Anyone raised on American animation is aware that it uses many common conventions as a sort of shorthand to indicate things that would otherwise be hard to depict in a 2D environment. Who hasn’t seen a light bulb over the head used to indicate that the character has suddenly come up with an idea or a character’s eyes bug out or jaw drop to the floor to indicate a shocked reaction? And who can forget scenes of stars or birdies circling around the head being used to indicate that the character has been dazed?

      Anime uses many common conventions for the same reason. Although some are the same as those used in American animation - such as glasses being used to suggest that a character is intelligent and/or studious - there are many that are unique to anime. Just as with their American counterparts, these conventions are usually not meant to be taken literally - and cases where they are taken literally are jokes or puns. Some of the more common of these conventions are listed below. This list will expand over time as new conventions become apparent to me.


Nosebleeds in male characters

      Symbolic of sexual arousal.


Eyes Xed out or replaced by swirls

      Indicates that the character has been stunned or dazed. (Equivalent to a ring of stars or birdies around the head.)


Suddenly falling down with feet up

      Indicates that the character has been “floored with disbelief” by something silly or stupid that she has just heard.


Outlines of Xs on forehead

      Indicates stress, typically associated with anger or frustration


Giant drop of sweat on head

      Also indicates stress, typically associated with embarrassment.


Scratching the back of the head

      A common gesture used to indicate mild embarrassment.


A snaggletooth on a female character

      I have heard different explanations for this, but it seems to imply catty behavior or catlike characteristics.


Bubbles of phlegm coming out of a sleeping character’s nose

      Indicates that the character is fast asleep.


Background disappears when a character makes a powerful attack move or strong emotional reaction

      This is a very common trick used to focus solely on the character in question at a crucial dramatic moment. It is an outgrowth of the emphasis on character development in anime.


Odd hair colors and styles on anime characters

      This is a product of artistic necessity. Dramatically different hair styles and colors help differentiate characters in the same anime from one another at a glance. (Watch an anime title sometime where two or more characters have basically the same hair and you’ll see what I mean. It can be very confusing to keep the identities of such characters straight.) One must also remember that dozens of different anime series are aired during any given season on Japanese TV, so distinctive hair helps distinguish a character in a crowded field. Who that’s seen Yu-Gi-Oh animation or products even once wouldn’t instantly recognize the title character by his spiked hair, for instance?


The character that’s always hungry

      This is a common humor device which is particularly funny to Japanese, who typically eat smaller meals and hence generally do not have big appetites.


The sound of chirping cicadas

      A common summertime sound in Japan, its presence signifies the summer season.


Falling cherry blossoms

      Festivals surrounding falling cherry blossoms are a common springtime activity in Japan, so their depiction in anime can symbolize the spring season. Depending on context (and especially if they are shown in isolation), they can also symbolize the impermanence of human life.


The “passing shot” - i.e. two fighters running at each other, slashing at each other as they run past, and then pausing for a moment before the results of the blows are revealed.

      This very common action scene is a dramatic device that carries over from live-action samurai movies.


A two-fingered “V”

      Equivalent to a thumbs-up.


Characters sleeping on futons rolled out on a floor.

      This really is still a widespread practice in Japan, though Western-style beds are becoming more common.


Sitting in a waterfall

      A practice used by some Japanese priests and mystics to cleanse themselves or get more in tune with a particular aspect of nature.


Temple maidens

      Called miko, they were traditionally female shamans of the Shinto religion (they are usually referred to as priestesses in English translations) who were highly influential in Japanese life and sometimes credited with possessing mystical power. Modern miko are merely young female attendants and officiants at Shinto shrines and are not generally regarded as having special powers - except in manga and anime, of course, where both traditional and current miko can possess tremendous (and typically heredity) spiritual power. They are easily identified by their red-over-white clothing.


Crucifixion scenes

      Because Japan is not a Christian-founded country, crucifixion scenes are often used for simple artistic or dramatic purposes and do not automatically have the deeper religious significance that they would carry in many Western countries.




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