What is Anime? (the written definition)

When I first created AnimeYume.com over five years ago, one of the original pages on the site was a page introducing anime, why it’s popular, and how it’s different from American cartoons. Recently I’ve been looking over that page and I noticed that my writing skills back then were pretty appalling XD (I wrote it in 2003, my senior year of high school). So I finally took the time these past couple of days to completely rewrite the page. It’s now much longer and more detailed than it used to be, since my knowledge of anime has also grown over the years too. You can find the new and improved What is Anime? page on the main site, and I also posted it here on the blog for your reading pleasure…

Just to note, this report is meant to introduce anime to those who know little to nothing about it. If you’re a hardcore fan like me you probably already know most of this stuff =) Also, although most of this report was written by me, I also used some paraphrasing from the fairly well-known anime expert John Opplinger of Anime Nation’s Ask John Archive.


What is Anime?

The following essay is an extensive introduction to the world of anime in which I discuss the definition of anime, a brief overview of its history, why it’s popular in the US, how it’s created, and what anime fandom is like. Although most of this report was written by me, I also used some quotes and paraphrasing from the fairly well-known anime expert, John Opplinger, of Anime Nation’s Ask John Archive. Whether you’re someone who’s curious as to what anime is, or whether you’re already a fan who wants to learn more about what exactly defines anime, I hope you’ll find this essay worth your while.

Part 1 – Introduction to Anime

The definition of anime

The word “anime” is the Japanese word for “animation” or “cartoons,” adapted from the English word “animation.” In Japan, the word is used to refer to any cartoon or animation, whether it be from Japan or another country. But ever since Japanese animation became widespread throughout the world, the word “anime” has developed a different meaning in other countries. In America and most other non-Japanese countries, “anime” is used to refer to any form of animation exclusively from Japan such as animated TV shows and animated movies. However, unlike America’s attitude towards animation – that it’s only for children with the exception of a few adult comedies – the Japanese consider animation to be an acceptable form of entertainment and storytelling for all kinds of people. Thus, anime is aimed at a variety of audiences and is enjoyed by Japanese, as well as American fans, of all ages and tastes.

A brief history of anime

Like most other countries, animation has existed in Japan throughout the 20th century and onward, beginning with traditional drawings and comics that dealt with political, social, and historical themes. But unlike most other countries, “manga,” which refers to Japanese comics, has had a major influence on Japanese culture and is one of the oldest and most successful of Japan’s ongoing media industries. The success of anime in Japan began with the success of manga in Japan, particularly by the work of famous Japanese artist Osamu Tezuka. In the 1960s, Tezuka became the most famous manga artist and credited inventor of Japan’s modern manga industry. Thanks to Tezuka’s influence, the genres and stories in Japanese animation have became more various, creative, and universal than they had ever been before. And with the success of comics or “manga” in Japan, it was inevitable that the success of animation or “anime” was soon to follow when television and movies were invented. Since then, the anime and manga industries in Japan have become even more successful than the Japanese live-action film industry. Hundreds of new anime TV shows air in Japan every year and hundreds of manga series are serialized in various Japanese publications from women’s magazines to children’s books. It’s not exactly clear why the Japanese are so much more enamored with cartoons and comics than the US and other countries. John offers his take on this question by stating that “Asian cultures including the Japanese…have developed pictographic written languages and refined exquisite visual aesthetics in performing arts, graphic arts, culinary arts, textiles, and architecture. A sense of visual design seems to have permeated the collective subconscious of Asia…Asian cultures seem to gravitate toward a greater co-mingling with nature, soft smoothness and flow, and a sense of transience” (Opplinger 02/08/07). But whatever the reason is for Japan’s noticeable passion for 2-D figures, the animation industry in Japan is unlike any other, and since the end of World War II, Japan soon began to share some of that industry with the West.

Anime brought to the US

Years before anime became an established part of American culture, a handful of anime shows managed to find their way to American television in the latter half of the 1900s. One of Osamu Tezuka’s most famous series, Astro Boy, first aired in the US in 1963 and is considered the first anime to ever be released in the US. Other early anime that aired in the US include Robotech, Battle of the Planets, and Voltron. However, since anime in the US at this time was marketed together with American shows and cartoons rather than in its own genre, anime usually faced major script editing such as character name changes and dialogue alterations in order to make the shows more “Americanized.”

It was not until the late 1990s when the Japanese franchise Pokemon became massively popular in the US that anime began to truly be acknowledged as something distinct from American cartoons. The immense success and popularity of the Pokemon anime and video games in the US paved the way for other anime titles to be brought over. For a while during and after Pokemon‘s success, other popular anime introduced to the US such as Dragonball Z, Sailor Moon, and Yu-Gi-Oh! were targeted at children, so anime was still considered to be children’s shows just like American cartoons. But as time went by, America’s fascination with anime steadily grew until finally mature, non-children anime shows were introduced either straight to home video or on Cartoon Network’s late-night block of shows called Adult Swim. Anime has since been marketed as its own unique form of entertainment. It isn’t just children’s cartoons, nor should it necessarily be Americanized, as most anime nowadays have very well translated English dubs. Anime has also become popular in England, France, Korea, China, Australia, Latin America, Germany, Italy, and many other countries.

Unfortunately, even with anime’s rising popularity outside Japan, most Americans are still ignorant about what anime really is. Many still call it “that Pokeman stuff” and consider all anime to be kiddy shows like Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Others think that anime is mostly violent and pornographic cartoons (though there is pornographic anime, most anime is not). Although many Americans still look at Japanese animation from their American perception of cartoons, it is wrong to define all Japanese animation by one or two genres when you consider the thousands of anime shows, movies, and manga series that exist, with more being made all the time. So what is it that makes anime so special? In the US alone there are numerous anime conventions held every year, almost all major media and video stores have a good selection of anime DVDs, every bookstore and library has a shelf or two full of just manga, and many TV channels broadcast one or more anime shows. But just why do Japanese animated shows deserve so much more recognition than American, or any other cartoons for that matter?

Part 2 – Why is Anime Popular?

Differing attitudes about animation

One of the main reasons anime has become popular in America is because of Japan’s accepting attitude towards animation that is so different from America’s attitude. All American-made cartoons, whether in comic books, movies, or TV shows, fall into one of just a few different categories; silly, slapstick comedies such as Looney Toons and Tom and Jerry, mild and simple diversions for children such as Winnie the Pooh and Rug Rats, mature comedies and satires for adults such as The Simpsons and South Park, action/super hero adventures such as Batman and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or general family-friendly entertainment like Disney movies. That’s really all the genres that exist for American animation – its either children/family entertainment or an adult comedy. However Japanese animation extends to much greater boundaries than these by having all kinds of genres to suit all ages and preferences including action, comedy, science-fiction, romance, sports, mystery, adventure, drama, fantasy, slice-of-life, psychological thrillers, space adventures, sitcoms, and much more. In addition to these, there are also a number of genres that are unique to anime and manga such as “shonen,” which focuses on fast-paced action and fighting amid complex fantasy settings, “shojo,” which focuses on the romantic relationships and inner conflicts of the characters, and “mecha,” which features futuristic settings in which humans pilot giant, anthropomorphic robots. From stories about romantic relationships, alternate fantasy worlds, daily school life, giant robots, futuristic cities, gun-slinging outlaws, interpersonal conflicts, competitive tournaments, unrequited love, shady organizations, carefree adventures, and much more, anime covers an extremely wide range of themes and stories. Since anime is so widely accepted in Japan as an entertainment form for all ages, and because animation is such a giant industry in Japan, saying “I like anime” is almost like saying “I like TV” (except with animation instead of real people) – that’s how diverse anime and manga are and why Americans looking for something beyond live-action shows can find such variety and creativity in Japanese animation.

Realism in animation

Not only does anime cover a much more variety of themes and genres than typical American shows, it always keeps a steady devotion to reality. Even the most fantastic and out-of-this-world anime adventures place a strong emphasis on keeping their characters and situations believable. Many anime shows feature extremely complex fantasy settings that have their own unique and intricately woven history, politics, and complex backgrounds for each character. A quick search on Wikipedia for some such anime shows like Code Geass, Bleach, or Eureka 7 will show the excessive detail that is put into creating the complicated settings and characters for these shows and thus making them seem realistic and believable even if they are total fantasy. American cartoons, on the other hand, don’t try to stimulate this degree of realism in their audience or make their audience believe that what they’re seeing could possibly be more than just cartoon characters. Even serious and dramatic American cartoons such as Disney movies like Mulan and The Lion King still present their characters mainly as fictional beings. Also, the seriousness of these movies is often interrupted by exaggerated cartoonish verbal cracks, songs, and gags, solely there to remind the audience that what they’re watching is a fictional cartoon (Opplinger 02/07/01). That’s not to say that anime doesn’t have moments of hyperbolic and cartoonish humor, but most anime with a serious and dramatic storyline such as Death Note and Mushishi would never have random cartoon gags or sarcastic jokes to break away from the realism of the show. Even if serious anime does have characters who portray cartoon-style humor, these gags are often initiated to show a humorous aspect of the character’s personality rather than just as a distraction from the show’s realism. The Japanese also have a very different idea of humor than Americans do. While a lot of modern comedy in America utilizes “crude” humor and sarcasm, humor in Japanese shows is usually “character-driven,” derived by poking fun at the characters’ quirks and personality flaws, again emphasizing realism by having characters with amusing faults just like real people. Often times this makes it necessary for the viewer to get to know the characters and story in an anime series in order to understand the jokes. With the exception of some slapstick anime comedies, humor in most other anime is strictly within the characters’ personalities, so anime shows can feature both serious drama or violence together with comedy without either seeming out of place.

Another realism aspect of anime that is missing in most American children’s cartoons is the direct exposure of the more darker aspects of life such as blood, violence, drinking, swearing, sexual innuendo, and murder. Even anime such as One Piece and Naruto, which are very popular children/family shows in Japan, have many scenes of intense violence and blood, alcohol and smoking references, foul language, and the suffering and deaths of the characters. What is considered acceptable to show to children in Japan when compared to America is obviously quite different because of the differences between their cultural ideals; as I’ve pointed out, even in anime the Japanese culture places a heavy emphasis on realism and it believes in exposing its children to all facets of life that they’ll eventually have to deal with, no matter how negative these facets may be. On the other hand, American culture tries to hide the more darker aspects of life from their children out of fear that they may become corrupted or traumatized (Opplinger 4/13/00) As a result, many anime that is considered children’s entertainment in Japan is almost always edited if it has any scenes of blood, violence, or other questionable content when it is brought to American TV. Only anime given a TV-PG or higher rating can get away with having explicit blood and violence, sexual references, and bad language on American television.

Character development

While anime strives to keep its stories believable, probably the main distinction that separates it from American cartoons is its deep involvement in its characters and its strong emphasis on their characterization. John states that the distinction is simply this: “American cartoons will place characters in a situation. Anime places situations around characters. Many anime shows have a continuing story, while very nearly all American cartoons are episodic, created specifically to be a series of individual, stand-alone stories rather than small pieces of a whole. Even in the case of anime series that are episodic, the characters develop and change from episode to episode. Anime, therefore, engenders more personal involvement between the show and the viewer than typical American cartoons do.” (Opplinger 08/24/00) Even anime characters who seem stereotypical or one-sided in their personalities often exhibit feelings of love, hate, fear, yearning, and other such human emotions. In fact, there are numerous anime shows (besides just comedy and sitcom) in which there is no defined villain or antagonist and conflict is derived strictly from the characters’ own inner flaws and personal issues. It is because of this emphasis on not using the black and white “good guys and bad guys” formula that viewers are made to sympathize with anime characters and not merely be entertained by them.

Not only do American cartoons such as Looney Toons, Tom and Jerry, Family Guy, and Scooby Doo have stand-alone, individual episodes that usually have no connection to one another, the characters in these shows remain basically the same throughout all the episodes, never developing or changing consistently as the episodes go by. Most anime, on the other hand, has practically all of its characters change episode by episode as a result of their situations and their relationships with other characters, and even the most detestable character can show an endearing side as the anime progresses. The best anime shows make their characters real, with real human emotions and actions that never seem out of place for the character. Creators take great pains in making their characters fully developed and defined individuals with their own conflicts, flaws, motives, and a personality that reflects their background history. Many anime episodes are spent simply exposing a character’s background story and their inner thoughts and feelings. The characters may even do a lot of unexpected, outrageous, or irrelevant things at times because their actions are wrought directly from their personalities and developments and not just as a means to move the story’s plot forward. Once again, a quick look at the Wikipedia pages for anime with very well developed characters such as Fruits Basket and Evangelion will give a good idea of how anime characters are more like fictional individuals rather than cartoon characters.

Intimacy with the audience

As a result of keeping its stories and characters very detailed and realistic, no matter how fantastical they may seem, anime is able to create a strong feeling of intimacy between itself and its audience that American cartoons, or even most American TV shows, do not have. Another thing that keeps this intimacy strong is, as John pointed out, the fact that most anime shows are thoroughly contrived stories with a beginning, middle, and end in which the characters develop and move towards their goals throughout the episodes, as opposed to the stand-alone, disconnected episodes of many American shows. Nearly all anime shows with a progressing storyline will present the audience with a number of questions and subplots that will only be solved if they continue to watch the episodes in order from beginning to end. In addition, a lot of anime will make references to characters or events in early episodes that don’t become significant until many episodes later, thus anime demands a certain level of commitment and dedication from its audience in order to follow and understand all the details of the story and characters. Most anime fans will agree that for a lot of anime shows, unless you start watching from the first episode onward, you will not be able to effectively follow the story.

One could argue that there are many American live-action movies and shows that feature a continuing story and developing characters so why do a lot of people still prefer anime over live-action? The answer to that is that anime can provide more involvement and interaction between itself and its viewer because its look and feel are so much more fantastical than live-action so it allows for a greater suspension of belief than the all-too-familiar live-action (Opplinger 08/24/00). And some people simply prefer watching animation, which brings direct form from imagination, instead of just actors and actresses pretending to be someone that they’re not. Since animation in America and most other non-Japanese countries is so limited in its genres and target audiences, anime allows people who like animation to see it in more various and creative ways than they ever could otherwise.

Part 3 – Creating Anime

Anime design

The typical design of anime characters with their large eyes, wild hairstyles, colorful clothing, and overall “non-Japanese” look has puzzled many Americans but there’s a reason for it. Osamu Tezuka was very much influenced by Walt Disney’s use of large, round eyes for his characters back in the early 1960s and 70s when the manga and anime industries where just starting out. Also during this time, Japan looked to the West in its innate yearning for success and saw that such a degree of freedom as that, would be impossible to attain in highly formal and polite Japanese society. Anime, being an escapist medium, highlighted this yearning by making its characters look “Western.” This allowed its Japanese viewers to immerse themselves in worlds that were completely different, with different cultures and people who looked more universal. Even in anime shows that take place in modern-day Japan, the unique look and design of the characters still create a feel that’s a bit more wild and adventurous than the Japan in reality. The fact that anime characters look Western but act Japanese and have Japanese names helped bring some connection between them and the Japanese audience. The Japanese audience could see the characters as Japanese people like themselves, but with a bit more worldliness, freedom, and diversity in them (Opplinger 10/10/00). Japan is a country that’s very open to the influences of other cultures, and that openness is reflected in the style of anime. Although the “big eye” look is common in anime, there are quite a number of anime that use a more serious, realistic style as well.

Another thing besides large eyes and crazy, colorful hair that distinguishes anime from American cartoons is how the characters themselves are designed. With very few exception, the body proportions of anime characters are like those of real people, with their heads, hands, legs, etc., being sized like a normal person’s in relation to the rest of their body. This is unlike the “cartoony” look of a lot of American cartoon characters who have heads, hands, feet, etc., of exaggerated sizes that are totally out of proportion to the rest of their body. This again emphasizes the realism aspect of anime and how the characters are made to be like real people rather than just cartoon characters.

Anime production

The largest percentage of anime TV shows are based on a manga series, with a handful also being based on video games or novels. Animation studios obtain the rights to make anime adaptations from these existing mediums, usually changing them in some way from the original source for broadcast or time constraints. Anywhere from approximately 30 to 70 or more new anime shows are aired every season in Japan, with the largest number being in the fall and spring. These anime shows could be brand new stories or new seasons or sequels of past shows. Typically, anime TV shows run for either one season (around 13 episodes) or two seasons (around 26 episodes). Since there’s so much anime being produced all the time in Japan, usually the only way an anime series may continue beyond a first season is if it becomes very popular. Anime shows that prove to be immensely popular may continue airing for years and accumulate hundreds of episodes, especially those based on a long-running manga series. Popular series may also get supplementary movie productions or special home video exclusive episodes.

Like many American TV shows, almost all anime TV shows are about a half hour long per episode. But anime also has a few extra things that American shows don’t have, most notably its use of opening and ending songs. Anime opening songs are much like the theme songs of regular TV shows and are used as a “hook” to get people into the mood of the show while simultaneously showing opening credits. However, it’s almost a tradition for anime opening songs to be about a minute and a half long and most use already existing songs from popular Japanese singers and bands rather than songs made specifically for the show. Just about every anime TV show has an opening song played at the beginning of every episode, and for the longer shows the opening song will change as the episodes progress. Anime endings songs are like opening songs in that they are also about a minute and a half long and use songs from Japanese singers, but they are played at the end of each episode. Although anime opening and endings songs are well loved by fans because of their aesthetics in blending the song together with animation, their main purpose is to promote the songs of the Japanese artists. In addition to opening and ending songs, the end of almost all anime TV episodes feature a quick preview of the next episode or other extra “post-episode” segments. Typically almost all anime episodes follow the format of 1) opening song, 2) first half of the episode, 3) commercial break, 4) second half of the episode, 5) ending song, 6) next-episode preview.

Anime creation process

Like American and other cartoons, anime is drawings put together by individual frames to depict movement. Although most American animated movies and some TV shows have started using CG animation instead of hand-drawn animation, almost all anime both in TV and movies still use hand-drawn animation (with the occasional CG to help with special effects). However, anime is created with a much smaller budget than American cartoons, so the process of putting it together is different. For American cartoons, the audio and voices are recorded first and then the mouth movements are animated to fit the spoken dialogue. But for anime, the opposite is used. All of the animation is produced first, which saves a lot of time and money instead of taking the time to make every single mouth movement match the corresponding words. The voice actors time their dialogue to match the amount of time the character moves his or her mouth. While it’s true that this process makes the dialogue not match the mouth movements exactly, the compromise is that when anime voices are being recorded, all the actors are in the same room together, seeing and reacting to one another while the animation footage that they’re recording for is being shown before them. The result is that the voices are much more lively, emotional, and spontaneous than Western animation, in which each voice actor is recorded separately and often alone in a room without seeing the other actors (Opplinger 01/19/01).

Many people have pointed out that not only do the mouth movements in anime not match the spoken dialogue, but the animation of a character’s face often looks “frozen” when he or she is speaking, with nothing but the mouth moving. This once again stems from the fact that anime’s budget is much tighter than Western animation, and making fewer scenes of actual movement saves money. However, there is an advantage in this way of production. Since fewer drawings are produced, Japanese animators spend more time on making each individual drawing look as detailed as possible, and they also design their characters to look more detailed, realistic, emotional, and less “cartoony” than Western animation. While the details in the mouth movements and flow of the animation in anime may put off some American viewers, fans of anime both in America and Japan simply overlook these minor technicalities and focus their attention more on the characters’ dialogue, emotions, and reactions rather than how the frame-by-frame process works. Unlike the fast-paced movement of American shows and movies, where one particular frame is never shown for more than a few seconds, even kid’s anime is not afraid to be slow-paced and it may spend a lot of time focusing on things such as a sunset, cherry blossoms blowing in the wind, characters staring dramatically at each other, etc,. Once again, anime aesthetics demand a certain level of attentiveness and patience in its audience in order to be fully appreciated.

Part 4 – Anime Fandom

Anime music, art, and collectibles

As I’ve pointed out in Part 2, because anime emphasizes realism, has intricate, sympathetic characters and a continuing, defined storyline, it generates a lot more passion and intimacy from its fans than most other shows. Because of this, almost all anime shows, even those that are not particularly popular, will have many products and collectible items released for fans to buy. Music CDs are one of the most common of these items; almost all anime, even children’s anime shows, will have at least one CD released featuring songs such as the show’s opening song or ending song. A lot of anime also get CDs featuring just the background music used in the show. It’s also not uncommon in popular anime for each character on the show to get his or her own CD single with songs sung just by that character (or their voice actor if you will).

In addition to music, a lot of anime series also get collectible artbooks featuring pictures from the anime drawn by the creators. Again, since animation is more appreciated in Japan and is even treated as a form of art at times, anime artbooks even for children’s shows is not uncommon. Other popular anime collectibles include key chains, plush toys, calendars, stationary, and most notably figures. Unlike the “action figures” from American kid shows, anime figures are usually not made for kids to play with but for older, serious fans to collect and display. Popular characters from popular anime may get many different figures made for them. Figures are a huge part of anime fandom, especially in Japan, and they are also some of the most expensive and coveted anime collectibles.

Anime voice actors are also a big part of the fan community. Unlike in America where voice acting is grouped together with other forms of acting, since anime is such a large industry in Japan, anime voice acting is practically its own industry and many Japanese voice actors have done voices for a number of different anime characters and have their own fan following. Many anime voice actors in Japan are just as popular as regular actors in America.

Between music CDs, popular voice actors, artbooks, figures, and other collectibles, anime fandom is quite different from other fandom in America. In comparison, only the most popular American cartoons will get maybe a few action figures or other toys for the kids and that’s it. Even regular adult American TV shows don’t get CDs of background music and character songs, and only the most popular shows and movies might get a few posters, calendars, or T-shirts. This contrast makes it apparent that in anime fandom it’s desirable for fans to immerse themselves in and become really “into” each anime and show support by buying lots of products, while in America it’s considered childish to be that obsessed with anything but perhaps the most “hip” shows.

The anime online community

Since anime is still not a very well known hobby, the Internet has become one of the major outlets for anime fans. There are thousands of fan-run anime web sites, blogs, and online communities. The Internet has also become the best way for fans to display their anime-style artwork, original manga series, and fan-made anime music videos. But probably the main online presence in anime fandom is fansubs. Fansubs are anime episodes or movies in their original Japanese dialogue with subtitles made by fans themselves and not by official companies. They are very popular among anime fans because many fansubs are made for episodes or movies of anime that haven’t yet been officially released and dubbed/subtitled by American companies. Although they’re technically illegal, so far fansubs are generally tolerated since most fansubbers create fansubs purely out of passion and not to make a profit. Also, fansubs help promote the anime market and they open opportunities for American companies to acquire the rights to anime shows that are currently popular fansubs. Since the number of anime that airs on American TV is only a fraction of the anime that airs on Japanese TV, most anime is released directly to DVD in the US. But anime DVDs can become quite expensive so a lot of people instead watch the free fansubs online. Although they are illegal, most American anime companies lack the funds and manpower to stop the fansubbers. But in spite of them being illegal, anime fandom outside Japan would definitely not be what it is today if it weren’t for fansubs.

Being an American anime fan

So is anime really superior to American animation? John believes that “American animation is capable of rivaling Japanese animation, but it doesn’t try to rival Japanese animation because that’s not what the majority of American consumers want…anime seems more mature, more developed, and more adult than American animation because anime has a different goal and a different audience than American animation has” (Opplinger 02/08/07). Anime fandom in Japan and anime fandom in America are two very different things, mostly because Americans have this one-sided view about cartoons that many of them are stubborn to change. Luckily, anime is becoming more and more immersed into American culture as the years go by so hopefully one day the majority of Americans will learn that anime is not just “Pokemon and pornography.” I don’t know if the American preconception that all animation has to be either kid stuff or adult comedies will ever completely fade away. But hopefully, with anime’s rising popularity in America, Americans will someday realize that there is no reason in the world why animation cannot portray the kind of stories found in any other creative medium.

2 Comments… read them or add your own.

  1. richard says:

    Can you look for the positive and negative effects of anime to children? I Can’t see any topics about it in the net. thank you.. Your definition about anime s good and very helpful..

  2. Erin says:

    I know this entry is a bit dated, but I can’t thank you enough for writing it. Having to explain what anime is to ignorant people and trying to convince them that it’s NOT all hentai and game franchises just annoys me to no end, and I feel like this post can really change minds about anime. It’s very insightful!

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