If you came to this site there’s a good chance that you’ve already heard about anime in some way. Perhaps you’ve already watched some anime programs or maybe you’ve been made aware of it somehow through friends or seeing mention of it on the internet. Either way, this article is about tackling the big question: What is anime?

This is actually a pretty complex question and not one everybody can agree on. So I’m going to take a bit of a measured approach to the question and answer it from several angles. The idea is that by the end of this article you’ll have a solid idea of what anime is, or at least have a very good hunch when it comes to deciding if what you’re watching is anime or not.

anime girl

The Literal Meaning

The word “anime” is an example of something that typically happens when the Japanese borrow words from other languages. For example, “personal computer” becomes “pasocon”. Often when a word has been filtered through the Japanese language it becomes unrecognizable, but you’ve probably by now realized that the word “anime” is a shortened form of the English word “animation”.

In fact, in Japan the term anime refers to ALL animation, including Western animation from companies such as Pixar and Disney. Which means, somewhat ironically, that Westerners have borrowed the word back from the Japanese to specifically mean animation that originates in Japan. Broadly then, when you hear someone talking about anime they mean animation that is the creative export of Japan.

Anime as Medium

Many people think of anime the way they think of genres. This is why it’s developed a certain nature or reputation in the minds of people who don’t engage with it on any level. Believe me, I’ve heard just about every misconception possible when it comes to anime. Some people think that all anime is pornographic or that it’s exclusively for children.

The truth is that anime is simply a medium, although it is a multi-layered one. What does this mean? Well, think about black and white film. Black and white films from a certain era all have a similar look and feel. Some of it is down to the culture and conventions of the time, some it relates to the limitations of the equipment they were using at the time, and so on.

However, a given black and white film can fall into any genre. It could be an educational program for children, a racy adult film, or a science fiction epic. That’s what we mean when we say that anime is a medium and not a genre. This is why chances are anyone who likes fiction will find some genre niche that they like from within the broad church of anime; it’s a serious mistake to dismiss the whole thing under the assumption that all anime is somehow the same.

anime eye

Anime as a Genre

Hang on a second, didn’t I just say that anime is NOT a genre? Yes and it’s still true but, as with many things in Japan, the normal rules don’t always apply the same way. While the tone and content of, say, a realistic historical drama and a magical girl anime may be wildly different, there are genre conventions that are shared widely across the genres of anime. A lot of this has to do with the historical limitations of anime as an art form. Japanese animators have always been brilliant at telling a story with animation while keeping the cost and time down. Many of the visual tropes we associate with anime are really just forms of these tricks that have become traditional.

It’s not specific to anime, either. Even mainstream Western cinema has this sort of thing. To give you an example, think of cinematic frame rates. The frame rate refers to how many individual images are shown per second in order to create the illusion of motion on-screen. Today all screens can show at least sixty frames per second, which looks smooth and lifelike. Screen that can show 120 or more frames per second are now becoming commonplace and yet blockbuster movies are still being shown at about 23 frames per second. Why that number? Well, film is expensive, so they had to find a balance between relatively smooth motion and the cost per foot of celluloid.

Today we think of that frame rate not as inferior to faster rates, but as uniquely cinematic. Long and bitter fights have been fought online over the merits of faster frame rates. Audiences who grew up with the slower rate tend not to like faster ones. As a case in point, the 48 frames per second Hobbit films were not well received because people found it odd.

When it comes to anime today, there’s no longer a need for many of these visual shortcuts or tricks, but they’ve become part of the visual language of anime and so they’re replicated in modern digital animation because of audience expectations. In terms of plot points or imagery, there are also unique tropes in anime that transcend genre boundaries. For example, men might have sudden nosebleeds to indicate that they’ve been aroused a lot. Yeah, it can be weird from a Westerner’s perspective, but if you understand a little of the history around these tropes (which I will discuss in another article) then somehow it all makes sense.

Anime as a Visual Style

The most obvious trait that anime has to the eye is its unique visual style. Over the decades the Japanese have built on a distinctive way of drawing characters, creatures, and scenes. Characters tend not to have realistic proportions, but have large eyes, angular heads, and other quirks which are very much a signature for the medium.

Ironically, the seed of this varied and well-developed style comes from Western animation, specifically Disney with its characters like Mickey Mouse. While traditional Japanese art from before the existence of anime certainly had an influence on its look, there’s little doubt about early western influences on the Japanese animation industry.

Last Airbender

Things That Look Like Anime, But Aren’t

Which brings us to the next interesting wrinkle in the quest to figure out what is and is not “anime”. Thanks to its increasing popularity and bold, distinctive visuals, non-Japanese animators have started emulating the visual style of anime while producing stories meant for consumption by Westerners. For example, Avatar: The Last Airbender could easily be mistaken for an anime if you only look at the art style, but the program itself (which is excellent, by the way) is devoid of the unique cultural lens through which anime stories are told.

This is one of those places where we reach a slippery slope on the definition of anime. Clearly, simply aping the visual style of anime is not enough to be counted as true anime. However, is something really anime in the sense that we use the word simply because those who created it are Japanese?

Things that Don’t Look Like Anime but ARE

Not all anime follow this widely accepted style. There is plenty of anime that aims for a more realistic style or that becomes even more surreal. You wouldn’t necessarily immediately recognize that these were anime just by looking at stills. Good examples of this include the first Ghost in the Shell theatrical film. While the original graphic novel was indeed in the mainstream style (with Masamune Shirow’s unique and beautiful flair), the movie was done in a realistic, gritty style. Director Mamoru Oshii went for a hardcore cyberpunk aesthetic that would fit in with Western films such as Blade Runner. The later television series would fall somewhere between pure anime style and a more serious look.

Much of Studio Ghibli’s work also has a unique art style that’s not obviously anime as most people think of it. Television program such as Kimba the White Lion, Maya the Bee, and Heidi were dubbed into many languages with young audiences unaware that their favorite cartoon originated in Japan.

Intended Audiences

I think another key factor when it comes to anime is whether the intended audience is a Japanese one. The anime that fans have come to love over the years was never explicitly made for export. I think in many ways the success of anime as major cultural export has been surprising for both the Japanese and many Westerners. Surely the fact that new anime is being simulcast with subtitles to the rest of the world has an effect on the creative process itself, but anime is at its best when it’s meant for a Japanese audience.

It certainly adds to the feeling of freshness as Westerners are getting into the medium experience, since we’re exposed to one of the world’s most unique and interesting cultures. Anime plots often violate many of the unwritten rules in Western fiction. Sometimes there isn’t a happy ending, sometimes a beloved character dies unexpectedly, and so on.

It may seem less special now that we have Western shows such as Game of Thrones or the Walking Dead. But while American TV was broadcasting primetime shows where all-American heroes could never lose and all the tension is missing because you know that, this was exciting stuff.

While Western shows are starting to show more creativity and less mainstream pandering, anime is still willing to put stories out there that usually would be relegated to novels or other more niche media. For example, GATE is an anime about the modern Japanese military battling classic European fantasy creatures such as dragons and elves. It’s the sort of story idea that would usually be passed on as too much of a risk, but fits neatly into the risk/reward formula of anime.

We can keep going on about that ineffable essence that characterizes the best anime, but it’s like nailing down moonlight.

Akiba’s Trip

There is No One Answer

While it may sound like a cop out, there really is no one answer to explain what anime is. Once you’ve experienced enough examples, a general template or zeitgeist forms in the mind. When you get to the point where you’ve seen hundreds or thousands of shows, the level of certainty you have when pondering this question will shoot up. We know what anime is, but trying to explain it in categorical terms is challenging, as you’ve just seen.

On top of this, anime is an evolving medium just like everything else. Over the decades of the century in which is has existed, you can clearly see an evolution as well as a unique character for each era. 80s anime is as iconic as 80s American pop music. Modern anime has its own charm and its own problems.

Has that helped at all? Are you even more confused? That’s OK, on this site you’ll find plenty of recommendations for shows you’ll love that will really help you understand what the heck this anime thing is after all.

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