Astronomical goofs in comics and animation

Comic artists and animators make occasional errors involving the Moon.  These mistakes can be avoided by applying some simple celestial trigonometry beforehand.

At the Earth's temperate northern latitudes, a crescent moon with her horns pointing to the left is a waxing crescent moon, while a crescent moon with her horns pointing to the right is a waning crescent moon:
 
Figure 1a. This shows the shape of a thin waxing crescent moon as seen from a location at a temperate northern latitude on the Earth.  Her horns point to the left.  A thin waxing crescent moon is seen in the west in the hours near sunset Figure 1b. This shows the shape of a thin waning crescent moon as seen from a location at a temperate northern latitude on the Earth.  Her horns point to the right. A thin waning crescent moon is seen in the east in the hours near sunrise.

In the tropics, the waxing crescent moon's horns can point either to the left or the right.  Because the plane of the Moon's orbit around the Earth is slightly inclined with respect to the Earth's orbit around the Sun, the horns of a waxing and waning crescent moon can sometimes point to the left or the right even as seen from locations slightly north or south of the tropics. Artistic depiction of the sun and moon at latitudes near the poles requires special care also.  But if a tale's setting is at a place in the United States outside of Alaska or Hawaii, or in one of Japan's four main islands of Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu,or Shikoku, then a crescent moon seen against a dark sky with her horns pointing to the left must be a waxing crescent seen in a westerly direction in the hours near sunset, while a crescent moon seen against a dark sky with her horns pointing to the right must be a waning crescent seen in an easterly direction in the hours near sunrise.

Some comic artists and animators fail to observe this simple rule.  Here, for example, is a panel from Megatokyo#113 From the story's flow it is clear that the setting for this panel is in the early evening, in the city of Tokyo, which is well north of the Tropic of Cancer.  Yet the Moon is portrayed as a waning crescent, which is inconsistent with the hour and latitude. The representation of the moon is correct only if the panel departs from the time sequence of the preceeding panel and the first panel of the following comic, #114, and shows the young woman, Miho Tôya, still up at roughly 2 to 6 A.M. the following morning. Since this seems to be an unlikely way to read the panel absent some indication (other than the moon itself) that the panel should be read as departing from the comic's time sequence, the waning crescent moon is most likely to be a mistake. Possibly it is a deliberate mistake intended as some sort of subtle joke about the practice, which will be discussed below, of reversing the images of Japanese comics when they are translated into English.  But  astronomically it is a mistake.
 
 
Figure 2. A panel from Megatokyo 113, showing a waning crescent moon (with her horns pointing to the right) appearing impossibly in the early evening in Tokyo.

The panel in Megatokyo #113 can be compared and contrasted with a panel from a side-comic to the graphic novel Wish by CLAMP. The drawing by CLAMP, unlike the panel from Megatokyo, shows a waxing crescent moon with reasonable qualitative accuracy for a time just after sunset at Tokyo's latitude. The panel shows a moon about three days old with her horns correctly pointed upward and to the left:
 Figure 3. A panel from a side-comic to CLAMP's Wish, showing a thin waxing crescent moon with the correct qualitative orientation for a temperate northern latitude: her horns point upward and to the left.

The practice of reversing the images of Japanese comic books can lead to astronomical errors or inconsistencies, since the process of flipping the image will convert a waxing moon into a waning moon, assuming the latitude of the story's setting is held constant. Below is a panel from CLAMP's Cardcaptor Sakura in its original orientation.  Consistent with the story's location and time of day, the moon is shown as a waxing crescent, with her horns pointing upward and to the left.   However, one version of the English translation has this panel reversed.  The waxing moon, as a result, has been converted to a waning moon.
 
 
Figure 4a. A panel from Cardcaptor Sakura, Master of the Clow, in its original orientation. The orientation of the lunar crescent is qualitatively correct for a waxing crescent moon seen in the early evening in the temperate northern hemisphere. Figure 4b. The same panel, reversed for one version of the English translation. The waxing moon in the original panel has been changed to a waning moon. Since the setting (near Tokyo, Japan) has not been changed for this version of the English translation, the time of day must be understood to be a later hour than in the original, perhaps in the small hours of the morning.

Comparison of these panels shows that process of preparing the image for left-to-right reading went beyond flipping the image. For example, the katakana in the original have been removed in the reversed panel.  It is reasonable to suppose that the publishers could also have corrected the reversed crescent moon back to her proper phase.  Some publishers, (including Tokyopop,which publishes the English translations of Cardcaptor Sakura) are now sensibly avoiding these problems altogether by printing translations of Japanese comics in right-to-left editions.  In fact is was from Tokyopop's "Authentic Manga" edition of Cardcaptor Sakura, Master of the Clow,that the panel on the left above was taken.

Of course, if the original cartoonist made a mistake in the orientation of the lunar crescent, the process of reversing the image might correct it.  Also, if the story is vague about the time of day, is set in the tropics where waxing and waning crescents may point either way,  or is set in some imaginary country which might as easily be located in the southern hemisphere as in the northern, then reversing the moon's phase may not matter.

Animators too sometimes make mistakes involving the Moon's phase.  Figure 5 shows a frame from episode 11 of the animation of Ai Yori Aoshi. One can see, in the upper right hand corner of the frame, a crescent moon with horns pointing to the right.  At temperate northern latitudes, as noted above, a crescent moon with her horns pointing right must be a waning crescent.  Since the crescent is quite thin, it must be a late waning crescent, some 25 days old or older. Yet in the next scene the clock inside the mansion strikes 11PM.  This is simply too early for such a late waning crescent even to be rising, still less to be as high in the sky as it is shown.
 
Figure 5. A frame from episode 11 of Pioneer's Ai Yori Aoshi, showing a crescent moon with her horns pointing to the right.

The action of the next episode, episode 12, of Ai Yori Aoshitakes place on the same night and the day following. Yet a frame from episode 12 shows a full moon,which cannot occur on the next night after the moon was in her waning crescent phase.
 
Figure 6. A frame from episode 12 of Pioneer's Ai Yori Aoshi, showing a full moon.  The action in this scene takes place less than 24 hours after the last action in episode 11.

This continuity error might be explained away by holding that the moon shown in Ai Yori Aoshi episode 11 is not a crescent moon at all, but a full moon emerging from the Earth's shadow after a lunar eclipse.  The moon in episode 12 would in that case be about 22 hours past full.

This explanation is unconvincing.  The boundary between the light and dark sections of the Moon's face is, in a crescent moon, the moon's day-night terminator.  The inside edge of the crescent is defined by the Moon's own shadow.  This is what gives the crescent moon her crescent shape.  The light and dark portions of the disk of a full moon emerging from a lunar eclipse are defined by the Earth's shadow.  A full moon emerging from the Earth's shadow resembles a sector of a circle more than it resembles a crescent.  The moon shown in Ai Yori Aoshiepisode 11 has unmistakable, even exaggerated, horns such as a crescent moon would have.  It is therefore a crescent moon, not a full moon emerging from the Earth's shadow.
 
 
Figure 7a. A thin crescent moon has a distinct curvature and prominent horns. Figure 7b. Because the cross sectional radius of the Earth's shadow is larger than the Moon's own radius, the inner curve of the bright section of a full moon newly emerging from the earth's shadow is a gentler curve than a very young, or very old, crescent moon's inner curve.
 
Figure 7c. Progress of a waxing crescent moon. The curvature of the bright part's inner curve changes as the crescent waxes.   Figure 7d. Progress of a full moon as she emerges from eclipse. Because the dark part of the eclipsed moon is created by the Earth's shadow, the bright part's inner curve keeps much the same curvature as the full moon emerges from the shadow.

Another lunar continuity error occurs in episode 15 of the animated version of CLAMP's Chobits. In the episode's first half the viewer sees a waxing crescent moon about 5-7 days old. This is consistent with the thinner waxing crescent shown in episode 14, the action of which took place two days prior to the action of episode 15. (Again,we know she is a waxing, not a waning, crescent moon because the story takes place in Tokyo, in the temperate part of the Earth's northern hemisphere, and her horns are pointing leftward.) But then, near the end of the episode 15's first half, the viewer is shown a waxing crescent moon about 3-4 days old, even though all of episode 15's action takes place within the space of a single day.

Telescopic observations can detect the motion of the waxing crescent Moon's morning terminator in the course of an evening's viewing. Naked-eye observations, on the other hand, are far less likely to be able to detect a change in the Moon's illuminated fraction in just a few hours. But even if a naked-eye observer with keen eyesight could detect the motion of the waxing crescent Moon's morning terminator in the course of a single night, this motion would be westward across the Moon's face, or to an Earthbound observer, eastward across the Earth's sky: the Moon's illuminated fraction would increase. That is what "waxing" means.  A decrease in the waxing Moon's illuminated fraction in the space of a single night cannot occur in the ordinary way of things.
Figure 8a. A frame from the first half of Chobits, episode 15. The waxing crescent moon is about 5-7 days old, a little before her first quarter phase. Figure 8b. A frame from near the end of the first half of Chobits episode 15. This is later in the same evening as the view in figure 8a, yet the waxing moon's illuminated fraction has impossibly decreased in the space of a few hours. The moon in this frame appears to be about 3-4 days old.

 

It is not only in the visual arts that qualitative astronomical errors can occur. Writers too can nod when working with basic astronomical facts. For example, "Magical Megatokyo", a work collaborative fanfiction posted to the Megatokyo forum, contained the following passage as recently as September 2, 2003, and may contain it still:

It was indeed getting dark, and, while they could see the city lights from here, the stars were much more visible. Mika looked up at them and caught her breath. They're beautiful she thought.

~*~

She's beautiful Ryan thought, glancing at Mika out of the corner of his eye. The moon was rising, a thin waxing crescent that did little to blot out the light of the stars. There were so many out that the stars were almost more of a blanket, rather than individual points of light~as if the Milky Way was covering the entire sky. Ryan spotted the Pleiades.

Note these phrases: "It was getting dark....The moon was rising, a thin waxing crescent."  The difficulty here is that a waxing crescent moon cannot be seen"rising" at evening twilight (when it is "getting dark"). When she is in her "thin" waxing crescent phase, the Moon is already in the sky at sunset, and setsjust shortly after the sun does. The visibility of the Pleiades at sunset also constrains the season of the year at which the incident can take place.
 
 

Useful Links

1.  Some photographs of lunar eclipses can be found athttp://www.mreclipse.com/LEphoto/LEgallery2.html
 

2.  Moonrise and moonset for any location can be computedby using this page at the U.S. Naval Observatory:

http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.html.

The times will be in Universal time.  Tokyo's coordinatesare:  Latitude 35 degrees 40 minutes (roughly the same latitude as Oklahoma City--note also that Tokyo spans a number of minutes of latitude, so different reference works will give slightly different latitudes),  longitude 139 degrees 46 minutes.  Tokyo's standard time is nine hours ahead of Universal Time.


©2003 by Timothy R. Phillips. This copyright does not extend to images or passages quoted from others' works, of course.