Color is undeniably the most important innovation in film since the invention of the talkies. Color helps convey mood, create atmosphere and evoke emotions in a way that black and white movies just can’t. It also helps make the films more vibrant, more interesting, easier to the eyes and generally more fun to look at.
The same goes for animation. Imagine watching Naruto in black and white. All the action and movements would just be a confusing blob of heavy lines. The action scenes wouldn’t seem as dynamic; really, the overall experience would just be different.
One anime that immediately comes to mind when talking about using color is Your Lie in April (Shigatsu wa Kimi no Uso). I don’t want to bother giving a short synopsis about the anime (if you haven’t watched it yet, you should) since I’m pretty sure most of you have watched it already. If you haven’t, then Google it. Anyway, back to Shigatsu.
Shigatsu for me is a first-class lesson in the use of color. It uses color in a subtle, understated way. Everything feels natural, as if the colors used, fit every single scene. It blends in, not overpowering whatever is happening in the scene. In other words, unless you start looking for it, you won’t see it.
Okay, I know you’re a little confused by now. So let me give you an example.
SPOILER ALERT. OBVIOUSLY.
Let’s start simple. Atmosphere.
In this scene, we see Kousei and Kaori talking with each other on the hospital rooftop. Obviously, it’s winter so everything is desaturated. Yet, if you look at this scene closely, especially after finishing the anime, you realize that this is pretty much the last time that two of them talked. This is them opening their hearts to each other. Him, giving her hope. Her, telling him of her regrets. It’s a sad moment. And so, the color used here (as well as the setting) creates a sense of gloom. Everything is pale and desaturated; everything is covered with that slight tinge of blue. Looking at that scene, you feel sad and cold, as if you were with the characters on the hospital rooftop on that cold winter’s day.
Next, is one of the earliest scenes in the series. Their first performance together. Here color is used to convey character Emotion.
Again, color is used here to convey emotion and add a little bit of foreshadowing, I guess. This is basically the high point of the series as this is where the two characters start to bond over their music. For Kaori, this is her moment. She lives for the adulation of the crowd. She lives for the applause. This is the place where she feels most alive, this is the place where she belongs, this is basically her moment of glory. She is on cloud nine and the colors completely reflect that. The use of colors helps her literally shine in the scene, with the bright whites and yellows making her shine like gold. If you look at her in this scene, you can completely feel her breathless ecstasy, her complete happiness at the performance even if it was in several ways, imperfect. By the end of the show, you’ll realize that her happiness that day wasn’t because of their great performance, but because of the fact that she was able to perform at all with Arima. He is after all, her SPOILER ALERT.
Compare that with her complete moment of despair, where she was almost at the point of giving up early in ep. 17 and you can see the difference. Here, everything is drenched in blue, the colors muted. You can completely feel the doubt and the despair enveloping her at that moment even if her dialogue doesn’t directly say it.
Contrast between the colors in each scene also plays a part in making the anime better. For example, in ep.20 when Kousei finally admits to Watari (and himself) that he likes Kaori, the scene is filled with reds (colors of passion) which are well saturated.
In the next scene though when both enter the hospital, the colors suddenly become muted and everything is just slightly desaturated. Immediately you’d know that shit is about to go down. And it does.
But perhaps the best use of color in the anime is the progression with Kaori.
Notice how as the anime progressed, the color of Kaori’s hair (and really, her general complexion) seem to get paler? By the second to the last episode (see above), Kaori’s hair is borderline grayish yellow and her complexion is pale white. Compare that with the one in episode 16 where her hair is still pale, yet still retains noticeable tinges of yellow. Her complexion as well still had shades of red and is not as pale as the one in ep 21. And again, compare both those scenes with say, episode 7 where Kaori’s hair is still bright yellow and her complexion, (blooming?) and you see how the animators subtly change the colors they use on Kaori. The colors used in the animation of Kaori changes as the story progresses to reflect the state of the character’s well-being. As she gets worse in the story, the colors used start to get more and more muted and by the end she’s pretty much desaturated. We realize then that her health’s only getting worse and things don’t look so good for our characters.
In the last episode though, we see Kaori colored in a more dream-like manner. In that one scene where they play together for the last time to the tune of Chopin’s amazing Ballade no. 1, the colors emphasize that this last performance of theirs doesn’t happen in the real world but happens in a mystical, dream-like space that exists for the sole purpose of the two of them meeting and playing for the final time. This is their space. This is a space borne of their desire to connect with one another through their music. The colors seem to be awash in a watercolor-y, pre-production style that in effect reinforces the dream-world setting of this scene. It’s difficult to describe it so just see for yourself.
You see what I’m talking about. There is this dreamy quality to the whole scene that the color choices just help reinforce. I can’t explain it but its just there.
At the same time, the colors used here are bright and cheerful, especially compared to the past few episodes. This is supposed to be a happy moment after all. At last the moment the two of them are finally able to perform together again. Kaori is back to her happy, healthy self (even if it’s just in a dream world), perhaps shining even brighter than she did in the early episodes.
At its best, colors are used not only used to communicate emotion but also to create a visual representation of the state of things in the anime. Ideally, it works through the subconscious, working quietly and cleanly so that it wouldn’t be extremely noticeable. Everything should look natural and in its place yet at the same time help evoke the feelings and emotions that the scene is supposed to evoke. To be honest, I didn’t really notice that when I first watched the anime. I really only noticing it subsequent run throughs of various episodes. That’s how I know that it did its job. I never really noticed the changes yet I felt the feelings and the emotion that the scene is trying to convey. The animation studio did a really great job of that.
Know any other anime that greatly utilizes color? Tell us in the comments below.