Japanese Animation may be a relatively young art – starting up in the 20th century, but is has roots in storytelling and art that dates back thousands of years. Like anything odd at first, a little knowledge goes a long way.
This article is not designed to get you to like anime, but to understand it better.
If this article could be summed up in one sentence it would be this: “Anime is an acquired taste that requires patience and an open mind to fully appreciate.”
This is not an academic paper. These are quick and generally accepted answers to common questions that will give you a good overview and the practical knowledge you need. All of this is a simplification of a lot of complex information. It is a cheat-sheet, not a textbook.
What is that word, “Anime”?
It’s the Japanese word for Animation. You can say “Annie May” or “On-E-May”. In Japan, the word is more complex, but basically it’s just a word that non-Japanese use for Japanese animation. Just say the word “Animation” without the “tion” part.
The word is often used to describe the genre of anime and many of it’s recognizable cliche’s — which we’ll talk about here — or as an individual piece of work. For example, you might hear people say “I love Anime. Is that an anime you are carrying? Let’s watch it.”
Ok. So what is Manga?
Manga is the Japanese word for comic. Many Americans say it like “Mango” with an “uh” sound at the end instead of the “o”. It’s closer to the original Japanese to say “Mong-uh”.
Either way, it just means Japanese comics. As with the word “Anime”, “Manga” is also more complex in it’s original language. For our purposes ‘Anime” is Japanese animation and “Manga” is/are Japanese comics.
What are Japanese Superheros like?
Unlike in the U.S., Japanese Manga (comics) have a wide variety of stories and subjects. There are Japanese costumed heroes, characters who fight crime or foil evil villains with fancy outfits, but there are also comics about young men and women who yearn to be great chefs and who fall in love in high school.
Almost any type of story you can imagine can appear in a Manga in Japan. Popular ones are often translated and brought to America. This is relevant to understanding Anime because many anime television shows and films are made from popular manga.
Manga its self is a complex subject because they are a different format from American comics.They are available in magazines that carry many different stories running all at once, or a popular storyline might be collected and published in a paperback-sized book.
There are many Japanese superheroes. Just like American superheroes they come in all shapes and sizes. Some are science based, including robots and aliens, but there are also heroes based around magic, martial arts and other wild origins.
Unlike American superheroes, Japanese companies often retire heroes and introduce new ones rather than have the same hero live unaging over a long period of time. Some of the best known Japanese Superheros are the android Astroboy, the alien Ultraman, the team based Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, and the cybernetic 8th Man.
Why does everyone have giant doe-eyes?
Not everyone does, but many anime feature characters with large, round eyes. Many attribute this to early artists such as Osamu Tezuka who created very popular early anime like Astro Boy. His style of making cartoon-like character with large and expressive eyes is often credited with creating that stylized look that many people associate with anime.
But if the characters are suppose to be Japanese, why don’t they look Japanese?
It’s a legitimate question, but one that opens up a huge can of worms. No single answer seems to satisfy everyone on this subject. A Japanese anime director might say that characters are about their personalities, not their exterior appearance, and that you should judge them by who they are and how they act, not on stereotypes.
An Academic might talk about Japanese cultural identity being overtaken by the west, and that anime characters are often a reflection of complex emotions Japanese men and women have about body image and standards of beauty in the modern world.
An anime fan might say that it doesn’t really matter. If a character is from Japan and has a Japanese name, then get on with the story. If she has blond hair, then so be it. Maybe she dyed it, or maybe it’s just a way to make a character different. It’s not real life. It’s a cartoon afterall.
Reguardless of which theory is right, if any, all you need to know if that anime characters have a wide variety of appearances in a wide variety of works. You shouldn’t assume you know who someone is until you’ve learned more about them in the story.
Yes it’s something to get use to. Yes there are cultural implications. But there is also a rich tapestry of great stories ready to be explored. This is just one of those “open your mind” moments we talked about earlier. Leave the theorizing to others and lets find something special that really speaks to you.
Why is everybody acting so weird?
Some anime films and TV shows have a type of stylized, silly humor. This is true even when the general subject is serious most of the time. Many see these “silly bits” such as women pulling hammers out of nowhere to hit people with when they get angry, or men getting nosebleeds when they find something or someone wildly sexy.
It may seem strange for a woman’s face to suddenly change shape completely and become much more cartoon-like in the middle of a seriously animated TV show or movie. It’s meant to lighten the mood (sometime for just a moment) and give you a quick insight into someone getting angry, being embarrassed, aroused etc. It’s like a language all it’s own, and you’ll get use to it.
Why are they talking like that?
If you’re talking about the anime character speak english it might be something to do with translation. It could also be a voice actor doing an odd read. It could also be the fact that anime is written from the point of view of a different culture with a rich and very different background in storytelling from the west. Or it could be a combination of all of those things.
If it’s Japanese then you’re hearing another language, with it’s own cadence and beats (not unlike music) that may sound strange to your ears at first. Give it time. A good set of subtitles should keep you in the story and allow you to enjoy the action as well. But as with any other art form, some are better than others at doing this.
Why does it just feel wrong, too frenetic, too boring?
Just like a different language can have odd beats and cadences that throw you off, so can story telling. Sometimes comedy can be done at a ridiculously fast pace. Super-powered characters can start doing moves and pulling off things that no human could possibly do. In comedy, normal characters can suddenly become super-strong in defense of a beloved character for humorous effect.
The way humor and drama are done (and often mixed) is one of the ways a story can seem odd and disjointed if you’re not use to it. In the end, it may not be your cup of tea. But keep with it, and remember that just like American animation, comic or other forms of entertainment… there are a lot of different flavors out there.
Wait, the story makes no sense!
Besides the cultural differences outlined above, you have to also remember that good storytelling is often about hiding information from the audience to interest them in the story. With Japanese manga and anime audiences exposed to a great many stories every year, writers have to be more creative.
By using sophisticated storytelling techniques like flashbacks and characters only hinting at the full truth, the makers of anime assume that their audience isn’t dumb and will be patient as the story is played out in it’s time. Knowing the time frame when “all will be revealed” is very helpful to avoiding frustration, so ask someone with knowledge of the work you’re looking at before you decide if it’s for you or not.
A single film may tell the entire story from beginning to end. A series might draw out the answers over twelve or more episodes — culminating in a grand unveiling at the end — or there simple be yet another “season” comming before the answers are revelaed. Doing you research here is the key.
Why is everyone a pervert?
Sexuality and flirting are treated differently in many Japanese stores than Americans might expect. Sex and nudity are not taboo in the way they are in America. That is not to say that Japanese culture has no taboos. just that their taboos and ours do not always match up. In most anime flirting and making passes are not as big a deal as in American shows.
Even shows made for younger kids can have older teenage characters being flustered by being asked out by someone too young for them, or too bold for their age (for example) for comic (or tragic) effect. In some comedies men try to see women bathing together in hot springs only to get punched so hard when they are caught they literally fly off into the sky.
The next day they may come down to breakfast with a black eye and a sad look on their face. The point is that overall talking, joking and presenting sexuality and sexy topics is not flat out taboo in animation, but unless you’re watching an anime porno, it will probably just be a bit titillating, but nothing more.
So there is anime porno?
There is anime that covers pretty much every type of story you can imagine, and yes, that includes erotic or pornographic stories. They have the same restrictions on getting them that you would expect a live-action film to have, so not everyone can watch them. But they exist and they can get extremely explicit.
They can also be romantic and less blatant in their presentation. Like trying to find any other type of story there are good ones and bad ones, wild ones and tame ones. If adult anime, known in Japan as “Hentai” (pronounced liked the words “Hen” and “Tie”) sounds odd, don’t buy/rent/watch it. What you consume is entirely up to you.
The Wrap Up
So, there you have it. Some of the most common questions about anime answered. Anime can seem strange and unknowable from a distance. Up close it becomes more friendly and easy to understand. Every type and genre of story can be presented in anime, and every tone from deadly serious to ridiculously off-the-wall humor can be found by those with a little patience.
A real guide to the best anime will have to wait for another day, but for those curious to try a bit now, I’d suggest something simple – a mix of humor and serious action, characters and situations across a series.
Fortunately the first full season of The Tower of Druaga is available for free on YouTube, put there legally by the company that produced it. A more comprehensive look at actual works, including “Classics” and “Guilty Pleasures” will have to wait for now.