“My eyes have been trained to examine faces and not their trimmings.”
– Sherlock Holmes, The Hound of the Baskervilles
I’ve discussed it before, but let us once again touch upon the topic of hanko-e. Literally meaning “stamp picture,” hanko-e is a style of character design in which all of the (usually female) faces have the same design, often to the point where characters remain distinguishable only by their hairstyles and other peripheral features. This is such a common practice for visual novels (especially eroge) that fans have even wryly designated a “Big Four” of hanko-e designers: Naru Nanao, Aoi Nishimata, Bekkankou, and Kazue Yamamoto. And of course, there are many more such artists, including Tony Taka, a prolific eroge character designer who has also worked on more mainstream works, such as Shining Hearts, as seen above.
So what happens when you apply this hanko-e philosophy to animation?
You might get something like the ED to Shining Hearts: Shiawase no Pan:
It’s a cheerful enough sequence in many ways, but there’s something about the way that the girls are animated that just doesn’t feel right. Maybe it’s the way that they stare at the camera, not blinking enough to be natural. Maybe it’s the way they all manage to have the same, perfect smile. Or maybe it’s the way they tilt their heads at the exact same time in that affected manner.
What’s clear is that these characters are stuck in the “uncanny valley,” in which people feel uncomfortable with human likenesses that are almost, but not quite, as realistic as a human being, much more than they would with something more stylized.
But what does this have to do with hanko-e? There are many reasons why artists employ it, but generally speaking, consistency is key. Modern-day eroge can have up to a dozen female characters and hundreds of CG illustrations. An artist well-trained in hanko-e design can ensure that all of these characters have beautiful faces that are on-model in every illustration, a matter of importance when collected CGs act as a reward for players.
The ED animation shows a similar sensibility. Pause at any close-up shot of their faces, and what you’ll likely see looking back at you is a photogenic face with a flawless smile, waiting to be made into a picture-perfect screenshot. Few are the awkward in-between frames, the natural yet unattractive contortions that make for a realistically-animated face.
In this way, each frame becomes a CG illustration. Each is a piece of art on its own, and sometimes, only the barest of differences distinguish one from another. But when every frame is polished to perfection, are we left with the beau idéal of animation? Or something else entirely?
Not exactly reading, but this YouTube video serves as a cursory introduction to the “uncanny valley.”