Cheeats, Cliches, Cartoons, Anime…
By Curtis H. Hoffmann
Version 2.0 – Copyrighted Aug. 15, 1995

There are many ways to cut corners in the process of creating
animation. I’m going to try to describe some of them, as I also
attempt to catalog the cliches used in both western and Japanese
cartoons. If you have any comments on this file, feel free to
make them. If you have anything to add to the list, please do

Most of the names used here are my own creation, and are not
in common usage anywhere else.

This is the super-duper upgraded version, with all of the
previous additional cliches tacked into one file. Now, with
whitener, fewer calories, greater taste, and a new
one-size-fits-all package design.

Simple definitions:

  • Anime — Japanese produced and directed paint-on-cel animation. Has no inherent implications as to quality of the product.
  • Cartoon — Encompasses paint-on-cel-based animation from around the world, but normally is applied only to North American productions with little story-telling potential that are aimed at children.

Added changes came from:

  • Enrique Conty [EC]
  • Derek Upham [DU]
  • John Martin Karakash [JMK]
  • jeffj@yang (ChaOs) [JJ]
  • Iskandar Taib [IT]


  • Animation Cheats
  • Anime Cliches
  • Animation Flaws
  • Scriptwriting Cliches
  • Hand Gestures
  • Miscellaneous
  • Common Features of Anime

Animation Cheats

Shooting on 3’s:

In film, there are 24 frames per second. For video tape,
there are 30 frames.

Really fluid animation is gained by drawing one frame of a
character’s movement per frame of film. However, this is only
necessary when a character is moving from left to right (or right
to left,) and the camera is panning along the background artwork.
This prevents a strobing-effect that occurs when the background
moves too far on the screen from one frame to the next.

Normally, the animator can make do with one drawing per 2
frames of film. This is called “shooting on 2’s.” Most
theatrical films, and some TV cartoons are shot on 2’s, and
everything looks fine.

However, you can save money by skipping some work, and shoot 3
frames per drawing. Many TV cartoons are shot on 3’s or 4’s,
which gives a very jerky feeling to the action. Something like
Hammerman is shot at least on 4’s, if not on 8’s.


The standard western cheat is to simplify the character
design, so there are fewer lines to draw per frame. This is
obvious both in the body features, and the clothing elements.
You can also see this in Anpan-man, Mary Bell, and Chibi

The Blend:

When you have a very detailed image, like the close-up of a
person’s face, it takes a lot of time and effort to animate it
smoothly. Instead, you can paint maybe 4 or 8 “extreme poses” and
film them as static images. The next step is to use
post-production editing to fade from one still to the next.
Alternatively, a few in-between cels can be painted that have
ghosts of the extremes, which gives the same effect, but with
much less work than if every single frame had been created from
scratch. This may cut the total number from 60 drawings, to 15,
or 8.

The final results may be used to heighten the emotional effect
of a scene, or to simply stretch out the action of a complex
drawing. Usually, you’ll see this when a crying girl turns away
from the hero, or when a top sports player dives for the ball
during a crucial play.

The Triple Repeat Attack (TRP):

When someone gets hit hard, the camera pans by a single still
of the attack three times, occasionally with little variations in
each pan, like zooming in a bit further for each pass. It is
very easy to over-use this device for even the most trivial of
situations. It is very much a cliche, but it’s also a cheat
since you may only have one drawing for 10 seconds of film.

Chan-Style, or Super-Deformed Style:

Admittedly, this is a purely Japanese technique that is mostly
just a cliche, and not necessarily a cheat. But, the results are
the same — less work per frame.
Both techniques consist of drawing a normal character as if he
were a 5 year-old, with a larger head, smaller body, and chubby
limbs. Most of the details will be lost at the same time. These
are done mainly for slapstick comedy effect.

The Assembly Sequence:

You’ll see the Assembly Sequence normally in a kiddie
power-suit, or mecha show. It consists of the character (like
Sailor Moon, or Metal Jack,) calling out something (“Make Up!” or
“Jack On!”) which will be followed by stock footage of the
character standing around while the suit or outfit wraps itself
around him. By itself, this is no big deal. Except, that it’s
the exact same sequence from one episode to the next. In this
way, the animators save themselves about 1 to 3 minutes of
animation per character per episode.

It’s both a cheat, and a cliche.

Also an amusing example of your ‘suit up’ cheat was noticed by
me and my roommate on the Ghostbusters (NOT the Real Ghostbusters
BTW). We calculated that over half the show was suit up/reused
cels/commercials. Which brings me to the cheat most beloved by
advertisers, the long-block-of-commercials-then-a-short-
cheat! [JMK]

Separated eyes and mouths:

The opposite side of the coin from Simplicity is Shading and
Detail. Here, the animators (usually Japanese,) have added so
much detail and color to the character’s face that it’s too much
work to redraw it in each frame as the character talks.

So, instead of redrawing the face a lot (which allows you to
get a jaw that moves as the character speaks,) you draw the face
on one cel, and the mouth and eyes on another. (Admittedly,
western animators use this technique for the same reasons, but
the faces in their drawings have much less detail to begin with.)

Gaping Mouth Wounds:

In TV, it’s not necessary to get the lip-sync down really
tightly when a character talks, which means that sometimes the
mouth moves even when the character has stopped talking. This
saves work, because you don’t have someone tied up with the very
time-consuming task of breaking the dialog down into single
frames, and vowel sounds.

The extreme case, though, is when you don’t worry about the
specific dialog matching up with the shape of the mouth. Now,
you only have 4 or 5 standard mouth positions (open, closed,
partially opened, and yelling,) instead of the normal 7 or 10,
and you just jump them around under the camera roughly in time
with the dialog. This is common both in anime, and western

The Hold:
When a character is thinking, or becomes stunned, he’ll freeze
on the screen. The only action comes from a camera pan in, or
out. The Hold also occurs when one character stops talking and
the other begins. Anyone not talking simply freezes on the
screen. This saves the studio a lot of time and money, because
the alternative is to draw separate frames with the character’s
clothes rippling in a breeze, or the character’s face reacting to
whatever is being said.

Statue Crowds:

Crowd scenes require a lot of work, and time that the studio
can’t afford to spend. Therefore, crowds will be treated as
background artwork. The only element of movement comes from the
camera panning across, and the only signs of life will be the
voice actors cheering as voice-overs. Occasionally, mouths will
be painted on separate cels for one or three audience members to
do a little yelling on their own.

The Cycle:

This is a classic animation technique all studios use
extensively. The basic idea is to put the character into a
repeating action cycle, and just draw the first few cels
necessary for it. The normal example is a simple walk, which
only takes 7 to 12 cels for a sequence that may last 30 seconds.
Disney is famed for its use of more complex cycles in its early
short cartoons.

4-colors VS 256:

Simply by looking at most western TV animation, you can tell
that the animators are saving themselves a lot of effort by
eliminating shading, and reducing the number of colors in the
clothing designs. Fewer colors means less work, fewer costs, and
a more boring image. The Japanese will use more colors and the
GMW technique at the same time.

Last Week’s Re-Cap:

When you have an episodic adventure series like Dragon Ball,
or Dodge Danpei, you’ll get a re-cap of the action from the
previous episodes before the show starts up with the new stuff.
This means that the animators are saving themselves about 3 to 5
minutes of work by reusing old animation with a voice-over

The Repeat Thingie:

Occasionally, you may notice a character doing one action in
one scene, and later doing the exact same action in an entirely
different scene. This is a case of reusing existing cels with
either a different background, or a different prop (changing a
hammer for an ax.) Some of the really bad American moralistic
cartoons from the ’60s used this technique A LOT.

Recycled Animation:

Disney does this occasionally. When the cels are filmed for
any given show or movie, the cels themselves will be either
tossed or washed and reused. But, the pencil drawings will
usually be stored for future works. This way, all that’s needed
is to xerox the existing artwork, and change the color scheme for
the new scene.

FILMATION seems to use this technique a lot. Compare He-Man,
She-Ra, Tarzan and Star Trek some time. The poses and layouts
are almost exactly the same (the
“Close-up-with-half-face-visible”, especially). [DU]

Repeated Background Pan:

Hanna Barbera’s commonplace trick of cycling the same
background through while a car is driving “BANK…. BANK….
BANK…”. Or, the characters are racing through a house and you
keep seeing the same furniture. This has been parodied on the


Rotoscoping is done by projecting live footage under a sheet
of paper to allow the animator to trace the picture, frame by
frame, before modifying it. The advantage is that the animator
doesn’t have to figure out how a character moves through trial
and error. The down side is that the result usually looks pretty
cheesy (just look at any Ralph Bakshi movie.) While the
Fleischer Brothers used rotoscoping (and created the process,)
very artfully, it’s still obvious when it’s employed. Disney
tried using rotoscoping in a number of his films, but the results
weren’t to his liking, and the animators just redrew those
scenes, anyway.

Note: Venus Wars did not have rotoscoping in the motorcycle
scenes: that was an example of optical printing (adding animation
over live footage.)


Originally, when a pencil drawing was cleaned up, the ink and
paint department would trace the pencil lines onto the cels via
multicolored inks (which allowed for more subtle shadings, and
details,) before the paints were added. Now, it’s easier to
xerox the final pencils onto a cel. The drawback is that the
xerox lines look rougher, may have breaks in them, and will be
all in black (removing the element of subtlety.)

A nice counterpoint to this was the work in the GIANT ROBO
OVAs. From what my sources tell me, the final pencils are
xeroxed, but then a second cel is overlayed on the first, and
this second cel is hand-painted. The resulting cel-work is
simply amazing. [EC]

Speed lines:

This is a cliche used to get a heightened emotional response,
while also filming a static pose. When a character starts an
attack, the background is replaced with streaks of color, or
simple racing lines. This doesn’t actually save the animators any
work, and adds a little more work for the camera operator because
the backgrounds need to be changed more often. But, since the
background was static to begin with, and the main character has
also become static, the speed lines help liven things up a bit.

Collars and Talking Heads:

Hanna-Barbera is notorious for this trick. Rather than
redrawing the entire character for each frame that the mouth
moves, you give the character a collar, and then place the head
on a different cel underneath the body cel. The body is usually
then kept stationary, and the head cels are changed in sequence.
Although, if the character does walk and talk at the same time,
it’s still less work to animate than otherwise.

Shimmering eyes:

This is both a cliche and a cheat. Take a Hold, and just
redraw some white highlights inside the pupils. Why draw an
emotional face, if you don’t have to?

The ‘No Face’:

One cheat that I didn’t see mentioned is the ‘no face’ cheat.
Put a helmet on a guy/gal/thing and you’ve saved yourself tons of
time. Put him/her/it in a whole suit and voila! minimal use of
shading/movement is required. [JMK]

(Curtis comments: Not exactly true. Bubble Gum Crisis used
this pretty heavily, but it still had a lot of shading on each
suit. The primary savings come from not having to show the
character blink or talk, and there are less details to draw the
first time around.)

Re-used sounds:

A number of people have commented on the fact that the sound
tech will steal sound effects from movies like Aliens, and Star
Wars, for certain situations, rather than create an entirely new
sound himself. I haven’t noticed this myself, but there’s a
growing consensus that this happens a lot. The reasons should be

Photo Backgrounds:

This is a common manga technique. The result is a highly
realistic background image that looks like it was xeroxed before
being photocopied. It provides the illusion of added depth to
the manga, while saving the artist a lot of work.

Anime Cliches

The Multiple-Character-Single-Gasp Reaction:

I find this to be one of the more annoying time-consuming
Japanese cliches. It’s very simple — something startling will
happen, or a character will get smashed up. Then, the camera
will pull in for a close up of each of the other characters —
one at a time — as they gasp or speak the guy’s name. This has
been happening too often in Dragon Ball Z. The result is to
force a heightened sense of suspense, and to stretch out a fight
scene while doing a small amount of work.

Example — Piccolo will get punched into the ground. The
camera then cuts to a close-up of #18, who will gasp. Now, cut
to #17, who will gasp. Then, cut to #16 for a gasp. Next, cut
to Kiririn to gasp. And continue down the line until you run out
of characters. Repeat this operation 2 or 4 times per battle per

The Raging Flames/Crashing Surf:

An alternative to Speed Lines — when a character gets overly
emotional, or “highly charged,” the background will be replaced
by roaring flames or surf. This is just an intensity-building
device, used extensively by Rumiko Takahashi.

The Slash Split Screen:

Another cliche, related to the Multi-Character-Single-Gasp
Reaction, the difference being that the MCSGR is sequential, and
the S^3 is more-or-less simultaneous. When the main character is
hit, the first reaction will appear in the top portion of the
screen, the second reaction appears on the bottom, and the
remaining reactions will be in the middle of the screen. Dodge Danpei uses this technique. Bubble Gum Crisis does the same
thing, but usually when the Knight Sabers are preparing to go
into battle and all of them say “roger,” or “Knight Sabers —

Tokyo Feet:

This is a term coined by Larry Greenfield to describe the
cloud of feet and sweat (sometimes tears) that surrounsd a
character when he goes into panic-mode. There is no longer a
relation between the character’s feet and the ground, as the
character just slides back and forth on the screen. Again, the
result is also less work per frame.

The Temple Vein:

Especially in manga. When a character gets stressed-out, or
angry, a cross-like outline of a 4-way vein intersection will pop
up on their forehead. Sometimes, this gets carried to extremes,
as in the manga where an identical vein pops up three different
places on the back of a guy’s hand. (Real veins don’t act like


In the wonderful world of the Japanese language, several words
exist that are nothing more than sound effects (like “niko,” for
the sound of a smile.) When you’re watching anime played for
laughs, a wide-eyed character blinking in surprise will make a
“poit”, or “pika” sound (occurs a lot in Urusei Yatsura, and
Kimengumi High School.) And, in Project A-ko, when C-ko smiles
in front of the class, she says “Niko.”

Trick Dreams:

A common story device used to hook the viewer’s attention.
Employed heavily in Kimagure Orange Road. Basically, something
really bad or really good will happen to the star right at the
beginning of the episode, only to turn out to be a dream.

Rain Shimmers:

Not necessarily a cliche or cheat, but a commonly used special
effect in anime. There’s a lot of rain in the spring and fall in
Japan, so rain has become an accepted plot device (plus, when bad
events happen to the principle characters, rain will start
falling to symbolize their plight.) To show that the rain is
hitting trees, people, or animals, a light halo will shimmer
around the tops, heads, and shoulders. A separate set or 4 or 5
cels will be used for this, if the characters are just standing
and talking.

The Background Cameo:

One of the most prized anime devices for fans.
Because it takes a long time for an animator to finish a
sequence or background, said animator will add silly things to
make their job more fun. Such as the Star Trek USS Enterprise
blueprints in The Nolandia Affair, and the appearance of The
Dirty Pair’s Kei in a background shot in the Fist of the Northstar movie. A little of this shows up in The Simpsons,
but is more common in anime movies and OAV’s than TV shows.

Jumping Talkers:

When a Japanese studio has a medium-range shot of a talking
character, they’ll redraw the entire figure even though only the
mouth is moving. This is not an easy operation, because the body
has to be copied and painted without variations, and the cycle
cels have to be registered exactly. So, when a character bounces
up and down as they speak, you know that the registration
slipped. Nadia is a featured Jumper in Nadia: Secret of Blue

This phenomenon is not really a cliche or a cheat, but it is
peculiar to anime.

Tear Floods:

Yet another Japanese cliche used instead of animating an
actual emotion (when a character starts crying, the tears create
waterfalls on either side of their face.) Several series (like
Kimengumi High School) have parodied this cliche, with characters
holding buckets to catch someone else’s flood.

The Tear Pendulums:

One of the stranger cliches, also a twist on the Tear Flood.
When you get hit in the head, tears well up in your eyes. You
may even get a a little tear running down your cheeks a bit.
Well, this teardrop looks almost like a ball on the end of a
string. Take this image 10 steps further, and you get a white
pingpong ball swinging from a white stick under each eye. This
device occurs a LOT in manga, and some silly anime (most notably,
Ranma 1/2.) (It took me a long time to figure out what these
things were.)

Snot-Nosed Kids:

In Japan, it’s not polite to blow your nose in public —
instead, you’re just supposed to keep sniffing until you have the
chance to “do your business in private.” Because of this, colds
(the cold-sufferer will voluntarily wear a face mask to keep from
infecting other people in public,) sneezing on people, and runny
noses are commonly used as gags in manga, and in anime to a
lesser extent. The standard joke is to show an uncultured kid,
or a frightened man, as someone with snot running down his lip
(and frequently into his mouth.)

The Nose Bubble:

A related gag to the S-NK, is the simple rendering of someone
soundly asleep, blowing snot bubbles through their nose. This is
the visual clue that tells you that this person is sleeping, and
is commonly accompanied by lip-, or chin-, drool.

The Sweat Drop:

You’ll also see this in manga when a character gets nervous,
apprehensive, or scared. A large teardrop will appear somewhere
on the character (many times, on the back of the head.)
Occasionally, the sweat drop will be placed on a separate cel,
and slid down the character’s face (the face is in a Hold.) It’s
easier than animating the face for those emotions.

The Stunned Fall-Over:

One more Japanese cliche. When someone says something stupid
or unexpected, everyone else will fall flat on their face or
back. In many cases, one character will fall over, and then
reappear with The Bandage on their forehead. The SF-O actually
has its roots in the old Mad magazine strips created by Don
Martin and company, back in the 1950’s.

The Writhing Face:

To show intense emotion (usually frustration or anger,) the
animator will draw the face in two extreme poses (with maybe one
in-between pose for filler) with the teeth grinding and eyes
opening or closing. These few cels are alternated under the
camera to give the impression of the desired emotion, but the
actual effect is to make the character’s eyes and mouth writhe
around on his face. Happens extensively in Dragon Ball Z.

Super Deformed Ugly:

This seems to be the counter-point to the “super-deformed’
style, where the character is made to look more cute. In SDU,
the eyes get deformed, the mouth contorts in a “jaw on the
ground, while slurping a lemon” grin, and shade lines will appear
around the eyes, and bridge of the nose (either the character is
blushing, suffering from burning eyes, or has smelled something
REAL BAD,) and there will be an over-all simplifying of features.
Although a lesser form of this is used heavily in Yawara, the
true SDU appears in college “bad boys and girls” manga.


One of the best cliches, you’ll get this when one character is
acting uppity, and the other “dis’s” him. One finger pulls down
the lower lid of one eye, the tongue is stuck out, and the
character says “behhhhh”. Very common in older anime and most
manga. (It comes from the Japanese phrase “akan bee” — “to make
a face”, or “to show disrespect.”)

Fake Fighting:

Again, when a character gets uppity, another one will smash
him in the head with a fist, a bat, book, or shoe. This normally
looks pretty painful, but has no lasting effects. Characters may
even get into full-blown brawls, and be covered in lumps from
head to toe, but will completely recover in the next panel or

The Bandage:

When someone gets bopped in a Fake Fight, they will
immediately receive a bandage in the next frame. Which will
disappear as soon as the joke is over.

The Head Job:

Another bizarre visual device. When an animal/beast person
gets very excited/angry, it will attack you. Normally, on the
arms, hands, feet, or legs, if this is a western story. In anime
and manga, this beast will attach itself to the top back part of
your head, and will hang there for the length of the scene.
Examples of this can be found in Dragon Half, Ushio and Tori,
and Dragon Ball. Sometimes, the person’s entire head will be
engulfed. Normally, like Fake Fighting, the beast will not leave
a permanent mark on you (In Dragon Ball, a ghoul does this to
Kuririn during battle, leaving a circle of blood fountains on
Kuririn’s scalp, and requiring the use of bandages during several
episodes before Kuririn can recover.)

The Called Shot:

Of all of the anime cliches, the Called Shot has to be the
most disliked, and embarrassing, to the new fans. Basically, the
character will strike a pose, or wield a certain weapon, and call
out the name of whatever attack he or she will now use. “Dragon
Punch!” “Flaming Iris Sword!” or “Buster Shield!”

One of the main reasons this action is employed so heavily in
anime and manga is simply that the audience has no other way of
knowing what the hell the character is doing otherwise. Further,
there is something of a history behind this action — including
Kamen Rider and Ultra Man — and that is the fact that so many
martial arts techniques have such names. “Round House Kick,”
“Side Snap,” “Inside Leg Throw,” and “Tiger Claw.” And, an
observer unfamiliar with a particular martial arts school would
be completely clueless when one technique or another is used.

To western audiences, this is merely a silly thing — “Why
don’t these guys just trash each other and get it over with? Who
cares what the technique is called? I just wanna watch these
bozos kick each other’s butts.”

A variant of this is used in Hokuto no Ken, where the attack
is made, and then the name of the technique is emblazoned on the
screen over a still painting of the hero.

The Big Gun:

Doesn’t have to be a gun, but it’s a big “mega-nuke” attack
that usually takes out anyone it’s aimed at. Often has
incredible special effects. A downside of this is that they tend
to be overused. (Like in Voltron – every episode, without
fail…) Examples: “Form Blazing Sword!” from Voltron, the Wave
Motion Cannon from Star Blazers, the SDF-1 Main Gun from Macross,
Captain Planet himself from Captain Planet and the Planeteers,
and what we like to call the “Mandala attack” from Shurato. [JJ]

Missing Bars:
This is a rather interesting artistic technique where a
character is behind a fence, or in a prison, and the bars or
chain links that would normally hide the face simply are not
drawn in. Shows up in various manga.

But They All Look Alike!:

This is one of the first things non-fans notice when they
watch anime, and it is both a cliche and a cheat. In manga, the
designs usually vary enough from one character to the next that
you can easily tell them apart. But in anime, because it’s so
important to remain consistent from one frame to the next, the
director may make the characters look alike to make them easier
to draw quickly, and then differentiate them by changing their
hair colors. Case in Point: Sailor Moon and Sailor Venus. This
is also represents a cost savings, when the rest of the
characters’ costumes are the same colors, and it’s not necessary
to maintain another batch of paint shades.


This is not quite the same as the Background Cameo, but it’s
closely related. Simply, it’s just a case of a popular character
from one series showing up in some form in another series. A
November installment of Twinkle^2 Idol Star has a villain wearing
a Sailor Moon t-shirt. In Gun Buster: Over the Top, a poster
from one of Miyazaki’s films is tacked up on a wall. And, in a
Self-Referential Cross Reference, Usagi plays a Sailor V (ie. —
Sailor Moon) video game in many episodes.

Cut-Away Shots and Fill-In Data:

In manga, when something happens that the audience can’t
readily see, there may be a cut-away view showing what we’d
otherwise miss. The most obvious example of this is when
someone’s arm gets broken. In some cases, the artist will draw a
duplicate of the limb, up and to the right of the main action,
showing a cut-away shot of the shattered bone.

A related element is the Fill-In Data. When a character talks
about something that everyone is supposed to know, a picture of
the relevant data will appear behind him. Such as, when the hero
is fighting another boxer, and his opponent uses a technique last
used on a now-crippled partner, the hero will see flashes of all
of this background info above his head. Or, as the villain pulls
out a throwing spike and states the many ways he can use it to
kill someone, an acupuncture charts will suddenly show up behind

Eye Checks:

Certain manga and anime character designs have a rather
strange little flourish of the eye lashes at the outside corners
of the eyes, which makes the characters look like someone has
given them “check marks” with a felt tip pen. When I once asked
a Japanese amateur manga artist about this, he told me that this
was just what happens when you have someone with really long
lashes. But this is not correct. If you look at the epicanthic
eyelid, you’ll occasionally notice that certain Asians have a
very strong crease in the skin that extends about 1/8″ to 1/4″
from the side of the eye, which strongly resembles the manga
designs. That’s what those eye checks are — characatures of an
existing feature that many artists actually don’t understand

Pencil Necks:

Anime like the later Ranma 1/2 TV episodes and movies tends to
be criticized for the character designs, partially because of the
big bouncing breasts on otherwise very trim bodies, and for the
female character’s thin, elongated necks. The breasts are
obviously played up for the sexual element, and are aimed at
attracting boys and young men to the show. However, the thin
necks are another case of the animators characaturing an actual
feature of the Japanese anatomy. The Japanese are a mixed race,
and you can find a number of women that have necks almost as long
and thin as in the anime.

Falling Petals:

Rose (or cherry, or glass) petals falling. Usually meant to
represent a long time passing very slowly while one is in a
melancholy or sad mood. Since it is a few seconds of animation
repeated over and over again, it also qualifies as a cheat. In
the Urusei Yatsura movie #3 it really gets overused – in this
case the falling petals were glass or crystal. [IT]

Animation Flaws

NOTE: There are many ways a studio can err in its work —
skipping a frame or two of motion, flipping the frames so that a
couple are out of sequence, using the wrong colors on one or two
cels, screwing up cel registration, and so on. The following
error(s) revolve around the specific skills (or lack thereof)
used in animating a scene or character, that can be seen
consistently in the productions of one or more studios.

The Flat Mouth:

Kissing, eating, blowing whistles, and anything else that
requires using the mouth. When you watch anime, you’ll notice
that the characters’ mouths just lie flat on the cel, without
deforming properly to adapt to the actions they are taking. It’s
most obvious when a character is eating — the food comes up to
the mouth, the lips surround a bit of the food, the food just
disappears, and the character makes chewing motions. It’s the
surest sign that you’re watching a cartoon, and is a consistent
flaw even in the most well-made productions. Western cartoons
have a similar flaw, but generally avoid the problem entirely.

Script writing Cliches

NOTE: These are cliches that appear in other forms of
entertainment and storytelling, and aren’t peculiar only to

Knuckle Cracking:

As everyone knows, when a huge, strong guy is about to beat
the crap out of a victim, he will crack his knuckles as a part of
flexing his hands. This has been turned into an anime cliche,
and extended to the point where REALLY vicious guys crack the
muscles and joints in their neck. Real people can not do this.
Do not try this at home on your little sister.

The Flashback:

Standard cliche in anime, used to fill in story details that
the audience doesn’t already know, but which will immediately
justify the character’s next actions. A very common plot device
used in episodic serials.

Ripping the Disguise:

A previously unknown character is doing all sorts of amazing
feats. At an appropriately dramatic scene, the character grabs at
his/her shoulder and PULLS. Cloth flies in front of the camera,
and when it settles down we see one of the regular characters in
his/her usual garb. The previous outfit/physical features were a
disguise. [EC]

This is used with variations in all western forms of

Eyes in the Dark:

Used heavily in western cartoons to create a sense of
suspense, or to set up a “mistaken identity” gag. It’s also a
cheat: an episode Tiny Toon Adventures features over a minute
of the effect with running commentary on how much money they are
saving. The effect is to put a character in a tunnel, cave, or
dark room, and then just show the eyes of whoever is in the scene
with that character.

Cute Bastards:

One of the worst developments to come out of the western
world. To make a show appeal to small children, an otherwise
unnecessary character will be added to the line-up. This
character will be cute, appealing, and utterly loathsome to
adults. Scrappy-Doo is an excellent example of this. If carried
to extremes, the entire cast will be thus metamorphised, as in
The Muppet Babies, and the new version of Tom and Jerry.

Can you say “Slimer and the Ghostbusters”?

What’s interesting is that Scooby-Doo may be an example of
this as well. I’d read a long time back (can’t remember the
source, now) that the Scooby-Doo concept had originated in Great
Britan. It was then a series with the Mods (Fred and Daphne)
versus the Beatniks (Shaggy and Velma) racing to solve various
mysterys; Scooby was a minor character. When they took the
concept to the U.S., they cutified it. [DU]

Narrative Voice-Overs:

Both a plot device, and a cheat. The plot element of a NVO is
obvious — to fill in details for the audience, rather than to
make those details a part of the story leading up to that point.
The cheat comes in because the action on the screen will turn
into a Hold with a camera pan or pull out. In animation, the
work is shifted from the animators to the cameraman and the

Too Many Commercials:

Refer to the note by JMK at the end of the Assembly Sequence

The Five Man Band:

(This is an anime cliche that a friend of mine calls “5
character theory”. As far as I know, the first instance of this
is in Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, aka Battle of the Planets.
Since then, it’s appeared in shows like Voltron, Mospeada aka
Robotech III, several live action shows, and even movies, like
Star Wars. The five character types are:) [JJ]

The Hero:

Upstanding, idealistic, handsome. Usually the protagonist
of the show, although people tend to think that The Other
Guy is far cooler. Examples include Luke Skywalker, Fred
from Scooby-Doo, and Scott Bernard in Robotech III.

The Big Guy:

Big, and strong. Sometimes dumb, but usually turns out to
be very friendly. Examples: Chewbacca, Lunk from Robotech
III, Ryooma from Shurato.

The Other Guy:

Usually cool and disreputable. If someone has facial hair,
it’s probably him. Quite often the most effective person
on the team. Lancer from Robotech III and Han Solo are
classic Other Guys.

The Chick:

The token female on the team. Sometimes she knows what
she’s doing, but not always. Princess Leia, the princess
from Voltron, Daphne from Scooby-Doo. Sometimes, The Chick
is an androgynous or homosexual male, like Reiga from

The Pet:

Usually annoying to anyone who has entered puberty (and
thus discovered The Chick) Frequently incompetent. The
‘droids from Star Wars, Cheop (sp?) from Battle of the
Planets, Pidge from Voltron, the Copper Kid from
Silverhawks, and Scooby-Doo from his own show.

The Mentor:

This is an optional archetype. Often appears to guide the
characters, provide advice, or train them. The classic
example is Obi-Wan Kenobi. Also, Dungeonmaster from
Dungeons & Dragons, Stargazer from Silverhawks, the King
from Voltron, Vishnu from Shurato, Saori from St. Seiya.

Joke Cola:

Another true classic, which is now to be found most commonly
in manga: using big-brand names in the story, but with a slight
twist on the spelling. Croke Cola, Nissam, etc. This is done
for the humor value, as a slam against a particular product, and
often to just lend a certain air of authenticity to the story
without actually having to pay for the right to use someone
else’s trademarked logo.


[Insert self-referential joke here.] In the west, you’ll see
this mainly on the covers of humor magazines. With manga, a
given series may occasionally feature a set-up where the name of
the manga collection (ie. — Young Jump) will appear somewhere in
the background, or on the cover of the manga that one of the
characters is reading. Anime can be a little more tricky: the
studio’s name will pop up on building signs, helmet logos, or
other places where text is used. A prime example of this is in
Bubble Gum Crisis, where AIC can be found on Priss’ helmet, and
on the road.

Punny Names:

Using puns for character names is a time-honored tradition.
Ignoring Knight Lamune with its string of soft drink references,
and Rumiko Takahashi’s prediliction for item collections
(Shampoo, Mousse, Cologne, Herb, Lime, etc.) you can sometimes
find characters in anime and manga whose names are jokes based on
personality types, or something similar. The Rabbit Pounding
Mochi On The Moon gives us Usagi, Sailor Moon’s alter ego. Of
course, there’s Usagi, the rabbit hero in a certain comic
published in English in the west. A closely related example is
“Priss and the Replicants” (Bubble Gum Crisis, and Blade Runner.)

Name Tags:

It’s difficult to classify this device as a cliche, but it
appears in some many different manga and anime… Probably
because Japanese characters look alike in manga and anime, it may
be hard for the Japanese to them apart. Or, maybe the Japanese
have poor memories and need to be constantly reminded of which
character they’re looking at. Either way, characters will often
wear clothing with their names on it (Dragon Ball, Ah! My
Goddess, Urusai Yatsura.)

Hand Gestures

Index and the pinky fingers extended:

Appears a lot in Takahashi’s works. When someone is getting
bashed up in a non-fatal way, the recipient of the punishment
usually has both arms extended and the index and pinky extended
on both hands. This is also a common response to a bad joke or
pun, when the character falls over.

This seems to be one of the oldest, and least understood,
cliches in Anime and manga. Since nobody seems to know its
origin, my conjecture is as good as any one else’s. Basically,
I think it was based on a superstition; holding your hands in a
way to spread the thumb, the forefinger, and the pinkie was
apparently a charm against evil or bad luck or something (my
best guess). Although it’s doubtful that anyone still believes
that it will work, it was still a popular mannerism to do that
if you’re surprised. In 3×3 Eyes, Part I, Pai, as the Sanjiyan,
used those hand motions to cast her spells to abolish the
tri-clawed ghosts/monsters.

This habit can probably be equated to the Western custom of
holding up both hands and crossing your forefingers to someone
you think is crazy or disagreeable, as if warding off a vampire.
[From Theo Ching]

Peace Sign:

When a character is very nervous, sometimes they will give a
hesitant laugh and show the “peace” sign directed at the viewer
(the index and second fingers extended, palm facing the
audience.) One blaring example is in Mamono Hunter Yohko, but it
appears in other shows and manga as well. Another use of the
peace sign occurs frequently in Dragon Ball, where a character
will win (or think he’s won) a battle. Often accompanied by the
character saying “peace” a few times.

Extended Pinky Finger:

Sometimes a man will show just extend the pinky finger (as in
giving a subtle message to another person). This means that they
have a woman in the house or are perhaps occupied with a female
guest. One example is in Ahh Megami-sama OVA #1. Not one of the
more common signs.

According to the book, Real Japanese, by Jack Seward,
holding up the pinkie is the way to make a discreet reference to
having a girlfriend or female lover. For example, you go to see
your friend at work: he’s not in, so you ask his co-worker where
he is. The co-worker says something like, “oh, well, he had to
do something,” ask he furtively holds up his little finger.

You would then say “ahhh…” and understand that your friend
went out on a date or to a love hotel or something with a
lady-friend, and without the co-worker having to say so outright.
This might save you both some embarrassment and tricky
questions later, especially if your friend happens to be married.
[From Theo “SD_Neko” Ching]

Linked Pinkies:

This is actually a common practice among children, and some
couples in real life Japan. Basically, it’s a way of making a
promise that two people are supposed to keep, accompanied by a
chant that translates to “swallowing rusty needles” if either one
breaks the vow. Later, if one hooks the pinky, and gestures with
it, it usually is a reminder to the other person of the promise
made. Occurs in a variety of anime, including City Hunter (when
a young girl hires Ryo to be her older sister’s bodyguard for 500

Related to this in a way: In Miracle Girls, when the two
sisters want to teleport somewhere, they have to link their pinky
fingers, first.

Toes in the air:

When one character makes a really bad joke, or says something
very stupid, the others will fall over and all the reader sees
are their feet pointing in the air, toes extended. It’s a very
obvious way of showing that the current dialog is dumb, or a bad
pun. This artistic cliche dates back at least to the Mad
Magazines of the mid-1950’s. Don Martin was one of the artists
using it extensively at that time. Although, other earlier comic
strips also used the related cliche of having the characters
flying backwards out of the side of the panel, with dotted lines
showing their flight path.

Walk Like an Egyptian:

This is a distinctly Japanese artistic cliche-reaction to a
bad joke, or the surprising behavior of another character: The
mouth falls open, eyes goes wide, and then the arms point
straight in the same direction (left arm straight out, right arm
up over the head and bent to point to the left,) with the hands
flat and open. Occasionally, there will be some reaction with
the legs as well (this is not standardized, though.) If the joke,
or behavior is bad enough, the characters will go into a little
dance. There are many variations on the arm and hand positions,
but it’s an easy visual cliche to recognize.

The Bird:

In Japan, many people know that the word “f*ck” means
something bad, and that the middle finger extended is insulting,
but that’s as far as the understanding goes. Therefore, when
someone has a bad attitude, they’ll give people the finger to
show that they’re bad. This symbol doesn’t have the cultural
baggage it does in the west.

Mangajin #26 has an article on gestures as well. It includes:

I’m strong/good at something-
Fist raised to eye level, hand on biceps (‘making a muscle’).

Dibs on this-

Lick finger and touch it to the object you are claiming (like, a


The following entries aren’t so much cliches, as they are
folk-beliefs that have become common anime gag elements.


A character will just be standing around, when suddenly, he
sees a really sexy woman (this works best when she’s partially
undressed, or is imagined to be undressed,) and a huge fountain
of blood will spurt from both nostrils.

It’s a cliche, and a simple way to tell the audience that a
character is having lustful thoughts. Happens in City Hunter,
Dragon Ball (Yamcha when looking at Buruma, Kamesennin when
watching anything attractive and female,) and lots of other manga
that I don’t know the names of. In fact, in one Dragon Ball
episode, there’s a VERY elaborate set-up, to get Buruma to show
her breasts, which gets Kamesennin to spurt blood, which in turn
covers the invisible man that Yamcha is fighting, to make the
invisible man visible. Hilarious.


A character will be standing around, while elsewhere, someone
is talking about him behind his back. He sneezes. Why? because
that’s the way it works. Usually, the ‘behind-the-back’ comment
is a snide or insulting one. This is a common belief in Japan
and China, along the lines of the western belief that if your
ears are burning, someone somewhere is talking about you.

Red threads:

A sign that two people’s destiny is intertwined.

Tiger-striped bikinis:

Oni (demons) are known to be something of a form of beast, and
the way this is commonly depicted is to have the oni wear some
kind of tiger-striped clothing. Ref. Lum of Urusei Yatsura.


A sign of bad luck, or evil foreboding. Used occasionally in
Urusei Yatsura and Gegege no Ge Kitaro.

Giri Chocolates:

On Valentines, it is customary for girls and women to give
chocolates to all of the men in their lives (classmates,
co-workers, boyfriends…) Usually, to receive chocolates like
this means nothing, it’s just part of the tradition. So, there’s
a large industry based around ‘giri’ (obligation) ‘choco.’
However, a girl may handmake some chocolate, which will be given
to someone she really likes. [Note: White Day is later in the
year, and is the time for boys to give chocolates to their

Face Cuts:

A character will spend weeks in battle with someone, getting
pounded into mountains, battered about their body, and flamed.
Suddenly, a near-miss attack will scratch their face, and the
character will go insane in revenge. Why?

Good question. The character usually says something about
their face having ‘gotten dirty.’ In Japan, the most flattering
comment you can make to a woman is that she has very nice skin.
Many people suffer from acne, have pockmarked faces, or have
moles, so they may be a little more self-conscious concerning
another person’s facial problems. Either way, this is a very
popular storytelling device.

Head scarf:

A number of characters will show up late at night, furtively
crawling around with a kerchief over their head, and the knot
tied under their nose.

It’s a typical guise used in anime and manga to signify that a
character is a burglar, or sneak thief. Not really good as a
disguise, more of a visual cliche.

Ryouko wore such a mask when she was attempting to sneak into
Tenchi’s room in the Tenchi Muyou Special. From what I’ve heard,
the knot under the nose was supposed to muffle the breathing of
the person wearing the mask, enabling the person to sneak around
silently. [From Pomru]

Pounding nails into effigies:

Occasionally, you’ll see someone holding a straw doll, and
pounding a stake or nail through it’s chest. This is a form of
voodoo, the idea being that the person doing the pounding is sort
of cursing someone to die fairly soon.

Candles on the head:

In Japan, ghosts have flickering ghost flames accompanying
them. In older manga, a ghost will be depicted as having a
headband holding two candles on their head. (Obviously, if a
living person wants to pretend to be a ghost, this is how they’d
fake the ghost flames part.) In GS Mikami, the ghost has little
self-sufficient flames flickering around her. [Note: Ghosts
traditionally don’t have feet, but the one in GS Mikami is
wearing red sneakers.]

Arguably, the ghost flames could be due to the effects of
glowing methane, or swamp moss, that may be found at certain

Name Tags:

It’s difficult to classify this device as a cliche, but it
appears in so many different manga and anime… Probably because
Japanese characters look alike in manga and anime, it may be hard
for the Japanese to tell them apart. Or, maybe the Japanese have
poor memories and need to be constantly reminded of which
character they’re looking at. Either way, characters will often
wear clothing with their names on it (Dragon Ball, Ah! My
Goddess, Urusei Yatsura.)


In City Hunter (both the series and the movies), what is the
meaning of the dragonflies and moths (and I believe that I once
saw a duck) that always fly across the screen? Since it usually
happens right after one of the characters is embarrassed or
surprised, I suppose that it has something to do with
embarrassment or surprise, but I would like a little more
in-depth explanation if possible.

Nothing much in-depth to say.

When a character is stunned, in manga, there’s usually the
sound effect of ‘shi — in’, or ‘sile — ence’.

Hojo has just modified this effect and used dragonflies and
crows instead of the word ‘shin’.

The “Blush”:

There will be times, when one character says something to
another, or the main character will be thinking to herself, when
suddenly she’ll get a blue blush around the eyes or forehead,
along with some darker vertical lines.

The character is NOT blushing. This is a widely recognized
Japanese cue stating that the character is suffering from an
ill-feeling, or mortification. The sudden darkening of the
background, and a “sick” sound effect accompanying the “blue
blush” should make it obvious that this has nothing to do with
the western “red” blush of embarrassment.

Common Features of Anime


The reason most anime characters can’t run properly (their
legs are almost straight up and down when they plant their feet)
is that most Japanese can’t run properly, either. I’ve seen lots
of Japanese running this way — must come from sitting in
kneeling position too long.

Sideburns for women:

In the past, people have commented on certain anime women
having really long sideburns (ie — Iczer 1.) This is just an
exaggeration of real life. Japanese women have rudementary
sideburns, which some of them grow to 2-3 inches long. Others
will comb the hair on the sides of their head so that it falls in
front of the ears, making them look like pale imitations of the
Iczers. It’s a form of fashion.

Mice teeth:

This is probably the most cruel stereotype, and the one with
the most brutal explanation. Many, many Japanese have bad teeth.
Some are missing a couple of teeth on the side, others have gaps
between all the teeth and the teeth grow in crooked. Others have
“squeezed in” mouths, so the that teeth on the sides are closer
to the center of the mouth, and the two front teeth are pushed
forward. It’s this last group that is being characatured in anime
like Akira, and lots of manga. Sometimes, the front teeth are
larger, giving the person a bucktooth appearance (as in Akira.)
But, in really bad cases, when the person’s mouth is closed, the
two front teeth are still fully exposed. One young woman on the
train had this problem. Her face was also small and thin, so the
description “mousy” was VERY appropriate. She is the type being
characatured occasionally in various manga.


While it’s hard to believe, nearly every face and expression
found in more realistically drawn manga (for the human
characters, anyway) exists in real life in Tokyo. In the shogi
story in Big Comic Spirits, there is the middle-aged player that
always competes against the boy hero. The middle-aged guy always
looks constipated, and his eyes bulge out — A while ago, there
was a big argument in my office during a staff meeting. The
salesman, who is in his 20’s, started lowering his head, staring
straight at the table. His arms were locked, and his hands were
gripping his legs. He argued with our company president (who has
no clue how to manage a small software company) while always
looking down at the table, and apologizing for being so forward.
In profile, the salesman looked and behaved EXACTLY like the
middle-aged shogi player in the manga.

I have yet to see a Yawara face, though.

Cat’s Tongue:

Shampoo’s Great-grandma said that she touched a certain pressure
point on Ranma’s body that makes his whole body as “sensitive as
a cat’s tongue.”

In Japan, people like to eat ramen when it is scalding hot.
So, as they eat, they suck in air (which cools the noodles a
little.) Japanese are very noisy eaters, and are always making
slurping sounds when consuming ramen and various soups.

A person that lets food cool before eating it is said to “have
a cat’s tongue” (ie. — they can’t cope with scalding food.)


Japanese do not all have pure black hair; some have brown
hair, some have gray. However, most Japanese hair is very
course, and takes lots of care to look glistening and soft. This
may represent an hour a day simply washing and combing it. So,
it’s not surprising that a woman with beautiful hair will be very
proud of it, and suffer traumatic shock if it gets damaged, or
cut as happens to Akane in Ranma 1/2.

Ghosts with Feet:

From a Spa magazine article dedicated to foreign ghosts (July
27 issue):

“It’s believed that you can see the entire body of foreign
ghosts, but you can not see the legs of Obake. It doesn’t mean
Japanese ghosts don’t have legs, their bottoms are nearly
transparent. Obake stare with silence, while Western ghosts are

Snowmen are Yuki Daruma; Yuki Otoko is abominable snowman:

Daruma was supposedly an old monk who sat in one position so
long, his arms and legs withered away/fell off. You can see
daruma dolls in many anime episodes. It’s the one shaped like a
squashed peanut, with red clothes painted on, and a black and
white face. Often, the eyes are left without pupils. The idea
is that when you buy the doll, you make a wish and paint in one
pupil (“I want my daughter to marry into a rich family,” or “I
want my son to graduate from High School with high grades, and
enter a good college.”) The other pupil is painted in when the
wish is fulfilled.

Since snowmen don’t have arms or legs, they are called Yuki
(snow) Daruma. The Japanese name for the Yeti is Yuki Otoko
(Snow man.)

The Beckoning Cat:

What is the cat (usually white or gray) holding a gold coin, or
just with one upraised paw. Found in Ranma 1/2 Part Three #2
(the one where Gosunkugi’s cats get Ranma to act like one.)

From the introduction to the Eclipse Comics translation of
“What’s Michael” Volume One, by cat yronwode:

“[…] As explained by Patricia Dale-Green in The Cult of the Cat (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1963), the Beckoning Cat is
associated with an ancient cat-shrine on the grounds of a temple
known as Gotoku-ji. ‘This temple’, she writes, ‘was originally a
very poor one, no more than a thatched hut run by
poverty-stricken and half-starved monks. The master-priest had a
cat of which he was fond, and shared with it such little food as
he had. One day the cat squatted by the roadside and, when half a
dozen Samurai appeared on splendid horses, it looked up at them
and raised one of its paws to its ear, as if it were beckoning to
them. The noble cavaliers pulled up and, as the cat continued to
beckon, they followed it into the temple. Torrential rain forced
them to stay for a while, so the priest gave them tea and
expounded Buddhist doctrine.

After this one of the Samurai–Lord Li–regularly visited the
old priest to receive religious instruction from him. Eventually
Li endowed the temple with a large estate and it became the
property of his family. Visitors who pass under the temple’s
gateways, walk through its broad avenues of towering trees and
enjoy the beautifully laid-out gardens, discover, near the
cemetery of the Li family, the little shrine of the beckoning
cat–which, it is said, still draws pilgrims from all parts of

Because the Beckoning Cat had lured a wealthy patron to the
poor temple, images of this cat soon became talismanic emblems
and were particularly favored by shopkeepers. According to
Dale-Green, ‘At the entrances to their shops and restaurants, the
Japanese place clay, paper-mache or wooden figures of the seated
cat with one paw raised to the side of its face. Such cats are
believed to promote prosperity, their beckoning paws inviting
passers-by to come in and do business.'” [Jeff Williamson]

Namu Amidabutsu:

In anime, there’s a standard joke used when a character looks
like he’s just died (of course, the one pulling the joke has
reason for being prematurely happy.) Basically, “the mourner”
will bow his/her head, and start chanting something. That
something (as it is used in Tenchi Muyuu) is “Namu Amidabutsu.”

Amida is chief of the mythical Buddhas of compassion. His
name is invoked when someone has died, as a form of protection
for the one doing the praying:

Namu Amidabutsu == “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.”