In most animated media, fish tend to be drawn hyperrealistically. Their movements are naturalistic, and they never exhibit any trace of personality, even when other animals or Mons are very iconic and anthropomorphic. This particularly noticeable in universes with other more cartoonish animals - and especially those with talking or sapient animals (though always averted in situations where said sapient animals are fish) - and also (if not most often) applies to fish being eaten, when compared to other food items.
In many animated universes, fish are actually the sole wild animals ever seen, possibly as a way of avoiding Furry Confusion and Carnivore Confusion. What Measure Is a Non-Cute? is the main reason for this: people tend to see fish as less relatable, and so they are able to be shown as food even if the setting doesn't allow other animals to be eaten.
Scott McCloud goes on in Understanding Comics about how Japanese comics can vary the level of iconic vs. realistic rendering: the more iconic the art, he states, the easier it is to identify with the characters. Making the fish look more realistic would make it easier to dissociate from it, and therefore easy to regard it as potential food rather than a living creature. More than one chapter examines the implications and uses of this trope.
An additional factor is that fish, having such simple body plans, tend to look very strange and possibly even unidentifiable when over-simplified. Try imagining the fish in the page image without detailed shading and scale pattern markings: what you are left with is a partially obscured tube with eyes, fins and a mouth. There really isn't much left to identify it as a fish, and the image would not trigger the same immediate recognition for the viewer. In cases where fish are presented in a cartoony style, they are likely to resemble the oval, large-headed bodies of reef and bank fish, sport patterned markings to create visual landmarks, and/or possess highly stylized anatomy to over-emphasize remaining features.
Sometimes used to solve the Carnivore Confusion problem while avoiding both Sapient Eat Sapient and Vegetarian Carnivore. While this trope mainly concerns fish, it can also apply to other animals that are thought of as "less anthropomorphic" then the main cast (for example, a cast composed of cartoon mammals would have non-cartoon fish while a cast composed of cartoon fish would probably have non-cartoon aquatic invertebrates).
- Animal Land is a huge user of this trope. The world of Animal Land is populated with Civilized Animals, some with more varying degrees of anthropomorphism (the tanukis look like bipedal teddy bears with comically over-sized heads, while the wolves are more like Talking Animals). Part of the manga's main themes is the issue of the strong animals eating the weak ones, yet no one raises a paw when the Tanukis catch fish to survive for the winter or when the adopted human offers a fish to a pack of wolves who previously attacked the Tanuki village to feed a starving cub.
- Apollo's Song, by Osamu Tezuka, had a chapter in which the main character is stranded on an island where none of the animals eat each other and he himself is not allowed to eat animals. Fish are, of course, exempt (and the character takes great pleasure in catching far more than he could possibly eat). This is practically the only time Tezuka uses this trope, though. Most of his fish are pretty damn cartoony. The best example would probably be Mach Fumiake (named after a famous female wrestler), the prize carp from the Black Jack story Heart of a Giant.
- Azumanga Daioh: Cats, such as the "biting cat" Kamineko and the Iriomote kitten Mayaa, are about as unrealistic as you'd expect (not counting Chiyo's dad, who seems to be something else altogether). For dogs, Mr. Tadakachi looks more like a plushie Great Pyrenees than a real one. But when the girls go scuba-diving during their class trip, the fish are quite realistic. The series is somewhat inconsistent about which animals are drawn cartoony or not; when Sakaki looks at photos of cats in a magazine, they're drawn realistically, and so is the stray kitten Yukari brings in at one point. The 10th anniversary chapters also feature realistically-drawn turtles.
- By the same mangaka, there's Yotsuba&!, though it averts this altogether by way of basically every animal being photorealistic. The fish are depicted as living beings that bleed, much to the distress of Miura (depicted above). They get caught to be eaten and, once cooked into food, even Miura has absolutely no objections. In fact, the only animals drawn cartoonishly in the series thus far are dogs (in part because one is a cameo by Mr. Tadakichi). The farm animals and zoo animals Yotsuba's seen are drawn very realistically.
- Crimsons The Scarlet Navigators of the Ocean, a manga about personified, anime-faced fish, inverts this. They are sometimes drawn realistically for comedic effect.
- Digimon Adventure 02 has a long hyperrealistic underwater sequence where we see, strangely, a turtle.
- The first Digimon Adventure pairs this with Fridge Logic. In the Dark Masters saga, the DigiDestined go fishing in the digital world (where digital monster versions of marine wildlife also exist). One notable scene had Agumon swallow a realistic fish twice his size, which Squicks out the other characters.
- Gon: Title character aside (and even he can look it when he needs to), all the animals are rendered realistically, and anthropomorphised with human expressions or emotions as needed in each story, fish included.
- Kimagure Orange Road: Played with in the OVA episode "I Was a Cat, I Was a Fish": the fish was originally realistic-looking, but after Kyosuke's mind was transferred into it, it got a lot cuter.
- Kirby: Right Back at Ya!: Zig-Zagged. One episode has Kirby feed a recently hatched limbless dragon, Galbo, tons of fish from a nearby lake. This taking place in a world where alot of the creatures, even some of the plants, are sapient in some way. On the other hand, the series also averts the trope with the recurring character Kine, who is a cartoon fish.
- A Monster Hunter manga applies this trope to all the monsters, aquatic or otherwise, possibly to justify the heroes cutting them down in huge numbers.
- Nagasarete Airantou: A while after coming to Airantou, Ikuto finds he can understand and talk to the Mon-style animals of the island. In an omake, he learns that the original castaways decide they couldn't eat such cute, playful creatures and so only eat fish for meat. The fish, although showing some sign of intelligence, tend to be ugly and spiny but delicious.
- Pokémon is a strange partial example: oddly, there are both Mon fish and realistic fish. In the very first episode, one scene pans up through a lake - where we see first a school of regular fish and then a Magikarp swim by.
- In The Electric Tale of Pikachu, some Pokémon are drawn a lot more realistically than in the anime while some others still look about as cartoony as their game/anime counterparts. Most noticeable with Water-types: just compare Slowpoke◊ and Poliwhirl◊ to Lapras◊ and a fittingly scary-looking Gyarados◊.
- Ranma ½ used a well animated koi in a pond as a standard part of their aspect montages.
- Shirokuma Cafe: In a somewhat unique case, all the animals LOOK realistic enough. However, fish and dogs are the only seen animals that also act realistically. Fish are somewhat understandable since they're eaten freely, but no explanation is given as to why dogs can't walk and talk.
- Sketchbook: There were some cats, a chicken and a crayfish (and briefly a lobster). The cats had big anime eyes and made un-catlike sounds; the chicken was extremely cartoony, and the crayfish could have been taken out of a field guide to North American streams. Sketchbook ~full color'S greatly differs between animals and pets, as dogs, cats and chicken were displayed in a cute way while wild animals (fishes, crayfishes and insects) in a realistic way.
- Samurai Champloo: In one episode, Jin is shown fishing; the fish are portrayed more realistically than the characters themselves or any other animals.
- Both the consumed fish and some fish monsters used by Ryota Kajiki are hyper realistic (although admittedly the monsters mix cartoon and realism happily).
- On the other hand, the sea monsters used by Shark in Yu-Gi-Oh! ZEXAL are usually either cartoonish or downright fantastic in appearance. (Or both.)
- Slayers has the Fish People, which are depicted as huge realistic looking non-anthropomorphic fish with wiry arms and legs. Their appearance really stands out compared to the other Beastfolk. The third season does subvert this when a female fish person is shown with a much cuter face (albeit the same body type).
- The Phantom has a wildlife sanctuary where he has taught his animals to live in harmony. The lions eat fish, who are the necessary sacrifice for all the harmony.
- This popular Graystripe/Silverstream Warrior Cats Fan Animation, set to Red's "Hymn for the Missing", features similar usage with with realistic voles but animesque cats. Voles are just prey while cats are main characters.
- To Belong takes place in a world where most animals have gone extinct and humans with animorphism powers have replaced them. The exception is fish and bugs. They exist as the main source of meat, thus avoiding Carnivore Confusion.
- Letting Go Of Hate: There's an unspoken rule of peace against animals hunting each other at the watering hole. The exception is animals hunting fish.
- In Brother Bear, the fish are being drawn much more realistically, being consumed in droves by bears, and being shown decapitated... only for the movie to subvert it in the nastiest way After The Credits...
- In Frozen, Sven the reindeer (and the duck and ducklings that Anna encounters) are depicted in a cartoony manner, but the jar of pickled lutefisk at Wandering Oaken's Trading Post and Sauna looks very realistic.
- In The Lion King the insects take the place of fish, being the appropriately unsympathetic food source for the lion.
- The Little Mermaid, of course, has many examples of sapient sea life, but the fish seen getting chopped up and cooked by Chef Louis in the "Les Poissons" number are realistic, in order to enhance the Squick factor.
- Pinocchio has it both ways. When Pinocchio and Jiminy go underwater, they are followed around by cute cartoony fish, and Gepetto's goldfish Cleo is as "cartoony" as his cat Figaro if not moreso (Cleo looks less like a real goldfish than Figaro does like a real cat). However, the tuna that are swallowed by Monstro — and which Geppetto catches to eat — are realistic.
- Zootopia: Implied. The traditional food chain has basically been eliminated for mammals, with the eating of prey mammals being completely taboo (to the point that it would more or less be seen as cannibalism), but obligate carnivores still to some degree having a biological need for animal protein. No fish are actually shown, but in Tundratown there is a food store called "Fishtown Market", implying that the fish in this world are decidedly non-anthropomorphic and are used as a food source by carnivorous animals.
- In Brave, the heroine uses her archery skills to catch fish in a nearby river for her mother who has turned into a bear. In fact, a playful musical sequence occurred where she and her mother tried to catch fish while bonding.
- Finding Nemo and Finding Dory both avert this. Fish and aquatic characters are depicted as equally cartoonish as other characters, but the threat of being eaten is a very real threat.
- Happy Feet: Since the movie stars penguins, who only eat fish, it's inevitable.
- Help! I'm a Fish is a strange partial example, as it has a mix of both cartoon and realistic fish. The difference between them is due to those with the "cartoon" look are either fish who've been exposed to the "Anti-Fish" potion, or humans exposed to the "Fish" potion.
- Little Bear: This happens, which is fortunate in light of his father's profession as a fisherman.
- Madagascar: When zoo animals find themselves in Madagascar, the predators are left in a serious state of Carnivore Confusion, since they only now realize that their food is other animals, and they don't want to eat their friends. The solution turns out to be fish, because they are not anthropomorphized.
- Open Season: Played with. While the fish can be eaten, they are also Anthropomorphic and attack any predator that tries to eat them. Boog learns this the hard way.
- In The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan makes many species into talking animals, but no fish (or other sea creatures) are included. There are mermaids, though, but they are probably altered humans.
- Franklin: In both the original book series and Nelvana's Animated Adaptation, Franklin has a pet fish named Goldie.
- In Redwall, Matthias catches a fish for dinner, but almost all other animals are more or less anthropomorphic and never seen eating each other. This is addressed on the author's website.
- The Tawny Scrawny Lion combines this trope with some heavy handed Carnivore Confusion Apparently it's not OK for Lions to eat monkeys, kangaroos, zebras, bears, camels, elephants or rabbits, but it's perfectly acceptable for them to enjoy some fish with their carrot stew.
- Nirvana's "Something in the Way" features these lyrics:
And the animals I've trapped
Have all become my pets
And I'm living off of grass
And the drippings from the ceiling
But it's okay to eat fish
'Cause they don't have any feelings
- Animal Crossing features fishing as a large part of its gameplay, which is strange considering the land of anthropomorphic animals that forms its core, which includes several octopus characters. Strangely, you're not able to eat the fish... just sell them, give them to a friend, or donate them to the museum. Wendell eats the fish, though, as well as Chip the beaver, but not most other characters. This is lampshaded by one of the octopus characters, Marina, who says that she loves to eat octopi but is afraid that she's becoming cannibalistic.
- Dark Cloud: Played with in Dark Cloud 2. The fish Max can catch straddle the line between cartoony and realistic (as realistic as a fish shaped like a horse's head can be, anyway.) Meanwhile, King Garayan is a gigantic, flamboyant fish with huge puffy lips, curly eyelashes, and an impeccable (and quite creepy) toothy grin. The Frozen Tuna that Max wields as a weapon is as realistic as cel-shaded graphics can make it, however.
- Donkey Kong Country: Mostly averted, as the fishes have 3D rendered sprites (as do the player characters) but with cartoony faces. The Under the Sea backgrounds, however, have a drab, realistic look.
- Averted in the action-adventure game Finny the Fish and the Seven Waters. It takes place entirely underwater, and many of the characters are cartoon fish. Including the protagonist, who's a cartoon black bass.
- Harvest Moon: In most games, the animals are cartoony but you can fish for realistic-looking fish. You can't eat your farm animals but can eat the fish.
- Kirby: Mostly averted: almost all of the fish that appear are about as unrealistic as you'd expect from a video game about a pink puff. The most commonly-found piscine is the Blipper, essentially a sphere with fins, a mouth, beady eyes, and a diving mask. A realistic-by-Kirby-standards fish does appear in the intro to Float Islands in the first game, but when it's reused in Kirby Super Star (and, by extension, Ultra), it's changed to a Blipper instead.
- One notable episode where it's played straight is in the anime— the episode with Dyna Blade. Kirby catches a whole basket full of realistic fish and is in the process of catching more when the angry armored bird-god arrives.
- There are somewhat realistic schools of small fish in Dreamland 3.
- Fishes in the The Legend of Zelda series are more realistic looking than much of the other animals. This depends on the title, however. Sometimes horses like Epona are also realistic.
- River King generally features cartoony humans and non-fish mammals, but hyper-realistic looking fish.
- Super Mario Bros.:
- The Mario series, in its 3D incarnations, has flirted with this one a bit. In many bodies of water you can see realistic fish swimming about... even though the series mainstay fish Cheep-Cheep is by no means realistic and is found just as often.
- Although, Unagi in Super Mario 64 (also known as Maw-Ray) looks like a realistic moray eel.
- Cats, rabbits, penguins, mushrooms, and bottles are anthropomorphized into playable characters in Phantom Brave. Fish are weapons.
- MySims: Although people, dogs, and cats in the DS version are blocky and highly stylized, the fish that players can catch are round and look very similar to real fish. Even the prehistoric rare "fish" looks very realistic.
- Splatoon has plenty of silly, cartoonish sea-creature-folk as part of the general setting, but surprisingly few fish appear. Only one sapient fish character, Moe, physically appears in either game, looking basically like a real clownfish with Cartoony Eyes. The game does provide an aversion in the case of the extremely cartoony Zapfish and the less cartoonish but hardly realistic Great Zapfish, and more anthropomorphized fish (sharks, bettas, etc.) do appear in supplementary materials as members of the in-universe bands, although they're never seen in-game. This is later averted for the "Salmon Run" mode in Splatoon 2, where Inklings have to do battle against savage semi-anthropomorphic salmon outside of Inkopolis.
- Brawl in the Family parodies the use of this in Animal Crossing when a fish considers moving into the town... and promptly leaves in disgust at all the fish its residents catch and eat.
- Axis Powers Hetalia: Animals are almost always round and fluffy, or at least drawn in a stylized, cartoony way. Fish seem to be the exception.
- In Surprising Octeal, the author has a particular style for how he draw everything... except, ironically, the aquatic creatures...
- Fish Hooks: Inverted; the fish, being the main characters, are extremely cartoony, while every other sapient being in the series is rendered realistically.
- House of Mouse: One episode features Donald (an anthropomorphic duck) and Humphrey (a cartoony goofy-looking bear) fighting over an ordinary-looking fish that both caught at the same time.
- The Legend of Korra is populated almost exclusively by Mix-and-Match Critters...except for the realistic fish Korra catches in the first episode, a normal bear, and multiple instances of what seem to be regular cats and dogs.
- My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic: Fish appear to be free game to carnivores in the show to avoid Sapient Eat Sapient: the otherwise Friend to All Living Things Fluttershy is free to unceremoniously feed them to her ferrets and one blink-and-you'll-miss-it scene shows Rarity's father fishing.
- The Simpsons: Famously averted with the three-eyed fish "Blinky", with sports the same bulging eyeballs and overbite as the human characters.
- The Snorks: Zig-Zagged. While earlier episodes featured realistic looking fish, they gradually got more and more cartoony as the show went on.
- SpongeBob SquarePants: Inverted. Any character who merely sits in the background like an "extra," or who utters a line or two but has no real characterization, will be cast as a Funny Animal fish. Apart from the news fish, who identifies himself as "a realistic fish head".