Ever wonder why your favorite anime character gets a nosebleed when they’re turned on? Because, same.
As an art form, anime is known to defy the confines of the physical world. Characters can be in combat, while tumbling mid-air, and land perfectly without so much as a scraped knee. Some can inhale mountains of food that would shock even mukbang stars.
For frequent watchers, the characteristic oddities of anime may seem standard. But taking a step out of the cartoon world, how do we explain the origins of these themes? Where is the logic?
So VICE compiled some explanations for the inexplicable; please refer to these the next time you have a burning question.
Why do anime characters have such big eyes?
Ah, yes. Eyes that take up more than half a character’s face. Those big, sparkly saucers that seem endless are a trait most often seen in anime marketed for girls, and started in the 1950s with manga. Some interpretations have suggested that these large eyes indicate a Japanese fixation on Western beauty trends, along with pointy chins and pale skin. But animation historian Nobuyuki Tsugata suggested it was more for the purpose of emotional communication.
“From our facial expression, it’s very easy to express what a person is thinking without verbiage. When you’re talking to someone, you might even be subconsciously looking at their eyes for that emotional response. For anime, eyes serve a similar purpose. A simple change in a character’s eyes can convey their feelings,” he told VICE.
Tsugata also added that emotive psychology could play a key part.
“When artists think about making a character or animal cuter, they tend to make the eyes bigger. For anime, the thinking could be similar — in order to make the female character cuter, their eyes could be enlarged,” he said.
“Babyface,” round faces with large doe eyes and a small nose, is a frequent anime drawing technique and, at least according to some research, is the “most attractive” face. A study conducted in 2009 by American social psychologist Leslie Zebrowitz scanned female participants’ brains while they looked at pictures of babies and baby-faced men, in order to see their psychological response. There was no difference in the participants’ neural activation patterns, thus concluding that we find certain faces scientifically cuter. Hence, anime’s big eyes.
Why do anime characters yell each other’s names during battle?
Naruto and Sasuke’s final fight. One Piece’s Luffy vs. Lucci. Dragon Ball Z’s Goku vs. Frieda, which famously lasted 20 episodes and is the longest fight scene in anime shonen history.
Some of the most popular anime is founded on fight scenes, and it’s not uncommon for characters to shout their opponent’s name. The announcements may seem redundant, as it’s unlikely they’re confirming that they’re fighting the right person. So, why the name-calling?
According to Tsugata, calling out each other’s names before battle is attributable to Japanese feudal fighting practices.
“You see this during history dramas as well, but during battles, Japanese samurai shouted their opponent’s name before fighting, then they swung their katana,” he said.
“You see this during history dramas as well, but during battles, Japanese samurai shouted their opponent’s name before fighting, then they swung their katana.”
In feudal Japan, it was customary to state samurai names and hometowns to know who had been defeated on the battlefield. It was a necessary form of proof to show one had defeated his opponent, as well as a chance to bask in glory. Anime artists adopt a similar technique, borrowing from tradition.
Why are anime always about high schools?
Everyone loves a good teen drama. Since the 1980s, the anime industry has seen an influx of series set in middle or high schools, but in these past 10 to 15 years, shows set in schools have dominated the scene.
“A majority of Kyoto animation’s recent works are actually based in schools,” Tsugata told VICE. “In the 1960s, TV anime was still watched by elementary school children, and was more family oriented. But in the 1980s, a lot of popular manga got turned into anime, and those manga tended to be based in schools. A couple of notable ones were Urusei Yatsura and Tachi. So the demographics of people watching anime changed to middle and high school students. Production companies made shows that were more relatable for that age group.”
In 2017, nearly 70 percent of kids ages 5 to 7 watched anime, making them the biggest consumers of the art form. But 10 to 19-year-olds are the second biggest viewers; nearly 50 percent of this demographic watch anime. So it's a classic example of supply meeting demand — a young viewership fuels the setting for many of these shows.
Why do anime characters get nosebleeds when they’re turned on?
A bloody nose is not often the image one would associate with sexual excitement. Lower body parts come to mind, but in anime, it’s common for characters to sport a red drip when they’re aroused.
Tsugata has never received this question, and notes that it’s now become a widely accepted form of sexual expression in anime. He suggested that like anime’s big eyes, it’s a form of communication.
“Excitement, like other emotions, are things we experience in our hearts. In order to express a character’s inner feelings, anime must use physical symbols. So nosebleeds are an exaggeration of that excitement. It’s also comical, and easier for children to understand,” Tsugata said.
“Nosebleeds are an exaggeration of that excitement.”
Manga artist Yasuji Tanioka is believed to be the first to introduce the motif with his early 1970s manga Yasuji no Mettameta Gaki Dou Kouza. Other manga artists adopted his technique, and soon everyone was sporting a bloody nose.
But the science behind a bloody nose when aroused falls flat. According to Dr. Onishi from the Onishi Internal Medicine Heart Clinic, “The notion that sexual arousal causes heart rate and blood pressure to rise is a well-documented fact. However, in actuality, sexual arousal and bloody noses have no direct connection,” Livedoor News reported.
Why do anime characters run out of the house with bread in their mouths?
Walking while eating is a fairly uncommon sight in Japan. Unless you’re at a festival or a tachigui (standing and eating) restaurant, it’s considered impolite to do anything while eating. But in anime, all manners are thrown to the wind — characters will run out of the house with a slice of toast hanging from their mouths.
The origins of this trope are hotly debated, but some believe that it started in 1968, with Miyoko Motomura’s manga Patty’s First Love. Others think it started a few years later in 1975, from the manga Tsuraize! Boku Chan, a romance series by Ryouko Takahashi.
Though it’s difficult to nail down the dawn of the hanging bread symbol, according to Tsugata, it’s another example of dramatizing a character’s inner workings.
“If anime characters run out of the house with a piece of food in their mouths, then it’s easy to understand just how much of a hurry they’re in. It’s also comedic, like the amount of food characters eat. To express a character’s emotion in a picture, it’s necessary to be over the top,” Tsugata said.
“To express a character’s emotion in a picture, it’s necessary to be over the top.”
Japanese anime are not the only cartoons to depict characters overeating. Notably, Popeye the Sailor binged spinach. His spinach-eating was so influential, in fact, that a paper published in the Australian journal Nutrition & Dietetics found that 4-and-5-year-olds in Bangkok, Thailand doubled their vegetable consumption in an 8-week study in 2003 that required they watch Popeye cartoons.
Why are there so many stray cats in anime?
In line with your all-knowing grandma, cats may be the most omnipresent creature in Japan. With shrines, cafes, and folklore dedicated to the animals, they symbolize artistic significance.
Though cats are not native to Japan, the first documented sighting of a feline is believed to be in March 889 CE, in Emperor Uda’s diary. From then, cat symbolism took on a life of its own. In the 12th century, stories of bakeneko, or a shapeshifting supernatural cat that transformed into humans, circulated in Japanese art. These fearful bakeneko would sometimes kill their owners to take their place.
Other examples of mysterious cats, such as the gotoku neko, a cat spirit that mysteriously stokes fires at night to stay warm, littered Japanese literature and art. To this day, cats are still popular; award-winning author Haruki Murakami utilizes cats frequently in his work. Doraemon, a cat robot, and Hello Kitty, a white cat cartoon, amass global fans.
Given that traditional Japanese art historically used cats, it’s not a surprise that anime should plop in a stray cat here and there. Tsugata also added that cats are often children’s advisers, as seen in Doraemon.
“Sometimes the protagonist will have an equal relationship with a cat. They’ll have conversations with it, and though the cat can only say meow, somehow they understand what they’re saying. The cats are also able to understand human emotions, thus allowing them to hold a personal relationship to these cats,” he said.
According to Masahiro Koyama, an anime and manga researcher, the difference between stray and household cats in a manga is also important. In Sazae-san, one of Japan’s longest-running family anime, the house cat Tama sports a large yellow bell. “It’s so big, that one can only assume how much of an added weight it is. It’s a constant reminder that he is a bought creature,” Koyama told VICE.
“The way Tama’s eyebrows are drawn, that sort of downward slope, also makes him look like he’s concerned. I think the way he’s depicted presents him as a character that’s stuck, or not free,” he said.
Historical depictions, as well as anime’s varying takes on cats, further add to the animal’s mystery. What are they, and why are they so stretchy?! We can only guess.
Anime is fun to watch in part because it’s so rule-bending. It’s an escape from reality, and viewers have the opportunity to indulge in a world made entirely for them. Sure, its illogical choices can raise a few eyebrows, but sometimes you need the wild and the wonderful to break up your everyday.
Correction: This story originally said that Nobuyuki Tsugata is a professor at Kyoto University. He is now a freelance animation historian. We regret the error.