Anime explained: history, examples and techniques.

Although its origins stretch much further back, anime has charmed Western audiences with its distinctive style and storytelling devices. From post-apocalyptic struggles to high-school heartbreak, anime covers all the bases. Find out more about anime with our guide to the techniques it employs and its most famous productions.

What is anime?

Anime is the word Western audiences use to describe Japanese film animation and TV shows (although it’s used to describe any animation in Japan itself).

The medium’s low production costs and proliferation in Japanese popular culture mean anime is produced in a variety of genre, from high-school comedy-drama to post-apocalyptic sci-fi and horror. Known for its expressive characters and relatively limited animation, anime has pushed boundaries, captivated audiences - and even won an Oscar.

Anime vs animation: key differences.

Despite sharing common etymology there are differences between anime and animation in the way the two styles portray movement, character and background.

Range of motion.

We use the word ‘animated’ to describe a person who just can’t sit still. And much of the animation technique is about how characters move from point A to point B, using key frames and straight-ahead animation to emphasise the sometimes chaotic nature of a character’s movement.

But in anime there’s much less focus on animating movement. While there tends to be some exaggeration in facial expressions and reflex actions, particularly in children’s shows like the Pokémon series, generally the animations are much less hectic, with more defined, orderly interactions between characters and slower, more considered movement.

Scenes and settings.

One of anime’s most visually appealing aspects is its focus on scenery and background. Anime emphasises the mises-en-scène more than the players - packing in the preamble with detailed backgrounds, relying more on sound and visual effects to promote whatever atmosphere the following scene calls for.

On the other hand, animation focuses very much on the foreground - even at the expense of the background. Sometimes a background would be ‘wrapped’ to repeat itself in older animation works as, for example, the cast of Scooby-Doo fled their monster of the week through unnaturally stretched-out corridors and identical patches of forest.

Target audiences.

Strictly adult-orientated programming has maintained a small presence throughout the history of animation, with outliers like Fritz the Cat and Heavy Metal alongside more mainstream fare. However, the medium has predominantly belonged to families and specifically younger viewers in the West.

Anime, on the other hand, has never discriminated. A studio’s typical production docket can easily contain comedic character-based studies with dark dystopian drama. Not to mention the near-hundred-billion-dollar juggernaut that is Pokémon, plus its peers keeping kids entertained.

Anime vs manga: key differences.

A term we closely associate with anime is manga, however the two are distinctly different art forms.

The same difference between comic books and cartoons applies to manga and anime. Manga deals with stories on the printed page, while anime is the animated variety of storytelling. Manga are a rich source of culture throughout Japan, from bestselling works and serialised stories to self-published zines and grassroots movements.

Western confusion between the two terms partly stems from the popular Manga Entertainment company. In an earlier guise, this was the company that broke the sci-fi anime phenomenon Akira in the UK during the early 1990s.

The company’s preference for distributing titles on the edgier side of the anime spectrum like Fist of the North Star and Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend was partly what gave Manga (the company) and anime (the medium) a cooler, more grown-up reputation in the West.

But the name itself was a misnomer: Manga distributed anime titles and rarely printed comic books despite ‘manga’ specifically referring to comics and graphic novels.

However, just as Hollywood has a penchant for adapting bestselling books to the big screen, so too do many of manga’s most popular works make it into animated productions both for TV and film. Death Note, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon are just three of the most recognised titles in the West which began life on the hand-drawn page.

History of Japanese animation.

Experts differ on the identity of the first official piece of Japanese-created animation - somewhere in between Katsudō Shashin (“Motion Picture”, aka the Matsumoto Fragment, 1907) and Nippāru no Henkei (Nipparu’s Transformation, circa 1911). While Japanese audiences were introduced to the first Western pieces of animation throughout the 1910s, their own animations were already being developed by then.

The Tokyo earthquake of 1923 sadly accounted for the loss of much of Japan’s animated creations up until that point and it wasn’t until the 1930s that studios could afford to work with traditional cel animation. The Dance of the Chagamas (1935) is regarded as the first short film in this style.

The first fully fledged anime studios began to appear during the 1950s, following the format’s widespread use as wartime propaganda. Toei Animation’s mission statement to become ‘the Disney of the East’ was realised with the first co-production of a full-colour anime feature film in 1958. The White Snake Enchantress is a re-telling of an old Chinese folktale, designed to repair relations between the two nations.

As anime made its way to the small screen during the 1960s, a handful of titles would have success on Western television. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy sealed the creator’s reputation as an anime master, while Speed Racer and Lupin III also found favour outside of Japan.

The 1980s saw a real uplift in the visual quality and success of anime around the world. Hayao Miyazaki founded Studio Ghibli - which began to make some of the medium’s most captivating creations, including the only anime to date to win an Oscar, Spirited Away in 2003. The likes of Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and Ponyo (2008) have solidified the studio’s reputation for crafting intricate details and sublime storytelling for viewers young and old.

The Eighties also brought a grittier, darker edge for anime presentation. Science fiction thrillers like Akira and Ghost in the Shell delve deep into the human psyche, presenting uncomfortable glimpses of the future and what’s within with a feast of visual effects and twisting, turning storylines.

That same combination of psychological thriller and futuristic fantasy isn’t just reserved for the cinema. One of Japanese TV’s most critically acclaimed series was Neon Genesis Evangelion, which slowly gathered viewership and ended as a cultural phenomenon when it first aired in October 1995. A re-telling of the typical teens-pilot-robots tale, Rebuild of Evangelion was produced as four feature-length films, concluding in 2021.

Examples of anime.

Anime productions are categorised by viewers and makers alike in terms of their target audience. Here are just a few of the types of anime.

Kodomo/Kodomuke - anime aimed at children. Examples include the various Pokémon series, as well as Hello Kitty and Digimon. They tend to have little life lessons, are gender neutral and characterised by diverse casting.

Shónen - aimed at pre-teen and teenage boys. Dragon Ball and Naruto are popular examples of shónen, characterised by young men in leader positions, lots of action and being quite wide-reaching in the types of genre.

Shójo - aimed at pre-teen and teenage girls. Sailor Moon and Fushigi Yuugi are popular titles. These typically deal a lot more with romance and relationships, although some have their fair share of action too.

Seinen - aimed at young adult men. Tend to contain more adult themes, with science fiction and horror genre prominent. Examples include Hellsing, One-Punch Man and Tokyo Ghoul.

Josei - aimed at young adult women. Takes a more realistic, adult approach to relationships and romance, with adult themes and psychological depths. Examples include Usagi Drop and Paradise Kiss.


Fascinated by the world of animation?

Keep learning by reading our beginner's guide to animation.

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How to make anime films.

Because of anime’s relatively sophisticated approach, the straight-ahead style of animating may not suit all productions. A thorough process of plotting and storyboarding will give you the through lines to tell your story in anime form.

When it comes to the animation process itself, note the distinct style of anime contains fewer frames of animation - it’s typically ‘shot on threes’, which means each individual drawing is held for three frames rather than one. The resulting effect looks noticeably less fluid than Western animation, but it’s all part of the trademark anime style.

Storyboarding involves setting out the basic development of the project and can include camera movements plus shot durations.

Landscaping involves teams bringing the backgrounds and surroundings of the story to life - in anime this can cover anything from high schools to the edge of the galaxy, so it’s a process that needs some imagination. This can be done digitally or by hand depending on budget and creative.

Animators create key frames - the most significant frames from the start, through the middle, to the end of each little animated action. In-between animators work on the frames - yes - in between.

Compositing is the colouring and shading of the frames - a vital part of bringing the process to life.

Finally, an Effects team puts their stamp on proceedings, with a variety of visual effects to liven up the action.

If you’re in the process of creating an anime film, you’re unlikely to have the time or budgets that professional anime studios like Studio Ghibli or Kyoto Animation have. So, start small:

  • Adobe Illustrator can help you to create the characters, storyboards and basic elements of your animation.
  • Adobe Animate lets you bring your characters to life.
  • Adobe Premiere Pro has a variety of visual effects to give your work that signature anime style in post-production.

Anime FAQs.

What is the most watched anime?

The sheer amount of anime produced makes it difficult to determine which is the most watched. But research revealed that the most searched-for anime in the United States is One Piece. With almost 400 hours of the show produced across its feature-length films, TV episodes and specials, the story of the Straw Hats continues to enthral viewers.

What is the longest anime?

The longest-running anime production in the world is Sazae-san. Based on the manga written and illustrated by Machiko Hasegawa since 1946, the anime series of eight-minute episodes began airing in 1969. Fifty years and some 8,000 segments later, the family-based comedy is still going strong. Its prominent placement on Sunday nights has even given rise to ‘Sazae-san syndrome’, that old feeling that the weekend is almost over once it's aired.

What is the true meaning of anime?

Although thought to derive from the French for ‘cartoon’, dessin animé, anime is merely a shortened expression of the English word ‘animation’, written as ‘animéshon’ in Japanese katakana as アニメーション. While in the Western world it’s used particularly to describe Japanese-produced works, the word in Japan covers the whole world of animation.