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Buyer's Guide to Anime Genres and Themes

How To Know What Kinds of Shows Are Worth Watching


It’s been said that anime isn’t a genre itself, but a medium. Within anime you can find shows of a whole slew of different genres—and sometimes shows that themselves exist within several genres at once.

That means when you’re buying a particular anime, you want to pay particular attention to the way the show’s classified and described by other folks. Some of those descriptions are more general; sometimes they’re in the slang of anime fans, explained below.

First off, most anime fall into one of a few basic categories:

  • Action/adventure: The bulk of shows fall somewhere in this category, which can include martial-arts action, samurai-vs.-ninja, sword-and-sorcery adventures in other worlds, or battles between giant robots. Examples: DragonBall / DragonBallZ, Darker Than Black, Black Lagoon.
  • Drama/Comedy/Slice-of-life: Shows that revolve around romance, coming of age, experiences at school (both good and bad), or the tribulations of everyday life. Examples: Ouran High School Host Club, Princess Jellyfish, FLCL.
  • Historical: Many anime delve into Japan’s own past, whether as history or mythology—and sometimes both at once. Examples: Samurai Champloo, Samurai 7, Rurouni Kenshin.
  • Mystery/horror: This includes horror that has a supernatural theme, as well as conventional suspense/thriller material. Examples: Monster, Hell Girl, Vampire Princess Miyu.
  • Sci-fi/space: Shows in this category can range from hard SF all the way to space opera, and overlap into other genres described here. Examples: Cowboy Bebop, Ergo Proxy.
  • Adaptation: Most anything derived from a video game, a comic or even a live-action production. Being familiar with the original isn’t always required, but it’s fun for the sake of perspective. Examples: Devil May Cry, Slayers, The Dirty Pair.

Keep in mind that these genres aren’t closed-ended. Some shows freely incorporate elements from more than one genre:

  • Samurai Champloo mixes history and action tropes with comedy. The bulk of the show is played for laughs, but the action and even the dramatic elements have real weight as well.
  • Naruto is nominally an action/adventure title, but has strong character-centric drama that builds up over time.
  • xxxHOLiC freely mixes horror, fantasy, drama, comedy, and even historical/mythological elements.

Anime also includes a number of secondary “flavors” or sub-types—descriptions used by fans to give other people an additional idea of the general tilt of the show.

  • Ecchi: Derived from the word hentai (see below), this means a show with a general tone of lewdness—nudity, crass jokes—although actual sexual activity generally isn’t shown. Examples: Sekirei, Queen’s Blade, Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt.
  • Harem: A show where a single guy finds himself the object of affection from many different girls. Sometimes it’s one girl and many guys (a “reverse harem”) (Fruits Basket, Ouran High School Host Club). In both cases, though, it’s fairly clear who the one true guy/girl is.
  • Hentai: From the Japanese word for “pervert”, this is the catchall name for pornographic anime.
  • Josei: Anime aimed at adult women. Examples: NANA.
  • Mecha: A shorthand way to refer to any series with giant robots or vehicles. The focus of the show doesn’t have to be the machines themselves, but they are typically a major component of it. Examples: the various Mobile Suit Gundam shows, Gurren Lagann, Evangelion.
  • Magical Girl: A show—typically a comedy—starring a girl with magical powers, as the title implies. Examples: Sailor Moon, Sasami.
  • Magical Girlfriend: Guy-meets-girl shows where the girl is a goddess an alien or monster, or so on. Examples: Ah! My Goddess, Shuffle!.
  • OVA/OAV: An abbreviation for “Original Video Animation” or “Original Animated Video” (the two terms are highly interchangeable), this refers to an animated series made specifically for release on video or a satellite airing, rather than general TV broadcast or theatrical release. It typically consists of a shorter number of episodes than most TV series—sometimes as few as one or two—but with a generally higher per-episode animation budget than the average TV series. Those who are fans of animation as an art form will want to pay special attention to these releases. Examples: Giant Robo, Hakkenden, Read Or Die.
  • Shojo: Anime for a teenaged female audience. Examples: Sailor Moon, Super GALS!, Peach Girl.
  • Shonen: Anime aimed at a young male audience, from boys to teens. Examples: Naruto, Ruroni Kenshin, Bleach.
  • Seinen: Anime titles for adults, generally adult males. This can mean anything from a storyline and characterization that adults may find more comprehensible, to graphic violence and sexuality. Examples: Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, Blade of the Immortal, Monster, Black Lagoon.
  • Yaoi/"Boy's Love": A series that deals with male-male relationships, with varying degrees of explicitness. Example: Gravitation.
  • Yuri: Similar to yaoi but dealing with female-female relationships. Example: Maria Watches Over Us.

A final thing to keep in mind is that these genres and subcategories are just hints—they don’t always give you the real flavor of a show, which often stands outside of any one of these descriptors. A great show is a great show no matter what “genre” it’s in, and is all the more worthy of being sought out and put into your library.

That said, the categories described above are a good place to start if you’re building a library, or looking for a new kind of show to get interested in.

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