Manga and anime are perhaps Japan’s biggest cultural export – and they make up one of the most recognisable art styles on the planet.
Since the nineties, when everyone in the western world was suddenly talking about Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Dragon Ball Z, anime has become something of a household term. Something completely associated with Japan and something that has become one of the biggest cultural trends among children and young adults ever since.
Yet, the world of Japanese anime is a lot more varied and complex than we in the west might realise. ‘Anime’ only in the west refers to Japanese animation as a whole. In Japanese culture, anime is actually a term for any mass-produced animation, Japanese or non-Japanese.
And, importantly, in Japan, anime is not just a culture for kids. Rather, anime series like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Attack on Titan, Death Note, and Cowboy Bebop were all hugely successful amongst adults too. Indeed, many of these series were actually intended for adults – developing complex themes and plotlines and presenting three-dimensional and realistic characters.
This is the beauty of anime. It can range from the shoujo anime shows such as the ‘magical girl’ series like Cardcaptor Sakura to the poetic and haunting anime movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.
It’s an incredibly rich culture – so let’s take a dive in.
Most anime comes originally from the manga series.
In the west, we associate anime with Japan and – almost – Japan with anime. It’s a massive part of their cultural industry – and is perhaps the country’s third-largest industry. This makes it, obviously, pretty mega, bringing in nearly twenty billion dollars a year.
Yet, the success of anime across the world is one of the most amazing things about this genre. Apparently, sixty percent of all animated television shows across the world come from Japan. The anime industry in China is absolutely huge, whilst, in the west, various channels and services distributing anime have made it ever more popular.
Over the years, channels like Cartoon Network – with Adult Swim and Toonami – and now anime streaming sites such as Crunchyroll and Funimation have brought this medium to an ever-growing audience. These days, over one hundred thousand people attend America’s annual anime convention.
Yet, so the history goes, Japanese anime was originally marketed incredibly aggressively to a global audience – precisely because there weren’t enough anime fans in Japan.
But, now, anime is pretty much everywhere in that country. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, six of the ten highest-grossing movies were anime, whilst Spirited Away remains the biggest-selling film in Japan. Seventy percent of Japanese DVD sales are also anime.
Anime is visible everywhere. In adverts, in branding for water and snacks, on trains, school buses, and in airports. It has become a ubiquitous cultural force that has come to define the country itself.
Yet, it goes without saying that not everyone likes it. And, even in the world of anime, many people are concerned about the commercialisation of the form. With every successful anime undergoing adaptation into a light novel, a live action film, video games, merchandise, music, and manga, the industry is sort of all encompassing.
In the same way that Disney makes a lot of the products that it sells alongside the films themselves – there is a Pokémon theme park just as there is a Disneyland – anime does the same.
And I’m sure you’ll agree that not everyone likes Disney.
Find out more about Japan’s relationship with anime!
Anime literally is everywhere.
To identify a best anime, or even a most popular anime series, is a difficult task. This is because there are anime for young girls (known as shoujo anime), anime for teenage guys (shounen anime), and animes also for adults.
This is the key to the success of the anime industry in Japan. But it also warns against treating anime like a monolithic thing.
However, some anime are easy to point at and identify as extremely popular. Take the films of Studio Ghibli – Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away – which each in turn was the highest-grossing anime film ever. Until Spirited Away came out in China in 2019, Your Name, of 2016, was the biggest-selling anime film in Japan. So, this could be said to be pretty popular too.
Some of the most iconic, if not the best anime series, have changed the way that anime was consumed and appreciated. And these would be recognised by many people across Japan – and the world.
Take Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, for example, from the sixties, which defined the style of anime that we know today.
Or else, think of Mobile Suit Gundam, Fullmetal Alchemist, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, which changed the direction of anime for the following decade.
These are the classics of the genre. However, they may not exactly be the most popular anime around.
Crudely, we could call the most popular anime those that have sold the most. In this way, Dragon Ball – with its famous central character, Goku – along with One Piece have both sold over three hundred million manga editions.
In terms of anime, the biggest-selling movies are those we discussed by Studio Ghibli – plus Howl’s Moving Castle – as well as titles including Detective Conan and Pokémon.
Learn more about some of the most popular anime in Japan!
The fame of the anime characters is roughly proportionate to the popularity – or at least ubiquity – of the anime or manga series or film.
And, so, Goku will be up there with the most recognised anime characters of all time. So will Pikachu – and almost certainly Astro Boy.
However, these are not necessarily the most interesting of the characters that can be found in anime. Rather, anime is known for the complexity and depth of its characters. They develop, they show consistency, nuance, and definition, and they are used to convey themes both subtle and important.
Take Shinji, the main character from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Whilst a lot of popular animated series in the west pivot between two types of heroes – the badass warrior dude and the reluctant anti-hero – Shinji takes on a much greater emotional depth.
Pressured by his estranged father to become a robot pilot to fight against ‘Angels’ threatening humanity, Shinji shrinks from the role – showing a vulnerability, apathy, and relationship to his parents which made him a really convincing and engaging character.
Or, alternatively, take a character like Spike Spiegel, from the anime aimed at adult audiences, Cowboy Bebop.
The whole show is an unconventional animated series, grappling with themes such as loneliness and memory – and the struggle of moving on from pain.
Spike loses the woman he loved, and his psychological drama revolves around his inability – or lack of attempts – to get over this.
Find out more about these characters and other popular Japanese anime characters!
Of course you recognise the anime character, Pikachu!
What makes Japanese animation so recognisable is its incredibly distinctive style. Unlike the styles of classic American cartoons such as The Simpsons and Tom & Jerry, Japanese anime is instantly identifiable.
Even across the dramatically different styles of Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki, and Toshihiro Kawamoto, there are a number of similarities that unite them. And, if you want to draw your own anime characters, it is important that you know these styles inside out.
First is the role of the eyes in anime. These are typically large – either oval or tightened into straight-lined slits.
The role of the eyes is crucial to anime, because this is the place that most of the expressive work takes place. The eyes in anime are hugely dynamic, changing from frame to frame with the emotional content of the scene.
And this is also anime’s most characteristic feature. Without this – although Miyazaki does not indulge too much in this particular characteristic – your characters may not look like anime.
After the eyes, the hair is the most recognisable feature of anime characters. It is large, eye-catching, and dramatic – often with spikes, strange styles, and movements.
You’ll find that it also comes in strange colours. This is not random – as you will find that most of the colour choices correspond to particular symbolisms.
The final thing you will need to remember if you are developing your own anime is that, in Japanese animation, the characters’ expressions often follow a particular typology of tropes.
So, if your character is nervous, he or she needs to have drops of sweat all over their body. If your character is in pain, crossed plasters and large bulges are required. If you’re character is laughing, they need to screw up their eyes.
If you want to learn more about the style of anime drawing, read our article!