A Semiotic Morphology of Cartoon Eyes Published
in KABOOM! Explosive Animation from America & Japan, Museum of Contemporary
Art Publications, Sydney, 1994; edited
version reprinted in Art & Design No.53 (Special Issue: Art & Animation),
The aim of this essay is simple: to try and answer the question
I have most been asked about Japanese animation. The question: why do
the Japanese draw themselves with western eyes? The answer is not a
Baby eyes and cadaver stares
In a widely accepted notion of infantile development, the baby is viewed
as becoming part of our social reality once it becomes conscious of
others. This awareness is conveyed by the baby staring into the eyes
of others (particularly those of the mother, but not exclusively). At
this point, the baby's motor functions perform complexly: the voice
attracts the baby's attention, which then becomes focused on the eyes
of the speaker, while muscular control stabilizes the head to maintain
a fixed gaze. This 'moment' - this transformation from the over-elasticized
flesh-blob to an animated puppet - can no doubt be thrilling as the
life form spontaneously reacts to stimuli from our domain. But the thrill
dulls the preceding six to twelve month period (depending on your ethics)
wherein the life form was in some way acoustically and sonically aware
of its tactile environment. From the uterine sensurround of low frequency
rumbles to the timbre explosion of the outer-body 'acoustosphere', the
baby is arguably first aware of a socialized dimension through acoustic
transmission (rhythms, voices, tinkles, etc.) 1.
Could it not be possible that the baby who stares into the eyes of a
speaker is looking at what it might think is a voice? Certainly we carry
this interpretive effect with us into adulthood when we look at others'
eyes to gauge the slant of what they are saying. Like babies, we connect
- sometimes desperately - the visual to the acoustic; we seek out the
eyes as if they are the throbbing tip of an optic fibre connected to
the vocal vibrations. Strangely, eyes sit most still when you look at
them intensely and lock into their gaze. Yet it is then that you notice
they do 'vibrate': they suggest movement as they reflect kinetic and
dynamic light changes in the surrounding environment. In this way, eyes
can suggestively be viewed as ectoplasmic domes, translating acoustic
vibrations into phosphorescent activity across its surface. Transfixed
by a conflation of micro details, babies and adults question alike:
are those twinkling eyes the voice? are those eyes speaking to me? or
is the voice somewhere else?
The eyes of cadavers answer these questions best. Trapped in their still
flesh and frozen muscles, the dead body's smoky eyes proclaim: no voice
here. Inert liquescent discs, they rest robbed of the complex minutia
of muscular lines (lids, brow, bags, corners, etc.) which once worked
to distract us from the pupil, trying to imply that the eyes convey
all, alone. The cadaver holds eyes which, alone, convey nothing. Without
that surrounding muscular activity, dead eyes stare out vacant. They
are the exact opposite of those spooky life-like paintings whose eyes
follow you around the room. Dead eyes follow no-one. They recall the
parent's traumatic moment when they realize that their baby is deaf:
its eyes follow no-one.
Living in fear of the deadly stare, we have welcomed many social conventions
based on avoiding the cadaver's glazed gaze - from placing pennies on
lids to staging deaths with closed lids; from blind-folded executions
to the tactful aversion of one's look. These conventions are given scant
regard in photos of the dead whose eyes clearly are open, captured unblinkingly
by the camera's eye. Near-dead eyes can similarly traumatize. The innate
repulsion in repeated images of Jewish concentration camp interns &
starving African refugees is physiologically transmitted by the bulging
eyes which protrude from their deepening sockets. On the verge of being
drawn back into the black holes of the skull, these eyes speak of the
final living moments of a virtually dead body.
Perhaps this is what is meant by the phrase "wide-eyed and full
of life" - that if you were dead someone would tactfully close
your lids, or that as you near death you could not physically prop open
your lids so widely. To claim that the phrase is supported by a notion
that "life is conveyed through the eyes" implies a facile
reading of how our physiology and morphology affect our ocular consciousness.
Eyes equally speak of death. Perhaps this is also why human characterization
in animation is so predicated on the eyes - on their grotesquely bulging
'ocularity'. The voice of cartoon eyes scream out "I am alive;
I am animated" while projecting a kinetic yet artificial aura.
Just as we read the baby's first gaze as a sign of its consciousness
(its motivation, its reaction, its will to move) so too is comprehension
of the cartoon character's mind enabled by its eye movement. The depiction
of cartoon eyes is then less based on verisimilitude and more on pure
motion mechanics. True to the artificiality at animation's base, cartoon
eyes connote life not by appearing life-like in manner, but by simultaneously
evoking the emergence of conscious movement (the baby's gaze) and the
withdrawal of physical movement (the cadaver's gaze).
What seems paradoxical is in fact a logical confusion between modes
of perception. Recalling the haunting dislocation between the visual
and the acoustic, cartoons feature graphically depicted eyes combined
with recordings of actual human voices, fusing dense sonorities with
comparatively crude markings. Most cartoons' lip movement (a few consonant
and vowel templates) is about as complex as their eye movement (left,
right, centre), which further colludes that the eyes may in fact be
the voice. While photographic cinema is essentially a machine for projecting
flesh ghosts whose skin is composed of shimmering photo-chemical grain,
graphic animation gives us true disembodied voices which forcefully
occupy their cartoon bodies. In a cartoon world, life is rendered under
a logic of unconformability: things appear life-like because they aren't;
things move realistically because they can't. It therefore makes sense
that eyes seem to look at us because they're not looking anywhere, and
voices sound real because they are.
Cute eyes and celluloid dolls
Dolls, comics and animations are the harbingers of this 'logic'. Due
to the fact that doll design was established in Europe by the start
of the 19th century, images of dolls were seminal in shaping later images
of infantile biomorphs. Newspaper, magazine & pulp depictions of
nursery rhymes & fairy tales from the mid-19th century then adapted
and cross-fertilized these doll images. By the start of this century,
comics and shortly thereafter animated cartoons (silent and sound) joined
these other media to coalesce a variety of images which mutate pixies,
fairies, elves, bears, babies, cherubs, dwarfs and puppies into a genetic
image pool which today still flows through a diverse range of media.
Viewing the concentric rings of styles and designs in this image pool,
one can perceive a developing contrast between previous centuries' approaches
to realistic caricature and early 20th century depictions of humanized-characters,
anthropomorphized-animals and animated-objects. These latter forms became
more iconic in shape and appearance, as their markings (their lines,
shadings, textures, etc.) were accorded a modern graphic status beyond
their archaic illusory properties. For example, bears originally looked
like bears; then they started to look like teddy bears; and finally
they started to look like ... well, cartoon bears - pure iconic signs
of peculiar coding of bears: fuzzy, soft, warm. This shift from the
anatomically plausible designs of the mid 19th century to the more stylized
representations of the 20th century articulated a complex semiotic continuum
- a continually transforming morphology of bear icons - wherein stylistic
traits were intentional and obvious (bug eyes, bulbous cheeks, pot bellies,
3-fingered hands, etc.) 2.
The major trait this semiotic continuum defined was cute. Enveloped
by the domesticated baby environment, 'cute' signified an idealized
social world in which people, animals and things were infinitely happy
and kind to each other. This is an important point, because like the
bear/teddy-bear/cartoon-bear convolution, most depictions of cuteness
do not aim to copy, say, the visage of the baby (which is often quite
grotesque and scowling in pain), but instead intend to codify the happy/kind
domain of the baby. For this reason, cute often renders the baby monstrously
cuddly and hideously gorgeous, as the baby is positioned in an exaggerated
environment radically divorced from the real world. It is almost as
if the baby is undergoing a soft socialization process by being made
to 'identify' with cute images by proxy through the parents 3.
Images of the baby projected by doll design, comic drawing and cartoon
depiction were (and still area) created under this logic, and one can
see a clear transformation from the old world charm of the archaic realist
baby to the corporate logoism of the modern cute biomorph.
Historically, one specific baby-biomorph image stream leads us into
the more abstract extremes to which 20th century cute would reach: celluloid
dolls. Celluloid is a volatile yet highly malleable thermo-plastic invented
in the late 1860s in America. Used extensively in doll manufacture and
production throughout the world, it was effectively replaced by a variety
of other plastics and vinyls shortly after WWII. The original celluloid
dolls were produced in the late 1890s by the Reinische Gummi & Celluloid
Fabrik in Germany, and due to the popularity of their designs and the
flexibility of the celluloid process they provided the governing aesthetic
for most mass-produced dolls at the start of this century 4.
Outside of a variety of semi-realistic styles, three major designs dominated
within this aesthetic: the Asian-tinged Diddums, the elf-like Kewpie
and the flapper-girl styled Marcella Kewpie 5.
All of these dolls featured large dewy eyes of unnatural proportions,
which in themselves were semiotic condensations of a variety of 'cute'
icons. It is these three mass-produced dolls which defined a 'Euro-cute'
sensibility and - as we shall see - were cross-fertilized firstly with
the gangly American style of cartoon characters (from Bosko to Betty
Boop to Mickey and Pluto) and later with the hyper Japanese style of
manga and animation characters.
Glass eyes and death factories
After World War One - a war that precipitated much design and invention
in the field of artificial limbs - dolls developed more sophisticated
visages, with the aid of glass eyes and certain mechanisms which allowed
the doll to 'sleep' (with eyes shut) while in repose. The uncanny 'life-likeness'
in these moving-eye dolls directly relate to the fix between the baby's
twinkle and the cadaver's glazed reflection - the irony being that when
their eyes are open, they look dead; when shut, they look like they've
just died. In between the world wars, a new type of celluloid was developed
called Milbu - an amalgam of the German words mich (milk) and blut (blood).
This was an exciting development because of the fleshy smoothness it
gave dolls moulded of this celluloid. The semiotic continuum of cute
doll design becomes a torrential flood of confused associations here,
as the desire for the realistic texturing of baby doll flesh uneasily
echoes similar mandates in the fields of sex mannequin mouldings and
mortician's' presentations for the bereaved. All three are concerned
with projecting an illusory life-like quality onto a lifeless sculpted
thing; all three are 'touched' by their 'user' in their own way for
the tactile sensation of what is imagined to be a living thing. This
strange fecund morbidity is an integral aspect of industrialization
and all its mechanical and chemical processes which overload the senses:
the gleam of metal, the touch of nylon, the smell of vinyl, the sound
of plastic, etc.. The more that dolls were imbued with some life-like
illusory effect, the more they resembled a dead baby.
The expansion of industrialization between the two World Wars was underpinned
by these tactile semiological currents, as the bulk of factory production
in the first half of this century was at the service of the military
(either directly or indirectly), imbuing much of what factories produced
with a deathly erotic quality. This is nowhere clearer than in the production
of children's' toys, trinkets and novelties 6.
Industrial design, petro-chemical application and toxin recipes fuelled
everything from giant gas chambers to toy gas stoves; from stretched-skin
lampshades to vacuum-formed lampshades; from scarred radiated human
flesh to soft vinyl doll flesh. Both Allied and Axis forces were engaged
in this morbid interplay between the military and the leisure industries
before, during and after both World Wars, making it hard to look at
the celluloid and plastic dolls of this century and not be haunted by
the industrial context of their production.
When one looks into the eyes of these Golem children - these boiled
baby replicants, these petro-chemical spawn, these shell-shocked baby-boomers
- one can feel tinges of a mournful and ghostly past (an effect widely
exploited by film makers and photographers 7).
In an unsettling way, dolls of the last 100 years replay that mix of
the baby's gaze with the cadaver's gaze, lending them a quality which
is both cute and spooky. In perfecting the industrial processing of
celluloid and its application to doll manufacture, the Germans not only
defined a dominant Euro-cute aesthetic, but also initiated ways in which
that cuteness could be fused with a legacy of sorrow. It then follows
that whenever and wherever images of cute appear in a post-war environment,
ghosts of the past are likely to be exhumed, repressed or disguised.
This is particularly clear when one looks at how the Japanese and the
Americans imported and modified this aesthetic, each in their own way.
Sad eyes & postwar traumatization
As numerous cultural purists have argued, the so-called 'decline' of
Postwar America culture is reflected in the spread of kitsch 8.
While most critics of kitsch are 'concerned' with the ideals of classicism
and how America's accelerated mass-production of commodities denigrated
these formal ideals, it is often neglected that most of the iconography
of kitsch is rooted in a transplanted European culture traumatized by
the events of WWII 9. That garden gnome
in a New Jersey suburban garden could well be a soothing therapeutic
symbol of pre-war rural sentimentality - one that knowingly yet silently
acknowledges the sorrowful legacy contained behind the luridly painted
visage. Here in Australia, most so-called kitsch is similarly the result
of a domestic re-invention of the home by European families building
a new future in a new land. Why they should care about the origins of
Greek classicism and the Italian renaissance is beyond me. This is not
to say that "kitsch is cool", but rather to point out that
if such sentimentality has its origins in the early 20th century coalition
between military purpose and domestic bliss, then these artefacts resound
with that 'strange fecund morbidity' in a post-war environment.
In ways too complex to be fully covered by this article, postwar Japanese
culture has consistently been attracted not to the 'old world' qualities
of European culture, but more precisely to the American transplantation
of those ideals. Or to put it another way: MGM's version of Paris, Disney's
version of Bavaria and even the Metropolitan Opera's version of Tuscany
have great romantic appeal to the Japanese. Interestingly, Japan was
the largest producer of celluloid dolls worldwide between the early
10s and the late 30s, most of which bore the ubiquitous stamp "Made
In Japan", and many of which ended up in the hands of American
and Australian children. It is then perhaps not so great a co-incidence
that the origins of the Japanese toy industry as a mass-production operation
(one that would grow immensely after WWII) lie in their replication
of this Europeanized aesthetic of 'cute'. When one places the early
manga of Osamu Tezuka within this Euro-cute trans-cultural production
of baby-biomorphs, his pre-war drawings of robot children, European
princesses, pirate boys and jungle animals are then more symptomatic
of a complex merging of western aesthetics with eastern perspectives
than the mere idolization and mimicry of Disney's pioneering work 10.
Tezuka's eyes are best viewed through his non-human characters - robots
(like Astro Boy) and animals (like Kimba) which, originating before
the hysteria of Hirohito's Japan, deflect elegaically to a pre-war nostalgia
while incongruously projecting to an optimistic future. While Disney's
work had by the 50s grown progressively more idyllic, Tezuka's work
grew equally more sombre and reflective. And as these tangents arced
away from each other, Disney's eyes became more realistic, while Tezuka's
more sharply defined their iconic appearance. This is to say that both
extended the prewar Euro-cute aesthetic and both were developing a certain
retro-sensibility, but each was performing in virtual opposition to
the other. Compare, for example, Disney's The Jungle Book (1960) to
Tezuka's Astro Boy TV series (1963): the former features modernized
drawings of an old world epoch; the latter features nostalgic 'cartoony'
illustrations of a futuristic society. As postwar Japan rebuilt its
demilitarized industries during the occupied period (1945-52), Tezuka
established himself as the major manga artist of the time, influencing
manga and animators up to the 70s and beyond. This is worth noting because
it is Tezuka's take on the retro eyes - as inherited from the Americans
and the Europeans - which largely defines the 'look' of most Japanese
manga and animation to this day.
This 'look' connotes a certain sadness typical of much postwar kitsch.
But when one reflects upon the Japanese national psyche and the wartime
traumas it has suffered (the deposition of a God-Emperor and the recovery
from a nuclear holocaust among other things) the sad eyes of Tezuka
and his progeny can be interpreted in a unique way. To do this, however,
a diversion must be made to the therapeutic and healing effects (so
typical of most kitsch) generated by the wide-eyed refugee waif paintings
of Margaret and Walter Keane. On a number of occasions, this American
husband and wife team attributed their inspirations for these paintings
to the sight of French and Italian children wandering around in the
rubble left in the wake of the Allied forces' confrontations with the
Axis throughout Europe. These children - thin, drawn, sometimes emaciated,
often clutching deteriorated teddy-bears and the like - 'cried out'
to the Keanes. Partially utilizing and partly defining the postwar culture
of kitsch, the Keanes impregnated their paintings with a mix of the
maudlin, the mawkish and the moronic. Nonetheless, these paintings were
incredibly popular, and became key accoutrements in the postwar loungeroom,
resounding well into the 60s 11. I would
argue that the Japanese have in a confounding way appeared to embrace
this particular Americanized therapeutically-designed version of Euro-cute;
that they have been attracted to the hyper-iconic status of these grotesque
figures which 'cry out' in sad-eyed silence; and that the Japanese have
been able to imbue these postwar signs with a mystical resonance which
remembers the past by appropriating images designed to aid in forgetting
the past 12. In a final erasure of the
western caricatures of the 'slanty-eyed yellow devils' which populated
American wartime propaganda 13, Japan's
post-apocalyptic culture violently keeps its eyes open.
Once one accepts the trans-cultural conduit of tear ducts which flow
between America and Japan (each traumatized by their own and each others'
legacies which cycle through their current internationalist operations),
the issue of the Japanese being the sole promoters of the big-eyed look
becomes diffused. Those same eyes - apart from echoing their lineage
from the semiotic continuum of cute bimorphs - have been bred in many
other instances: between Liza Minelli's Liza With A Z and Danny LaRue's
Piaf; between George Harrison's The Concert For Bangladesh and Stephen
Speilberg's E.T. ; between Modigliani's Seated Nude and Jeff Koons'
Puppy. Some heartfelt, some exploitative, some ironic - all these images
continue the cute tradition, albeit a battered and overcoded one.
Big eyes and emptied signifiers
But not all big eye motifs are on the verge of overflowing in melodramatic
tears. The Japanese have in fact far surpassed this by their hyper iconic
application of cute - a symbolic dimension now often referred to as
kawaii. As with so much western symbolism appropriated by the Japanese,
most instances of cute in Japan over the last decade have emptied the
iconography of most of its referential effect. This means that the stylization
and image-referencing of cute is applied to things which westerners
could never view rationally as having anything to do with cute. Examples
here range from the mod, compact, pseudo-Bakelite design of the Figaro
cars; to the high-pornographic content of adult-kid manga like The Eros,
Bloomagazine and Bizarre Collection; to the girlish voices used in CMs
advertising banks and insurance companies. Specific to Japanese animation,
the kawaii character designs of Sonada Kenichi (particularly the Gall
Force AOV series and also the Bubblegum Crash and Bubblegum Crisis AOV
series 14), Yuzo Takada (both the manga
and anime for 3 X 3 Eyes) and Clamp (Tokyo Babylon and X) are in a universe
adjacent to yet separate from Tezuka's world. The 'cute babes' that
populate these modern animations exhibit complex and well-grounded character
traits in the line of Sigourney Weaver' in Alien, Zoe Tamerlis in Ms
45, Jamie Lee Curtis in Blue Steel and Jennifer Jason-Leigh in Rush
- all while looking like a genetic fusion between a Baywatch extra,
a Barbie doll and a Care Bear. To put this is a clear light, imagine
Drew Barrymore cast as the leader of a new Russian military dictatorship
or Keanu Reeves starring in a biopic of Jean Paul Satre. Modern Japanese
animation has no qualms about dislocating iconic resonance from the
character body, and in fact uses this as a stylistic device peculiar
to the weird narrative logic of its animation.
While the recent explosion in the production of Japanese animation and
its growing popularity in the west have dredged up the standard flip
views of the wacky Japanese 15 and their
collisions between the cute, the serious and the unreal, cute lineages
have been submerged within American animation which are equally crass,
confounding and questionable. The most obvious example here would be
early sound cartoon characters whose designs were cute caricatures of
blackface vaudeville entertainers (remembering that the success of sound
cinema was routed directly to the popularity of Al Johnson's blackface
routines 16). This was primarily signified
by the bug-eyes - a theatrical device employed by many early black comedians.
Here the eyes were used in physical performance to connote a certain
possessed quality, as if the body is containing an energy (sexual, emotional,
adrenaline, etc.) which is ready to burst forth in an orgasmic explosion,
giving us the notion of 'eye-popping' entertainment 17.
Come the Civil Rights era in America, problems associated with racial
stereotyping emptied the early sound cartoon characters of their cute
appeal: those little black Sambo-bears and those tiny blackface grasshoppers
were re-interpreted as images that trapped Afro-American culture in
a time warp which halted their self-empowerment. Specifically, the white
pop-eyes of the African face comes from a long-standing notion of the
black in the jungle - camouflaged, dark and mysterious, his white eyes
eerily starring out from the dark (hence the early derogatory slang
'spook'). These images - from Al Johnson' s blackface routines to Enid
Blyton's golliwog drawings - transform the Other of white culture into
a protean cute icon, ripe for ridicule, amusement and ideological nullification.
Even today, the question can legitimately be asked: how much of Mickey
Mouse is mouse, and how much is he a blackface clown?
Goggle eyes and sexual control
The sad-eye, the big-eye, the wide-eye, the bug-eye and the pop-eye
all underwent grotesque transformations in American animation and illustration
during WWII. In the pioneering illustrations of Tex Avery and Bob Clampett
for various wartime Warner Bros. shorts, wolves (of the oversexed Hollywood
variety) and archetypal Warner Bros. characters (especially Daffy Duck)
were often depicted with their eyes literally overtaking their bodies
in a surrealistic figuration of an ocular come shot 18.
Parallel with these famous characters ran the outlandish work of Basil
Wolverton and his 'Wolvertoons' 19. Like
a carnival side-show display of film noir neuroses and para-alcoholic
states of mind, the 'Wolvertoons' were hideously deformed caricatures
of the iconography promoted by Norman Rockwell and his idyllic ilk,
many with flapping tongues, petrified teeth and eyes which look more
like breasts and peni than they do eyeballs. Through a proliferation
of these bodily contortions, the 'deprived' wartime male - high on bromide
yet aroused by metal - was effectively being sexually re-conditioned
to sublimate sex drives while engaged in killing for his country. Planes
were designed like metallic mammaries, adorned with perverse transmogrifications
of Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Veronica Lake, rendered in cartoony
extremes and emblazoned on gun turrets and even the bombs themselves
20. Leather jackets also carried an array
of grotesque designs which ironically mocked yet sardonically promoted
this bizarre realignment of the sex drive, mixing sex and death symbolism
from tattoo catalogues with cartoon iconography of the day 21.
Just as cute was used by both Japan and America under the guise of a
healing postwar kitsch, these violent, gross and blatantly offensive
images on bomber planes and bomber jackets were similarly reworked in
a postwar environment. And once again, their grossness partially disguises
what for many must have been an unsettling confusion between sex and
death, between arousal and adrenalin. Biker gangs constituted the first
substantial subculture to incorporate this imagery in their demilitarized
social rituals, transferring those excessive ocular cartoons onto their
regalia, thereby extending the stereo-optical binary iconography of
skull eye sockets, nipple-bared breasts and vein-ridden eyes. As other
machine-obsessed subcultures spread from the 50s into the 60s (particularly
hot rod street racing) eyes went beyond the early popping proportions
and became symbols of a hysterically detonated domain of unbridled hedonism
and orgiastic destruction. Hot rod artists like Ed Roth, Robert Williams,
Eric Von Dutch and Mouse Kelly 22 collectively
developed a parade of monsters, ghouls and - the dominant moniker -
Weirdos, who were mutated into their monstrously customized and modified
cars. Looking at these immensely popular car decals, T-shirts and model
assembly kits now, the spectre of a traumatized rabid male ominously
looms over their cartoony appeal. Perhaps that is why the puerile comic
image of the kid sporting his cheap 'X-Ray Spex' has become such a baby
boomer icon, figuring as it does a disturbing yet naive depiction of
cartoonized lust 23.
If one is conscious of these heady recipes of cheesecake, rocket fuel,
chrome and saliva, and one can follow their seepage from the dried up
genetic image pool from which cute iconography and cartoon physiology
spring, then one should be able to see how even American cute is not
as simplistic as it might superficially appear. Perhaps it is for these
reasons that most children's cartoon imagery in America since the 70s
has been so insipid and tasteless - because their iconography is deliberately
emptied of all the associations and connotations which had already been
subverted by a psychotically predisposed postwar culture. In this late
postwar environment, the baby is situated so as to be guarded from all
the lineages discussed above, and the most economic means of doing this
is to present the baby with a vapid, dried-up signification of cute
- one which is uncannily similar to the hyper iconic status of the Japanese
emptied signifers of cute. Some 70s cartoons are sublime in their emptiness:
Josie & The Pussycats, Scooby Doo - Where Are You?, Rocket Robin
Hood and The Partridge Family: 2200 AD, just to name a few. The parentally
concerned 80s and the environmentally friendly 90s extend this American
emptiness, from Bobby's World and Barbie & The Rockets In Outer
Space to Captain Planet & The Planeteers and The Rug Rats. Most
of these TV cartoon shows are set in void locations of people-less streets,
which uneasily echo the devastated urban landscapes of Europe and Japan
during WWII 24. Their character designs
perfunctorily allude to realist physiognomy but end up creating cadaver-like
hulls with severely economic animation in the faces and eyes 25.
These are the bastard children of Walter and Margaret Keane's waif paintings;
these are the oppressively neutralized images that comprise the bulk
of modern western animation.
Reflecting eyes and psychological imprints
For those who decry that technology and humankind need to be combined
in a democratic way, no more forceful example exists than the photo-shadows
left in the wake of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki blasts - projections
of light energy so great that human bodies caught unaware left their
pulverized ash shadows frottaged onto surrounding concrete walls at
the very moment their bodies were vaporized. Prefiguring a number of
experimental chemical/mechanical/electronic processes of incorporating
the artist's body in the registering, graphing and recording of the
artist in a variety of media, those atomic ghost shadows are true snuff
art (following the slang etymology of 'snuff' meaning the expulsion
of a candle's wick). Much postwar art and entertainment explores these
connections between creation and destruction - sometimes intuitively,
sometimes conceptually, sometimes ignorantly.
While we have looked at the symbolic, iconic and semiotic images expressed
through a range of ocular depictions, there are base technical effects
which carry the ghostly and haunting qualities of human figuration discussed
above. Shortly after Ed Roth et al had created their mouth-foaming eye-bulging
Weirdos, 70s fashion photography exploited effects whereby flash lights
were used to register a kind of 'techno-sparkle' in the eyes of the
vixen-style model. In a perverse replay of the animated twinkle in Tinkerbell's
dewy sex-pot eyes 26, these disco vamps
prowled like cats on heat before the camera, bearing their retinas to
the blinding flash of photographic bulb bursts. Just as Mary Shelley's
Baron Frankenstein harnessed lightning to animate his creation, so too
was the spark of electricity visually encoded in the eyes of these haute
couture femme fatales. Recalling a popular horror film device of evidencing
the possessed human through its glowing eyes, the deadly is mixed with
the erotic in much 70s fashion photography 27,
giving us a pubescent sexual take on the baby/cadaver conflation. Yet
again, a presence within the eye - some captured kinetic zap of energy
- is employed to portray a dynamic moment, an erotic eventfulness of
the human image somehow becoming animated.
Japanese animation since the late 80s has elevated these kind of ocular
effects to a para-calligraphic art form in its own right. While their
manga throughout the 70s explored a vast range of illustrative techniques
(particularly in women's and girls manga 28)
which painted the eye as a whirling centre of dizzying cosmic passion,
later Japanese animations mobilized these frozen moments of giddy sensations.
One of many examples that comes to mind is the long AOV series Gundam
0083: Stardust Memory which contains many dramatic moments where a face
is thrust forward in extreme close-up. Frame analysis reveals that in
these intense moments the white of the character's eyes (and sometimes
the pupil shine) minutely vibrates between two almost identical positions,
generating the effect in real-time of the eyes becoming slightly moist
and reflecting light as facial muscular contractions hold back an emotional
outpouring. This device is used in countless animations - sometimes
with acute realistic effect (as in Tombstone For Fireflies, Only Yesterday
and Mermaid Forrest); others times with hysterical abstraction (as in
Vampire Princess Miyu, Fight! Iczer-One and Legend Of The Overfiend).
The realistic mode conveys life by means of a character withholding
bodily movement - the opposite of the baby who mobilizes itself to project
consciousness; the abstract mode is a crazed hyper-speed trip to the
eye, replaying Hitchcock's tunnel from drain to dead eye in Psycho and
compressing the classical denouement of his graceful glide into a split-second
glitch of graphic kineticism.
Like those glamorous 70s models and their fluorescent eyes, much Japanese
animation uses eyes like a camera - ie. it is as if the eyes have taken
a snapshot of the energy contained within themselves. This is in a sense
a technological re-interpretation of the romantic notion that the eyes
are the soul of a person. The modern eye may have in a sense become
'soulless', but in another sense it has become a beacon for that other
terrain, a new world brimful of what could be termed a 'post-human energy'.
Examples are many. The modern sex-zombies who people Robert Palmer's
video clips (Simply Irresistible and Addicted To Love: paeans to consuming
desires) have flashed-out eyes overloaded by studio lights: through
their extreme objectification they harshly reflect the glazed eyes of
consumers trapped by consumption and desire. The mirrored-sunglasses
of the new model terminator in T2 - Judgement Day show an illusory swirl
of a chrome-plated reality we presume is the other side of the camera
he looks into: cyborgs like him automatically reflect 'us' on the other
side of the camera, stranded in an unreal world of endless computerized
texture-mapping. And predating both these examples by almost a decade,
we have Hajime Sorayama's 'hyper illustrations': a series of Varga-style
neo-porno pin-ups where flesh is rendered chrome, and the eyes are reduced
to enclosed neon tubing in a hyper-objectification of the female form
inspired by Fritz Lang's Maria in Metropolis 29.
The point is all these seemingly 'soulless' eyes sharply illustrate
the world we inhabit, and they do so in an uncompromisingly de-poeticized
way. These are biomorphic cameras that never lie.
Look deep into the eyes of Astro Boy: what is reflected in those strange
abstract ovals which pretend to be Japanese eyes? Stars? Studio lights?
Atomic flashes? The white light of death? Are those op-blobs pure effect
or traces of a postwar post-apocalyptic psyche? Just as most test film
footage of atomic detonation tests goes negative when the intensity
of the blast burns the chemical surface of the film, these eyes likely
reflect those aforementioned vaporized humans and their concrete shadows.
Astro Boy - typical of Tezuka's pseudo-naive and politically-resonant
characters - was forever questioning his own existence, asking about
his parents and where he came from. Along with his Neo-Tokyo brethen,
he inhabits a world where 'people' are synaptic charges and dynamic
impulses, and 'machines' possess their own life-force and carry humanistic
traits. The eyes of Astro Boy et al accordingly are less a reflection
of the `inner human', and more a projection of the 'post-human'.
Like the baby is the cadaver; like a doll is a corpse; like the model
is a zombie; so are Japanese cartoon characters signs of a potential
existence in the post-human domain. Their eyes exist in a realm well
beyond much of the cute semiotics, postwar iconography and ocular morphology
we have traced thus far. These eyes are a new terrain: neither east
nor west; neither human nor inhuman. Using retinal fetishization as
ground zero, they are worlds into which narratives propel us, hurtling
us via simulated camera movements across sequenced cels composed of
pen and ink. In a flight of unbridled fantasy, these trips to the eye
pass us into the unfathomable energy which we assume is somehow at the
centre of the throbbing orb. Therein we enter a domain full of scintillating
abstractions - moments when characters suddenly emote their very materiality,
recalling similar cine-visceral effects like the chalky light on Dietrich's
cheekbones; the cancerous growl of John Wayne's voice; the pulsating
sweat on Sylvester Stallone's back; the glycerine tangibility of Juliet
Lewis' lips. Animation - by virtue of its hyper-graphic status - foregrounds
experiences of pure dynamics, and its eyes are the conduits for our
transformation into its world. And as the baby locks its ocular sensors
on the eyes of the voice that attracts it, so too can we pass through
to the post-human domain of animation by locking our gaze on the eyes
of a cartoon character.
1 These views are based on a straightforward
yet oft overlooked observation of the body's reception of sound not
only through the ears but also via certain organs and bones. Inside
the mothers womb, the developing baby receives the sound of the mother's
internal organs and fluid movement through its own body, not unlike
how we 'hear' the movements of others underwater in a swimming pool.
Many sensations, impressions and memories of certain frequencies, rhythms
and spatialities which we experience as adults can be traced back to
the pre-conscious assimilation of sound in the womb.
2 For a sampling of the look and design
of these characters see Jeff Lenburg, The Encyclopedia Of Animated Cartoon
Series, De Capo Press, New York, 1981; and Denis Gifford, The Great
Cartoon Stars, Jupiter Books, London, 1979.
3 For views on the childhood domain of
viewing cartoons see Sen Crawford, "Saturday Morning Fever",
The Illusion Of Life - Essays On Animation, Power Publications, Sydney,
1991; and Irving Gribbish's Storming The Ramparts Of Childhood elsewhere
in this publiction.
4 See Romy Roeder, Celluloid Dolls: Diddums,
Cuties and Other Cuties, Kangaroo Press, Sydney, 1986; The Berkeley
Pop Culture Project, The Whole Pop Catalogue, Plexus, London, 1992;
and Robert Heide & John Gilman, Cartoon Collectibles: 50 Years Of
Dime Store Memorabilia, Doubleday & Company, New York, 1983.
5 Even in Australia, all three designs were a staple of fairground prizes
up to the late 70s, by which time Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese bootlegs
of Hollywood-related merchandise swamped the fairground circuit.
6 See Gil Asakawa and Leland Rucker, The
Toy Book, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York, 1992; and Robin Langley Sommer,
"I Had One Of Those" - Toys Of Our Generation, Bison Books,
7 Popular current exponents include the
stop-motion animation of the Brothers Quays and the daguerreotype-style
photography of Joel Peter Witkin.
8 See Gillo Dorfles, Kitsch, Universe Books,
New York, 1969.
9 This is consistently filtered between
the lines of Jane & Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste,
Harper Perennial, New York, 1990, and the companion volume Encyclopedia
of Popular Culture, Harper Perennial, New York, 1992. A lot of postwar
gun-ho invention mentality was born of the new spirit many Europeans
felt as they gratefully dove into America's great melting pot. Heat-sealed
into the fabric of postwar American consumerism, their European aesthetics
became malformed - sometimes outrageously deformed like a factory-defective
plastic doll with scarred flesh. Proponents of so-called 'bad taste'
are neither smart, clever cute, ironic nor perverse. Mostly, they are
gross yet sincere.
10 See Osamu Tezuka, catalogue from the
1990/91 touring exhibition of Tezuka's work first held at the National
Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo.
11 For a brief profile of the Keanes, see
Jane & Michael Stern's The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, Harper Perennial,
New York, 1990. For paintings by the Keanes and their many imitators,
consult your local Good Will or Salvation Army second-hand store.
12 A lateral reference should be made here
to the ongoing tradition of the Takarazuka Review in Osaka - an all-women
theatrical troupe whose musical scenarios are grossly melodramatic and
dripping with 'old world charm'. Immensely popular with women of all
ages (for reasons beyond the scope of this article) the stage make-up
for the Revue's members is about as close as you can get to human cartoon
characters, with outrageous amounts of mascara, false eyelashes and
eye pencil work, hysterically fixing all gaze potential to the eyes.
(Interestingly, the male characters are often more grotesque than the
female characters - a complete reversal of the drag-monster-hag depictions
popular with male gays and heteros alike.) See also Rosemary Iwamura,
From Trussed-Up Porn Star etc., Continuum Vol.? No.?, 1993 and her article
Blue Haired Girls elsewhere in this publication.
13 See Edward Boehm, Behind Enemy Lines:
WWII Allied/Axis Propaganda, Wellfleet Press, Secaucus, 1989; and Anthony
Rhodes & Victor Margolin, Propaganda - The Art Of Persuasion: WWII,
Angus & Robertson, London, 1976.
14 See the interview with Kenischi Sonada
elsewhere in this publication.
15 This is best represented by the Anglophile
'wit' of Clive James and his repeated 'looks' at contemporary Japanese
society and its `crazy' television.
16 For a full account of the effect Al
Johnson's popularity had on the success of The Jazz Singer, see Alexander
Walker, The Shattered Silents: How The Talkies Came To Stay, Harrop,
17 'Bug eyes' also have a long history
in jitterbug dancing and scat-style jazz - music and dance styles which
peaked during the war years. Essentially conveyed through the passionate
performance and consumption of music, both these popular forms are 20th
Century takes on the bodily frenzy induced by voodoo ceremonies. Vastly
different from the European Christian religious practices and customs
which accompanied the importation of African slaves into America, voodoo-based
rituals and similar Afro-American celebrations are typified by high-key
states of possession. Comedic excesses in black vaudeville made liberal
references both to black pop music of the time as well as voodoo iconography,
thereby extending the lineage of wide-eyed craziness.
18 See Steve Schneider, That's All Folks!
The Art Of Warner Bros. Animation, Henry Holt & Company, New York,
19 See Wolvertoons: The Art Of Basil Wolverton,
edited by Dick Voll, Fantagraphic Books, Seattle, 1989.
20 Ian Logan and Henry Neild, Classy Chasy:
American Aircraft 'Girl Art' 1942-1953, Mathews Millar Dunbar, London,
21 An early Warner Bros. depiction of the
infernal Gremlin was directly based on the Kewpie doll (Russian Rhapsody
22 See Robert Williams, The Lowbrow Art
Of Robert Williams, Rip Off Press, San Francisco, 1989; Ed Roth &
Howie Kuston, Confessions Of A Rat Fink - The Life & Times Of Ed
"Big Daddy" Roth, Pharos Books, New York, 1992; Laguna Art
Museum's Kustom Kulture: Von Dutch, Ed "Big Daddy" Roth, Robert
Williams & Others, Last Gasp, San Francisco, 1993; and Stanley Mouse,
Freehand: The Art Of Stanley Mouse, SLG Books, Berkeley, 1993.
23 See Mario Lippa & David Newton,
The World Of Small Ads, Hamlyn Publishing Group, London, 1979.
24 These 'adult-less' cartoon scenarios
were also typical of the postwar era of Dr. Spock-type child psychology
where parents where always heard but never seen. From Charlie Brown
and Nancy & Slugo strips to Warner Bros. shorts likeFeed The Kitty
and It's A Dog's Life.
25 Most of the 70s Hanna Barbera cartoons
like Scooby Doo Where Are You? feature characters who have no white
dot, spots or ovals in their eyes: absolute cartoon cadavers.
26 See the interview with Buichi Terasawa
and his comments on Tinker Bell elsewhere in this publication.
27 This disco-vamp iconography reached
a zenith by the late 70s and can be readily viewed in Richard Berstein's
cover designs for Andy Warhol's Interview between 1975 and 1979. See
Richard Bernstein, Mega-Star, Indigo Books, New York, 1984.
28 See Frederik L. Schodt, Manga! Manga!
The World Of Japanese Comics, Kodansha International, Tokyo/New York,
29 See Hajime Sorayama, Sorayama Hyper
Illustrations, Bijutsu Shuppan-Shan Ltd., Tokyo 1989.