Understanding Storytelling: Visual Art in a Narrative

I once said in a previous post about sequels, that the one of the dangers of reboots was that some shows already had either the perfect or at least a better art style in the original and that the reboot would always suffer because it would naturally do away with the old art style.  So I figured now was as good a time as any to examine what makes for a good art style in stories.  From here on there will be scattered spoilers, you have been warned.

Let’s begin with something really basic, your artwork should reflect the themes of the story.  If you’re a show about hope, adventure and eagerly seeking out the next horizon like Magi, then your art show look vivid, colorful and bright.  It should be a world that looks inviting and exotic, somewhere we the audience want to get just as immersed in as the characters.  And for Magi’s part it nails the art.  But there are plenty of shows that often fail at even this basic stage.  Take for example Jujin no Fafnir and Seirei no Tsukai Blade Dance.  Neither of these shows were particularly good, they both were harem shows and not even great by the dubious standards of that genre.  However both also had dark story elements to them, and these could have made the show more interesting but there was one minor problem, you can’t expect me to take dark and serious themes seriously when your characters look like they were designed specifically for figures and body pillows.  Fafnir was particularly bad on this front since all of its characters look way too young as well.  But this kind of basic failing isn’t restricted to just mediocre shows.  There’s a guy on Youtube called Demolition D+ and he did this great three part analysis of Neon Genesis Evangelion vs the Rebuild movies.  I’m not going to rehash his points, go watch the videos they are really good, but one of the things he didn’t bring up was the art.  Looking at NGE vs the Rebuilds side by side I always thought the original series looked way better than the Rebuild films.  This might be a bit counter-intuitive since the films came out later and have shinier prettier graphics, but I thought the old art style did a better job communicating both the themes and atmosphere of the story than the Rebuilds’ art style ever could.

This is where we get to the next big thing about art, it should play into the atmosphere of the story.  In Evangelion the themes lead towards the dark and the atmosphere is brooding, often depressing and horrifying even.  This is shown well in Evangelion’s art style, the colors are more muted and mostly realistic, when bodies are torn apart we see the bones and the organs, the kind of shit that other super gory shows are too afraid to show more often than not.  It makes the show more unsettling, more frightening and it plays into the psychological tension and pressure that Shinji feels throughout the show.  Compare that to the Rebuilds.  In the Rebuilds the colors are brighter, the art is neater and less gritty, the gore is now reduced blood piñatas and utterly lacks the kind of unnerving feeling we get from see the shattered bones and shredded organs in the original.  It looks nothing like a dark and brooding show should.  And so on that level I have always found the Rebuild films to be weaker than original series although the art is only the beginning of that tale.  This isn’t really all that complicated, if your story is about dark shit a bright color scheme is usually not the way to go.  But it goes beyond the mere color scheme.  The level of detail or realism is another thing to consider.  I mentioned in my post on Shin Sekai Yori, that the show would occasionally switch art styles in order to more effectively communicate the emotions a story was meant to inspire, like the story about the karma demons in episode 2.  I also mentioned that art looked at its best when it was portraying the twisted and the dark.  During the middle arc of the show we run into multiple scenes of otherworldly environments, with lots of shadows and strange lighting.  And in my opinion that’s the best looking arc of the entire show, because the art style best communicates the eeriness of the world during these episodes.

The final thing to consider, and it’s closely related to the other two, is tone.  If you’re talking about a story that oozes despair and desperation then it should look like what I described in this post here.  The difference between the tone and atmosphere is minute but I suppose an easy way to look at is like this.  Atmosphere is what kinds of feelings the show projects onto the viewers and the characters, so in say Shin Sekai Yori the atmosphere is eerie.  Tone on the other hand is bit more like statement about what level of seriousness we should take the show at, so if your show is not to be taken seriously, it should look ridiculous.  I described this somewhat in my post Understanding Stupidity, but I think the shows that really capture my meaning with tone are the famed Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill.  I wouldn’t say Gurren Lagann and Kill la Kill look pretty so much as they look perfect.  What I mean is that I cannot imagine those two shows looking any other way and still being quite as good.  There is something in their art work, in my opinion the style more than anything else, which just fit the show perfectly.  Their artwork has been considered sort of in a league of their own and in retrospect I don’t think it’s hard to see why.  Both shows have more style than almost anything else in anime, but more than that they have tailored their designs and color schemes to be big, bold and utterly ridiculous, much like the shows themselves.  You can almost feel the attitude of both shows just by looking at them and this kind of balls-out, go big or go home art style that each show is rocking really separates them from the rest of the shows around them.  Another example is Fairy Tail vs Fairy Tail 2014.  Both shows are upbeat and fun and not to be taken very seriously.  In both shows the character designs reflect the stupidity of the show, but the color schemes tell a different story.  In the original series the colors were bright and vivid, reflecting the upbeat nature and tone of the show.  By contrast 2014’s colors are more muted and it’s art style more flat, draining a lot of life out the experience.  But at this point I think you all get my gist, so let’s wrap this up.  Hopefully you all enjoyed it and I’ll see you in the next one.

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