What Makes Anime Art Style Anime? Explained With Examples


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Exaggerated poses, camera and character movement, long faces, big eyes or small eyes, pointy and round chins, big heads compared to the rest of the body, the shape of the eyes, use of eyelashes, use of colors and cel shading, are all of the details that make anime look anime art.

Key Takeaways

  • Big or small eyes compared to the size of the head.
  • A pointy chin, long face, rounded chin, and big head can all be found in popular anime art styles.
  • Exaggerated poses, movement, color choices, and cel shading all further define what makes anime look like anime.
  • Line art also plays a vital role in anime art and Japanese animation.

What We Can Learn From The 70s Anime

Space Pirate Captain Harlock on the left and Devilman on the right, both produced by TOEI Animation.

Not every anime series or movie has the same art style, even when made in the same era. The Rose of Versailles anime series, for example, had a very different art style than the ones shown in the image and incorporated more anime-like elements (big eyes, big head, etc.).

What we can learn from the 70s anime art style is that one element that makes anime look like anime is the pointy chin and facial structure, and large eyelashes.

The Pebbles and Bamm-Bamm Show (1972) on the left and Lupin III (1971) on the right

It’s truly the little details that make anime look like anime. When we dive deeper, we can understand that the 1970s anime, like Devilman and Lupin III, didn’t differ much from 1970s cartoons (picture above). The use of colors, body proportions, eye design, and facial structure was very similar to what you could see in both art styles.

What we can notice in the 1970s anime is that the sclera (the “white” part of the eye) was usually colored with a lighter color, whereas in the Western cartoons, it wasn’t colored at all.

This little detail slightly differentiated Eastern and Western animations in some cases.

New Coloring Techniques From The 80s Anime

Akira, published by Toho, is on the left. Wicked City on the right upper corner, and Angel Cop on the right lower corner

In 1985, Vampire Hunter D presented early signs of cel shading and was one of the first movies to use that coloring technique. Urusei Yatsura 3: Remember My Love also had some parts of the characters rendered with the cel shade technique.

However, it was the movie Akira that truly expanded the use of cel shading to a new level of anime art style and can be considered a revolution to what makes anime art style truly anime.

From a coloring perspective, cel shading is one of the biggest factors that make anime look like anime.

Establishing The Anime Art Style Further In The 90s

From left to right, from top to bottom. Cowboy Bebop, Berserk, Yu Yu Hakusho, Neon Gensis Evangelion, One Piece

In the 1990s, anime art style got more defined with coloring techniques, but also by showcasing large heads (in proportion to body), big eyes, and action scenes that had that Japanese flair to them.

What we can learn from the early manga (Astro Boy from the 1950s by the famous manga artist Osamu Tezuka), but also from 90s anime, is that large heads and big eyes (there’s a reason why anime eyes are big) are characteristic of the anime art style.

What should be noted already from the Berserk image is that eyes tend to have certain shapes (like sharp edges), even if they are somewhat proportional to the human head.

Anime Art Style In The 00s

Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust by Yoshiaki Kawajiri

Vampire Hunter D Bloodlust is an awesome example of how the use of color had evolved (base color, shade color, lighting) from the 1985 film and how the characteristics of anime art style were more exaggerated (small eyes, big nose, and a big mouth (left image above) or big eyes and a long nose (red image on the right)).

Spirited Away, by Hayao Miyazaki and the Studio Ghibli

In 2003, Spirited Away brought anime into the spotlight by winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at the 75th Academy Awards.

What we can learn from Spirited Away is that anime art and Japanese animation finally got the recognition they deserved as art forms. In Spirited Away, we can clearly point out the details that make this look like anime instead of a Western cartoon. Small nose, the gap between nose and mouth, a rounded chin, and a big head compared to the rest of the body.

All of these details make Chihiro, the main character in Spirited Away, look like a true anime character.

The Importance Of Line Art Defining The Style Of Anime

Granblue Fantasy (top left), Attack on Titan (top right), Jujutsu Kaisen (bottom)

What is typical in anime art is the importance of carefully drawn line art. In Granblue Fantasy, the line art was a mix of textured and solid-looking line art, whereas in Attack on Titan (season 4), the line art was quite soft and thin.

In Jujutsu Kaisen, the line art was sharp and solid. What should be noted is the amount of detail, character, mood, and expression achieved with the line art.

Western cartoons and how they typically do line art

What is typical in western cartoons is the lack of thought-out line art. In Japanese animation and anime art, line art plays an important role. The same can’t be said about Western animations and how they use line art.

Feature image credits.



Digital Artist

I’m a digital artist who is passionate about anime and manga art. My true artist journey pretty much started with CTRL+Z. When I experienced that and the limitless color choices and the number of tools I could use with art software, I was sold. Drawing digital anime art is the thing that makes me happy among eating cheeseburgers in between veggie meals.

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