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What Is Japanese Animation?

By Eugene P.
Updated May 23, 2024
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Japanese animation, also sometimes known as anime, is a term with a broad meaning but which, in general, refers to cartoons that are produced in the country of Japan. There is a distinctive, core style of Japanese animation that helps to define a large amount of the work produced, but not all movies and television shows employ this style. Most often, Japanese animation is associated with exaggeration, both in character design and character animations, employing a set of over-the-top poses, facial expressions and anatomical irregularities to better convey the meaning of a scene or the role of a character. Unlike the general perception of cartoons in the United States, Japanese animation frequently targets adult viewers and involves storylines and characters that deal with controversial or complex adult issues. Still, most of the animation from Japan is designed for children and young adults, and it has gained a sizeable audience outside the country — so much so that some non-Japanese companies have sought to imitate the stylistic elements of the genre.

The origins of many types of Japanese animation come from an art form known in Japan as manga. These are essentially printed comic books. Some of the original color animated movies were adaptations of manga storylines and characters.

There is a wide range of story genres that Japanese animation regularly covers. These genres can include everything from teenage romance stories to science fiction epics. Many of the sub-genres actually have names and integrated story elements to distinguish them from other genres. More adult-themed animation can deal with controversial historical events, death or sexual topics. A large part of animation produced in Japan also incorporates themes that are common in the cultural and religious practices of the country, such as Buddhist or Shinto philosophies.

The actual animation style can be very unique. Some animators prefer to use realistic representations of their characters, but more often the animation leans toward wildly exaggerated characters. One common example is the oversized eyes of many characters in the animation, drawn in a way so the eyes express a range of emotions that the rest of the face would not be able to do as easily or as universally. Other examples include the sometimes unrealistically bright color of a character’s hair and changes in body proportions to indicate age, status or personality.

The exaggeration in Japanese animation extends to the movements of characters. In many cases, the gestures and body language of characters are displayed as a standardized pose that has become a cliche for the emotion or response it is meant to express. Props or visual tricks — such as a single, large bead of sweat — are used in comical situations to define how characters are interacting without the need for extended dialog.

Japanese animation has seen some popularity around the world, and it is regularly distributed outside Japan's borders. The bulk of exported animation is dubbed, although some is only subtitled. The music and even certain story aspects can be removed, re-recorded or edited so as to be more culturally relevant to the country in which it is being shown. Some companies outside Japan produce animations that are identical in style and form to the Japanese versions and, while these are not strictly considered Japanese animations, they usually are included in the wider category of anime.

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Discussion Comments
By lluviaporos — On Jan 16, 2015

@MrsPramm - There are a huge range of different styles of anime though. I know at first glance they might seem relatively generic, but that's true of any art style.

When you look at the incredibly lush backgrounds in the Studio Ghibli films or the explosive style of the animation used in Akira, or the experimental style of Paprika you can see that they are all very different.

It actually really annoys me when people say they won't watch anime at all, because it's a very diverse style that covers many genres and saying that you refuse to watch any of it is basically just close-minded.

By MrsPramm — On Jan 15, 2015

@pastanaga - I've heard that the original Japanese animes were strongly influenced by the style of early Disney films, so that could be a contributing factor as well. Although, honestly, I think it's just the style of anime in general now no matter what race the animators are trying to depict. If the character is a young, attractive female they are going to have huge eyes and be very willowy. I don't think most of the time they are trying to be any more subtle than that.

By pastanaga — On Jan 14, 2015

I read a very interesting article the other day discussing the depiction of race in Japanese anime and manga. Apparently most Westerners watching Japanese animation assume that the majority of characters are intended to be Caucasian. They will point out the eye shape and hair colors and use these as justification for those views.

But most of the characters they are pointing to are actually intended to be Japanese. Hair color is treated as entirely optional and characters will have any kind of color from black to green to blond to pink. And huge, wide eyes are a child-like quality that is basically just intended to make the characters cute.

If you look at characters in anime that are obviously supposed to be intended as Westerners they will almost always have big noses and broad jawlines compared with the other characters, because those are the traits associated with Westerners in Eastern art.

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