Facial Expressions in Anime – The Extreme, The Effective…

…And the extremely effective.

Recently I’ve taken to watching video reviews from The Angry Video Game Nerd. I find his work hilarious… he has that college internet style of humour that online satirists like Maddox from The Best Page In The Universe have, except the “satire” itself has been replaced with extreme crassness delivered with highly colourful (and often creative) language. As a reviewer, he’s kinda going for easy targets by searching for the absolute worst in video game history (though I don’t think any of the titles he’s examined have received any less than they deserve), but as an entertainer, I think he’s great. He’s got legions of fans and he’s been imitated many times, but no one’s come close to reproducing the same responses or executed the over-the-top deconstructions of really bad video games as well. So there’s gotta be something that he does better than most. And I think a big part of that is due to his wide range of facial expressions.

James Rolfe, who plays The Nerd, isn’t what you’d consider a “great” actor, but his exaggerated expressions of shock, horror and agony do a wonderful job of communicating just how torturous the games The Nerd plays really are. There’s one expression that he has that I particularly like; it’s an extreme scowl, similar to the one below but with his brow more furrowed. He has his mouth tightly closed, turned down in an extreme fashion and his chin is all tensed up. The mix of frustration and rage just oozes from his face. These types of facial expressions, the important ones, always appear at the right time. Words aren’t needed. The face says it all.

Anime comedy is filled with examples where the characters’ reactions make for the punch line. Azumanga Daioh was the king of this, but one of my favourite examples comes from Girls Bravo Second Season. Now I’m totally speaking as an uptight critic with a rod up his ass that hates harem anime, but Girls Bravo, especially the second season, is a very funny anime, irregardless of what uptight critics with rods up their asses who hate harem anime say. This scene is so infamous that, even if you haven’t seen the anime, you’ve probably seen it in .gif form. The set-up is fairly straightforward, and anyone watching it knows what’s going to happen (but, considering how unlikable Fukuyama is, it’s probably welcome). It’s the extremely well timed and exaggerated facial expressions which make it work so well.

Hiroyuki also has a nous for delivering hilarious facial expressions with perfect timing.

Just like The Nerd, Fukuyama’s expressions are cartoon-ish, which is why animation has an innate advantage in delivering warped, exaggerated, extreme expressions for comedy. Relatively speaking, it’s an easy thing to do, and there are less limits to just how extreme those facial expressions can be. But a funny face isn’t enough for a funny scene, and, as is the case with most comedy, good timing is essential. As is a minimum of exposition, something which plagues a lot of anime comedies (Baka-Raptor calls it masturbation). With such potentially funny expressions at their disposal, it’s a little disappointing that some anime makers feel that the reaction faces aren’t funny enough on their own, and that they need to be accompanied by an explanation. I guess it comes down to the “show, don’t tell” mentality which is far too often lacking in so many anime.

Live action has an immense advantage over anime when things call for more subtle facial expressions, which is often the case with drama. There are a huge number of actors who are extremely talented at portrayal heavy, meaningful emotions with very subtle facial expressions, but the example I want to use is Clint Eastwood, who has another advantage over other Hollywood actors. In more recent years, the films Eastwood has starred in have also been written and directed by him. And, in many of these films, the characters he’s played have been haggard, old and bitter, which, err… probably isn’t that much a stretch for him. That’s not to take anything away from these performances, since Eastwood brings a tangible amount of believability and complexity to his characters that are, already, extremely well written. But, with squinty eyes, clenched teeth and a distant look, he can display an array of complex emotions and thoughts. His worn features make him a natural for the characters he portrays. And, as with comedy, the timing of these expressions are just as important as the looks themselves (it helps that Eastwood is also such a master director).

Clint Eastwood in Million Dollar Baby

Anime, for various reasons, takes a simple approach with the features it puts on character’s faces. This might, on average, mean it’s not quite as effective at using expressions for communicating the important facets (such as emotions and state-of-mind) of characters, but there are still a good number of examples of scenes where a well timed shot of someone’s reaction can say a great deal. In the third Kara no Kyoukai movie, Kokutou is listening to his old high-schoolmate describe a brutal rape he performed. His nervous voice is filled with fear of the prospect of retribution from his victim’s newly discovered powers. Kokutou’s response is damning. “You… Shut up,” he says curtly, and both his voice and vacant face show the disgust and disdain at his old friend’s actions. Here, the features on his face darken in shadow and almost disappear, while his square glasses flare brightly. A minimum of words and a well timed look make Kokutou’s opinion of the matter plainly clear, and strongly hint at a philosophy about rape and murder which underpins the entire film.

Another example of a quiet facial expression saying a lot with few spoken words is in one of the earlier episodes of The Daughter of Twenty Faces. Twenty Faces’ gang works with a submarine crew to raid a sunken treasure (although, as is revealed later, Twenty Faces has other motives), but they’re betrayed by the crew after they retrieve it. After a tussle and a battle of wits, Twenty Faces comes out clearly on top. The submarine captain, defeated, gives Twenty Faces a cliched line: “I hope to fight a country with men like you someday”. What isn’t cliched was Twenty Faces’s response: he says nothing. He instead returns a vacant look, one with a hint of both contempt and pity, the significance of which becomes clearer in later episodes when we realize that Twenty Faces is fairly weary of both war and fighting.

Anime is filled with both entertaining and meaningful facial expressions, the most powerful of which tend to be the ones which aren’t accompanied by unnecessary exposition. What other anime have done a particularly good job of rendering facial expressions? (If you’re going to give examples of moments, try to list ones where the expressions alone, rather than the dialogue, make the biggest statements.)

17 Responses to “Facial Expressions in Anime – The Extreme, The Effective…”

  1. I don’t know about ‘good’ here, but I certainly enjoyed those in Yakitate1 Japan, as well as those in Code Geass (lol). In manga, I’m loving Bakuman‘s zany faces.

  2. Thank you for introducing me to the Angry Video Game Nerd. Yeah, it’s easy to pick on the worst games every made, but it seems really tough to actually play them to completion. The degree of difficulty evens out.

  3. Chane’s smile at the end of Baccano! 16.

    As a completely silent character, she relies completely on facial expressions to communicate. That flash of a smile we get at the very, very end of the series shatters our conceptions of her that we’ve built up over the past sixteen episodes. It’s a landmark for her, and one for us as well— if even the coldest, most distant character in the entire show can crack a smile at the end of all she’s been put through, then surely, everyone else turned out just fine.

  4. The only instance where facial expression in anime count is when said anime comes from:

    a. A novel adaptation, visual or paperback (Kara no Kyokai, Higurashi)
    b. An eroge (Shuffle, School Days)
    c. Topics pertaining human behavior, especially those taken to the extreme like insanity, mind breaking/raping, and/or murderous tendencies (Trapeze)

    And you don’t need quality or plot relation (Trapeze seems to be the best example to this) to pull it off. A perfectly set scene with a perfectly set location with perfect characters acting it out is enough to inject due emphasis to even the subtlest of expressions.

  5. Or maybe even not.

  6. @ghostlightning
    Yeah, Yakitate had a lot of really good reactions as punchlines, particularly in the earlier episodes, and particularly with that hard-nosed judge dude (whose name I can’t remember). I never liked how repetitive it got later on, though. Code Geass is just a really well made anime, so it’s no surprise it got one of the important fundamentals so right. The entire anime is so much about shock and surprise, and facial expressions are just vital to the whole thing.

    @Baka-Raptor
    Why doesn’t it surprise me that this guy’s humour is right up your ally? :p This, as it turned out, was the facial expression I was trying to describe (wait til 4:51). And it’s not just swears and physical comedy that makes him funny, a lot of it can be really clever as well (see the first part of that episode).

    @Akira
    The facial expression I remember the most from Baccano is Ladd Russo’s psychotic grin. Regarding Chane, they’re doing a similarly good job with a quiet character in Durarara as well, but the difference is that Celty lacks a face. But you can tell a great deal about her state-of-mind from her gestures and poses and general body language. All signs of a well made anime, IMO.

  7. @Shance
    Well, I’m starting to think body language is just as important as facial expressions, which is a pretty obvious thing to say. However, I think you’re underestimating how important expressions are. A close up to a character’s face in a quiet or sad moment is a really good way to allow us to get into that character’s space. And, in a dramatic (or even comedic) moment, it’s a good way to communicate just what impact the events have had on that character (hence why shounen anime love split screens). Faces might be a detail in the larger scheme of things, and obviously less significant than the things you listed, but anime is a visual medium and the good directors tend to be those who pay attention to those types of details.

    One of the examples I was thinking of using from this article was from Aoi Hana, which, from memory, is none of those things. Now that I think about it, manga probably goes about this whole “facial expression” business better than anime does. There are entire panels (and pages in extreme cases) just dedicated to expressions… no dialogue or anything else. It takes advantage of the fact that it’s a visual medium. (Sorry if this response seems cluttered, I’m still trying to get my thoughts on this issue in order).

  8. >My face when SK just validated the retarded overuse of reaction images.

    SK and I have commented repeatedly lately about shows that use good expressions to tell a story. Personally, I’m enjoying Kimi no Todoke’s facial expressions, especially during the more dramatic and “HNNNNG” moments. The thing we have to be careful of, though, is allowing this to lazily replace good story telling, acting, or humor. Obviously, without an actor present, it is very hard to just let body language or facial expression tell the story. This has less to do with an actor NOT being present and more to do with animation studios just not having the time or money to denote to these kinds of things. Thus, you’re only going to get really good facial and body work in higher budget shows, or shows where the director takes the time to painfully craft it in. The rest of the time, an expression will be so randomly over-the-top that it becomes absurd.

  9. A couple examples off the top of my head:
    “The smile of an Abh” – If you’ve seen Crest of the Stars, you know what I’m talking about here. The shading, the tone of that scene, make it absolutely chilling. Oh wait, I’ll let our good ol’ friend gaguri speak for me:
    http://guriguriblog.wordpress.com/2009/07/24/unspoken-aesthetics-of-crest-of-the-stars/

    Another:
    In the final volume of Genshiken (I’m talking manga here), with most of the cast graduated or soon to be, and the fate of the club remaining in question, there’s a bittersweet sense that pervades these final chapters, that everyone is growing up and moving on and that the end is nigh.
    There’s a chapter with Madarame, Kasukabe, and Ohno and what they do to celebrate graduation. What’s peculiar is that this chapter is completely without dialogue. That it succeeds is testament to Shimoku Kio’s mastery of characterization throughout the course of his manga, how we really, deeply understand these people beyond their words, and how expressions alone can speak volumes. A sublime moment to cap off a fantastic manga.

  10. How I love it that you took inspiration from the Nerd to come up with this article about facial expressions.

  11. kadian – Regarding the Abh, is there a term out there for when an author creates an entire race of Mary Sues? Maybe we should coin the phrase “An Abh Race” for it. As much as I adored the Abh, they did everything right all the time. They were always depicted as being in the moral and logical right, even though it would be very difficult for a person like myself to accept their rule (which could be described as a “perfect tyranny”). I guess it would go without saying that they would also have great facial expressions. At least they’re not the fucking Na’vi tho.

  12. @TIF
    I’m not validating reaction images on imageboards, I’m validating their use in anime. But, to be honest, I… err… don’t mind excessive reaction images on imageboards. Sometimes the right reaction image at the right time is really… funny. On regular forums on the other hand, yeah, they’re as stupid as hell. (Also, lol’d at your backhand at Avatar).

    @kadian1364
    Why am I not surprised that gaguri has taken on something in a similar vein before?

    @sadakups
    ‘Cos he’s just so awesome, I guess. :D

  13. @TIF
    I don’t quite agree with labeling the entire Abh race as Mary Sues. For example, Baron Febdash is a full-blooded Abh that spent most of Crest on the wrong side of the sanity line. Even if you consider him the exception (rightfully so), I’ll just point to the fact that all of our exposure to the Abh are through its military structure and figures. These people are going to be the most disciplined, skilled, and intelligent of individuals, surely a skewed lens to examine an entire race with. Abh military also has a pretty callous political attitude towards land dwellers, defaulting to destructive options like atmospheric obliteration or planetary bombardment before even considering contact on ground level, alluded to often throughout the series.

    I don’t take the Abh as a race of eternally good guys, but as an ‘other’ humanoid species, like Vulcans are in Star Trek; fundamentally different methods of thinking, but with the same “human” qualities as the rest of us.

  14. Yasuko crying in Aoi Hana, episode 6 (specifically, at the 18:55 mark). For a long time, I’ve always perceived Yasuko as aloof but that scene justifies how she can be emotionally moved. It also showed how she’s not necessarily the sole instigator of everything that happen in Aoi Hana. There are a number of crying scene but hers is the best.

    Braiking Boss’ grin in Casshern SINS. His grin isn’t very commonly associated with conventional villains; it embodies his unsettling, sinister nature.

    Atsushi and Risa’s WTF faces in episode 5 (2:10), after learning the truth about Kotobuki. Their expressions speak for themselves.

    Hasegawa’s crazed drunken look in Moyashimon, episode 8. It just shows how crazy she gets when she isn’t sober.

    Now when I think about it, these facial expressions are mostly focused on hilarious or poigant moments.

  15. OMGSH when i read the part about girls bravo that made me lawl ( yes ive watched it.. )… seriously that part in the second season is all i remember, It made me lawl hard every time though i’ve seen it its just soo GOOOD
    The way that the blonde guy (..forgot his name..) reacts is so good, even though theres no sound during this part the way the guy expresses just delievers the blow hard

  16. Heloo! Very Helpful, Could Have Been Better Though..

  17. [...] Facial Expressions in Anime – The Extreme, The Effective… » Behind …Feb 6, 2010 … Now that I think about it, manga probably goes about this whole “facial expression” business better than anime does. … [...]

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