What Is Japanese Animation?

Japanese animation, also known as anime, is a term with a broad definition that refers to cartoons produced in Japan. Although there is a distinct, core style of Japanese animation that helps to define a large portion of the work produced, this style is not used in all films and television shows. Exaggeration is often associated with Japanese animation, both in character design and in character animations, with over-the-top poses, facial expressions, and anatomical irregularities used to better convey the meaning of a scene or a character’s role. Unlike the popular perception of cartoons in the United States, Japanese animation frequently caters to adult audiences, with storylines and characters dealing with contentious or complex adult issues. Nonetheless, most Japanese animation is aimed at children and young adults, and it has a sizable international following — so much so that some non-Japanese studios have attempted to imitate the genre’s stylistic elements.

Many types of Japanese animation have their roots in manga, a Japanese art form. Essentially, these are printed comic books. Manga storylines and characters were adapted into some of the first color animated films.

Japanese animation covers a wide range of story genres on a regular basis. From teen romance stories to science fiction epics, these genres cover a wide range of topics. To distinguish themselves from other genres, many of the sub-genres have names and story elements. Adult-oriented animation can address contentious historical events, death, and sexual themes. A large portion of Japanese animation incorporates themes that are prevalent in the country’s cultural and religious practices, such as Buddhist or Shinto philosophies.

The animation style itself can be quite distinctive. Some animators prefer to use realistic depictions of their characters, but the majority of the time, the animation favors wildly exaggerated characters. Many characters in the animation have oversized eyes, which are drawn in such a way that the eyes express a range of emotions that the rest of the face would not be able to do as easily or universally. Other examples include changes in body proportions to indicate age, status, or personality, as well as the sometimes unrealistically bright color of a character’s hair.

In Japanese animation, the exaggeration extends to the movements of the characters. Characters’ gestures and body language are frequently shown in a standardized pose that has become a cliche for the emotion or response it is intended to express. In comedic situations, props or visual tricks, such as a single, large bead of sweat, are used to define how characters interact without the need for extensive dialog.

Japanese animation has gained a certain amount of international acclaim, and it is regularly distributed outside of Japan’s borders. Although some animation is only subtitled, the majority of it is dubbed. The music, as well as certain aspects of the story, can be removed, re-recorded, or edited to make it more culturally relevant to the country in which it is shown. While not strictly considered Japanese animations, some companies outside of Japan produce animations that are identical in style and form to the Japanese versions. While these animations are not strictly considered Japanese animations, they are usually included in the broader category of anime.