Manga and anime are perhaps Japan's biggest cultural export – and they make up one of the most recognizable art styles on the planet.

Since the nineties, when everyone in the western world was suddenly talking about Pokémon, Digimon, Yu-Gi-Oh!, and Dragon Ball Zanime has become something of a household term. Something completely associated with Japan and something that has become one of the biggest cultural trends among children and young adults ever since.

Yet, the world of Japanese anime is a lot more varied and complex than we in the west might realize. 'Anime' only in the west refers to Japanese animation as a whole. In Japanese culture, anime is actually a term for any mass-produced animation, Japanese or non-Japanese.

And, importantly, in Japan, anime is not just culture for kids. Rather, anime series like Neon Genesis EvangelionAttack on TitanDeath Note, and Cowboy Bebop were all hugely successful amongst adults too. Indeed, many of these series were actually intended for adults – developing complex themes and plotlines and presenting three-dimensional and realistic characters.

This is the beauty of anime. It can range from the shoujo anime shows such as the 'magical girl' series like Cardcaptor Sakura to the poetic and haunting anime movies like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke.

It's an incredibly rich culture – so let's take a dive in.

The best Japanese tutors available
Akemi
5
5 (28 reviews)
Akemi
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akari
5
5 (9 reviews)
Akari
$35
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akira
5
5 (5 reviews)
Akira
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kassandra
5
5 (3 reviews)
Kassandra
$20
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Isoko
5
5 (1 reviews)
Isoko
$25
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Rie
5
5 (1 reviews)
Rie
$16
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Sora
5
5 (1 reviews)
Sora
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akemi
5
5 (28 reviews)
Akemi
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akari
5
5 (9 reviews)
Akari
$35
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akira
5
5 (5 reviews)
Akira
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kassandra
5
5 (3 reviews)
Kassandra
$20
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Isoko
5
5 (1 reviews)
Isoko
$25
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Rie
5
5 (1 reviews)
Rie
$16
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Sora
5
5 (1 reviews)
Sora
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Let's go

In the west, we associate anime with Japan and – almost – Japan with anime. It's a massive part of their cultural industry – and is perhaps the country's third-largest industry. This makes it, obviously, pretty mega, bringing in nearly twenty billion dollars a year.

Yet, the success of anime across the world is one of the most amazing things about this genre. Apparently, sixty percent of all animated television shows across the world come from Japan. The anime industry in China is absolutely huge, whilst, in the west, various channels and services distributing anime have made it even more popular.

Over the years, channels like Cartoon Network – with Adult Swim and Toonami – and now anime streaming sites such as Crunchyroll and Funimation have brought this medium to an ever-growing audience. These days, over one hundred thousand people attend America's annual anime convention.

And Anime In Japanese Culture?

Yet, so the history goes, Japanese anime was originally marketed incredibly aggressively to a global audience – precisely because there weren't enough anime fans in Japan.

But, now, anime is pretty much everywhere in that country. In 2014, 2015, and 2016, six of the ten highest-grossing movies were anime, whilst Spirited Away remains the biggest-selling film in Japan. Seventy percent of Japanese DVD sales are also anime.

Anime is visible everywhere. In adverts, in branding for water and snacks, on trains, school buses, and in airports. It has become a ubiquitous cultural force that has come to define the country itself.

Yet, it goes without saying that not everyone likes it. And, even in the world of anime, many people are concerned about the commercialization of the form. With every successful anime undergoing adaptation into a light novel, a live-action film, video games, merchandise, music, and manga, the industry is sort of all-encompassing.

In the same way that Disney makes a lot of the products that it sells alongside the films themselves – there is a Pokémon theme park just as there is a Disneyland – anime does the same.

And I'm sure you'll agree that not everyone likes Disney.

Find out more about Japan's relationship with anime!

Anime on billboard in Japan
Anime literally is everywhere (Source: Unsplash)

Identifying the best anime or even the most popular anime series is a difficult task. This is because there are anime for young girls (known as shoujo anime), anime for teenage guys (shounen anime), and anime also for adults.

This is the key to the success of the anime industry in Japan. But it also warns against treating anime like a monolithic thing.

However, some anime are easy to point at and identify as extremely popular. Take the films of Studio Ghibli – Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away ­– which each, in turn, was the highest-grossing anime film ever. Kimi No Na Wa is the highest-grossing anime film of all time; however, Spirited Away still remains the only anime movie to have won an Academy Award.

Iconic Anime Series

Some of the most iconic, if not the best anime series, has changed the way that anime was consumed and appreciated. And these would be recognized by many people across Japan – and the world.

Take Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, for example, from the sixties, which defined the style of anime that we know today.

Or else, think of Mobile Suit GundamFullmetal Alchemist, and Neon Genesis Evangelion, which changed the direction of anime for the following decade.

These are the classics of the genre. However, they may not exactly be the most popular anime around.

The Most Popular Anime?

Crudely, we could call the most popular anime those that have sold the most. In this way, Dragon Ball – with its famous central character, Goku – along with One Piece have both sold over three hundred million manga editions.

In terms of anime, the biggest-selling movies are those we discussed by Studio Ghibli – plus Howl's Moving Castle ­– as well as titles including Detective Conan and Pokémon.

Learn more about some of the most popular anime in Japan!

The best Japanese tutors available
Akemi
5
5 (28 reviews)
Akemi
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akari
5
5 (9 reviews)
Akari
$35
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akira
5
5 (5 reviews)
Akira
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kassandra
5
5 (3 reviews)
Kassandra
$20
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Isoko
5
5 (1 reviews)
Isoko
$25
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Rie
5
5 (1 reviews)
Rie
$16
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Sora
5
5 (1 reviews)
Sora
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akemi
5
5 (28 reviews)
Akemi
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akari
5
5 (9 reviews)
Akari
$35
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Akira
5
5 (5 reviews)
Akira
$45
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kassandra
5
5 (3 reviews)
Kassandra
$20
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Isoko
5
5 (1 reviews)
Isoko
$25
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Kaitlyn
Kaitlyn
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Rie
5
5 (1 reviews)
Rie
$16
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Sora
5
5 (1 reviews)
Sora
$15
/h
Gift icon
1st lesson free!
Let's go

And Who Are The Most Famous Anime Characters?

The fame of the anime characters is roughly proportionate to the popularity – or at least ubiquity – of the anime or manga series or film.

And, so, Goku will be up there with the most recognized anime characters of all time. So will Pikachu – and almost certainly Astro Boy.

However, these are not necessarily the most interesting of the characters that can be found in anime. Rather, anime is known for the complexity and depth of its characters. They develop, they show consistency, nuance, and definition, and they are used to convey themes both subtle and important.

Looking for a platform to learn Japanese? Try Superprof today!

Shinji

Take Shinji, the main character from Neon Genesis Evangelion. Whilst a lot of popular animated series in the west pivot between two types of heroes – the badass warrior dude and the reluctant anti-hero – Shinji takes on a much greater emotional depth.

Pressured by his estranged father to become a robot pilot to fight against 'Angels' threatening humanity, Shinji shrinks from the role – showing a vulnerability, apathy, and relationship to his parents, which made him a really convincing and engaging character.

Spike Spiegel

Or, alternatively, take a character like Spike Spiegel from the anime aimed at adult audiences, Cowboy Bebop.

The whole show is an unconventional animated series, grappling with themes such as loneliness and memory – and the struggle of moving on from the pain.

Spike loses the woman he loved, and his psychological drama revolves around his inability – or lack of attempts – to get over this.

Find out more about these characters and other popular Japanese anime characters!

A toy Pikachu
Of course, you recognize the anime character, Pikachu! (Source: Unsplash)

How To Draw Your Own Anime Character: The Art Style And Techniques Of Anime

What makes Japanese animation so recognizable is its incredibly distinctive style. Unlike the styles of classic American cartoons such as The Simpsons and Tom & Jerry, Japanese anime is instantly identifiable.

Even across the dramatically different styles of Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki, and Toshihiro Kawamoto, there are a number of similarities that unite them. And, if you want to draw your own anime characters, it is important that you know these styles inside out.

Eyes

First is the role of the eyes in anime. These are typically large – either oval or tightened into straight-lined slits.

The role of the eyes is crucial to anime because this is the place that most of the expressive work takes place. The eyes in anime are hugely dynamic, changing from frame to frame with the emotional content of the scene.

And this is also anime's most characteristic feature. Without this – although Miyazaki does not indulge too much in this particular characteristic – your characters may not look like anime.

Hair

After the eyes, the hair is the most recognizable feature of anime characters. It is large, eye-catching, and dramatic – often with spikes, strange styles, and movements.

You'll find that it also comes in strange colors. This is not random – as you will find that most of the color choices correspond to particular symbolisms.

The Tropes

The final thing you will need to remember if you are developing your own anime is that, in Japanese animation, the characters' expressions often follow a particular typology of tropes.

So, if your character is nervous, he or she needs to have drops of sweat all over their body. If your character is in pain, crossed plasters and large bulges are required. If your character is laughing, they need to screw up their eyes.

If you want to learn more about the style of anime drawing, read our article!

How Anime Reflects Japanese Culture

In addition to anime being an extensive global entertainment product, it is also a window to Japan since it espouses various aspects of Japanese culture.

These cultural aspects can range from language, religious ceremonies, food, clothing, art, festivities, customs, and mythology to daily interactions.

The diversity in production also reflects the vastness and heterogeneity in Japanese culture. It outlines an identity crisis the country faces in which anime depicts the tension between modernism and tradition.

Photos of Anime characters being pasted on a wall
Japanese anime culture is filled with diverse personalities and places, making it the highest-grossing industry in Japan. Also, the representation of the Japanese culture and history makes it the best entertainment platform alongside being educational (Source: Unsplash)

Anime's Origin

Anime is the technical evolution of traditional Japanese manga, which came into being during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Anime And Diplomacy

It comes as no surprise that it originated when Japan was opening its borders to trade and culture.

The country had just come out of isolation after two centuries when the American warships arrived in 1853.

After establishing trade agreements with several western countries, Japan left its feudal system to enter into an era of modernization that has seen it become a significant economic force.

Both anime and manga are a reflection of that transition from a traditional Japan to a globalized one.

Osamu Tezuka And Early Manga

Japanese comics are referred to as manga, or in other terms, the art which unites traditional Japanese painting style (ukiyo-e) and the western comic format.

In fact, the term was coined by the famous painter Hokusai. However, Osamu Tezuka is credited with being the father of modern manga.

This title is justified by the quality of his creative production and the impact of his techniques.

Moreover, the drawing style of Tezuka imbued his characters with humanism and tenderness, leaving an unquestionable mark in the industry, such as the disproportionately large eyes.

Furthermore, Tezuka is responsible for the famed manga Astroboy – a science fiction story involving a robot whose only mission was to save Earth from alien invasion.

The conflicts bore familiarity and reminisced the traumatic events caused by World War II. It also started the science fiction genre, with space-time and technology diatribes.

Bringing Manga To Life

Steadfast technological advancements and the popularity that followed manga paved the way for the first-ever animated short films.

Today, these short films are called 'animes .' And they are considered more dynamic and viewable due to their universality and diversity.

Furthermore, due to this dynamism, it was adopted globally and without any discrimination based on religion, gender, language, or age.

In the '60s, anime started its expansion, and specific sub-genres like Giant Robots (known as Mecha-anime) gained popularity.

The first-ever production of this type of anime was Tetsujin 28-go. However, the most momentous milestone was during the '70s with anime such as Gundam or Mazinger Z, in which they mostly fought Kaijus like Godzilla.

The '90s brought an intermingling of anime with cinema, leading to global success with:

  • Sailor Moon
  • Dragon Ball Z
  • Pokemon
  • Cardcaptor Sakura
  • Digimon

Plot And Visuals

One of the great things about anime is how the story is streamlined and how it unfolds. For starters, animes are not all about never-ending fights between good and evil.

Instead, it shows more complexity and is more sophisticated than western animations. The difference lies in character interactions.

Therefore, in animes, characters show definitive personalities maintaining relationships with others that are more humanized and real.

A girl cosplaying as one of the popular anime characters
Some of the most famous anime characters recognized globally include Goku from The Dragon Ball Saga, Chihiro from Spirited Away, Light Yagami from Death Note, and Howl from Howl's Moving Castle. As a result, Japanese anime culture has impacted the way the people of the country live and behave (Source: Unsplash)

Moreover, in western cartoons, stories develop in the background – irrespective of the narration or universe – while the protagonist lives their day-to-day life.

In contrast, most popular animes maintain a connection to real-world events during the protagonist's lifetime.

Even in fictitious stories, anime writers tend to weave a political or socio-economic narrative in the backdrop.

Another thing to note about Japanese anime culture is the drawing style. And since they are novel-styled moving graphics, each anime looks different from the other; hence, unique.

The main reasons for this difference are:

  • Colors: the shades used are highly saturated and bright
  • Character features: The features of anime characters are primarily human. They have large, round eyes like their face, thin mouth, and noses, and the main characters have unique hairstyles

Their shoulders are also typically the same size as the head, held together by a thin and long neck. Talking from a realistic point of view, if these characters were in our world, they would not be able to stand up!

However, with all that being said, the drawing style is anatomically incredible. Furthermore, the animation is also distinguishable by its elegance and beauty.

Life Values

A more significant part of Japanese anime culture is embedded with messages of positivity for its viewers.

Keep reading as we delve into a few examples:

Morals

The common phrase 'Faito' (fight) represents moral values in which the antagonist shows superhuman efforts to realize their dreams.

These types of moral values are evident in two of the globally renowned animes: Dragon Ball Z and Saint Seiya.

Those possessing a pure heart and strong will can achieve what they set out to do by overcoming obstacles.

This is further solidified by the opening and closing songs in which you will see these values being repeated constantly.

Through this process, the anime creators can deposit specific national and traditional ideals in their audience.

Shedding Light On Social Issues

However, not only do animes teach positive values, but they also highlight the social issues and the negative influence on Japanese society.

In various shows, you will be able to see the main villain symbolized as a prevalent social or moral issue (e.g., greed, gluttony, excess).

For instance, 'Welcome to NHK' is an anime depicting a 25-year-old becoming socially isolated due to an inability to study, unemployment, and being socially stunted.

Through this, the protagonist reads manga as a way to escape, a concept that reflects much of today's adolescents' reality.

Normalizes Minor Personal Quirks

An extreme level of shyness is also a problem faced by many Japanese people. If you are ever in Japan, you will observe that passersby are very particular about their personal space, avoiding eye contact.

In Spirited Away, the maternal overprotection of one of the characters (Bo) leads to blindness caused by fear of the unknown, a concept that is beautifully represented here.

Moreover, a young man in the anime shuts himself in his room due to frustration and fear stemming from society's expectations.

Meanwhile, Spirited Away depicts how present-day Japan deals with the responsibilities of an industrial world.

The story follows the work-awareness in a beehive and the family model followed in Japan. Even though she is just a child, the protagonist, Chihiro, starts working and, in the process, almost forgets her true self.

Various other characters, like No Face, Lin, or Bo, also show similar characteristics. When they are in pursuit of an objective, they completely dissociate themselves from their societal roles.

Realizes Corporate Tensions

Another element brought to light in this anime is the well-defined corporatism in Japanese business hierarchies.

The symbolism is defined in small details; for instance, it is apparent when we see the seats assigned to every worker in meetings.

Additionally, in the main tower, which is a vertical building, Yubaba's (the head of the organization) offices are on the top floor of everything, which is called 'heaven' by others.

A white robot standing still with its hands balled into a fist
Some of the popular anime characters and stories come from the mecha anime genre. With popular anime and manga like Evangelion, Code Geass, Gundam, and Gurren Lagann, the genre has gained popularity globally (Source: Unsplash)

Unburdens Family Ties

In another anime, Evangelion, tensions between a father (a workaholic) and his son are presented alongside narratives of adolescent confusion.

The cherry on top of this anime is that it all takes place in a Mecha universe, with teenagers driving robots to save the world from alien creatures known as the 'angels.'

It exposes a parent-child relationship riddled with conflicts, marked by:

  • Disappointment
  • Lack of affection
  • Abandonment

Despite the modernity depicted in the series, it is still customary to work for the same organization for life. As a result, they owe higher loyalty to it than their own family.

Unending workloads and crippling societal pressures have led to the death and suicides of many Japanese people.

Nonetheless, the anime highlights the message that work distinguishes animals from humans, whether an old man like Kamaji or a child such as Chihiro.

Modernity And Tradition

Anime plots and arguments are primarily framed in particular to the Japanese way of living. Therefore, it has a lingering connection with Japanese values and modern life:

Traditional Values

Despite most works being set in sci-fi settings, contextualized in the present, or referencing technology artifacts, all the settings visibly show conventional Japanese customs and traditions.

These are predominantly reflected in their various religious references. For example, the Buddhist and Shinto religious festivals are shown in several animes, even not many follow these faiths anymore.

Additionally, the settings where the narrative unfolds show temples as objects of worship and admiration.

Furthermore, in various other cases, samurais are shown alongside the traditions and aesthetics associated with those feudal times.

In animes like these, they present a part of the country's history via 'Bushido' (codes of conduct of Samurai).

Meanwhile, showing kabuki theatre characters or the different yokai (mythological beings for Japanese history) helps direct the viewers' interest towards Japan's traditional folklore.

Literature And Folklore

Animes also take classic Japanese folk literature references and weave them into modern narratives to link the contemporary and traditional.

Popular anime characters like Tsunade, Orochimaru, and Jiraiya from the manga and anime Naruto were taken from the novel 'The Legend of Jiraiya the Gallant' (Jiraiya Goketsu Monogatari).

Going back to Spirited Away, the journey of Chihiro presents a profound cultural clash in Japan between tradition and modernity.

The protagonist, a girl, ventures into the forest with 'torii,' and she is frightened by seeing a 'dosojin' (Shinto deities related to travelers and roads).

She is afraid of them since she does not recognize them, depicting her as a youth who is unaware of her origins.

Identity Crisis Of Japan

The Japanese culture is made up of various historical and cultural elements that unite in the present. So to discover the summit of pop culture and technology, you only have to travel to Tokyo.

However, if you travel to Kyoto, you suddenly revert in time to the Japanese Edo period. It depicts scenery that you might find on a postcard about Feudal Japan.

Additionally, the landscape is littered with imperial castles, Shinto temples, and stone roads – providing a look into what the land has been through.

Even though the dominant religion in Japan is no longer the same, the beliefs are still respected, especially for the elderly who still refuse to leave their millenary customs.

As stated above, Japan was isolated from the world for a long time, and not enough years have gone by for society to adjust to the modern era.

Therefore, you can even say that the country is still in its transition phase. That is also why there is so much content for anime creators to include.

That is why when you visit Japan, you can sense each city being different from the other. Sometimes it feels like you have traveled back in time.

On the one hand, you see the younger generation embrace appropriation of western discourses and globalization, whereas, on the other, the older generation still refuses to leave their traditions.

Learn About Anime And Japanese Culture With An Expert's Help

Japan is one of those places where the millennial culture is infused with the modern era in an unusual way that you might sometimes think that you are in a science fiction movie.

Of course, that is also infused in Japanese anime culture as well. In the streets, you will find both women in kimonos and anime fans. This contrasting scenery is also shown in anime.

That is why anime is an entertaining and simple audiovisual genre and a fantastic resource to learn about the duality of Japanese culture and life.

So, if you want to learn about anime culture, Japanese traditions, or learn to make anime, look for a private tutor.

Superprof provides users with access to tutors or students studying anything. All you have to do is sign up and look for an anime drawing tutor or a scriptwriting instructor near you.

Get started today and get your first session for free!

A person cosplaying as a samurai
Japanese anime culture shows various a mixture of modern-day and old Japan. Some common depictions of the Feudal Age Japan include Samurais and Yokai's in multiple anime. If you want to learn about popular anime characters, you may know some already of you're well-versed with Japanese folklore (Source: Unsplash)
>

The platform that connects tutors and students

First Lesson Free

Enjoyed this article? Leave a rating.

4.00 (4 rating(s))
Loading...

Jess