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Decoding Anime: An Introduction

Anime. Depending on who you ask, it’s either the exclusive realm of uber-nerds, or the geek gateway drug. With all of the robots, busty ladies, and those humongous glistening eyes, anime can seem incomprehensible—not to mention that there’s so damn much of it. For newcomers, the choice is often overwhelming.

However, once you know the basics, you’ll find that the world of anime has a little something for everyone. Just like American animation, anime is a medium, not a genre. There’s something out there that you’ll like, guaranteed; you just have to know what you’re looking for, and how to find it.

Where does anime come from? Japan, right?

This might seem like a big “duh” moment but, yes, Japan is the dominant producer and consumer of anime and manga. However, South Korea is another big player, and the United States has some skin in the game thanks to popular animated series like Avatar: The Last Airbender.

I’m sorry, manga?

Most anime starts life as manga, a serialized comic that’s produced in little chunks and distributed in weekly (or monthly) magazines. Once enough installments of the comic have been released, the pieces are compiled and sold as books. If there’s enough interest from other countries, a manga series might be translated into other languages, including English.

Viz and TOKYOPOP are examples of companies that publish manga in the US.

What are the different types of manga/anime?

Like most forms of media, there are many different genres of manga and anime, including comedies, yaoi (or boy love/homosexual romance), and sci-fi. However, generally speaking, most anime can be broken into two main categories: shojo (for young women) and shonen (for young men).

Remember, these categories describe an anime or manga’s target audience (and the type of magazine that the manga appears in), not its content. That being said, here are some of the general differences:

Shojo usually has smooth, pretty animation, and features stories that are character driven. Typically, shojo anime follows female protagonists (usually high schoolers) whose emotional arcs revolve around their love interests.

Shonen is more action-driven, and the artwork has a rougher, more angular look. A shonen anime usually tells adventure stories, featuring a male protagonist (or a team of males) who fights evil. Most of the time, the hero gets the (well-endowed, tightly costumed) girl at the end.

Muddying the waters a bit, there are three other, less common types of manga and anime:

Josei stories are aimed at adult women. As such, Josei anime usually tackles darker subject matter, and depicts more realistic relationships. Sex plays a large role in traditional josei stories.

Seinin is aimed at male teenagers and young adults; this particular style is often considered porn by anime newbies. However, seinin just takes shonen to its logical extreme: explicit sexual content, more violent action sequences, and rampant psychological trauma.

Kodomomuke targets children. This is the most innocent and simple style of anime; think Hello Kitty.

Why divide anime by gender?

The short answer? Marketing, marketing, marketing. The different classifications make a good starting point for beginners, but in reality, anime and manga genres are incredibly fluid. Sometimes shojo series involve huge battles between good and evil, exploring themes like sexuality and independence. Sometimes, shonen anime examins the complexities of identity, family, and friendship, using action sequences to tie everything together thematically.

Basically, aside from using these genres to locate the type of stories that you’re interested in, you can pretty much ignore the gender divide. Experienced anime watchers and manga readers do.

I’ve heard that anime has some, uh, problems depicting women.

Oh boy. There are issues, absolutely. If I see one more size FFF woman in short shorts and a v-neck, I might pull my hair out.

However, anime also has some great portrayals of women. In shojo stories, the female characters are often quite complex, and women often hold positions of political or economic power. Sometimes, there are even honest-to-God female anti-heroes.

One more point: despite the gender issues, anime included well-rounded gay and lesbian characters much earlier than American network television did.

Some anime has subtitles. Some is dubbed into English. Which is better?

That’s a personal preference. I don’t mind reading while watching, so subbing—preserving the original voice track, and adding English subtitles—will always be better for me. I think that the Japanese voice actors who work on anime are some of the best out there. Those people can convey lots of emotion in just a few, short words, and some of the original languages’ poetry just doesn’t come through in colloquialized English translations.

On the other hand, many people have a hard time focusing on both subtitles and images at the same time. English voice actors aren’t exactly slackers, either. Really, it’s up to you. Experiment, and see what you like best.

So, where do I start?

We’ve got a list coming next week, but you can also check out The Anime News Network for recommendations. America’s so-called “anime boom” started in the late 1990’s and ended in the mid 2000’s, so for newcomers, series that premiered during that timeframe probably hit the sweet spot. If you need to know how to watch the shows, take a look at some of the legitimate streaming services, like Funimation.

Happy Hunting!


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