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What is anime?

Originally printed in The Detroit Free Press, October 31, 1999


Anime is the term used to describe animated Japanese stories. But it also has come to define a distinctive type of Japanese animation that is able to contain both the wondrous, whimsical adventures directed by the genre's acknowledged master, Hayao Miyazaki, and the more violent and even erotic films that have long been a staple of private anime clubs and cultists around the world.

In the same way that U.S. animation evolved from comic strips and cartoons, anime has its roots in manga, Japanese comic books that are as popular with adults as they are with children. The Web site says the difference between U.S. comics and manga is that a manga concentrates more on character development and story line and that a manga "can actually put a reader in the shoes of (a character) in the fantasy world."

Generally, anime is less cute and conventional than U.S. animated features. Even children's anime often deals with complex themes and ideas. It is not at all uncommon for major characters to die or undergo a transformation that renders them evil. The most popular anime tends to draw heavily from Asian folklore and symbolism, especially from the ancient philosophies of Zen and Shinto and the disciplines of the martial arts.

In Japan, anime arrives in three forms: elaborate feature films like "Princess Mononoke"; Original Animation Videos, the format for most of the more adult titles, and television series, some of which have been re-edited as films for the Western market. Most Americans probably got their first taste of anime in the 1960s when the series "Tetsuwan Atom" was dubbed, badly, with English voices and syndicated in the United States as "Astro Boy."

Anime is almost instantly recognizable to even a casual viewer by the way Japanese anime artists draw adult characters with Caucasian adolescent features and oversized eyes. Even pornographic anime, called hentai, usually fails to render its adult characters as recognizably adult. For this reason, parents are advised to carefully inspect the boxes at video stores, which will usually state whether the film has violent or sexual content.

More information about anime can be found at almost any bookstore or comic book shop and on the Web. Stone Bridge Press, which specializes in books about Japansee art and culture, has published a number of books on the subject, including Helen McCarthy's "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation" ($18.95) and "The Anime Companion" by Gilles Poitras ($16.95).

Filmographies, essays and information are plentiful on the Web. A good place to begin is the Anime Cafe,, which features reviews, an encyclopedia of films, shows and characters and chat rooms.

- Re-printed with permission from Terry Lawson and The Detroit Free Press.

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