Food in Anime - a Reflection of Japanese Cuisine

Food is a big deal in anime, because it’s a big deal in Japan. This is a nation that takes its food seriously and has some of the most delicious and interesting dishes in the world. So you’ll often see characters who love certain types of food, or mealtimes as common settings for dialogue to happen. Being able to cook well is often a positive character trait too.

Of course, if Western audiences don’t understand what any of the food actually is, that can make things a little awkward! Since anime are made for Japanese audiences, the assumption is that the viewer will know the food in question. After all, they eat stuff like this on a daily basis.

Some localizers have been so concerned about the “foreign” food in anime that they’ll replace them! A big rice ball might be swapped out for a good old American cheeseburger, with dialogue adapted to suit. That’s not something that happens much anymore these days, so it’s a good idea to have at least a basic understand of common Japanese foods as they appear in anime.

melonpan

Melonpan

“Melon” is, well, melon. “Pan” is the Japanese word for bread. So the direct translation of the name is “melon bread”. You’d think the name has something with its flavor, but actually the name comes from melonpan’s appearance. The outside is covered in a layer of crisp cookie dough, which looks like the skin of a green melon. The round shape of the bread only adds to this impression, so it sort of makes sense.

The inner dough of this bread is sweet and comes in various flavors. While the name has nothing to do with melon flavoring, these days you can in fact get melonpan with melon in it. It’s all very meta.

Miso

Miso is one of the most fundamental seasonings in Japanese food. They make it by fermenting soybean, salt, and a specific fungus. The most common variant of miso is quite salty, but there are various variants. It can also include various wheats as well.

Miso is, of course, the key component in miso soup and broth. It forms the basis of many noodle dishes such as miso ramen. It’s also freaking delicious if you love salty things.

Onigiri

This is possibly one of the most recognizable Japanese foods in anime, manga, and video games. Onigiri are known as “rice balls” in English, but are generally not round. Instead they look triangular or cylindrical. Inside the rice ball there is a salty or sour filling, such as salted salmon. This comes from the days before refrigeration – the filling helps preserve the Onigiri.

Most of the time the Onigiri is also wrapped in a strip of seaweed, or “nori”. Onigiri are very popular in Japan and you can pretty much buy them anywhere. If you ever get the chance to eat one made by a competent chef, it’s well worth it.

anime ramen

Ramen

Ramen is another dish you’ll hear about time and time again. It’s famously the favorite dish of Uzumaki Naruto, star of the eponymous manga and TV show.

Ramen comes in a massive number of varieties, but at its most basic it consists of Chinese-style wheat noodles in a broth. Miso ramen has been popular since the mid-60s, but there are also other meat and vegetable broths that can be used for a more traditional take. The great thing about ramen, other than the noodles soaked in a tasty broth, is the inclusion of a variety of ingredients. Cuts of pork or beef, boiled eggs, nori, various vegetables, calamari, and more can find their way into your ramen bowl.

Basically, there’s some form of ramen most people will like. Also, it’s good manners to slurp when you eat it!

Sake

In Japanese, the word “sake” just means “liquor”. Any alcoholic drink is “sake”, but in the West (just as with “anime”) the word has come to represent a very specific type of Japanese liquor. What we call “sake” is a type of alcohol made by fermenting rice. The Japanese refer to it as “nihonshu”, although the label might also refer to it as “seishu”.

Sake is consumed hot or cold and is quite a bit stronger than beer or wine, but the bottled stuff is usually watered down a little bit to make it more palatable. It’s the national drink of Japan and has a special ceremonial role in various occasions.

Sushi & Sashimi

This is probably the one Westerners know the best. Sushi has become an international phenomenon. Sushi eateries are available just about everywhere you go. There are many types of sushi, but to qualify as sushi you must use vinegared sushi rice. Toppings and fillings can be anything, really. However, raw salmon, tuna, and various vegetables are traditional.

Sushi comes in various styles. Many of those we know in the West aren’t Japanese. Those such as the California roll were not invented in Japan. There are now plenty of sushi variants that have evolved completely outside of Japan. Some of these ideas make it back to Japanese shores and start a whole new process of innovation.

One could write an entire book about sushi, and plenty of people have. But there is one common misconception about the fish used in the dish. While it is true that raw, uncooked fish is used in sushi, that does not mean the meat is unprepared. Modern sushi is actually frozen in special freezers. The meat might be frozen for as much as two years in some cases! Yet typically it’s usually between 15 hours and 7 days, depending on the freezer temperature. Why? Well, since you can’t cook the fish, the only way to get rid of parasites such as nematode worms is to freeze the meat. Some types of tuna, farmed fish, and shellfish are exempt from this need because the chance of parasites is pretty low.

The bottom line is that good sushi is one of the most delicious things in the world. It’s also a pretty pricey type of food, so often you’ll see broke characters lust after it.

sushi anime

Soba and Udon

Soba is a type of noodle made from buckwheat. Udon noodles are also made from wheat, but are much thicker. In the West we can often get Udon noodles from Asian restaurants, but soba seems to be more scarce.

Soba is used in many dishes, but one of the most interesting things about this particular noodle type is how it’s also eaten cold. Chilled soba dishes also have a unique eating style; you’re provided with a dipping sauce and you dip the soba with your chopsticks before eating it. Cold dishes usually just offer plain noodles and the sauce. Hot soba dishes, on the other hand, are much like ramen – served in a hot broth with various toppings.

Taiyaki

Taiyaki is one of the most unique foods I’ve seen in an anime, and more than a few characters in various shows seem to have a special love for this food.

Taiyaki is a baked snack molded in the shape of a fish. The fish in particular is a sea bream. It started out as a festival food and has become a mainstay since. The outside of taiyaki is basically the same batter you’d use to make pancakes or waffles. The traditional filling is a type of sweet red bean paste. However, you can also get them with fillings such as chocolate or custard. Sounds pretty yummy, right?

Tempura

The Americans have a reputation for frying absolutely everything, even chocolates. Heck, they even refry some things, since they aren’t fried enough. That doesn’t mean that other cultures haven’t figured out the flavor potential of frying food in oil. Like the word “pan”, “tempura” is a Portuguese import. When they brought deep fried seafood and vegetables to 16th-century Japan it soon became incredibly popular. Today the Japanese have mastered the art of making tempura and you can get just about any creature from the ocean anyone is willing to eat. Common examples include prawn, crab, and squid. On the vegetable side they’ve also gone pretty crazy. Mushrooms, peppers, eggplant, and many more vegetarian options are just as delicious as the meats.

anime food

Yakiniku

Yakiniku just means “grilled meat”. The word “niku” means meat and in this case that meat comes on a stick. What’s special about meat on a stick? There’s meat on a stick in every culture that has both meat and sticks. Yakiniku is a relatively modern food development that looks a lot like Korean BBQ, but developed independently after the second World War.

Yakiniku is bite-sized and grilled on charcoal or, these days, even electric grills. You can get them with offal, pork, beef, chicken, various seafood, and some additional veggies such as shiitake mushrooms. It’s pretty good for food on a stick, especially with some teriyaki sauce.

Yakitori

At first glance yakitori, or “grilled bird”, might seem like just another type of yakiniku. However, yakitori is very different from chicken yakiniku. They are not meant to be bite-sized with thin strips of meat, but are bigger and heavier foods. Yakitori is a very popular street food and there are dedicated stalls on routes with lots of foot traffic.


Akira Toriyama

Akira Toriyama: The Divine Artist

Akira Toriyama is essentially a God in the world of anime and manga. He has stood out as a bit of a weirdo, but has been responsible for some of the most iconic works within both mediums.

Toriyama was born in 1955 in Nagoya. He has said that he realized his talent for drawing early on since it was such a popular hobby at school. He quickly realized that he was way better than his friends and he was pretty soon winning art competitions.

goku

On the Road to Manga

Although he spent his childhood making manga-style artwork, Toriyama began working life as a graphic artist for an advertising agency. He quit that job with the intention of becoming a professional mangaka. To this end he submitted an entry to a Jump magazine competition - one he did not win. However, the editor of Jump saw something in his submission and made personal contact with Toriyama, telling him to keep trying.

Toriyama was first published in Jump with the story Wonder Island, and became well-known for the series Dr. Slump. This comedy series showed off Toriyama's unique character design aesthetic and tight lines. In the six years that Dr. Slump, ran Toriyama went from promising newcomer to one of the most respected mangaka in the industry.

A Big Pair of Dragon Balls

His next story, Dragon Ball, would be the one to blow up beyond what anyone could imagine. Starting almost immediately after Dr. Slump ended, interest in the story was white-hot from the get go. Dragon Ball is the second-best selling manga of all time in Japan, with 156 million units sold. After 11 years, Toriyama ended Dragon Ball with more than 500 chapters. There have been numerous anime, although the last two series are not adaptations of a manga.

He's Got Character

While he is both an illustrator and writer, Toriyama is probably best known for his unique character design style and, perhaps to a lesser extent, his vehicle designs.

Any character drawn by Toriyama is instantly recognizable and he's been pulled in to design characters for other hyper-famous franchises such as Chrono Trigger and Dragon Quest. This old master is still relatively young and I expect many more great stories and designs to come from his pen.


Epic Games Berlin

These are the Japanese Game Studios Worth Knowing

Japan is just as famous for its video games as it is for its anime and manga. In fact, these different media are inextricably linked. Creative professionals in Japan will move between anime, game development, and manga as the work requires. Some studios do both anime and games. Some artists and directors are equally well known for both as well.

As you might expect, there’s a massive number of Japanese game studios of various sizes. As a Westerner looking for anime-infused games that have some sort of pedigree, it can be hard when you don’t have much brand recognition to rely on. This is especially true now. With the increase in anime’s global popularity, Japanese games that aren’t Super Mario or Zelda are now also getting attention. That means it's worth translating games that might not have the sort of quality one would hope.

Here I’ve listed some of the most prominent names in Japanese game development. If these companies develop or publish a game, it’s more often than not a sign of quality.

Atlus

atlus

Atlus is one of the biggest names in the Japanese RPG industry. They don’t just develop their own games, but also act as a publisher and distributor of talented smaller studios. Atlus has been around since 1986. The game series they are probably best known for today is Persona; rather, Shin Megami Tensei: Persona.

Persona itself is a spinoff of the much more hardcore and niche Shin Megami Tensei games, the first of which was released for the NES in 1987. The last two Persona games, numbers 4 and 5, have been absolute smash hits globally. Atlus continues to make popular niche games such as the Etrian Odyssey dungeon crawlers. It has also published amazing games from studios like Vanillaware and Arc System Works. Odin Sphere, Dragon’s Crown, and the Persona Arena games are examples of these.

If a game has the Atlus logo on it, you know it’s at least worth looking at.

Bandai Namco

bandai namco

As you might tell from the name, Bandai Namco is actually a company that came from the merger of Bandai and Namco. The merger happened in 2005, but even before then each company was a legend in its own right.

Bandai was actually known primarily for making excellent toys such as plastic model kits. It was founded all the way back in 1950. Bandai owns the Sunrise anime studio responsible for Cowboy Bepop and is still a big influence in the industry. Predictably, it’s best known for games related to the Gundam franchise, given that Bandai is also the maker of Gundam toys.

Namco has a much more game-affiliated reputation and was founded in 1955. Its list of games is truly staggering, both in arcades and on home systems. We’re talking Galaxian, Pac man, Rally X, Galaga, Tekken, Soul Edge, Ridge Racer, and much more. You’ve probably played something by Namco without even knowing it.

Since the merger, Bandai Namco has released several notable games. There’s a whole range of Gundam and Dragon Ball Z games that have dedicated followings. The Naruto games too have entries from Bandai Namco. On the JRPG front you can count the Legend of Heroes games, Tales games, and Xenosaga games as those which have entries under the Bandai Namco Banner.

Capcom

capcom

Capcom, another huge name in the gaming business, has been around since 1979. It is responsible for an unbelievably long list of AAA franchises. The top ones that most people have probably heard of include Street Fighter and Resident Evil. The company is named “Capcom” because they called their arcade machines “capsule computers”. Yes, Capcom started as an arcade darling, but today their console and PC gaming catalog is extensive.

Capcom is probably my favorite non-JRPG Japanese studio, but they do have some great role playing games too. Breath of Fire is a notable example, as is Dragon’s Dogma. This is also the company responsible for Mega Man, Monster Hunter, Ace Attorney, and Ghost Trick. The Capcom badge is definitely one that immediately gets my attention.

Square Enix

Square Enix

Like Bandai Namco, the Square Enix imprint is the result of Square and Enix merging. Individually, these companies are responsible for some of the most beloved JRPGs in history.

Square’s most famous franchise is hands-down the Final Fantasy games. In the West, people who have no idea what a JRPG is will have heard the name Final Fantasy. The mainline titles have reached number 15 at the time of writing and there are even more spin-off titles.

There’s more to Square than just Final Fantasy games, though. Romancing SaGa and Secret of Mana (which started out as an FF game) are both excellent in their own right. Square also developed what is widely considered to be the greatest JRPG of all time – Chrono Trigger. I should know, since somehow I own several copies of the game for various platforms and I’m still not sure why.

Enix was the publisher of Dragon Quests games and was also responsible for manga and toys. It wasn’t a developer, but a publisher that became known as an excellent curator of Japanese games. One of my most beloved games of all time, Valkyrie Profile, was published by Enix.

Since the birth of Square Enix the company has become a true juggernaut as both a developer and a publisher. It has developed games such as Front Mission and published games by beloved developers such as tri-Ace and Platinum games. Heck, they’ve even published a few titles made by Western developers. It’s always a good idea to keep an eye on Square Enix’s publishing schedule since they tend to have far more hits than misses.

GAINAX

Gainax

GAINAX is the same studio responsible for the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime, but it is also a game developer with a fair following. Apart from quite a few Evangelion games, it is probably best known for the Princess Maker series and also Evangelion games made in the Princess Maker mold. Why is it noteworthy? Well, it might now be a prolific publisher, but a few of its games have been influential. Also, I love Princess Maker and this is my website – so there.

Koei Tecmo

koei tecmo

Koei Tecmo is yet another merged company built from the reanimated parts of Koei and Tecmo.

Koei was founded in 1978 and has an absolutely massive list of video games tied to its brand. The Dynasty Warrior games belong to it, which is a whole industry in itself. Ni-Oh was its answer to FromSoftware’s Souls games. It also has several strategy and simulation games too.

Tecmo is a name you might recognize from the legendary Tecmo Bowl football arcade game. Team Ninja is a subsidiary, which means all of the Dead or Alive fighting games are a Tecmo property.

The most prominent franchises from each company are still being developed and published under the new merged name today. That includes Fatal Frame, Ninja Gaiden, and the Atelier series, which now has some anime too.

Konami

Konami

Konami is probably the most divisive name on this list. Many of the studio's games are fervently adored by legions of fans, but the company itself has been in the doghouse for years now. It isn’t really even a game developer anymore. The company shut down most of its video game development division in order to focus on Japanese pachinko machines (a sort of gambling pinball), so most Konami games you see now are from the past.

What a library, though. This is the company that brought us Policenauts, which really needs a modern remake or at least a remaster. Ever heard of Castlevania? That’s Konami. Double Dribble lead to much sibling rivalry on our NES back in the day, as did Track and Field. Konami is actually quite well known for its sports games, and the Konami soccer games are some of the few titles the company still works on. On the JRPG front they made the amazing Suikoden games on the first Playstation. Silent Hill is also a Konami property.

Why do people hate Konami these days? It has to do with famous game developer Hideo Kojima and how the company allegedly treated him. Kojima was the brightest star at Konami and is responsible for the ultra-popular Metal Gear franchise. He also created cult classic like Policenauts, Snatcher, and Zone of the Enders. Konami made a series of weird decisions that lead to people like Kojima and several other prominent talents leaving for greener pastures. Right now Konami really isn’t likely to ever bring out anything good again, but their back catalog is filled with masterpieces.

Level-5

Level 5

It took me a while to catch on to the Level-5 hype – mainly because I didn’t play on their preferred platforms until recently – but this is a developer worth watching. Founded in 1998, it is definitely a relative newcomer but has some of the most unique and delightful games I’ve seen.

Its Professor Layton series is a set of adventure games with amazing artwork, imaginative puzzles, and wonderful stories. This is also possibly the first company to challenge Pokemon’s dominance with Yokai Watch. It started eating into both the Pokemon anime and games in terms of popularity. It's also notable for the game Ni No Kuni on the DS and PS3. These games were done in collaboration with Studio Ghibli and, on the PS3 in particular, represent a landmark JRPG. At the time of writing, we're all waiting for Ni No Kuni II to land on the PS4.

These games are pretty recent, however. Level-5 has had some great content all the way back to the days of the PS2. Dark Cloud is a cult-classic and the company has recently re-released it on the PS4 along with its other early hit, Rogue Galaxy. It has also co-developed one of the most popular Dragon Quest games, Journey of the Cursed King, with Square Enix. That’s been ported to iOS, of all things, recently. There’s also the quirky yet incredibly addictive Fantasy Life on the 3DS. Level-5 is going to do great things, mark my words.

Nintendo

Nintendo

While this list is alphabetical, if it were arranged by notability Nintendo would probably go straight to the top. It’s almost 100% unlikely that you don’t know what Nintendo is, since the NES single-handedly broke the great video game crash in North America back in the late 80s.

Nintendo is not only a major player in both home and handheld consoles, it is an AAA developer to boot. Many of the developers on this page got their break because Nintendo let them make stuff for the NES and SNES.

Nintendo actually predates video gaming itself by decades. The company was founded in 1889 as a playing card company. In the 70s it started to dabble in electronic entertainment and had great success with its single-game LCD handheld products. These “Game and Watch” toys would become the precursor to its dominant handheld systems.

Where do I even begin with their franchises? Everyone knows Mario, the Italian plumber who is as famous as Mickey Mouse. They also have Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong, Punch Out, F-Zero, Star Fox, Splatoon, and so much more. Nintendo games are innovative, family friendly, and, more often than not, blockbusters. If you’re a true gamer and not somehow blinded against “kid’s games”, there’s a lot to love in the Nintendo stable.

Platinum Games

platinum games

Platinum Games is pretty new to the scene, being founded in 2007. Since then it has managed to cement itself as one of the finest action game developers in the world. It's known for fast and frenetic third-person action games that are like poetry in motion. This is the closest any of us will ever be to taking part in a slick anime-style battle.

Its first game, MadWorld, was for the Wii and really turned heads with its black and white cell-shaded graphics. What made players stay was the pitch-perfect hack and slash action that would become the Platinum Games trademark. The company followed this up with the smash-hit Bayonetta, which I personally didn’t like but which is a really good action game.

Platinum applies its formula to both original IP and licensed content. It made a Metal Gear Solid spin off called Metal Gear Rising Revengeance, which is an amazing game and fits perfectly into the Metal Gear Universe. Transformers Devastation is the Transformers game that fans had been waiting for, even if they didn’t know it.

Then in 2017, under the guidance of genius developer Yoko Taro, Platinum released Nier: Automata, which might very well be one of the greatest games ever made. Seriously.

SEGA

SEGA

Who doesn’t know SEGA? The name originally stood for “Service Games”, reflecting the fact that it built slot machines for sale to army bases. Funnily enough, SEGA wasn’t originally a Japanese company, but was forced to move from Hawaii when the slot machines it made became illegal. Today it is known as SEGA of Japan and is a Japanese business through and through.

In the 8-bit and 16-bit home console era SEGA and Nintendo were locked in a bitter battle for supremacy. Their consoles ruled the market and on both sides there were some excellent games and franchises. SEGA made a few wrong turns after its massively successful Genesis/Mega Drive console, and had to bow out of the hardware game permanently. Today it is strictly a developer and publisher. While SEGA might not be the giant it once was, it still has plenty of great properties.

Its most recognizable franchise has to be Sonic the Hedgehog. This blurry little blue guy was SEGA’s answer to Mario and also a way to show off the strengths of the Mega Drive. It also created the Alex Kidd games, Altered Beast, After Burner, Hatsune Miku, SEGA Rally, Shenmue, Yakuza, and so many more. Thanks to their abandonment of the hardware business you can play Sega games on just about anything – even Nintendo systems. Now that’s ironic.

Sony

Sony

The only reason Sony even entered the video game business was because of Nintendo. The story is now the stuff of legends. Basically, Nintendo wanted to create a CD-ROM add-on for the Nintendo SNES which would be called the Nintendo Playstation.

The hardware was complete and in testing when Nintendo decided to ditch Sony and switch over to Philips. Sony was making plenty of money manufacturing TVs, CD players, and other high-end electronics, so it could have easily ditched the thing after the deal went sour. Instead, a few key individuals advocated for Sony to finish the job and make its own console.

The result was the first Playstation, released in the mid-90s. This console completely took over the home video game market. The PS1 made gaming cool and mainstream. This was the first time that Nintendo got a bloody nose, and Sony Playstations have been going from strength to strength since. Nintendo is essentially a bit-player in a world where the PS2 and now PS4 dominate sales charts. Even the PS3 was a strong seller, although not the clear champ of its generation. OK, I have to admit that I’m a bit of a Sony fanboy. I have owned every generation of console and currently have three Playstations. That doesn’t take anything away from its success. Hey Nintendo, karma is a cold mistress.

One of the reasons the Playstations have done so well is because Sony is such an excellent first-party developer. This is a page taken straight from the Nintendo playbook. Sony owns a number of studios completely and so those games are still Sony-developed, despite also having the name of the subsidiary on them. Games like Little Big Planet, God of War, Uncharted, Crash Bandicoot, and The Last of Us were all paid for by Sony and are exclusive to other consoles.

SNK

snk

The SNK corporation is one of the most revered names in gaming, thanks to its games back in the late 80s and early 90s that pushed the envelope of what was possible. This was due to its proprietary NEO GEO hardware, which had some of the most advanced 2D graphics capabilities of the time. The expense of the hardware meant that its games were confined to the arcade for awhile, but eventually it released a full-fat home version, albeit at a massive price.

The games were something to behold, however. Metal Slug, King of Fighters, and Magician Lord looked too good to be true. They also played like nothing else. SNK didn’t just develop great games for its own hardware either. I remember spending hours playing Guevara with my little brother on our NES. While the company hasn’t really made anything new in a long time, you can still play its games on many modern consoles. There’s even a new King of Fighters game on the PS4!

tri-Ace

tri-Ace

You can’t have a list that mentions the likes of Atlus or Enix and then leave out tri-Ace. This is another developer known for making some great JRPGs. It created Valkyrie Profile (with Enix as the publisher) as well as the amazing Star Ocean games. It also made some Final Fantasy games under license. Square Enix likes to lean on tri-Ace when it is short-handed, so that tells you something about the quality of its work.


masamune shirow

Meet the Master: Masamune Shirow

There are few names as recognizable as that of Masamune Shirow, which is ironic given that his real name is Masanori Ota.

Shirow got the name from the mythical sword maker Masamune and, to be sure, his pen strokes are as formidable as any samurai. Shirow is one of my favorite character designers, and that’s an opinion shared by a large number of fans who enjoy his work.

Masamune Shirow Anime

Classical Education

Shirow is from Kobe, but he studied at the University of Arts in Osaka. It was here that he took notice of manga and he tried his hand at making a manga. Most people never get past that initial point, but his first work Black Magic/i> was fantastic. Full disclosure: I have a Black Magic android figurine on my desk, so my opinion of it might be a little hyperbolic.

This work was first published as a doujinshi, which are basically self-published fan products. However, many mangaka first get noticed in doujinshi and that’s exactly what happened to Shirow, who got a publishing deal out of it.

Apples and Cyborgs

Black Magic was a cyberpunk story and this was to become Shirow’s signature genre. His next manga, Appleseed, made him a household name. He drew a future that was dense, beautiful, and fascinating.

Ghost in the Shell

Ghost in the Shell

While Appleseed put Shirow on the map, it was Ghost in the Shell that drew the highest praise. I highly recommend that people read the original manga before seeing the 1995 anime adaption by Mamoru Oshii. The Oshii film is important in its own right, but it lacks just about all the humor and artistic flair that’s so key to Shirow’s appeal.

Naughty, Naughty

If you do indeed read the original Ghost in the Shell manga, you may be shocked to find that Shirow puts plenty of explicit sexual material even in his mainstream works. What many people don’t know is that he also produces plenty of erotic material too in the form of manga and artbooks. Plenty of the Shirow figures you’ll find at your local comic book shop are actually from these erotic works.

Still in Business

While Shirow’s heyday was really between ‘85 and ‘95, he’s still producing artbooks and manga. His latest work was Pandora in the Crimson Shell, which came out in 2012. However, to this day Shirow works are still being adapted to anime and video games.

But his later works haven’t quite captured public attention as much, and the higher focus on adults-only content isn’t helping. Still, Shirow is relatively young and there’s sure to be a few masterpieces left in that legendary pen. Until then there’s plenty for new finds to explore and enjoy. Shirow remains one of the most unique and notable manga artists in the industry, and that will never change.


anime sketch

Becoming an Animator in Japan

It’s very important to have ambitions in life. We often build our aspirations on the things we come to love over time. I’m sure there are plenty of people who once thought that the career of “rock star” would be perfect for them. If you love an artform enough, then eventually you might try your hand at creating it yourself. There are plenty of kids from the 80s and 90s who could draw their favorite character from Dragon Ball Z perfectly, after all.

So if you love anime and are a talented artist, perhaps you dream of one day going to Japan in a bid to enter the industry. That’s a laudable goal, but the path to reaching it is not an easy one. You might also be shocked to hear that the career of animator doesn’t pay particularly well. Still, if that’s your dream then don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Here are some general ideas about what you could do to become an animator in Japan.

animator

Get the Skills to Pay the Bills

In order to have any chance at all of making it you’ll need to stand out from all the local Japanese talent who also want to get into the industry. Japanese culture already puts a very strong emphasis on quality and precision, so you’ll really have to be virtually perfect when it comes to drawing key animation frames. Remember, in-between work is generally outsourced to places like China and Korea, so there’s no entry through that avenue in Japan itself.

Build a Portfolio

This is pretty standard in most forms of art, but you need a portfolio to show off. Create your own animation sequences to show exactly how good you are. There is no substitute for showing a prospective employer what you can do.

At the very least, a good portfolio can get your foot in the door so that you are given a chance to prove yourself. In these days of digital tools it’s completely feasible to make your own little shorts using nothing but a drawing tablet and some software on your computer.

Education Matters

You don’t need to have any sort of special education in order to become an animator, but it sure helps a lot if you’ve actually received some form of formal training in the art. Going to a good school and getting a letter of recommendation from someone credible certainly can’t hurt. It’s fine to be self-taught, but in this competitive area you want to stand out. Besides, formal training will help make you more marketable, round out your skills, and polish the rough edges on your skills.

The ideal would be to get into an art school in Japan itself. That still means you need to have a good handle on the language, though!

Learn the Language

This is possibly the hardest part of the preparations you’ll need to do in order to make the plan work. Since you are trying to enter a Japanese organization where everyone else is Japanese, you are going to need fluent business Japanese language skills under your belt. It’s not just spoken Japanese that you need to master, but written Japanese too. High school graduates in Japan are expected to know the Joyo kanji. That’s the official list of Chinese-derived symbols that everyone should know. There are 2136 official kanji in total. University students learn additional ones, but if you can read the Joyo kanji then government documents, signs, and most day-to-day writing will be understandable to you. In addition to the Joyo kanji, you’ll also need to know the 46 Hiragana and 48 Katakana symbols as well.

There might be a requirement that you pass a certain level of the JLPT, or Japanese Language Proficiency Test. Many visas or job adverts specify certification at a certain level of Japanese in order to be eligible.

Japanese Language

Learn the Culture

Regardless of where you are from, Japan’s culture is rather unique compared to anywhere else in the world. Their business culture is no exception to this rule. Do your research on the business culture and social norms that go with applying, interviewing, and, ultimately, working in Japan.

Consider Alternative Production Positions

Being a key animator isn’t the only way you can work in anime production. Being a character designer, for example, could be a viable alternative and will still scratch that artistic itch. There are plenty of stories where people who work in one part of production cross over to others.

Be Prepared for Long Hours and Little Pay

By all accounts, working as an animator in Japan is a brutal profession. In-between animators starting out can make as little as $10,000 a year, or even less in some cases. The hours and deadline crunch horror tales are not hard to find. If you’re a key animator it’s much better, and freelance artists who have made a name for themselves can negotiate something better. Working more than sixty hours a week is not uncommon, so you really need to want this gig.

Have a Foot in the Door

It’s unlikely that a Japanese animation studio is going to hire a foreigner straight from wherever in the world they are. In fact, it’s unlikely they’d want to endure the hassle of hiring a foreigner in the first place. So you need to be within physical reach of the studio you are interested in. This means going to Japan with the aid of some other work or program. Becoming an English teacher through government programs such as JET is a common way to get there. There are also Japan-based jobs that specifically want English-speaking professionals to apply. In all cases, your spoken Japanese needs to be good enough, but if you can physically go and speak to the powers that be at the animation studio you have in mind, that can make all the difference.

Get Real

I don’t want to be a downer here, but the number of Westerners who have actually made it into the industry can probably be counted on one hand. It’s not that this is deliberately insular; it’s more a series of natural barriers that are pretty tough to get past. I’m not saying it’s a waste of time, but you have to be realistic about your chances when planning anything, right? So if, after all this, you still feel this is your destiny, then good luck and godspeed!


akira manga

The Best Manga to Sink Your Teeth Into

Now that anime has successfully transitioned to the Western mainstream we’re facing a new problem – picking the gems from the trash. Now that most shows are being translated, it’s difficult to know where to spend your time and money.

Manga hasn’t transitioned to quite the same degree, but I suspect it will get there eventually. If you think finding good anime in the crowd is hard, wait until every manga gets translated! In Japan, manga is everywhere. One of the main reasons for this is that the barrier to entry is much lower. Anyone who can draw can produce a manga, so the main issue is not production but distribution. Traditionally, new artists cut their teeth by making small numbers of their manga and selling them at places like Comiket, a massive fair where people sell their doujinshi, or self-published manga. Publishers might offer a deal to popular or otherwise noteworthy artists and writers. Even then, the number of published manga is staggering.

So here I’m going to highlight a handful of manga that you can start with if you’ve never tried this unique graphic storytelling format before. These are some of the best manga ever written, at least according to me.


Battle Angel Alita

Battle Angel Alita

In Japan, this manga and its anime adaptation is known as Gunnm, and it is still a travesty that only a two-episode OVA covering a very tiny part of this story was ever made. That little taste of the world created by Yukito Kishiro is often enough to get people interested in the manga. This is great, because this is, hands down, one of the best manga titles ever written.

It is the story of a female cyborg known as Alita in the Western translation, but “Gally” in the original Japanese. When the story starts, all that’s left of her is a head and chest. She’s in suspended animation and has been for an unknown time. As luck would have it, she is discovered on a trash heap by one of the world's best cyberneticists. He’s been banished to the trash-heap underworld, far from where the elites of this dystopia live.

Who is Alita? What is the fate of this dismal world? These are the questions and more that will be answered in the nine volumes this manga spans.

The manga finished its run back in 1995, but it still has some of the most gorgeous artwork I’ve ever seen put to paper. The character art, mechanical detail, and peerless action scenes are frankly moving. The story is both fantastic and relatable. The twists, and there are a few, genuinely caught me out more than once. I feel old saying it, but they don’t really make ‘em like this anymore. If you can get your hands on Battle Angel Alita you should definitely take the time to read it from cover to cover and then do it again. It’s that good.

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Berserk

Berserk

This is another manga that briefly got the anime treatment, but then never actually finished the story. It’s also a manga with absolutely gorgeous and detailed drawings. Most modern manga looks very simplified in comparison, to be honest. Unlike Gunnm, Berserk is STILL going. It’s been going since 1989, which means this tale has run continuously for almost 30 years. It stands at 39 volumes right now and who knows where it will end. It’s got nothing on manga like Guin Saga, which is also still running but started in ‘79, with a staggering 140+ volumes to date. Writer Kentaro Miura also cites Guin Saga as a partial influence on Berserk.

The story of Berserk is of course not one of a real monster, but it begins with a freelance mercenary by the name of Guts. Just in case you can’t tell from the name, this manga is metal as hell. It’s like every death metal album cover ever turned into an epic tale. Guts is born from his mother after she dies by hanging. His adopted mother then dies from the plague. The next parental figure is a mercenary boss by the name of Gambino, who trains Guts to be a death dealer from an early age.

By the time we reach the present in the story’s timeline, Guts is one of the most feared warriors in the land. He gets inducted by force into a mercenary group known as the Band of the Hawk (see, metal!) and actually develops a fierce loyalty to their charismatic leader Griffith. Guts is the wetwork specialist that helps Griffith's insatiable ambition, but as time goes by it turns out that Griffith wants to be much more than just a king, and he’s willing to sacrifice every friend he has in order to achieve his ultimate goal.

This is a brutal dark fantasy that makes Game of Thrones look like a Disney series. If that sounds like your sort of thing then Berserk is the best example of the genre. No contest.

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Oh My Goddess

Oh My Goddess

This is probably my favorite manga on a personal level. The first manga I ever bought was Love Potion No. 9, a compiled volume of Oh My Goddess issues. This manga by Kosuke Fujishima also had an incredible run. It ran from 1988 to 2014 with a total of 48 volumes. It also shows a very interesting issue with manga that are set in our century. In Berserk or Gunnm there is no reason to change the visual style or design of these wholly made-up worlds. As Oh My Goddess goes on, however, you can clearly see Fujishima modernize things like hair styles. It’s not important; it’s just an interesting aside.

There have been more than a few anime adaptations of the manga, but none of them capture the intimate slice-of-life nature of the manga page or the entire epic scope of the world and story.

Oh My Goddess is a “romantic fantasy comedy,” if you want a precise description of the genre. It’s also something more than that. This is no pervy harem story, although it does make a few semi-lewd jokes every now and then. If you want to read something that makes you feel good and happy at the end of each arc, then Oh My Goddess is almost literally soul food.

It tells the story of engineering student Keiichi Morisato, a man cursed with more bad luck than he deserves. The universe needs to correct this injustice and he is contacted by a goddess who offers him any one wish to make up for a lifetime of struggle. On a seeming whim (and thinking the whole thing is a gag) Keiichi wishes that the goddess stays with him forever. The supercomputer that runs the universe approves the request and the goddess Belldandy is bound to him for the rest of his life. This arrangement causes all sorts of problems for the couple, which is the source of the drama.

One standout feature of the manga is the technical drawings of cars, robots, planes, and other mechanical devices. Fujishima originally wanted to be a draftsman, but he couldn’t pass the apprenticeship exam. So he got into manga as a fallback, only to create one of the longest-running and most-acclaimed works in the medium.

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Death Note

Death Note

The Death Note anime is without a doubt one of the best anime to ever grace our screens, but three years before the story came to television it started off as a serialized manga in Weekly Shonen Jump.

It tells more or less the same overall story we saw in the anime, although there are going to be some minor differences. The story is more fleshed out and can build suspense in ways the anime can’t. Best of all, there’s a one-shot volume following the end of the original run that provides an epilogue not seen anywhere else.

The link I’ve put in for this entry is for the “All-in-One” edition that includes all 12 volumes plus that one-shot in a single, massive 2400-page volume with a slipcase. It’s not even that expensive and you’ll have one of the most enthralling supernatural thrillers written in the modern day. Sure, the live action Death Note movie might have been trash, but almost everything about this series is pure gold. Investing time in this series is something you won’t regret.

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Akira

Akira

Even people who know nothing about anime know about Akira. The 1988 film was probably the biggest push for anime fandom in the West, and especially in the United States. One amazing fact about Akira is that the manga author, Katsuhiro Otomo, is also the director of the film and writer of the film. This means that the Akira film adaptation that we got is pretty much exactly what the manga author would have wanted, given the budget and medium constraints. After all, they’re the same person!

The manga Akira is based on was first published in 1982 and ran until 1990, two years after the film came out. Obviously there’s a LOT more meat to this story than a single film’s runtime could allow for. If you like the film and the world Otomo created then you absolutely must give the manga a try. A company named Epic Comics even did a fully-colorized version of the manga with mirrored imagery. For purists there’s always the original black and white version. Either way, this should be in the collection of any manga fan worth their salt.

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Inuyashiki

Inuyashiki

Inuyashiki is from the same creator who brought us the ultra-violent sci-fi Gantz. Inuyashiki is definitely one of the most original stories I’ve read in a long time, and is one of the newest manga on this list.

The premise is a very smart one. An old man and a teenager are both accidentally killed in an explosion caused by aliens. The aliens are mortified by this and as recompense they give them completely new robotic bodies that look exactly the same from the outside, but which are virtually omnipotent and indestructible. Inuyashiki, the elderly gentlemen, decides to use this godlike body to fight injustice and heal the sick. The teenager, Hiro, turns out to be a total psycho, who uses his power to murder anyone he doesn’t like. The government can’t stop Hiro – only one old man in a robotic god’s body has any chance of bringing him down.

Inuyashiki is beautifully drawn and no less intriguing than Gantz at its best. It might be a fairly new manga, but it’s already one of my all-time favorites.

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anime music video

A Quick Guide to Anime Music Videos

Anime fandom is replete with weird and colorful traditions and practices. Just like any subculture, it can be hard for newcomers to understand what the hell is going on. One weird anime-related phenomenon is that of the AMV, or "anime music video". What the heck is an AMV, you say? I'm glad you asked.

This is Not MTV

The concept of an AMV is dead simple. It's basically an edited collection of video clips set to an audio track. Usually the track is a song, but there are also videos made for comedic effect that use trailers or comical redubs. Should these be put under "AMVs"? I suppose not, but plenty of people do lump them together, so this is the sort of thing you might get if you Google for AMVs.

AMVs have been around for about 36 years as of 2018. That's according to Wikipedia, which says that the first recorded anime music video was made by a guy using two VCRs, footage from Star Blazers and "All You Need is Love" by the Beatles.

Outside of anime fandom there is a similar practice known as "vidding", which is the same thing in practice but with non-anime media. The two terms are still distinctly separate, since the two fan practices developed in isolation of one another.

anime music video

How Are AMVs Made?

Since making AMVs is a creative process, different people have different ways of approaching their creation. However, you need three things to make an AMV.

  • The first thing you need is footage. Early AMV makers had to use VHS tapes, since home video editing wasn't really a thing yet. This meant taping it from TV and then painstakingly cutting together what you wanted while dubbing audio onto the tape.

    The rise of digital video on computers has completely transformed the popularity of AMVs. Access to raw footage, thanks to online rippers and of course DVD and Blu Ray discs, now mean that you have access to clean clips that won't degrade and have the same crisp quality always. If you really want to use a VHS source (such as from old shows that were never digitized) it's also pretty cheap to get a USB capture device.

  • The second thing you need is video editing software on your computer. It doesn't have to be professional stuff. A good editor can make something amazing with the simplest of tools, while someone who is talentless won't make anything worthwhile even with the most expensive software.
  • The third thing you need is music. What makes most anime music videos memorable is how the creator has matched a particular song to the anime in question. For example, one popular Ah My Goddess! AMV pairs the OVA with the song "Heaven is a Place on Earth". Personally, I prefer the one that uses Megaherz's Gott Sein.

Anime Music Video Types

While all AMVs cut anime visuals over audio, there are different approaches to this. The simplest form is simply cutting scenes to go over the music. There may also be simple transitions such as fades or dissolves. Many AMVs are edited in such a way that the action onscreen matches up with the beat, parts of the song, or specific lyrics. The editor might even stretch or compress the footage to make it fit.

Advanced effects are also becoming more common. Editors might remove the background and replace it, alter the animation itself, morph the visuals, and much more. Some can do this so seamlessly that you may think the show actually contains their changes.

Being more complex doesn't mean a given anime music video is better than simpler fare. Indeed, many of the best AMVs use simple cuts that expertly weave together something beautiful or awesome from two completely unrelated media.

anime girl

Why Do People Make Anime Music Videos?

Well, the obvious reason is that AMVs are fun to make and cool to watch. There is clearly an audience for them today and what more do you need to justify them? In other words, plenty of people who make anime music videos today do so because they liked watching them. That doesn't really tell us why AMVs exist, though.

No one is ever going to know the definitive answer, but I think I can formulate some reasonable theories. I think that AMVs are possibly one of the earliest examples of modern remix culture. Today, following the Web 2.0 revolution, remixing is something that almost everyone takes part in. People make memes, dub their voices over clips, create GIFS, and all the other internet practices that are now commonplace. Anime music videos are exactly that, but they predate the world-wide-web itself and certainly predate Web 2.0 user-generated content.

They are also a readily-accessible form of self-expression. Many AMVs stand as expressions of artistic intent by themselves, taking on a new life beyond the components from which they're made. It's also a great way for people to develop their video editing skills, since an AMV project teaches you both the technical and artistic elements of editing.

These days, with the rise of YouTube and the possibility of being an online star, I guess there's also that motivation to drive people.

Regardless of why people make AMVs, I can certainly tell you why we appreciated them so much back in the day. Without broadband, AMVs were a great way to preview anime. Anime music videos not only introduced me to anime I would otherwise never have seen, it's also introduced me to MUSIC that has since become a part of my top playlists. Trying to make my own AMVs (which sadly predate YouTube and are now lost) also taught me just about everything I know about video editing. I still remember downloading an AMV for the first time using a dial-up modem. It took all night to get a 64MB file onto my hard drive. Good times.

Copyright Issues

Since AMVs use several copyrighted sources of material, there are always questions about their legality. A lot of this is going to depend on where in the world you live, but in general their creation and publication should be protected by fair use laws. Essentially such laws protect the reuse of copyrighted material without permission as long as it's for study, criticism, or artistic expression; with the proviso that it must also be non-commercial.

This means that putting your AMVs up on YouTube can sometimes lead to the copyright filter catching it, which needs resolution through their dispute system. It also means that you can't monetize your AMVs, but if you want some financial support as a serious AMV creator you can always turn to sites like Patreon.

Guardian Sigma

Spreading the Love

What makes a good AMV is almost completely subjective. There are plenty anime music videos that have high levels of production quality but are boring and lifeless. Then there are ones where it's clear the creator is an amateur, but their creative eye has something special to it.

The honest truth is that 99% of AMVs are really not that great, but there are plenty of gems too. Here are some examples of MY favorite AMVs. Obviously your taste will be different, but you have to start somewhere.

Koopiskeva: Rei - Damaged

Koopiskeva is a well-known name in the AMV scene and Damaged is probably my favorite video from this AMV creator. I'm a huge Neon Genesis Evangelion fan and Rei Ayanami is probably my favorite character from that show. This video is possibly the most perfect encapsulation of the haunting existence Rei has. In four minutes you essentially get an insight into the character, thanks solely to clever editing and a perfect song choice.

This AMV was released all the way back in 2002 so it does look a little dated. It even predates HD widescreen video. Yet it is to my mind the perfect example of an AMV done right.

Koopiskeva: Euphoria

OK, this is another Koop AMV, but it's too damn good not to highlight. This is based on RahXephon, which is one of the copycat shows that followed the popularity of Evangelion. Unlike most of those shows, however, this one is nearly as brilliant and stands on its own two feet. It also has great imagery and beautiful animation - something Koop takes full advantage of here.

Otaku Vengeance: Akira - Not Enough

Otaku Vengeance is another legendary AMV group. They are known for their pumping, action-filled AMVs. My favorite example of their work is this killer video featuring footage from Akira and a song by Gravity Kills.

Right Now - Van Halen AMV

I first saw this brilliant AMV at a convention and it keeps popping up over the years. It's expertly-made and really gets to the heart of otaku fandom. Plus, Right Now is a great song.


japanese woman

The Uniqueness of Japan: An Anime Fan's Perspective

For most people who get hooked on anime, the country of Japan has been an abstract concept. It’s the place where your car was made. Perhaps also your TV and laptop. For a long time near the end of the 20th century, to paraphrase Marty McFly, all the best stuff was made in Japan.

Today Japan is still one of the largest economies in the world, although it isn’t quite as dominating as it once was. South Korea and China are both comparable in the impact they have on the world in terms of technology and business. Yet the cultural influence of Japan on the rest of Asia and now on the Western world is undeniable. Modern Japan is compelling to large swathes of people all over the world. Anime exposes many people to Japanese culture in a way that gets them hooked. But what is it about this tiny island nation that gives it such an oversized cultural impact? No one is ever going to have an exact answer, but there are some things about Japan that might make it a little more obvious.

japan garden park

Japan Was Isolationist

For almost three centuries Japan cut itself off from the rest of the world. This is known as the “sakoku” or “closed country” policy; something enforced by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Edo period. Japan still had contact with some foreign nations, but the terms and rules were very strict. The powers that be did not want foreign ideas and values (such as Christianity) “polluting” Japan. The Dutch were one of the few European nations who maintained ties with Japan during this time. Interestingly enough, there are still many signs of Dutch influence on the Japanese today, not least of which are replicas of Dutch windmills and clothing in Japan.

It’s during this time that many of the most unique cultural elements of Japan were either solidified or came to be. Shielded from most external influences, Japan really became it’s own thing. After Japan was eventually opened to the rest of the world by Commodore Matthew Perry (no, obviously not THAT Matthew Perry) the Dutch kept their good relations with Japan, even helping them modernize their navy.

Japan was Hungry for External Cultural Influences

After their isolation ended and the Tokugawa Shogunate came to an end, it was Emperor Meiji who pushed for Japan to rapidly become a modern nation. This is the age where the samurai had to give up their swords. Swords were banned, in fact. The age of the gun, the steam train, electricity, and other trappings of modern Western life were grabbed with both hands.

Emperor Meiji also sent out envoys to learn about things like schooling, military doctrine, and administration. The modern school system and the traditional public school clothing are left over from copying elements of Western school systems. The Iwakura diplomatic mission sent by the emperor visited countries like the Netherlands, Germany, Prussia, Denmark, and many more.

As you can plainly see today, Japan didn’t really copy so much as adapt and absorb foreign influences. That’s a big part of the nation’s uniqueness.

They are The Only Nation to Suffer a Nuclear Attack

If you somehow don’t know, two nuclear bombs were dropped on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II. This lead directly to the surrender of Japan to the Allied forces and finally ended the conflict that had raged for years.

The actual bombs, which were both essentially prototypes, might not have done as much actual damage as more conventional weapons such as fire bombs dropped on paper cities. Their psychological impact was arguably much greater. Not only did Japan surrender to the Allies, they basically outlawed war. The modern constitution of Japan only allows for a self-defense force; hence, the modern JSDF. There is no provision for attack – only defense.

You can still see the aftershocks of being attacked with nuclear weapons in the Japanese arts, including anime. There are often stories with strong anti-war sentiments, and the Japanese approach to conflict in stories can be much more nuanced than you’ll see on U.S. TV. This is yet another factor that makes the Japanese an enigmatic and unique human culture.

tokyo japan

They are an Economic Miracle

While the efforts of the government under Emperor Meiji went a long way to modernizing and industrializing Japan, they were hardly an economic superpower at the time. All of this changed after the end of WWII. With aid from the U.S. and their energies entirely focused on rebuilding Japan, this nation quickly became the second-largest economy in the world. This started flattening out in the 1990s, but Japan remains one of the world's leaders in technology.

The Japanese have a strongly collectivist culture, unlike Westerners who mostly belong to cultures that emphasize the individual. I really believe this is one of the reasons that Japan was able to pull off such an amazing revolution. Everyone pulled together. Companies and government worked together for the greater good. People during this time had to put up with a lot of hardship and sacrifice, knowing full-well that it was their own children who would benefit most. Few if any other countries are comparable, although South Korea is probably the closest example today.

Japan has No Personal Space

The country of Japan consists of a chain of islands, with four major ones hosting almost all of the population. Over 70% of the country is mountain, which means that people can only really live in the valleys between them. To put things in perspective, Japan is about as big as California but has 127 million inhabitants. California only has 39 million people, and they don't have access to only 30% of their surface area!

Basically, there is no personal space in Japan. People have simply formed a culture where you deal with being squeezed in with a bunch of other people all the time. Urban Japanese living spaces are miniscule. People live in one-room apartments. That means one space has to be a bedroom, kitchen, living room, and bathroom.

Believe me, they have found many ingenious ways to maximize their spaces. No doubt the invention of the flat-screen television was celebrated widely in Japan. And they make some of the best vehicles in the world.

machine japan

Japan is Incredibly Advanced

I’ve always said that if you want to know what the world will look like ten years from now then just look at Japan today. It’s not quite that true anymore in this globalized world, but its level of technology is still pretty amazing.

This is a country that’s at the forefront of robotics. They were one of the first countries to put maglev trains into commercial service. The CRISPR gene-editing technology is a Japanese invention. Statins? Japanese. Blue LEDs? CD Players? Lithium Batteries? The list is LONG.

Yet They Can Be Anachronistic

Japan is one of the only countries in the world where dumb-phones are still popular. Flip-phones? Yeah, they love those too. Fax machines are museum pieces in the rest of the world, but in Japan they are still essential to have. A lot of this is down to how slow the change and decision making is in Japanese companies. It is a fascinating dichotomy.

They Have Unique Social Problems

Japan is one example of what happens when your country gets to the pinnacle of first-world development. Japanese birth-rates are negative. The population is aging. This is a country that has to seriously consider using robots as nurses and shopkeepers because there simply aren’t enough people to go around.

Japan is also pretty xenophobic in general. If you are not of the Japanese ethnicity you are almost certainly not going to become a Japanese citizen. Even people born in Japan aren’t considered Japanese citizens unless they have the “right” ancestry. They have to carry around “gaijin” or “foreigner” cards despite Japan being the only country they have ever known. This attitude towards immigration means that they can’t get fresh blood to help with the aforementioned problems. On the bright side, there should be more room once enough people have passed on without ever having children.

Add to this a work and school culture that emphasizes excellence but at the cost of extreme stress, and you also get some weird glitches in the system. For example, the hikikomori – people who completely withdraw from society. So far, this is almost exclusively a Japanese mental disorder.

But Wait, There’s More

Honestly, this article could go on for just as many pages as there have been written about this country in books. For the new anime fan I just want to make it clear that your entertainment comes from a country that’s unlike almost any other in the modern world. The freshness and appeal of a lot of anime is significantly the result of this. You don’t have to be a Japanophile to appreciate anime or manga. It does help a lot to know something about the people who make the art we love.


Tokyo Xanadu

Welcome to the World of Japanese Role-Playing Games (JRPG)

Role-playing games have been an incredibly popular form of entertainment since long before video games (or even personal computers) were a thing most people knew or cared about. In the West, the invention and release of Dungeons and Dragons by Gary Gygax and his companions caused quite a stir. Here it was possible for otherwise ordinary people to create fantasy characters and then embody them as they went on adventures. These characters would grow in strength and ability as they solved problems or defeated enemies. Such tabletop role-playing provided the mechanics and overall structure for the “CRPGs”, or “computer role-playing games”, that would be very popular on the various personal computers that took the world by storm.

Games like the Bard’s Tale, Ultima, Baldur’s Gate, and Fallout cemented these grand adventures as a cornerstone of video gaming. In the East, the Japanese were also getting into video games in a big way. However, just as with so much of their other media, this was created through a very particular lens. The “JRPG” or “Japanese Role-playing Game” needs that little “J” for a very good reason. Role-playing games from Japan tend to gravitate to a number of unique conventions that make them both very different from Dungeons and Dragons-inspired fare, and a cohesive thing all by themselves.

In this article I want to take the time to outline what it is about JRPGs that make them special. We’ll look at both the positive and the negative aspects of these games. Before we do any of that however, I have to answer one very important question.

Tokyo Mirage

Why Should Anime Fans Care about JRPGs?

That’s a very fair question and I’m glad you asked. Since this is a site aimed at anime, it’s a subject worth explaining. To me, JRPGs are just as much part of the anime phenomenon as manga and light novels are. They broadly share art styles, stories, and tropes, which means many anime fans are going to feel right at home while playing a JRPG.

Of course, if you are an anime fan but don’t care for video games in general, there is not much for you here. If you are an avid player of Western games and are now getting into anime for the first time, there’s a good chance that JRPGs will scratch both itches at the same time.

Console Yourself

Unlike WRPGs, JRPGs are products of consoles such as the Nintendo NES. Dragon Quest and the first Final Fantasy both got a start on controller-based gaming hardware. I think this has had a major impact on their design and focus. Much of what makes a JRPG distinct comes from those concessions needed to play with a two-button controller from a couch.

You Play Roles Differently

One of the most striking differences between JRPGs and WRPGs is how they approach characterization and role play. Western role-playing games tend to give you enormous control over your character. You can choose their appearance, often down to silly levels of detail. Don’t be surprised if you spend thirty minutes adjusting the angles of an eyebrow. Their class, powers, back story, weaknesses, and much more can be determined by the player. Narratives in WRPGs tend to be very dynamic. In JRPGs, on the other hand, the only thing you can change about the characters in your party are their names. One of the best JRPG traditions is to give truly goofy or really dirty names to the characters and then have the game play them straight for laughs.

Regardless of what your character is named, their personality and story tend to be pretty fixed. JRPGs have never really been about making your own tales, but rather about playing the role of a pre-made character working through a rather on-rails story.

Funnily enough, we’ve started to see more of that in WRPGs of late. The Mass Effect series does let you change the face of your character, but their backstory choices are limited and things are much more on-rails than you might think. One of the most highly acclaimed RPG series, The Witcher, also casts you in the role of Geralt of Rivia. His identity cannot be changed; it is central to all that happens in both the game and the books from which it's adapted.

Star Ocean

Packed to the Brim

This limited role-playing can create the impression that JRPGs are more shallow, but actually if you do wander off the beaten path in a JRPG you tend to find amazing details and secrets tucked into every corner. Sometimes, for example, getting the best sword in the game requires a set of steps that would make the most devout fan of headscratchers and puzzles throw in the towel.

That doesn’t mean that you won’t get much scope to role-play within the lines that have been drawn to you. The choices presented to your character can have a profound effect on how the game plays out. Multiple endings are a staple of JRPGs and the branches can be dense and complex. It’s not even always clear what you did to get a particular ending in the first place. There are also often mini-games, secret items, paths, and so much more. People still discover stuff in JRPGs decades after they’ve come out.

Taking Turns

A turn-based battle system is one of the most iconic game mechanics associated with JRPGs. Basically this means you don’t hack and slash your way through enemies, but take turns like in chess. The specifics of this mechanic differs from one JRPG to the next, but these games are very strategic during combat.

Of course, D&D-based WRPGs are also turn-based in principle, but computer adaptations of these games have either turned them into action-RPGs or used invisible dice rolls and an in-game timer to keep things going. In most JRPGs you can wait as long as you want to choose your next move. Some JRPGs have experimented with “active time bar” hybrid systems. Here a character or enemy can make a move as soon as their individual timers have filled up. This also brings new stats such as “speed” into the mix. The higher a character’s speed, the faster their time bar fills up.

A turn-based design is one of the main reasons modern gamers have started to feel that JRPGs are a little outdated. After all, one of the main reasons a turn-based system was chosen back in the day was due to console limitation. Getting a dinky 8-bit processor running in the single-digit megahertz to calculate all those stats in real time is a tall order. That being said, there’s is a definite charm to playing turn-based battles. Not everyone is a twitch gamer and there’s a special kind of satisfaction in winning some of the tougher battles in a turn-based game.

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The Grind

A big part of any role playing game is gaining experience and using it to shape your character into something that fits your play style and is devastating to enemies.

Western RPGs tend to strike a keen balance between combat and other elements such as exploration and progression. WRPGs also award XP for doing things like talking your way out of a bad situation, for example. In most JRPGs your source of XP is exclusively combat-based monster killing. The basic game loop is essentially fighting wave after wave of cannon fodder until you are strong enough to beat the next boss encounter. If the boss is kicking your butt then you usually have little choice but to go back into the field and keep fighting the same monsters over and over again until you can brute force your way through.

Grinding is something I consider a throwback from the days when console cartridge space was limited and developers needed to find a way to stretch the total game time. Often this was achieved by making the games incredibly hard, but you could also just loop some of the same content, slightly changing enemy colors and stats for some variety.

Depending on the type of gamer that you are, grinding can either be a lot of fun or a total pain in the behind. Funnily enough, however, most JRPGs have ways to avoid grinding that you can usually figure out yourself. It might be a specific item or combination of techniques that let you punch way above your weight. Modern JRPGs and re-releases of older classics tend to de-emphasize the grind or let you tone down the difficulty in the settings. Still, grinding your way to the top can be very satisfying. Just ask anyone addicted to World of Warcraft.

I Just Met You and This is a Crazy Random Encounter

Another common and rather unique feature of JRPGs is the so-called “random encounter”. When you are in a dungeon or exploring the overworld, a battle will start every so many (randomized) steps. You’ll be happily walking along when suddenly the screen gets all sworly and the battle music starts up. Some people find this really annoying, but random encounters have been a part of many JRPGs for decades. Some games have had alternative takes on the system. For example, you may see single monsters roaming the overworld, but if you touch them with your character a separate battle screen will start up with multiple opponents. The chief difference here is that JRPGs that let you see encounters may give you a way to avoid them.

It Can Be Complicated

JRPGs have a tendency to layer a lot of different systems into their games, which can seem convoluted and overly complicated. The best JRPGs don’t make every system mandatory, but let you decide where to focus your efforts. There might be item and weapon crafting, cooking, magic systems, character enhancements, and way more. Even within the same JRPG series each iteration might overhaul the way things work completely. Final Fantasy is a good example of this. From numbers one through fifteen there have been massive changes to the game’s battle system and RPG mechanics. It’s not even really a turn-based game anymore!

If you like things simple then most JRPGs will not be for you, but if you’re the type of person who geeks out about complex mechanics and deep mastery, then you’ve just reached gaming nirvana.

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Giant Tutorials

As a result of these complex and layered systems, many JRPGs have absolutely massive tutorials. These also generally serve as the prologue to the game. As the early parts of the story go on, each of the systems are introduced one by one, easing the player into the full-fat experience. Just how long are these tutorials? Well, it varies. But don’t be surprised if you’re eight hours into the game before the training wheels are finally taken off!

Epic Stories

You’ve probably figured this out already, but the games themselves tend to be absolutely monstrous when it comes to completion times. Even when you’re trying to run through the game in a straight line it’s typical for a JRPG to take as much as 50 hours to complete.

I’ve always found that JRPGs gave the best bang-per-buck as a kid. Did I want to spend $60 on a game I could beat over a weekend or one that would take me weeks or months to finish? I think you can see why JRPGs were such a big part of my own childhood.

The stories themselves are almost always grand affairs. Beautiful artwork, interesting characters, and usually some of the best visuals for each respective generation. Some people complain that JRPG plots are melodramatic or contrived but, really, they hew closely to much of the storytelling style seen in anime and manga. So if you are really into either of those mediums the average JRPG is going to be just as appealing.

Everyone Has Their Part to Play

I think as a genre JRPGs have a lot to offer. Their popularity has somewhat died down of late, but there’s a massive catalog of past titles to try and still more than enough new JRPG titles coming out to keep new and old fans happy.

If you’re thinking of trying out a JRPG for yourself, be sure to check out my article about some great JRPG titles for beginners.


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The Biggest Studio Names in Anime

The Right Stuff

Some organizations just seem to have a magic in what they do. In the anime industry there are some anime studios that immediately tell you what you’re about to watch is going to be special. Out of the 75-odd anime studios in Japan there are a few names every anime fan should know about. These aren’t just studios that have made one or two good shows, but companies that have consistently hit it out of the park year after year.

J.C. Staff

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J.C. Staff was founded in 1986, and as a fan of 90s anime I quickly learned to look out for their signature when choosing what to watch next. If a show had “J.C. Staff” in the credits I knew I was in for a good time. The founder of the studio is actually a former employee of Tatsunoko productions, one of the oldest extant anime studios in Japan.

J.C Staff is responsible for the classic Slayers anime, Excel Saga, Azumanga Daioh, Toradora!, Orguss 02, New Dominion Tank Police, and so much more. Their animation has always been some of the best on screen, and their 90s work holds up just as well today. They aren’t always at the technical edge, but their animation has heart and character.

Production I.G.

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Production I.G. was founded the year after J.C. Staff and has developed a reputation for making some of the most visually stunning animation either on TV or in OVA form.

One of their best outputs has to be Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. This was one of the earliest shows to blend CG and 2D animation. I still think GITS:SAC looks better than some CG-blended anime that came out this year. Of course, this is also the studio that made the classic 1995 Ghost in the Shell theatrical release, but personally I think Stand Alone Complex outdid the original film.

They also did work on the visually stunning End of Evangelion film and other premium mecha shows such as Guilty Crown. It was the GITS visual style and flair that greatly influenced the Wachowskis when they made the first Matrix film.

While Production I.G. might not have pumped out quite as many titles as some studios of a similar vintage, they’ve always made up in terms of quality.

Madhouse INC

Madhouse studio

Madhouse is one one of the older studios on this list, founded in 1972. As such they are responsible for some of the most revered classic of the medium. Wicked City, Ninja Scroll, and Perfect Blue are just three names in a long, long list. They also made two of my top five titles, Chobits and Lodoss War, which automatically gets them a spot in my book!

Madhouse doesn’t really do the OVA thing, preferring TV and movies, but as a result they’ve pumped out some of the best examples of either format. Most recently three of my latest anime loves all come from Madhouse: Overlord, One Punch Man, and Alderamin in the Sky. There’s a pretty good chance that among their filmography is at least one of the titles that you absolutely adore.

Sunrise

Sunrise company

Sunrise is another name that indicate quality shows. The company was founded in 1972 and boasts numerous classic anime under its belt. I personally associate these guys with really solid and fun action and adventure anime from the 90s. They did Gundam, for one thing. Cyborg 009 is also from this studio. Their mecha pedigree also includes Patlabor, and lets not forget these guys are responsible for Cowboy Bebop!

Sunrise is still going strong to this day and it’s insane how many titles this mega-studio pushes out. If it says “Sunrise”, you’re probably in for a good time.

Bones

Bones

Bones is one of the younger studios on this list, being founded in 1998. Yet in that time they’ve made a formidable name for themselves. This studio was actually founded by former Sunrise staff, so there’s quite a pedigree at work here.

This studio is responsible for the original Full Metal Alchemist series, RahXephon, Soul Eater, FMA: Brotherhood, Noragami, and much, much more. So it seems the insane Sunrise work ethic also made it over. I expect big things from Bones in the coming years.

GAINAX

Gainax

GAINAX will forever hold a special place in my heart as the creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, frankly one of the best shows ever made in any medium Period. Excuse my fanboy squealing.

While Evangelion was their second TV series, this studio has made some of the most iconic anime of the last three decades. Appleseed, Gunbuster and FLCL are all fantastic OVAs. Their first film, the 1987 The Wings of Honneamise, is still regarded as something special. Their most recent hit is probably Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. They haven’t pumped out a mass of titles and often co-produce with other studios, but GAINAX has left an indelible mark on the history of anime.

GONZO

Gonzo company

Speaking of the mark that GAINAX left, GONZO was founded by a group of former GAINAX members in 1992. While the studio went through a rough patch financially in the late oughts, their filmography has some real corkers in it.

Blue Submarine No 6 is probably their most famous OVA. On TV they’ve distinguished themselves with titles like Vandread, Hellsing, Full Metal Panic!, Saikano, Kiddy Grade, NHK Youkoso and Afro Samurai. Arguably, they’re an even bigger name in video games, as they’ve done the FMV sequences for some of the most beloved titles ever. Lunar, Lunar 2, and Suikoden can be counted among them. The studio has waned a bit and only releases a series or two per year, but it’s still great stuff.

Studio Ghibli

Studio Ghibli

Oh boy, and now we finally get to Studio Ghibli. It feels like a bit of a slight, but the easiest way to explain the status of Studio Ghibli is to call it the Disney of Japan. The studio was founded in 1985 by four who would become utter giants of the industry; the best-known among them has to be Hayao Miyazaki.

Ghibli has created some of the top-grossing anime in Japan and have received global recognition. It’s one of the only studios on this list with international theatrical releases. Their films invariably either become mainstream hits or cult classics. Their characters are loved by people all over the world. This is the studio that gave us Totoro, Nausicaa, and Princess Mononoke. It’s the company behind the mega-hit Spirited Away. There’s no greater pedigree.

A lot of their international success comes from licensing by Disney, but make no mistake – Studio Ghibli stands on its own titanic feet with a library of releases equal to the best of several other studios.