The Japanese storytelling art form known as anime isn’t new to the West. In 2003, Spirited Away became the first hand-drawn and non-English film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Yet it’s only in recent years that anime has truly taken the world by storm, inspiring other creatives such as Kanye West in ways that help capture the public’s imagination. We’re not surprised: Anime’s best characters grow on you, just like the industry itself. In today’s Daily Dose, we dive into the world of this fascinating Japanese art form that’s unlike any other.
Pallabi Munsi, Reporter
what’s the big deal?
1. Once Upon a Time
Released more than a century ago, the first anime film made by Oten Shimokawa was sketched with chalk and ran just five minutes long. Much of the early history of Japan’s anime industry has been lost owing to the destruction of the country’s film studios and theaters in 1923’s Great Kanto earthquake, followed by World War II and continued aging and disintegration.
2. Anime vs. Manga
While both originated in Japan and are closely related, the two are different forms of storytelling. Manga is the Japanese style of comic books and graphic novels, while anime refers to Japanese animation. Many of the most successful anime productions — films or series — are based on manga books. While manga established the roots of this style during the post-WWII period, it was anime that made a broader global audience aware of the complexity of Japan’s visual culture.
3. The Road Abroad
How did the anime industry become popular in the West? Mizuko Ito, an editor of Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World, believes that American and European children from military and expat business families based in Japan started circulating bootlegged videotapes of anime to their peers back home in the early 1980s. As Japan’s economy grew into the world’s second largest, Japanese language classes became common in the West, and anime and manga emerged as educational tools. In the 1990s, a Japanese consortium including Nintendo, Game Freak and Creatures introduced the world to Pokémon, a video game series featuring hundreds of fictional cartoonlike creatures. The group is now the most valuable media franchise ever.
4. The Multibillion-Dollar Industry
In 2017, the anime industry set a new sales record of $19.8 billion on the back of seven years of steady growth. Exports of anime series and films have tripled since 2014 — streaming giants such as Netflix and Amazon must be thanked — and show no signs of slowing. The anime market is expected to reach $36.3 billion by 2025.
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The villain could be an alien or a renegade ninja. But the idealistic hero in shonen anime is always a young boy — the word shonen means “few years.” It’s also the target audience of this style, with themes of action, adventure and even romance all told from an adolescent male perspective. In fact, it encompasses a range of subgenres: sports and science fiction, fantasy and horror. Some of the best-known shonen anime includes Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Akame ga Kill! and One Piece.
Aimed exclusively at young women, shojo anime explores themes of high school romance, companionship, friendship and comedy. And even though these particular stories are told from a teen girl’s perspective, a 2020 survey conducted in the United States found that anime movies are generally more popular among men than women. Our shojo favorites? Ouran High School Host Club and Kaichou Wa Maid-Sama. The style was inspired by early 20th century writer Nobuko Yoshiya who broke conventions in Japan by living with another woman and championing feminism.
Often dark, seinen is a more sophisticated version of shonen that’s targeted at young men. It can also be political — shonen usually isn’t — with Marvel-scale destruction and characters drawn out just as vividly. Seinen is at times confused with shonen but is fundamentally rooted far more in reality. Our recommendations: One Punch Man and Berserk.
You might not know the word — which means “directed at children” — but you’re almost certainly familiar with its most famous incarnation: Hello Kitty, with her characteristic red bow, yellow nose and no mouth. Kodomomuke is anime for kids, with simpler, moralistic story lines. Check out Doraemon and Anpanman.
Meet the filmmaker changing the narrative. Oge Egbuonu is one of 2020’s most powerful voices with her debut documentary exploring the power of Black women, In(Visible) Portraits, making waves in the film world. But perhaps even more remarkable than her work is her path to success. Tune in to this must-watch episode to learn how the film industry’s hottest rising star defied all expectations.
It is a masterpiece every way you look at it — and widely considered one of the most influential works of anime, ever. The story of two youths in a motorbike gang who set out to stop a dangerous military project to deploy telekinetic humans as weapons, the 1988 film by Katsuhiro Otomo is based on his serialized manga released earlier that decade. The story is brilliant; the technical skills and attention to detail breathtaking. This anime relied on 24 drawings per second of screen time, twice the normal frequency. A remastered version of the classic is set to hit U.K. screens this week. After all, the threats of killer robots and nuclear catastrophe are as real today as they were three decades ago.
2. Astro Boy
It has animated (pun intended) audiences since the 1960s and remains a key part of Japanese popular culture. Take a train to Takadanobaba in the popular Shinjuku neighborhood, and you’ll hear the Astro Boy theme song playing at the station each time a train leaves. This classic is based on the cartoon by Osamu Tezuka, widely considered the “father of manga,” that became a must-read for children. It follows the story of an android boy and his interactions with humans in a futuristic world. A Hollywood CG movie adaptation of Astro Boy was released in 2009.
3. Cowboy Bebop
To many, director Shinichiro Watanabe’s science fiction masterpiece Cowboy Bebop is the best anime ever. An amalgam of cyberpunk intrigue, martial arts and noir cool, it has a universally relatable existential — and traumatic — storyline. If that’s not enough to convince you, watch it for Yoko Kanno’s magnificent, jazz-heavy soundtrack and score for the 26-episode run of this anime classic. In 2021, a live-action adaptation remake will hit Netflix.
4. Galaxy Express 999
If you’re looking for an introduction to the world of classic 1970s animation, Galaxy Express 999 is ideal. Created by Leiji Matsumoto — known for his sci-fi works like Space Battleship Yamato and Space Pirate Captain Harlock — Galaxy Express 999 follows a poor boy from Earth named Tetsuro as he boards the titular train, which supposedly leads to the Andromeda Galaxy. There, even the poor are able to receive mechanical bodies — a sign of wealth. The show’s main tension comes from a desire for immortality that drives its roving cast, touching on issues such as class and consciousness. Just last year, the series was drawn into controversy when 69-year-old Tomonori Kogawa, who served as a chief animation director for the show, sold some of the artwork on Yahoo! Auctions without permission from director Matsumoto, causing a rift between the two men.
5. My Neighbor Totoro
This 1988 Japanese animated fantasy film, written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki, follows the lives of two young sisters after they move into a new house in the country and discover friendly wood spirits that can only be seen by children. In case you’re already a Totoro fan, make your way to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, set to open in Los Angeles on April 30, 2021, when it unveils the Hayao Miyazaki exhibition in collaboration with Studio Ghibli, which Miyazaki founded. Visitors will be able to explore the filmmaker’s six-decade career, with original imageboards, character designs, layouts, backgrounds and posters, including pieces on view outside of Japan for the first time, as well as large-scale projections of film clips and immersive environments.
6. Spirited Away
Another Miyazaki classic, this story starts with 10-year-old Chihiro being driven to a new home in the Japanese countryside. But after taking a wrong turn down a wooded path, Chihiro and her parents discover an abandoned amusement park with a stall containing an assortment of food. To her surprise, Chihiro’s parents begin to eat and are transformed into pigs. She then takes a job working in a bathhouse for spirits run by an evil witch in an attempt to rescue her parents.
7. Speed Racer
No, not the 2008 movie that’s considered one of the biggest flops of all time. I’m talking about the original anime that in 1967 gave a generation of Americans its first glimpse of this Japanese art form, leaving millions craving more. At the time, American cartoons were shabby versions of comic books held in front of cameras. By contrast, Japanese anime was clever and complex, detailed and delightful, gray and grand all at the same time. And no show mastered those qualities better than Speed Racer, with its demon on wheels challenging competitors in every episode. The main character’s look was inspired by Elvis Presley in Viva Las Vegas and his car by James Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger.
First published in 1999 in the 43rd issue of Japan’s Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, Naruto is a manga by Masashi Kishimoto that was adapted into a popular anime TV series. It follows the story of Naruto Uzumaki, a loud, hyperactive ninja in training and his perpetual search for approval and recognition. Fans last week celebrated the franchise’s 21st anniversary.
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His trademark green bangs hide a split personality. He can be diabolical, with unmatched knife skills. But he’s also one of six men who seek to help the nameless female lead of the anime show Amnesia regain her memory. Unlike the others, though, Ukyo wants the woman gone yet ends up saving her from being run over by trains. You might think Ukyo is psychologically tormented, but who wouldn’t be if they saw the one they love die over and over again?
How can you not fall in love with a fallen-angel-turned-pop-star? This villain of Kamisama Kiss — known for his charm and embarrassing bad-boy behavior — is arrogant and selfish with cannibalistic tendencies. But his social prowess hides a lonely heart, and when he eventually leaves the dark side, you end up rooting for him.
In Seven Deadly Sins, traditional roles are reversed. The “Sin Knights” are actually heroes and the “Holy Knights” that oppose them are the villains. But as with all the best anime, things get even more complicated, and Guila — who doesn’t mind taking out a few children for an evil cause — is at the heart of the battle between hero and baddie. Guila’s desire to protect her younger brother and rescue her father helps us forgive her. Plus, love wins out after she unwittingly falls in love with one of the “Sins.”
While Dragon Ball is full of noteworthy villains, King Piccolo — an entity of pure malice — is in a league of his own. Piccolo poses a threat to Goku, the main protagonist, his friends and the entire world. But perhaps Piccolo’s greatest achievement is the creation of his own reincarnation, Piccolo Jr., who progresses from an evildoer to a reluctant antihero to a faithful ally of Goku.
The highest-grossing anime ever, this 2016 stunner is a hopeful coming-of-age narrative about a Tokyo high school student and a rural girl who magically swap bodies. They then help each other navigate their teenage romances and develop a spiritual kinship even though they’ve never actually met. In Japan, it spawned an entire pop subculture, with everything from dating events to Your Name-themed merch — and a live-action Hollywood version is now in the works.
2. Attack on Titan
This is not your traditional anime. Instead of sparkly ponies and blushing maidens, the action is dark, scary and decidedly ugly: The animation style is stark, the colors muted and the characters drawn in simple slashing lines. But what makes this show addictive is its story — that of Eren and his orphaned friends who sign up as cadets and undertake journeys for vengeance, freedom and self-discovery.
Released in January, Darwin’s Game centers on 17-year-old Kaname Sudō, who, after accepting a mysterious invite from a recently deceased friend, is thrust into a supernatural blood sport known only as Darwin’s Game. Every player has a “Sigil,” or special power, to help them defend against murderous attacks. While everyone in the series is mostly concerned with staying alive, there’s a mystery running in the background: Who runs the game?
In recent years, the fashion world has started wearing its passion for anime on its sleeve. At Louis Vuitton’s spring 2016 show, Nicolas Ghesquière introduced the world to the cult classic Neon Genesis Evangelion. Eighteen months later, he opened a show with the theme song from Ghost in the Shell, an anime cyberpunk favorite. In 2017, Supreme launched a series of Akira-branded shirts that set off a new trend in streetwear. This year, New York designer Sandy Liang covered garments from her fall collection with anime eyes, and Megan Thee Stallion launched a line of merch in collaboration with the anime distributor Crunchyroll. Tempted? You’ll find affordable anime fashions at Spencer’s, Imouri and other stores.
2. Going AI the Way
The coronavirus might have left Japan’s animation industry in limbo, but some startups in Japan are not ready to back down. In fact, they’re seeing an opportunity and embracing artificial intelligence. Tokyo-based startup RADIUS5, for instance, is now using AI to remaster what were fuzzy animations into high-definition content. Meanwhile Mantra, another startup in Tokyo, is relying on a reading algorithm that uses linguistic data from multiple manga books to rapidly generate natural translations.