, ikebukuro, durarara!!, namie yagiri

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.

meganebu!, mitsuki kamatani, meganebu! purple background characters

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.

glasses, meganebu!, background characters turning into people when they put on glasses

glasses, meganebu, hima high

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.

11 comments

  1. The way Meganebu combines both the stylization of acchi kocchi with the sort of visual meaning that durarara provides is quite remarkable, and all credit goes to the art direction, which I imagine with Meganebu’s budget, solely comes from the craftiness of Soubi Yamamoto, the series director. I really hope she gets to do more projects with a bit more resources. I know your sentiment is the same, but for me, I don’t want her to get too much freedom, as I feel that this sort of visual victory came from the idea that restrictions breed creativity.

    While meganebu showed quite clearly that there weren’t a lot of resources invested into its production, I’d like to see something that allows Yamamoto to create something in her vision, but still be mindful of how she budgets production costs. Getting the best of both worlds here, we’ll be subject to more visually appealing production while at the same time showcase her creative prowress. Excellent job writing about this Emily, your writing continues to impress well into 2014!

    As an aside, I also want to mention how much I really do like busy backgrounds. I understand that there’s a need to try to not distract a viewer from the subject, but I imagine that there are visual styles that emphasize milieu and background as a form of worldbuilding. While one might initially think of someone like Shinkai who does a lot to emphasize background production, I feel that while beautiful, I don’t necessarily react to it in terms of its impact on whatever story is going on.

    I’m interested in meaningful, busy backgrounds that contribute to actually building the world in which a character lives. This is probably the reason why I loved Kyosogiga and Uchoten as much as I did, come to think of it. You made mention of the backgrounds in the former, but as far as artistic backgrounds are concerned with the latter, I can’t help but think back to how that particular show created that sort of mood that I wanted. Natasha’s piece on seasons essentially cemented that sentiment for me as well. The both of you are pretty great at making me realize a lot about the shows I love!

    1. Soubi Yamamoto is amazing. I can’t wait to see what she’ll be able to do with a nice, fat budget and, while I understand your reservations, would love to see what she would be able to do unrestricted. Yes, restrictions breed creativity, but there will always be budget restrictions within an anime. The thing that impressed me about Meganebu! (aside from its visual style) is that the budget was evenly spread over all twelve episodes, as opposed to other series that I’ve seen (hullo, Bakemonogatari) that focus on a few specific episodes and sacrifice the rest of the series for blu-ray touch ups. Because Meganebu! was so evenly-paced, I’m led to believe that Yamamoto would be fine.

      In terms of Shinkai, I think that the background visuals are the story. As you’re well aware, I recently watched Place Promised in our Early Days, and while I did not like it as much as Voices of a Distant Star plot-wise (they basically tell the same story) I felt that the world of Place Promised was thoroughly more interesting, due to the background visuals. I came away from the movie wanting to know more about the world itself and not the leads, unfortunately. Although, bringing Shinkai into this discussion opens up an entirely different can of worms, as I was focusing on the use of background characters and not the backgrounds themselves. ^ ^

      Uchouten is a similar example to Kyousogiga, where the background characters reiterate and emphasize both the heavily-trafficked nature of the city, along with placing the supernatural and the every day side by side.

      Thank you so much for your continued support! ^ ^

  2. And then there’s Monogatari, where it looks like no-one exists in the school and even the city, except the key characters, because only the key characters are shown. And even when Nadeko Sengoku has her breakdown, in Episode 14, the students are just student-shaped cutouts.

    1. Yes! And I didn’t bring the Monogatari series into this discussion for the simple reason that I believe that to be completely purposeful (and also cost-effective, hehe). In the Monogatari world, the only people who may as well exist are the main characters.

      There’s an interesting comparison to be made between what Shaft does with the Monogatari series and what Kyoto Animation has been doing with its background characters since the Key/Visual Arts adaptations (at least, this is just the time when I took notice of it). KyoAni likes to make fully articulated background characters that mean nothing to the story. There are always other students moving in the background, walking up the hill with the main character, etc. They are individuals and detailed, with their own business to attend to. Contrast this with Monogatari, where the world is literally Koyomi Araragi and those whom he knows. The former suggests a large world in which the main characters are only a small part of, where the latter suggests an insular world where the main characters are the only people who matter.

      For example, the Haruhi series, like Monogatari, focuses on supernatural oddities; however, the former is about a so-called “normal guy” trying to find his place in a newly-found supernatural world (while additionally attempting to reign in the effect of said supernatural events by pacifying the god-like Haruhi Suzumiya), where the latter focuses on Araragi dealing with specific oddities and how they affect him directly. The Haruhi series claims to focus on Haruhi herself, but it’s actually much more about finding a balance in Kyon’s school life, as well as getting him, along with Haruhi, to open up to others. Araragi, and therefore Monogatari, has a laser-like focus on the afflicted and how Araragi is going to “help.” Both series reflect these outlooks in their background art, and choices of when/where to include background characters. (It should be noted that I’m not trying to place one over the other, I actually love both series dearly.)

      As an aside, I loved how Monogatari portrayed Nadeko’s classmates. They are nothing to her, and the art style reflects that.

      Thank you so much for commenting. ^ ^

      1. I agree with you on Melancholy vs Monogatari. KyoAni went all out to make things hyper-realistic. On one of the Haruhi DVDs they had an extra, showing how the team used a real HS as the basis for their artwork. That hill, and those bike racks, really exist. Also agree on the focus. Instead of Melancholy of Haruhi, they should have called it Confusion of Kyon, or something. BTW, I find that “kyon” is the Japanese name for a dwarf deer, which is probably why he’s always complaining about his nickname.

        As for Nadeko’s classmates, Shaft even went so far as to put zeros all over them. It’s great when you can make art carry a message.

  3. Just wanted to let you know that your harem of glasses wearing man meat blinded me with all their lens flares.

    Seriously, I liked this post. Everyone notices the way the background characters are animated in anime, but not much is said about it. While the Monogatari series kinda ignores even the existence of background characters (it appears as if there’s only 20 people actively living in Koyomi’s town), I like how most other anime try to be clever in dealing with the issue of the background population and animating them. The way Durarara deals with it in the episode you mentioned is perhaps my favorite of all though. What an amazing moment!

    1. I’ve wanted to write about that Durarara!! episode for a while, only because it’s so clever in its execution and frugality. (Additionally, there’s an excellent shout-out in the reappearance of Baccano!’s Isaac and Miria.)

      The reveal in Meganebu! was a bit more effective for me; however, this could also be due to recency bias.

      As for Monogatari, I wrote a bit about it in the comment response above, but could probably write a series of posts on how it uses its backgrounds. ^ ^

      Thanks for the comment! I’m glad you liked the post.

  4. I’d have said tunagahe biggest question of Meganebu was whether they are people wearing glasses or glasses that wear people, but your explanation is much better than mine.😀

    What series do you plan to follow for Winter season? I might look at Nobunaga the Fool or Nisekoi.

    1. Ah, the eternal question. ^ ^ I’d like to think that Akira “owns” his glasses, at least.

      This season I won’t have a good deal of time this week to watch everything, due to my work schedule, so I’ll probably be a bit behind. I listed a few that interested me here: https://formeinfullbloom.wordpress.com/currently-airing-series-winter-2014/ as for how many of those series will inspire me to write something remains a mystery.

      I watched the first episode of Love Song for a Certain Pilot, and enjoyed it, thought Tonari no Seki-kun was funny (and the perfect length, being a short), and saw the first episode of Nobunaga the Fool (which I will continue to follow because of Shoji Kawamori).

      Thank you for commenting!

  5. “A good artist will use the background to frame that which they want to focus on …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.”

    A book you might find interesting from that standpoint is “Computers As Theater” (1991), by Brenda Laurel. She’s got advanced degrees in both topics, and although her emphasis here is on a computer session, rather than a performance, she talks about both in terms of how what you see on the screen or the stage gives an indication of what’s possible and likely.

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