What do you think of when you hear the word ‘anime’? are you thinking about Pokémon, Spirited Away, of Sailor Moon? Of your own childhood memories, your kids watching Japanese shows on Netflix, or that thrilling episode of Demon Slayer waiting for you in a streaming app? Or do you have to google that word, which is increasingly used in the Netherlands to refer to certain animation series?
It is not strange not to know what anime is. To watch these films and series, you had to be lucky enough to get hold of a series on Fox Kids, Cartoon Network, or the Flemish VTM at the beginning of this century. Anime is now much more widely available. Netflix has produced a selection of titles, often itself, in collaboration with leading Japanese studios. The anime streaming platform Crunchyroll is also available in two hundred countries, including the Netherlands, with more than a thousand titles and five million paying users. And then there are several anime conventions in the Netherlands every year, and anime films are shown in Dutch cinemas. But what exactly is it, anime?
“It is important to define what you are talking about,” explains Ivo Smits. He is professor of literature and cultures of Japan at Leiden University. Anime (read: ‘animee’, with the emphasis on the ‘a’) stands for nothing more or less than: ‘Japanese animation’, he explains. It is a medium and therefore says nothing about the content or genre of the film or series.
“But in the West we use ‘anime’ as a genre designation instead of a medium designation,” continues Professor Smits. “We’re thinking of a specific style,” a specific genre within Japanese animation, “starting in the 1970s.”
This particular genre defines Koji Yamamura, animation filmmaker and professor at the Graduate School of Film and New Media in Tokyo, in an email exchange with NRC as, “Something with a unique and long history, which evolved from television series and cinema films, based on manga,” Japanese comics, “in the 1970s, and was categorized as ‘anime’ from a foreign perspective.”
Four hundred filler episodes
In the 1970s, among other things, the first anime series of Astro Boy: about a robot living in a futuristic world where androids and humans live together. Astro Boy is based on a manga and was adapted into an anime series three times, the last in 2003. It is not uncommon for a popular manga series to be edited several times: take the adventure anime Hunter x Hunter (read: Hunter Hunter), whose versions are known among fans as Hunter x Hunter (1999) in Hunter x Hunter (2011). With this series, the anime was so ahead of the manga that the anime makers decided to stop the series. Ten years later, new creators created a completely new series, with the old and the newer manga material. What also happens when an anime gets ahead of the manga is that the animators come up with episodes that aren’t based on a comic book, while waiting for a new chapter; these episodes are called ‘fillers’. In these ‘filling’ episodes, nothing interesting happens to the overall plot, and this is often not referenced in the episodes that are important to the plot. So has Detective Conan, an anime that has been running since 1996, has more than four hundred filler episodes — the most ever. The series has more than a thousand episodes: where in the first mobile phones did not exist, the characters in the latest episodes can record clear videos with their phones.
In the eighties the great international advance of anime started. 1986 is the year of birth of the first Dragon Ball-series and thus lead character Goku’s fighting technique of shouting ‘kamehameha’ – inspiration for countless similar series after it. the anime movie Akira (1988) became the first international breakthrough film: a ‘cyberpunk’ action film set in a dystopian 2019, after World War III. The science fiction film features fast-paced action scenes, violence and nudity: clearly made for an older audience.
The 1980s is also marked in anime history by the founding of Studio Ghibli, by director and author Hayao Miyazaki, among others, who has become one of the best-known animators in the world. His movies, like Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), in Spirited Away (2001), are considered masterpieces in Japan and internationally. In his work, young women and girls are often the main characters, the colors are soft and the animation is sharp. The villains are never all bad, the main characters often very endearing, but what makes Miyaziki’s work special is that, despite the sometimes darker themes, the images are above all very pleasant and soothing to watch – for young and old. Even then, he dealt with topics such as environmentalism, pacifism, and the impact of capitalism on people and nature – topics that he deepens in a philosophical, questing way. Fans joke that you can’t watch Miyazaki’s movies without crying. In 2003 he won an Oscar for best animated film for Spirited Away, and in 2014 he received an Oscar in recognition of his overall impact on the animation and film world.
Monsters and super powers
But people often don’t think of Miyazaki when they think of ‘anime’ – if they ever think of anime at all. When you say ‘anime’, many think of series like Pokémon, Dragon Ball of Naruto: series aimed at children or teenagers, mainly boys, with male lead characters, exaggerated facial expressions, loud shouting, lots of fights, bright colors, taking place in a fantasy world, with monsters, superpowers, or both. And they are not entirely wrong: a large part of anime consists of such series. In total there are almost twelve hundred Pokémonepisodes, more than eight hundred Dragon Ballepisodes, and over seven hundred Narutoepisodes.
This genre is part of the category ‘shonen’, the Japanese word for ‘boy’: these series, almost always based on comics, target boys. “But you shouldn’t focus too much on that genre of ‘shonen’”, says professor Smits. “Marketing people have come up with certain market designations, which are also classified by age.” For example, ‘seinen’ is for young adult boys, and its female counterparts ‘shojo’ (girl) and ‘josei’ are for young adult women. But according to Professor Yamamura, the distinction between adults and young people in Japan is also not so clearly defined.
In the book International Perspectives on Shojo and Shojo Manga: the influence of Girl Culture (2015) the Japanese professor Nozomi Masuda writes that the readers of shojo manga are not necessarily young girls. “’For shojo’, or ‘for girls’, is a category invented by publishers, not readers.”
Further on, Masuda describes that shojo manga mainly focuses on the characters. “It follows the psychology of the characters and focuses on their interrelationships” – the premise or plot itself can then be serious or not, realistic or not, and the genres themselves can still vary a lot. Compare the popular anime Sailor Moon, an action and fantasy anime, about a group of young female soldiers, the Sailor Soldiers, who must use their magical powers to protect the solar system, with a series like Nana, about two friends in the ‘real world’, where love, rock music and drug use are discussed. Shojo en seinen manga and anime series are mainly made by women and have female lead characters.
On a mission to become the best
The most popular shonen anime, the ‘for boys’ variant, often features humor, competitions, (young) main characters who are on a mission to become stronger or the best in their field, whether or not to save the world. Remember the intro song of Pokémon: „I wanna be the very best, that no one ever was.” And, perhaps most importantly, a group of loyal and endearing friends who (temporarily) accompany these main characters on this mission, and will no doubt save them from dangerous situations one day. There are countless anime-based memes about ‘the power of friendship‘: When characters are about to be defeated by the enemy, they look or think of their friends, magically recover from their near-fatal wounds, and bravely fight on.
Now if you come across anime in the West, chances are it’s shonen. There is no unequivocal answer to why this is so. “Maybe it’s because marketers, so many years ago, introduced some anime in this genre to the West,” suggests Professor Smits, “and because these have done well, they keep coming.” Because of this, in the West we are most often confronted with the male perspective in anime, while in Japan there is a wider range of anime with female lead characters.
But reducing anime to these series is like reducing all existing western animation to The Simpsons in South Park – as if Pixar movies or adult animation as BoJack Horseman of Wes Andersons Isle of Dogs do not also exist. And given the wide variety of genres within shonen itself, even there it isn’t fair to reduce this category to Naruto of Pokémon, while there are also very exciting psychological thrillers like The Promised Neverland or visually beautiful dramatic fantasy series like To Your Eternity to exist.
While fans in the West debate definitions of anime, wondering, for example, whether Avatar: The Last Airbender can be included (some say it is, because of the style and themes, others say it isn’t, because it wasn’t made in Japan), the definition in Japan is much less restrictive. In Japan, ‘anime’ means everything that is animation, including foreign cartoons, explains professor Smits.
That is true, explains Professor Yamamura, “but this is because of the Japanese custom of shrinking words.” The Japanese word ‘anime’ is a diminutive of ‘animeshon’, which itself is derived from the English ‘animation’. Indie filmmakers like himself usually prefer titles like ‘animation filmmaker’ over ‘anime maker’, because in Japan too, ‘anime’ tends to remind people of the mass-produced mainstream anime series that are similar in style.
But Japanese anime, in the broadest sense, consists of animated series and movies that have been widely distributed in Japanese cinemas and on Japanese televisions since the 1960s, and now includes all the genres you can think of, and some that you can’t even think of: will. you watch horror, comedy, or a cooking series? Which can. Do you want porn? That too is possible. Anime is as broad as the concepts of ‘television series and film’. Enough to keep you busy during a lockdown in these long winter months.