Anime – who’s a pretty boy?
It’s no lie that anime aesthetics vary from genre to genre: Yu-Gi-Oh! looks nothing like Death Note which looks nothing like My Love Story!!. There is, however, a design thread that seems to branch throughout anime – the feminine male character. It’s very easy to pick out a feminine man from various anime, but why do they exist at all?
The feminine anime male originates from the Japanese bishōnen, literally meaning ‘beautiful boy’. We all know what these characters look like: slender features, dark clothes, and a youthful handsome face. This angst-y teenage stereotype may be old but still exists and is very popular – the protagonists of the new anime-inspired video game Final Fantasy XV all fit this archetype perfectly, complete with the brooding that made Final Fantasy VII’s Cloud Strife oh so famous!
This visual aesthetic helps reflect the bishōnen character’s place within their particular anime or genre to the viewer, often before they speak any lines of dialogue – a bishōnen character in a school life or romance anime creates expectations of the ‘tall, dark and handsome’ stereotype; a bishōnen character in a shōnen (anime/manga aimed at boys) series may be construed as being a flamboyant or potentially camp character in a more serious atmosphere, such as Lloyd Asplund from Code Geass. Or sometimes this can go nowhere, and the bishōnen is used for comic relief, or his more feminine exterior ironically houses the manliest character in a series!
Despite this bishōnen archetype existing, it doesn’t mean that other male stereotypes don’t exist; more specifically, the burly strong man. Akame Ga Kill has two of these characters – Bulat and Bols, but both break the mould by comparison: Bulat being a homosexual, and Bols being the kindly chef of the villainous faction.
When considering male characters in Western animation, men certainly fall into the heavily masculine style far more than the bishōnen; mainly due to the nature of the audience. Western animation is mostly aimed at a young/family crowd, so men and women fall into more visual stereotypes with simpler designs; young children can identify boys and girls, and character designs are overall simpler and more memorable for them.
The bishōnen designs in anime are for an older audience compared to Western characters so the idea of bending stereotypes and male characters being more feminine is not too farfetched, especially considering the appearance – both physicality and fashion – of Japanese teenagers.
This handsome teenage design also appeals more to teenage women; by making them appear non-threatening and non-conformist to the ‘manly man’ stereotype, it increases the sex appeal of the character. The bishōnen designs also spawn the ever-popular fan service between characters due to their androgyny, also having a home in the yaoi genre, where they must look as sexy as possible.
While the feminine male design may seem odd to the Western audience, who are used to animated characters from sources like Disney films and their clear-cut genders, the bishōnen design is definitely popular thanks to it extending beyond male stereotypes and showing a new side to masculinity for an older, more mature audience.