❉ An Anime rundown for newcomers. It’s not just Pokémon and tentacles.
“These lists are hugely incomplete. But I hope that this will help people curious about anime dip their toe in the weird waters of robots punching planets in half and talking animals making contact with high school girls.”
Anime seems to have become popular the world over recently. With Japanese animation making its way to Western film festivals and awards shows, it’s becoming evident that there’s something more to it than just Pokémon and tentacles. (Although, yes, those exist, too.)
Giving newcomers to anime a rundown of what it is, is difficult; does one focus on the history? The tropes? What ‘counts’ as anime? Any of those would take ages to define, and still might not convey a real sense of what’s going on in the art form.
Instead, when asked to do an intro to anime for We Are Cult, I opted to dive right in and pull out some samples: Five lists of five things to know. These lists are hugely incomplete. There are dozens of subgenres, hundreds of creators, and so many series that a newcomer could enjoy. But I hope that, at the very least, this will help people curious about anime dip their toe in the weird waters of robots punching planets in half and talking animals making contact with high school girls.
Five Genres to Learn:
Magical Girl: An offshoot of the 1969 series Sally the Witch, which was a response to the popularity of the Japanese dub of Bewitched, the magical girl genre began as sitcom-style supernatural antics. In the 1990s it began to evolve into a superhero subgenre, and in 2017 magical girl series range from children’s shows to gritty deconstructions. (Sailor Moon, Madoka Magica)
Mecha: Thanks to the mecha (giant robot) genre, we have films like Pacific Rim. The first giant robot anime was Tetsujin 28-go (reworked in the West as Gigantor). In the 70s and 80s, the genre divided further into super robots – logic-defying behemoths with a major focus on action and explosions – and military-style ‘real robots.’ (Gurren Lagann, Mazinger Z)
Gag Anime: Series more in the style of Western traditional cartoons, with episodes of usually 15 minutes or less. Continuity is low and bends to the humour. Some gag anime have gone on for decades. (Detroit Metal City, Atashin’chi)
Sports Anime: These sport-centred series tend to have a formula: naive natural is taken in by tough, damaged coach and faces off against pedigreed rival, usually with ludicrously soul-crushing training. (Aim for the Ace!, Touch)
Shonen Anime: Shonen literally means ‘boy’ – but shonen series have an appeal across ages and genders, despite being made for a male school-aged audience. Generally they are very long, action-packed, and feature a massive cast of characters across many years of their life. (Dragon Ball, Naruto)
Five Creators to Know:
Osamu Tezuka: The granddaddy of anime and manga – as in he literally created the art form. Tezuka was a close friend of Walt Disney, and both Disney and Warner influenced his art style and storytelling. (That’s the real reason anime character have big eyes!) He was the mastermind behind Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, but many of his works ran much darker and more adult.
Go Nagai: A protege of Tezuka, ‘Uncle Go’ singlehandedly reinvented the mecha genre with Mazinger Z and Getter Robo by being the first to put the pilots inside the robots. He also introduced the idea of transforming heroines with his risque Cutie Honey in 1973. To this day, Go Nagai still reinvents his own work every few years.
Hideaki Anno: A soft-spoken Ultraman fanboy turned animator, Anno was the artistic genius who helped to co-found Gainax. Under his belt are well-known titles like Gunbuster and Evangelion. As of the late 2010s, he’s left Gainax to form Studio Khara, which he owns with his wife.
Rumiko Takahashi: The queen of high school paranormal rom-coms, Takahashi is renowned for extremely long stories and even longer cast lists. Her more famous offerings include Ranma ½ (about a martial arts student who turns into a girl whenever he’s splashed with water) and Inuyasha (a feudal fairy tale).
Makoto Shinkai: Shinkai is a relative youngster on this list, only in his early 40s, but he’s already being called ‘the next Miyazaki’ – a title he rejects. His recent film your name. has broken records all around the world, following on other popular titles like Five Centimeters Per Second and Voices of a Distant Star.
Five Studios to Watch:
Gainax: The aforementioned Anno helped start this studio, built by ambitious art school students. Their first project, the opening for Japan’s DaiCon sci-fi con, still remains a classic in the anime community. In recent years business has been difficult, but in their heyday they put out films and series that became legendary. A heavily fictionalized account of their formation can be seen in Otaku no Video; a less ficitonalized version in Blue Blazes.
Kyoto Animation: KyoAni for short. While this studio has been around for quite some time, they rocketed to popularity with their adaptation of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Their shows alternate between high school comedies and young adult paranormal stories (sometimes both together), and they often choose smaller prefectures to set their stories in.
Sunrise: The studio that releases Gundam and then uses that money to make other shows. In the 1990s they were best known for the ‘brave series,’ a robot franchise originally started to sell Transformers repaints. Now, they’re known for shows that throw a wrench in mid-season and blindside the viewers.
Studio Ghibli: You’ve likely heard of Miyazaki, the director of Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke. Ghibli is his studio, though it houses many other creators (including his own son). Ghibli tends to turn out warm, family-friendly films with a heavy dose of nostalgia.
Studio Trigger: The spiritual successor of Gainax, founded by kinetic key animator Hiroyuki Imaishi. Trigger trolled fans with their inaugural release Inferno Cop, a crudely puppeted YouTube series, then blew them out of the water with Little Witch Academia and Kill la Kill. At present, they’re gearing up to do an adaptation of the critically-acclaimed short Dragon Dentist.
Five Franchises to Love:
Lupin III: This sexy, action-packed series is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The title character, the grandson of Arséne Lupin, is a thief with a heart of gold and a wide array of sports jackets. With sharpshooter Jigen, vengeful samurai Goemon, and girlfrenemy Fujiko, he scours the globe for legendary treasure while avoiding Interpol’s Inspector Zenigata.
Macross: The original Super Dimension Fortress Macross formed the central arc of the Robotech series, but there’s far more to the story than just Rick and Lisa. A new entry in the series comes out every few years with new love triangles, new space battles, and massive new soundtracks. In the Macross universe, music is a powerful weapon – and singers and rock stars go into battle side-by-side with fighter pilots to protect the human race.
Sailor Moon: Naoko Takeuchi’s spinoff of Code Name Sailor V has become one of the most popular anime the world has ever seen. In the past 25 years it’s had two anime adaptations, multiple video games, a live-action TV series, and a running series of stage musicals.
Gundam: Sunrise’s moneymaker is a perfect fit for fans of political intrigue and stories about the horrors of war. Not all the series fit together, though – there is a ‘Universal Century’ continuity that forms the core of the franchise, but many series exist within their own universe. Gundam is so popular, even Syd Mead has stepped in to design one of its robots!
Doraemon: One of Japan’s flagship children’s shows, Doraemon stars a schoolboy named Nobita who befriends an earless robot cat from the future – the title character. Together, they make use of Doraemon’s endless supply of bizarre futuristic gadgets to help Nobita get out of doing his homework… and to help people on occasion. A new movie comes out approximately once a year, and a revival of the stage show is coming soon.
Five Titles to Try:
Cowboy Bebop: A fabulous show with a strange title. If you’re a Firefly fan, you may feel right at home here. Bounty hunter Spike Spiegel and his crew – a cyborg, a grifter, a 12-year-old hacker, and a hyperintelligent Corgi – cruise the universe to a brazzy jazz soundtrack. Some episodes are funny, some are heartbreaking, but all are exciting and entertaining.
Lupin III: Castle of Cagliostro: The second film in the aforementioned Lupin III franchise, directed by Hayao Miyazaki before he created Studio Ghibli. Miyazaki’s Lupin is a bit more warmhearted, a bit less lecherous, as he rescues the young princess Clarisse from an arranged marriage. If you’ve played Cliff Hanger, some of the scenes may look a bit familiar to you.
Yuri!!! on ICE: A new series that’s taking the world by storm in real time. This series focuses on the world of competitive figure skating, and depicts it so realistically that figure skaters the world over have begun performing routines from it. The animation, it goes without saying, is absolutely gorgeous.
Azumanga Daioh: If you’re looking for something a bit sillier – especially if you have young kids in your home – check out this easygoing series about the weird world of Japanese students. Brilliant ten-year-old Chiyo skips grades and finds herself in high school with a new set of older friends, including a cat-lover whom cats just love to attack, and the living embodiment of cloud cuckooland.
Wings of Honneamise: One of Gainax’s first offerings, and old but less-talked-about classic. On a distant planet that’s a bit like Earth, humans begin putting together their own space program. The aesthetic is beautiful – inspired by many cultures but clearly its own creation. And the plot is tense, intelligent, and fascinating.
Of course, the best way to learn more about anime is to just jump in and try some – ask a trusted friend for recommendations, or see what pops up as recommended on your favourite streaming site. Remember that anime isn’t a genre – it’s a medium with dozens of genres within it. And one of them may just click with you!
❉ Kara Dennison is a writer, illustrator, self confessed geek and convention organizer.