Introduction to Japanese Animation

The word anime is borrowed from Japanese, where it simply means “animation”. Here in America, it’s specifically used to refer to animation/cartoons that come from Japan. However, the differences extend beyond the country of origin. Anime, unlike American cartoons, isn’t always meant for children or a small subset of adults (like Family Guy etc.). Anime (and true to the Japanese language, that is both the plural and the singular form of the word) spans genres from children’s series to hentai (basically porn), sports series to fantastical adventures, you name it. there’s pretty much an anime for anything and everyone.

Anime vs. American Animation

In addition to the diversity of topics for anime, there are a few other major differences between anime and American animation. The biggest difference is that anime usually have overarching plots. Each episode is meant to be watched in order and advances the overall storyline towards a goal that exists separate from the episode. This is in contrast to the usual style of American cartoons, where each episode is considered a separate story and is meant to wrap up any storyline that it begins within the episode (or, sometimes, in a Part 2 episode).

This difference leads to the second major change in anime: characters change and evolve. In contrast, American cartoon characters are fairly static. Homer Simpson remains much the same character today as he has been from the beginning of the Simpsons. And that is who he will always be. For the vast majority of American cartoons, the episode order makes no difference, and anything odd in the episode will return to a state of normalcy by the end (meaning that the following episode can take place as if the previous events never happened). But just like in a movie or a book, anime characters are expected to learn and grow from their experiences, changing their character. A small and weak boy, in a coming-of-age anime, is expected to become a strong, independent young adult by the end of the series. Fighters get stronger, relationships grow and change, and the big bad evil must eventually be defeated or reformed. As far as storytelling goes, anime are far closer to books, or even series of books, in the way they treat plot and character development.

Main Types of Anime

There are a few general subdivisions of anime which cover the majority of anime series

1. Shojo or Shoujo

These series are directed at girls/women, most popular among teens. Shojo series usually focus heavily on romance, although some also include fair amount of comedy, action, etc. Likely the most well-known shojo anime is Sailor Moon, part of the sub-genre of magical girl anime. Indicative of the genre, the main character, Sailor Moon, has a complicated romance, several female best friends, and magical powers that allow her to fight evil.

2. Shonen or Shounen

Unlike shojo, shonen series are aimed at boys/men and focus most heavily on action and adventure. The shonen genre covers a wide range of anime, everything from fighting series to sports series. If it isn’t shojo, there’s a good chance it’s shonen. The most famous anime for this genre is more difficult to find, because it’s so widespread. Some notable examples are Pokemon (although this series has shojo elements), Dragon Ball Z (the quintessential fighting anime), and the Gundam Series.

3. Hentai 

The last major division of anime, this genre is mostly concerned with physical intimacy, whether heterosexual or homosexual. Often graphic, this type of anime should be reserved for 18+ viewers. Notable hentai series include Love Hina.

Repeat Themes

Even though anime spans all sorts of topics and themes, there are some that are common and oft-repeated.

1. Magical Girl

 In these series, a girl or several girls gain magical powers, from various sources, that let them fight various forms of evil. Also, the girls are usually middle-high school age. The girl/girls sometimes stay in the real world or are transported to a different, magical universe/world. If there are multiple girls with powers, there are usually either 3 or 5 of them total (not sure why, that’s just usually how it is). A perfect example of the genre is Sailor Moon, as stated above. Another good example is a series called Magic Knight Rayearth, where 3 middle school girls are transported to the magical land of Cephiro. Once there, they gain magical abilities and become the “Magic Knights”, prophesied warriors. That’s how it goes in magical girl series.

2. Mecha

Short for mechanized robot, mecha refers to series featuring giant robot fighting suits. They often include military aspects, which makes sense, since the series generally focus around wars being fought with the giant robots. Also worth noting is that the giant robots are often piloted by adolescents, reflecting the target audience of most such series.

3. Fighting

This may seem like a fairly general theme, but anime uses it a little differently than other forms of media. Fighting anime usually include a single main character (usually surrounded by other, lesser fighters) repeatedly placed into scenarios which involve multiple fights. Common plot elements are fighting tournaments, learning new ultimate techniques, and receiving strength (either from training or other sources). Again, the quintessential fighting anime is Dragon Ball Z. Goku, the main character, goes through several levels of power-ups that basically end with him being the most powerful being in existence (rather common in anime, which often makes it hard for the series to continue, since there’s no one left to present a challenge to the character. Goku and the other characters go through various alien threats, tournaments, and adventures, usually involving saving the Earth. Standard fighting anime fare.

4. Yaoi 

 Yaoi refers to homosexual relationships in anime, and both a popular and widespread theme. Many series use this theme as their backbone and rely heavily on it to get viewers. Yaoi specifically refers to male homosexual relationships, but other similar subtopics include things like Shonen-Ai (two men), Shojo-Ai (two women), and Yuri (two women). Yaoi is simply the most common.

So that’s just a little nutshell of information about anime. Hopefully this will give people new to anime a little information to get them interested, and maybe give anime fans a little help in explaining what anime is.

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