Look, you keep me around on a general geek blog for long enough, and you’re bound to get a post about Japanese animation (colloquially known as “anime”). Several posts, in fact; between talking about various series, discussing currently-airing shows, and providing some recommendation lists, I think there’s a lot of fodder for fruitful blogging. So, if you know nothing about the medium, buckle up and get ready to learn!
What is Anime?
We’ll get the really technical bit out of the way first: despite the fact that “anime” is commonly talked about as a particular genre, a specific slice of media, it’s in reality a very broad category–probably about as broad as terms like “French cinema” or “South American literature”. While there are some common visual elements to many series, and the various cultural influences of Japan are clearly present in most shows, there’s still a massive amount of variety between them. Here’s a quick sample of what you might find, at least visually…
Hallmarks of Anime
The most obvious element of anime is probably its visual distinctness; while it took early inspiration from Disney, it quickly diverged into its own set of visual conventions which blended cartoonishness with an intense attention to detail and action. Vibrant color (especially in the hair!), distinctive character designs, and realistic details like shading and highlights (especially in the 90s!) have dominated Japanese animation, with some exceptions. The rise of popular manga has also heavily influenced animation styles, as manga adaptations provoked the use of exaggerated effects and imagery in animation.
Narratively, you can often single out anime for its diverse content; unlike Western animation, which is usually thought of as a children’s medium and thematically limited by corporate executives, anime is a go-to medium for a massive variety of topics, genres, and stories. In anime, there’s a Hitchcock-style crime drama about a surgeon chasing a serial killer, a medieval Japanese low fantasy epic about an impending nation-wide drought, an over-the-top alternate universe where Britain took over most of the whole world with the help of mecha, and The Count of Monte Cristo in 19th Century Space France.
You think I’m joking about that last one.
Thematically, Japan is influenced by a number of cultural elements, including Shinto, Buddhism, and also Christianity. That said, the cultural elements often wind up serving as context or set dressing for a wide spread of topics. While some shows are nothing but zany wacky comedy (or unabashed erotica…or both, depending on the show), there’s plenty of other anime* which drive towards many different meaningful and complex themes, such as mercy, justice, compassion, revenge, and trauma. Some of the best shows pit different ideals against one another, putting well-meaning and even admirable protagonists on opposite sides due to circumstance or their own flaws.
*fun fact: the plural of “anime” is “anime”
Did I mention that Christianity tends to show up in weird places?
Getting Into Anime
It can be pretty bewildering, starting to get into Japanese animation. I’m going to be writing a later post about some good starting shows, but otherwise it can often feel like a shot in the dark. A number of anime are hyperviolent, overly sexualized, or so filled with Japanese culture that a newcomer might be strongly put off. Really, I tend to suggest that you go with the recommendations provided by friends who are already avid consumers of the medium.
In terms of where to watch it, several series have made their way onto popular streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu, and Crunchyroll is a former anime piracy site which struck deals with animation studios and now officially licenses anime from them, using ad revenue and subscriptions to subsidize the cost. FUNimation (a popular American anime distributor) also puts some of their licensed series on YouTube.
If you want a few quick shows to check out, you might want to look into Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit, Angel Beats!, and Mushi-Shi; between the three of those, you get a decent idea of the scope that anime can cover. If you want more, I’ll be back, later…
Until then, have some 90s Anime X-Men.