In the western world, there’s an idea that there is an overarching “anime style,” and you could easily point out popular anime Sailor Moon or Pokemon as prime examples of “what anime looks like.” Of course, the style of art in anime is constantly changing, affected by both artistic trends and animation technology. Nowadays, more and more studios and directors are trying to make their own unique style, leading to bold changes in art direction and widespread diversification in what anime actually looks like.
For example, anime studio Bones excels in creating idyllic backgrounds and lighting effects, culminating in the awe-inspiring first scenes of this season’s Bungo Stray Dogs (2016). Recently, Production I.G has been creating series with character designs that lack polish and feel as flat as they do in a manga. They pick up the bill, however, when it comes to the actual animation and storytelling, leading to some of the most popular titles in recent years.
Yet, some take a true step into the wilderness and bring forth something that doesn’t even slightly resemble anime as we know it. That’s exactly what we’re talking about today. Not only will watching anime with “interesting art” add at least two points to your anime snob level, but also you might just find your next favorite anime in the process. For many of the anime that will be mentioned in this article, you’ll see that you really shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
What is this? The art is so weird.
Actually, there are a lot of anime with art that looks nothing like what you would expect of anime art. Unfortunately, a lot of anime fans are reluctant to even give them a watch after glancing at the poster art. That’s a travesty, because they are some of the most highly acclaimed anime to bless this fine earth. They use the art as a story-telling mechanism that is fresh among more traditional anime herd. It’s also normal for such anime to avoid fan service, depending more on storytelling and character development than moe factor. Even though fan service isn’t without merit, sometimes you just want to watch one anime without it. If that’s the case, the weird art group is a good place to look.
One such title is Tekkon Kinkreet (2006), a feature film based on a manga of the same name, in which kids are fighting off the yakuza in Treasure Town. The character designs are praised for—of all things—actually looking Asian, but there’s so much more to Tekkon Kinkreet. In combination with the sprawling urban backgrounds, the overall art gives a surreal feeling that helps the audience take in a slightly dark but wonder-driven tale on human nature. Another prime example is the slice-of-life Windy Tales (2004), which uses a distinctly understated art style to highlight the calm nature of the anime’s story about kids who have the power to control wind.
Enter Yuasa Masaaki (and Choi Eunyoung)
Yuasa Masaaki and his right-hand woman Choi Eunyoung have created some really unique-looking anime that you’ve probably seen a lot in Top 10 lists across this site and the rest of the internet. If the art style is really out there, there’s a good chance that one or both of them were involved. Let’s take a quick look at some highlights in their collective resume: Mind Game (2004), Kemonozume (2006), Kaiba (2008), The Tatami Galaxy (2010), and Ping Pong The Animation (2014). Not to mention, they have done episode direction or animation for Samurai Champloo (Episode 9, 2004), Space Dandy (Episodes 9 and 16, 2014), and Adventure Time (“Food Chain,” 2014).
We’ll get back to Ping Pong The Animation in a second, but first, a quick observation. Beyond each of these series having a unique look to them, they are also distinctly different from each other. Yuasa and Choi’s works are usually described as “stylish,” but that style will change to match their stories. Kemonozume is dark and avant-garde to fit a human monster tale. Mind Game is crazy and mixes art styles to emphasize its psychological aspects. Kaiba is nostalgic and simultaneously otherworldly in both art and storyline. Most remarkably, they master each art style they take on, effectively negating the “getting used to the art” period that other unique-looking anime can necessitate.
Ping Pong The Animation
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Apr. 2014 – Jun. 2014
This is not a joke. One look at the title and the art, people are quick to think Ping Pong fans are joking when they praise this anime as a masterpiece. They most definitely aren’t joking. As one of Yuasa’s more recent works, Ping Pong harbors a lot of popularity for its timeless story of friendship accented with sports drama. The art, as you know by now, is amazing. The story has an air of maturity, brought out with intelligent cinematography and accurate table tennis play. The people don’t always look like people, but the quaint character designs match the impressively natural personalities as nearly every single character is uniquely portrayed and developed. If you’re going to start somewhere with odd-looking anime, this is the one.
Different by design, a mix of art styles
Other works have been able to carve out their own path by mixing art styles to arrive at something truly different. An extreme case would be a short-form anime with a strong following, Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories (2013) and it’s kaiju sister anime Kagewani (2015). The art in the two series has animation that is made to resemble Japanese style of oral storytelling called kamishibai (paper theater), which uses art on paper scrolls. In the horror genre, Yamishibai and Kagewani are both impressive in how well they deliver a feeling of suspense. The ghost and monster reveals are almost too perfect thanks to this art style.
Mixing art styles, however, is nothing new. It’s quite usual for anime to utilize a different art style to present a flashback, deliver narrative information, or recount a character’s history. Yet, some people will disregard this well-known standard and just mix in whichever art style they want. If you haven’t guessed, I’m talking about Shaft. Shaft has reserved a small corner of anime for themselves with works such as Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (2007) and The Monogatari Series, where they shamelessly and expertly mix different art styles with walls of text and awesomely excessive negative space, which makes us wonder if these animators aren’t actually graphic designers. This notoriety even leads fans to praise other anime based on how Shaft-y they are.
Kuuchuu Buranko (Welcome to Irabu’s Office)
- Episodes: 11
- Aired: Oct. 2009 – Dec. 2009
If we’re talking about mixing styles, though, we have to mention Kuuchuu Buranko. Of many other art styles, Kuuchuu Buranko uses rotoscoping, an animation technique with a bad rap in anime circles due to controversial works like Kowabon (2015) and Aku no Hana (2013); but the proper mix of art styles can redeem its obvious shortcomings. Kuuchuu Buranko, in addition to Yuasa’s Mind Game, selectively uses rotoscoping in very crazy packages. The realistic images lets the characters express certain human emotions that their drawn anime faces couldn’t pull off. Still, there’s a whole lot more than rotoscoping going on in Kuuchuu Buranko. The anime integrates psychedelic art, pop art, paper figures, and one gravure nurse into very colorful backgrounds and character designs that seems like a hot mess that you just want to keep watching.
A little bit western, a little bit J-Rock and roll.
In terms of art, western cartoons and anime have borrowed from each other perhaps since the very beginning. Regardless, at some point, cartoons and anime became two completely different beings aesthetically. That is, until they started to borrow from each other again.
Just as anime-looking western cartoons like Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005) appeared, it came as no surprise when an extremely western-looking anime like Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (2010) showed up on the airwaves. A raunchy and crude ecchi with very little visual ecchi, Panty & Stocking gained a large following in the English-speaking world.
A few other anime tend to dip their toe into the western pool. Take Katanagatari (2010), for instance. The character designs have a western feel, with eyes that are anything but “anime eyes,” but attractive nonetheless. These characters are in an extremely Japanese story and setting, giving a visually interesting blend inside an action-packed story of a swordsman.
The western influence may be a little subtler, as seen in the currently airing Space Patrol Luluco (2016), a short-form comedy anime that runs 7 minutes per episode. With bold lines, cartoonish props and settings, and sheen that only animation studio Trigger can pull off, Luluco has comedy-ridden action sequences that you would expect from its fun artwork.
Small art change, big impact
The subtle change, though, isn’t restrained to western influences. A small change in the art direction can have astounding impact. Although they may still resemble "anime,” they are definitely outliers in terms of art. Sometimes all it takes is a change in color palette. In No Game No Life (2014), Sora and Shiro are transported to a realm that is high contrast, neon, and very HDR. This intense coloring made No Game No Life one of the best looking anime of that year.
Now in it’s second season, Concrete Revolutio (2015) also employed a very vibrant color palette on patterned backgrounds that are reminiscent of manga screen tones. These anime dare to defy conventional wisdom on color choice and saturation levels, but end up looking mighty stylish. Be it a retro-esque Osomatsu-san (2015), a modern Prince of Stride: Alternative (2016), or a playfully pink JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable (2016), the color palette change-a-roo is definitely an interesting on-going trend in anime.
Hai to Gensou no Grimgar (Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash)
- Episodes: 12
- Aired: Jan. 2016 – Mar. 2016
While we’re talking about beautiful art and color, let’s take a minute to discuss Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash, the fantasy drama that just finished airing and was a 2016 sleeper hit, largely due to its artwork. Pleasant watercolor tones are infused into most backgrounds and the animations for the openings and endings. It’s the type of refreshingly beautiful that when you see the key visuals, you immediately think, “I want to watch that.” It’s a small art change that paid out big for A-1 Pictures.
Diversifying a franchise
As mentioned just a second ago, the latest installment of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure has changed its color palette to be as pink as Josuke’s kind heart. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable just started airing, but its new color palette fits JoJo characters better than its previous iterations. Following an art change in the manga, the fourth installment of JoJo also has the characters’ rough edges smoothed out and slightly less GAR-muscular. This artistic shift is a good way for a franchise to add diversity to their series and breathe fresh air into a long-lived name like JoJo.
Likewise, a new art outsider exists in the ever-popular Gundam franchise. It is the currently running ONA Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (2015). While character designs and art choices normally fluctuate in the Gundam universe, Thunderbolt is unique-looking in both the Gundam realm and the larger anime realm. The characters’ faces are extremely detailed and let the characters show a good deal of emotion that is necessary for a particularly dark and emotionally deep pseudo-stand-alone tale in the UC universe. Has Gundam found its new art style? Probably not, but Thunderbolt is a welcome addition to the Gundam lineage.
Anime is great, but it doesn’t always have to look like anime to be great. As animation techniques continue to evolve, doors are opening for innovative and unique art to foray into the anime world. While everyone can’t be Yuasa Masaaki, new and interesting art is, well, interesting. It’s refreshing, it’s stylish, and it’s cool. Sometimes, we’ll even see one of these art innovations infiltrate the mainstream anime style as a new and exciting trend. If you watch these visual outsiders as they kick up some dirt and let their weird flags fly, you may just be at the starting point for anime’s next big trend.
Finally, because we love you so much, here is the list of all the anime listed in this article for having remarkably unique art, separated by major genre, and then loosely listed in order of relative popularity. Have fun, and dare to be different!
Tekkon Kinkreet (2006)
Kuuchuu Buranko (2009)
Mind Game (2004)
Aku no Hana (2013)
The Tatami Galaxy (2010)
The Monogatari Series
Ping Pong The Animation (2014) – sports drama
Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash (2016) – fantasy drama
Mobile Suit Gundam Thunderbolt (2015) – mecha drama
Windy Tales (2004) – slice of life
Prince of Stride: Alternative (2016) – sports drama
JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable (2016)
Concrete Revolutio (2015)
No Game No Life (2014) – ecchi comedy
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (2007)
Space Patrol Luluco (2016) – sci-fi comedy
Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt (2010) – ecchi comedy
Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories (2013)