We’re going to play a little game here. What’s something that about 90% of anime has? A main character? Well, yes, you’re correct, but that goes for any story, really. Wait, what does the other 10% have…nevermind. Tell me something about that character? That they’re a pervert? I mean, a lot are, yes, but that’s not where I’m going with this…
Ok, I’ll help. What’s a defining part of their character? Perhaps something that might define their view of the world? That they’re teenagers? Ding, ding, ding! You’re…kind of right. I’m more specifically talking about where those characters spend a majority of their day-to-day lives. That would be in school because they’re students.
For seemingly no reason whatsoever, but what is probably the most obvious reason when you really think about it, a large portion of anime involves school in some way. Generally high school or middle school, but sometimes even lower levels of schooling than that. If they’re really feeling spunky, we might even get a college student. But why?
Well, demographics are a big reason. A lot of anime’s target audience is school-aged teenagers and people still young enough to relate to school in some way. You’re going to find it easier to relate to a young high schooler if you’re around that age than some middle-aged person, and if you can create a connection to the characters, the story will likely hold you for longer, meaning you’ll watch the show, and maybe enjoy it. Maybe buy the DVDs (I guess I should start saying Blu-rays now) and give them that sweet cash. Or that’s what creators think, at least.
I think a character, regardless of age, gender, race, or even species, can be relatable to nearly anyone so long as they’re well written, but I’m also no longer school-aged and can’t relate to people who are in school because I’ve never attended a single day of public schooling in my life, so what does my opinion matter? Give us more teenagers, dammit!
In all seriousness, I’ve always found this to be interesting, especially for the medium itself. I think we can all agree that the animation aspect is pretty important in anime. I mean, it’s almost like the two words are related in some way. It takes more than good art to make a good series, but you and I both know that it doesn’t hurt an anime when they’ve got it. If it looks good, you’ll just naturally enjoy it more. But maybe I’m just that shallow.
What I’ve always found so incredible about anime and about any animated work is the immense amount of effort that goes into crafting it. For every frame of an anime we see, people had to create that. Unless it’s CGI or some other technical witchery, every frame you’ve watched was painstakingly drawn by very talented, passionate people. And even the CGI had to be created, just differently.
Take it from somebody who has made a 34 frame animation before. It requires a lot of patience because it’s repetitive as hell. And all I did was draw two simple things and move them around in editing. I didn’t need to draw something new each time and then draw those things in different poses as other animators have to do. God forbid having to draw them in a battle or something. The fact that I’m so proud of that simple animation should tell you how rough it is.
Animators have to sit there and draw the exact same things thousands of times just to make a single 20-minute episode. When I think about that, I just can’t help but admire how much effort goes into it, especially if one of those protagonists with crazy hair is present. I bet the animators shaved afterward.
This is why the less you have to draw is ultimately better. It means less work. Less work equals faster anime. It’s that balancing act between making something beautiful and not taking years to produce it that these studios have to struggle with. You could make an anime about a stick figure a lot faster than you could actual people. Despite the fact I would certainly watch it, it wouldn’t be that visually interesting to see Stick One slap Stick Two in the face.
This means that while the less you have to draw is best, you do need quality mixed in. You don’t want every character to look the same, stick figure or not. So how does this go into my original point? That’s with the humble school uniform, of course!
You’ve seen it before—likely hundreds of times. Every anime has its variations. Some so distinct you can tell the anime purely based on what the uniform looks like. That’s why people have made quizzes where you do just that. They can be almost as iconic as the characters that wear them. But like any good piece of clothing, they aren’t only fashionable. They’re functional as well.
One thing that makes the process of animating easier is to draw something fairly simple. It goes without saying that you could animate a ball rolling faster than a person walking, for instance. School uniforms generally aren’t that complex. Of course, you can go wild with it, but for the most part, it’s a simple shirt, maybe a coat of some kind, pants or a skirt, and a tie or a ribbon. That’s about it. Even the colors on them are pretty tame.
At least it’s far simpler than all the potential outfits your protagonist could choose to wear outside of class. Unless they choose to always wear a tank top or something like that. In school, they don’t have that choice. They have to wear the uniform, the same as everyone else.
Animators aren’t going to want to draw new outfits for their characters all the time (unless they’re Kyoto Animation animators). Still, it’s just not believable that characters wouldn’t change their clothes on a daily basis. Unless they went to school, that is. Everyone always wears the same thing there.
So there you go, animators! You’ve found the perfect location to draw a bunch of very similar outfits, and we’re all none the wiser. But of course, that’s too boring.
This brings me to something I’ve always quite liked about anime’s school uniforms. How diverse they can really be. And I don’t mean across different series. I mean how the same uniform can be spiced up in different ways to differentiate the characters and even give us hints to their personalities.
One character may wear their shirt or jacket buttoned all the way up, showing they’re more proper, or follow the rules. A different character may wear another shirt over their uniform or not care how many buttons they have up, showing that they couldn’t care less about rules.
It can even be smaller differences than this. A character might have sleeves that are too long. They may wear their own jacket. They may wear different color or length socks. A lot can go into something so uniform as…well, a school uniform.
While they may seem very boring on the surface, these little details help keep each character fresh. If everything looked exactly the same, it wouldn’t matter how great your art is. You need visual variety in your characters. And the whole point of school is to kind of kill that individuality. If your anime largely takes place at school, that’s a problem you need to deal with.
There was actually a recent series that was very good but did showcase a poor way you can add spice to your characters’ appearances. That was Horimiya. The characters in that series have a large variety of hair colors. Red, green, pink, purple. They had practically the whole rainbow floating around their heads.
This didn’t sit well with me, and I couldn’t quite figure out why until I saw Edy talk about Horimiya. It’s because they feel out of place. Horimiya is a more realistic anime focusing on school life and romance. Having a character with bright red hair just feels off.
Meanwhile, in My Hero Academia, I don’t bat an eye when the main character has crazy green hair that sticks up every which way. You know why? Because that series also has a character that’s invisible and one with exploding sweat. Who the hell cares about hair colors anymore?
That’s one of anime’s most defining traits – characters with crazy hair. But I’ll take the point further and say that any realistic setting can make the hair feel out of place. When I see a story set in the real (or real enough) world, I subconsciously expect to see characters’ hair be different shades of brown, black, and blonde. All of which can provide plenty of variety.
And if that’s still not enough, give them some variety in their uniforms. Let those socks be a different color. Let that girl who’s always cold have her sweater that’s always too big. You don’t want her to freeze, do you, you monster? It’s a lot better than having teenagers with Skittle hair running around in your Rom-Com. Would they get in trouble for their uniforms? I have no clue. We’ve already established that I wouldn’t know that. But I doubt it would be as bad as showing up to class with green hair.
I just thought the Horimiya comparison was really interesting because both their hair and the school uniforms we’ve been talking about do the exact same things. It just depends on the setting whether on not it works well.
There’s a lot of complexity that goes into every frame of an anime. Far more than most of us (including myself) realize. So many things that go into giving anime the unique feel that the medium has, and the school uniform is definitely a part of that.
I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t think the school uniform will go anywhere any time soon. Do I wish we’d see it a little less? Sure. But, hey, it’s iconic at this point, isn’t it? Anime just wouldn’t feel the same without it. But seriously, an anime without school once in a while, please and thank you.
Thank you very much for reading
What do you think of the school uniform? How are some other ways you could diversify your characters? I for one, appreciate how unique a simple uniform can be and look forward to seeing how studios handle it in the future. And I suppose there are some pretty generic ones out there as well.