- Air - (Props to Darkevo for an awesome image)
Since it is my job to attempt to report as much awesome from Japan as humanly possible, I feel the responsibility of explaining some things also falls onto my shoulders. The following is an explanation of Japanese animation, or Anime, for the total beginner:
First off: Anime is awesome. No matter what you have heard or thought about the crazy stereotypes surrounding anime, there is probably one out there that you would really enjoy. Anime (like film as a whole) spans all genres and styles. There are many varieties that appeal to different people, and sometimes you will like a genre that is slightly outside your normal film preferences. You should also note before reading the entirety of this post that I love anime...a lot... I've been watching since I was eight years old and it was the reason I learned about Japanese culture in high school. When I was an undergraduate in college I studied abroad in Tokyo and wrote my senior thesis in anthropology on cosplay culture (dressing up like anime, video game, and manga characters, among other pop culture icons). Just thought you should know that before you continued on...
The Japanese started making animated films in the early 1900's, shortly after cartoons from America started flowing in. Today it has grown into a huge market that is drawing almost 1/3 of its profits from international sales (primarily Australia, Canada, and the US). So what does all this fancy factoid-stuff mean? WELL, it means that there is a TON of Anime out there. It unfortunately also means there is a LOT OF CRAP and now you actually have to be careful about what you buy or you could end up with a series that is total, epic, failure. In my personal opinion the worst of these epic-fails are the ones designed with the American audience in mind. The more they attempt to cater to us, the more anime loses it's awesomely unique-Japanese flavour.
Some of the best aspects of Japanese animation are directly influenced by the cultural phenomenon at work in Japanese society today (and from the past as well). Since I got my degree in Anthropology I can back this up AT GREAT LENGTH but don't feel like making you read a book right now so if you're interested just drop me an email and I can talk your ear off for a day or two. For now I will just list some basic influences that I feel are neat.
1. Shinto Mythology or Buddhist Mythology: warriors, spirits, magic, and fun stuff that often also comes with a moral or message. Inuyasha, Air, Princess Mononoke (yay for cute little kodama forest spirits!), My Neighbor Totoro, etc... (if we're going to talk about anything that mentions religious mythology then the list is pages and pages long).
- Kodama from Mononoke -
2. Technology: especially when it goes wrong, betrays everyone, and tries to take over the world. Ghost in the Shell, Macross Plus, Gundam, etc.
3. Students and School: the Japanese have to attend A LOT of school throughout their lives and the pressure to succeed in a densely populated nation makes for some serious stress and drama (and some good comedies/parodies, too!).
Now, with all that out of the way, there are two basic categories that many followers attempt to separate series and movies into. These categories are Shonen and Shojou. Please keep in mind that these genres are not perfect, and of course there are many exceptions to them (and series that will never fit in either no matter how hard you try to make them).
Shonen is primarily intended for a male audience, but really in my opinion it's for the action seekers. It often has really intense action or sports related scenes; themes of honor, heroism, determination, and teamwork, and male protagonists who have to overcome some serious problem or save the world. Female characters in these series are almost always depicted with unrealistic, barbie-like, hourglass figures, and often wear skimpy outfits that barely hold in "the jiggle." The most popular examples of shonen are Dragon Ball Z (though I will admit to you I am not really a fan of the Dragon Ball series), Naruto, Bleach, Ichigo 100%, Full Metal Alchemist, Pokemon, One Piece, The Prince of Tennis, etc. etc. etc.
- Fullmetal Alchemist -
Shojo (or Shojou, depending on who you talk to) is primarily intended for female audiences, and admittedly not a whole lot of guys like shojou anime. They often focus on relationships, female protagonists who are hopelessly in love but can't seem to catch a break, and very beautiful men and women who glitter with shiny-ness. Sometimes the plot revolves around a gender-bending romance (and by this I mean some serious questioning of your definition of gender roles). Also, outfits in these series are designed for the fashionable-female eye. They are often extravagant and elaborate. Good Shojou examples include: Air, Fruits Basket, Fushigi Yuugi, Sailor Moon, Escaflowne , etc. etc. etc.
- Fushigi Yuugi -
Anime that don't fit one category...the following are anime that I HIGHLY recommend that don't really fit one category or the other. If you're new to anime these are a great place to start.
Cowboy Beebop: This series, I would argue, is responsible for making anime as popular as it is today in America. When it ran on adult swim it gained a massive following, and is one of the greatest series out there. The story is one of a futuristic, sci-fi, western with a splash of crazy and a seriously awesome soundtrack to boot(and if you love Firefly and Serenity I'd like you to seriously take a look at this anime because I think Joss Whedon might have been a Bebop fan).
Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind: Of all of Hiyao Miyazaki's films, this one is my favorite by leaps and bounds. It's a film about a planet that once had a huge war take place upon it (which is continually alluded to as a nuclear war) and now has a toxic jungle spread across it. The people who are left belong to either the Luddite village groups or the technology group that is attempting to regain weapons of the lost world and control the remaining habitable lands. The heroine of the story, Nausicaa, is absolutely amazing, and the ending of this film actually brought me to tears. Miyazaki is just that good at writing stories.
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzimiya: This series has it all: a time traveler, an alien, an esper, a girl who can control time and space by making wishes, a boy who has absolutely no idea what he is going to do with his life but continues to ride the insanity anyways. All I can say is every episode is different, and sometimes you forget what the point of all the madness is, but once you watch an episode I guarantee you'll be hooked into Haruhi's world.
Samurai Champloo: the story of two wandering swordsman in ancient Japan set to a hip hop soundtrack and containing some serious action sequences. The plot is deeper than it sounds and I was pleasantly surprised by how good this series really is.
Gundam Wing and Fullmetal Panic: both are mecha anime that kick some serious butt. Gundam Wing has an amazing political intrigue-based plot and Fullmetal Panic is about a soldier learning to be a typical high school student and protecting a girl named Kaname while still also being a soldier for the organization MYTHRIL. Both also contain some entertaining mecha technology and fight scenes, which make the series 9 levels of awesome.
Blood, Blood, and More Blood: If you just want anime to creep you out, confuse you, and/or altogether disturb the hell out of you, I recommend the following:
Akira: Yeah. It's disturbing, but it's also a masterpiece. Psychic beings who have too much power, a really fast motorcycle, and lots of death in post-nuclear, apocalyptic Tokyo. Go for it. I dare you.
Ninja Scroll: This one has some serious violence in it. Swords + Blood = Ninja Scroll.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: The ending to this series will make you say, "Wait, WHAT?"
Death Note: it's just...strange...but also entertaining. What do you think would happen if you could kill people by writing their names in a notebook?
So there you have it! All the basics for you to start watching some anime. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go think about what anime I'm going to write about next. I'm planning on letting you all in on some more obscure anime that I think deserves more attention. There will also be a post at some point about art styles; advanced themes and influences; and anime that contain things that seem copy-pasted from somewhere else (remember what I said about Top Gun and Macross Plus? Yeah, that).
Signing out for now though...
- Lady Lara Jones -
References for authentic fact-checking lovingly taken from: "Anime Essentials: Everything a Fan Needs to Know" by Gilles Poitras