Aspect Ratios are something I think about constantly, mostly because they are a component of film that simply are not thought about enough (and I tend to be a bit of a contrarian). Within some of my previous content, I have thought about what makes the 2.35:1 cinematic aspect ratio transformative for our understanding of an anime. In that same podcast, I touched on 16:9 and how the realism of director Makoto Shinkai works well with the narratives of his films. However, due to 16:9’s position as the norm for anime today, drawing conclusions about its usage is quite limited. With this being said, the chance to explore the effects and beauty of the 4:3 aspect ratio has opened up, due to it losing its status as the ‘normal’ way to view film.
The spatial ‘limitations’ of 4:3 can be recognised when one watches a piece on the common screens of today. The rather bulky, yet fashionable black bars on the left and right draw our attention to the content between them, but also cultivate a sense of confinement as if our field of view has been limited to the ‘box’ in the middle of the screen. I think it is safe to assume that both the audience of the time and those who worked on these projects did not perceive this as a ‘limit’, which I previously referred to it as, but almost as a natural feature of audio-visual media, similarly to how we respond to 16:9 today. It is with this that I propose the question, ‘how do these black bars alter our viewing experience?’
Jubei is kicked out of the frame by his arch-enemy, Gemma. From Ninja Scroll (1993), Madhouse.
A cut that constantly comes to mind when I think about 4:3 comes from Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s samurai-action film Ninja Scroll (1993). The scene (animated by Hirotsugu Kawasaki) as a whole is visually stunning, from the tracking shots to the constant flashing to portray the brutality of their blows – it functions as a great climax. Despite this, the section that remains stuck in my head to this day involves the antagonist, Gemma, kicking the main character, Jubei, through the wall and ultimately out of frame.
A scene like this would not have the same amount of impact if it was on 16:9 (if we imagine that the film was genuinely animated to fit that aspect ratio) since the time taken for Jubei to exit the frame would simply be longer. When this is put next to the reduced time it would take to re-enter the frame, I like to think that the intention and charm of the entire cut becomes significantly eroded. With the uncropped edition of 4:3, watching Jubei getting relegated into the realm of the mysterious black bars becomes so much more satisfying, as he is suspended in a location that is off our screen, but not entirely. Even though this part of the film lasts about a second and a half, every part of that short period matters, as it demonstrates the sheer power of Gemma (being his ability to control who is in and out of the view of the imaginary camera). This would also work well if it was watched on a screen that is a perfect fit with 4:3, but I suppose there is an extra layer of intrigue that comes with the presence of the black bars in Kawasaki’s cut.
From Episode 10 of Cowboy Bebop (1998), Sunrise.
The uncropped edition of 4:3 plays with our perception, not only by restricting what can see ‘outside’ of the frame (the imaginary space that exists behind the black bars), but also by influencing how we process the information inside of it too. The chase sequence in Cowboy Bebop‘s tenth episode is a strong demonstration of this. The black boundaries, in addition to the pre-existing tight framing, create a much more intimate, yet intense atmosphere for those watching. This contributes to the dynamic that underpins the episode, being a strange encounter with an old friend. The presence of the boundaries may not transform the value of this scene entirely, but they still manage to strengthen the central character dynamic that allows this episode to function. To some, these may come across as a mere product of older anime making their way onto digital devices, but I would argue that the black bars play a subtle role in the department of visual storytelling that we hardly recognise.
What is so exciting about aspect ratios, especially 4:3, is that it changes how we digest the information presented to us. I have learnt to not only pay attention to what is in the frame but the quantity of information within it. With large amounts of casual art discourse centred around the notion of ‘quality over quantity’, it becomes very easy to lose sight of certain factors such as how much (or little) space a subject takes up and how exactly it influences the scene on a thematic or conceptual level.
Shots from Just Call It Love (それを愛と呼ぶだけ)
From the perspective of a relatively ‘young’ anime enthusiast, 4:3 feels like just another way of presenting information, rather than an unsaid ‘law’ that all audio-visual media abides by. I suspect that it is this lack of attachment to the black bars that allows me to view them as a device, even though they do not possess any inherent value. Recent works like Mafumafu’s music video, Just Call It Love (2020) use the boundaries in a way that I can relate to much more. In this music video, 4:3 functions as an aesthetic choice and is able to take us back to a time that we may not have even experienced for ourselves; it takes a step towards embracing the presence of the black bars, which was not possible for works like Ninja Scroll & Cowboy Bebop. The anime of today have the ability to create meaning from an element of audio-visual media that historically did not have an innate one.
Analysing 4:3 has been quite useful for making sense of anime from the 20th and early 21st centuries, but also pieces of today that take inspiration from the works of the past. It is with this that I conclude that the use of the 4:3 aspect ratio may be predominantly rooted in the past, but a sense of meaning can be generated and extracted by the audiences of the present day.