Tetsuya Takeuchi’s solo key animated episode 7 on 2005’s Honey and Clover is one of the classic works of 2000’s anime, and no doubt one of the best showcases of character animation from the period. In this slow-paced and quiet drama, Takeuchi could fully express the sensibilities that made him so special: an attention to the little motions of the body and the way they are able to convey emotion. This tendency, and Takeuchi’s ability to create a sense of bodily volume and presence situate him in a realistic lineage. But there’s something more to his animation: he does not simply try to reproduce the real physical properties of bodies or create some kind of photorealism. There’s an added quality to his drawing, a sense of quiet but pressing expressivity that makes the motion so special.

Because Takeuchi’s character animation here relies a lot on conveying emotion, it’s first necessary to understand this sequence in context. It is a tense conversation between Mayama and the woman he has an unrequited love for, Rika. In this scene in particular, Mayama is about to leave Rika for an extended period of time, but before that, he offers her a bracelet that’s the sign of his love for her, and promises that he will be back.

Rika is a thin, sickly, physically and psychologically hurt woman, whereas Mayama is a tall, bright young man. They are stark opposites, something visible in their character designs. But Takeuchi, who took some slight liberties with them in his solo episode, made this idea even clearer in this sequence. The second shot (from Rika’s point of view?) shows us Mayama bent over reading a magazine. The regular, wide curve of his large back already evokes height, but the fact that his shirt seems to be too large, especially around his thin arms and small, schematically-drawn hands, creates an opposite impression of someone ill-at-ease, not in the right position or situation.

Although we don’t see Mayama’s face, his contrasting feelings of hesitation and determination come off quite clearly. In a heavily modulated sequence that lasts for just a few seconds, Mayama suddenly closes his magazine, puts it back on the table, hunches back even more for a sigh and pauses. Then, the way he bends over and quickly rises up highlights his height and weight, and the apparent difficulty he has making up his decision of going to talk to Rika: the movement starts very slowly, on close spacings, with Mayama’s back still bent. But then the spacings suddenly get wider for a few frames, and slow back down when, finally up, Mayama starts looking for the bracelet in his pocket.

As Mayama walks towards Rika and the camera, Takeuchi once again put a lot of care into expressing weight, this time slightly exaggerating it: Mayama’s body and arms swing by left to right a bit too much, as if he was himself trying to act out some kind of weariness. This then brings us to the center of the scene: Mayama engaging the dialogue while giving back Rika’s car keys, and then offering her the bracelet.

After a few establishing medium shots, the camera settles on close-ups of Mayama and Rika’s hands. This emphasizes the awkward, sudden physical contact, but also requires some more work from the animator who had to convey in more detail the volume and motion of the hands. It’s really the sense of awkwardness which prevails here: such a gift is unexpected, and it’s clear that both Mayama and Rika don’t quite know how to react properly to what’s happening.

The actual motion of Mayama putting on the bracelet is rather simple and fluid, but the real highlight is when he takes his hands out, slightly caressing Rika’s arm and hand in the process. The deliberate timing and detailed anatomical linework allow us to appreciate this moment and what it means to both characters. But the real emotional reaction we see is Rika’s, as her fingers slightly contract and retract once they’ve lost the touch of Mayama’s hand – as if they were unconsciously reaching for it. This is where Takeuchi’s “twitching” kind of animation comes to the fore: both characters’ hands constantly move, in small bursts of barely perceivable motion. Although hands might not tremble in such a way in this kind of situation, this continuous but irregular motion perfectly conveys the feelings at play here: a short moment of intimacy, brief shivers of excitement and apprehension, the tension between two individuals who know each other’s feelings but try not to hurt them. 

The second part of this moment is more sudden, as Mayama seemingly took his decision and acts more decisively: he tightens the bracelet around Rika’s wrist, so that it never leaves her – just like his feelings for her. The shapes and motion are once again very detailed, but they’re also more fluid and sudden. Mayama’s motion is less delicate and caring: it seems like he’s not searching for some however brief physical contact anymore, but confirming his feelings both to himself and Rika.

Takeuchi’s character animation, although it can go in much flashier directions, is the perfect fit for this kind of subdued, subtle moments. There may be exaggeration to the way he adds as many little movements as possible, but in instances such as this sequence, it’s limited, kept just to the right limit. This here is a kind of emotional realism, that exhibits a perfect balance between round, voluminous designs complemented by fluid motion on one hand, and more schematic linework that works best with more erratic timings and irregular movement. It is delicate work, one that plays on the smallest of details and impressions – a perfect fit for such a scene where all the emotions come through the positions and contact of bodies rather than words.