An Introduction to Anime, Part 1

In my previous blog post on anime, I gave a brief overview of what anime is and the mainstream impact its had on popular culture worldwide. Today, I will be discussing some of the intricacies which make anime different from American cartoons.

How does anime get to our country in the first place?

Contrary to popular belief, anime just doesn’t magically arrive onto our shores. Nor, does an American distributor simply pick up the phone and place a call to a Japanese studio to demand their show to be brought over here.

All anime released in America is acquired through a bidding system. American anime distributors (Funimation, Bandai, Viz Media, etc.) bid for the licensing rights for a particular show. These rights may also include the rights to broadcast the show on television (this is usually done for lucrative properties such as Naruto or Bleach). Licensing fees can be quite expensive and most licenses are only available for a specific number of years. This is the reason why a large majority of anime goes out of print, despite being immensely popular. Once a license is up, it’s up! There have also been shows that American distributors have wanted to release, yet have been unable to due to extremely high licensing fees from the parent Japanese studio.

Some American distributors have exclusive agreements to license the anime of a particular studio. Think of it as a business relationship. Perhaps the two most famous examples are the Bandai-Sunrise and Disney-Studio Ghibli partnerships. Bandai licenses virtually every title produced by studio Sunrise (Gundam, Cowboy Bebop, Code Geass), whereas Disney has an exclusive arrangement to release all the films of Studio Ghibli (Howl‘s Moving Castle, Ponyo, Castle in the Sky).

How is anime released?

Anime is released in three formats–films, television series, and original video animation.

Films, which are generally released in theaters, represent the highest budgets and generally the highest video-quality. Some anime films are only released at film or animation festivals and are shorter and sometimes lower in production values. Other types of films include compilation movies, which are television episodes edited together and presented in theaters.

Television series, which are the most common type of anime produced, are syndicated and broadcast on television on a regular schedule. Television series are generally low quality compared to OVA and film titles, because the production budget is spread out over many episodes rather than a single film or a short series. Most episodes are about 23 minutes in length, to fill a typical thirty-minute timeslot with added commercials. One full season is 26 episodes, and many titles run half seasons, or 13 episodes. However, there are some television series which span numerous seasons Most television anime produced will have opening credits, closing credits, and often an “eye catch,” a very short scene, often humorous or silly, that is used to signal the start or end of the commercial break.

Original video animation is often similar to a television miniseries. OVAs are typically two to twenty episodes in length; one-shots are particularly short, usually less than film-length. They are most commonly released directly to video. As a general rule OVA anime tends to be of high quality, approaching that of films. Titles often tend to have a very regular, continuous plot which is best enjoyed if all episodes are viewed in sequence.

Why does anime have a reputation for being overtly violent and sexual?

The answer is twofold. First, I think this stigma has  largely died down over the last decade with the release of so many varied titles here in America, but for some, anime conjures up images of indecent cartoons which have no place in America’s politically correct society.

During the early 90s when anime began to gain mainstream popularity in America, most of what was imported during that period were films such as Vampire Hunter D or Ninja Scroll. Though both were groundbreaking works, they were hardly the Saturday morning cartoons those in our society were used to.

American distributors at the time felt that all anime fans were teenage-college aged males. Naturally, they felt titles which focused on sex and violence would appeal to this group. Hence, why some of the most popular titles of that period included AD Police, Wicked City, and Fist of the North Star. Basically, each of these shows were packed with plenty of extreme violence and sexual gratuity. I guess many of those distributors didn’t think there was a market for family-friendly or intellectually challenging anime.

Though anime has become one of the hottest cultural commodities in the world, and has even won an Academy Award for Best Animated Film (Spirited Away in 2002), it’s inevitably the “adults-only” stuff which seems to garner the lion’s share of media attention. That’s really sad when you consider that the bulk of anime released here in America over the last decade has been anything but excessively violent or sexual in nature. Saying that all anime is representative of “sex and violence” is like saying all American cinema is representative of Tom Cruise films (and I love Cruise). It just doesn’t make sense.

What types of anime are there?

This is one of the most toughest questions to accurately answer. Many anime shows feature a large mix of genres, making distinguishing and categorizing difficult. For instance, a show might have a seemingly innocent surface plot, but at the same time feature a far deeper storyline. However, the following are a few broad categories for which most anime can be applied to.

Shonen- The most popular and mainstream genre. Shonen is the Japanese term for boys and is used to describe any anime targeted at boys. Popular examples include Dragonball-Z, Naruto, Bleach, One Piece, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Inuyasha.

Shoujo- As the Japanese term for little girl, shoujo refers to any anime targeted at girls. Popular shows in this genre include Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon and K-On!

Mecha- Anime featuring giant robots. The various Gundam series, Gurren Lagaan, and Neon Genesis Evangelion fall into this category.

Progressive- One of the hardest genres to pinpoint. It’s usually highlighted by extremely stylized or non-mainstream subject matter. I tend to think of this category as “artsy” anime. Some well-known titles include Haibane Renmei, Kino’s Journey, Baccano, Diamond Daydreams, Human Crossing, Paranoia Agent, Wings of Honneamise, Summer Wars, and Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo. Any film from Studio Ghibli would fall into this category as well.

Harem- An anime revolving around a single male protagonist who is surrounded by many girls vying for his affection, often including mild sexual humor. Some examples include the various Tenchi series, Ah! My GoddessLove Hina, and Negima.

Comedy- Anime designed to tickle your funny bone. Popular titles include School Rumble, Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi, Excel Saga, and Kodocha.

Sports- These titles are usually shonen series with a sports plot, yet they are numerous and deserve a category of their own. Popular titles include Slam Dunk, WhistleThe Prince of Tennis, and Eyeshield 21.

Mystery/Suspense- These titles share a detective/whodunit theme in addition to having moments of intense suspense. Popular titles include Death Note, Spiral, and Detective Conan (Case Closed).

Fantasy- Anime that revolves around a medieval European, role playing game, or mythological theme. Popular titles include Berserk, Record of Lodoss War, The Twelve Kingdoms, and Vision of Escaflowne.

Science Fiction/Cyberpunk- Anime that revolves around the problems resulting from the abuse of technology in a future setting. Popular titles include the films and television series of the Ghost in the Shell franchise, Akira, Serial Experiments Lain, Battle Angel, Appleseed, and Bubblegum Crisis.

Samurai Era- Anime which takes place during the feudal era of Japan. Popular titles include Rurouni Kenshin, Samurai Deeper Kyo, and the first half of Otogi Zoshi.

Horror- Anime that is straight up creepy. Be sure not to watch these before you go to bed or you’re guaranteed to have nightmares. Lol. Popular titles include Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni, Elfen Lied, Boogiepop Phantom, and Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga.

Kids- These anime appeal mostly to very young kids and are often based on card dueling games. Many of these are regularly shown during Saturday morning American cartoon blocks. Popular titles are Pokemon, Beyblade, Bakugan Battle Brawlers, and Yu-Gi-Oh.

This is just a small sampling of the enormity that anime encompasses. Most of these titles overlap with other genres, so it’s nearly impossible to have a single anime that appeals to one segment of the population. I could have listed another ten genres, but these pretty much give you an overview of what anime has to offer.

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