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What is Japanimation?

By Brendan McGuigan
Updated May 23, 2024
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Japanimation is an older term used in the West to describe what is now more commonly known as anime. It is a simple contraction of the phrase Japanese animation.Japanimation has its roots from the era just before the 1920s, when it began forming in Japan, but did not achieve true popularity until the 1930s.

Around the turn of the century, animation began being produced fairly widely in the West, and these techniques made their way to Japan around 1917, when the first Japanimation clip was screened, a two minute movie of a samurai and his sword. Through the 1930s, as film was taking off in the rest of the world, it remained a relatively dormant industry in Japan. This was in large part due to the limitations when it came to telling stories that took place in the West, due to a lack of Western-looking actors.

A clear solution was seen in Japanimation, which allowed movies to be shot in any location, with any racial group, and even allowed for strange fantasy worlds and characters. With the widespread success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937, Japanimation discovered new, even cheaper and more efficient techniques, and continued to evolve. The first full-length Japanimation film was produced in 1944, and was entitled Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors.

The popularity of Japanimation within Japan continued to increase during the 1970s, and new genres, particularly the space opera, were explored. With the success of the Star Wars films, the space opera became an even more successful genre, and sci-fi Japanimation became extremely popular during the 1980s. In the 1980s a number of successful Japanimation films and television shows were also exported to the United States, where they were largely converted into remakes. In 1984, Hayao Miyazaki produced what would be a pivotal film, Nausica of the Valley of the Wind, which allowed him to start his own company, which would eventually produce some of the most popular Japanimation films of all time, many of which would be exported to the United States for widespread consumption.

By the late 1980s, the Japanimation boom had hit the United States and other Western countries in full force. Movies like Akira and Vampire Hunter D were instant cult hits in the United States, and they paved the way for a more widespread acceptance of Japanimation, as well as for a burgeoning fan base of die-hards who would import movies directly from Japan. This trend continued through the 1990s, with seminal films like Ghost in the Shell becoming commercial niche successes in the United States, as well as influencing later Western franchises like the Matrix films.

There are many different styles of art seen in Japanimation, but overall they adhere to a number of key graphical styles, which immediately differentiate them from the vast majority of Western animation. A great deal of the stylings of Japanimation are derived from Japanese comic forms, manga, and many popular films and shows are based off of comic books. In recent years some Western films, such as Kill Bill have adopted Japanimation techniques for part or all of the film, and the visual style has become very widely recognized in the West.

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Discussion Comments
By bigblind — On Jun 03, 2010

For anyone who is hesitant to check out anime because of its perceived brand of goofy weirdness, I would recommend the recent series called "Death Note." It is essentially a detective game of cat and mouse with slight supernatural elements. Because of the show was based off a manga that is relatively popular in the U.S., the television is series gave a lot of priority to having top-notch English dubbing. In fact, it's so good it's almost easy to forget that the show was ever in Japanese. The show is exceptionally entertaining, well done, and constantly suspenseful. Anyone curious about anime would get solid exposure to the art form by checking this show out, as it is riveting from the first episode on.

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