A few weeks ago I talked about art related trends in shojo manga. When I mentioned how the same character can go from somewhat bulky to slender and refined as an example, I actually had Ash in mind. Much can be said about Banana Fish being a perfect example of capturing a mangaka’s style evolution as much as its decade trends, and how that’s reflected in the considerable changes in the main character’s design.
However, I’m not here to talk about Ash’s design today (although I might in the future). Instead, I want to talk about how design captures the personality of a very good and sweet boy, and how that interacts with the world that surrounds him.
It’s tempting to just say that Eiji’s design tries to capture “average Japanese boy” vibes and call it a day, but his looks are based on the back then young heartthrob Hironobu Nomura. It’s not easy to find information about Nomura, but based on what I’ve seen, his image was sweet and approachable, while also hitting certain tones of “innocent sensuality.”
The Eiji from the manga’s earlier style is the one with the strongest resemblance to Nomura, more notable in his thick eyebrows, round face, and big ears. As the manga shift towards a more “delicate” style, Eiji’s eyes and ears get smaller and his face looks more elongated, almost as if he has suddenly lost baby fat.
Towards the manga’s late style–which I personally dislike because it leans towards a 90s aesthetic that I never liked that much to begin with, while also feeling like it just degrades–the characters get bigger and wider in general. This includes Eiji, so it gets easy to forget the original purpose of his design around this stage.
However, the very essence of Eiji’s design has much in common with Nomura’s image. It’s clear in his wide-eyed stare, in his perpetually slightly open mouth, in the way he rests his head on his hands or how he “looks younger” than his age: Eiji is innocent, but above all he’s cute.
Different incarnations of Eiji capture that cuteness differently, in big part because of the difference between the anime and the manga’s atmospheres. To give an example, the manga was all for having the characters look unflatteringly in chibi form, including Eiji. The anime uses chibis more sparingly–partly due to how, unlike the manga with all its changes, it strives to unify the tone visually–and when it does, they are more stylized.
While the Eiji in the anime and the manga do have differences, it’s notable how they also capture the same concepts in their own way. For instance, both can invoke the puppy kind of cuteness: manga Eiji with the way he tilts his head in confusion or while paying attention, anime Eiji with the way he moves excitedly and the way he pouts sometimes.
Manga Eiji’s design changes are way more subtle than Ash’s, however, while some styles convey it better than others, he’s a notably cute character in a manga with a decidedly not cute art style. He isn’t as soft as his anime counterpart, but this comes, again, with the differences in atmospheres: there are certain dryness and harshness in the boys that the anime decides not to use.
The anime’s approach emphasizes feelings and certain tenderness, notable in the way it softens Ash and Eiji’s banter, adding details like tender shared laughter after they tease each other. This also extends to Eiji being “less crude” when he’s being a little shit, which he absolutely still is in the anime, bless him (and don’t let anybody tell you otherwise!). It’s not just in them though; the boys in general are sweeter and feel “warmer,” notable in certain cuts and characters like Sing, who largely drops that dry “challenging a motherfucker that’s not even here” smirk in favor of showing a fitting vulnerability.
It’s an approach that presumably aims to create a contrast between the characters who are actually just young boys and the unforgiving world they inhabit. If you’re adding things like sweetness and vulnerability in general, it can only make sense to emphasize the innocent and the cuteness that sets certain character apart.
Anime Eiji is impossibly cuter, embracing the round cheeks, big-eyed stare, and (I can’t stress this enough) perpetually slightly open mouth that were, as I have mentioned, very present in that early design. There are also added details that contribute to softening his image, like puffy hair that’s slightly wavy and bigger eyes, which are (although it changes with lighting) a warm brown.
Eiji’s cuteness doesn’t exist just for the sake of it: it exteriorizes the fundamental gentleness and tenderness in his personality, which is in the service of that “healing power” that (mentioned in-world) makes him special. It also quickly and easily marks him as non-threatening in a world that’s nothing but full of threats.
There’s a notion that “cute” can undermine things like boldness and bravery, but there’s no real reason to consider this the case with Eiji. He’s a sweet boy who’s willing to go to great lengths for those he loves: neither of these truths are in contradiction.
I won’t argue with taste, but I will say that the anime design and the way it’s used generally does a better job at conveying his essence and how it interacts with the world around him, in no small part because the manga changes styles so much, which plays against creating a coherent visual identity. (I’m also sad that it gets rid of the most obviously Nomura Eiji at some point, his big ass ears were good goddammit.) However, both manga and anime Eiji are suited for the way each respective medium wanted to tell the story (they’re also not interchangeable).
I have mentioned Eiji having a personality and roles that usually go to women in romances in previous posts. This is not only notable in the story though; it can also be found in the way he’s presented visually.
I used “innocent sensuality” to describe Nomura–which by itself I’ve seen more commonly used in the image of women, particularly because of the “innocent” part–and there are panels where you can tell Eiji’s features were drawn delicately, (at least partly) channeling that appeal in Nomura’s image.
It’s interesting to see how the anime captures that in its own way, with all the intentions of framing Eiji as a romantic interest. The most striking example I can think of the manga doing this is a wide panel of Eiji staring into the distance after waking up, which brings to mind the kind of shots innocent girls get, with the main purpose seemingly aiming to make them look appealing.
The anime and its marketing put a lot more of emphasis here, invoking imagery that can be found in Disney princesses (to give an example) both when they’re given an “appealing warmness and innocence”–like in their connection to animals and nature, notably in that blue bird they sing to that can symbolize happiness–and when they’re framed as romantic interests. Curiously enough, golden lighting can be found in romantic scenes, and it can also be used to frame someone as angelic.
On a related note, let’s close this post with an Important observation:
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