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3 Masterful Uses of Color in Anime

What do you believe you'd think of if somebody were to ask, "What's the first thing that catches your eye in an anime?"

Even I can admit that art style and animation quality is more than likely the initial utterance that would leave my lips. Sakuga may even be the first thing to capture one's eye for the more savvy viewers.

However, for as long as visual media has been in existence, creators have been nitpicking at color palates for their respective projects or flat out inventing their own. Though anime is relatively young and still maturing in retrospect, the artistry and experimentalism involved is the same, nonetheless. And one of the most obvious, yet ignored manifestations of this is with the usage of color.

Sometimes it's overt and borderline aggressive, sometimes it's more mellow and disguises its importance, and sometimes the stark lack of color is more protruding than anything else. In any case, color palates in anime can be utilized as a tool to help propel a story, emit a specific ambiance, or coax out emotion. Although it's rarely credited, the powers of color are put to work on a fairly regular basis in anime. So, without further a due, these are 3 of my personal favorite usages of color in anime which I also believe to be thought-out and expertly crafted.

Rules of My List:

  • Only 1 selection for each category: There will be shoutouts to other anime that I believe excel at each category, but only one will stand atop all the others.

  • No anime films: If I included anime films, anything and everything produced by Makoto Shinkai could win all of the categories which I don't believe is truly fair.

  • Only anime I have finished will be on this list: I don't feel I have the credentials to judge something I haven't properly seen, even if it's just the color palate.

With that over with, lets proceed to the first category.

Color Over-Accentuation

The qualities of color are often used to direct the attention of viewers toward something specific. Color is a catalyst for the turning of heads and an indicator that an object or location should be studied more closely. Some shows take this concept and throw it out the window by dousing any observable item in frame with a shower of every hue under the sun.

However, this is never done without rhyme or reason. The overabundance of vivid and lustrous colors is used to fully immerse the viewer into the world that is being experienced and inhabited by the characters. A rainbow barrage activates the viewer's imagination and inner-child allowing for a magical and idiosyncratic experience.

Examples of this include the elegant garishness of the sci-fi take on 19th century Europe in Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Christo or the nightmarish collages in Madoka Magica's witch-hunting sequences.

Think of the vibrant, technicolor landscapes of No Game No Life and how it's truly representative of its rule-breaking world, almost overwhelmingly so. Rapid, repeating colors are also on full display to convey the pure, unadulterated absurdity of FLCL's guitar fights and Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi's dreamlike universes. Hell, I could even make a case for that one episode of Pokemon: Indigo League that was banned for causing multiple epileptic seizures in children...which obviously wasn't their preconceived goal.

However, my pick for this section goes to an anime that I've been gushing all over as of late.

My Pick: Mononoke

I don't think any anime I've seen has done the kaleidoscope fantasy better than Mononoke has. Mononoke's purposeful onslaught of color is immersing, but not in the fashion one would typically expect. It's deterring and beautiful; it's delightfully jarring; it's unnerving in the most whimsical of ways which is what I believe the intent behind it was.

Everything in the series is decorated with clashing shades on all levels. They make viewers shy away from looking at the screen and yet persuade them to march on. The sheer volume of offsetting colors help solidify Mononoke's morbid fairytale visage. It evokes a strong sense of panic and a strange, foreboding miasma which makes viewers feel that everything is severely fucked up and for no clear-cut reason.

It's just controlled chaos.

Because it's tactically void of any visual coherence, Mononoke lands in my top spot here. It's also the polar opposite of the entries in my next section.

Muted Color Palate

Anime in general is regarded as a rather bright medium filled with unique and varied color palates that range from lush backgrounds to neon-colored hair. It's often thought as having a distinctly colorful visual style. However, some anime like to dial the color thermostat back a few notches.

Occasionally, anime withdraws the color from being in your face and the decision is made to subdue colors rather than accentuate them. Usually, this is implemented as a thematic technique. It grounds the viewer in a sense of vacancy or potent negativity. It can even go as far as physically integrating the characters with the universe around them. It's a gesture that's as reserved as it is blatant, telling the viewer to hone in on the subtleties and minute details of the story being told.

It's the monotony and complete isolation visible in the dilapidated metropolis of Girl's Last Tour. It's used to conjure the overwhelming feeling of underlying maliciousness and desolation in Ergo Proxy, where scenes of color seem alien and unwelcome when they occur. I mean, why is Re-L Meyer an innately more memorable character? It's because of the piercing, baby blue eyeshadow contrasting with the muted nothingness around her.

The reservation of color can also be witnessed in the original Kino's Journey, working to dissolve the characters into their surroundings and to illustrate how everybody and everything is a singular cog in something that is conceptually greater. This is also executed masterfully in pretty much every work conceived by Yoshitoshi ABe such as Serial Experiments Lain, Texhnolyze, and Haibane Renmei.

But, I believe one series does it on a grander scale than the rest.

My Pick: Boogiepop Phantom

Boogiepop Phantom takes its color subduing to a whole different, higher plane and does so to a monumental effect.

The color scheme of this series is akin to a lifeless stare. All colors have been constricted to the point of resembling heavily diluted versions of their former selves. It looks as if the soul was vacuumed right out of the color palate and it's absolutely genius.

It's a physical representation of the omnipotent potential for evil that lurks throughout society. It's a haze of pent-up anger, repressed emotions, and the utter helplessness of being caged in one's own mind. It's a color scheme that mutates a physical concept into something as visceral as it is visual, and the fact that this gross corruption of color is pervasive and lingering only aids in the series' negative thrust into the human psyche.

For that reason, I believe Boogiepop Phantom to succeed at a loftier level than anything else I've seen.

Selective Color Palate

This final section is reserved for a category that can resemble both the first category or the previous one. Most entries in this section won't necessarily fit into the cacophony of color of over-accentuation or the distinct lack thereof in those of extreme color diluting.

Instead, this section will be revolving the anime that have a color palate that keys in on 2 or 3 colors of the spectrum to not only punctuate certain aspects of the setting, but to also make select motifs and narrative themes more palpable. These are the anime where one or two reoccurring colors rise to the forefront, refusing to be silenced. These are the shows where frames and scenes that don't host a certain array of colors come across as off-putting and ill-fitting.

Attack on Titan is a phenomenal example of this. The usage of forest greens and rich browns both outside the wall and on the surveying corp uniforms perpetuates the overarching point that it is man versus nature and that the most imposing of threats is the most naturally occurring.

Drawing a parallel, Mushishi also delicately paints its backgrounds with lush greens with some sparser usage of lighter browns and soothing blues. Although, instead of depicting humanity's unending struggle against nature, it spotlights how everything is interconnected from the ground up. It's a calm and absorbing illustration on how the earth and the human race exist and interact as a cohesive unit. Kino's Journey also fits this image, only with a less striking palate. However, I won't spend time elaborating seeing that I think it supports the previous section better.

Think of Another and its gripping focus on grays, reds, and the color black. Not one frame slips by without there being an ocular reminder of the grisly violence and the stifling cloud of impending destruction that looms over the entire series. It's brutally gorgeous in its effect.

You can see this utilized differently in Masaaki Yuasa's The Tatami Galaxy where each scene has a separate color focus depending on the mood, environment, and whatever debacle the nameless main character has found himself wedged in, driving home the situation-specific emotions.

However, my pick goes to a beautiful series that I'm not nearly vocal enough about.

My Pick: Nagi no Asukara

Nagi no Asukara is a series that heavily relies on the colors blue and ivory - occasionally splashing in greens and purples when it feels like being adventurous - to engulf the viewer in the oceanic vibe it's attempting to exude.

Sure, this almost certainly has to do with the universe it takes place in, but saying that it's simply a byproduct of the uniquely stunning setting is naive. It presents the world with a magical and adolescent sense of grandeur where the varying blue shades of the sky and the sea physically collide. It's a binding - a visual connection between the earth and the water.

Moreover, the magnitude of blues and creams present in Nagi no Asukara showcase water as not only a physical entity, but as mental concept and an entwining theme throughout the series. It's an embodiment of personal growth and inner maturation. It's the enfleshment of emotional conflict and internal rebirth, returning to life anew. And all of this is conveyed in such a loving, tactful, and breathtaking manner.

That's why I believe it deserves my top ranking here.

That's all, mes amis!

Those were 3 greatly different examples of what I believe to be impeccable uses of color in anime! I hope you enjoyed it!

As I always say, keep watching anime and stay tuned for more!


Greg is a 23 year-old from Traverse City, Michigan. He likes catching frisbees, drinking coffee, and driving over the speed limit. His favorite anime is definitely not School Days.

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