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The Basics of Anime
Anime is Japanese for 'animation'. The word was originally borrowed from the French when animation was introduced. Animation as an industry is much larger in Japan than it is in North America, being of the same order of magnitude as the 'live-action' film industry there. Anime separates itself from Amerian animation in many ways. In America animation is commonly perceived as children's entertainment, as American animation is designed for generally a younger audience. In Japan however, animation is not merely viewed as a form of children's entertainment, but as a visual medium and artform that can be used and manipulated to tell stories in a way that could not be possible with live-action. Anime works covers nearly all film and television genres one could possibly imagine. While anime varies in quality according to both production techniques and artistic merit, the level of sophistication is, in general, far superior to it's counterpart outside Japan, the 'cartoon'. The beauty and appeal of anime is most likely due to the fact that there is a show for nearly any interest and any age group. Anime is distributed in three forms, TV episodes, Original Video Animation (often called OVAs or OAVs), and full length feature films.
These are the animes shown on TV in Japan. TV series in Japan run according to different sydication rules than in the US, and can run to very different lengths. Series such as Vision of Escaflowne run only 26 episodes, while other series such as Dragonball have aired over 500 eps. Many TV series are based off of manga, Japanese comics, providing lots of ready story material. The art ranges from adequate to good, but since the animes have more time to develop their characters, they are usually more enjoyable.
Original Video Animation
Also known as OVA, or OAV (Original Animated Video). Both mean the same thing. These anime go directly to the video market. Originally creators were given the freedom of creating a story that was not constrained by time limits, commercial breaks, sponsors, or specified episode runs. OVA's could be as long or as short as the animators wished, several episodes or a one-shot. Shows like Black Magic M-66 and Riding Bean are examples of the one-shot OVA. Bubblegum Crisis is another example of the freedoms the format could afford. Each episode was a different length to fit the story, and the opening and ending music changed every episode as well. More recently, however, OVA's have been adopting standard formats that include half-hour length episodes and 'eyecatches' where commercial breaks can be inserted.
Full Length Feature Film
These anime are made for the big screen. They feature some of the best art works around. Feature films generally last anywhere from 60 minutes to 2 hours.
Common References to Japanese Culture in Anime
Here's a guide to some of the common symbols, themes, and objects that pop up in anime. Check back for new updates! Or, check out our sources for more information:
Dunn, Charles J. Everyday Life in Traditional Japan. Rutland, VT: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1997.
Poitras, Gilles. The Anime Companion. Berkeley, CA: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.
Saunders, E. Dale. Mudr?: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.
Beckoning Cat (Manekineko)
A statue of a cat with one paw raised in a "come hither" gesture. They are placed near the entrances to businesses as they are thought to bring good luck in the form of customers.
Cherry Blossoms (Sakura)
Cherry trees bloom for a very short time, then drop their flowers all at once. The brevity of the blossoms is associated with the concept of mono no aware. The appearance of sakura in anime lends an air of sad beauty. Of course, this beautiful melancholy can be overdone, as parodied in the Cherry Blossom episode of Cardcaptor Sakura, where a sea of the things nearly drowns our heroine's schoolmates. Due to its sentimental association, Sakura is a common girl's name in Japan.
Not usually seen in anime but frequently heard. Its sound is synonymous with summer and connotes dry heat.
A bamboo stick with a small bowl on the end. It is used to remove excess wax from the ears. This practice is quite pleasant and shows strong affection between the two people involved. This doesn't appear in anime too often, but is still very interesting.
(Editor's note: Animania does not condone or recommend this practice. Thus, it's not our fault if you punch a hole through your brain while trying to find a new way to spend quality time.)
Firefly-viewing is the summer equivalent to sakura-watching. A folk belief says that fireflies are the souls of the dead.
Two free-standing pillars with a parallel bar on top signify the torii. The most recognizable variety are painted bright red, but simple stone or wood torii are more common. They are placed at the entrances to Shinto shrines.
A streamer of paper folded into a zig-zag design. They are used in Shinto rituals to mark a place as sacred. Wands with gohei on the end are used by miko in purification ceremonies.
In Pita Ten, Hiroshi Mitarai's overzealous sister Kaoru repeatedly attacks people with what looks like a curved spear (or a wooden banana tied to a stick). This is actually a weapon called a naginata. In Heian-era Japan, when the court hierarchy was the social equivalent of a swimming pool full of sharks, noble ladies exercised by sparring with halberds. Since the Mitarai family is an old, prestigious line, its female members would obviously be proficient in this tradition.
Often translated as simply "god," this word has no precise English equivalent. While Shinto deities are indeed kami, so are Buddhist saints, historical figures, spirits, ghosts, demons, and even inanimate objects such as trees, mountains, stones and swords. A kami can be thought of as anything that inspires reverence or awe. When anime characters clap their hands twice, they are praying to a kami.
Miko (shrine maiden)
Supplementary priestesses at Shinto shrines. They wear a white, long-sleeved top called a chihaya, and red trousers known as hibakama. In the past, miko were powerful religious leaders. Their status has been lowered today, but many of the New Religions which have branched off of Shintoism have a miko at the helm.
Mirrors play an important part in Shinto ritual. They represent the disk of the sun, which is the light of the chief Japanese goddess Amaterasu. In Japanese mythology, Amaterasu hid inside a cave after being gravely insulted by her brother, Susanoo. Without the light of the sun, the world withered. To lure her out, the other gods held a huge party outside the cave. One of the goddesses hopped up on a sake barrel and performed a striptease. This made the rest of the gods laugh so loud that Amaterasu grew curious. When she peeked out, the others held up a mirror before her, claiming they had found a new sun-god. Still puzzled, Amaterasu left the cave to see more of this stranger. She was seized and dragged out, and a shimenawa was spread across the cave mouth to prevent her from retreatng again. (See Maison Ikkoku for a parody of this myth.)
Mono no Aware (sensitivity to things)
This explains why anime is so gooshily sentimental all the darn time. The idea of mono no aware is that human beings, being naturally emotional creatures, will react sentimentally to the world around them. To feel it, imagine that warm glow you get when you're in your favorite reading spot. Or think of the last time you saw the sun rise. For you urbanites, remember the last time you saw snow gently falling outside your window. Basically, mono no aware is what makes poets do what they do. In Japan, mono no Aware is also closely tied to the fleetingness of time. Beautiful things, like sakura or autumn leaves or snow, are transient things. hus, this sentimentality is often tinged with a note of sadness.
Pot Hook (Jizaikagi)
A hollow bamboo tube with an inserted iron hook from which pots are hung over a hearth. A horizontal piece attached to the rod can be used to raise or lower the hook. This horizontal piece is often shaped like a fish.
Usually translated as "raccoon," the tanuki is actually a member of the canine family. Its scientific name is Nyctereutes rocyonoides. It is found throughout southeast Siberia, Manchuria and Japan, and due to introduction via Russia, it has recently appeared in the wild in Germany and France. Tanuki are omnivorous, consuming small prey such as lizards, ground birds and rodents. They can even eat toxic frogs because they secrete a large amount of saliva, which dilutes the poisons.
In Japan, the tanuki is seen as a trickster spirit much like the fox (kitsune), although the raccoon-dog is seen as more mischievous than the villainous, seductive kitsune.
One can often see large ceramic statues of tanuki outside of restaurants. These figures typically have enormous testicles, wear straw hats and hold gourds of water.
Sacred Ropes (Shimenawa)
A cord made of rice straw bordering a particular spot to mark it as sacred; placed around torii, shintai, and shinboku, and across pathways. They are often hung with gohei. Anyone who's seen Tenchi Muyo or Blue Seed will be very familiar with shimenawa.
A senpai is someone with greater superiority in a given situation, while a kohai is the one who is subservient. These relationships are usually seen in school, with a senpai indicating an upperclassman and a kohai a freshman. It may also refer to a mentor taking an apprentice under his wing. Note in Trigun that Milly frequently refers to Meryl as "senpai."
An object in which a kami takes up residence. The shintai can be, among many other things, a rock, a mountain, a waterfall, a mummified body part or a man-made object. The shintai is contained within a Shinto shrine--or in the case of enormous objects, a shrine is built nearby. When a branch shrine is to be established, a mirror will be sent from the main shrine to function as a substitute shintai.
Shishiodoshi (deer scare)
The shishiodoshi consists of a hollow bamboo tube into which water falls. When the tube fills, it falls and strikes a rock, producing the clean "thunk" noise often heard in Japanese gardens.
A staff or wand with a hoop at one end, upon which are hung an even number of rings. Commonly associated with Buddhism, the sistrum has a variety of purposes. For the monk who has taken a vow of silence, the staff is used to announce his prescence at the door of a house he is visiting. As Buddhism prohibits harming other living things, the sound made by the rings as they clink against each other is meant to scare away animals that the wielder might accidently step on. Also, the ringing serves to muffle the distracting sounds of the material world so that the monk can contemplate in peace. On the purely magical side, the sistrum is used as a staff to drive off demons.
Malevolent spirits depicted as glowing balls with trailing tails. Caricatures of Hitodama sometimes appear in the kanji of supernaturally oriented anime, such as Yu Yu Hakusho.
In Japan tattoos carry a strong sense of badass-ness. Even something as simple as a small rose or heart suggests some degree of criminal or pugilistic behavior. The most famous tattoos are the elaborate works of art worn by the yakuza, which cover most of the body, except for the hands and face. These latter areas are left bare so that the tattoos can be concealed under clothing.