Anime is a Japanese word derived from the English word animation. In Japanese the term anime is used to describe all forms of animated films, but outside of Japan, anime has come to mean “Japanese animation.” The term Japanimation is often used by companies who fear potential viewers who may not be familiar with the term anime. But what is Japanese animation then? The short answer: animation from Japan, with its own flavour and very distinctly different from Western animation.
Originally, influenced by Western animation studios, including Disney, Japanese animation has evolved into an amalgamation of blockbuster action, epic storytelling and unique animation style. This elevation of anime, takes it beyond just the mere realm of entertainment, but into the sphere of art. And like all art forms, it is a reflection of life and culture… Japanese life and culture. The fusion of these elements, make anime an unique experience that often crosses the typical genre barriers we know of here in North America.
Animation was not always seen as kids stuff in the west. It was only after the death of theatrical shorts and the arrival of “Saturday morning cartoons” that people began to think animation = kids. That never happened in Japan, there is something for everyone, young, old, male or female. This may not be obvious if you have only seen anime at your local comic or video store. Until recently the American companies that released Anime in North America were only interested in two audiences, male teens, and adult males. With a very few exceptions only titles that included slapstick comedy, Baywatch type female characters, violence and sex were seen as “commercially viable.” Luckily this is slowly changing and we are starting to see a wider selection of titles.
In addition to blending action, epic storytelling and distinct animation style, not normally found in Western “children’s” cartoons, anime incorporates aspects of life and the human psyche or the human “condition.” It is this incorporation of real world experiences and suffering that permits anime to rise beyond being “only for children” and evolving into more mature genres like drama, science fiction, romantic comedy, adult, etc. It should be noted that full length anime features challenge Western live action films in both popularity and sales and do exceedingly well, both on TV and in theatres.
Of all the forms of anime, shoujo (literally young girl) is the most different from what we are used to in the west. Now it’s the men that are often drop dead gorgeous. More emphasis is put on the plot and there is usually a love story worked in there some place. Strong female protagonists are the norm.
An important difference in anime, relates to how character development is handled. Western animated TV series tend to be episodic, allowing a small number of episodes to be rerun in random order. The characters are “frozen” to allow this. Most anime series are designed to be watched in order, and tell one big story instead of a bunch of small ones. The characters are allowed to develop along with the story. Within a series, viewers can watch the characters unfold emotionally and psychologically. It then becomes possible to relate to the characters as they suffer through life’s trials and tribulations. It is often said that it is this identification that is part of what makes watching anime such an experience.
Dealing with Death
In anime, main characters frequently die. That is not to say, they must die. In comparison to Western animation – where characters live indefinitely and if they do die, miraculously come back to life – the ways in which characters of Japanese animation die, are usually not so far fetched that it becomes unbelievable. Characters die for causes, beliefs, by accidents – unlike the “Marvel comics” syndrome that plagues most Western cartoons. As in real life, their deaths can cause serious repercussions within the personalities of other characters. Happy endings are not required, some anime tells a tragic tale.
If characters are brought back to life, it is usually done in a tasteful and reasonable manner (no – do not look to South Park for examples), but this is not always the case.
What also makes anime an amazing experience is the unique art style of Japanese animation. In the most common style, characters usually sport rounded features and huge eyes – an evolution from early Hollywood animation (see Mickey Mouse, Felix, Woody Woodpecker) that was imitated when animation in Japan first evolved. Facial expressions are exaggerated, characters are drawn in humorous ways, or standard visual cues (sweat drop, bulging vain etc.) are used to reflect their internal feelings.
With respect to the venue in which the characters exist in, you can expect (at least for the larger majority of anime), detailed backgrounds and situations that mirror the complexities of real life and Japanese culture to an unparalleled level to which Western animation rarely, if ever, approaches.
While not all anime is equal (there are bad anime shows out there, as there are bad Western movies/shows as well), it is felt that a majority of anime is reflected in the previous paragraphs. With the exploding import of Japanese anime, video games and culture and with this rise interest in anime here in Canada and in the States, it is sure to be a powerful presence in the upcoming years in Western culture. But don’t take our word for it . . . come and see it for yourself.