The term “anime” refers generally to any sort of cartoon television series or movie made in Japan. The word is derived from the English word “animation,” but in popular culture it tends to have a more narrow meaning and often describes a particular type or genre of show. Characters all tend to have a similar look, for instance, no matter their creators, and the story arcs that drive the action are usually complex and deep. The genre is generally considered an art form and is popular all over the world. Despite the cartoon presentation, many of these shows are actually intended for mature adult audiences and may deal with themes like death and sexuality. As the genre has become more popular, more and more artists around the world are creating programming. In order to be true Japanese anime, though, a show, character, or film must usually have been created by a Japanese artist or production team.
Characters are typically very easy to recognize. In most cases they have extremely large, doe-like eyes and spiky or long hair. They are typically tall and slender, and have almost stylized bodies. Many appear to be Japanese or at least Asian in appearance, but a number of the more popular characters are decidedly Western, often with blue eyes and blonde hair.
The basic drawings are most often one-dimensional, and usually have the look of traditional or “old fashioned” animation. It is much more than just a "cartoon" to most of its fans, though, and a lot of the allure comes where plot is concerned. Most of the popular cartoons in North America and Europe rely on either humor or simplistic "good versus evil" story arcs that can be quickly absorbed within a short time slot. The typical anime series, by contrast, presents characters that evolve as the series moves along, and most programs deal with complex issues including the reality and acceptance of death. It is sometimes most instructive to think of these sorts of shows as no different from any other television drama or other serial program, except that it has drawn characters instead of actors. This type of series commonly offers insight into the Japanese culture and often plays upon well-known Asian myths, symbols, and the martial arts.
As an Art Form
Many scholars and cultural researchers treat Japanese animation as an independent art form as much as a means for entertainment. While some series are directed towards youngsters, most are intended for adult audiences. Producers often use their shows to make broad statements about culture, human emotion, and relationships, much the way that other fine artists like musicians and painters could. There are also elements of literary technique involved in most cases. As a genre, then, it is often seen to be an important facet of the cultural fabric and outlook of both the creators and the people who enjoy and consume the end product.
Creators often take great pride in the specific creation of each character, too. Costumes are designed, hair is styled, and expressions perfected on paper, with the result that individual drawings often seem to take on a real life and personality of their own. Many fans relate to the characters as if they were real people, and decisions or actions made in the series often have ripple effects among the fan base.
Relationship to Manga
There is often some overlap between animation on the screen and drawings that are bound in book form, and sometimes the characters are actually the same. It’s important to note that each is its own distinct art form, though. The word manga refers to Japanese comics that are not animated. In essence, manga is the book form. Many popular animated series started out as manga, and others become manga as a way of branching out. The word "otaku" is often used to describe fans of both animated shows and manga, though it’s usually reserved for people who are very serious about following the story arcs and “knowing” the characters.
Cultural Reach and Spread
The genre has fans around the world. Numerous television channels feature these sorts of shows, and people can also purchase entire series or seasons in many places. Purchasers usually have the option of choosing a dubbed version or one with the original Japanese language and subtitles, though some of this necessarily depends on where they live. While the plots tend to deal with serious issues, there are often humorous, perverse, and light-hearted moments in each series. Such scenes are often referred to as "ecchi."
The first anime television series, "Tetsuawan Atom" (The Mighty Atom), was released 1963 and ran in the United States that same year as "Astro Boy." The popularity of this story has spun out into several subsequent series, and solidified the popularity of the genre. Networks across Japan and the world are often anxious to try out new animated adventures since they’re almost sure to gain an audience, at least initially. Success in this realm depends, as it does in most of the television industry, on audience reviews and viewer ratings.
Shows that are successful are often big moneymakers for more than just networks. The video gaming industry sells millions of games every year that are based on the characters in these series. On toy shelves across the United States, popular characters can be found in action figure form, and their images are often on clothing, pencil cases, and a variety of other goods.