When most of us consider entertainment that’s associated with Japanese culture, we immediately think of anime. Vibrant, lively cartoons with expressive characters, colourful landscapes and sometimes more of an adult feel than the Disney titles we see from Hollywood or South African animation studios.

You won’t be wrong in assuming that anime is synonymous with Japan, but Japan’s definition differs slightly from ours. Anime is also not only reserved for the Japanese anymore and luckily people like us can now also watch and appreciate these beautiful Japanese cartoons to help us escape to vibrant new worlds.

Let’s look at anime, what it is and the pioneering films and series that contributed to it being one of the most popular forms of entertainment today.

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What is Anime?

Western countries will immediately associate anime with a specific style of animation. A characteristic film or series with adult themes and story lines that originates from Japan and caters for a niche audience. But once you start to delve into the world of Japanese anime you’ll notice that there’s a colourful array of genres and stories to cater for almost any type of person.

The Japanese define it in short as any type of animation, whether local or international, for kids or adults. To Japanese, even the animated series from Cartoon Network classifies as anime and it has become so entrenched in their culture that they might interchangeably also use this term for comic books or other forms of entertainment.

There’s a characteristic style to Japanese anime and most of us can immediately identify it.

Characters usually have big googly eyes, can be man or machine, have strong characteristics and emotional facial expressions with dramatic hair.

Anime is also unique in how action is brought to life through dramatic panning and vibrant, breath-taking colours. Even the slightly older anime films with more basic artwork has a way of making everything look fresh and it’s amazing how they manage to even create attractive cartoon characters.

Manga are the popular black and white comics in Japan and is created by everyday people who have a passion for the art of drawn animation.

Manga played a big part in creating the well-known look and feel we see in Japanese anime nowadays. It was also used as medium and tool to test anime characters, concepts and stories before studios decide to invest more into producing full-on series or films.

A Brief Anime History and Notes About Its Development

Like the development of most art forms and technology, the names that created significant titles in the industry stood on the shoulders of many others that developed, contributed, and invested time in creating what this art form has become.

The first anime film was released by Shimokawa Oten in 1917, but his short film called “Dekobo’s New Picture Book - Failure of a Great Plan” was one of nearly twenty animation short films released that same year. Their process made use of stop-motion animation where they used chalk and still images compressed together. Most of the early animation film studios were lost in the destruction of the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923) and the bombings of World War 2.

Between 1930 and 1940s Japan’s industry continued to advance slowly despite the ongoing war. Animation methodology moved towards the usage of cels, transparent celluloid sheets, and with the inclusion of pre-recorded voices it gave animation a new life. The Japanese Navy used a fill-length anime film called “Momotaro, Sacred Sailors” in a very effective propaganda campaign.

A street in Tokyo
Tokyo is the original home of Anime titles.

One of the rising stars during the 50s was Japan Animated Films (bought by Toei in 1956) who created the Toei animation “Hakujaden”. During this time Osama Tezuka became a well-known and influential person in the industry. In Japan, Tezuka became known as the ‘god of manga’ and because of his contradictory views he created Mushi productions, taking many of the best animators from Toei with him.

Animation and anime shows on television became popular during the early 1960s. It’s also when Tezuka and Mushi Pro debuted their hit TV series called Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom). In the United states people could watch it in black and white and a lot of historians and fans say that this series was an epic landmark to establish the look and feel of anime in general. NBS continued to work with Tezuka and created the first colour animation which also became a massive success, called Jungle Emperor (Kimba the White Lion).

During the 70s the themes of literature and robots began to feature more prominently. Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata created “Heidi, Girl of the Alps”, a show that many South Africans watched during their childhood. Science fiction also became popular with the space-opera series “Space Battleship Yomaro” and by the end of the 70s, anime was completely cemented and a part of the Japanese pop culture.

This paved the way for the 80s, known as the golden age of anime. Multiple genres suddenly exploded onto the scene and anime has suddenly evolved into an art-form with its own unique style. During this time there was also a sudden mass production of anime series. A highlight in the 80s was Studio Ghibli’s first animated feature film “Nausicaa of the valley of the wind”, created by the famous Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata.

Japan’s economy had a crash in the early 90s, but places like Studio Ghibli and Toei managed to release titles like “Kiki’s Delivery Service” and “Sailor Moon” respectively with great success. Later in 1995 Gainax studio released “Neon Genesis Evangelion” that gave the robot genre a massive boost and this era also saw the birth of video games like Dragon Ball Games and Pokémon together with the creation of toys, more films and television series.

If the various hits and background of anime got you interested you can learn everything about anime here.

The pure enjoyment of watching visually spectacular images around exciting themes made anime one of the biggest forms of entertainment globally. But there are several other influences which contributed to the success it is today. You know by now how some elements give it such a unique feel, one of the core reasons why it became so easily and well-recognised.

The way it has developed over the years and how quickly anime exploded to influence popular culture across the globe is a clear sign how popular anime has become. Let’s look at some other reasons that supported and contributed to the popularity of Japanese anime.

It’s a Commercial Cash Machine

The anime industry is not just about films and series, but an entire industry that includes a broad range of products like games, toys, clothing and loads more. It is not a singular category and the combined estimated commercial value in 2017 was $19.1 billion.

Pokémon is a great example of how anime became a cultural movement that manages to immerse the user into a newly created universe through a variety of products and channels. This multimedia franchise was originally a computer game and became popular across the globe, leading to the production of a manga series, an anime adaptation, card games, live action films, music, theme parks and even new music.

Pokémon was also the reason why anime became more mainstream in the United States and since then it has become one of the biggest video game franchises and highest grossing films in the US. It also continues to be a global success story on how lucrative a media franchise can be.

But don’t underestimate the anime movies themselves as they make up a fair chunk of the world’s film industry and you will notice in the mentioned history that producers like Tezuka worked with international companies to produce content to sell across markets from an early stage.

These earlier moves meant growth in popularity not only in The United States, but also in places like Spain, South America and even Italy. Today, South Africans and people across the globe can access some of the big anime series on streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Showmax.

man holding pokeball
Pokémon is one of the titles that later took the American market and world by storm. - Source: Pexels

It’s Alive and Ever-Present

In Japan, anime characters are on billboards, on products, on the metro and television. Not only has it become ever-present, it’s also an art form that is used in a variety of mediums like games, toys, films, series, and films.

What also makes anime so special is the fact that they all embody a special individuality, unlike more generic, Western cartoons.

Their expressive nature allows creators to bring in nuances into their animations that are not limited to a singular genre or purely aimed at children.

Generally making use of manga, everyday people and studio creators will use their own initiative to bring their drawings to life on pages. Their ideas, the origination and creation process was thus not disrupted by publishers and producers, but rather picked up once fans showed interest or expressed favour around their story and concepts.

This means that all anime have their own look, angle and ideas before the commercialisation process even starts.

Do you want to create your own manga drawings as a starting point to anime?  Learn to draw manga with the help of a professional teacher, and test your concepts with friends, family, and professional studios.

It Became a Representation of Japanese Culture

The brief history of anime we covered will make it clear how much its development was influenced by culture and visa-versa in Japan. Anime took some of the popular Japanese fables and historical figures and made them entertaining for a western audience. It shows how Japanese people relate to daily life and mythology whole teaching the world all about their food, festivities, art, clothing, architecture, and many other customary and cultural aspects.

This way, Japan used a ‘soft influence’ approach where their entertainment was applied to influence the global views and opinions about Japan in a favourable way.

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There is Something for Everyone

Historically we used to think that anime was for nerds, but now you know that nothing can be further from the truth. Whether you seek something serious, scary, funny or fuzzy, there’s an anime show or film that will tickle your fancy and the range of genres available nowadays includes:

  • Martial Arts and Ninja
  • Horror and Supernatural
  • Romance and drama
  • Science Fiction (including robots, spaceships etc)
  • Comedy

Above and beyond genre there are also different types of anime aimed at specific demographic groups. Shonen manga is generally aimed at teenage boys while Shoujo manga is for girls. You can just imagine how broad this can be if you consider the diversity of audiences throughout Japan.

Are you ready to dive into the Japanese culture through your exploration of the colourful anime world?

Happy watching!

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Mauritz

Writer and qualified yoga instructor, who is passionate about health and well-being.