What is it about anime that I love so much?
For that matter, what is anime?
Essentially, anime is Japanese animation. The Japanese take animation seriously. The US, not so much. American animation is intended to be family safe. Stories and plotlines have to be suitable for children of any age and parents of most political persuasions. Movies that have adults in mind are usually live action here. Since the assumption is that only children would want to watch animation, the product becomes sterile, free of obvious sexuality, free of anything truly scary, free of political incorrectness or even just subversive humor. Anime can be stunning works of visual art. On the other hand, the mass-produced animation of Saturday morning is usually devoid of any creativity or artistic merit whatsoever.
I don’t guarantee that any particular link here is still good. Aside from Crunchyroll and Funimation, Netflix and Hulu, many of them drive my popup blocker crazy and sometimes even rouse my antivirus’ wrath. (9Anime and the different Kissanime servers have a particularly unhappy tendency towards that. I just keep on trucking.) Websites come and go, contracts get renewed or don’t and ownership changes. If you want to find an anime where the link no longer works, just Google “watch (fill in the name of the anime)“.
Anime displays the entire variety of human action. Often you will find characters more true to life and believable than most movies. Shounen, which is the majority, is directed at adolescent boys. (The great exemplar of this genre is Naruto.) Most of the anime you see on Toonami and Adult Swim is shounen. And most shounen is just teenage boy fantasy writ large. (Hence huge numbers of “harem anime”.) There is a vast body of PG and PG13 productions targeting a younger male audience but that isn’t all there is to it. Kodomo is aimed at younger children. The prime example is the endless Pokemon franchise. Shoujo is aimed at adolescent girls. An interesting example is Orange, where a woman writes a letter to herself in the past and somehow it gets thru to her teenage self.
Josei is aimed at an older female audience. I recently watched Otona Joshi no Anime Time and it was an amazing collection of shorts aimed at contemporary women. REC is another adult romance for the josei crowd. (Don’t ask why I’m so partial to josei….)
Seinen is aimed at young adult males. Right now the most famous example of anime today is seinen. Ghost in the Shell is the rare anime to get the big screen live action treatment by a major American studio. Yaoi is anime with male homosexuality and yuri deals with the female aspect.
Age and gender and gender preference aren’t the only criteria for categorizing anime. Content is another. There are a lot of different plotlines out there. The Harem anime is a very common one. In a harem anime, there is one boy being pursued by several girls. The grandaddy of all harem is Tenchi Muyo. Reverse harem anime has a girl being pursued by several boys and might be represented by Yona of the Dawn.
Mecha is another common genre which features giant robots or battle suits. (I was introduced to this genre by watching Gundam Wing with my son many years ago.) Magical girl anime is very popular among young females. Sailor Moon is probably the most famous.
Any genre that video or literature can express can be found in anime. Murder mystery, space cowboy, romance, comedy, noble quest, supernatural, political thriller, space exploration, sword and sorcery, historical, mythological, sports, music, martial arts, horror, dystopia, you name it. Good anime usually ends up often combining several genres in one plot.
Fanservice is mainly scantily clad beautiful girls (or guys) and can be as innocent, as say, Bay Watch. Sexual activity doesn’t happen on screen and isn’t even implied. It is called “fanservice” because it is a visual treat for the viewer but has no real plot importance. Fanservice is very common as it is part of the adolescent fantasy. (Fanservice for a little bit older audience might move closer to ecchi.)
Ecchi, roughly meaning “naughty”, indicates anime where there is sexual activity suggested but not completely shown – or perhaps just unusually suggestive fan service. Sexuality is approached in a playful manner. Nude people would have critical anatomy obscured by artfully located props, wisps of hair, glare from lights. (I think it is hilarious to show full breasts without nipples – as if that makes them less sexual.) Might even have graphics or the word “censored” stamped over the offending anatomy. The Testament of Sister New Devil is full of very strong ecchi. Some would consider it hentai.
OTOH, Fairy Tail is a very popular shounen famous for having large boobs, barely there clothing – and that clothing is frequently blown away by magic or somesuch. One male character hates wearing clothing at all. However, it is one of those shows where one person’s ecchi is another’s fan service. You can have a lot of naked without anything sexual going on. You decide. What I like about the show is the friendship and loyalty all the characters show for one another, no matter how bad the situation gets.
Hentai (meaning perverted) is where the sexual activity is shown. No attempt here for sweetness and light, that’s the real thing being represented. Hentai is meant for a seinen or josei audience and – often as not- has a weak plot to sex ratio. In US cinema it would be typically rated R. (In Solitude Where We Are Least Alone would be light hentai with an incest plot. A very adult theme but only somewhat explicit.) R-18 is the subset of hentai we might consider hard-core porn. Not a big fan of the last one but it doesn’t mean there couldn’t be good work out there. I just haven’t seen it. And I’m not looking.
The Japanese have a refreshing view of what is acceptable for adolescent entertainment. For example, you could have a slight streak of yuri in a shoujo and produce a hybrid called Shoujo Ai. An example of this might be Izetta – The Last Witch. Another is A Certain Scientific Railgun.
(Shounen Ai is shounen with a slight gay streak.) Gays, lesbians, and cross-dressing and gender dubious characters are not on the forbidden list for adolescents in anime and even sometimes a hint of incest – altho real incest gets you into josei and seinen territory. Some people see OreImo as having incest in the plot line. I’m not so sure. I think it is more about a young girl living an unhappy life as an otaku (an anime obsessed person) and her brother’s efforts to bring her closer to a happier place.
Another term in use is Lolicon, which is short for Lolita complex. Lolicon is used when a very young female character is made sexual in some way. One “nice” way of doing this is where you have a female that looks ten but is really 400 years old, incredibly powerful and pursues an adult who doesn’t yield.
We have one of those in Gate. There are also some not-so-nice lolicon works, like Kodomo no Jikan. Shouto con is the same thing only applied to young boys. Yeah, and there are siscons and brocons and waifu and husbando and weeaboo and fujioshi.
Often a young girl is referred to as a loli, even when there is nothing sexual in her presentation – just to confuse things. Moe (you pronounce the “e”) refers to a simply adorable character that tugs at your affection. Often, “moe” characters are young children but the term applies to any beloved character(s). It can apply to the person watching as well. The violinist in Your Lie in April is moe to the nth power. “Kawaii” means cute.
Okay, so enough with the different genres. It is pretty obvious that anime has everything mainstream cinema has and then some. Seinen and josei can deliver a truer range of relationships than cinema can for a tiny fraction of the cost. Shounen and shojo are far more diverse than anything Disney ever crafted for teenagers. Imagine: Hanna Montana gets into a duel to the death with a wisecracking Satanic being. Her adopted brother Zach (who she has a secret crush on and who hates wearing clothing) has been knocked unconscious and defeated. The demon blasts her with hellfire. She is immune and transforms into the goddess she is a reincarnation of. (Of course, her clothes are not immune… and this could be handled as fan service, ecchi or nothing special at all.) She fights on, her modesty protected only by strategically located plumes of smoke and extraordinarily long hair until she delivers the ultimate attack and defeats him.
Alas, Disney does not do anime.
There are some fundamental principals of anime you have to get used to if you would fully enjoy it. Nine out of ten animes have teenage protagonists. Even many of the adult protagonists look like teenagers. It is just the art style. Runs completely contrary to the Japanese reverence for age. Young is in. However, among the very best anime, the proportion of older protagonists is higher. When I think of the greatest anime series of all time, many of them have adult leads. Otona Joshi no Anime Time, Ghost in the Shell, Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Rurouni Kenshin, even Dragon Ball Z, these all feature clearly adult characters. But still, it is largely a youthful world. Deal with it.
This is actually one of its assets. You may be an old fart, but for a while, you can immerse yourself in youth again. Re-experience all those awkward teenage moments in an entertaining way. Vicariously, be the hero you always wanted to be as a kid. Go ahead and drop that gruff and cold adultness for a little while.
A very common trope is the teenaged protagonist living on his/her own because the parent(s) is overseas working – or even dead. Parents impair freedom of action and if you insist on having subadult protagonists, parents get in the way. For that matter, relatives, teachers, police, social services, all the systems we have for assisting people with serious problems often either don’t exist or are actively hostile. The kids are on their own.
In a bizarre twist, all the characters have western features. I’m not sure why the Japanese give such short shrift to their own beauty. You can have an odd situation where everyone looks like they just emigrated from the US but the work is set in feudal Japan. Some anime feature vaguely Japanese-looking people but they are in the minority.
Hair comes in every color of the rainbow. Magenta, green, whatever, and can be impossibly long. Eyes are huge relative to the head, even more so than an infant’s. And I’m really getting tired of all the pointy-chinned faces. (Seems to be the current fashion.)
Another silly feature is that women often have unnaturally large breasts. (Teen boy fantasy, remember?) In some anime, an average woman looks like a 40-D and complains about being undersized. And sadly, breast size is often a major focus (fortunately, not all anime), a kind of Barbie doll fixation. A common trope is a woman who is insecure about her flat-chestedness. In Toradora! this is handled very well. It is a minor point in the show. Yes, the heroine is flat chested but in the end, it doesn’t matter at all. Lesser anime use the bust size as a running gag and are less for it. I just ignore it.
Getting a nosebleed is a shorthand for sexual arousal. So much blood may be lost I am amazed the poor guy/gal survives. A drop of sweat is nervousness and a blush is – well – embarrassment, as you’d expect. (Anime characters will blush at the strangest things.) Shyness and embarrassment about things sexual are far more common than coolness.
That is true despite the fan service and despite the amount of ecchi out there. A walks into the bathroom while B is getting ready for a shower. Modesty is preserved by a towel or undies or impossibly long hair or steam from the shower. Or maybe B‘s back is turned. A looks like he has suddenly severed an artery in his nose, covers his eyes and shouts that he’s sorry. B turns scarlet, finds the nearest massive object and clobbers A. Fan service can be awfully rough on a guy.
There is also a fair amount of nudity without any sense of sexuality about it. I suppose that would be only natural among comrades at arms. (Or at a drunken party.) A common trope is the hot spring/public bath. Usually, gender segregated but occasionally it goes coed, sometimes by intent and sometimes by accident. It may just be another setting or it may be just a variation of fan service.
Anime for the American audience comes in dubbed and sub-captioned (subbed) versions. (Some of it is also censored for the US networks.) The big name anime that get imported to the US are given very high-quality dubbing with major name voice actors. About the only place to easily see these anime (other than the internet) is Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim & Toonami programs. Most of the anime that doesn’t make it to the US on cable does not get quality dubbing. (Dubbed hentai is absolutely horrid!) For those, I highly recommend subbed versions. You get used to it quickly. Most hard-core anime watchers prefer subbed to dubbed at all times. (One unusual exception to this is an older series called Ghost Stories. It failed in Japan so the English voice actors were allowed to say pretty much anything they wanted. It is intermittently hilarious.)
Anime titles in Japanese are often very long. I have tried to use the English titles for works of anime when I have them. Try saying Baka to Test to Shoukanjuu three times quickly. Anime usually starts out life as a manga series. Manga are highly developed comic books, visual novels, where a very long story is told one chapter at a time. (Shonen Jump is an example.) The Walking Dead series on AMC is a television adaptation of a popular manga. Even the best manga don’t usually make it to live TV, so they become anime.
There is a rule that whenever you are about to deliver an attack on an opponent you must shout out the name of the attack as you do so. Not always followed but very common. For example, Twin Star Exorcists splashes a screen up for a second with the attack name writ large in kanji upon it before the action proceeds. Then, of course, there is Goku’s famous “Kamehameha!” attack in the Dragon Ball series. Every kid knows about that one.
All of this is just dancing around the periphery of why I love anime.
The first anime I ever saw was Vampire Hunter D. It was produced in 1985 and I think I saw a 16mm film version of it in the early 90s at a science fiction convention. (We called it Japanimation at the time.) Compared to what we see today, the quality of the animation was mediocre, to be generous. It still grabbed me. It was dark and grim. There was evil afoot – and not some half-assed villain from a Disney flick. There was blood and there were nipples. Townspeople were often cowards or cads. Fear permeated the land. The heroine was more than capable of taking care of herself against any human male but a 10,000-year-old vampire was a bit out of her league. The hero was hated for his mixed ancestry by all (except the heroine and her brother) but is tolerated because he is good at his job. In the end, there was both triumph and tragedy.
You would never see mainstream animation like this. It has to be antiseptic. It has to be free of offensive content. No gore and not too frightening. The horse wouldn’t have its throat torn out by one monster and then be carried off in the teeth of another. No innuendo. The heroine wouldn’t initially offer to barter her body for the hunter’s services and later offer it to him out of love. Deep philosophical issues would only be handled in a facile manner, if at all. Hell, you can’t even smoke in an American animation.
I will give our animation some credit. Some like Futurama and American Dad and The Simpsons are pretty funny. South Park doesn’t shy away from controversy. The Boondocks covers racial issues better than any live-action show I’ve ever seen. The Venture Brothers is a hilarious satire of the mainstream “boy adventurer” cartoon genre. It isn’t a complete wasteland. Sometimes they do explore less than rosy aspects of life or society, sometimes they get edgy. However, Disney and Pixar and whoever have beautiful animation but stories that leave me, say, less than enraptured. Sterile characters. Formulaic plots. Often funny – but oh so predictable and bland.
Culturally I’m a pretty liberal guy. Anime elements that would never get put in US animation don’t bother me in the slightest. I love it when a female protagonist kicks ass and takes names and doesn’t get all “feminine” later to make up for it. Political incorrectness? Go for it! Gore and violence? It’s anime fer chrissakes. What’s yer problem? Alternative sexualities? So what? (Yawn) Gratuitous sexiness? Not a big deal. Don’t watch it if you don’t want.
And I’m not saying that all anime is great. No different than in cinema, 90% doesn’t have much value. It is just there as a filler to make money. Some programs are just better than others. A little trip into a different world where you can forget about the shortcomings of reality and the characters are more interesting than the real ones you have to cope with. A time to turn off the stress hormones and the guilt trips, put the brain in neutral and let the show take you where it will. (Come to think of it, that itself is pretty valuable.)
Great anime goes where US animation won’t go and cinema doesn’t know how. The concept that would never make it to film because of the cost, the controversy or too small of a niche market has no problem in anime. If you’d like to watch some of the very best anime up front before wading thru the thousands of offerings out there, I have some humble suggestions (not in any order). These are in addition to anything I have mentioned above.
Anything from Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki is treated like anime from the right hand of God. The quality of the anime is superb. The plots are fantastic and deep. You fall in love with the characters. There is a fundamental humanity in his works rarely seen in anime or cinema. These are movies with something for every age.
Complex plot. Wonderful art. Shinji is a boy with emotional problems and yet is asked to handle the fate of the world. This movie, also available as a series, hits on romance, religion, individual identity, adolescent sexuality, abusive parenting, mecha, and the apocalypse. The introduction of the kuundere (doesn’t display emotions) character archetype to anime. What is not to like? I’d show this to teens. Too complex and potentially scary for preteens.
This is the noble quest on steroids. Periodically several mages are selected for a contest to win the Holy Grail. They are assisted by heroes of legend who have fantastic powers. (Saber, who is King Arthur and wields Excaliber, is the most powerful hero. And also a young woman racked by bitter memories.) Only one mage-hero combo can survive. The Grail can grant you any wish but it may not be as benign as one might want. Zero and Stay-Night are two movies in the franchise that are often broken into episodes for TV. There is love and tragedy, action and strategy, characters you come to care for (or hate) and great art. Fine for teens but also good for adults. A third movie, Fate – Kaleid Liner involves younger characters in the same universe.
Spice is an itinerant salesman who hopes to make his mark on the world. Wolf is an ancient deity who can transform from a lovely woman (with a tail and wolf ears) to a gigantic she-wolf. The love story is subtle and develops over many episodes, not flashy and not heated. This one is definitely josei and seinen. The plot is intricate and builds slowly. Most younger people will get bored with the details of being a traveling businessman. But the rewards are great for people who like to think.
This series is the quintessential high school senior love story. Taiga Aisaka defines the role of tsundere, the angry and quarrelsome character who is concealing warmer feelings. (She also has a bit of a Napoleon complex.) Ryuji is a lonely boy with few friends and no girls. Character development is outstanding and you build great empathy for all of them. There is comedy, interlocking love triangles, and a few tears along the way. I recommend this to everyone.
This is the ultimate science fiction/action/mystery/philosophy combo. Teens will like the shoot-em-ups and the hi-tech cyborg bodies. Adults will like the political machinations and the philosophical conundrums of the meaning of life and the future of humanity in a world where machine sentience is a new reality. Hugely popular, there have been several movies with two of them aired in the US as a TV series. The Ghost in the Shell: Puppetmaster movie was picked for the major studio live-action version of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansen. There was controversy over the decision to pick anglo actors for the leads in a Japanese film. Given that it was to be released in the US and the characters in the anime all look like and are dubbed like Americans, it isn’t that far a stretch.
Another show I first met on Adult Swim. It is a very dark mystery/thriller about a character who can kill anyone just by writing their name in a book. The villain is psychotic. The hero is a kuundere genius. Lots of intelligent plotting make this a great detective anime. It might be a little scary for the little ones but is great for teenagers up.
Ah! The grandaddy of all harem anime. First saw this on Toonami and fell in love with it. Tenchi is an ordinary boy who seems to collect hyper-powered space women who continually bicker and fight over him. Tenchi is immeasurably popular in Japan, having spawned 4 different TV series and 3 movies. Boy to manhood, romance and jagged people softening their rough edges in an action-packed space opera. Definitely one for the boys – and girls will like it too. Tenchi Muyo is featured in the picture at the top of this blog. This picture is from a spin-off, War on Geminar, involving his half-brother Kenchi.
You want space cowboys? This is it. The story of the crew of the Bebop, a ne’er do well pair of bounty hunters and the strange crew members they collect along the way. They usually get their target but they often cause so much destruction the bill leaves them broke. An action-comedy but there is a bit of romance and a bit of sadness too. Great long-term arc and outstanding music. All ages.
Makoto Shinkai can almost do no wrong in anime and this is a masterpiece of the first order. Watch it in the highest resolution you can. There is no better art in anime. The story of a high school student and the older woman he meets is… well no spoilers. Have a handkerchief ready. Quiet and slow paced, it is called josei for its emotional depth but thoughtful guys will enjoy it too.
Mei Misaki of Another is an anime archetype. After this series, female kuunderes and derederes (extremely shy) with short dark hair and showing one eye showed up all over the place. (Compare to Mysterious Girlfriend X, a really fun romance.) Turns out the visuals and the characterization make her very moe, someone you become attached to and whom you desperately want to be happy. (Other versions of kuundere are icy.) This TV series is in the horror genre with a load of romance added. Horror is not something anime often does well but Another knocks it out of the ballpark. Good for teens and up.
As I mentioned before, I lost my anime cherry to this movie. I just rewatched it and it hasn’t lost any of its charms. Yet another one of those rarities, anime horror done well. I had no problem showing it to my kids but you may find the heroine’s exposed figure in one scene to be inappropriate for youngsters, tho it was important to the plot and not gratuitous. Technically you could call it seinen. There is a fine sequel out, Vampire D Bloodlust.
This anime virtually defines shonen. You follow a boy from his preteens to his late teens. Starting as a loser and outcast, he grows in power, wisdom, and maturity. (Altho he is oblivious to a few things as well.) It is still running. I think we are up to episode four hundred something but the story arc is nearing its end. This is the perfect anime for the 10 to 15 age range.
Another shonen favorite. Kenshin was once the deadliest assassin in Japan, the Battousai, but has vowed to atone for the sins of his past. He swears never to kill again and wields a katana that has the sharp edge on the inside. He and his friends are caught up in the struggle that will determine the fate of Meiji Japan. Also immensely popular, IIRC there are about 8 seasons in the TV show, three anime movies, and three live-action movies. Good for any age. My wife really likes it.
A brilliant but heartless corporate executive gets pushed in front of a train by the man whose life he destroyed. As he is about to die, God tells him he is such a lost cause that he’s only going to get reincarnated once and if he doesn’t learn to believe in God, that’s it. So he comes back as an orphan girl in an alternate reality. The setting is similar to Germany in World War I except the Germans are the ones being aggressed upon by its neighbors. Magic exists and the Germans happen to have most of it. She is so brilliant and so powerful that by the age of ten she joins the army and becomes known as the Terror of the Rhine. Watch her career rocket as she creates an elite magic force and crushes all who oppose the Empire. Will she find God and her own humanity or is this the last time around for her? This is a new anime. I have seen 4 episodes (on Crunchyroll) and I am already addicted.
This is possibly the greatest love story in all of anime. Definetly one of the saddest. It had me weeping less than halfway thru. It also has perhaps the greatest appreciation of classical music of any anime. I’m at a loss for words for how deeply I felt about it. Moe piled upon moe. (The only other anime that has ever had me weeping was H2O, which I have listed below.)
Other great anime:
- Your Name (Romance, body swapping, American screening by FUNimation)
- Clannad and Clannad Afterstory (I am half way thru Afterstory. I can tell already it will be a massive tearjerker. Sweet and sad beyond my ability to handle.)
- FLCL (Just weird, boy coming of age)
- H2O – Footprints in the Sand (Romance, tears. Lots of tears at the end.)
- Yamada Kun and the 7 Witches (Harem, romance, body swapping)
- Kara no Kyokai (Psychotic girl grows up to be a supernatural detective)
- A Certain Magical Index (Magic and technology shonen)
- Serial Experiment Lain (Very dark mystery, full of paranoia)
- Full Metal Alchemist – Brotherhood (Two brothers who got messed up by magic they shouldn’t have been trying, join the military. This is a staple of Adult Swim.)
- Requiem for the Phantom (Seinen -Two people brainwashed into becoming assassins)
- Bungaku Shojo (Boy writes prize-winning novel under female pseudonym)
- Chihayafuru (Wouldn’t think an esoteric card/poetry game being pursued by a nerdy young woman at school could make one of the best josei anime out there – but it did.)
- Pokemon, Yugioh, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon (little kids)
Obviously, the list could go on and on. I have taken care not to include anything too exotic for American taste. If you’d like to get deeper into the world of anime, I happily refer you to Misty Chronexia and his Youtube channel. There are a number of reviewers of anime out there and I think he is the best.
On cable TV, Cartoon Network has a selection of anime that is intermittently good. Catch it on Toonami and Adult Swim. The content there has been picked for American audience acceptance. Toonami shows traditional shonen, while Adult Swim tends to both shonen and seinen and also has some very strange non-anime stuff. From the name you can tell this isn’t always child safe. Some cable companies offer an optional anime channel with limited content.
Lamelle Theaters has been occasionally running the really fine anime by Miyazaki. Fathom Events and Funimation have been bringing top-notch anime to American movie screens. These are special events and not something to count on regularly.
For now, your best bet is the internet. Crunchyroll is probably the most popular page. Be aware that they will often run the censored version of the more adult anime. Censorship is stupid and counterproductive and I hate to reward the censors but most of the time Crunchyroll is pretty cool. Lately, I have been watching most of my anime on Crunchyroll but there are many other choices, “pirate” sites like as Kissanime or 9anime. (Google is your friend.) Even Youtube has a fair selection. Some have more offerings or offer quicker availability, higher resolution or to get rid of the commercials if you get a paid membership. (I tend to go for the free service.)
So go ahead and get your feet wet in anime. You may never watch it again but I think you’ll like it. You may turn into as much of an otaku as I am.