Why Do Anime Characters Have Big Eyes?

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This article explores the many reasons why anime characters have big eyes. However, not every character’s eyes in manga and anime are big, but rather realistic-looking. Keep on reading!


Key Takeaways

  • Western cartoons, especially Disney, influenced ‘the father of manga’ Osamu Tezuka, to create big eyes for his characters.
  • Osamu Tezuka had a huge influence on other manga artists, such as Akira Toriyama, who also had an influence on future manga artists. Big eyes became a key part of manga art.
  • What was seen in manga books was later then transferred to anime, and thus, anime characters have big eyes, all dating back to Osamu Tezuka and how Disney influenced him.
  • Big eyes also say a lot about the age of the anime character. Younger characters usually have big eyes, and older characters have smaller, more realistic eyes.

Where Did the Big Eye Style Originate?

The History of Big Eyes in Disney’s Films

Let’s go back to the root of how anime characters got their big eyes. Many factors can be attributed, but perhaps, the beginning is in a Western movie, Disney’s first cartoon film.

The beloved and classic Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937.

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An animator is working on a cel for Pinocchio (source).

Other animated movies will create a distinction by using different colors of clothes, but in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs movie, the dwarfs have almost the same type of clothes.

Due to the limitations in 1937, colors in animated films were not that advanced. The studio had difficulty adding blushes to Snow White and the queen’s cheeks. This is where the innovation of having big expressive eyes started.

In the Snow White movie, you can already see the standard Disney style: cartoonish and expressive facial features. Despite the limitations of coloring, you can still distinctly name each dwarf.

Grumpy has pointed eyebrows with angry eyes. Dopey has innocent and honest eyes. Bashful has demure and shy eyes. Their names reflect their personality.

The animators used their eyes to reflect this. You can see how Dopey has bigger eyes, portraying innocence. Meanwhile, Doc has smaller but trustworthy eyes that reflect experience.

It only makes sense that the character designs that are evident in the west, where big rounded eyes are considered to be a beauty trait, is how it all started.

The art style seen in Disney’s films eventually influenced Osamu Tezuka (one of the most famous manga artists ever), who then influenced future manga artists—eventually leading to manga art being almost synonymous with big eyes.

The Influence of Osamu Tezuka for Big Anime Eyes

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Osamu Tezuka.

Considered the father of manga, Osamu Tezuka is a Japanese mangaka who revolutionized the world of Japanese manga. In his formative years, he watched Disney Walt movies that heavily influenced his own style.

Among his most popular series are children’s mangas (kodomo-muke) such as Astro BoyPrincess Knight, and Kimba the White Lion.

Osamu Tezuka did not singlehandedly create the world of manga. It’s theorized that manga existed way back in the 12th century as Japanese people started to draw stories in books. However, modern manga, as we know it, is pioneered by Tezuka.

In his big hit, Astro Boy, the main character, Astro, has big, rounded eyes that show his innocence and youth. You can also see the influence of drawing big caricature eyes.

The rest of the face is minimal, with the eyebrows, nose, and mouth drawn in simple strokes.

This style can also be observed in Princess Knight, where Sapphire and the anime characters have big expressive eyes.

Until now, you can see the same style in popular manga and anime. Even Western cartoon characters show the same big expressive eyes.

However, the key elements that differentiate Western and Japanese animated cartoons (animations) are usually the head size (compared to the body, the focus on exaggerated poses and movement, and intricate line art.

Those are a few things that make anime art style look like anime.

Disney has been an inspiration and might have influenced the shift to favor bigger eyes.

However, it is still Tezuka who inspired and first mastered the technique, which then revolutionized drawing manga and later anime.

The Influence of Jun’ichi Nakahara

Aside from Tezuka’s influence in creating what is known as the big anime eyes, there is also Jun’ichi Nakahara (1913-1988), who pioneered the Shojo manga, having characters that are characterized by big irises, thick eyelashes, and pure white reflections.

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Some of Jun’ichi Nakahara’s works (source).

As a doll creator, he was inspired to draw his characters with a wide-eyed look. This simple art style has proven effective in showing a character’s emotions and personality.

While there isn’t that much to know about the artist, Jun’ichi Nakahara is considered to be a forerunner of manga art.

The Eye Size Differentiates Age In Manga And Anime

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From left to right, from top to bottom: Jujutsu Kaisen, Chainsaw Man, Weathering With You, Attack on Titan. Not all anime characters have big eyes. Usually, the size of the head, the size of the eyes, and eye placement convey the character’s age.

There are plenty of categories in manga and anime, shōnen, shōjo, seinen, josei, and kodomo-muke. All of these demographic categories or types of anime have a distinct anime art style.

In shōnen and shōjo, you typically see big eyes on characters as that’s usually used to depict a young boy or a girl.

In seinen and josei anime, you might see more mature characters; in these cases, the anime characters do not have big eyes but more realistic-sized eyes. You can also see mature characters in shōnen and shōjo anime; in these cases, they typically have more realistic-looking anime eyes.

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Ash and Pikachu from Pokémon. Ash has typical kodomo-muke-styled eyes, which tend to be bigger than what is seen in a typical shōnen and shōjo anime.

You usually see even bigger eyes in kodomo-muke than in shōnen and shōjo anime. It’s usually thought that the bigger the characters’ eyes, the younger they are.

Adaptation of Big Eyes to Anime

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Big anime eyes are prevalent in anime and manga. Nia Teppelin from Gurren Lagan is a prime example of how unique-looking anime eyes can be.

Since Tezuka’s success, many young mangakas, Japanese animators, and anime artists (professional and amateur) have adopted big expressive eyes in their works. This technique is still evident in modern anime.

Anime is usually based on popular manga comics; thus, the eyes’ size, shape, and personality continue their existence in anime series and movies.

Manga and its counterpart in anime must have the same eye stylization to ensure the anime follows the manga it’s based on as closely as possible.

Why Are Bigger Eyes Favored?

There are plenty of reasons why mangakas and anime artists prefer bigger eyes in their mangas and anime. Using big and expressive eyes has proven to be a quick and easy hack to apply to your art to tell a story better.

Below are just a few advantages of drawing anime characters with big eyes.

Expressiveness

If you observe your face and eyes from the mirror, you will notice that your eyes barely move when you express different reactions and emotions.

Artists who dabble in realism and hyperrealism have difficulty portraying the emotions of someone. In fact, most of the emotions you can observe in realistic paintings are not centered on the eyes but on how the muscles contort the face.

There lies the difficult task of mangakas to create a story using only the basic facial features. Since mangas and anime are a storytelling art style, mangakas have to condense human features into simpler drawings.

This is why bigger eyes are more favored. With the simplicity of using different shapes of the eyes without worrying about the shading and contouring of the muscles around the face, your audience can easily see the emotion your characters are portraying.

Big eyes combined with varied eyebrow movements, artists can create expressive anime characters.

Character Distinction

One of the most common tips during character design is to exaggerate features.

Drawings are meant to be an artist’s perception of reality. Capturing your characters’ exact, realistic form shouldn’t be your goal. Instead, portray what makes them distinct from other characters.

  • Muscular character
  • Big nose
  • Thick eyebrows
  • Big eyelashes

etc.

The artist has to translate these images into 2D art that can help their audience properly interpret the drawing.

This includes exaggerating the eyes. As an example, imagine a person with slanted eyes. Then, a character with rounded eyes, but they’re squinting.

If the manga artist does not exaggerate the eyes or try to draw them realistically, the audience might have difficulty distinguishing the difference in the facial features of the two characters.

Flexible Art Style

Some other artists would like to practice realism to portray their characters. However, since manga and anime do not solely focus on the characters but instead tell the story, realistic drawings can be a huge disadvantage.

Most mangakas release an issue every month. Of course, others take more time, but the standard for a successful manga or anime release is once a month. Realism is simply not an option for such a tight time schedule.

While it is a good art style, realism does not fit the manga world, where you need to create multiple drawings of your characters to tell a story.

Comparing Eye Size In Japanese and Western Comics

There are popular comics in the west, mostly created by DC and Marvel. Unlike the cartoonish big eyes, the proportions of character designs in Western comics more or less follow realism and correct proportions.

The same design principles apply to the size of the eyes, which tend to follow realism in Western comics. As such, Western comics tend to look more realistic and, thus, a bit more mature compared to Japanese comics and manga.

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Marvel on the left side and Attack on Titan on the right side. Notice the difference between eye size, while both comics are targeted at young boys and girls.

Conclusion

Disney and their animation style influenced Tezuka in his formative years. Tezuka innovated and popularized the world of manga with his unique art style and how he drew his manga and anime characters with big eyes.

The defining style of Japanese anime is the big anime eyes and minimal facial features, even though the birth of big eyes came from Western animation.

While big anime eyes are currently highly associated with the Japanese comic art style, their roots date back to Western animation and how eyes were used to express emotions.

What differentiates Western and Japanese comics is not just eyes, though, but how those eyes are used in characters.

Feature image credits (Weathering With You by CoMix Wave Films).

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