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A Beginner's Guide to Anime

Anime, or 'Japanimation' as it's sometimes called, is in it's most basic form simply an animated feature produced in Japan. Nothing more, nothing less. There's some dispute about the origins of the word itself: some claim that its origins are French, but more likely is the theory that it's a shortened "loan-word" from the English word, animation. (It's not unusual for the Japanese to approximate, and even truncate words to suit their purposes. Two prime examples of this are the words terebi, a loan word for 'television,' and biilu,, a shortened form of 'building.')

It should be noted that anime is not a genre -- in fact, anime covers as many genres as any other communications media -- as it should, since anime is in fact, a just another medium of communications. The only difference is that it carries the "Made in Japan" label.

Obviously, this doesn't explain the near-feverent mania surrounding this 'art form.' What's so different about anime that's drawing the attention of so many?

Perhaps the most obvious difference from North America's traditional view of "cartoons" is that anime has a much broader audience appeal. This is not "just for kids" stuff. Characterisations can be as flat at those found in Archie comics, or as complex and rounded as found in films such as The Remains of the Day. Topics can vary tremendously: from giant robots to war; daily family life to whimiscal fantasy; parodies to hard-core pornography -- the subject matter is boundless. And just like the film counterpart in Hollywood, Japanese animation varies from the truly remarkable films, to the remarkably innane.

It should be noted that cultural differences between Japan and the West invariably result in several "objectionable" elements in anime. The most common one being nudity, sexual scenes and explicit scenes of violence and sexuality.

Casual nudity was generally accepted in bathing situations until about the 1980's. Public baths, and shared family baths were very commonplace at one time. Loincloths for men on family farms, and public nursing of children was not unusual. The influx of western culture and morals has made this less acceptable, though elements of casual nudity will often appear in animation features, including animated features for children. Ironically, public nursing of children is on the rise in North America...

Sekuhara (or "sexual harassment"), and sexual overtones are a common theme in many anime programs, including those for young adults. Unlike their North American counterparts, Japanese studios do not differentiate this from showing violence on screen; it's just another element that might be used to advance plot, or merely titlate. A more extreme offshoot of this is the production of animated features specifically geared towards the adult (usually male) audience. Explicit sexual acts and even acts of extreme violence and perversion can be depicted. It should again be emphasised that just because something is animated, does not mean that it's for kids. (Remember Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal?) Recently, Spawn has also taken the adult approach in animated features.

Because of the wide variety of subject matter, it's impossible to showcase a single title as the definitive work of Japanese anime. However, there are a few titles that could be considered as 'starting points' for those of you who are uncertain where to begin.

Romance: There are several very good examples of this genre, but there are two that come immediately to mind: Takahashi Rumiko's Maison Ikkoku, and Izumi Matsumoto's Kimagure Orange Road. Both are fairly long-running series (96 and 48 TV episodes respectively), and the two are aimed a slightly different target audiences: Maison Ikkoku is aimed at the older, more adult crowd (but that doesn't mean it has a lot of adult content -- it doesn't), and Kimagure Orange Road is aimed squarely at the young adult audience. Both convey the hardships of daily life and uncertain romance with an innocent honesty that's missing from many of our sit-coms today, albeit with a distinctly Japanese flair.

Science Fiction: Probably the largest genre in anime, there are several very good example of this topic. For action SF fans, there's Macross, including the very impressive Macross Plus. Hardcore SF fans will probably enjoy the dark, serious tones of the Patlabor movies, or the ambitious Ghost in the Shell.

Fantasy: Very popular in recent years, the fantasy genre has spawned some very impressive works. People who enjoy the more serious, role-playing styles experienced in games such as Dungeons and Dragons will probably enjoy the fantasy-game based Record of the Lodoss War. If you'd like to look a fantasy with a much lighter touch, a la Robert Aspirin, try the ever-popular TV series, Slayers.

Comedy: Comedy tends to find itself crossed over into the other genres, but there are some notable works that should not be missed. One of the first works to be available in North America is the very popular Castle of Cagliostro, one of many adventures centering around the mythical Lupin III, a fictional decendant of the infamous French "gentleman thief," Arsene Lupin. For truly sweet, gentle comedy/dramas, look no farther than Fujishima Kyosuke's works of Oh! My Goddess! and You're Under Arrest!.

Shoujo: Unique to Japanese animation is a genre called shoujo, or programs geared specifically for girls. Notable examples of this genre would include Sailor Moon, Koko Wa Greenwood and Revolutionary Girl Utena.

Finally, there are the works of one studio in particular that simply should not be missed. Japan's Studio Ghibli, argueably the finest animation studio in the world, has a long history of producing poignant, touching and timeless stories with a distinctly Japanese flavour. Don't miss the delightful My Neighbour Totoro, the recent Disney translation of Kiki's Delivery Service, and when available, Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind, the only animated feature to be endorsed by the World Wildlife Foundation. Adults looking for a more introspective look at life should not miss the quiet and touching Omoide Poro Poro. There is no film more powerful in depicting the civilian's struggle to survive in a war-ravaged country than the heart-shattering Grave of the Fireflies. Finally, there is the violent yet remarkable Mononoke Hime, the most successful animated feature in the history of Japan, and the second highest-grossing movie ever in Japan.

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