What is 2.5D?

2.5D, or “two and a half dimensions”, is a graphics or image terminology with different meanings. 

In the art and animation industry, 2.5D is a technique widely applied in animation and video games. It’s either 2D images stylized as 3D images or the other way around. Modern technology allows artists to manipulate 2D and 3D images for more realistic or even cartoony images. The secret of 2.5D images lies from the strategic manipulation of scenes with animation editing tools. Animators edit and morph elements like layers, shadows, and perspectives. 2.5D images are either imposed on static images or a set of images rendered in animation. The eyes would process 2.5D images like 3D images due to deformed depth perception. The other technique of creating 2D like images out of 3D images is called cel-shading. Cel shading uses less shading color. Ordinary 3D models utilize shade gradient, tints, and shades. Cel shading meanwhile eliminates those elements for flatter-looking models with paper-like textures. Video games such as Guilty Gear Xrd, Dragon Ball Fighter Z, and Valkyria Chronicles utilize cel-shading to emulate 2D anime in 3D environments.

When it comes to art and otaku culture, 2D means the realm of fiction while 3D is the real world. Theatrical adaptations of manga, anime, or video game series are called niitengo jigen myujikaru (2.5次元ミュージカル) or “2.5D musicals.” It is a part of the media mix strategy for promoting anime or video game franchises. Actors portray 2D characters into real-life via stage performances.



There is a Japanese term for 2.5D called niitengo jigen (2.5次元). It literally means “the boundary between 2D and 3D”.


A Brief History

In the field of graphics design, the gaming industry is the largest proponent of 2.5D animation. Pseudo 3D games first appeared on arcade games in the mid-1970s. Some of the available pseudo-3D technologies were wireframe models, vector graphics, and isometric graphics. These simple technologies emulated depth perception on flat surfaces. The first arcade game to produce 2.5D graphics was Interceptor by Taito. Interceptor was a combat flight simulator arcade game that featured eight-way directional movement, shooting down enemy planes, and depth perception by size-changing enemy planes.

3D computer graphics technologies like polygons and morphing create 3D-looking images with the likeness of a real image. Game franchises such as IDOLM@STER by Bandai Namco Entertainment utilize such technology. The characters in IDOLM@STER have facial features ranging from anime style to the “uncanny valley” or nearly realistic. Some handheld games from Nintendo 3DS like the dating simulator game Love Plus by Konami utilize its 3D feature for achieving similar effects.

The earliest presence of CGI in Japanese animation happened in 1983. It first appeared in the film Golgo 13: The Professional where Duke Togo evades a 3D helicopter while traversing a 3D rendered world. The animation and CGI were awkward since the 3D models were not textured and never mixed well with the hand-drawn animation. In 1943, the animated film adaptation of Lensman utilized 3D in every scene like in the live-action film Tron. The highly-acclaimed animated film Ghost in The Shell in 1995 paved the way to the utilization of CGI in the anime industry.

There is now a new technology that utilizes rigged 2D models to simulate 3D images. Live2D Cubism is an animation tool that utilizes individual data for each moving part. It doesn’t need 3D models or frame-by-frame images to create 2.5D animation. This is ideal for minimal consumption of resources when it comes to animation. The software allows users to move or deform each individual data according to their needs. Video games such as Nekopara, Girl’s Frontline, and Azur Lane involve animations that were made with Live2D Cubism.

2.5D has a special place for the otaku culture. Around the early 2000s, fans would draw paper dolls and take photos out of them as if they’re interacting with the real world. Some dedicated fans pushed the boundaries of 2D and 3D worlds in such interesting ways. In 2009, a Japanese gamer named Sal 9000 married a virtual game character named Nene Anegasaki from Love Plus. The wedding ceremony was more like performance art rather than a conventional ceremony. Fans typed comments as the ceremony commenced and got streamed online. In 2018, Akihiko Kondo married the virtual singer Hatsune Miku complete with a wedding ceremony.

In the field of theater and arts, the Takarazuka Revue is a famous all-female ensemble known for popularizing 2.5D musicals. Their first 2.5D musical performance was the stage adaptation of Rose of Versailles in 1974. Few 2.5D musicals in the 90s adapted shoujo manga and anime for elementary school girls. Those stage adaptations were called joji mono (女児物).

2.5D musicals became revolutionary in 2000 when Hunter X Hunter received a theatrical adaptation and the voice actors portrayed their characters on stage.  In 2003, the stage adaptation of Prince of Tennis gained wide popularity due to word-of-mouth and posts from Japanese social media sites. More theatrical companies other than Takarazuka Revue produced 2.5 musicals based on shonen manga and anime. Since then, 2.5D musicals have had live shows both in Japan and overseas.


2.5D in Modern Times

2.5D broadens the presence of Japanese popular culture. The term 2.5D could be too broad at first glance but it invokes the same idea: bringing fictional worlds and characters closer to real life. 2.5D became more elaborate and creative as decades passed by. Technology and innovation allowed 2.5D to reach every fan. At the same time, fans become enamored with the 2.5D visuals from anime, video games, and even stage plays.



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