General OverviewA basic definition of anime is sometimes hard to pin down, depending upon who you talk to. The more serious student may consider the Wikipedia article (linked here), which has a vast array of information on this and other topics. Anime in its basic form is a cartoon. However, the medium itself spans so large a set of genres that this definition is too general. Although most anime comes from Japan, there is a decent amount that comes from the US, Korea, and even China. When I was a punk teenager the phrase 'Japanimation' was used to describe those Japanese import cartoons we all drooled over. That term has since fallen into disuse.
What is anime then? It is an art form to many that uses what most would call cartoons to tell a story. Very different from the Bugs Bunny, He-Man, Transformers, or GI JOE cartoons of most 30-somethings' childhoods, these cartoons delve into every genre known to man, and even a few that were invented after its birth as a form of expression. There is a little something for everyone in anime, to cover any genre you could want, to any level of virtue or depravity. In the age of Rule 34 and 4chan, anything you want, you can have.
Anime got its big start based upon manga, or Japanese visual comics, whether serialized in some magazines or sold as individual collections in bookstores. When a manga becomes popular enough, it is usually turned into a series. Much of the anime that is around today is based upon the manga that originally spawned the story. Although some manga which are adaptations based upon the movie or series that they represent, it is usually the anime that is an adaptation of the manga. If you find that there is an anime series that you like, sometimes reading the manga can give you a lot of clues into the background of the story that are otherwise missing from the series. Just like mainstream Hollywood movies aren't exact translations from their books, anime movies/series and their respective manga do not always jive with each other. Some great series/movies have horrible manga, and the reverse is also true. However, unlike in real life, anime series and movies are not limited by the same budgetary constraints for CG effects, stuntmen, and their ilk. While they do have budgets to worry about, they are not limited by artistic constraints other than their inability to dream things bigger and grander than they already have. Some things you can animate that you could never do with live actors.
Recurring ThemesThe following themes tend to appear again and again in various types of anime. If you are a regular fan, you will recognize these instantly. If you're not, then be prepared. The real winners are the ones that don't overuse a given theme or make it too cliché. You can find a few anime that use several. The fewer they do use, however, generally the more I like them, and the higher their popularity overall. Clicking on any of the links in this section will take you to more detailed information, or show images, as appropriate.
- Alien Invasion - this theme is as popular in mainstream sci-fi as it is in anime. Assuming mankind can withstand these invasions, it is usually through some young kids and/or giant robots that they can. This was one of the first and most successful early themes emplyed in anime, and is still popular amond many today. Early pioneering series such as Robotech and Macross dealt with aliens. Some modern titles that employ this are Evangelion, Blue Drop, the Gundam series.
- Large Eyes - this was an affectation of early anime that has largely fallen out of favor in all but a few representations, most notable of pets and children. One of the most prominent media franchises to use large eyes was Sailor Moon, the Japanese equivalent to Barbie Dolls in the US. Vision of Escaflowne is an example of a modern anime with large eyes.
- Magical Girls - female characters that have magical powers that can do fantastical things, usually only after some type of magical transformation. Although not a prerequisite, most magical girls have some sort of wand or weapons that enables them to harness their power. Sailor Moon is an example of a magical girl series. A recent 2-part OVA spin-off from Excel Saga, making fun of magical girls, was called Puni Puni Poemy. This theme is popular among young girls, and disturbingly among some men who are really princesses inside. SGVY is a web comic based upon the same principle and drawn in a manga style.
- Fan Service - indicates giving the fans what they want. This usually refers to providing shots of characters in compromising or revealing situations, showing panties, cleavage, or general amounts of sex-based themes. Some series such as Agent Aika make no pretense about it being serious, and are often labeled as pantsu for a category, the Japanese term for 'panties.' Other series provide fan service in DVD extras, such as Mai Hime, generally leaving the series itself free from these devices. For the interested reader/viewer, being what the Internet is (ref rule 34 above), if that's what you're really interested in, most often the studios themselves happily oblige a Japanese public that views pornography on a different level from us. Most of the studios who produce mainstream animation also produce H-rated (see hentai theme) material at the same time to increase profit margins. This material can be produced by independent studios or by the original studios themselves. You just have to know where to look for it.
- Harem + Weak Male Lead - Harem anime is a series in which there are a limited number of male protagonists and at least two female leads who are involved with him in some way. (Reverse harem is what you would expect.) In the majority of these series the male is usually weak in character in some form, and often unable to make up his mind. Outside of hentai series, rarely is it "a little from column A and a little from column B." In any but the contrived circumstances found in most harem anime no male character possessing the lack of balls would ever find himself in so choice a situation. Not being female I can't comment on if/why any would find these series interesting. Sometimes this is a minor component (such as in Evangelion) and other times it is front and center to the plot, such as in Ah My Goddess. The series that do this genre well are the ones in which a character comes to a realistic decision in which the issue is resolved.
- Big Boobs + Tight/Short Clothing - For the same reason that Lara Croft video games sell, many anime fans are attracted to beautiful women. Regardless of the age of the characters, often there are women regularly wearing revealing clothing and/or with large breasts. Sex sells, and like a moth to the flame, I understand this point of view. Some series have it as an afterthought such as Ghost in the Shell while others, like Burst Angel and Black Lagoon have it as their main selling point.
- 16-yr olds - or perhaps highschoolers might be more appropriate. One of the largest viewing demographics for anime in Japan are highschool-age youth, so in order to appeal to this audience, many of the plots involve characters who invariably are around 16 years of age. It's so prevalent that a series that actually uses adults as the main characters get an automatic step up from the get go with me. Some examples include Neon Genesis Evangelion, Gundam, and Full Metal Panic!
- Crazy Premises/Plot Devices - you will often find that a certain set of retarded circumstances are required for the premise of the series to even work. This is akin to mainstream US movies where the plot is based upon a lie, however, this is much, much worse. For example in Kashimashi: Girl Meets Girl "a young high school boy named Hazumu Osaragi declares his love to classmate and close friend Yasuna Kamiizumi, but she quickly rejects him. Dejected, Hazumu climbs Mt. Kashima and is killed when an alien spacecraft accidentally crash lands on him. To rectify this, the alien in the ship named Hitoshi Sora brings Hazumu back to life, but inadvertently regenerates him as a female right down to the DNA level" (from wikipedia). In another series called Onegai Teacher has a teenage boy unexpectedly encounter a female alien who was sent to study earthlings. Although he is able to escape from her, he sees her again the next day as his new homeroom teacher. Through a series of (unexpected!) events he and the teacher are found in a compromising situation and in order to "help her out" he decides to cover for her as saying that they are "married." (You can't make this stuff up).
- Running a Series Into the Ground - much like in American movies if a first-run movie makes a certain threshold of money, it is destined to have a sequel. Those sequels are rarely as good as the first series. The same is true in anime, with a few notable exceptions (Ghost in the Shell being the prime counterexample). Many early successes are redone again and again with little to no thought on new content other than trying to appeal to a wider demographic, or move into new markets. Exhibit A: Bleach. This series was destined to be one of my new favorites through 4 seasons. The story was one long arc. When it was completed it became retardedly bad in season 5. I've heard that it became better somewhere along the road (currently has 10 seasons under its belt), but I couldn't get back into it. Sometimes its best just to let sleeping dogs lie and savor the memories that you had.
- Poor/Bad Endings - whether it was Evangelion running out of money and being forced to cram an entire second season into the final two episodes (and utterly failing), or just never resolving a central plot point, like Spiral for never telling you who or what the fetching blade children were. It is a sad and cautionary tale. However, fear not. In the event that the series is popular and the ending sucks, there will inevitably be a movie to redo the ending. In some rare cases there is even a large amount of fan material which does a better job at providing closure to an otherwise unsatisfactory ending. (top)
Visual StylesMuch like in Disney animation, there is a large variety of animation styles to be found within the overall anime umbrella. Although the following list is not exhaustive, it provides a good baseline to work from. Clicking on any of the links in this section will show images or videos representational of the style being described.
- Realistic - These tend to be the type of series that I like more. Typically, though not always, if they spend enough time to make the visuals realistic, the plot is also generally good. Some recent examples of this being true can be found in Death Note, Ghost in the Shell, and Seirei no Moribito.
- Stylized Manga - Manga often used certain styles of drawing to indicate emotions, such as sweat drops to show nervous moments, spouting blood to show serious arousal, squiggly marks on the head to show anger, crying rivers to show sadness, etc. Anime that use these styles are often those with much tighter budgets and schedules, as it requires far less work to animate. As a result series that utilize these features are often of lower quality overall, and outside of a few counterexamples, generally not A material. Excel Saga is a recent example. Usually this is used in comedy-centric anime in which animation is not a key point.
- CG - also known as computer graphics allow for quick rendering of some scenes. The best done series/movies are the ones that blend it seamlessly together with hand-drawn content such as Blood the Last Vampire. Other series/movies that used CG extensively include Ghost in the Shell: Innocence, Full Metal Panic, and Initial D.
- Unrealistic - This refers to series, such as XXXHolic, that use exaggerated animation styles for the main thrust of animation in the series. The series is obviously an imitation of life but in such a way that no one can expect it to seriously be confused with reality.
- Afternoon Special - This refers to series that have animation styles which are often a notch below realistic, but generally have everything in good proportions. The quality of the animation is decent but nothing earth shattering. Most anime that gets exported to the states fits into this category. You can often see shiny halos in hair as an example instead of realistic shading. It is made for afternoon viewing and targeted at a younger demographic. Examples include the The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya and The Vision of Escaflowne.
- Mixed styles - these include anime that use a variety of the above styles at various times. These include such series as Hellsing: Ultimate OVA and Trigun. (top)
Useful to Know TermsThe following terms and concepts are useful to know if you're interested in anime. It can help cut down on time spent looking for things and let you know up front the types of things that you'll be dealing with. There are probably some terms that I have left off, but this is a good starter list. This list is presented in alphabetical order.
- AMV - anime music video. It is a compilation of anime video segments put to the tune of song. The adventurous can search for "AMV" on Youtube and find all sorts of interesting things. Two of my favorites include Code Monkey and Skittles. All the AMV's you could ever want can be found at http://amvhell.com/
- chibi - indicates a small and cute version of something. A chibi seal would be a small and cute baby version of a seal. This picture is an example of some chibi anime. It can often be found in an omake or some fan art in various forms. This is more popular in manga in my experience, but sees a healthy dose in anime as well.
- ecchi - is a synonym used for "perverted", "lewd", or "sexy." It refers to something that is sexually charged. It can refer to things like nudity, tight or revealing clothes that accentuate certain body areas/parts, groping, etc. In many cases it refers to sophmoric humor or the types of things you would have seen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Vin Wilder.
- fan fiction - fans of anime series (and video games) will congregate at various locations on the web and create fiction stories based upon the series/movie/game they have mutually experienced. Some of these stories are great and a lot of them suck. It's a mixed bag. If you are looking for resolution to a particularly bad segment or would like to see how things would have gone in a different track, then there is likely a place online, somewhere, which will fill that need. Some fan fictions include crossovers from other genres/series. Most are in written form, but some manga exists as well.
- fan service - Giving the fans what they want. In this example it means typically showing the female leads doing things that they normally wouldn't or wearing clothes that they wouldn't normally. It is almost always ecchi in nature. Some fan service is included directly within the anime, but other times it is included as extras on the DVDs.
- fan subs - Back in the day before anime had any type of serious following outside of Japan, it could be very difficult to get copies in the rest of the world. Fans would take the Japanese products and "rip" them from laser disc, S-VHS, or other media into some digital format for distribution to an eager fanbase with no alternative. The "subs" comes in because the fans who would rip them to alternate formats would also include subtitles. Not all fansubs are great quality, but they are all free, so you get what you pay for. Waiting for DVD quality and the ability to purchase the content can take a very long time, so fan subs fill the void until commercial entities can step in.
- hard subs - anime that has hard-coded subtitles built into the video sequencing. This makes certain that the subtitles can play when the video is watched, but makes it difficult to remove them without destroying some amount of video quality, making it difficult to transcode the subtitles into another language. Soft subs are normally preferred by the community at large, though for the viewer, there is little to no difference in most cases.
- hentai - For the Japanese this term means something that is "perverted" or an "abnormality." In an anime if someone is called a "hentai" it is like calling them a "pervert." I have heard someone translate it as "weak mind." For Western audiences, this invariably refers to material that is pornographic, from soft-core to hard-core. Games or comics that are pornographic in nature are often designated with an "H" in front. So an H-game would be one that has pornographic content in it. Many Japanese dating sim games fit into this category. The Japanese have a long history of hentai, tentacles, and very bad things. There is a WIDE array of hentai material that covers every genre, from incest, rape, student/teacher, horror mix, and ultraviolent content, to more "mundane" pornography. If you do a Google search on the term you willl find more than you could possibly want.
- lemon - refers to a fanfiction that contains sexual content or strong references to the same. If it were visual it could be considered hentai.
- lime - refers to a fanfiction that contains sexual themes which are not graphic in nature. If it were visual it would be considered ecchi.
- manga - graphic novels that gained popularity early in the 60s in Japan that depict anything and everything you could possibly imagine. Many manga are the basis for anime that we have today. If a story becomes popular enough as manga, then it is certain to get an anime eventually. Manga is a good place to look if you would like additional information on a universe presented in an anime, as the manga typically goes into much greater detail than the anime ever does. As most anime is presented to be aired on TV in Japan, even though they have different standards than we do, it is usually tame in comparison to the manga, which has no such strictures. Be warned that some manga can be perfectly fine and then go downhill REALLY FAST. For the interested reader Manga Traders and One Manga are two excellent resources for all of your manga needs. The best part is that they are all free.
- mecha - one of the earliest and most enduring genres of anime and manga are based upon some form of giant robot that can be piloted by humans in some military activity. This is shortened to mecha as an all-encompassing term for "big robots smash stuff."
- omake - means extra or bonus in Japanese. These are often extras at the end of an anime in the DVD bonus section that has things like spoofs, fan service, or additional information. None of it is ever essential to the plot of the story, but something extra for the fans.
- one shot - refers to a manga book which is meant to be a single running. These are much like fanfiction except done by the studios themselves to explore something alluded to in a main story or to do various "what if" scenarios as demanded by the public. Although not all, many are often pornographic in nature.
- OST - Original Sound Track. If you are interested in getting the music from a given anime you can search for OST on the torrent sites and you will find it.
- otaku - refers to people with excessive interests in things, typically anime/manga. If you are nuts about anime, then you are an otaku. If you are reading this, then you are probably an otaku.
- OVA/OAV - Original Video Animation. This typically refers to a short collection of anime that is abbreviated in some way. For example when Oh My Goddess! first aired, it was as a 5-part OVA in 1993. Eventually a film came out in 2000, and a 24-episode TV series in 2005. The OVA was a "testing the waters" experiement which became a success, allowing for the series to eventually come. OVA's may be selections from a larger anime that cover a specific arc/theme, or can be completely different from a regular series.
- scanlations - refers to manga that has been scanned in and translated from the native tongue (Japanese/Korean) and translate to a second language, usually English.
- soft sobs - a subtitle process whereby the subtitles are time sequenced and added to the video after ripping. This allows for players to alter the font size, color, location, etc. as desired, and is the prefered way to have subs.
- torrents - (from Wikipedia) "a peer-to-peer file sharing protocol used to distribute large amounts of data. BitTorrent is one of the most common protocols for transferring large files, and by some estimates it accounts for about 35% of all traffic on the entire Internet. The initial distributor of the complete file or collection acts as the first seed. Each peer who downloads the data also uploads it to other peers. Because of this, BitTorrent is extremely efficient. One seed is needed to begin spreading files between many users (peers). The additions of more seeds increases the likelihood of a successful connection exponentially. Relative to standard Internet hosting, this provides a significant reduction in the original distributor's hardware and bandwidth resource costs. It also provides redundancy against system problems and reduces dependence on the original distributor." Translation - this is how you get anime for local viewing. My preferred torrent client is uTorrent, and my favored torrent sites include Box Torrents and mininova.
- yaoi (shonen-ai) - is content that focuses on male homosexual relationships, though it is typically created by and for females. It originally evolved from dojinshi (self-published works) manga. Japan largely ignores this term and uses "Boy Love" or "BL." Shonen-Ai refers to beautiful boys in love, focusing on the emotional side of things, while most dojinshi works are slash fiction.
- yuri (shojo-ai) - literally it means "lily" and is a common Japanese female name. It is material which focuses on female-female relationships, whether simply emotional or sexual in nature. Those focusing on the emotional aspects are often called Shojo-Ai by Western fans. Publishers often call this genre "Girl Love" or "GL." (top)