I know this really isn’t my typical posting material but I thought this was interesting and useful stuff. Hey, I’m a person who used extracurricular projects in grade school as an excuse to submit documents full of the history of anime.
I’ll keep this as more of a “what you need to know” than a true and working history of anime.
So, What IS Anime?
Well, we’re already in a bit of trouble. “Anime” in Japan is basically an informal term for “animation” in the same way “sports fan” is short for “sports fanatic”. So technically, if we use Japanese definitions, anime is just animation.
But I’m guessing you aren’t looking for that type of description, are you? Well, to much of the world, anime refers to Japanese animation. This differentiates itself from other types of animation such as those produced in Canada, USA, and Europe (often designated “Western Animation”) or China, South Korea, or the rest of Eastern Asia (“Eastern Animation”). By definition, this basically limits anime to Japanese products.
The anime industry is quite large and operates on the order of billions of dollars (USD) per year. It does a great deal of business within Japan but is something of a niche industry internationally. As an example, some viewers from around the world called ex-Japanese Prime Minister Tarō Asō an otaku (more on this later). Yet the popularity of anime doesn’t permeate as well. Most common knowledge of anime alludes to either well-known younger audience series such as Pokemon or…well, hentai. These two traits pronounce themselves within the common state of many cultures and is probably the only widespread exposure of anime to the world. Further to the point, the world recognizes these aspects to such a degree that popular culture can reference such traits.
Why Does Anime Get Its Own Name?
Anime distinguishes itself from other animation groups, and therefore commonly requires distinction from other animation, because of a commonly noted difference in animation style; anime is quite often easy to separate from other animation because of a difference in artistic choice. Again, these are extremely pronounced and leads to easy recognition in popular culture.
The most recognizable attribute of anime traditionally lies in facial features; large eyes, great attention to hair style, and decreased focus on other aspects typically herald anime. It would come to no surprise that writers of a basic general tabletop RPG rule set called it Big Eyes, Small Mouth as that description fits much of the facial experience in a nutshell. A major exception to both of these rules is Hiyao Miyazaki’s work, which emphasize more natural designs in both aspects.
Additionally, exaggerated expression typically associates itself with anime design. To be honest, this is where you find most parody and recognition of anime tropes in non-anime environment. Typical facial emotion reflects the emotion of the individual to an extreme degree; faces are blue and eyes blank when shocked or cheeks flush to a bright red when embarrassed. TVtropes has an entire section’s worth of tropes about Japanese visual effects. This anime aspect is absolutely iconic. It’s probably also very easy to tell from the below images, but anime has a long streak of using non-traditional hair colours as it sees fit; it is common to use blue, green, pink, or purple hair. Additionally, extremely unusual hair style is typical in series which focus less on realism; the character in the sequence, for example, has twin tails the size of her head.
But character design alone isn’t where anime varies from other animation groups; anime focuses greatly on the detail of backgrounds. When compared to other medium, anime typically reflects a high quality foreground and background. I’d even argue that high quality frames is a hallmark of anime and it’s one of the rare mediums where compiling an all-star animation team together will reflect in an all-star animation product coming out extremely visually impressive. I’ll stop it at that though as I think further description would only invite debate and hurt feelings by one person or another.
What Makes Anime So Popular?
This is a good question, isn’t it? Above are reasons what makes anime different from other animated shows, but doesn’t necessarily contribute to what makes anime popular.
A major part of my reasoning is that anime taps into unexploited markets. That’s a bit of a mouthful, so let’s just say this: it has audiences which don’t have a show otherwise. If we focus on the Western markets for a second, a list of all animated television created by Western markets consist primarily of episodic television shows aimed at younger audiences (ex – Spongebob Squarepants) and episodic comedies that focus on older audiences (ex – The Simpsons). Saturday morning cartoons and sitcoms, effectively. Anime, by comparison, offers media for different audiences…so much so that there are entire loan words for the different target audiences (more on that later!).
Let’s just use the above anime as examples. They both aim at older audiences than the typical “Saturday morning cartoon” and offers a non-comedic animated experience not found in the sitcoms; one aims for teenage viewers and the other at a mature audience. They also contain aspects unlikely in other genres: one has an incredibly difficult to define genre (and is probably one of the top examples of a non-genre specific franchise out there) while the other is a psychological murder mystery. Or multiple murder mystery.
Now, I can’t fully generalize; neither of my statements regarding Western animation or for anime fully describe the situation. However, this is a terrific starting point for observing what makes anime unique at the moment.
So, I think the simple answer to read here is “because anime provides an experience they can’t find elsewhere: different combinations of demographics and genres that they cannot find in other animated media”.
What Are Anime’s Demographics and Genres?
I figure this is the obvious followup. I’ll provide some basic descriptions below, though they hardly do any of them justice.
Common Anime Demographics
Each of the commonly used anime demographic names are directly ripped from the Japanese equivalent. Remember that these are generalized demographics and anime tend to blur the line of which demographic they aim for.
- Kokodomomuke. Approximately stands for “intended for children”. This typically is a little younger than the above mentioned “Saturday morning cartoons”. A commonly known example, though probably still not entirely accurate, is the Hello Kitty franchise.
- Shonen. Target demographic is approximately preteen to teenage boys. Anime with this demographic in mind likely cover the majority of your anime memory as it typically encompasses the often translated anime…Pokemon, Dragonball, Naruto, One Piece…most of those anime typically fall in this range. But that’s the lower end of the spectrum. One of the above anime also aims for the shonen demographic. Incidentally, the shonen demographic is also the largest demographic in the anime market. Shonen anime typically consist of more idealistic anime, have a mix of comedy and action, and focus on topics such as internal drive and ability…though these are a generalization and hardly the rule.
- Shojo. Target demographic is approximately preteen to teenage girls. Anime aiming for the shojo demographic vary a bit from the shonen and typically focus a little more on the emotional aspect and a little less on the action. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a mix of both (bear with me for a sentence or two as I get to addressing that) but that there’s a stronger pull on the emotional side than the action. TVtropes provides an anecdotal example: if you have two main characters who are obviously mutual love interests, a shonen demographic anime more likely ends the series with the two characters falling in love while a shojo anime may make the relationship build earlier and focus on the relationship changes and struggles. The most common example of a shojo oriented anime is Sailor Moon, though like the examples above it deals with a younger aspect in this audience.
- Seinen. Target demographic is, you guessed it, adult men. Anime for this demographic begins to branch out far and wide, no longer tying itself to the typical action and idealistic roots…though, and I sound like a broken record, it might not tie itself to those roots to begin with. Two common directions for seinen demographic anime include a dark and edgy version of shonen demographic anime or to turn for cute escapist characters. The idea of a less black and white morality often begins the blur between a shonen and seinen demographic anime. The ever common “gateway anime” Attack on Titan, for example, states a shonen demographic despite being brutal. But the direction of escapism appears much easier and presents itself in a distinctive manner. Seinen demographic anime also aims at areas the shonen demographic didn’t ever go in terms of experimental concepts. Anime such as Ergo Proxy, Elfen Lied, Ghost in the Shell, and this blog’s namesake Serial Experiments Lain on the darker and experimental sides while CLANNAD, Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha, and Puella Magi Madoka Magica fill the other (the last of the three going on both sides of the spectrum)
- Josei. Target demographic, again easy to guess, is adult women. Like all the above, the definition is somewhat vague. They tend towards the same path of shonen to seinen demographics and open the doors on morality and idealism. Recent trends include focus on daily life, homoerotic themes, and a darker look at romantic aspects which shojo anime typically either ignore or gloss over quickly. A well known josei demographic series is Loveless, as is Eden of the East to my surprise.
Common Anime Unique Genres
Below is a list of genres that tend to stay inside anime more than others. You’ll likely find examples outside anime but they are likely less numerous.
- Harem. A harem anime typically focuses on a main character and a wide swathe of viable love interests. This most typically uses a set up of a male protagonist surrounded by an incredibly large number of female characters as love interests. It’s so commonly accepted in this role that many call a female protagonist with a large number of male love interests a “Reverse Harem” anime. It is rarely played as a dramatic situation, though there are exceptions. A harem anime typically uses the protagonist’s situation as comedic bait. Because the audience typically has the same gender as the protagonist, the supporting love interests often provide fanservice (see below).
- Magical Girl. Magical girl anime, as the name suggests, features magical girls as main protagonists…young girls which use magic. That’s it. This wide open concept actually makes it open for practically any combination of demographics listed above. The varying amounts of action against relationship against everyday life focus easily cover all the above demographics. In fact, while many consider magical girl anime a realm only for female audiences, the most famous recent examples of magical girl anime target male audiences. The most popular genre of magical girl anime utilize a formal similar to superheroes and have villains which the protagonist magical girl fights.
- Mecha. Mecha anime simply utilize mecha. That’s a roundabout description…so let’s describe mecha. Mecha are robots, in essence. Mecha often divide into two categories: super robot anime and real robot anime. The former focuses on the robot as an extension of the robot’s controller (pilot). By comparison, real robot anime typically have mecha which are much more expendable and reproducible. In essence, they are weapons. This vague overview of mecha anime allows for it to slot in combination with almost any other type of genre and target any demographic…though it lends itself very well to action heavy anime.
- Slice of Life. Okay. Fine. This really isn’t anime unique but it has a strong sway in anime and a great deal of slice of life content comes from anime. Slice of Life anime are anime which focus on…well…life. Following along the life of a protagonist. School settings are quite popular for this type of anime as are coming-of-age narratives. This type typically pushes away from action-heavy sequences and focuses on interpersonal and intrapersonal conflicts. An extreme interpretation of slice of life can create entire situations without conflict at all and simply focus on the lives of the characters instead of a grand narrative.
- Yaoi. A subset of romance anime which focus on romance between male characters. The typical audience for yaoi work is a female demographic with there being further distinction for male/male romance anime for male audiences. It’s kind of hard to describe yaoi as a genre (at least in the Western definition; Japan uses the term much differently), so I might just leave at this: there is a great variety of yaoi content from stereotypical romance that you’re probably thinking about to extremely dark and disturbing material. This would deserve its own post to describe…so just take away the basic idea of what the term means and not the implications and subtleties of the genre itself, something that’d take far too long to explain in a post introducing anime.
- Yuri. A subset of romance anime which focus on, you guessed it, two female characters. Like yaoi anime, there is a tendency of female demographics more than male demographic though there are are more pronounced male demographics in certain yuri anime. Again, please note that the twists, turns, and history of this term is far too complicated for an introductory article…so focus on it as female romance. Wikipedia contains articles which go into far greater detail on yaoi and yuri anime.
Note that both yaoi and yuri sometimes refer to sexually explicit content when used in Western settings.
Common Anime Terms
I’ll just start by saying that there is no way this list is anywhere near “complete”, but includes terms likely required for conversation about anime. Not all will become common language for different readers…I’d be pretty concerned about certain combinations appearing together. You’ll also note that a lot of these are Japanese. Please note that some of the terms either are not used in such a sense and that the definitions provided regards how this fandom uses the terminology.
- AMV. Abbreviation for Animated (sometimes Anime) Music Video, a (mostly) fan production which combines mixing songs and visuals from at least one anime. The song does not necessarily need to (and often times does not) come from any of the anime footage used.
- Baka. “Idiot”. Kind of. It has different definitions, but the one you’ll probably hear it in regards to anime is for “idiot” or “stupid”. It comes as part of anime’s character design as irritable characters often repeat the term. Also note: some fans insert this word into their everyday lexicon because of the easy substitution for non-Japanese words.
- Bishojo (Bishoujo). “Pretty girl”. There’s not much else to the term itself. Anime warps around it though and traditions regarding this style of character are evident. Namely, this character typically defines more as “being cute” than outright sex appeal and is younger looking, typically cutting off around 20 years old.
- Bishonen. “Pretty boy”. Now this gets a little more confusing than the above definition for bishojo as the term “pretty”, if you want to stick to English terms, doesn’t really vary between the two definitions. A bishonen character is actually quite effeminate and, like the definition above, refers to younger caracters. Well, maybe. The term is ambiguous since some groups define it simply as “an attractive male character”.
- Chibi. Literally? It means “small” and refers to smaller and cuter characters. That said, it’s misused enough that you should know this definition: Chibi and the art type of super-deformed often intertwine. Super-deformed is a specific anime art style which extremely large heads compared to the rest of the body. In anime where the super-deformed is not the normal animation, this choice typically adds a layer of comedy and lack of seriousness to the situation.
- Dandere. A character which is particularly shy and not really social but changes to warm and friendly under specific circumstances.
- Dojikko. A cute female character who is particularly clumsy.
- Dojinshi. Independently published or self-published works. In the realm of anime, this typically refers to manga. Note that since this refers to any independent publication, professional producers can add to the mix. Works may use original characters or act as fan fiction.
- Dub. Short for “dubbed voices”. The translation for the work in question comes in the form of replacing the original voices with new voice actors to speak in the audience’s native language. There are strong rivalries and debates between the value of a dub vs sub (below).
- Ecchi. Approximation of the English “H”, used to represent a halfway point between standard production and hentai (below). In other words, the product has sexually suggestive material. That’s a vague definition and encompasses anything from fairly benign material such as sexually based humour all the way up to nearly hentai. This weird and vague definition makes it sometimes difficult to distinguish between ecchi and full-out hentai.
- Fanservice (Fan service). The simple definition is T&A. The more complex one utilizes the idea of sexual humour and/or titillation. But that still isn’t fair. The idea of fanservice is easy enough (“servicing the fan” and giving them what they want) but it’s another nebulous concept as some consider climactic and visually gorgeous fights fanservice. The most typical usage refers to sexual fan service though…that is, having characters in sexually amusing or titillating outfits (in fact, I’ll even use “fanservice” to mean “sexual fanservice”). A well-known example of this is younger female characters in maid uniforms. Alternatively, fanservice comes in the form of active choices to have a “shot” linger on attractive body parts for far longer than necessary or gratuitously show sexually attractive images (such as panties on a female character).
- Hentai. Approximate translation definition: perverted. Common definition: anime, manga, and video games (with anime design) which have pornographic content. Funny enough, the word itself is actually quite non-sexually based and you could find situations in which to use it. From what I’ve heard too, many Japanese individuals find it quite amusing that non-Japanese speakers use the word in such a way.
- Hikikomori. An individual who actively chooses to isolate themselves from society. Such individuals may exhibit extreme antisocial behaviours such as rarely leave their living quarters. The concept is closely tied to otaku lifestyle but I wish you recognize them as two different entities. There is currently research investigating this phenomenon in Japan as it appears primarily as a Japanese issue (though countries all over the world report cases). Hermits might be a possible equivalent…though not really.
- Kuudere. A character which initially appears cold, dismissive, and cynical but has a hidden warmer and friendlier personality when approached sufficiently. I might get into this some day but the concept of the second part of this in dandere, kuudere, tsundere, and yandere characters may exist as a development over time as oppose to being “hidden”.
- Manga. Simply, Japanese comics. That’s probably the easiest way to think about it.
- Megane. A term for male characters who wear glasses. This would suggest usage because there is a glasses fetish market out there.
- Meganeko (Meganekko). A term for female characters who wear glasses. Again, this relates fairly closely to glasses fetishism.
- Moe. Oh boy. Well, I’ve written an extensive amount on the subject and even that definition of moe might not agree to the common usage. Let’s just say it’s that “big brother/sister” instinct drawn from an innocent, sweet, or naive young character, typically female. It’s a strange and nebulous definition, I agree, but it’s tough to really draw a straight and narrow definition.
- Otaku. Literally, “you”. That’s the actual term. Of course, the usage shifted to something along the lines of “obsessive nerd” a while ago. The implication of defining as “otaku” is having an obsession with a given interest, defaulting to manga or anime without further description. The origin of the term certainly doesn’t provide much help in this regard. I would also suggest that the term, even if it has a fairly benign origin, can carry heavily negative connotations (such as “gamer” might on Western news stations in stereotyping towards angry 12-year-olds or a fan of murder simulators)…please be careful when using it.
- OVA. Acronym for Original Video Animation. Similar to “straight to DVD/video”, this refers to animation released directly without a TV or movie theatre release.
- Sub. Short for “subtitled”. The original voices remain and translation the translation comes via subtitles. Much like I mentioned above, there remains strong debate between fans of dubs and subs.
- Tsundere. A character which initially appears hostile, irritable, and angry but has a more approachable and friendly personality underneath.
- Yandere. A character which initially appears warm and friendly but has a more destructive side underneath. This description varies a little from the other [x]dere definitions since the character reflects the friendly aspect first. Note that the last part is intentionally ambiguous. A common example of the destructive personality is a violently controlling personality. If that character is a love interest, the situation may be that the individual puts so much into the relationship that they feel they must keep that relationship in their ideal bubble and will do anything, up to and including murder (for instance), to ensure that it happens.
Recommended “Gateway” Anime
What follows is a brief listing of anime which present an effective introduction to anime. You could easily treat me like a drug dealer here as I attempt to push anime into your life.
As a general pick, I find Attack on Titan as the a commonly noted modern anime. It’s got an unusual art style for anime, is somewhat bleak, and contains some lovingly animated scenes. I’ve yet to fully watch this anime myself to please take my recommendation of it with consideration. The Slayers franchise is an older anime that hearkens a bit more of what you might remember as “anime”. It features around the concepts of a typical fantasy genre but plays with comedy a great deal; the anime reaches around for different aspects of both a serious action franchise and a wacky slapstick comedy. It’s got a little for everyone through the episodes produced in the 1990s (Slayers, Slayers Next, Slayers Try) and might only concern you if you weren’t a fan of the animation at the time.
It’s possible that you’re looking for some good old high fantasy but Slayers isn’t your type of anime. A little more towards the female side is Magic Knight Rayearth. It pulls a fairly serious narrative and doesn’t differentiate between comedy and action episodes nearly as much…instead using it as a drip at certain points in episodes. Want one with a little more seriousness? I’m not sure I’d qualify it as a great anime but try out the cliche-filled Record of Lodoss War, an anime founded on Dungeons and Dragons principles (though I guess Slayers is what happens in such a world when the players screw around with the genre’s seriousness).
Or maybe something with just lots of fights and high-octane action is what you want. Berserk‘s high violence should sate you. Some low fantasy violence always helps. Or maybe Black Lagoon, where trigger happy…well…probably isn’t even enough to describe it.
The slice-of-life genre becomes quite interesting in anime. I’d almost imminently state Haibane Renmei. It not only provides the off kilter idea of a slice-of-life anime in an entirely unfamiliar setting but provides an incredible adventure with the characters themselves as you discover more about the world thrust upon you. Welcome to the H.N.K.! provides a much more comedic look at the genre. I’ll warn that it’s dark in its comedy. Wanna break your heart instead? Try the Clannad franchise. Especially the finale.
Feeling a little more sci-fi? Well, I always find mecha recommendations fun. The Gundam franchise practically covers the entire spectrum of dramatic mecha anime. Here, take a fan made sorter to find a Gundam anime which suits your needs. I haven’t watched it, but others throw Code Geass‘ name into this range as well. Need something that makes you feel like someone kicked your emotions around and threw them way? Fine. Watch Neon Genesis Evangelion, a dark and fairly confusing narrative. Again though, it’s stupid dark. Planning for something for laughs and a space opera? Martian Successor Nadesico. I will warn though that its comedy typically plays around expected tropes so you might miss some jokes or fun moments. From the “not really my type of anime but worth considering” list is Tengen Toppa Gurren Laggan. Take escalation to all new heights.
Of course, mecha do not comprise all sci-fi. Ghost in the Shell is the iconic cyberpunk anime. Of course, if you want one with about three pounds of introspection and much less action, have fun with Ergo Proxy. Want to make it more impossible to understand but uniquely presented? Well, Serial Experiments Lain works well. Or, it confuses you the first time you watch since that’s kind of what I just implied.
It could be that you want an adventure. Not characters, but a journey. Well, try the apt named Kino’s Journey. It’s about a teenager named Kino and Kino’s motorcycle as the pair travel. Or maybe Trigun…a space western at its finest. Speaking of space and adventures, Irresponsible Captain Tylor qualifies as a terrific addition if you’re already looking for a non-serious space opera or just love space operas at all.
Or did you want magical girls? Well, the genre rarely plays straight these days. A more combat oriented magical girl anime exists: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha. Make friends by beating the snot out of them in combat more reminiscent of mecha franchises than magical girls. An extremely dark look at magical girls also exists: Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Just be warned, twice now, that it is very dark.
Enough seriousness though. Do you just want to laugh at comedy? Something of a complete and raw sketch comedy anime, probably closest to the zero continuity of Western animated sitcoms? Well, I’d say Galaxy Angel comes close. Want even less sense (if that were even possible)? Try the high-energy Excel Saga, an anime where continuity itself is a character. I’m not sure it’s for everyone but the anime never takes itself seriously for a second and doesn’t even attempt to retain any sense of holding to its source material or to the laws of the universe itself. And, while I’ve never found it my cup of tea, Gintama counts as famous comedy.
Or maybe you just want to, instead of having any of the above, just watch the “moe” characters do cute things? K-On! famously defined this area…actually, come to think about it, that’s actually probably all you need to look at here.
Maybe you just want to defy genres period? Go with Cowboy Bebop. Just do it. The Haruhi Suzumiya franchise also blends so many genres together…you’ll just get lost trying to keep track.