Anime’s aspect ratios

Anime-Gataris (2017; before you rush to try this: it doesn’t manage this kind of wit often)

Aspect ratios go unremarked, but few things can be more fundamental to an anime than its shape. To my knowledge, few things have been said on the topic. Jamal, voice of the podcast Get in the Mecha, has covered it a little, in an episode which helpfully reminds us that aspect ratio is a choice. Jamal’s treatment focuses on aspect ratios’ artistic ramifications, though, so I thought I’d have a go at gathering some more basic historical information about them.

Aspect ratio is the ratio between the width and the height of an image. It tells us what shape an anime has. Crudely, we might sort most anime into three aspect ratio groups.

Almost all older TV shows and OVAs, and some films, are in 4:3.

Anne of Green Gables (1979)

4:3 screens and CRT technology both enjoyed long afterlives in general use: globally, CRT TV sales peaked as late as the mid-2000s. Normal people work devices until they break, and don’t keep up with the latest screen tech. Hence the possibility that some wider-audience titles, shows not aimed at fanatics, had animation in 16:9 but crafted with the centre of the image in mind well into this century.

* * *

Present-day TV shows, OVAs, and some films are in 16:9 or close to it: films can be in 1.85:1, but this matches 16:9 closely enough that we can group them together.

Gundam Build Fighters (2013)

Anime shifted away from 4:3 during the 2000s, but only slowly. Unlike the digital shift, the great broadening didn’t entail a short, sharp transition coordinated across the industry. For a good chunk of years shows aired in both aspect ratios.

Furthermore—and nowadays we perhaps forget this—some anime were broadcast in both 4:3 and 16:9, with the cropped 4:3 broadcast first, the 16:9 delayed and perhaps on a costlier channel. Other anime aired in 4:3 only, with 16:9 presentation being a selling-point for the disc releases.

AniDB actually has tags for both of these approaches, though I wouldn’t wager money on their tagging being exhaustive:

  • the earliest TV show tagged for a 4:3 broadcast followed by a 16:9 broadcast is the 2006 instalment of Ah! My Goddess; the latest is K-On (2009); AniDB lists fewer of these
  • the earliest TV show tagged for a 4:3 broadcast followed by a 16:9 disc release is Earth Girl Arjuna (2001); the latest is Ikkitousen: Xtreme Xecutor (2010); AniDB lists more of these

One could say that these shows have more than one aspect ratio, and that 4:3 more accurately recreates their initial reception.

What was the first 16:9 TV anime? Reliably-sourced info on this lies thin on the ground, with the English-language internet yielding up, at best, a thread on MyAnimeList. That thread claims that Betterman (1999) came earliest. Now, I’ve seen a fair chunk of Betterman, and it’s certainly 16:9 today, but such production materials as I could find photographed online seem to be 4:3. Perhaps this means that its disc releases have been cropped to widescreen but its initial broadcast was 4:3; perhaps it merely means that the staff used 4:3 paper and cels because they were what was available. If Betterman was truly made in 16:9, then 16:9 TV anime has a history which—just—stretches back into the cel era.

On Twitter, the ever-helpful @animegolem got in touch to point out that some (not all) entries in the long-running Minna no Uta series of shorts appear to have been made in 16:9 from 1995 onward, albeit with a clear expectation that many viewers would only see a narrower, 4:3 slice of the image. How these were broadcast we do not know—but animatedgolem rightly observes that Japan did, remarkably, have an analogue HD widescreen TV system from 1991. Few can have had equipment capable of picking up this signal, but perhaps it gave people ideas.

* * *

Some films adopt a range of wider ratios, such as 2.35:1. We could crudely file these as ‘extra-wide’.

Animal Treasure Island (1971)

Though fans might associate such breadth primarily with older Toei films, it crops up here and there in modern productions, such as the competent action-fest Garo: Divine Flame (2016):

While film seems to foster slightly more choice, most of the time TV and OVA anime presumably shape themselves to the type of screen available. Whatever’s default at the time can seem colourless or unmarked, but I think submission to a technological standard still counts as a choice, even if it’s not a conscious choice. Jamal has written well on how shifts in the technological default change what seems marked and what seems ‘normal’ here.

* * *

Aspect ratio can change within a title, of course. First, it can change to what we might call an ’embedded’ aspect ratio. An embedded aspect ratio temporarily restricts the animation to a smaller part of what remains a larger image. Thus the 4:3 gag in Animegataris at the top of this post, or the 4:3 flashbacks in Kill la Kill; I was disappointed that the otherwise-close recreation of 1970s TV animation for the fictional show Andes Chucky in Shirobako stuck to 16:9.

16:9 anime can include embedded extra-wide aspect ratios too.

Embedded 2.4:1 shifting to ‘organic’ 16:9 in Adachi and Shimamura (2020)

Using embedded extra-wide for a scene, a sequence, or even just a single shot often seems to lend gravity, perhaps through the extra width’s cinematic associations. I must admit, I sometimes find embedded aspect ratios a bit gauche, especially when—as in the example above—the masking visibly moves. That might well just be me, though!

Embedded options other than 4:3 and extra-wide exist. This year, embedded vertical video mimicking phone footage graced the OP for the otherwise largely noteworthless Rent-a-Girlfriend:

9:16 vertical video in Rent-a-Girlfriend (2020)

Given the spread of phone footage in life today, we’ll probably see more instances of embedded vertical video in anime. There’re plenty of eyeballs to be found on phones, and, anime made organically as vertical video have emerged. (Many thanks to Ruben, who kindly pointed me towards examples.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, a cursory survey of organically-vertical anime suggests a tendency towards short episodes.

Besides embedded shifts in aspect ratio within the animated frame, we can perhaps also note anime which truly exist in multiple organic aspect ratios.

I’ve already mentioned the titles which were animated in 16:9 but initially broadcast in 4:3. Anime serves up other confusing cases, such as the various TV spin-off films which were apparently animated in 4:3, matted to widescreen in theatrical screenings, then distributed in at least some home releases in 4:3. Similarly, the final episode of Gunbuster was (if I have grasped what I’ve heard rightly) matted to 16:9, but later released in a fuller 4:3 version as well.

Titles such as these exist in multiple aspect ratios at once. Unlike anime made in 4:3 with no expectation of widescreen reception, and then later tilted-and-scanned to 16:9 for modern televisions, it’s not clear to me that these have one correct aspect ratio.

* * *

Finally: is any one aspect ratio better than another? Fans less blessed by temporal range in their viewing habits sometimes suggest that 16:9 is superior, but I suspect mere familiarity conditions this response. What one prefers and what looks ‘right’ is conditioned by what one’s been watching. 16:9 sometimes looks weird and wrong to me, if I’ve been watching many things in 4:3.

I’ve heard it said that wider aspect ratios more conveniently suit our vision, but 16:9 emerged from a compromise among technologists, not from empirical investigations of the brain. Moreover, if this were true then some widescreen ratios would beat others, yet no one who’s proposed this to me has been able to disaggregate 16:9, 2.35:1, and other options. I think the idea merely rationalises the natural feeling of weirdness we get when shuttling between aspect ratios.

Let’s grant, though, for argument’s sake, that widescreen ratios do somehow more neatly match human cognition. This is merely a fact. It doesn’t come with an attached aesthetic ‘should’. Why should film or television do what suits cognition best? Art can do things which are inconvenient. All art, even seemingly-pulpy material, might be inconvenient. It’s not convenient to spend time staring at a screen rather than searching for more, or more-secure, food, water, shelter, and sex—but you and I both stare at screens nevertheless. Down with biological determinism!

* * *

To sum up, then:

  • Anime can be crudely grouped into 4:3, 16:9, and extra-wide
  • TV anime’s shift from 4:3 to 16:9 came much more slowly than the shift to digital colour
  • ‘Embedded’ aspect ratio deserves thought as a topic in its own right
  • Some anime exist in multiple aspect ratios
  • No single ratio is somehow ‘best’

Thank you for reading. As with other my posts prodding at underexamined basic topics, this represents only what an enthusiastic amateur could put together using the internet and working at speed. I welcome corrections, suggestions, and additions.

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