people girl cute

The Wonderful World of Anime Cosplay

Anime and Manga fans express their fandom in many different ways. We may collect figures, put up posters, wear t-shirts, and even create fan art. One of the most visible hobbies within the fandom has to be "cosplay". The word is a typical Japanese contraction of English words to make something new. It's short for "costume play" and entails fans dressing up as their favorite characters.

Cosplay has become a pretty big deal in the general geek world, and now includes dressing up as characters who are not from anime and manga. Of course, it's not like anime and manga fans invented cosplay, but I do feel that it wasn't all that mainstream in the West until the influence of Japanese fandom was felt. It's actually a rather cyclical relationship, since early American sci-fi conventions inspired the Japanese.

beautiful blonde

What Cosplayers Do

The actual act of cosplay involves many different skills and a significant time investment. A cosplayer has to translate the look of a 2D character into something that a person could actually wear in real life. Obviously, how hard this is depends on how outlandish the character is. Some characters wear clothes that can be replicated just by buying them and perhaps modifying them. Others need to be made from scratch, and then there are things like elaborate armor pieces or props such as guns or swords.

Think about what professional costume makers who work in film and stage have to go through when making the clothing for our entertainment. Cosplayers do exactly the same thing, except they don't usually have the money or team support of the pros. That being said, the quality of cosplay varies from just-for-fun amateur costuming to dedicated professional cosplay. And yes, I do mean that people actually get paid to make and model their costumes these days.

The Convention Circuit

The place where you'll see cosplay in person most often is the convention circuit. Both at anime conventions and, of course, more general sci-fi and fantasy conventions. Most cosplayers work on their costumes throughout the year to show them off at a specific convention or run of conventions.

Inevitably conventions now run cosplay competitions. Some of these offer some pretty serious prizes and attract large audiences at the convention. Even very specialized conventions such as Blizzard's BlizzCON now have cosplay competitions. A convention is a place where it's perfectly acceptable and even expected for people to show up in costume. It's also pretty normal for people to take pictures of cosplayers and to take pictures with cosplayers - professional or otherwise.

deadpool cosplay

Cosplay and the Internet Boom

It's really the internet in general and social media specifically that's brought on a boom in cosplay popularity. Twitter, Facebook, and especially Instagram have become places for cosplayers to promote themselves, show off their technical skills, and even earn a living.

Some cosplayers will even sell merchandise bearing their image. As you probably suspect, many of these cosplayers are attractive girls and guys but, as they say, sex sells. If you head over to Instagram there are hundreds of professional cosplayers you can follow - think Alodia Gosiengfiao or Myrtle Sarrosa. Some even carefully document how they create their costumes so that others can learn from them.

3D Printing and Cosplay

Few technologies have impacted the quality and scale of cosplay as much as 3D printing. Thanks to these amazing machines that can turn digital designs into a plastic reality, there are now elaborate cosplay costumes that have armor, alien physiology, and more. It's incredible how cosplayers have taken to this technology, and they are even driving forward the advancement of printed part finishing. The best cosplayers can make ABS plastic look like weathered iron, wood, or anything, really. Without 3D printing, modern cosplay would be way more boring.

Anime Cosplay Controversy

I think cosplay is probably also one of the aspects of anime fandom most fraught with controversy. There are persistent sexual harassment issues when it comes to "sexy" female characters, for one thing. Then there's the issue of "crossplay", where a character of the opposite sex is depicted by the model - something which makes plenty of people uncomfortable and can lead to all sorts of tensions.

There's also quite a bit of fan backlash against "fake" cosplayers. That is, people who make and wear costumes only as a way to promote themselves or make money. In other words, these aren't actually fans of the series or characters; they are just jumping on a bandwagon. For some it's not right to refer to this as cosplay, but rather a form of paid modeling.

cosplay costumes

Cosplay Media

Cosplay has become its own subculture within the larger anime fandom, and so it has its own fan media too. There are websites, magazines, and even video programs dedicated to cosplay. Cosplayers are even producing videos with special effects and stunt work to bring some sizzle to their presentations.

There are blogs dedicated to showcasing cosplayers and people who have built entire photography businesses around taking professional cosplay photos. You'll even find documentaries about cosplayers knocking about too. Crazy, I know!

Getting Into Cosplay

Cosplay can be a fun and scary venture, but thousands and thousands of fans take the plunge and try out some form of cosplay. In fact, this is probably the best time in history to get into cosplay if you are so inclined. With just a little YouTube time and the willingness to learn new skills, you too could be the darling of the convention circuit.


recording studio

How to Become a Voice Actor for Anime

Taking the Dub Step

As much as a vocal part of the anime fanbase likes to deride dubbed anime, wouldn’t it be cool to actually be the person who gets to voice an anime character? With the increased popularity of anime, mainstream audiences would like the option of an English voice track. With so many anime coming out, there are more opportunities than ever to be one of the lucky few who get to voice those roles. It doesn’t have to be English, either. Plenty of other territories now have large enough anime fanbases to justify localizing the material. So you might even get to do it in your native tongue. So how does one go about becoming an anime voice actor?

Voice Acting is Acting First, Voice Second

This seems to be something that plenty of people don’t realize. Voice acting is ACTING. So before you can even think about auditioning, sign up for acting classes and learn to act. Acting is a tough artform, and learning how to convey what the production needs is essential. Voice acting is about much more than doing impressions or making “funny” voices. In fact, plenty of well-known voice actors don’t alter their voices at all. They are simply good actors and get work repeatedly because of this. That’s not to say being a vocal chameleon won’t help, but if you can’t pull off the performance then it’s not worth much.

Shirobako

Try a Vocal Coach

Our voices are instruments and most people don’t actually know how to play them properly. A vocal coach can teach you how to reach your full range of tones and project your voice properly. Learning how to breathe, project, and properly handle the microphone will all make you sound like a pro.

Set Up a Home Studio

These days it’s not all that hard to set up a space with decent acoustics. Buy a decent professional USB microphone, get some free software such as Audacity and start to practice voice acting.

You can try dubbing characters in existing shows and then listening to your own performance. Be critical. Is it REALLY a good performance? Does your voice have the type of qualities you would want to hear as a viewer? There’s no substitute for practice, so put in some time behind the mike and get feedback from a trusted source such as an acting coach and vocal trainer.

Obviously you’ll have to learn a little bit about doing good voice recordings, but there are plenty of free guides and courses on the web to accomplish this. You don’t have to become a full-blown sound engineer, but you do need to know your way around the hardware and software to produce something usable.

Create a Portfolio

If you want to be noticed, you need to put something out there that demonstrates what you can do. There are plenty of services where you can showcase yourself. You can create a website either by hand or with something like Wix or other “drag-and-drop” site makers. Platforms such as Soundcloud or YouTube can be used to host your media.

microphone

Get Involved With Indie Projects

There’s still such a thing as “paying your dues” when it comes to the arts. Try to find independent projects or student films where they need people to work for cheap or free. These projects can be added to your portfolio and also put you in touch with others in the broader industry. There’s nothing like a resume and a reference to show you’re serious and willing to put in the hours.

Do Freelance Dubbing

This is the age of the gig economy. You don’t need to have a solid contract in order to start making a living as a voice actor. Try to find voice over gigs on freelance sites and cut your teeth (using your home studio) on basic voice over jobs. No one starts out in the big leagues, and getting some actual client feedback is a great way to improve your professionalism.

Move to Where Anime Action Is

Although it’s now entirely possible to do voice work over long distances, when it comes to proper voice acting for a drama, actually being at the studio in question has no substitute. For one thing, the voice director has to work intimately with the artists to get the performance they want, and dubbing for animation is an art in itself.

So if you really want the best chance at getting some work at a real studio working on a good show, move to where you are in physical reach. Often such studios will tend to cluster together, which means picking the right base of operations can put you in touch with several organizations at once.

Audition, Audition, Audition

The truth is that some professional communities are quite small in the greater scheme of things. People tend to use those who have proven themselves in the past, and everyone knows everyone. Yet there has to be a way to get fresh blood into the gene pool. In the case of acting in general and voice acting in particular, that would be the casting call for auditions.

Keep a close eye on the dubbing studio’s website or on sites dedicated to voice acting auditions. Audition as much as possible. If you keep at it and constantly improve your craft, someone is bound to eventually give you a shot at doing the real thing.

VoiceOver

Try To Network

Whenever you get the chance to meet and share a few words with someone connected to the industry where you want to work, it’s a chance to “network”. This is the art of building up acquaintances and making yourself known.

When you go for an audition, make sure you have a way of sharing your portfolio. Go to conventions and try to have a chat with working voice artists in the anime dubbing scene. Since it is still such relatively nascent industry, these people are still approachable.

Never Give Up

The main difference between people who make their dreams a reality and those who don’t often comes down to something that psychologists refer to as “grit” – the endurance to keep at something even though you aren’t seeing any progress in the short term. Often when you look at the careers of successful people, it represents many years of thankless grind before they finally reached the tipping point. Too many folks give up right before they would have made it. Don’t be that person.


Dragon Ball Z

Anime Subs vs Dubs: The Anime Civil War

If you want to essentially toss a live hand grenade among a bunch of anime fans, then all you have to do is start the debate on whether "subs" or "dubs" are better. If you haven't figured it out, "subs" are subtitled anime with the original Japanese voice track and "dubs" are English-dubbed shows.

On balance, most anime fans have been stalwart supporters of subtitled shows, but there's always a vocal group who will have none of that. Of course, only a few shows actually get dubbed into English, but when given the choice here are the arguments for and against each option.

anime show

The Case for Subs

What are the advantages of subtitled anime? Well, for one thing, subtitling a show is much faster than creating an English dub for it. It's normal now for shows to be simulcast with English subtitles ready to go. Assuming that a dub is even coming, it could be weeks or months before it's ready.

Subtitles also allow for more accurate translations. Dubs often take liberties with the translation to make the words match the mouth movements of the characters. Speaking of which, even if you don't understand a lick of Japanese the actual performances of the voice actors are still there. This is a very important point because the original cast is actually directed by the director of the show; this is how the show is meant to be seen. In general, the Japanese cast are professional anime actors - this is what they do and do well.

The Case Against Subs

The main issue with subs is that they can be a distraction from the visuals. This really depends on the reading skills of the viewer. I suspect a lot of people who don't like subtitles simply don't enjoy reading or can't do it fluently enough, for some reason.

Death Note

The Case for Dubs

The main argument for dubs is that they allow the viewer to just watch the show, with less cognitive load. No weird language processing and no distractions - just switch it on and sit back.

The Case Against Dubs

Well, here comes the flame-fuel. While some people make a purist argument in favor of subtitles, the truth of the matter is that the majority of dubbed anime is simply awful to listen to. Voice actors are ACTORS; not just people that read lines into a microphone. No matter how good the story is in a show, if the performances are awful then the show is ruined.

While there are plenty of excellent professional Japanese actors who do anime, in the US (where most of the dubbing happens) the voice talent that made it into studios were frankly z-list. Even those who weren't just awful suffered from insane time pressure and slipshod direction.

Another reason why dubbed anime often turns out awful is a misdirected attempt at emulating the vocal tone and style of the Japanese actors. Unfortunately, the high-pitched voices and rapid speech of some anime just don't translate well to English. This does not mean that the voice acting in the original tracks are always fantastic, but on average I think you're much more likely to get a dud if you opt for the English version of a show.

That is, if the show you're looking at is older than 2010. As anime has become more mainstream and dubbing studios have improved, so have the quality of the performances. It can still be hit and miss, but now that companies like Netflix are paying for the production of anime, most new anime have at the very least a tolerable dub. The only pre-2010 anime that's safe for sure are those dubbed by Disney, which is most of the Ghibli films. These titles have AAA actors in them and it shows.

Pick Your Anime Poison

In the end, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Give both subs and dubs a try and find out for yourself which of them is the one with the fewest compromises. Of course, the third choice would be to learn Japanese and just enjoy the original show as it was meant to be. Hey, it sounds crazy but plenty of dedicated fans have done just that!


seiki no senki

Delve Deeper Into Anime With These Light Novels

Light novels are a particular brand of short-ish fiction that’s pretty popular in Japan. It’s not nearly as popular or universal as manga, but then neither is anime! Light novels have turned into a prime source of material for anime adaptation. Some of the freshest and most interesting anime in recent years started life as a light novel. While light novels have a length similar to Western novellas and bear some resemblance to young adult fiction (think Maze Runner or Hunger Games), there’s a unique character to them and a different pace to the stories.

In the West, we only get a fraction of the light novels in the Japanese market in translated form. Not even all of the most popular novels in Japan get translated. That’s mainly because translating a novel is a LOT more work than subtitling a TV show. However, when the West goes crazy for the next great anime phenomenon, you can bet your bottom dollar some money will be thrown at translating the source material.

If you loved these anime and want a deeper, more detailed take on their stories, these are a great place to start.


Overlord

Overlord

In Overlord, a fanatical player of a once-popular MMO decides to stay plugged in to the game until the very last second, when the servers are switched off for good. Except when the time comes, he finds that his monstrous character body has become his real body and the NPCs of his guild are now ready to serve him as fully-conscious real people. Venturing outside the crypt that serves as their guild base, Momonga discovers that they are in an entirely different fantasy realm. Where is this place? What’s out there? Why not just rule it all?

I’ve already waxed lyrical about my love for the Overlord anime, but while I was waiting for season two the only way to get my fix was by turning to the source material, which had been translated. They actually sell a hardcover version, but since I live in a country that Amazon ships almost nothing to, I just bought them all on Kindle.

Honestly, I wanted to know what happened next in this story. It would be years before (or if) the anime finally made it to the end. I was dreading having to re-visit the parts I had already seen on screen, but it turns out my fears were for nothing. In book form this already brilliant story is even better.

The main reason for this is that we get to hear much more internal dialogue when it comes to both the main character and the rest of the cast. This completely changes one’s perspective on Momonga and makes him (ironically) a bit more human. There’s also way more detail about the world and the events we first saw in the show. Overlord definitely stands on its own as a light novel; if you like the show you must give the novels a try.

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Sekai No Senki

Sekai No Senki

This is a story that’s hard to summarize, but in the far future mankind has spread to space, settling on various planets. Alien life has never been found, but in order to make it to space humans created a race of genetically-engineered people known as the “Abh”, who eventually broke free and started their own civilization. The Abh are beautiful, do not show signs of aging, and live for 200 years. Yes, they are literally space elves.

Into this weird empire comes one Jinto Linn, the son of the president of his world. When the Abh invade and conquer the solar system that his world, Martine, occupies, his dad brokers a deal. They will surrender to the Abh if they make Jinto’s dad a count and leave the system in his hands. The Abh don’t actually care about what happens on the planets. They just want the sun to make antimatter. So they agree, which means when the dad is no longer in the picture, Jinto inherits the title. Jinto is now legally an Abh and must complete military service by law. It is here where he meets another cadet, Lafiel, who turns out to be next in line for the throne of the Abh. From here things get much more interesting.

If you’ve read my personal top 5 anime article you’ll know that my second most favorite show is a series known as Sekai no Senki, or “Banner of the Stars”. It’s a deep sci-fi story with elements of high fantasy wrapped up in space opera. The author, Hiroyuki Morioka, is one lightweight of modern Japanese literature. Like Tolkien, he has an affinity for constructed languages and deep world building. His humor translated well, and despite the genre he writes in there aren’t many cliches to point out.

The translations of his Sekai books were done by Tokyopop more than a decade ago, and it seems only three volumes were ever released. Morioka is still actively writing the series and there are plenty of books to come. The anime also isn’t up to date with his writing, and at this point it doesn’t seem like anyone is going to adapt the rest of the material. You can, however, find fan-translations of his later works with a bit of Google cunning. The quality doesn’t measure up to the standards of the official translations, but it’s better than nothing.

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Log Horizon

Log Horizon

In Log Horizon, thirty thousand MMO players find themselves transported to their game world. The NPCs are now real people and the players embody their game avatars. For players, death is not permanent but suffering is still possible.

What makes Log Horizon stand out from other “the game becomes real” shows is that it looks at interesting questions that flow from the central premise. For example, how will the economics work? What forms of government are correct in a world like this? What can players do with the knowledge they’ve brought back with them? There is also, of course, the central mystery of why this happened and how people can make it back to where they came from. At the center of the storyline is our hero, Shiroe. He’s not your typical blustery hero. Instead he’s a calm and quiet strategist; a thinker along the line of Gandalf. It’s the intelligence and insight of Shiroe that helps the players of the new Akihabara rebuild their lives.

The anime is absolutely fantastic, but the light novel is worth reading in its own right. Its tone and content is a little darker and more serious than the anime. There are more details, of course, and in general the translation is well done. If you love Log Horizon, this is a no-brainer.

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Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online

Sword Art Online is an absolute phenomenon. It has joined the ranks of shows like Naruto and Attack on Titan when it comes to popularity. Rather than being a story of a video game that becomes real, SWO takes a different and interesting tack.

The creator of one of the most popular neural VR video games in the world traps logged-in players on purpose. If they die in the game they will die in real life. If anyone tries to remove the gear from them, they will also die. The only thing anyone can do is to put the bodies on life support while the players try to figure out a way to escape. The creator has set an incredibly difficult task that can only be accomplished if everyone works together. Our hero Kirito must survive long enough to facilitate that escape.

This is one light novel that differs significantly from the anime in terms of how the story is told. Volume 1 was meant to be a self-contained narrative without any intention of expanding on the story. The original was actually a self-published web novel! This edited copy is much improved, according to the author, but it’s not the polished commercial product the anime is. That being said, the series does rise to its potential, and Volume 1 is essential reading.

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Your Name

Your Name

Your Name is one of the first bona fide anime blockbusters. The film grossed 358 million USD worldwide. In Japan it made 190 million, nearly as much as Spirited Away. It is in the top four of the highest grossing films in Japanese history.

Here we have a light novel retelling of that story, but funnily enough the film was not based on this light novel. Instead, the director actually wrote the novel WHILE producing the film. Your Name is essential viewing for anyone who loves animation and fantastic human tales. The book is great on its own, but also acts as a marvelous companion to the film. It provided a way for the director to share new details and expand on what we saw on screen. There is no long series to buy into – just this one volume – and that’s perfectly OK.

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visual novels

Turn the Page: What are Visual Novels?

Video games inspired or derived from anime represent just about every traditional game genre. There are plenty of JRPGs, which have their own article, and that’s often the first video game genre that people think of when you bring up Japanese games. However, since the early 90s and the rise of computer multimedia, the “Visual Novel” has also become a staple of anime-inspired video games.

In fact, it’s not that uncommon to find that a new anime is based on a popular visual novel. Popular shows Steins;Gate and Clannad are but two examples. Before I go any further, let’s talk about what a visual novel actually is.

Visual Novel

Is it a Game or Not?

This is a tough question to answer. Visual novels are, at their core, interactive digital fiction. Think about the “choose your own adventure” games, which were printed on paper and had you make choices by turning to different pages. Many pure visual novels are like that. It’s a branching narrative where you need to make key decisions at certain points which will affect what happens further along in the story, including ultimately which ending is reached.

Some visual novels have only a few major branches, while others have hundreds of choices, dozens of endings, and finely-grained branching within their respective stories. A pure visual novel does not have much in the way of game mechanics. Instead, the sum total of your narrative choices are the only way in which you can affect the course and outcome of the game. So there aren’t any actual game mechanics per se.

When you think about it, early text-based adventures were sometimes quite like visual novels, just without the actual visuals. While games like Zork were closer to puzzle adventures such as Monkey Island, they often were laid on a bedrock of branching narratives.

There’s a particular type of visual novel known as a “kinetic” novel which has no choices at all! This is literally just a novel that you read as the story plays out. So in that case it definitely is not a game.

Visual Novel Hybrids

Of course, plenty of games in other genres rely heavily on branching narratives, so in a way visual novels are like game stories that just need to have some game mechanics added to them. This also happens pretty often. Some visual novels, such as Virtue’s Last Reward, are also full-on puzzle games. Other visual novels might integrate simple mini-games to make them more engaging. The vast majority of visual novels are, however, simply branching stories, but that doesn’t mean they can’t be fantastic experiences!

One common hybrid is the visual novel and dating simulator, where you try to get one of several characters to fall in love with you. While many visual novels are also dating simulators, the two types of games don’t always overlap.

Mahuri

Non-Japanese and Indie Visual Novels

Since it’s relatively easy to make a visual novel, it’s been a popular format for indie developers. If you can write a great branching story and can produce good artwork, you’re 90% there. Of course you also may want music and voice acting, but they aren’t absolutely necessary to qualify as a visual novel. All you have to do in addition is use one of the available visual novel creator tools to make your title publishable.

Most of these independent visual novels can be found on the PC, since it is an open platform. Console visual novels tend to be made by professional studios because there are licensing fees and other expensive red tape to get around before you can publish something on a Playstation.

Visual Novels and Adult Content

Adults-only visual novels are a prominent genre within this medium, but they don’t actually make up the majority of these titles. Because they are so easy to make there have been more than a few infamous titles which really push the limit of good taste. I won’t mention specific titles here, but be sure to pay attention to ratings and user reviews before diving into more obscure or independent titles. There is no lack of non-erotic visual novel content.

It’s also worth noting that plenty of modern visual novels allow you to limit the adult content. You can choose to have it censored or even removed from the story completely. It’s a great way to make these titles acceptable for a wider audience.

Visual Novels in Japanese Pop Culture

One curious influence that visual novels have had is references in anime itself. You’ll often hear characters in romantic or comedy anime refer to “triggering a flag”, which is a reference to triggers in visual novel and dating simulator hybrids.

In Japan visual novels are known as “love adventure” or “novel” games. Visual novel is a Western label.

The Weird Side of Visual Novels

While most visual novels take themselves pretty seriously, some creators have taken their narrative flexibility to their limits. There are some truly weird visual novels. For example, Katawa Shoujo is set in a special needs school where all the love interests are living with a disability. Hatoful Boyfriend is a Visual Novel set at a school where all the other students are pigeons! If pigeons are too, well, alive for you, there are options as well. Slabs of meat, sushi, and goodness knows what else.

Many of these are pretty terrible, but some like Hatoful Boyfriend have their fair share of fans.

anime games

Where Does One Get Visual Novels?

With the exception of the Xbox consoles, I don’t think there are any modern platforms that don’t have a decent swathe of visual novels available on them. The most prolific platform at this point has to be Steam, the PC-based digital distribution service that dominates all. Steam has great curation lists for every genre of game, and visual novels are no different.

Alternatively you can buy from indie shops like Humble Bundle or get them directly from the developer website. The PS Vita has quite a few good ones and more are still being released. Mobile devices, especially iOS ones, have seen releases of major titles such as the Phoenix Wright games. The Nintendo DS is well represented here, but for some reason few visual novels made it to English territories on the 3DS.

For older titles for platforms that are simply not around anymore, you can try some emulation options; there are plenty of classic titles too!

Weird, but Wonderful

Visual novels represent one of the oddest niches in anime-inspired Japanese gaming. Not really games but then not really books, they still have a unique charm. You can’t deny that they’ve produced some really strong narratives over the years, and if we Westerners had kept our appetite for games like Myst and Zork then maybe we would also have produced visual novels from an earlier time. Regardless, today there are plenty of visual novels from all over the world. It might have started as a purely Japanese phenomenon, but now it’s global. The only way to know if you’re going to be in to it is to try one. So head on over to the online game store of your choice and type “visual novel” in the search bar. The rest is up to you.


Japanese language class

Where and How to Learn Japanese (Speak or Write)

Everyone who gets into anime has the thought at some point in time: maybe I should learn Japanese? For someone who loves the medium there are plenty of good reasons to learn Japanese. For one thing, it means that you will no longer be dependent on translations in order to understand the shows you want to watch. No more subtitles and no more waiting for shows to be licensed in the West or for fansubbers to get to the program you have been waiting for. You also won’t have to choose between awful dubs and subtitles that distract you from the visual scene. Anime and manga also take on a different quality when you can understand them directly, as intended.

For my part, I still have a long way to go when it comes to reaching a fluent conversational level of Japanese and I’m still a long way from being able to read it with any level of usable competence, but already it has made a major change in how I consume the anime medium. That being said, I will go over some of the difficulties and setbacks I have experienced so that you might avoid them.

Apart from being a game-changer for anime viewing, Japanese is a highly-marketable skill. Adding it to your resume can open up all sorts of doors. If you are really serious about taking this step then read on for the details that will get you started.

japanese writing

How Hard is Japanese?

This is obviously the question that comes up most often and the answer to it is: rather complicated. For one thing, it depends on where you are coming from. If you are a native English speaker then learning a language such as French or German is relatively easy. I say “relatively” because I don’t want to create the impression that it’s easy to learn either of those languages. Still, many European languages share a common ancestry. Their grammars are very similar and you can often figure out the vocabulary because the English equivalent shares a root with it.

In this sense, Japanese is a linguistic enigma. The truth is that modern linguist don’t know all that much about the history and origin of Japanese. Attempts have been made to connect it to other languages from the region, such as Chinese or Korean, but as it stands Japanese is essentially an isolated language that makes up the Japonic language family.

The other members of the Japonic family are those spoken in the Ryukyuan islands. Some of these languages are thought of as dialects of Japanese, but the truth is that they aren’t really mutually intelligible in the way that, for example, Dutch and Afrikaans are. In anime you’ll often hear references to Okinawan, which is the best-known Ryukyu language. In Okinawa signs have to be put up in both Japanese and Okinawan.

The point of this little history and geography lesson is that no other languages seem to be related to the Japonic family, so nothing you know about your current languages are going to help.

Objectively, Japanese is actually pretty simple. It has a limited number of valid phonetic sounds, for example. This is why Japanese people who speak English sound the way they do, because they are awkwardly trying to shoehorn the only sounds they know onto a language that needs more of them. Japanese has no distinction between “l” and “r”, which is why a Japanese person might say “solly” instead or “sorry”. There is only one syllable in Japanese that ends on a consonant (n), which is another reason for the characteristic Japanese English accent.

The problem with understanding Japanese doesn’t come so much from learning the grammar and vocabulary. In my experience the big problem is how contextual the language is. You’ll notice that sometimes a character will utter a short phrase that results in a long translation. That’s because Japanese is a highly contextual language, which requires knowledge of social norms and cultural history.

The bottom line is that it’s pretty difficult, but hardly impossible.

writing on paper

Japanese Writing

This is the other common question people have about learning Japanese. I have written another article about the Japanese writing system that goes into detail on how it works. So I’m not going to repeat myself here. What you need to know in terms of learning the language is that you can become a conversational Japanese speaker without needing to learn any of the writing. However, I recommend that you start to learn some of it as soon as possible so that you can associate the writing with what you are learning.

In order to be fluent in a Japanese environment you need to master just over 2000 non-phonetic symbols known as Kanji. You also need to master 94 phonetic symbols split over two distinct character sets. Even Japanese schoolchildren have a hard time doing this and it represents a significant act of memorization and practice.

If all you want to do is understand spoken Japanese well enough to enjoy a TV show, then you don’t have to master this aspect of the language. However, in order to build vocabulary, read light novels, and read manga, it’s better to start as soon as possible.

Where Can I learn Japanese?

Thanks to the internet and modern digital technology it’s easier than ever to learn Japanese. In fact, I recommend you don’t use just one of these sources, but mix two or more for maximum impact. Some of these are going to cost money and some aren’t, but all of them require a dedicated amount of time. I'm super-guilty of letting my Japanese study time slide because of work or pure laziness, but setting aside at least 30 minutes a day will see you make good progress away from backsliding too much.

So, let’s see where you can get the good stuff.

Buy a Standalone Audio Course

This is the traditional first stop when it comes to learning a new language. Ever since people had access to affordable home audio equipment, companies have been selling self-study audio courses. You can usually buy a book with a bunch of CDs in it or a voucher for the digital audio files. You can also buy an ebook from somewhere like the Kindle store, which is much the same thing.

To be honest, I think this is a rather outdated approach to the whole project. People who are very good at self-study can have quite a bit of success with this method, but most people are simply going to give up, mainly because they can’t really tell whether they are doing well or not. So unless you are going to be stuck in Alaska with only an MP3 player and no internet access, this is probably not the way to go.

Standalone Software Courses

The real revolution with home language learning came with the introduction of language-learning software. Now you aren’t just a passive learner. You can be assessed on a continuous basis with useful feedback. The best software can generate infinite practice for you and might even simulate real interactive conversations. One well-respected package is provided by Rosetta Stone, which you can find here on Amazon.

While I actually like their approach to language learning, I think their pricing model is a little outdated. Plonking down $300 for a beginner’s Japanese course is a little too rich for most people’s blood, so unless that sort of price tag doesn’t make you flinch, you should look elsewhere first.

dr moku

App-based Learning

This is the hottest area of development in language learning, if you ask me. There are now plenty of smartphone apps that can teach you to speak and read Japanese. Obviously plenty of them are just junk, but the good ones are well worth looking into.

One thing I like about the app ecosystem is the diverse ways developers have found to make money from them. You can choose to put up with advertisement instead of paying anything at all, or pay a monthly fee to have them removed. Some use a strict subscription model, but the cost is stretched out over time and you can stop whenever. There are also applications that have a once-off fee, yet tend to both be quite affordable and get broken up into standalone modules so you only pay for what you actually end up using.

To me the absolute king of language learning apps has to be DuoLingo. The app is completely free if you’re happy to skip through some adverts between lessons. You can also opt to pay a small monthly fee for an ad-free experience. Duolingo is a brilliant, community-driven, fully-gamified language learning app. They promise to take you to about 60% native fluency and from there on you have to keep improving by reading literature, conversing with other speakers, and, of course, watching TV shows.

I don’t want to take up this whole article simply talking about Duolingo, so let me say that you should simply give it a try. My progress has been rather amazing using their system. If you only have five minutes here and there to learn, you can do it with this smartphone and tablet application. Also, Duolingo throws you right in with learning Japanese writing, but does it in a natural and approachable way. Just go download it already! There are also plenty of Japanese Kanji and Kana flashcard apps which you can use to stay sharp or learn all the kanji you need to read day-to-day Japanese.

One other app I’d like to highlight is called Human Japanese. It’s a perfect companion to something like Duolingo because it also takes the time to explain the culture of Japan to help you understand things more fully. This is an essential component of learning Japanese. Human Japanese will also teach you how to write Japanese by hand. It has exercises with grading and is overall just an excellent resource. It’s not very expensive either and you can buy the beginner and intermediate packages separately.

Apps are the backbone of modern language learning and you’ll be amazed at the progress you can make if you take the right one. I also like the social aspect of it. Often you can compete with friends who are learning the same language; this helps to keep you motivated.

japanese class

Enroll at a College or University

Often local colleges or universities will offer language courses after hours. You don’t need to enroll for a degree or a diploma, just in night classes for a certification. Often, if Japanese is offered you’ll be tutored towards the goal of passing the Japanese Language Proficiency Test.

While this is generally a more expensive option, it has quite a few advantages. For one, you can meet people who also want to learn Japanese just like you. The class is taught by someone who is fluent in Japanese at or near the native level. At the least, you should only enroll for classes by someone who can speak at the native level. It’s also good for people who struggle with self-study. Apps have come a long way in helping you along, but there’s still no substitute for in-person support for certain people.

Do Japanese Language Exchange via the Web

Just as there are plenty of people who want to learn Japanese, there are also plenty of Japanese people who want to learn English, German, French, and any of the other popular world languages. There are sites where people who have mutual language pairs to learn can hook up and then converse with each other over Skype or other similar channels.

Sometimes there can be a fee to join, but all members are just regular people looking for some people to chat with for language learning. It’s like the old concept of a pen pal, but more immediate and far more useful for learning purposes.

Get an Online Tutor

Online language tutoring is becoming more and more popular these days. Basically, people who are native speakers and vetted by the tutoring site are listed for you to choose from. You pay an hourly fee and they’ll converse with you and help you figure out the parts of the language you are struggling with. The difference between paid online tutors and using language exchange sites is that the tutor is already fluent in both your language and Japanese. So you aren’t necessarily teaching anything; that’s why you’re paying, in the end.

strike the blood

Rewatch Anime Without Subtitles

Lots of people think that you can learn Japanese from watching anime. That’s technically true, but you have to approach it the right way. If you are watching an anime with subtitles you aren’t learning much of anything. You are not absorbing the Japanese dialogue; instead you are following the story in English.

One trick I like to use is rewatching anime with the subs turned off. It helps because I already know more or less what’s happening in the story and that allows me to tie the spoken dialogue to existing knowledge. This method gets more useful the more Japanese you master. If you have a conversational level of Japanese and a good handle on the grammar you’ll start understanding most of a given sentence rather than a word or two here and there. Whenever I hit a new word I don’t understand I pause the show and look it up, then listen to that line again.

Hey, it’s more fun than watching news programs and other boring stuff.

Do It for the Love

Let’s not kids ourselves, learning a language as challenging as Japanese is not child’s play. If you’re serious about it you’ll have to put in the time. So it’s important that you have really solid reasons for wanting to do it. Motivation is always an issue, especially as you start moving into more advanced proficiency. The good news is that you can get access to the knowledge you need quickly for little or no money most of the time. So there’s no reason not to try. You might just have a knack for it.


fate stay night

The Five Best Anime-Based Games

It’s common for anime to be based on certain types of video games. Visual novels are a prime example and you can read all about them in my article on visual novels. In many cases, however, it works the other way around. An anime becomes so popular that they start to make games based on it. Unfortunately, just as with games based on movies, these tend to be rather shoddy. Every now and then, however, a game based on popular anime will be released that turns out to be rather good. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does you can experience a little of that universe in an interactive way instead of just being a passive watcher. Here are some examples of anime-based games done right.


Pokemon Sun and Moon

Pokémon Sun

I actually debated putting the original Pokemon Red, Blue or Yellow on here instead. However, it’s been more than 20 years now and only hardcore retro gamers are really going enjoy these classic games. So instead, here are the two best games of the modern era in the Pokemon franchise.

Is it really right to say that Pokemon games are based on anime? I think so, since the anime series for each game generation is essentially there to promote the newest Pokemon video and card games. Hey, I didn’t say the anime had to be good, right? Yes, the Pokemon anime are aimed at children, but nothing about the addictive gameplay has changed in the latest iterations.

If you don’t know how it works, there are usually two versions of each generation Pokemon game. The games themselves are turn-based monster battler RPGs. You catch these “pocket monsters” and then train them up for battle. The idea is to win all the Pokemon gym badges and finally defeat the elite four trainers of that region in order to take the title yourself. Each version of a given generation has different Pokemon and, in this case, different stories. The only way to “collect ‘em all” is to trade with other people.

This has been the base formula for Pokemon games from the start, but Sun and Moon changed a lot about the classic Pokemon formula, and mostly for the better. This is set in an islander culture, a place where the Pokemon League have not yet come to set up the formal Pokemon systems. It’s a fresh take on the series; filled with color and places to explore. I’d say anyone who has been curious about Pokemon over the years should start with Sun or Moon. The games are much deeper and more satisfying than you might expect.

Buy On Amazon (Sun) Buy On Amazon (Moon)


Naruto Ultimate Ninja Storm

Naruto Ultimate Ninja

Just about all of the big names in shonen anime that I can think of have video game adaptations – One Piece, Bleach, and, of course, Naruto. There have been a metric ton of games set in the Naruto universe, but before Ultimate Ninja Storm none of them were really worth playing.

This game, which came out for the PS3, took Naruto games into the third dimension. In fact, the graphics are so polished that at times it feels like you’re actually watching an episode. All those amazing Ninjutsus and lavish attacks are possible in this game, and you are the one in charge of the action.

While this is basically a fighting game, it’s not bound to one 2D screen the way that Mortal Kombat or Street Fighter are. Instead, this is an arena battle game where you can run around freely from a third-person perspective. There is a story mode that I think fans of the show will really enjoy, but apart from that the combat is really fun too. Most of the Ultimate Ninja Storm games that came after this one are pretty good too. If you don’t have a PS3 anymore, picking up one of the later editions for the PS4 and Xbox One isn’t a bad idea. The developers have found a formula for Naruto games that really works and have stuck with it since.

Buy On Amazon


Dragon Ball Z Budokai Tenkaichi 3

Dragon Ball Z

Honestly, I understand why people love the Dragon Ball franchise so much, but I could never really get into it myself. I really gave it the old college try too, but after more than 50 episodes of the fan favorite Dragon Ball Z, I gave up. This is probably why I never really paid any attention to the games either, and only later learned that some of the DBZ fighting games have earned a near-permanent spot at fighting game competitions all over the world.

If you ask the average fighting-game nut which DBZ game is the best fighter, the answer is almost always Budokai Tenkaichi 3. This PS2 title seems to have done things just exactly right, not only pleasing fans of the show but exciting the types of people who dream about character move sheets and how many frames a punch takes up. This game has one of the biggest character rosters in the series, with 161 characters to choose from. There’s a lot of extra info for fans as well as a chunky story mode.

Critics didn’t actually like this particular iteration much, preferring the game that came before. Fans are, however, almost all imbued with great memories of Tenkaichi 3 and it remains near or at the top of DBZ fighting games to this day.

Buy On Amazon


Attack on Titan: Wings of Freedom

Attack on Titan

Attack on Titan is one of those mega smash hit anime that end up having quite a lot of cultural influence. Both inside and outside of Japan, this manga and anime have garnered a massive following. So in some ways it was inevitable that we’d get a game at some point.

When you think about it, the core action of this series lends itself to some potentially amazing gameplay. In the anime itself, humans battle against gigantic humanoid creatures known as “Titans”. In order to do this, they’ve developed special gear that allows them to maneuver around these beasts and attack the critical spot at the base of their necks.

Having a good concept for a game and actually making a good game are two different things entirely. For most of us, expecting so-so to terrible adaptations has been the norm for so long.

The action elements of this game, where you actually get to use the 3D maneuver gear to swing around creepy-looking giants and chop them up, are its main selling-point. If you want to have this as an introduction to the Attack on Titan story, then you are better off watching the anime first. This is not about introducing new people to the show, but to give fans of the show a way to experience the action for themselves. Best of all, this game was released on PC (gamepad seriously recommended), the PS4, AND the Vita, which means you can play it handheld. There’s also multiplayer, which is honestly how the game was meant to be played.

Buy On Amazon


Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn

Dynasty Warriors

Back in 1997 Koei (today Koei Tecmo) released a game that would introduce an entirely new type of fighting game to the world – a genre now known as “Musou” games.

The title in question is Dynasty Warriors, and every iteration of the main series somehow retells parts of the Romance of Three Kingdoms, a saga from China. The characters are usually legendary historical figures from China and Japan. The first Dynasty Warriors was, however, a traditional fighting game in the vein of Soul Blade. It’s really from number two that the franchise took off. Here we had the introduction of “Musou mode”, which then became the franchise’s main campaign. You pick a character and then play through several stages that advance the story and let you get to know the character in question. At present there are nine mainline Dynasty Warrior games.

Dynasty Warriors: Gundam Reborn is not, as you probably know, a part of the Romance of Three Kingdoms saga. At least, I don’t see any mention of giant robots stomping around ancient China anywhere. Instead, it takes the engine, core gameplay, and shell of Dynasty Warriors and stuffs it with Gundam lore.

They might as well have dropped the Dynasty Warriors part, because Gundam Reborn is totally its own thing. The main campaign is broken up into six chapters and totals a staggering 20 hours. The feeling of running on the field and smashing into mobs of mecha is pretty darn awesome. Although the Gundam anime strive to portray real robots rather than super robots, Gundam Reborn tends to feel like an arcade game. This is no mech-simulator.

It is, however, a realization of the mecha fan’s fantasy – an all-out battle with high-powered robotic death machines. Whether you like Gundam in particular or not, this is one of the best mech battle games to come from Japan.

Buy On Amazon


character japanese

How Does the Japanese Writing System Work?

Few things are as mystical to Westerners as the complex-looking writing systems implemented in many Asian countries. In Japan it’s even worse, since there are three distinct character sets used every day by Japanese people. To make things even more complicated, some of these character sets are phonetic and others are not. The pictographic characters have to be learned by rote and can then have different readings depending on the context!

Despite this, millions of people use these scripts every day of their lives for both business and pleasure, so clearly it is comprehensible to humans. Let’s look at how Japanese writing works in general so that you have a better idea of where to begin in understanding it.

Ninja kanji

The Kanji

Kanji are a complex, non-phonetic set of characters that Japan imported wholesale from China. The word “kanji” literally means “Han characters”, which tells you when and where they come from. There are thousands of Kanji, but Japan has today standardized the Kanji that every adult should know to 2136 kanji known as the “Joyo” kanji. No one knows the true total of kanji, but there are at least 50,000 of them!

So if you know the 2136 Joyo kanji you can function in normal Japanese society. Newspapers, TV shows, and popular books limit themselves to these characters, although college-level or higher texts might use additional characters.

Kanji specify a concept or a meaning, but they don’t tell you how to pronounce them. Each kanji has multiple potential readings, but only experience and context can tell you which one is correct in the current text.

The Kana

Two of the three writing scripts in Japanese are phonetic, just as our Roman alphabet is. They are known as Hiragana and Katakana. Hiragana is a curvy script that is used to write out certain Japanese words that have no Kanji. You’ll also see them in words that consist of both Kanji and kana, which can often clue you in as to what the intended reading is meant to be.

Katakana is an angular script that more or less matches each possible Hiragana character. This script is used to phonetically write foreign words using allowed Japanese sounds or to write Japanese words that have a foreign origin. There are 46 hiragana and 48 katakana. These are by far the easiest to learn. Most people will have a good handle on them within a month or so.

Furigana

Furigana are small kana written above a kanji symbol to tell you exactly how to pronounce them. Difficult or non-Joyo kanji often have furigana above them to aid the reader. Shows aimed at children who have not graduated high school also use furigana. For example, you’ll notice that episode titles in shows like Naruto have tiny kana above the kanji. It’s actually a great way for kids to learn kanji readings.

Romaji

Japanese is a hard enough to learn without having a bunch of new characters thrown at you, so various people have devised ways to convert Japanese words into Romanized writing. There are five modern systems and the most popular one is probably the Hepburn system. Sites like Wikipedia and Japanese signage tend to use Hepburn Romanization.

Kanji made easy

Getting Your Learn On

These days there are so many great ways to learn both spoken and written Japanese. I love DuoLingo most of all since it is on my smartphone and freely mixes Kanji, Hiragana, and Romaji. You quickly start reading Kanji automatically with this program. My best tool over the years for looking up Kanji and specific Japanese words and phrases is my trusty Kodansha furigana dictionary.

Every kanji in this dictionary has furigana to help you pronounce it, plus definitions and translations. It is truly indispensable and pretty affordable to boot!


JRPG

The Best JRPG for Beginners (Japanese Role Playing Games)

While role playing games are popular all over the world, Japan has such a unique take on the computer RPG genre that they are referred to as “JRPGs”. Unlike Western RPGs, JRPGs often don’t let players shape every aspect of their character. They are strongly story-focused and there isn’t much scope for doing things your own way. What these games do offer is plenty of grinding for XP and colorful, wonderful worlds with amazing art design.

If you love playing with character statistics, exploring fantastical worlds, and doing it within that unique anime aesthetic, then JRPGs might really be for you. It can, however, be an incredibly dense and complicated video game genre to get into, so here are five titles which I think are perfect for those new to JRPGs.

Chrono Trigger (SNES, PS1, DS, Android, iOS)

chrono trigger

This game is not only a great way to enter the world of classic JRPGs, it also happens to be seen as one of the best JRPGs ever. Period.

Chrono Trigger originally came out for the Super Nintendo (the Super Famicom in Japan), but since then it has been ported to just about every platform. Chances are that you can go onto your phone’s app store right now and find a version of the game to play immediately.

I would recommend that you play the Playstation 1 or Nintendo DS versions of the game if possible, since these are the versions of the game that come with those wonderful fully-animated cutscenes. But even if you play a version without that update you’ll still experience one of the most charming and fun adventures to grace any gaming system.

If the art style of the game looks familiar, that’s because the characters were designed by the same guy who did the art for both the Dragon Quest games AND Dragon Ball Z. In fact, Toriyama is the creator of the ultra-popular Dragon Ball franchise.

Chrono Trigger tells the story of Chrono (or whatever you name him), who gets pulled through a time portal and has to fight his way through several eras in order to change a seemingly inevitable apocalyptic future. Despite its age, Chrono Trigger still feels pretty fresh today and I still play it whenever the mood strikes me. It’s not hard to get into, but it can be tough to really master. The challenge curve is just right for those who want to try an old-school JRPG without being brutally beat down.

Persona 4 Golden (VITA)

persona 4

This was originally a Playstation 2 release and really brought the Persona series to mainstream attention. The Persona games are themselves a spinoff of the Shin Megami Tensei series – a truly hardcore RPG series that I wouldn’t recommend to most people.

Persona games focus on more than just grinding for loot and XP in a dungeon. The games are usually split between the normal, mundane social world of the teenage protagonists and a hidden world of spirits and monsters.

The first three Persona games were also pretty great, but they still carried some of the hardcore elements of Shin Megami Tensei with them. Persona 4 is widely seen as the best and most popular title in the series and it was re-released on the Vita with quite a few refinements and some extra content.

I guess I should really be recommending Persona 5, which has just come out for modern consoles, but number four still feels like the more classic tale. You play a young man who moves to a new town to live with your uncle and his daughter. Your uncle is a police detective and there have been a spate of murders. People disappear for a while and then turn up dead in the strangest places. It turns out that they are somehow being sucked into a strange TV world, accessible by passing through a TV screen when the time and place is right. You have to put together a team of allies and rescue these victims before they are killed. Ultimately you need to figure out why all of this is happening.

Persona 4 really is great. If you don’t have access to a Vita or PS TV, then you might as well go with Persona 5, but otherwise don’t hesitate. Also, don’t be tempted by the original PS2 version. The refinement and extra content make this the definitive experience.

Final Fantasy (Various)

final fantasy

Final Fantasy is a huge name in the JRPG world. It’s one of the big franchises and as I write this we’re on number fifteen when it comes to main numbered entries. Yeah, there’s not much final about this fantasy, folks.

Final Fantasy games don’t have to be played in order. They aren’t sequential. Each tells a self-contained story and is usually set in completely different worlds, with some exceptions. When there is a Final Fantasy direct sequel, it will list the main number first and then the sequel number. For example, we have Final Fantasy 13, 13-2, and 13-3.

The reason I haven’t actually specified a specific numbered entry as my recommendation is because there are plenty of accessible Final Fantasies to choose from. The very first game and its sequel are only worth playing out of a sense of curiosity, to be honest. The best game in the series is widely considered to be number seven, although I personally don’t like it much.

Square Enix, the studio that owns the series today, has re-released many of the titles, giving them a minor makeover and improving some features. For example, the PS2 title Final Fantasy 12 got an excellent PS4 remake. The progression system was simplified and the game got a fast-forward option that recognizes people no longer have 100 hours to grind XP anymore. If you want more modern graphics and decent voice acting, 12 is the way to go right now.

If you don’t mind a more classic feel, then the re-release of IX is also great and has new features to make life easier for new players. Of the 2D Final Fantasies I would recommend number six. Great story, and the gameplay still feels fairly modern compared to the series as a whole. My favorite? It’s number eight, but it hasn’t aged all that well, so here’s holding thumbs for a remake of that one.

Dragon Quest 8: Journey of the Cursed King (PS2, iOS, 3DS)

Dragon Quest 8

Dragon Quest is another giant in the JRPG world. Since 1986 there have been 11 main-series titles, not counting all the spinoffs. The last game came out in 2017, but Dragon Quest 8 is still seen as one of the best titles of them all.

In many ways Dragon Quest games tend to stick to the basics of being a JRPG. The stories are pretty straightforward and they don’t mess too much with fanciful combat systems. Dragon Quest 8 didn’t shake that up much, but garnered fans and admirers thanks to a good yarn told well via pretty cel-shaded graphics and charming Toriyama character designs.

There’s a king and a princess, both whom have been cursed by the main villain by being turned into a troll and a horse, respectively. It’s a simple enough place to start an adventure. Our hero travels with the king and princess, looking for a way to lift their curse. Of course, different characters, obstacles, and motivations cross their path along the way. All in all, this is a good entry point into the world of Dragon Quest.

Fire Emblem Awakening (3DS)

Fire Emblem

Until the release of Awakening, the Fire Emblem series was very much an obscure franchise. A tough strategy-RPG hybrid, each battle plays out like a fancy game of chess. Each piece is a character that’s commanded by you, the main character. A standout feature of Fire Emblem games is permanent death. If one of your characters dies during a battle, that’s it. They are gone forever unless you reset the system and start the whole thing all over again.

Awakening was rather controversial among fans because it gave a “casual” option where death is not permanent, taking a lot of the tension out of the game. Don’t get me wrong, you really should play Awakening with permadeath on, but if you want to be eased into this gameplay style and pace, casual mode is a good place to start.

Providing a less hardcore play mode is only one of the reasons this game became so popular; popular enough to save the franchise as a whole. Awakening also introduced the concept of marrying characters to each other and producing children who could then also be recruited when they’re grown up. So now it was not only a kickass strategy RPG, it was also an excellent Waifu simulator. Building aspects of a dating sim into a sweeping fantasy epic with an addictive combat system paid off big time. Thanks to the massive financial success of Awakening we got the massive three-part epic Fire Emblem Fates. I would not recommend starting with that monster as your first go, however. Awakening is just the right size.

I put a solid 200 hours into this game on my 3DS and I’m not even particularly a fan of SRPGs. It’s just a quality title that fans of both video games and anime will love.


japanese cultural dress

Quick Japanese Cultural Facts To Help Anime Noobs

Thanks to globalization most of any given anime is perfectly understandable to a Western audience without any need for localization. However, anime is still the product of a non-Western culture, created for local consumption. This means that many of the references are foreign to newcomers and will leave many viewers confused or even put off completely.

Fansubbers, who are unofficial translators, have always made an effort to include cultural notes where needed. Official subtitlers have copied this approach to one degree or another as well. So, often there will be a short explanation in line with the story. If you like to watch dubbed anime instead of reading subtitles you might also find that some cultural references are swapped out for ones US audiences will understand. Good localization won’t hurt a story much, but it does take away that unique cultural flavor sometimes.

Either way, in this article I’m going to pull together some of the most common Japan-specific cultural elements that crop up in anime time and time again. It’s impossible to convert everything and even after almost two decades of watching this stuff, I still discover new things myself! So think of this as a basic crash course in the Japanese weirdness which makes anime so refreshing.

business etiquette

Honorifics

Right from the start you’re going to run into the issue of Japanese honorifics. These are often so integral to understand the story that they are included in English subtitles. An honorific is (usually) a suffix added to the name of another person which indicates their relative social status to the speaker. If you understand what the various honorifics mean then you can instantly understand the relationship between two people and even how their relationship changes over the course of the story.

No Honorific

You rarely hear one person refer to another using only their name without any honorific in Japanese. This sort of familiarity is reserved for very close childhood friends, lovers, close family, and spouses. A mother might address her own child by name, although the reverse would be very rude. A lack of honorifics is therefore a relatively rare exception to the rule. When one character tells another that they can drop the honorifics it is a significant statement.

-san

The “san” honorific is hands down the most common and represents a level of politeness appropriate for people of equal status or whose status you don’t know immediately. In English the closest equivalent is “mister” or “miss”. This honorific says nothing about the gender or marital status of the person it is applied to though, so there really isn’t a perfect translation of it.

To Western audiences it can seem strange that friends will use the honorific with each other, but it’s just a natural part of the language.

-sama

This honorific has the same function as -san, but indicates the highest level of respect for the other person. Traditionally reserved for royalty and god, today it is also used for someone who has high status because of fame or other valued qualities.

In anime this is the honorific you’ll hear people use when referring to their superiors, masters, lords and so on. It’s also used sarcastically in some context, when the implication is that the person doesn’t deserve any respect at all.

-chan and -kun

You’ll hear these honorifics quite a lot when watching anime. Unlike the above honorifics, chan and kun are the gendered version of the same honorific. It’s an endearment reserved for children or others we're close to. Both of these honorifics are mainly used when speaking to children. However, they can be used for people of all ages we are fond of.

“Chan” is the female variant and “kun” the male variant. Elderly characters might use these honorifics to refer to young adults. It may even be used between characters of the same age. It’s pretty common for female high school characters to refer to their male peers with the -kun honorific, for example.

Japan tea ceremony

The O-Prefix

This is the only honorific to go at the start of someone’s title. Okasan, for example, is a very polite way to address your mother. In more informal situations one would simply say “ka-san”. Think of okasan as being like “mother” and ka-san as something closer to “mom”.

The same pattern follows for “one-san” which means “older sister” or “Ojii-san” which means “grandfather”. Interestingly, you’ll hear people use these familial titles for people who are not blood relatives. A younger child might refer to any older female not yet married or elderly as “nee-san”. Any elderly man may be “jii-san” or “gramps”. Familial honorifics can be a little confusing at first, but thanks to their central place in most story dialogue it’s important to understand them.

-dono

The -dono honorific is basically the same as san/sama, but is an archaic form. In other words, basically no one actually talks this way, but you’ll hear it a lot in shows like Rurouni Kenshin. Basically anywhere you have a samurai character they tend to talk this way. It makes you sound like an old-timey knight, if you need a cultural comparison.

Japanese Schools

A lot of good anime is set in schools. The Japanese school system was more or less poached from the Prussian school system. This is why students appear to wear naval uniforms, since that was also the inspiration behind Prussian uniforms. Well, there’s some dispute there; the official Japanese account is that they are based on Japanese naval uniforms during the Meiji Restoration. Either way, European dress had a major effect on the entire Japanese school system thanks to Imperial reforms aimed at modernizing Japan at that time.

Western viewers might also be surprised as to how much time students put in at their schools. Students typically report for homeroom at 8:30 with classes ending at 15:00 for high schoolers. Then there are club activities to follow with students taking part in a diverse range of activities that include sports and arts. So it’s not weird for students to head home in the evenings with homework still to follow! On top of this, school maintenance such as cleaning and taking out the trash is the duty of students. Before 2002 Japanese students had school from Monday to Saturday! It’s no wonder as a nation the Japanese are known for a brutal work ethic. This also explains why so much anime that deals with characters who are adolescent in a contemporary setting mostly happen in schools. After all, that’s where you’d expect such people to be at that point in their lives.

japanese school

Matsuri

As you can tell from their schooling habits, the Japanese tend to have a rather insane work ethic – at least by Western standards. That doesn’t mean they are a people who don’t know how to let loose. In plenty of contemporary and historical anime you’ll run into the concept of the “matsuri” or “festival”. There are many national matsuri in Japan. Obvious ones are the New Year matsuri, but there are plenty more esoteric ones. For example, the doll festival is dedicated to prayer for the nation’s girls; to ward off evil spirits and ensure happiness for the girls of Japan. Tanabata is a festival stemming from a Chinese legend about star-crossed lovers. Japanese people write their romantic wishes on special pieces of paper during this festival, with the hope they’ll come true. Tanabata is a little like St. Valentine's day in the West, although many Japanese now also celebrate Valentine's day in their own unique way as well. Japanese Valentine’s Day puts the obligation on women to present men with chocolate. There’s non-romantic “giri”, chocolate which is given to male friends, bosses, and co-workers. Then there’s the (often homemade) “honmei” chocolate which is specifically meant for romantic use.

You’ll encounter many matsuri as you watch anime in various genres, each one with a specific meaning and celebrated in various ways.

Yokai

Many anime plots gleefully mine Western mythology for reuse in creative and surprising ways. That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of mythical stories to draw upon from Japanese folklore.

An important source of fantastical creatures are Japanese “Yokai”. This is the collective name for the many supernatural monsters, ghosts, and other creatures that come from various Eastern religious and spiritual influences. Japan has a strongly-animist view of the world. Or at least this has historically been the case. In other words, they attribute souls to inanimate objects such as machines as well as plants and non-human animals. Many Yokai are inanimate objects that have been mistreated or neglected. They manifest as, for example, umbrella monsters or other twisted apparitions.

Some Yokai are animals that can transform into humans. Fox Yokai are often beautiful men or women who are actually foxes, but appear as humans for various forms of mischief. Sometimes Yokai will help too. Demonic or divine creatures such as the bird-like Tengu are also a type of Yokai. Just about any supernatural creature would count. Yokai feature heavily in many fantasy anime. In Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko we see how a community of Tanuki or “raccoon dogs” use their yokai magic to transform into humans. In the Fox Spirit Matchmaker female fox spirits work to reunite reincarnated humans with their immortal Yokai lovers. There are hundreds of examples where Yokai are key plot points in anime and manga.

boy walking home

Independent Kids

Japan is a society of conformity and collective responsibility. One of the side effects of this is that children are encouraged to be very independent at a young age. Children as young as 3-5 might be sent down to the local shop to run an errand. It’s normal for children only 10 years old to use public transport by themselves. How is this even possible? Because the Japanese are taught from birth that they can lean on any other Japanese for assistance. If they get lost or need help with something it just takes a polite request to whomever is in sight.

It also helps that modern Japan has very low crime rates by international standards, although that might also have something to do with dodgy police reporting practices. Still, in anime this can manifest as children of a very young age who seem to do things beyond their years, such as walk to school alone when a Westerner would never dream of letting their own kids do anything of the sort at that age.

“Kawaii”-ness

It’s perhaps one of the defining features of anime and manga, but the concept of “kawaii” or cuteness is one that touches Japanese society as a whole. You’ll see cute decorations and characters on company materials, government signage, and everywhere else. The love of kawaii has been around at least since the late 1800s and some kawaii products, such as Hello Kitty, have become international sensations.

Even more serious anime might have elements of kawaii in it. “Chibi” or “super-deformed” segments are common, where cute cartoon versions of characters have more comedic moments. There may also be “omake” or “bonus” scenes after an episode where characters do skits in chibi form. Kawaii is also around in less obvious form. Cute girls or boys who wear costumes are an expression of kawaii. “Idols”, maid costumes, gothic Lolita, and many other very Japanese subcultural leanings are in some way linked to kawaii.

Kawaii elements in Japanese media can be annoying to people who are getting into the medium, but there are plenty of titles devoid of kawaii elements; even for those who do have it, most fans either do end up liking and appreciating it, or just become blind to it. One way or another there’s little chance that the culture of kawaii will go anywhere soon. In fact, with the spread and influence of Japanese culture becoming more explicit, we’re seeing kawaii-ness popping up in other Asian countries and even in the West.

Fan Service

Fan-service is another part of anime that’s a uniquely-Japanese phenomenon. Anything that’s added to the material that’s not there to serve the story but specifically to give the viewer pleasure, is fan service.

What counts as “fan service” is pretty complex. The most obvious form of fan service is the tendency to depict characters in an overly sexualzied way. For example, in shows that are aimed mainly at a male audience you might get “panty-shots”. That is, glimpses of a female character’s underwear. Likewise normal movements of characters might come with gratuitous jiggling. Shots may linger on the chest, crotch, or behind. Many mainstream anime will have what’s become known as the “swimsuit episode”. The various forms of sexual fan service in anime has come under severe criticism, mainly from Westerners. Regardless of how you feel about the sexual forms of fan service, it goes far beyond that.

Let’s looks at mecha anime such as the Gundam franchise. Gundam fans don’t just want a good story, they want epic mecha battles. They want to linger on the beauty and coolness of a given mecha’s design. When you see a special segment in an episode that shows a mech transforming or doing a special attack, that’s fan service.

Obviously ALL popular media in the world has fan service to one extent or another. The first “The Fast and the Furious” film was pure car pornography. The difference is that the Japanese have essentially made fan service a part of the anime medium.

anime nerd

Being an “Otaku”

You might already have heard the word “otaku” thrown around in the anime and manga world, but even within anime it’s a concept you’ll run into often. The closest translation in English is “nerd” or “geek”, but that doesn’t quite do it justice. The word describes a person who has an obsessive interest in a particular topic. So you could be an idol-otaku, a military-otaku, and so on. The market impact of otaku in Japan is in the billions of dollars as it’s become a more mainstream lifestyle.

In the West it’s become a descriptor of people who are really into anime, manga, and Japanese video games. The term has been adopted by Western fans and doesn’t carry the same stigma and derogatory meaning as it does in Japan. Even in Japan otaku life has become much more mainstream. Just as nerdy media now dominates the mainstream in the West, otaku life is now cross-gender and out in the open in Japan.

Only the Beginning

There’s a mountain of stuff that I simply could not include here. Although anime only gives us a view of Japanese culture through a particular lens, it’s almost impossible to really understand some of the plotlines or themes without some external knowledge of the Japanese people.

The cultural issues I mention are important for anime viewers because they crop up so much, but of course it’s just a shallow scoop of a rich and long national cultural history. It’s far too easy for Western anime fans to build up a distorted version of Japan based on their consumption of its popular media. In the same way that non-American audiences might build up a very simplistic idea of what life in America is like, so it is for anime and manga.

If you think about it, anime is meant to be an escape for Japanese people from the reality of their daily lives. So it’s actually strange to expect it to be representative. Still, there’s always a kernel of truth in fiction. Hopefully this little crash course helps smooth out the initial culture shock of consuming media meant for another culture entirely.