Are your parent's or friends still not getting the whole "anime" thing. Well make them read this.
The average parent may expect a son or daughter to ask Santa for a new bicycle or new pair of shoes, or even the latest video game, but most American parents react with a mixture of surprise and confusion when their child asks for some nearly unpronounceable thing called "Kareshi Kanojo no Jijoo" or "Rurouni Kenshin." These are cartoons. And what's more, they're not even in English! Japanese animation is steadily creeping into American culture, and as a foreign import there are still a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about what exactly this stuff is. This guide exists to explain the basics of Japanese animation, or "anime," as it's commonly called, and serve as an introduction for parents and other consumers overwhelmed by the phenomena of Japanese animation.
To discuss Japanese animation, it's first necessary to define exactly what Japanese animation actually is. As its name implies, Japanese animation is hand drawn animation created in Japan. Anime (the Japanese abbreviation for "animation") originated in the late 1950s and has constantly evolved and grown more popular worldwide with each passing year since. The most immediately recognizable characteristic of anime is the wide, saucer-like eyes and multi-colored hairstyles of its characters. Closer inspection reveals that anime also frequently deals with concepts and content more mature than what Westerners usually expect to see in animated cartoons. The giant, expressive eyes are a traditional homage to the art of animation pioneer Walt Disney. The unnatural hair is little more than an artistic device allowing for greater flexibility to creating distinctive, recognizable characters. And the mature content of anime has been grossly misunderstood and often over exaggerated by Americans used to presuming that anything animated is intended for children, and anything animated that's not suitable for children must be exploitive, pornographic trash attempting to succeed on shock value.
The often overlooked fundamental difference between Japanese animation and American animation is Japanese animation's unspoken policy of treating animation like any other type of fiction. Unlike American cartoons and comic books that star one-dimensional superheroes or talking animals or characters that exist only to advance a story, anime focuses on characters that think and act like real people. The characters in anime have real-world motivations, emotions, conflicts and problems. They are as fully developed "people" as characters in fiction novels or live-action movies. In effect, although they’re animated, the stars of anime are anything but cartoon characters. For example, Bugs Bunny has only his next one-liner on his mind. Superman thinks only about how to protect Metropolis while maintaining his disguise as Clark Kent. An anime character that has to pilot a giant robot to protect the Earth from alien invaders may fear being injured or killed, stress over living up to his heavy responsibility, feel anxiety over a crush on an attractive schoolmate, and worry about getting to his part time job on time, all at the same time!
From space aliens to cyborgs to witches to even simple contemporary teenagers, anime characters think, act, and react like real, living people in realistic settings and situations. In contrast, American cartoons simply don’t deal with realistic characters in realistic settings and circumstances. So in effect, the Japanese animation industry is much more similar to the American motion picture industry than the American animation industry. And in the same way that not every movie at the local multiplex is suitable for every viewer, not all anime is suitable for all viewers.
Unlike live action cinema, which is limited by the technology of cinema and physical ability of actors, anime is limited only by the imagination of its creators. There are examples of Japanese animation in every genre and style imaginable, including comedy, history, science fiction, horror, romance and drama. There are anime programs created specifically for children, for adolescent girls, for teen boys, for young adult women, for families, and even for adult viewers only. And in accordance with its emphasis on believable characters and realistic situations, some anime does indeed include graphic nudity, sex, violence and other content that select viewers may find offensive. On the other hand, there are also full length anime episodes that are about events no more threatening than choosing seat assignments on the first day of school or the pleasures of a peaceful country library on a bright spring day. It's a mistake to assume that all Japanese animation is suitable for children just because it's animated. Likewise, it's also grossly inaccurate to stereotype all anime as exploitive sex and violence.
The visual language of anime is universal, since any viewer from any culture can appreciate the distinctive look of anime. Likewise, language is not nearly as daunting a barrier to enjoying anime as may be suspected at first. Nearly all anime imported into America is dubbed into English. And subtitled versions exist as well for those fans concerned with preserving the original cinematic and artistic integrity of anime. While it may seem strange to an uninitiated observer for young Americans to want to watch cartoons in Japanese language, millions of people throughout history have enjoyed and devoted their lives to classical opera performed in Italian, German, Russian and French without knowledge of the works' native languages. Language is only a single aspect among many in the entire presentation of anime, and not an impediment which fans can’t overcome. It may seem pretentious to say, but in fact, anime may be for contemporary generations the equivalent communal entertainment that stage dramas and opera were for audiences during centuries past. At its best, anime can be educational and both morally and spiritually encouraging. The vast majority of anime, though, is simply pure escapist entertainment, enjoyable for the most innocent viewer and the most critical skeptic alike.
Anime appeals to a broad spectrum of Western fans for two reasons. First, its bright, colorful and kinetic visual style is unlike anything else most Western viewers have ever seen. Second, unlike so many examples of American pop-culture obviously targeted at the lowest common denominator, anime largely presumes the intelligence of its viewers. Complex character motivations, smart writing, forthright treatments of sexuality and violence on occasion, and graphic design often more sophisticated than typical American films all contribute to make anime visually, intellectually and emotionally stimulating. Japanese animation is especially valuable for Western viewers because at the same time it entertains, it subtly encourages cultural awareness and tolerance in its Western viewers. Young viewers interested in Japanese animation should be encouraged to pursue their interest. After all, it's highly preferable to see a child addicted to foreign film than addicted to some less savory hobby.
I forgot to tell you all about my History of Animation I grade. No matter what I get on the exam, and I still have to take the exam, I will have an A in the class regardless. I've never had that happen before. Usually I have to bust my ass on the final to get a B in the class. This is awesome! But I don't wish this class on anyone. It can sometimes be a real snorefest.