It’s Written All Over Your Face: Manga Iconography

The world of manga has contributed a uniquely stylized form of drawing that can be easily identified by a single glance. The schematized large eyes, small mouth and pointy chin is largely due to the work of Osamu Tezuka creator of the iconic Astro Boy. However the inspirational force behind Tezuka’s artistic style was none other than Carl Bark’s one of Disney’s most esteemed artists for the Donald Duck comics. To read more about Tezuka please refer to Phantommiriag’s post here.

Manga angry
Note the angry cross mark on the top of the head and the jagged teeth.

One of the special aspects of this unique art style however lies in its ability to graphically conceptualize emotion, state of mind and motion all through the use of manga iconography. These normally invisible traits are all brought dynamically to life allowing us to behold such things as the force of a kicked soccer ball, the allure of the pretty boy or the fiery wrath of the school rival. Some of the most recognizable traits of manga iconography are seen in the depictions of emotion, notable examples include: characters displaying a bulging crossed vein and fangs when enraged, a large sweat drop appearing on one’s head showing embarrassment or nervousness and sudden bodily deformities when shocked, excited or just a general lack of seriousness. Aside from these popular depictions there are many other emotional states that are conceptualized by different graphic symbols and even multiple ways to display the same emotion, for a more comprehensive list check the manga iconography wiki page.



Manga iconography also has a rich tradition of appearing in many different symbolic or metaphorical forms that help set the mood of a scene or highlight certain features of a character. For instance a romantic scene may utilize flowery imagery or sparkling lights to demonstrate the affection of two lovers or sometimes the same imagery may be used when a character is attempting to highlight their attractive or dashing qualities.

flower power
Painful amount of flowers.

Other more hostile scenes, though often still comical, may utilize symbols such as fire or lightening to capture the aggression of one or more characters. Such as sparks literally flying when two adversaries eyes meet or a character who has become so enraged that the backdrop explodes into a fiery inferno. Additionally more abstract backgrounds may be used at times when a character  is engrossed in personal thought or reflection; often these scenes are depicted with dark clouds or spiraling imagery while in a foreboding or depressing scene. There are also times when the character is struck with a sudden realization and is shown by a flash of enlightenment.

abstract thought
Here the very setting is ignored to depict instead what is going on inside the head of the character.


Even complex movements such as a spinning ball can be portrayed using this technique.

Finally perhaps the most diverse use of manga iconography is the use of kinetic lines to display motion. According to visual language specialist Neil Cohn, rather than showing lines trailing behind the moving object, manga often show the moving object statically with lines streaming behind it; other times the object may be covered in a flurry of lines to indicate a blurred motion. Comic theorist Scott McCloud has noted that this allows manga to give a more subjective viewpoint. These drawing techniques quickly spread as manga became more popular in the west.


Image credit goes to selected panels from the following works:

  • Shinigamisama ni Saigo no Onegai
  • Ouran High School Host Club
  • Marmalade Boy
  • Kamisama no Iutoori Ni

  8 comments for “It’s Written All Over Your Face: Manga Iconography

  1. alliecat
    February 12, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    This is a really cool analysis. I enjoy manga and anime, often because of these humorous exaggerations. A lot of manga deals with the concept of coming of age, so the main characters are typically in their teens (sometimes even younger). That age frame works well for the iconography because that is a dramatic time period. Readers can empathize with the character even if the artwork is stylized; we understand their emotions, even if we never literally scorched a person with our stare.

    • Mamoru Fuun
      February 14, 2013 at 7:54 pm

      I totally agree, the dramatic tendencies of manga and anime is most potent when seen through the thoughts and eyes of the young generation. At that time they’re experiencing so many things for the first time and every initial reaction is so significant and special to the individual but in the whole grand scheme of things it matters so little to the rest of the world; well you know unless some 14 year old is taxed with the mission of saving the world, as is often the case in these universes, then I guess it’s pretty important to everyone.

  2. Nia Gill
    February 13, 2013 at 11:22 pm

    I really enjoyed this post. I have been reading manga and anime since I was in middle school, the way the artist use the whole panel to convey these complex emotions and situations reminds me how far art and media has progressed in the last 50 years. It is also interesting to see the progression of an artists style as he/she perfects their technique over periods of decades; for better or worse. I am also glad to see that there are more and more people becoming tempted to read and analyze manga as a serious literary subject.

    • Mamoru Fuun
      February 14, 2013 at 7:57 pm

      To be honest I am mainly only interested in anime, I only got into manga reading over the past few years so I’m really only familiar with newer works; wouldn’t really know about the authors that have been drawing/writing for decades in various styles. But I am increasing my readings, so hopefully I’ll be able to provide more in depth literary analyses on manga in the future.

  3. Kelsey
    February 14, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    I really enjoyed this post; I thought it was really interesting. Being a fan of some manga series, I was attracted by the subject matter of this post, and now that I think about it, I can definitely recall seeing a lot of the things you talk about in the manga I’ve read, especially with the background negation to focus on the character themselves, or the expressions you talked about, like the veins and the anime sweatdrop.

    I really would have liked if you had expanded more on the section on kinetic lines displaying motion. You say that the kinetic lines are the most diverse aspect of manga, but the section feels very short compared to some of the others. I really think it would have been interesting if you had expanded on that section with some explanation of the different uses for kinetic lines, and examples for them.

    • Mamoru Fuun
      February 17, 2013 at 12:56 am

      Yeah I really should of explored the kinetic lines more but I only read a small tid-bit about it in a paper analyzing manga. So anymore in depth would really only be finding pic after pic, which would not only get very repetitive in explanations but also pretty monotonous with the types of pictures.

  4. chocobunnysk
    February 22, 2013 at 9:37 am

    I think one of the big reasons of why this works so well is because manga allows the art to be deformed or simplified to the point where all that is left is the emotion or motion being conveyed through the iconography, and identifying what the character or object it is is based on context and possible identifiers of the subject. For the most part, this lets the artist draw more panels without having to worry all the time about character details or setting at times.

    For a general example, most manga that I’ve seen do not try to shove the background into every shot. Instead, as stated in the post, it is another tool to convey the mood. During action scenes the background tends to involve a whole lot of lines indicating motion, as seen in the above picture. It gives a sense that the action is dynamic and passes by quickly, like the blurred background on a photo from a high speed scene. Like the other pictures above, the background can add to the emotion being conveyed because they don’t have to worry about the setting. Of course the setting for the most part resumes to indicate they are still the same place.

    Character-wise, the most you need to identify a character is the context of other panels, as well as a possible identifier. For example in manga with loads of characters, most of the time they have at least one thing that makes them stand out, like a hairstyle, like in Mahou Sensei Negima, or a hat, like in the Touhou series. I know the latter is a game series, but the fan content does involve comics such as the 4koma or four panel gag comics, that’s why it’s still relevant.

    A nice example I like to use for a lot of this is the Korean webtoon Noblesse. In the first panel alone, the text sfx gives away the background mood, along with the teardrops on the characters in the foreground indicating nervousness. The second picture has a commonly used bubble background to show the cheerful attitude of the girl, in conjunction with the blush stickers and 😀 face. Third one has the commonly seen crying T.T, and the fourth one shows off general discontent that will be seen often in this Manhwa.

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