Constructing Characters Through Visuals in Anime


It isn’t any surprise to learn that anime is a visual medium. As such the way anime go about constructing characters through visuals is kind of important.

A while back I made the point that I don’t really like comparing anime when I review them but there are times when a comparison can help to clarify meaning (Comparing Apples and Oranges). This week I am going to be comparing two current anime and their use of visuals to construct meaning. I am not going to be discussing which of these is a better anime. If you’ve been reading my weekly overviews you already know which I am enjoying more and my reasons.

The two anime I’d like to look at are March Comes in Like a Lion and Flip Flappers. Now I’m not going to get to cover much in this article because both of these shows are absolutely full of visual metaphors so after a brief overview I am going to look at how the central characters of each show have been constructed (in part – there’s too much in either show to fully cover without writing way too much for anyone to bother reading on my blog) so far and the impact of the story so far on the character (up to episode 6).

I may do a follow up feature later on some of the other visuals in the shows, though that will probably be after they are finished airing.

Starting with Flip Flappers, it is not difficult to see why it is enthralling some people. It is a high energy anime with two adorable central characters and a sense of whimsy to the plot that calls you back to a children’s fairy tale (only one that has incredibly dark undertones and a sense of impending danger). There’s a lot to like about it even as it confuses or deliberately withholds information from the audience. It’s a visual feast for the eyes filled with dazzling colours and sharp contrasts.

March Comes in Like a Lion couldn’t be more different in terms of what it is trying to do. It’s an incredibly slow paced character piece with a fairly dark outlook on life only occasionally punctuated by moments of brightness. It is compelling viewing even as you wonder if there is in fact a plot other than seeing the character on his journey. Again, there is a lot to like about it but what really keeps the audience enthralled are how emotions are being presented visually.

Both shows initially set up a protagonist who is isolated and suffering from feelings of emptiness or at the very least a general dissatisfaction with their current existence. We see both Cocona and Rei as being isolated from others and continually looking away and toward something else. In Cocona’s case she stares out of the classroom window where she initially sees Papika (though she doesn’t know what she is seeing).

In Rei’s case he regularly looks out the window toward the water and even when he is walking he regularly stops to stare off into the distance, particularly when crossing a bridge so that he can look at the water. It’s effective characterisation because we get a sense that both of these characters are wanting something more but don’t know what it is or how to get it. We also clearly get a sense of their isolation.

One thing both shows have done which I find somewhat off putting is the way they have made the characters’ eyes seem glassy. Not just these two characters. All of the characters. We see these glistening globes of colour and shading and while anime eyes are never exactly what you would call realistic, the eyes in both Flip Flappers and March Comes in Like a Lion are particularly interesting.

However, this choice has allowed for an absolute freedom of expression because the eyes aren’t realistic in the first place they can clearly become the window to the characters’ emotions and change to reflect the current emotional state without anyone calling them out on being off-model.

Where the two shows diverge is in where these characters have gone. For Cocona, Papika is an unwanted intrusion in her life and yet the energy and chaos she brings is a welcome break from the stuffiness of her usual existence. The show is never subtle about the contrast between these characters and their inverted natures became clear after their first transformation experience where their colouring was entirely inverted.

Flip Flappers 3.jpg

This has of course led to speculation that perhaps Cocona and Papika are actually one person and merely opposite sides of the same coin and there is certainly merit in such an interpretation but at this stage it is speculation. It will be interesting to see what becomes of that idea as the show draws to a conclusion.

Flip Flappers takes us away from Cocona’s everyday life to a fantasy world literally known as ‘Pure Illusion’. While elements from the real world have a presence there, it is clearly a world that defies normal logic and the contrast between the real world and Pure Illusion is visually clear.

While at first resisting the lure of Pure Illusion and the bright world Papika has opened up for Cocona, the change on Cocona as a character is made clear. She’s moved from being alone, to grudgingly accepting Papika’s presence, to acknowledging the emotions Papika helps her to experience.

It is clear that colour is playing a significant role in creating meaning and character throughout Flip Flappers and the composition of the shots continues to layer meaning into each scene as well. When we start looking at the number of visual symbols and references packed into most episodes this article could go on forever but I’m going to leave Flip Flappers here and go back to March Comes in Like  a Lion.

In direct contrast to Cocona’s progressive character development, Rei Kiriyama is still very much stuck in his own head after 6 episodes. The vast majority of his dialogue is an internal monologue and his interactions with other characters are few and far between and even then they are usually scarce in terms of actual interaction.

For Rei, everyday is a struggle against apathy and disillusionment and we see him facing the world and finding moments of calm in amongst a sense that he is drowning (sometimes quite literally). Dark and light again play a crucial role in constructing this conflict.

In episode 6 we are treated to an extended metaphor of Rei swimming on and on in an ocean until he became a professional shogi player (illustrated by him finding his place on an island but then collapsing on the sand). He had no will to return to the ocean to advance any further.


The visual and the internal monologue perfectly express his feelings about the journey he has been on and where he is currently sitting. It also perfectly expresses the inner conflict he is facing because in order to stay there he has to accept stagnation but as he has said earlier in the episode he wants to go somewhere. It leaves us wondering where Rei intends to go.

We know he doesn’t know yet and that until he decides he is stuck on this island and completely isolated (metaphorically of course) but we also know that through his encounters with the three sisters his carefully constructed world where he is on an isolated island is beginning to fall apart on him. Almost every scene where Rei encounters the sisters (or at least one of the sisters) is punctuated visually by the dark visuals being literally swept away by a sea of light, sparkles, or colours.

In that respect it is similar to Flip Flappers in that the sisters are acting as a catalyst of change on the main character and that the visuals are reflective of these changes. However, Papika is a force of nature that sweeps Cocona along in her wake and the sisters are more of a healing balm that gently push back some of the darkness for a moment.

Like with Flip Flappers, I could go on about the symbolism in the show (particularly the use of water and wind and the way shots have been constructed) but I’m going to leave it here because this article already got a bit longer than I kind of planned.

I think it is great we have such two highly visual shows this season (which is funny to say given anime is a visual medium and yet so often the visuals simply get the story across). Both of these are so laden with imagery that it is hard to look away and even background details take on significance. Plus, rewatching an episode is still fun because there are aspects that were missed or overlooked on the first watch through.

If you are watching either of these series I’d love to know your thoughts on the visuals and how they are constructing meaning for you. If you aren’t watching these, what are some shows you’ve watched that have used visuals in an interesting way to create character?

Thank-you for reading 100 Word Anime.
Join the discussion in the comments.
Karandi James

13 thoughts on “Constructing Characters Through Visuals in Anime

  1. While I’ve not had a chance to check either of these shows out, reading this really makes me want to. I love it when anime remembers it’s a visual medium, and uses that to full effect.

    For me, I always enjoyed the way they used color and shot composition on Kurozuka. It gave it all a really visceral feel.

    Another I liked was Fruits Basket, which relied on a very pastel color palette, and used some really cool visual tricks to convey things.

    Two really different shows, and two really different approaches, but both relied heavily on the visual nature on anime to help show, rather than tell.

  2. We’ve actually only just started watching Flip Flappers because of the praise we kept seeing for its bright and fluffy yet deliberately constructed visuals. The main impact it had on me from the one episode I’ve seen is that you get a powerful sense early on of a disturbance underneath the surface of the story. You can definitely tell there’s a kind of Grimm fairytale unfolding. Somehow you’re not quite sure if it’s directly linked with Cocona’s troubled outlook or not, and I love the mystery that’s set up there from the start.

    As for March, I can somewhat relate to Rei’s apathy myself, so some of the visual metaphor and play of light, dark and shadow holds so true to my own feelings. I actually like the glassy eyes, because for Rei and the Kawamoto sisters there’s a different quality to the glassiness. Rei’s look almost like tinted glass, more closed, and it makes your heart ache just to watch his expressions, while the sisters are lighter and brighter, like their eyes see and accept all things just as they are, including Rei.

    Both are beautiful shows, and I’m looking forward to catching up with Flip Flappers and seeing where it takes us from there. I’m envisioning some twisted stuff.

    1. I kind of like that most of us can relate to Rei as most people go through something similar at some point in their lives even if it isn’t as pronounced or as prolonged as Rei’s issues seem to be.
      Thanks for the comment and I hope you continue to enjoy the shows.

  3. I, and my boys, have been enjoying both of these shows this season.
    Flip Flappers as far, as a story goes, seems to be slow in unfolding what is actually happening (as far as cohesive explanations go), but makes up for it with great visuals and symbolism. Now what the symbolism is…admittedly I haven’t given much thought to at this point.
    March Comes in Like a Lion has been exceptional for me. A lot of what has struck me is the use of water to symbolize the depression that Rei is fighting with. I had noticed the color brightening with the sisters, and now when he finally found someone who understands his struggle (the baseball player).
    Both really high points of the season for me.

    1. The water in March Comes in Like a Lion really could have its own post at this point. I’m loving how cohesive all the imagery in that anime is. Flip Flappers is interesting to look at but honestly, until the story sorts itself out it I’m really not going to try to figure out what all the symbolism is supposed to mean at this point and time.

      1. Yeah. After each episode me, and my younger son, often are just saying:”What the hell just happened?”. We liked the episode, but were pretty confounded about what it all meant.

  4. You’re definitely right about both shows in regards to visuals. Every episode pays a lot of attention to imagery and viewers really benefit from rewatching episodes.

    I’m fairly certain March will continue with this slow, methodical storytelling to the end, which is fine by me. It’s Flip Flappers that has me a bit anxious. Guess there’s nothing to do but wait (and speculate).

    Thanks for sharing!

    1. That’s why March has been consistently higher in my list of favourite shows this season than Flip Flappers. If Flip Flappers actually pulls it together it will be amazing but I’m farily certain they don’t have enough episodes left to provide a satisfactory explanation and link everything in at this point. They might manage it in which case Flip Flappers will be the first show from this season that I do a full rewatch of just to see all the symbols I missed or misinterpreted prior to knowing the ending.

      1. Mmm I agree. The pressure is on for Flip Flappers. It’ll be interesting to see how it turns out! The next few weeks should be interesting, to say the least.

  5. I am not watching either of these shows, so I can’t really judge them. But a show that I am currently watching, Erased, I really enjoy a lot of the visuals for so far. There seems to be a lot of use of snow, and for some reason that just really sets the mood of this (admittedly) very heavy Anime (because of the subject matter). The characters as such are presented in a pretty unique way and they way their emotions are presented just sets the tone even more.

    1. Erased was interesting to watch. I found the symbolism a little heavy handed at times (which is funny given it isn’t as in your face as either of these two and yet it felt more intrusive). Thanks for the comment.

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