So what is anime, exactly?
The word anime -- pronounced "ah-knee-may" -- is an abbreviation of the word animation. In Japan, the word's used to refer to all animation. Outside of Japan, it's become the catch-all term for animation from Japan.
For decades, anime was produced by and for Japan -- a local product, with a distinct look-and-feel to not just the artwork but the storytelling, the themes, and the concepts. Over the last forty years, though, it's become an international phenomenon, attracting millions of fans and being translated into many languages. A whole generation of viewers in the West have grown up with it and are now passing it on to their own children.
What is it that makes anime so special?
Most anime fans can sum this up in two words: "It's different." Anime is as unlike most American cartoons as, say, Batman and Spider-Man are different from the comics that run in daily papers. The differences show up in many ways.
- Artwork. Anime art styles range from the flamboyant and outlandish (Samurai Champloo, FLCL) to the simple and direct (Azumanga Daioh!). That said, even shows with more "basic" artwork can still be visually striking; anime finds ways to make everything look fresh and new.
- Storytelling. Anime doesn't shy away from epic storylines, which can run for dozens (sometimes hundreds) of episodes. The best anime, though, no matter what their length, all demand great emotional involvement from the viewer.
- Breadth of material. The sheer range of anime shows out there means a viewer of most any other kind of TV or movies can find an anime series that reflects her interests: hard SF (Planetes), romantic comedy (Fruits Basket), CSI-style crimefighting (Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), female empowerment (Nana), even adaptations of classic literature (Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo).
- Cultural nuances. Japan's history, language and worldview are woven into a great deal of anime on many levels. Some shows are takeoffs on Japanese history (Sengoku Basara) or raid Japanese mythology for story ideas (Hakkenden, Hell Girl). Even shows that are outwardly non-Japanese in their presentation (Claymore, Monster) have tinges of a Japanese sensibility to them.
What's most striking is how anime's impact is coming full circle. Some recent American cartoon productions, like Avatar: The Last Airbender, are openly inspired by anime itself, and live-action English-language versions of anime titles are starting to come into production.
Is anime a genre?
Because all things anime tend to be lumped together, it's tempting to think of anime as a genre. It isn't -- no more than animation itself is a genre, but rather a description of how the material is produced. Anime shows, like books or movies, fall into any number of existing genres: comedy, drama, sci-fi, action-adventure, horror, and so on.
Is anime okay for young kids?
The short answer: It depends on the show. Because anime's so broad-reaching in its subject matter, it's possible to find anime aimed at just about every age group. Some titles are specifically for younger viewers or are suitable for all ages (Pokémon, My Neighbor Totoro); some are aimed at teens and up (InuYasha); some are aimed at older teens (Death Note); some are for "mature audiences" (Monster) and some are strictly for adults (Queens Blade).
Japanese cultural attitudes about sexuality and violence require some titles to be placed a category higher than they might normally be. Nudity, for instance, is handled much more casually in Japan; sometimes a show that isn't meant specifically for adults will have material which may seem racy to Western viewers.
Anime distributors are generally quite conscious of these issues, and will include either an actual MPAA rating (G, PG, PG-13, R, NC-17) or a TV Parental Guidelines rating as an indicator of what the intended audience is for the show. Check the show's packaging (for a DVD/Blu-ray) or the show's program listing (for a broadcast show).
I don't know anything about anime - how do I get started watching?
The simplest way to do this: go by what you already like, apart from anime. There's a few ways you can go about accomplish this.
- Learn about what shows represent the major genres within anime, and pick the genres you already enjoy watching. A sci-fi / cyberpunk fan, Cowboy Bebop; a swords-and-sorcery fan, Berserk.
- If you already know a friend who's an anime fan, clue them in on what you like to watch -- they should be able to guide you towards what's best and what's new in that category.
For more details on how to do this, see our article "I'm new to anime - where do I start?"