Introduction to Otaku: Discussing Anime
Shifting drastically from my normal topics of role-playing games and gaming culture, I would like to discuss another aspect of the nerdy sub-culture: Anime. Fans of anime are in fact a separate sub-culture that is very distinctly different from gaming culture, but the two can and often do overlap; in other words, not every anime fan is a gamer nor is every gamer an anime fan, but many are indeed both. It has been my experience that some people are still confused as the nature of anime, unfamiliar with it and, quite frankly, are embarrassed to ask about it. Anime has accumulated an unfortunate reputation over the years. So, my aim here is to clear up any misconceptions and tell help remove the unnecessary stigma surrounding it. My goal is to talk about it in a constructive and positive manner, but occasionally I may delve point out the unfortunate exceptions that besmirch the otherwise beautiful art of anime. Hopefully, that doesn't scare ya; let’s get right into it and see if I can’t answer a few questions for you about anime!
Just What is Anime?
Anime is commonly envisioned as cartoon animation originating from Japan; even though such animation can also be called Japanimation and there are numerous examples of anime-style (or inspired) works that come from other nations and cultures from around the globe, and not just Japan. A better definition for Anime would be cartoon animation drawn from a particular style. This style tends to lend itself towards more realistic proportions to the human form, with noted deviations; chiefly exaggerated hair colors and length, eye size and shape, and a tendency for longer legs among all genders. The stereotype of the disproportionally large eyes in anime is actually a throwback to anime’s earliest roots and inspiration: American cartoons, specifically the cartoons of Betty Boop. The unusual hair colors and designs is a practical decision, as well as stylistic, in order to better differentiate between similarly designed characters. The striking and unnatural hair colors also help make the characters stand out against the background characters and to help the audience center their attention.
Beyond the artwork, there are other major characteristics belonging to anime. Music, storytelling, characterization, writing and even acting all have a specific flair and style in anime. Exceptions do exist, of course; for better and for worse.
So is Anime a Particular Genre of Cartoon?
No. It is a specific style, but not just a genre. One of the key aspects of the anime style is the visual aesthetic. Anime is noted for having striking dynamic visuals and bold images. Some of these images can be colorful and others tend to be rather somber; they can be fantastical and epic or even humble and actually fairly mundane (though the latter is still a work of art by sheer dedication to detail). No matter the actual visual, anime strives for memorable moments for the audience.
A broader way to look at anime is to think of it as a different medium for which one can tell a story; just as you can tell their story as a book, an art piece, through radio, television or film. As such, there are numerous genres that encompass anime: action, science-fiction, horror, thriller, suspense, mystery, space western, etc.
When it comes to anime, there are a few genres that are typically seen only as anime and not through other media; unfortunately, sometimes this has been confused as meaning all anime are these select few genres. Such anime-specific genres include (but not limited to): magical-girl, magical dimension, harem-anime, and giant mecha. As you may have noticed, a couple of those do exist outside of anime and others are becoming more mainstream as well. Even more so, anime has begun to influence storytelling in other media as well.
Where Has Anime Influenced Other Media?
One of the more obvious examples of anime influence comes in the form of the giant mecha trope and sub-genre of science fiction. Whether it is Pacific Rim, the Transformers cartoon series, or obscure science fiction films such as Robot Jox, one can see giant robots (piloted and unpiloted) in various media and even saturated in pop-culture. While many of the clichés and tropes differ from the originals, the influence is clear and present: in many ways, without anime, we would not have giant mechs. At least in this nerd’s opinion anyways.
If you would like a more specific, if somewhat convoluted example, the climactic battle sequence in Iron Man 2 (against the Hammer-drones in the garden) is anime inspired. How? Well, that scene (among others) was story-boarded by Genndy Tartakovsky a Russian-born American animator and director whose work has been HEAVILY inspired by anime. And just as a hint for the uninitiated, the blossoming cherry trees shedding their petals in the scene are actually a dead give-away as this is a commonly used trope in anime (particularly for scenes with samurai duels).
By the by, there are many other examples and instances of anime bleeding over into other media in terms of style and influence. I selected the above examples because those are some of my personal favorites and the first that I thought of when writing this article.
OK, fine. But What is the Anime Take on Other Genres?
Well, as much as anime has a distinct style of cinematography and visual design, it also has a particular style of storytelling. The various genres in storytelling do get a bit of a treatment when told as an anime. Generally speaking (very generally speaking that is), anime tends towards the melodramatic, favoring over-the-top action and stories of epic proportions and equally high stakes. There are often villains seeking global devastation or domination, alien or demonic invasions that threaten humankind, and even dark gods or myths that spell doom for us all. Even when the actual consequences aren’t that large, the story tells them in such a way that it feels like that for the main characters. Characters faced with having to wait another year before attempting to go to university, finding true love, or discovering a family secret typically impact anime characters like they just found God flipping them off.
As I mentioned earlier, anime has a striking visual design. It naturally follows that its storytelling would seek to at least match (or maybe emulate) such bold images. Because anime is most often cartoon animation, the directors and writers can get away with designing sequences, stories, scenes, and even characters that would be next to impossible to provide in other traditional media; whether for production cost or limitation of technology. As long as you have competent animators and talented artists, if you can dream it they can breathe life into it.
Alright. So What Do You Recommend To Start?
Well, I recommend something from my personal favorites. Why? Because of the variety, not to mention my tastes run towards mostly mainstream stuff with a dash towards the more obscure. My suggestions also run the gamut of genres, from comedy to fantasy to science fiction.
Record of Lodoss War: a beautifully rendered fantasy piece, Record of Lodoss War depicts the heroic deeds and rise of the warrior Parn as he, and his party of adventurers, seek out to destroy a great evil in Lodoss, the Accursed Island.
Tenchi Muyo: easily one of my absolutely favorites, the eponymous Tenchi Masaki is a high school student who unleashes a “demon” girl named Ryoko. Then through a series of mishaps and circumstances, becomes the amorous center of a attention for a number of women from beyond the stars. This is perhaps the archetypal harem-anime, wherein one character is put upon by numerous other characters and, as with Tenchi Muyo, are often comedies.
El-Hazard, the Magnificent World: a short (only seven episodes long) OVA (original video animation; essentially direct-to-video release) that follows as a group of high school students and their teacher get transported to the eponymous El-Hazard. There, they discover unusual gifts that place them in high positions and with tremendous influence within the world. They must strive to save this new world while also trying to find a way back home.
Avatar, the Last Airbender: perhaps one of the more well-known examples on my list, it is also notable as being the only American produced anime series on this list as well. It follows Aang, a young boy with the great destiny of defeating an evil empire bent on global domination; and he has only one year to master his mystical skills in order to do so. There is so much to be said about this series, that I aught consider writing an entire article about it . . .
Got Netflix? They have a whole category dedicated to anime on there for online streaming. As a heads up, there is a blend of more obscure as well as popular anime on there. Also, some of the anime can be rather . . . of lower standards than others. My recommendation when streaming on Netflix: go in expecting to be watching some bat crap crazy stuff. That way, you can enjoy it; and when it surprises with depth and maturity of subject, you can appreciate it all the more.
I also highly recommend watching an anime-review series called Anime Abandon. Bennett “the Sage” White mostly talks about anime from the late 80’s and 90’s, but he discusses everything with critical eye and equally academic (but relatable and comprehendible tone). And the best part is that his wit and humor makes even shoddy anime enjoyable to watch; even when he is speechless at the sheer insanity of what he is watching, it is hilarious beyond compare.
I recently found this video on Youtube and I immediately realized it would be a great fit for this article. I highly recommend checking it out as it provides a broad range of facts on anime that I have not covered above. Enjoy!