The term “anime” is abbreviated from the Japanese word animéshon, which in turn is a direct transliteration of the English word animation. Comprised mainly of TV series created in Japan, anime features distinctive characters, long-running storylines, and unique aesthetics. As Japan’s most visible export, anime and related products – manga, toys, action figures, and video games – challenge the worldwide dominance of and serve as an alternative to US popular media. Starting as a major influence in about 1995 and abetted by the Internet, Japanese pop youth culture has spread not just to the US, but also to western Europe, East Asia, and Latin America.
About a quarter of the Cartoon Network’s programming features anime, from Adult swim’s Dragon ball and Inuyasha to children’s shows like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh. Stylistically, Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in the shell inspired in part the Matrix trilogy, while Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill films feature anime-style segments.
By the 1990s, the US anime market was worth about $500 million annually. With even mainstream chain stores selling anime, by the mid-2000s, sales rose to close to $1 billion, not counting related merchandise. (Translated manga alone rose from $50 million in sales in 2000 to $140 million in 2005 in North America.) However, to put US sales in perspective, consider that the overall Japan market amounts to $26 –$34 billion and that no anime film has achieved the $40 –$50 million Shrek box-office range. On DVD, all three Inuyasha movies combined sold just over 1 million US copies in 18 months.
That saga of a time-tripping junior high girl and a half-demon was, in 2007, still running on the Cartoon Network. One full TV series season usually includes 26 half-hour episodes. In addition, the field of anime includes long-form theatrical films with higher quality visuals, such as Hayao Mizaki’s Spirited away (winner of the US 2003 Animated Feature Oscar). A third form, original video animations (OVAs), are usually one-shot productions, shorter than films and released directly to video. An OVA (e.g., Tenchi muyo) can even spawn movies and TV series.
One can think of the cartoon segment of the Japanese media industry as a pyramid. At the bottom reside manga, thick periodicals printed on cheap newsprint that contain multiple storylines. At the next level are cartoon books of popular storylines that originated in manga form. (A few of these cartoon books are translated into English for a growing foreign fan base.) Moving up, one finds some of the books taking on life as Japanese-language TV anime, films, or OVAs. Of those, a few find their way overseas, either dubbed or subtitled.
Most anime include a variety of thematic elements – action, comedy, drama, fantasy, horror – making them difficult to categorize. The setting may be contemporary, futuristic, historic, or fantastical. Certain specific Japanese-language designations, however, do apply to anime. Of these, some genres take their names from their target audiences:
- Josei (young woman), example: Nana;
- Kodomo (child), example: Doraemon;
- Seinen (young male adult), example: Oh my goddess;
- Shojo (young lady, little girl), example: Card captor Sakura;
- Shonen (boy), example: Dragon ball.
Other genres take their names from their content:
- Bishojo (beautiful girl; anime featuring attractive female characters), example: Magic knight Rayearth;
- Bishonen (beautiful boy, featuring “pretty” and elegant boys and men), example: Fushigi Yugi;
- Ecchi (meaning “H,” short for hentai, a Japanese designation of indecent sexuality, featuring mild sexual content), example: Love Hina;
- Hentai (abnormal, perverted, featuring erotica), example: La blue girl;
- Maho shojo (magical girl; a sub-genre of shojo), example: Sailor moon; this sub-genre is referred to as “big eyes save the world” (see below);
- Maho shonen (magical boy; the male equivalent of Maho shojo), example: DNAngel;
- Mecha (mechanical, featuring giant robots), example: Mobile suit Gundam;
- Moé (endearing; featuring extremely perky or cute characters), example: Little snow fairy sugar;
- Sentai/Super Sentai (fighting team, featuring a superhero team), example: Cyborg 009;
- Shojo-ai/yuri or GL (girl love, featuring love and romance between female characters), example: Revolutionary girl Utena;
- Shonen-ai/yaoi or BL (boy love, featuring gay love and romance between male characters), example: Gravitation.
Some anime titles have content even narrower than those above, focusing specifically on racing cars, golf, boxing, or the French maid fantasy.
Techniques And Style
At the start of the twentieth century, Japanese filmmakers experimented with the animation techniques that were being developed in France, Germany, the US, and Russia. The early Japanese animators believed that animation had to mimic live-action dramas. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, popular US series were imported into Japan using “limited animation” (which lowered production costs by decreasing the number of cell drawings per minute). In 1963, the limited animation form was tried in Tetsuwan atom (Mighty atom); when it met with phenomenal success (a rating of 40.7 percent), the genre was off and running. The anime style still uses a limited number of drawings, with intensive effort put into each one. During the 1970s, anime further separated itself from its foreign roots.
A noticeable anime (and manga) hallmark is characters’ unnaturally large eyes, a legacy of the revered artist Osamu Tezuka (1928 –1989). Inspired by the exaggerated features of US cartoon characters such as Betty Boop and those in classic films like Bambi, Tezuka drew large eyes – not necessarily to achieve a foreign look, but because eyes could empathetically reflect emotions. When Tezuka began drawing Ribbon no Kishi, the first manga specifically targeted at young girls, he further exaggerated the size of his characters’ eyes. Tezuka and later artists simply carried the big-eye print conventions into anime.
The chibi (super deformed) character style features not only huge eyes, but an enlarged head and small body. Other common motifs include, especially in comedic anime, bulging veins on foreheads (anger), a giant sweat-drop (disbelief ), and thin facial lines (embarrassment). The male gaze, when aimed at women, can take the form of ridiculously bulging eyeballs.
More than 1,000 TV anime programs have been produced in Japan since the first TV animation was broadcast in 1963, the 30-minute series Tetsuwan atom. As Astro boy, the series was successfully exported to the west.
In the later 1960s, the world got its first large-scale exposure to anime via the dubbed Speed racer children’s TV series, even though many viewers probably did not think of it as Japanese. After a lull in the 1970s, a wave of imports – notably Star blazers and Robotech – resumed in the early to mid-1980s. In the 1980s, as anime was accepted as mainstream in Japan, a boom in production ensued, especially of adult-oriented TV series. There followed another export lull, this time due to the increased value of the yen. Then, in 1988, the confusing, violent theatrical film Akira was released.
The year 1995 marked a turning point for exports; Dragon ball and Sailor moon appeared as dubbed US TV series, while Ghost in the shell was released in 1996, eventually peaking at 51 US theaters. These anime acted as placeholders somewhat low on the public radar until the arrival in 1998 of two blockbusters: the money-making Pokemon for children and Dragon ball Z, an epic good vs evil story told over 260 episodes. Would non-Japanese audiences accept storylines that were not self-contained in a single episode? The Cartoon Network, which took a chance on Dragon ball Z as a daily after-school program, saw it rise to become the channel’s top-rated show. France is another large export market. Beginning in about 1993 with popular translated manga, Frederic Boilet’s translation of the sophisticated To a distant town appeared in 1998.
Choosing new fare for western viewers can be dicey. In 2006, the Tokyo Big Sight convention center housed the annual Tokyo International Anime Fair, which included a sprawling trade show, closed-door industry symposiums, and awards ceremony; it attracted 100,000 or so fans. When the Frognation company’s Eureka seven received three awards, including best TV anime, the Cartoon Network promptly acquired the show.
Earlier, Disney had bought the international distribution rights to many of Hayao Miyazaki’s films. To date, Princess Mononoke, Spirited away, and Howl’s moving castle have appeared in many US theaters. Bringing “very Japanese” works, such as some of Miyazaki’s films, to western audiences entails special challenges. Nowadays a “light touch” approach to localization has proved popular with fans as well as general viewers. Music, however, usually does change when an anime is licensed to another country.
For any anime, cross-national processing involves many steps. After a basic translation, an editor studies the script as he or she watches the show, getting a feel for the characters. Then, while holding auditions, a major decision involves how close the English voices should be to the original Japanese ones.
Each actor records alone, so he or she can concentrate on synchronizing the mouth movements, making it difficult to generate the chemistry needed between characters. Child actor Aaron Dismuke, 11, as Edward in the fantasy-adventure Fullmetal alchemist had a special problem: to complete the recordings before his voice changed. Another dilemma is difficult-to-translate puns and wordplays. In the case of OVA, the audience will mainly be serious anime fans, which means staying especially close to the original. Video and DVD releases include not only OVAs, but also TV series and films judged not to be commercially viable for general audiences.
Terms for non-Japanese anime fans range from Japanophile to wapanese (wannabeJapanese, who, for example, use Japanese words in their English sentences) to otaku. Otaku is a Japanese pejorative term used to refer to a geek obsessed with anime and manga. Derived from an honorific Japanese term for another’s house or family, the term was first used by author Akio Nakamori in his 1983 series Otaku no Kenkyu (An investigation of otaku) and later when writing about rapist/serial killer Tsutomu Miyazaki, a recluse apparently obsessed with imitating pornographic anime and manga.
Otaku provides the name for Baltimore’s annual August anime convention, Otakon, the biggest on the east coast; it attracted 22,000 fans in 2006. Just 15 years earlier, in 1991, the first US manga/anime convention was held in Anaheim, California. Costume contests, or cosplay, play a central role at US fan conventions, which usually feature musicians from Japan and voice actors.
Baka-con was created by a fan group. The anime fan club phenomenon, common at even small US colleges, has reached secondary schools. The US anime fan community, although numerically not very large, has influence because of its affluence, intelligence, and motivation. Fans’ devotion to anime, however, can have ethical and even legal implications.
Although it is a violation of copyright laws in many countries, some fans watch fansubs, recordings of anime series that have been subtitled by fans – preferred by many over dubbing. The ethical implications of producing, distributing, or watching fansubs are topics of much controversy even when fansub groups do not profit from their activities and cease distribution of their work once the series has been licensed outside of Japan.
Adults brought up in the early 1990s on Pokemon and Dragon ball Z may create a market for more mature anime as they age. Beyond anime, many western fans’ interests may spread to Japanese music, celebrities, film, fashion, and language. In the US, anime’s status in the mid-2000s ranks between a niche phenomenon (in middle America) and – especially on the two coasts and larger cities – a major cultural force.
- Baricordi, A., & Pelletier, C. (2000). Anime: A guide to Japanese animation (1958 –1988). Montreal: Protoculture.
- Clements, J., & McCarthy, H. (2001). The anime encyclopedia. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.
- Cooper-Chen, A. (1999). An animated imbalance: Japan’s TV heroines in Asia. Gazette, 61(3/4), 293 –310.
- Macias, P., & Machiyama, T. (2004). Cruising the anime city: An otaku guide to Neo Tokyo. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.
- Napier, S. J. (2001). Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing contemporary Japanese animation. New York: Palgrave.
- Poitras, G. (2000). Anime essentials. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press.