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What is Anime?

Used with permission of AnimeInfo.org. Originally by Frank Sanchez.

If you've ever wondered exactly what anime was, or if you're completely new to the anime movement, look no farther than this basic class from AnimeInfo.org's Anime University. Knowing the fundamentals of anime is the first building block towards understanding exactly why anime hair knows no limit when it comes to color, why international networks sometimes edit anime, and why some of those few trick or treaters at Halloween look like schoolgirls that escaped from a finishing school.

This simple course will teach you the basics of Japanese animation, with a brief history, some of the most basic things to know, and a starting point for first-time consumption. Frank gives you a basic tour of the genre using the most basic of terms. By the time you finish with this first course, you'll have a small working knowledge of the most essential selling points of anime. It won't really make you a anime "guru", but you'll definitely not leave the course as an anime "dummy"!

Origin of Anime

So what is anime anyway? For the curious, the novice, or the anime fan just wanting to refine their knowledge, knowing what anime is and what's involved in understanding it is essential to properly perceiving (and possibly enjoying) it. For every potential new anime fan, awareness of the term "anime" is different. Some people may have only heard of the word as it refers to that "weird" animation that one sees on TV that doesn't seem to follow regular "cartoon" conventions. Others may have had exposure to it in some form or fashion, having seen movies such as "Akira" and/or "Ghost in the Shell" and basing their knowledge off of that. Still others may have been exposed to it without even knowing it ("Thundercats and Transformers" are two examples of animated shows originating in Japan, which technically make them anime). Whatever your knowledge, this course will help you learn a little bit more about anime. You may find that some of your preceptions may be right, and others may be completely wrong. Either way, we hope you'll learn something.

Let's begin with some simple terminology.

Anime (AH-nee-may or AN-nee-may)
n. - Literal origin from the French, (short for "animation"). Refers to "Japanese Animation", a genre/medium that has its roots in the 1960's when the Japanese began making television versions of their version of comics (manga). Unlike the "cartoon", America and other culture's counterpart to anime, much of the Japanese animation shown is one of deeper, sometimes more mature themes, including developed storylines, linear plots, and aspects of violence, sex, drama, and comedy (not unlike live-action films in the States). There are different kinds of anime and each kind embraces adifferent age group or group of people. In Japan, the medium is as much respected as the "live-action" genre of movies. In other cultures, anime has achieved a mostly cult following, though with the mainstream acceptance and awareness of such anime as Pokemon, Dragonball Z, Tenchi Muyo, and Perfect Blue, the anime movement continues to gain in strength and visibility.
ex. -  "Did you watch that new Evangelion? It's the epitomy of what anime is.
see also: Japanimation

Sounds complicated, right? Well, hopefully by the time you get to the end of our lessons you'll be able to intimately understand every part of this definition, and a little bit more. First, let's delve into the history behind anime.

Like the definition says, Japanese animation began in the 1960's. Popular manga, or Japanese comics, had been the norm for a few years, and, being influenced by the works of Walt Disney and others back in the West, the Japanese decided to try their own hand at animation. The picture on the left is taken from "Tetsuwan Atom" (or "Astro Boy"), the first well-known and popular anime series created by Osamu Tezuka, known to many as an anime/manga pioneer. The series went on to be internationally acclaimed, and a new genre was born in Japan. Studios such as Toei and Mushi Productions were established, and more and more animated series began appearing in Japan. Much of it, however, didn't really make it onto international shores until the 70's and early 80's, when shows such as Speed Racer, Robotech, and Mobile Suit Gundam became fan favorites not only in Japan, but also in areas around the world.

Japanese animation, even in the beginning, had a distinct look and feel to it that was different from other animations like it (most notably the "cartoon" of the West, which had been in existence long before anime). These differences are ultimately what separates the terminology of "anime" versus "cartoon". While technically all animation could be considered "cartoons", the traits and cultural definition of what is considered "anime" is very different than that of the "cartoon". In fact, there are things present in anime that make it very distinct and unique from the traditional "cartoon", and we're going to take a look at them - starting with the "anime" drawing style.

The Anime Drawing Style

The style in which anime is drawn is very unique and not really found in other types of animated art. It is this style which standardizes most of the anime in Japan and one that has changed very little since it's inception. Part of understanding what anime is involves how it is drawn, mostly because it is the first step in perceiving what makes anime so different. Here I'll try to break down some of the most fundamental parts of the anime drawing style:

Large Eyes: By far the most prominent feature of typical anime characters are the large, saucer-sized eyes that they possess. In fact, a starting point for some anime/manga artists is the eyes, because of their importance in the overall presentation of the character. Specifically, there are several reasons why the eyes are so large. Originally, when the first anime/manga artist, Osamu Tezuka drew characters, he was influenced by the West's slight exaggeration on features such as the eyes. Tezuka mimicked this practice of Western cartoons, specifically choosing the large eyes as a way of conveying feeling and emotion. This is a trend that carries over into the latest anime today (as featured on the left by Kyoko Otonashi of "Maison Ikkoku"). With larger eyes, an anime character is able to display all sorts of emotions, from extreme happiness to burning anger, and so on. Another reason for large eyes on anime characters is to convey friendliness or openness in expression. Small eyes on an anime character usually are hostile and cold, without much emotion, and are sometimes employed on "evil" characters (villains) to increase their aura of "unfriendliness".

Multi-Color Natural Hair: Another prominent feature of the anime drawing style is the use of normally unnatural hair colors for anime characters. Anime character hair color comes in just about every color known to mankind, including but not limited to blue, brown, red, black, purple, green, white, teal, and pink. Like the large eyes, there is a reason for the crayon box of hair color. One reason is to specifically tell one character from another easily and with little difficulty. An anime/manga artist may or may not have a consistent scheme for drawing their characters - for example, drawing all the male characters the same and all the female characters the same as well. By assigning different hair color (and styles) to each of the characters, the artist makes it much easier for the audience to tell them apart, as well as increase the uniqueness of each character (pretty easy to tell the characters apart in Magic Knight Rayearth pictured on the right, huh?). Another possible reason for the multi-colored hair would be to highlight personality - for example, the red-haired females in anime tend towards the strong, brash, powerful personalities (Asuka from "Neon Genesis Evangelion", female Ranma from "Ranma 1/2", and Shiris from "Record of Lodoss War" are a few examples of this. While color of hair does not always necessarily indicate personality type, it has still nevertheless been used (and still is used at times) as such.

Occasional Cute Super-Deformity (SD): This does not occur in all anime, but is sometimes employed, usually as a humorous or comedic depiction of what may be a normal, serious, character. Anime characters are sometimes drawn and animated in smaller-than-usual style and put in humourous situations. For example - at times, a "normally" drawn character may be suddenly turned into the "small" drawn character in order to show and increase comedic reactions and expressions to situations. Characters drawn in this way are referred to as "super-deformed" (or "SD" for short). Comedy has been the main function of the "SD" style, but different presentation, compactness, and simple "cute" factor are also reasons for anime characters being sometimes drawn in "super-deformed" style. The Ryouga (from Ranma 1/2) picture on the left that has pretty much become my signature "avatar" for use on these webpages is an example of the "SD" style.

There are many more drawing and animation techniques unique to anime, but these are some of the most basic of traits that you will need to know in order to understand anime. Now that you've got that down (right?) it's time to move onto discovering some common trends in anime. In other words, now that we know how anime characters are typically drawn, what usually happens with these characters in your average anime?

Common Trends in Anime

Along with its unique drawing style, anime also has several other things which make it an appealing and unique medium. While there are many of these traits or "trends" in anime (definitely too numerous to mention), I'm going to be focusing on several things which seem to recur again in specific anime series or recur in the medium in general. Knowing these will give you an idea of what to expect when you're actually watching anime. Here's some of the most important of trends in anime:

Anime Subgenres: Anime itself is not uniform in type - like many things, it can be divided into lots of different categories, or subgenres, each with their own properties and and practices. The freedom of the anime medium (and of the originating Japanese culture) allows for a greater range of works to be created that are considered to be "anime". For example, there are anime shows aimed at young children, adults, girls, and boys. There are also many different types of shows as well. For example, Neon Genesis Evangelion, of which an image is pictured at left, is partly a "mecha" anime - action-oriented anime that feature giant mechanical robots or machines (mecha). Other types of anime include "shoujo" (young girl) anime, aimed at a young female audience, and typically containing themes of romance and drama, and "hentai" (perverted) anime which are more adult and sexually oriented. In any case, a common misconception that some can make is that anime is all of one type or variation, and may base opinions about it from that. After the explaination of different types and subgenres above, I doubt you'll make the same mistake, right?

Recurring Plot and Deep Storyline: In Japan, anime is considered equal to "live-action" movies, and as such, is not restricted, as most Western animated features are, to being fit into a mold of being "just for kids". The practices and trends of live-action media and film are definitely applicable to many, if not all, anime, and is one of the main attractions of anime to potential fans. One can see comedies, dramas, action, and more in anime, just as much as one would see in looking at live-action films. The best effect of anime's equality in Japan to live-action, however, is the use of plot and storyline in anime series. Most anime series are not "stand-alone" when it comes to a series of episodes. The types of deep, involving plots that could be woven into some of your favorite movies and TV shows are things that could possibly be present in most anime one could pick up. To take the Neon Genesis Evangelion example again, Evangelion is a "mecha" anime, but it also features a deep story involving conspiracy, betrayal, and self-pity for its characters. Such depth is usually only reserved for the best of TV series or movies, but in anime, anything goes.

Cultural References and Insights: If you're not originally or currently a part of the Japanese culture, than the many aspects of it that you will see in anime are definitely more intriguing. While they are usually presented quite subtly and as a part of the "normal" practice of things, someone watching a certain anime series may still pick up these cultural references and may or may not understand them. Some of these include why a person holds their hands in prayer briefly after eating a meal, why people take off their footwear before entering a house, and why a class misbehavior punishment involves holding buckets of water outside a classroom. While it's not necessary to completely understand all these little insights, it does help to know that they're there, as well as why they are done in the first place. Anime is also a good reflection of the Japanese culture in general and what is tolerated or not tolerated. For example, the Japanese are a little more free with the idea of nudity, and some anime have no problem showing a female character's breasts or chest. This isn't so say that this is part of all anime, but nevertheless it's there.

Exaggerated Expressions/Hand Movements: The large-eyed characters and designs that are typical in many anime are a big help when it comes to conveying emotion or action. In general, these are also further exaggerated in extreme situations (such as an anime character gettng beaten up) in order to give the audience a concrete idea of what the characters are feeling. Anime with comedic elements, such as "Rurouni Kenshin" on the right, use the exaggeration a bit more frequently than other types of anime might. An anime character may scratch their head when embarrassed, make a "V for Victory" sign with their fingers, or generate a large "sweat drop" on their heads when they are confused or exasperated. These are all a part of anime and what it has to offer to its audience - characters with lively animation and extreme expression that entertains and delights.

Well, if you've gone through all the lessons so far, you know the drawing style. I certainly hope that this guide will help broaden your anime horizon and get you started on the path of anime fandom. Anime is an intriguing and interesting medium, followed by many people around the world, and my hope is that someday it will be widely accepted as such.