Anime Cheats & Clichès


This is an article not by me that I found on the Internet a long time ago. I originally had a link to the article but my page seems to outlive just about everything else on the Internet. As permission is granted to repost this article I have done so. It is now quite dated, although the majority of the article is still relevant. Unfortunately it references many (now) very old titles which many are not familiar with. It needs editing in my opinion and could use updates as new clichès emerged. This is the original article in its entirety.

Cheats, Cliches, Cartoons, Anime...

By Curtis H. Hoffmann

Version 2.0 - Copyrighted Aug. 15, 1995

There are many ways to cut corners in the process of creating animation. I'm going to try to describe some of them, as I also attempt to catalog the cliches used in both western and Japanese cartoons. If you have any comments on this file, feel free to make them. If you have anything to add to the list, please do so.

Most of the names used here are my own creation, and are not in common usage anywhere else.

This is the super-duper upgraded version, with all of the previous additional cliches tacked into one file. Now, with whitener, fewer calories, greater taste, and a new one-size-fits-all package design.

Permission is granted to cross-post this file in whole to other computer networks (in fact, I'd be very happy if someone would crosspost this to Fido.) This file may be reprinted in a fanzine or newsletter as long as I'm notified, in exchange for a copy of the issue this article appears in. This article can not be altered, or reprinted in a for-profit magazine, without permission.

Simple definitions:

Added changes came from:


Shooting on 3's:
In film, there are 24 frames per second. For video tape, there are 30 frames.
Really fluid animation is gained by drawing one frame of a character's movement per frame of film. However, this is only necessary when a character is moving from left to right (or right to left,) and the camera is panning along the background artwork. This prevents a strobing-effect that occurs when the background moves too far on the screen from one frame to the next.
Normally, the animator can make do with one drawing per 2 frames of film. This is called "shooting on 2's." Most theatrical films, and some TV cartoons are shot on 2's, and everything looks fine.
However, you can save money by skipping some work, and shoot 3 frames per drawing. Many TV cartoons are shot on 3's or 4's, which gives a very jerky feeling to the action. Something like Hammerman is shot at least on 4's, if not on 8's.
The standard western cheat is to simplify the character design, so there are fewer lines to draw per frame. This is obvious both in the body features, and the clothing elements. You can also see this in Anpan-man, Mary Bell, and Chibi Maruko-chan.
The Blend:
When you have a very detailed image, like the close-up of a person's face, it takes a lot of time and effort to animate it smoothly. Instead, you can paint maybe 4 or 8 "extreme poses" and film them as static images. The next step is to use post-production editing to fade from one still to the next. Alternatively, a few in-between cels can be painted that have ghosts of the extremes, which gives the same effect, but with much less work than if every single frame had been created from scratch. This may cut the total number from 60 drawings, to 15, or 8.
The final results may be used to heighten the emotional effect of a scene, or to simply stretch out the action of a complex drawing. Usually, you'll see this when a crying girl turns away from the hero, or when a top sports player dives for the ball during a crucial play.
The Triple Repeat Attack (TRP):
When someone gets hit hard, the camera pans by a single still of the attack three times, occasionally with little variations in each pan, like zooming in a bit further for each pass. It is very easy to over-use this device for even the most trivial of situations. It is very much a cliche, but it's also a cheat since you may only have one drawing for 10 seconds of film.
Chan-Style, or Super-Deformed Style:
Admittedly, this is a purely Japanese technique that is mostly just a cliche, and not necessarily a cheat. But, the results are the same -- less work per frame. Both techniques consist of drawing a normal character as if he were a 5 year-old, with a larger head, smaller body, and chubby limbs. Most of the details will be lost at the same time. These are done mainly for slapstick comedy effect.
The Assembly Sequence:
You'll see the Assembly Sequence normally in a kiddie power-suit, or mecha show. It consists of the character (like Sailor Moon, or Metal Jack,) calling out something ("Make Up!" or "Jack On!") which will be followed by stock footage of the character standing around while the suit or outfit wraps itself around him. By itself, this is no big deal. Except, that it's the exact same sequence from one episode to the next. In this way, the animators save themselves about 1 to 3 minutes of animation per character per episode. It's both a cheat, and a cliche.
Also an amusing example of your 'suit up' cheat was noticed by me and my roommate on the Ghostbusters (NOT the Real Ghostbusters BTW). We calculated that over half the show was suit up/reused cels/commercials. Which brings me to the cheat most beloved by advertisers, the long-block-of-commercials-then-a-short-reminder-of- what-show-you're-watching-and-then-more-commercials cheat! [JMK]
Separated eyes and mouths:
The opposite side of the coin from Simplicity is Shading and Detail. Here, the animators (usually Japanese,) have added so much detail and color to the character's face that it's too much work to redraw it in each frame as the character talks. So, instead of redrawing the face a lot (which allows you to get a jaw that moves as the character speaks,) you draw the face on one cel, and the mouth and eyes on another. (Admittedly, western animators use this technique for the same reasons, but the faces in their drawings have much less detail to begin with.)
Gaping Mouth Wounds:
In TV, it's not necessary to get the lip-sync down really tightly when a character talks, which means that sometimes the mouth moves even when the character has stopped talking. This saves work, because you don't have someone tied up with the very time-consuming task of breaking the dialog down into single frames, and vowel sounds.
The extreme case, though, is when you don't worry about the specific dialog matching up with the shape of the mouth. Now, you only have 4 or 5 standard mouth positions (open, closed, partially opened, and yelling,) instead of the normal 7 or 10, and you just jump them around under the camera roughly in time with the dialog. This is common both in anime, and western cartoons.
The Hold:
When a character is thinking, or becomes stunned, he'll freeze on the screen. The only action comes from a camera pan in, or out. The Hold also occurs when one character stops talking and the other begins. Anyone not talking simply freezes on the screen. This saves the studio a lot of time and money, because the alternative is to draw separate frames with the character's clothes rippling in a breeze, or the character's face reacting to whatever is being said.
Statue Crowds:
Crowd scenes require a lot of work, and time that the studio can't afford to spend. Therefore, crowds will be treated as background artwork. The only element of movement comes from the camera panning across, and the only signs of life will be the voice actors cheering as voice-overs. Occasionally, mouths will be painted on separate cels for one or three audience members to do a little yelling on their own.
The Cycle:
This is a classic animation technique all studios use extensively. The basic idea is to put the character into a repeating action cycle, and just draw the first few cels necessary for it. The normal example is a simple walk, which only takes 7 to 12 cels for a sequence that may last 30 seconds. Disney is famed for its use of more complex cycles in its early short cartoons.
4-colors VS 256:
Simply by looking at most western TV animation, you can tell that the animators are saving themselves a lot of effort by eliminating shading, and reducing the number of colors in the clothing designs. Fewer colors means less work, fewer costs, and a more boring image. The Japanese will use more colors and the GMW technique at the same time.
Last Week's Re-Cap:
When you have an episodic adventure series like Dragon Ball, or Dodge Danpei, you'll get a re-cap of the action from the previous episodes before the show starts up with the new stuff. This means that the animators are saving themselves about 3 to 5 minutes of work by reusing old animation with a voice-over narration.
The Repeat Thingie:
Occasionally, you may notice a character doing one action in one scene, and later doing the exact same action in an entirely different scene. This is a case of reusing existing cels with either a different background, or a different prop (changing a hammer for an ax.) Some of the really bad American moralistic cartoons from the '60s used this technique A LOT.
Recycled Animation:
Disney does this occasionally. When the cels are filmed for any given show or movie, the cels themselves will be either tossed or washed and reused. But, the pencil drawings will usually be stored for future works. This way, all that's needed is to xerox the existing artwork, and change the color scheme forthe new scene.
FILMATION seems to use this technique a lot. Compare He-Man, She-Ra, Tarzan and Star Trek some time. The poses and layouts are almost exactly the same (the "Close-up-with-half-face-visible", especially). [DU]
Repeated Background Pan:
Hanna Barbera's commonplace trick of cycling the same background through while a car is driving "BANK.... BANK.... BANK...". Or, the characters are racing through a house and you keep seeing the same furniture. This has been parodied on the Simpsons.
Rotoscoping is done by projecting live footage under a sheet of paper to allow the animator to trace the picture, frame by frame, before modifying it. The advantage is that the animator doesn't have to figure out how a character moves through trial and error. The down side is that the result usually looks pretty cheesy (just look at any Ralph Bakshi movie.) While the Fleischer Brothers used rotoscoping (and created the process,) very artfully, it's still obvious when it's employed. Disney tried using rotoscoping in a number of his films, but the results weren't to his liking, and the animators just redrew those scenes, anyway.
Note: Venus Wars did not have rotoscoping in the motorcycle scenes: that was an example of optical printing (adding animation over live footage.)
Originally, when a pencil drawing was cleaned up, the ink and paint department would trace the pencil lines onto the cels via multicolored inks (which allowed for more subtle shadings, and details,) before the paints were added. Now, it's easier to xerox the final pencils onto a cel. The drawback is that the xerox lines look rougher, may have breaks in them, and will be all in black (removing the element of subtlety.)
A nice counterpoint to this was the work in the GIANT ROBO OVAs. From what my sources tell me, the final pencils are xeoxed, but then a second cel is overlayed on the first, and this second cel is hand-painted. The resulting cel-work is simply amazing. [EC]
Speed lines:
This is a cliche used to get a heightened emotional response, while also filming a static pose. When a character starts an attack, the background is replaced with streaks of color, or simple racing lines. This doesn't actually save the animators any work, and adds a little more work for the camera operator because the backgrounds need to be changed more often. But, since the background was static to begin with, and the main character has also become static, the speed lines help liven things up a bit.
Collars and Talking Heads:
Hanna-Barbera is notorious for this trick. Rather than redrawing the entire character for each frame that the mouth moves, you give the character a collar, and then place the head on a different cel underneath the body cel. The body is usually then kept stationary, and the head cels are changed in sequence. Although, if the character does walk and talk at the same time, it's still less work to animate than otherwise.
Shimmering eyes:
This is both a cliche and a cheat. Take a Hold, and just redraw some white highlights inside the pupils. Why draw an emotional face, if you don't have to?
The 'No Face':
One cheat that I didn't see mentioned is the 'no face' cheat. Put a helmet on a guy/gal/thing and you've saved yerself tons of time. Put him/her/it in a whole suit and voila! minimal use of shading/movement is required. [JMK] (Curtis comments: Not exactly true. Bubble Gum Crisis used this pretty heavily, but it still had a lot of shading on each suit. The primary savings come from not having to show the character blink or talk, and there are less details to draw the first time around.)
Re-used sounds:
A number of people have commented on the fact that the sound tech will steal sound effects from movies like Aliens, and Star Wars, for certain situations, rather than create an entirely new sound himself. I haven't noticed this myself, but there's a growing consensus that this happens a lot. The reasons should be obvious.
Photo Backgrounds:
This is a common manga technigue. The result is a highly realistic background image that looks like it was xeroxed before being photocopied. It provides the illusion of added depth to the manga, while saving the artist a lot of work.

Anime Cliches

The Multiple-Character-Single-Gasp Reaction:
I find this to be one of the more annoying time-consuming Japanese cliches. It's very simple -- something startling will happen, or a character will get smashed up. Then, the camera will pull in for a close up of each of the other characters -- one at a time -- as they gasp or speak the guy's name. This has been happening too often in Dragon Ball Z. The result is to force a heightened sense of suspense, and to stretch out a fight scene while doing a small amount of work.
Example -- Piccolo will get punched into the ground. The camera then cuts to a close-up of #18, who will gasp. Now, cut to #17, who will gasp. Then, cut to #16 for a gasp. Next, cut to Kiririn to gasp. And continue down the line until you run out of characters. Repeat this operation 2 or 4 times per battle per episode.
The Raging Flames/Crashing Surf:
An alternative to Speed Lines -- when a character gets overly emotional, or "highly charged," the background will be replaced by roaring flames or surf. This is just an intensity-building device, used extensively by Rumiko Takahashi.
The Slash Split Screen:
Another cliche, related to the Multi-Character-Single-Gasp Reaction, the difference being that the MCSGR is sequential, and the S^3 is more-or-less simultaneous. When the main character is hit, the first reaction will appear in the top portion of the screen, the second reaction appears on the bottom, and the remaining reactions will be in the middle of the screen. Dodge Danpei uses this technique. Bubble Gum Crisis does the same thing, but usually when the Knight Sabers are preparing to go into battle and all of them say "roger," or "Knight Sabers -- Go!"
Tokyo Feet:
This is a term coined by Larry Greenfield to describe the cloud of feet and sweat (sometimes tears) that surrounsd a character when he goes into panic-mode. There is no longer a relation between the character's feet and the ground, as the character just slides back and forth on the screen. Again, the result is also less work per frame.
The Temple Vein:
Especially in manga. When a character gets stressed-out, or angry, a cross-like outline of a 4-way vein intersection will pop up on their forehead. Sometimes, this gets carried to extremes, as in the manga where an identical vein pops up three different places on the back of a guy's hand. (Real veins don't act like that.)
In the wonderful world of the Japanese language, several words exist that are nothing more than sound effects (like "niko," for the sound of a smile.) When you're watching anime played for laughs, a wide-eyed character blinking in surprise will make a "poit", or "pika" sound (occurs a lot in Urusei Yatsura, and Kimengumi High School.) And, in Project A-ko, when C-ko smiles in front of the class, she says "Niko."
Trick Dreams:
A common story device used to hook the viewer's attention. Employed heavily in Kimagure Orange Road. Basically, something really bad or really good will happen to the star right at the beginning of the episode, only to turn out to be a dream.
Rain Shimmers:
Not necessarily a cliche or cheat, but a commonly used special effect in anime. There's a lot of rain in the spring and fall in Japan, so rain has become an accepted plot device (plus, when bad events happen to the principle characters, rain will start falling to symbolize their plight.) To show that the rain is hitting trees, people, or animals, a light halo will shimmer around the tops, heads, and shoulders. A separate set or 4 or 5 cels will be used for this, if the characters are just standing and talking.
The Background Cameo:
One of the most prized anime devices for fans. Because it takes a long time for an animator to finish a sequence or background, said animator will add silly things to make their job more fun. Such as the Star Trek USS Enterprise blueprints in The Nolandia Affair, and the appearance of The Dirty Pair's Kei in a background shot in the Fist of the Northstar movie. A little of this shows up in The Simpsons, but is more common in anime movies and OAV's than TV shows.
Jumping Talkers:
When a Japanese studio has a medium-range shot of a talking character, they'll redraw the entire figure even though only the mouth is moving. This is not an easy operation, because the body has to be copied and painted without variations, and the cycle cels have to be registered exactly. So, when a character bounces up and down as they speak, you know that the registration slipped. Nadia is a featured Jumper in Nadia: Secret of Blue Water.
This phenomenom is not really a cliche or a cheat, but it is peculiar to anime.
Tear Floods:
Yet another Japanese cliche used instead of animating an actual emotion (when a character starts crying, the tears create waterfalls on either side of their face.) Several series (like Kimengumi High School) have parodied this cliche, with characters holding buckets to catch someone else's flood.
The Tear Pendulums:
One of the stranger cliches, also a twist on the Tear Flood. When you get hit in the head, tears well up in your eyes. You may even get a a little tear running down your cheeks a bit. Well, this teardrop looks almost like a ball on the end of a string. Take this image 10 steps further, and you get a white pingpong ball swinging from a white stick under each eye. This device occurs a LOT in manga, and some silly anime (most notably, Ranma 1/2.) (It took me a long time to figure out what these things were.)
Snot-Nosed Kids:
In Japan, it's not polite to blow your nose in public -- instead, you're just supposed to keep sniffing until you have the chance to "do your business in private." Because of this, colds (the cold-sufferer will voluntarily wear a face mask to keep from infecting other people in public,) sneezing on people, and runny noses are commonly used as gags in manga, and in anime to a lesser extent. The standard joke is to show an uncultured kid, or a frightened man, as someone with snot running down his lip (and frequently into his mouth.)
The Nose Bubble:
A related gag to the S-NK, is the simple rendering of someone soundly asleep, blowing snot bubbles through their nose. This is the visual clue that tells you that this person is sleeping, and is commonly accompanied by lip-, or chin-, drool.
The Sweat Drop:
You'll also see this in manga when a character gets nervous, apprehensive, or scared. A large teardrop will appear somewhere on the character (many times, on the back of the head.) Occasionally, the sweat drop will be placed on a separate cel,and slid down the character's face (the face is in a Hold.) It's easier than animating the face for those emotions.
The Stunned Fall-Over:
One more Japanese cliche. When someone says something stupid or unexpected, everyone else will fall flat on their face or back. In many cases, one character will fall over, and then reappear with The Bandage on their forehead. The SF-O actually has its roots in the old Mad magazine strips created by Don Martin and company, back in the 1950's.
The Writhing Face:
To show intense emotion (usually frustration or anger,) the animator will draw the face in two extreme poses (with maybe one in-between pose for filler) with the teeth grinding and eyes opening or closing. These few cels are alternated under the camera to give the impression of the desired emotion, but the actual effect is to make the character's eyes and mouth writhe around on his face. Happens extensively in Dragon Ball Z.
Super Deformed Ugly:
This seems to be the counter-point to the "super-deformed' style, where the character is made to look more cute. In SDU, the eyes get deformed, the mouth contorts in a "jaw on the ground, while slurping a lemon" grin, and shade lines will appear around the eyes, and bridge of the nose (either the character is blushing, suffering from burning eyes, or has smelled something REAL BAD,) and there will be an over-all simplifying of features. Although a lesser form of this is used heavily in Yawara, the true SDU appears in college "bad boys and girls" manga.
One of the best cliches, you'll get this when one character is acting uppity, and the other "dis's" him. One finger pulls down the lower lid of one eye, the tongue is stuck out, and the character says "behhhhh". Very common in older anime and most manga. (It comes from the Japanese phrase "akan bee" -- "to make a face", or "to show disrespect.")
Fake Fighting:
Again, when a character gets uppity, another one will smash him in the head with a fist, a bat, book, or shoe. This normally looks pretty painful, but has no lasting effects. Characters may even get into full-blown brawls, and be covered in lumps from head to toe, but will completely recover in the next panel or frame.
The Bandage:
When someone gets bopped in a Fake Fight, they will immediately receive a bandage in the next frame. Which will disappear as soon as the joke is over.
The Head Job:
Another bizarre visual device. When an animal/beastperson gets very excited/angry, it will attack you. Normally, on the arms, hands, feet, or legs, if this is a western story. In anime and manga, this beast will attach itself to the top back part of your head, and will hang there for the length of the scene. Examples of this can be found in Dragon Half, Ushio and Tori, and Dragon Ball. Sometimes, the person's entire head will be engulfed. Normally, like Fake Fighting, the beast will not leave a permanent mark on you (In Dragon Ball, a ghoul does this to Kuririn during battle, leaving a circle of blood fountains on Kuririn's scalp, and requiring the use of bandages during several episodes before Kuririn can recover.)
The Called Shot:
Of all of the anime cliches, the Called Shot has to be the most disliked, and embarrassing, to the new fans. Basically, the character will strike a pose, or wield a certain weapon, and call out the name of whatever attack he or she will now use. "Dragon Punch!" "Flaming Iris Sword!" or "Buster Shield!"
One of the main reasons this action is employed so heavily in anime and manga is simply that the audience has no other way of knowing what the hell the character is doing otherwise. Further, there is something of a history behind this action -- including Kamen Rider and Ultra Man -- and that is the fact that so many martial arts techniques have such names. "Round House Kick," "Side Snap," "Inside Leg Throw," and "Tiger Claw." And, an observer unfamiliar with a particular martial arts school would be completely clueless when one technique or another is used.
To western audiences, this is merely a silly thing -- "Why don't these guys just trash each other and get it over with? Who cares what the technique is called? I just wanna watch these bozos kick each other's butts."
A variant of this is used in Hokuto no Ken, where the attack is made, and then the name of the technique is emblazoned on the screen over a still painting of the hero.
The Big Gun:
Doesn't have to be a gun, but it's a big "mega-nuke" attack that usually takes out anyone it's aimed at. Often has incredible special effects. A downside of this is that they tend to be overused. (Like in Voltron - every episode, without fail...) Examples: "Form Blazing Sword!" from Voltron, the Wave Motion Cannon from Star Blazers, the SDF-1 Main Gun from Macross, Captain Planet himself from Captain Planet and the Planeteers, and what we like to call the "Mandala attack" from Shurato. [JJ]
Missing Bars:
This is a rather interesting artistic technique where a character is behind a fence, or in a prison, and the bars or chain links that would normally hide the face simply are not drawn in. Shows up in various manga.
But They All Look Alike!:
This is one of the first things non-fans notice when they watch anime, and it is both a cliche and a cheat. In manga, the designs usually vary enough from one character to the next that you can easily tell them apart. But in anime, because it's so important to remain consistent from one frame to the next, the director may make the characters look alike to make them easier to draw quickly, and then differentiate them by changing their hair colors. Case in Point: Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus. This is also represents a cost savings, when the rest of the characters' costumes are the same colors, and it's not necessary to maintain another batch of paint shades.
This is not quite the same as the Background Cameo, but it's closely related. Simply, it's just a case of a popular character from one series showing up in some form in another series. A November installment of Twinkle^2 Idol Star has a villian wearing a Sailor Moon t-shirt. In Gun Buster: Over the Top, a poster from one of Miyazaki's films is tacked up on a wall. And, in a Self-Referential Cross Reference, Usagi plays a Sailor V (ie. -- Sailor Moon) video game in many episodes.
Cut-Away Shots and Fill-In Data:
In manga, when something happens that the audience can't readily see, there may be a cut-away view showing what we'd otherwise miss. The most obvious example of this is when someone's arm gets broken. In some cases, the artist will draw a duplicate of the limb, up and to the right of the main action, showing a cut-away shot of the shattered bone.
A related element is the Fill-In Data. When a character talks about something that everyone is supposed to know, a picture of the relevent data will appear behind him. Such as, when the hero is fighting another boxer, and his opponent uses a technique last used on a now-crippled partner, the hero will see flashes of all of this background info above his head. Or, as the villian pulls out a throwing spike and states the many ways he can use it to kill someone, an acupuncture charts will suddenly show up behind him.
Eye Checks:
Certain manga and anime character designs have a rather strange little flourish of the eye lashes at the outside corners of the eyes, which makes the characters look like someone has given them "check marks" with a felt tip pen. When I once asked a Japanese amateur manga artist about this, he told me that this was just what happens when you have someone with really long lashes. But this is not correct. If you look at the epicanthic eyelid, you'll occasionally notice that certain Asians have a very strong crease in the skin that extends about 1/8" to 1/4" from the side of the eye, which strongly ressembles the manga designs. That's what those eye checks are -- caracatures of an existing feature that many artists actually don't understand themselves.
Pencil Necks:
Anime like the later Ranma 1/2 TV episodes and movies tends to be criticized for the character designs, partially because of the big bouncing breasts on otherwise very trim bodies, and for the female character's thin, enlongated necks. The breasts are obviously played up for the sexual element, and are aimed at attracting boys and young men to the show. However, the thin necks are another case of the animators caracaturing an actual feature of the Japanese anatomy. The Japanese are a mixed race, and you can find a number of women that have necks almost as long and thin as in the anime.
Falling Petals:
Rose (or cherry, or glass) petals falling. Usually meant to represent a long time passing very slowly while one is in a melancholy or sad mood. Since it is a few seconds of animation repeated over and over again, it also qualifies as a cheat. In the Urusei Yatsura movie #3 it _really_ gets overused - in this case the falling petals were glass or crystal. [IT]

Animation Flaws

NOTE: There are many ways a studio can err in its work -- skipping a frame or two of motion, flipping the frames so that a couple are out of sequence, using the wrong colors on one or two cels, screwing up cel registration, and so on. The following error(s) revolve around the specific skills (or lack thereof) used in animating a scene or character, that can be seen consistently in the productions of one or more studios.

The Flat Mouth:
Kissing, eating, blowing whistles, and anything else that requires using the mouth. When you watch anime, you'll notice that the characters' mouths just lie flat on the cel, without deforming properly to adapt to the actions they are taking. It's most obvious when a character is eating -- the food comes up to the mouth, the lips surround a bit of the food, the food just disappears, and the character makes chewing motions. It's the surest sign that you're watching a cartoon, and is a consistent flaw even in the most well-made productions. Western cartoons have a similar flaw, but generally avoid the problem entirely.

Scriptwriting Cliches

NOTE: These are cliches that appear in other forms of entertainment and storytelling, and aren't peculiar only to animation.

Knuckle Cracking:
As everyone knows, when a huge, strong guy is about to beat the crap out of a victim, he will crack his knuckles as a part of flexing his hands. This has been turned into an anime cliche, and extended to the point where REALLY vicious guys crack the muscles and joints in their neck. Real people can not do this. Do not try this at home on your little sister.
The Flashback:
Standard cliche in anime, used to fill in story details that the audience doesn't already know, but which will immediately justify the character's next actions. A very common plot device used in episodic serials.
Ripping the Disguise:
A previously unknown character is doing all sorts of amazing feats. At an appropriately dramatic scene, the character grabs at his/her shoulder and PULLS. Cloth flies in front of the camera, and when it settles down we see one of the regular characters in his/her usual garb. The previous outfit/physical features were a disguise. [EC] This is used with variations in all western forms of entertainment.
Eyes in the Dark:
Used heavily in western cartoons to create a sense of suspense, or to set up a "mistaken identity" gag. It's also a cheat: an episode Tiny Toon Adventures features over a minute of the effect with running commentary on how much money they are saving. The effect is to put a character in a tunnel, cave, or dark room, and then just show the eyes of whoever is in the scene with that character.
Cute Bastards:
One of the worst developments to come out of the western world. To make a show appeal to small children, an otherwise unnecessary character will be added to the line-up. This character will be cute, appealing, and utterly loathsome to adults. Scrappy-Doo is an excellent example of this. If carried to extremes, the entire cast will be thus metamorphised, as in The Muppet Babies, and the new version of Tom and Jerry.
Can you say "Slimer and the Ghostbusters"?
What's interesting is that Scooby-Doo may be an example of this as well. I'd read a long time back (can't remember the source, now) that the Scooby-Doo concept had originated in Great Britan. It was then a series with the Mods (Fred and Daphne) versus the Beatniks (Shaggy and Velma) racing to solve various mysterys; Scooby was a minor character. When they took the concept to the U.S., they cutified it. [DU]
Narrative Voice-Overs:
Both a plot device, and a cheat. The plot element of a NVO is obvious -- to fill in details for the audience, rather than to make those details a part of the story leading up to that point. The cheat comes in because the action on the screen will turn into a Hold with a camera pan or pull out. In animation, the work is shifted from the animators to the cameraman and the narrator.
Too Many Commercials:
Refer to the note by JMK at the end of the Assembly Sequence entry.
The Five Man Band:
(This is an anime cliche that a friend of mine calls "5 character theory". As far as I know, the first instance of this is in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, aka Battle of the Planets. Since then, it's appeared in shows like Voltron, Mospeada aka Robotech III, several live action shows, and even movies, like Star Wars. The five character types are:) [JJ]
  • The Hero: Upstanding, idealistic, handsome. Usually the protagonist of the show, although people tend to think that The Other Guy is far cooler. Examples include Luke Skywalker, Fred from Scooby-Doo, and Scott Bernard in Robotech III.
  • The Big Guy: Big, and strong. Sometimes dumb, but usually turns out to be very friendly. Examples: Chewbacca, Lunk from Robotech III, Ryooma from Shurato.
  • The Other Guy: Usually cool and disreputable. If someone has facial hair, it's probably him. Quite often the most effective person on the team. Lancer from Robotech III and Han Solo are classic Other Guys.
  • The Chick: The token female on the team. Sometimes she knows what she's doing, but not always. Princess Leia, the princess from Voltron, Daphne from Scooby-Doo. Sometimes, The Chick is an androgynous or homosexual male, like Reiga from Shurato.
  • The Pet: Usually annoying to anyone who has entered puberty (and thus discovered The Chick) Frequently incompetent. The 'droids from Star Wars, Cheop (sp?) from Battle of the Planets, Pidge from Voltron, the Copper Kid from Silverhawks, and Scooby-Doo from his own show.
  • The Mentor: This is an optional archetype. Often appears to guide the characters, provide advice, or train them. The classic example is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also, Dungeonmaster from Dungeons & Dragons, Stargazer from Silverhawks, the King from Voltron, Vishnu from Shurato, Saori from St. Seiya. [JJ]
Joke Cola:
Another true classic, which is now to be found most commonly in manga: using big- brand names in the story, but with a slight twist on the spelling. Croke Cola, Nissam, etc. This is done for the humor value, as a slam against a particular product, and often to just lend a certain air of authenticity to the story without actually having to pay for the right to use someone else's trademarked logo.
[Insert self-referential joke here.] In the west, you'll see this mainly on the covers of humor magazines. With manga, a given series may occasionally feature a set-up where the name of the manga collection (ie. -- Young Jump) will appear somewhere in the background, or on the cover of the manga that one of the characters is reading. Anime can be a little more tricky: the studio's name will pop up on building signs, helmet logos, or other places where text is used. A prime example of this is in Bubble Gum Crisis, where AIC can be found on Priss' helmet, and on the road.
Punny Names:
Using puns for character names is a time-honored tradition. Ignoring Knight Lamune with its string of soft drink references, and Rumiko Takahashi's prediliction for item collections (Shampoo, Mousse, Cologne, Herb, Lime, etc.) you can sometimes find characters in anime and manga whose names are jokes based on personality types, or something similar. The Rabbit Pounding Mochi On The Moon gives us Usagi, Sailor Moon's alter ego. Of course, there's Usagi, the rabbit hero in a certain comic published in English in the west. A closely related example is "Priss and the Replicants" (Bubble Gum Crisis, and Blade Runner.)
Name Tags:
It's difficult to classify this device as a cliche, but it appears in some many different manga and anime... Probably because Japanese characters look alike in manga and anime, it may be hard for the Japanese to them apart. Or, maybe the Japanese have poor memories and need to be constantly reminded of which character they're looking at. Either way, characters will often wear clothing with their names on it (Dragon Ball, Ah! My Goddess, Urusai Yatsura.)

Hand Gestures

Index and the pinky fingers extended:
Appears a lot in Takahashi's works. When someone is getting bashed up in a non- fatal way, the recipient of the punishment usually has both arms extended and the index and pinky extended on both hands. This is also a common response to a bad joke or pun, when the character falls over.
This seems to be one of the oldest, and least understood, cliches in Anime and manga. Since nobody seems to know its origin, my conjecture is as good as any one else's. Basically, I think it was based on a superstition; holding your hands in a way to spread the thumb, the forefinger, and the pinkie was apparently a charm against evil or bad luck or something (my best guess). Although it's doubtful that anyone still believes that it will work, it was still a popular mannerism to do that if you're surprised. In 3x3 Eyes, Part I, Pai, as the Sanjiyan, used those hand motions to cast her spells to abolish the tri-clawed ghosts/monsters.
This habit can probably be equated to the Western custom of holding up both hands and crossing your forefingers to someone you think is crazy or disagreeable, as if warding off a vampire. [From Theo Ching]
Peace Sign:
When a character is very nervous, sometimes they will give a hesitant laugh and show the "peace" sign directed at the viewer (the index and second fingers extended, palm facing the audience.) One blaring example is in Mamono Hunter Yohko, but it appears in other shows and manga as well. Another use of the peace sign occurs frequently in Dragon Ball, where a character will win (or think he's won) a battle. Often accompanied by the character saying "peace" a few times.
Extended Pinky Finger:
Sometimes a man will show just extend the pinky finger (as in giving a subtle message to another person). This means that they have a woman in the house or are perhaps occupied with a female guest. One example is in Ahh Megami-sama OVA #1. Not one of the more common signs.
According to the book, Real Japanese, by Jack Seward, holding up the pinkie is the way to make a discreet reference to having a girlfriend or female lover. For example, you go to see your friend at work: he's not in, so you ask his co-worker where he is. The co-worker says something like, "oh, well, he had to do something," ask he furtively holds up his little finger. You would then say "ahhh..." and understand that your friend went out on a date or to a love hotel or something with a ladyfriend, and without the co-worker having to say so outright. This might save you both some embarrass- ment and tricky questions later, especially if your friend happens to be married. [From Theo "SD_Neko" Ching]
Linked Pinkies:
This is actually a common practice among children, and some couples in real life Japan. Basically, it's a way of making a promise that two people are supposed to keep, accompanied by a chant that translates to "swallowing rusty needles" if either one breaks the vow. Later, if one hooks the pinky, and gestures with it, it usually is a reminder to the other person of the promise made. Occurs in a variety of anime, including City Hunter (when a young girl hires Ryo to be her older sister's bodyguard for 500 yen.)
Related to this in a way: In Miracle Girls, when the two sisters want to teleport somewhere, they have to link their pinky fingers, first.
Toes in the air:
When one character makes a really bad joke, or says something very stupid, the others will fall over and all the reader sees are their feet pointing in the air, toes extended. It's a very obvious way of showing that the current dialog is dumb, or a bad pun. This artistic cliche dates back at least to the Mad Magazines of the mid-1950's. Don Martin was one of the artists using it extensively at that time. Although, other earlier comic strips also used the related cliche of having the characters flying backwards out of the side of the panel, with dotted lines showing their flight path.
Walk Like an Egyptian:
This is a distinctly Japanese artistic cliche-reaction to a bad joke, or the surprising behavior of another character: The mouth falls open, eyes goes wide, and then the arms point straight in the same direction (left arm straight out, right arm up over the head and bent to point to the left,) with the hands flat and open. Occasionally, there will be some reaction with the legs as well (this is not standardized, though.) If the joke, or behavior is bad enough, the characters will go into a little dance. There are many variations on the arm and hand positions, but it's an easy visual cliche to recognize.
The Bird:
In Japan, many people know that the word "f*ck" means something bad, and that the middle finger extended is insulting, but that's as far as the understanding goes. Therefore, when someone has a bad attitude, they'll give people the finger to show that they're bad. This symbol doesn't have the cultural baggage it does in the west
Mangajin #26 has an article on gestures as well. It includes:
I'm strong/good at something - Fist raised to eye level, hand on biceps ('making a muscle').
Dibs on this - Lick finger and touch it to the object you are claiming (like, a boyfriend.)


The following entries aren't so much cliches, as they are folk-beliefs that have become common anime gag elements.

A character will just be standing around, when suddenly, he sees a really sexy woman (this works best when she's partially undressed, or is imagined to be undressed,) and a huge fountain of blood will spurt from both nostrils.
It's a cliche, and a simple way to tell the audience that a character is having lustful thoughts. Happens in City Hunter, Dragon Ball (Yamcha when looking at Buruma, Kamesennin when watching anything attractive and female,) and lots of other manga that I don't know the names of. In fact, in one Dragon Ball episode, there's a VERY elaborate set-up, to get Buruma to show her breasts, which gets Kamesennin to spurt blood, which in turn covers the invisible man that Yamcha is fighting, to make the invisible man visible. Hilarious.
A character will be standing around, while elsewhere, someone is talking about him behind his back. He sneezes. Why? because that's the way it works. Usually, the 'behind-the-back' comment is a snide or insulting one. This is a common belief in Japan and China, along the lines of the western belief that if your ears are burning, someone somewhere is talking about you.
Red threads:
A sign that two people's destiny is intertwined.
Tiger-striped bikinis:
Oni (demons) are known to be something of a form of beast, and the way this is commonly depicted is to have the oni wear some kind of tiger-striped clothing. Ref. Lum of Urusei Yatsura.
A sign of bad luck, or evil foreboding. Used occasionally in Urusei Yatsura and Gegege no Ge Kitaro.
Giri Chocolates:
On Valentines, it is customary for girls and women to give chocolates to all of the men in their lives (classmates, co-workers, boyfriends...) Usually, to receive chocolates like this means nothing, it's just part of the tradition. So, there's a large industry based around 'giri' (obligation) 'choco.' However, a girl may handmake some chocolate, which will be given to someone she really likes. [Note: White Day is later in the year, and is the time for boys to give chocolates to their girlfriends.]
Face Cuts:
A character will spend weeks in battle with someone, getting pounded into mountains, battered about their body, and flamed. Suddenly, a near-miss attack will scratch their face, and the character will go insane in revenge. Why? Good question. The character usually says something about their face having 'gotten dirty.' In Japan, the most flattering comment you can make to a woman is that she has very nice skin. Many people suffer from acne, have pockmarked faces, or have moles, so they may be a little more self-conscious concerning another person's facial problems. Either way, this is a very popular storytelling device.
Head scarf:
A number of characters will show up late at night, furtively crawling around with a kerchief over their head, and the knot tied under their nose.
It's a typical guise used in anime and manga to signify that a character is a burglar, or sneak thief. Not really good as a disguise, more of a visual cliche.
Ryouko wore such a mask when she was attempting to sneak into Tenchi's room in the Tenchi Muyou Special. From what I've heard, the knot under the nose was supposed to muffle the breathing of the person wearing the mask, enabling the person to sneak around silently. [From Pomru]
Pounding nails into effigies:
Occassionally, you'll see someone holding a straw doll, and pounding a stake or nail through it's chest. This is a form of voodoo, the idea being that the person doing the pounding is sort of cursing someone to die fairly soon.
Candles on the head:
In Japan, ghosts have flickering ghost flames accompanying them. In older manga, a ghost will be depicted as having a headband holding two candles on their head. (Obviously, if a living person wants to pretend to be a ghost, this is how they'd fake the ghost flames part.) In GS Mikami, the ghost has little self-sufficient flames flickering around her. [Note: Ghosts traditionally don't have feet, but the one in GS Mikami is wearing red sneakers.]
Arguably, the ghost flames could be due to the effects of glowing methane, or swamp moss, that may be found at certain cemeteries.
Name Tags:
It's difficult to classify this device as a cliche, but it appears in so many different manga and anime... Probably because Japanese characters look alike in manga and anime, it may be hard for the Japanese to tell them apart. Or, maybe the Japanese have poor memories and need to be constantly reminded of which character they're looking at. Either way, characters will often wear clothing with their names on it (Dragon Ball, Ah! My Goddess, Urusei Yatsura.)
In City Hunter (both the series and the movies), what is the meaning of the dragonflies and moths (and I believe that I once saw a duck) that always fly across the screen? Since it usually happens right after one of the characters is embarassed or surprised, I suppose that it has something to do with embarassment or surprise, but I would like a little more in-depth explanation if possible.
Nothing much in-depth to say. When a character is stunned, in manga, there's usually the sound effect of 'shi -- in', or 'sile -- ence'. Hojo has just modified this effect and used dragonflies and crows instead of the word 'shin'.
The "Blush":
There will be times, when one character says something to another, or the main character will be thinking to herself, when suddenly she'll get a blue blush around the eyes or forehead, along with some darker vertical lines.
The character is NOT blushing. This is a widely recognized Japanese cue stating that the character is suffering from an ill-feeling, or mortification. The sudden darkening of the background, and a "sick" sound effect accompanying the "blue blush" should make it obvious that this has nothing to do with the western "red" blush of embarrassment.

Common Features of Anime

The reason most anime characters can't run properly (their legs are almost straight up and down when they plant their feet) is that most Japanese can't run properly, either. I've seen lots of Japanese running this way -- must come from sitting in kneeling position too long.
Sideburns for women:
In the past, people have commented on certain anime women having really long sideburns (ie -- Iczer 1.) This is just an exaggeration of real life. Japanese women have rudementary sideburns, which some of them grow to 2-3 inches long. Others will comb the hair on the sides of their head so that it falls in front of the ears, making them look like pale imitations of the Iczers. It's a form of fashion.
Mice teeth:
This is probably the most cruel stereotype, and the one with the most brutal explanation. Many, many Japanese have bad teeth. Some are missing a couple of teeth on the side, others have gaps between all the teeth and the teeth grow in crooked. Others have "squeezed in" mouths, so the that teeth on the sides are closer to the center of the mouth, and the two front teeth are pushed forward. It's this last group that is being caracatured in anime like Akira, and lots of manga. Sometimes, the front teeth are larger, giving the person a bucktooth appearance (as in Akira.) But, in really bad cases, when the person's mouth is closed, the two front teeth are still fully exposed. One young woman on the train had this problem. Her face was also small and thin, so the description "mousy" was VERY appropriate. She is the type being caracatured occasionally in various manga.
While it's hard to believe, nearly every face and expression found in more realistically drawn manga (for the human characters, anyway) exists in real life in Tokyo. In the shogi story in Big Comic Spirits, there is the middle-aged player that always competes against the boy hero. The middle-aged guy always looks constipated, and his eyes bulge out -- A while ago, there was a big argument in my office during a staff meeting. The salesman, who is in his 20's, started lowering his head, staring straight at the table. His arms were locked, and his hands were gripping his legs. He argued with our company president (who has no clue how to manage a small software company) while always looking down at the table, and apologizing for being so forward. In profile, the salesman looked and behaved EXACTLY like the middle-aged shogi player in the manga. I have yet to see a Yawara face, though.
Cat's Tongue:
Shampoo's Great-grandma said that she touched a certain pressure point on Ranma's body that makes his whole body as "sensitive as a cat's tongue."
In Japan, people like to eat ramen when it is scalding hot. So, as they eat, they suck in air (which cools the noodles a little.) Japanese are very noisy eaters, and are always making slurping sounds when consuming ramen and various soups. A person that lets food cool before eating it is said to "have a cat's tongue" (ie. -- they can't cope with scalding food.)
Japanese do not all have pure black hair; some have brown hair, some have gray. However, most Japanese hair is very course, and takes lots of care to look glistening and soft. This may represent an hour a day simply washing and combing it. So, it's not surprising that a woman with beautiful hair will be very proud of it, and suffer traumatic shock if it gets damaged, or cut as happens to Akane in Ranma 1/2.
Ghosts with Feet:
From a Spa magazine article dedicated to foreign ghosts (July 27 issue): "It's believed that you can see the entire body of foreign ghosts, but you can not see the legs of Obake. It doesn't mean Japanese ghosts don't have legs, their bottoms are nearly transparent. Obake stare with silence, while Western ghosts are noisy."
Snowmen are Yuki Daruma; Yuki Otoko is abominable snowman:
Daruma was supposedly an old monk who sat in one position so long, his arms and legs withered away/fell off. You can see daruma dolls in many anime episodes. It's the one shaped like a squashed peanut, with red clothes painted on, and a black and white face. Often, the eyes are left without pupils. The idea is that when you buy the doll, you make a wish and paint in one pupil ("I want my daughter to marry into a rich family," or "I want my son to graduate from High School with high grades, and enter a good college.") The other pupil is painted in when the wish is fulfilled. Since snowmen don't have arms or legs, they are called Yuki (snow) Daruma. The Japanese name for the Yeti is Yuki Otoko (Snow man.)
The Beckoning Cat:
What is the cat (usually white or gray) holding a gold coin, or just with one upraised paw. Found in Ranma 1/2 Part Three #2 (the one where Gosunkugi's cats get Ranma to act like one.)
From the introduction to the Eclipse Comics translation of "What's Michael" Volume One, by cat yronwode:

"[...] As explained by Patricia Dale-Green in The Cult of the Cat (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1963), the Beckoning Cat is associated with an ancient cat-shrine on the grounds of a temple known as Gotoku-ji. 'This temple', she writes, 'was originally a very poor one, no more than a thatched hut run by poverty-stricken and half-starved monks. The master-priest had a cat of which he was fond, and shared with it such little food as he had. One day the cat squatted by the roadside and, when half a dozen Samurai appeared on splendid horses, it looked up at them and raised one of its paws to its ear, as if it were beckoning to them. The noble cavaliers pulled up and, as the cat continued to beckon, they followed it into the temple. Torrential rain forced them to stay for a while, so the priest gave them tea and expounded Buddhist doctrine.

After this one of the Samurai--Lord Li--regularly visited the old priest to receive religious instruction from him. Eventually Li endowed the temple with a large estate and it became the property of his family. Visitors who pass under the temple's gateways, walk through its broad avenues of towering trees and enjoy the beautifully laid-out gardens, discover, near the cemetery of the Li family, the little shrine of the beckoning cat--which, it is said, still draws pilgrims from all parts of Tokyo.'

Because the Beckoning Cat had lured a wealthy patron to the poor temple, images of this cat soon became talismanic emblems and were particularly favored by shopkeepers. According to Dale-Green, 'At the entrances to their shops and restaurants, the Japanese place clay, papier-mache or wooden figures of the seated cat with one paw raised to the side of its face. Such cats are believed to promote prosperity, their beckoning paws inviting passers-by to come in and do business.'" [Jeff Williamson]

Namu Amidabutsu:
In anime, there's a standard joke used when a character looks like he's just died (of course, the one pulling the joke has reason for being prematurely happy.) Basically, "the mourner" will bow his/her head, and start chanting something. That something (as it is used in Tenchi Muyuu) is "Namu Amidabutsu."
Amida is chief of the mythical Buddhas of compassion. His name is invoked when someone has died, as a form of protection for the one doing the praying: Namu Amidabutsu == "I take refuge in Amida Buddha."


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