Ukiyo-e and the Concept of Anime Sameface

One of the common criticisms of character designs in anime and manga is that characters often have the same face with variations in hair, clothing, and accessories to set them apart. This is viewed sometimes as lazy, or a sign of a lack of skill or talent, in other words a crutch in lieu of true character proficiency. However, in a number of instances it can be argued that “samefaces” aren’t the same at all, that subtle variations such as the angle of the eyes can suggest enormous differences between two characters.

While sameface certainly isn’t absent outside of Japanese pop culture, I’ve begun to wonder if Japan’s own art history has contributed to not only its presence but also its acceptance. I’ve taken a cursory look at ukiyo-e recently, and one thing that strikes me is that portrayals of both men and women, especially attractive individuals, tend to use very similar kinds of faces, with greater attention paid to—you guessed it—hair, clothing, and accessories.

I’m well aware that there’s a tendency to try and force a connection between ukiyo-e and manga, and I don’t intend to go that route. Stylistically, the two are very different, even if ukiyo-e is a kind of predecessor in terms of being a popular, mass-produced art that emphasized reveling in momentary pleasures. Hokusai manga doesn’t really have anything to do with manga, and the panel progression of manga isn’t really present in ukiyo-e. Also, there is actually quite enormous variation in the depictions of people in both ukiyo-e and manga when you look at the broader picture. That being said, in terms of character design and the priorities present in ukiyo-e I suspect that there’s some lineage at work that seeps into manga on some level.

Utamaro_(1793)_Three_Beauties_of_the_Present_Time.jpegUtamaro (1793): Three Beauties of the Present Time

What stands out to me about portrayals of women in ukiyo-e is the amount of attention paid to the hair. While the faces remain absolutely unrealistic (much like manga and anime but in the opposite direction in terms of proportions and what is aesthetically appealing), women’s hair in ukiyo-e prints are frequently rendered with such loving detail to the point of being in some ways hyper-realistic. Similarly, kimono are given bold colors and patterns, and so at first glance what distinguishes two women is everything but their faces.

There are a couple of other things that crop up when reading about ukiyo-e that wouldn’t sound out of place if the discussion were anime or manga. First, while many women in ukiyo-e were portrayed similarly, what was considered the image of the “ideal woman” changed as the years passed by. Second, small variations in facial features and expressions could mean all the difference between a “stereotypical” design and a “realistic” one.

How does this relate to an idea such as kyara moe, where characters’ stories are told almost entirely in how they look and through collectively accepted meanings behind visual elements? When looking at a series like Love Live!, it can seem to an outsider like the girls are just the same template, but those unique features relative to each other make a world of difference.

Of course, all of this is a very preliminary impression. Feel free to prove me ignorant in the comments!



You Get Off to… THOSE Drawings?

Occasionally I’ve run into people who have trouble understanding the concept of being sexually attracted to drawn images. In terms of anime fandom, this often comes in two forms, either disagreeing with a certain character design style or disagreeing with the very notion that anime characters look human enough to even warrant attraction. The latter appears to happen with people unfamiliar with anime and its depictions of sexuality, while the former, which I want to focus on, seems to occur when people from different areas of fandom encounter each other. “I don’t know how you could find Sayla Mass hot,” the Evangelion fan might say to the Gundam enthusiast, who will then fire off that Ayanami Rei is too anorexic and not like a “real woman” at all.

Some of the contention comes from the changes in prevailing trends in anime and manga art styles. For example, younger fans might not understand why other older fans think a certain character is “hot,” while the older fan may see newer characters and accuse them of looking freakish. And neither side is “wrong” in this case, their preferences are just different. Who’s to say which is closer to “human attractiveness?”

And so all of this recently got me thinking about the very concept of depicting humans sexually, and just how subjective it can be. Particularly, it reminded me of classic Japanese erotic woodblock prints known as “shunga.”

Artist: Miyagawa Isshou

Though they clearly do not look like anime or manga characters from the past fifty years, the women in shunga do share something in common with modern erotic stories such as Bible Black in that they all have faces which could not possibly exist in reality, but are still rendered depictions of a beautiful face concurrent with the trends of the time.

The other thing shunga has in common with erotic manga is that both are clearly designed for masturbatory purposes. I’ve intentionally chosen an image that’s relatively tame, but a trip to the NSFW wiki entry on the subject will make the “utility” of shunga that much more obvious. While you’re on the page , you might also notice that it’s not only the faces that are “unrealistic;” over-sized genitalia for both men and women and torsos contorted at angles physically impossible are common. While photographs did not exist in that period, they could have very well drawn people in more realistic poses, and yet they chose not to.

If you’re attracted to anime characters but at the end of the day look at shunga and think, “Man, I have no idea how anyone could find this hot,” then I think that can be a very good thing. On some level, it means that you can relate to those who have trouble with the idea of finding certain character designs sexy (or even the idea that drawn images of humans can be sexy at all without being photo-realistic) and so at the very least promotes a degree of understanding.