If you’d like to skip to a tl;dr on what to know when trying to start watching anime, click here.
I’ve noticed a trend with people that enjoy anime. Outside of the more passionate outliers, fans tend to underplay or even omit their love for the genre until someone else brings it up. With these people, conversations go somewhat like this:
I apologize for my atrocious handwriting. Here are captions:
- “blah blah blah”
- “yeah, there’s this weird japanese show that I watch sometimes in between loads of laundry, maybe you’ve heard of it? <ANIME_SHOW>”
- “OMG YES I love <ANIME_SHOW> I’ve watched it 34 times and own <ANIME_CHARACTER>’s sword”
In western culture, there’s a stigma associated with watching and enjoying animation as an adult. The idea that anime is a form of entertainment relegated solely to childhood has been beaten into the American psyche by weekend re-runs of Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. These shows are prime examples of shōnen, a sub-genre of action-filled anime catering to a young male audience. It would be incorrect to assume that these popular shows are all that anime has to offer.
The truth is that anime is far more complex and nuanced than these well-known shows let on. In Japan, it’s a fully fledged and culturally accepted form of entertainment for adults with sub-genres that cater to nearly all demographics and interests.
Let’s back up a little bit. What even is anime and how did it come to be? The word anime literally means “animated cartoon” (written アニメ) in Japanese, but the cultural phenomenon we know today has its roots in a far older medium, the manga cartoon.
Origins of Manga and Anime
Manga are comic books originating from Japan.1 They have a unique style owing both to aesthetic principles developed in the late 1800s and inspiration from scrolls dating back to the 12th century. These early scrolls were rudimentary by modern standards (see frolicking animals above) but pioneered the sequential image format, the right-to-left direction, and the idea that you could express humor and wit through art.
Throughout the millennium, the genre continued to develop as artists prototyped the idea of manga as a consumer product through commercial picture-books. In the early 1900s, manga, referring to “whimsical and impromptu pictures”, started to gain traction.
Eventually, as many such entities2 do in their rise to power, the Japanese Imperial empire co-opted manga to spread propaganda about the boons of Japanese leadership. Everything changed however, when the Axis powers acknowledged defeat. In the post World War II era, the Allied powers occupied Japan and stamped out any propaganda or militarism—they also embedded an article in the constitution prohibiting state censorship. This backdrop of occupation and upheaval liberated a subset of the Japanese population: the local artists.
One of these creatively unfettered artists was Osamu Tezuka3 who created the most iconic and recognizable character of the era: Astro Boy.
Astro Boy had the powers of a superhero and the naïveté of a little boy bent on making the world a better place. In a way, he represented the changing tides of Japanese culture as the people shifted their focus from militaristic submissiveness to an emphasis on community. Astro Boy would also go on to influence shōnen (manga for young boys) and shōjo (manga for young girls) for decades to come.
As the shifting cultural tides provided a fertile backdrop for artists to expand the scope of their craft, technological advancements4 paved the way for a new form of media: animation.
The 1960s saw the emergence of anime’s unique style (characters with large eyes, big mouths, and disproportionately large heads) which was heavily influenced by manga. People around the world began to spend more time on their television sets, and animation made a splash. Japanese animation had its own unique flavor, which eventually leaked into American repertoire — though it wasn’t until the 1980s that the floodgates truly opened.
In 1985, Hayao Miyazaki created Studio Ghibli which would later be known as the pinnacle of high-end Japanese animation — “Japan’s Pixar”. In the decades that followed, technological growth and worldwide interconnectedness fueled a proliferation of anime into cultures throughout the globe.
Anime is one of the most well-developed genres of foreign media in the United States. It’s for this reason (and many others, which I’ll discuss in the next section) that it has had such a strong foothold. Despite the existence of foreign entertainment like Telenovélas, Korean Dramas, British TV, or even Bollywood, anime reigns supreme in viewership and dedicated fanbase.
Even outside of the United States, anime has a powerful grip on many audiences. A few examples that support this:
- France has a significant affinity towards manga, with sales eclipsing even that of the United States (and with < 20% of the total population).5
- Giuseppe Durato (better known as Peppe from the Japanese Reality TV Show Terrace House) is an Italian manga artist who moved to Tokyo to be in the show and also fulfill his dream of seeing his own manga in a local grocery story. Peppe emphasized multiple times that one of his intentions for coming on Terrace House was to show the Japanese that people even in places like Italy loved and appreciated Japanese culture.
- Finally, Brazil is known to have the longest history with anime of any western country. There’s a substantial ethnically Japanese population in Brazil and anime / manga are currently at the height of their popularity.
Before we dig into the modern implications and influence of anime, we need to dive a bit deeper into a formative period: the renaissance age of animation in the 1990s.
A Renaissance of Stagnation
“The visual aspect of comics is what got me into the profession in the first place. It seems ridiculous to not take advantage of that to the fullest extent you can. Animation is, I think, the fulfillment of the cartoon. There is nothing you cannot do in animation. Unfortunately, animation has not taken advantage of that either, and usually ends up with stupid stories or crude art. The whole cartoon industry has degenerated over the years.”
The 1990s saw a resurgence of animation in the United States as multiple studios sprung up to overthrow Disney (which was basking in the afterglow of The Little Mermaid) from its throne — this led to the Renaissance Age of Animation. Most animated shows that have remained culturally significant well into the 21st century, like The Simpsons or Samurai Jack, were conceived in this era.
However, American animation couldn’t live up to itself and the country soon after saw an influx of anime. This marked the end of an era in which American media reigned supreme. One cause was that American animation in general was relegated to a single demographic (children) while Japanese anime had freedom to explore any topic or theme that one could imagine.
Japanese anime filled the void with its OVA model6 and the cheap margins of producing manga. While American studios doubled down on episodic action shows that optimized profit, Japanese anime flourished and provided meaningful long-form content that the public craved — more on this later.
Western & Eastern Media
As alluded to, there are clear distinctions in the ways that western and eastern media develop animation. Beyond the economic model and intended audience, there are differences in the storytelling, production strategy, and technical implementation. One way to explore these distinctions is to contrast the two most well-renowned studios in their respective countries — Pixar and Studio Ghibli.
Pixar & Studio Ghibli
As an American, Pixar is something that I’ve grown up to associate with good animation — and it’s no doubt excellent. From Chris Qu on ReelRundown:
“Pixar stories are unique, because they seem to be carried out by someone who has both an artistic vision, and the imagination of a child. They create movies about talking toys who only come to life when no one is watching. They create movies about a rat that hides in a chef’s hair while doing all of the cooking for him. They create movies about a trash compactor robot living in a post-apocalyptic world who falls in love. They create movies about a grumpy old man who flies away by attaching his house to a large number of balloons. These ideas are all kind of silly, but they work, because Pixar is really good at what they do.”
These brilliant stories manage to both entertain and inspire us, while imparting a broader perspective or life lesson. While similar in sheer creativity and imagination, Ghibli films tend to be broader in scope and sometimes draw inspiration from Japanese folklore and mythology. Also from Qu:
“Studio Ghibli makes movies about a ten-year-old girl’s parents being trapped in a bathhouse full of spirits. They make period pieces containing boar gods, wolf deities, and kirin. And they make movies that are loosely based off of the story of the Little Mermaid, that are just trippy and Japanese enough to make you swear that you’ve somehow dropped acid without knowing it.”
Even though they both share the creative spark and gumption needed to thrive in a medium as chaotic as animation, American and Japanese studios have historically resisted integration and co-mingling. Since the inception of Studio Ghibli, there was a pressure to make the films seem more “American appropriate” before exporting overseas through Disney.
Only through collaboration with the equally scrappy and inspired Pixar was a film like Spirited Away able to reach mass consumer appeal. This creative lock-step between Ghibli and Pixar is what allowed this masterpiece to eventually win an Academy Award. This however, was the peak of their partnership and future films became more difficult to market in a country that grew up on Disney.
Character Animation vs. Scene Animation
Beyond the feel and cultural context, there are objective technical differences in the way that America and Japan create animation.
The western canon of animation focuses far more on character animation by having them act out scenes, as if giving a real-life performance. Thus, animators are given the task of bringing a character to life, as if they themselves are actors. America in the 20th century was immeasurably shaped by Hollywood and the animation reflected this. From Cartoon Revue:
Believable characters are the end goal in traditional western animation. Accordingly, most American animators highly value great character animation.
In Japan however, animators focus on scene animation and are given the responsibility of bringing a particular scene to life. This has led to the Sakuga 作画 phenomena in which certain impactful scenes of a show vary drastically in quality and style from the scenes immediately before and after. There is an entire subculture dedicated to following specific animators where fans determine their watching habits based on the animators & studios, rather than the arc of any particular show.
Japanese animation is also significantly more flexible with regards to technical details like framerate. To portray fluid motion, western animation typically sticks to 24 frames-per-second (FPS) while Japanese animation flits between 6 and 12 FPS, rarely clocking in at a full 24 (with the exception of certain Sakuga moments).7
This slower framerate allows gives the viewer the space to rest their gaze upon the exquisite backgrounds and stills. It also allows for some more exaggerated and jerky styles of movements to characterize the feeling of the particular moment. This all contributes to a broader focus on the overall cinematography and the vibe of the animation.
Michael Barrier sums it up best. There are clear distinctions in the way that animation is produced in the east and west. In the west, we have a lot to learn with regards to creating a more immersive experience. Conversely, the east can learn a lot from how deeply the west cares about enlivening its characters.
“Often times classic Hollywood animation had severe deficits in story and structure. But the best Hollywood animation (Snow White’s Dwarfs, Dumbo, etc) had strong character animation to put across emotional reality within a film. Miyazaki (and anime in a stereotypical and general sense) has strong story and weak characterization. If only we could find a happy middle ground…” — Michael Barrier
A Digression into Technical Differences
From this article by Rich, we can glean a few of the more technical tricks that amount to the unique aesthetic that we find in anime:
- Fewer frames per second as mentioned above gives a large precedence to the scene and background while maintaining the illusion of motion
- Frozen images of a single scene accompanied by music, sound effects, or narration to isolate what the animator wants the viewer to focus on
- Repeated sequences e.g. character running in a looped motion with the background moving to create the illusion of motion
- Lip syncing by animating a mouth while the face remains static
- Shorter shots to create rhythm and not give audience the time to react to any perceived lack of animation
- Special effects layering on top of static image
- Panning the camera around over a static scene
- Framerate modulation (slow or speed up the framerate) to alter the feeling of the scene
These differences led to a more cost-effective production model for anime by reducing the supplies needed for a finished product. This freed up the animator’s time to work on other scenes and projects and not be dependent one a single show or even a single studio. Occam’s Razor might apply here and explain how Japanese animation’s iconic low framerate style emerged — just as a cost-saving mechanism driven by capitalism.
As someone who has just written thousands of words lauding anime, it’s hard to stomach the idea that anime naturally has lower production value due to its utilitarian nature. However, this limited-style animation might be more in line with how we interpret and process information. Also from Rich:
“Although limited-animation may not better represent reality, it may better represent our perception of reality: the way humans observe, process and remember information.
…limited-animation’s lack of motion and details eases our understanding of characters, narratives, and themes. Although full-animation mimics reality in detail and fluidity, limited-animation tunes into human perception by focusing on the raw, concentrated meaning of the world around us; albeit fictitious, animated worlds.”
Production value however, isn’t equivalent to quality and the ineffable experience of an anime just feeling … good.
What Makes an Anime Good?
“Quality … you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! … What the hell is Quality? What is it?”
In some ways quality is subjective, but it’s straightforward for almost anyone to discern whether something is of high quality or not. This a-priori aesthetic sensibility gives us an instinctual opinion as to whether something is of quality. Anime is not exempt from this, and in this upcoming section I’ll try to clarify the attributes that have led to anime’s universal appeal.
Enchanting the viewer from the onset is one of the goals of all media, and this is primarily driven by the visual element. While it is true that anime has a lower framerate and “production value” when compared to other animation, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s of lower quality. To the contrary, the use of mood-appropriate color palettes, to shading and detail work, amount to a precise and well-crafted aesthetic. Especially in high-quality Sakuga scenes, the visual element can keep you immersed and allows you to enjoy the show on a visceral level.
Outside of action scenes, there are moments of peace in which the plot movements give way to the stillness of the backgrounds. These moments are deeply therapeutic as we can sink into the surreal elements of the show and engross ourselves in the beautiful art, vibrant colors, and well-executed transitions.
An excellent complement to the visually pleasing nature of anime is a well-choreographed accompanying soundtrack. The power that music has to transform the mundane into something transcendent is baked into human biology and anime takes full advantage of this fact. Music and visuals paired together are like peanut butter and jelly — excellent on their own, but synergistic together with the ability to augment each individual other’s flavor.
👇🏽 Please don’t watch this if you’re not caught up with Attack on Titan or plan to watch it at some point in your life!
One of anime’s superpowers is its ability to tell an excellent story about almost any topic. Unlike shows in the west that are constrained to a relatively narrow band of possible topics, anime can explore any imaginable topic with the same level of rigor and dedication to the craft. From shows following the coming-of-age of a rising tennis star to dystopian cyberpunk thrillers, anime dives deep into the depths of these plots to draw out the most meaningful insights. Though a crazy premise isn’t necessary at all — one thing that anime also manages to excel in is slice-of-life content that is more grounded in the ordinary and explores the simplicity of relationships between characters and regular circumstances.
The stories are further enhanced by the complex and carefully crafted characters. As mentioned earlier in this post, anime characters don’t act out a scene, but rather serve as vital pieces in the scene as a whole. The characters generally have strong personalities that can be unconventional and break stereotypes. Throughout the show, a main character’s driving motivation is revealed and built upon through recognizable quotes or actions.
Even though it’s difficult to relate to an animated character (especially one that is portrayed in a lower framerate with generic expressions for emotions), it’s difficult not to feel empathy for a well-written character. They all have a set of quirks that combine to become (1) their weaknesses (2) their strengths and (3) what breaks the barrier between us (the viewers) and them. We are reminded time and time again that they are fallible and experience the human condition, just like us.
Anime has also had strong female characters and lots of cultural diversity before it was cool, and incorporates them in a way that doesn’t feel forced. Some of the best & most well-written characters in all of anime are women, including Mikasa from Attack on Titan, Faye from Cowboy Bebop, and Akane from Psycho Pass. Not to even mention this absolute gem that breaks down all walls of race & religion:
As is the case with many foreign media, anime can serve as a microcosm to learn about Japanese culture. First-time watchers will learn about surface-level things like not wearing shoes indoors, students cleaning their schools, the various levels of formality in speech, and the universal love for a well-executed prank.
On a more deeper level, we can find parallels within the Japanese spiritual tradition of Shinto. Shinto can be best described as a “disorganized religion with no single god, but stories of extraordinary people and things worshipped as deities”. Shinto legends have served as the source material for many anime storylines, and the moral openness of the religion allows writers and animators to explore more nuanced themes. For example, death (even of main characters)8 is common in anime since death for a noble cause is considered honorable in Shinto tradition. Another example is the moral ambiguity of many shows, with the viewer never really knowing who to root for. Shinto asserts that “good” and “evil” aren’t always dominant in an individual — rather that we all have the innate capacity for both greatness and darkness.
From the discussion on production above, it’s clear that there is a culturally different way that Japanese animation studios approach the creative process. For example, the emphasis on scenes over characters might be connected with the Japanese value of prioritizing collectivism over individualism. Though, as Michael Barrier warns us, we would be remiss to attribute the creative expression of these animation artisans solely to cultural determinism:
“It’s tempting to speculate that what’s going on is, again, distinctively, “Japanese” — the submergence of the individual in the larger organization, and so on. But such an analysis seems reductive and even patronizing.”
Something even more culturally powerful in today’s world is the vibrant global community that exists around anime. AnimeCons.com has a list of all official anime conventions worldwide and there seems to be at least one multi-day convention occuring somewhere in the world at any given time. The fandom is full of passionate anime lovers that spend days cosplaying (dressing up as a character) and geeking out over their favorite shows.
Due to the emphasis on scenes in Japanese animation, characters tend to follow certain stereotypes with personalities conveyed through shorthand (anchored on the eyes) for emotions. We feel emotionally impacted watching anime because of the events that occur and the empathy that we may feel for the character, rather than the convincing performance of the character. This is why cosplay, fan-fiction, and fan-art are so popular — the characters in the shows are effectively blank slates for creatives and fans to project whatever ideas or emotions that arise in the viewer.
A Prospective Anime Watcher’s Guide
Okay, that’s probably more information about anime than you’ll ever need to know. Before you leave, here’s a handy guide on the most common considerations you might have when trying to get your anime fix.
- Where should I watch it? The best source for watching anime (outside of Japan, maybe) is Crunchyroll. You can watch almost any anime shortly after it’s released for free. The desktop version doesn’t even have ads!
- Is it in English? Yes — well… some of it is. The majority of the high-quality anime was originally conceived and made in Japan. The more popular shows now have English dubbing (voice actors that have translated the show to English) but honestly, that’s the suboptimal way to enjoy it, IMO. Almost all anime has English subtitles which allow you to understand the plot while not losing the emotion and context that the original voices give you. Subs > Dubs
I love that Japanese king of the hill fans debate whether to watch subbed or dubbed pic.twitter.com/U8SUEPhF3o— Gene Park (@GenePark) August 22, 2021
- What is the age range? As mentioned earlier, there are genres (shōnen and shōjo) specifically targeted at a younger audience. The vast majority is, however, for all adult audiences. In fact, some more gruesome shows like Attack on Titan would certainly not be appropriate for a child that cannot handle a
little bitlot of gore.
- What sub-genres of anime are there? Honestly, if you can think of a niche, there’s probably an anime for it. Here’s a non-exhaustive list to start.
- Do I need to read the manga? Definitely not. Most anime is derived from manga and the animators generally do the source material justice and don’t deviate too much. If you’re hyped up on a show and don’t want to wait for the next episode / season, peeking ahead at the manga can be an excellent (although unsatisfying) fix. I say unsatisfying because a lot of the enjoyment comes from waiting months or years between seasons and letting the power of a good show soak into your bones before watching more.
- Why did you spend so much time writing this piece? Same reason why you’re spending time reading this answer! I have however realized that it might have been best to break this post into a series. Oh well!
In a recent newsletter, I wrote about anime after watching AoT (which I just finished re-watching again with Mack). It’s one of those things that iykyk9 and if you didn’t know, now ya know. The stigma and lack of understanding of this art form is pervasive in our culture, and I hope this piece has done its part to alleviate that a little bit.
men will literally alter their file systems instead of admitting they like anime— nikhil నిఖిల్ (@nikhilthota) July 21, 2021
Thanks for reading! Has reading this changed your perspective on anime? I would love to hear about it and connect on Twitter!
📝 I recently watched @AttackOnTitan.— nikhil నిఖిల్ (@nikhilthota) August 30, 2021
More accurately, I binged it and then watched it *again* with @Mackenzie_Patel.
It was so good that I wrote an entire ~5k word blog post on anime, its origins, and what makes it so uniquely enjoyable.https://t.co/dnEevYLNqG
In addition to importing political values, the United States also started importing their comics and cartoons, which deeply influenced the style of manga at this pivotal period. Osamu is known as the Japanese equivalent to Walt Disney, who he considered a major inspiration during this time. ↩︎
Thousands of separate but connected technological breakthroughs have been part of the revolution that has made animation possible, including: the zoetrope, the multiplane camera, cels, dry photocopying, 3D modeling, tablets and styluses, beefy animation software, etc. ↩︎
My running theory here is that this is caused by the cultural parallel between manga and French art with the Japonisme art movement in the 19th century. There are some meaningful aesthetic principles from this era that have influenced both French art and Japanese animation. ↩︎
Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann is a prime example of this phenomena with 40% of the show’s budget (27 episodes) being thrown into the last ~4 episodes, which each had almost double the frames of any other show’s final episodes. ↩︎
There is a certain American squeamishness to see our favorite characters die, but I do hope that mainstream pioneers in the space like Game of Thrones continue to normalize the utter transience of life. ↩︎