My Hero Academia
All About Anime
The world of Japanese animation is deep and wide, encompassing action, comedy, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, adventure, serious social issues and more — and it's never been just for kids.
Goku Luffy Deku Denji Tanjiro.
To the uninitiated, that list may read like a coded message or a nonsense cheer from college sports. But those in the know will recognize the names of the lead characters in some of the world's most popular animated franchises: Dragon Ball, One Piece, My Hero Academia, Chainsaw Man and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, respectively.
Welcome to the world of Japanese animation, or anime.
Its popularity among younger audiences worldwide is staggering. The manga — graphic novel — of Eiichiro Oda's pirate comedy-adventure One Piece has sold more than 516 million books — even surpassing Harry Potter. The TV series has passed its thousandth episode, and the fifteenth feature, One Piece Film: Red, outdrew Top Gun: Maverick to become the number-one box-office hit of 2022 in Japan. Another franchise, the sci-fi Mobile Suit Gundam, includes more TV series and features than Star Trek, and a fifty-nine-foot-tall "life-sized" figure of its RX-78F00 Gundam character will tower over an amusement center in Yokohama, Japan, through the end of March 2024.
The sheer scale of anime production can seem daunting. Since Osamu Tezuka began the modern era of Japanese animation with the series Astro Boy in 1963, there have been about 5,000 theatrical features, OAVs (original animation videos) and broadcast series — some of which have run for hundreds of episodes.
Japanese audiences and artists never bought into the idea that animation programming is just for kids. Animated series run at all hours, aimed at audiences of every age. Elementary-school children watch Case Closed and Pokémon, while their older siblings enjoy Dragon Ball and My Hero Academia. Late teens and adults may watch "fan service" series featuring cleavage and panty shots of curvaceous heroines, "BL" (boy's love) fantasies depicting romances between beautiful young men, or violent adventures like Attack on Titan and the viscera-strewn Chainsaw Man.
Early Japanese series were so heavily reworked for American TV that few viewers realized they were Japanese. Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was recut and new animation of the R2-D2-esque robot, 7-Zark-7, was added for Battle of the Planets in 1978. In 1985, producers at Harmony Gold edited together three similar-looking but unrelated sci-fi series to create the space opera Robotech.
Serious anime fandom in America began with small groups of mostly young men watching bootleg videos. The release of Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira and Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro in 1988 helped to expand awareness of a new kind of animation, very different from that of Disney or Warner Bros. Today, most colleges and many high schools have large anime clubs. In the '80s, some Americans studied Japanese because they felt they needed it for business; today, many study it to watch anime and read manga in the original language.
Before the pandemic, there was at leastone anime convention or "con" every weekend in the U.S. When the "cons" began in the early '90s, they were largely the domain of young white and Asian-American fanboys; as they grew in size, they grew more inclusive. More than 100,000 fans of all ethnicities, gender identities and ages attend Anime Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center each Fourth of July weekend. Anyone who loves Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Attack on Titan or Sailor Moon will find friends there.
Although Japanese studios work on notoriously tight schedules and small budgets, their artists have freedom to create characters whose flaws and shortcomings could raise objections in the U.S. about poor role models or undesirable imitable behaviors.
But those flaws can infuse the characters with complexity and humanity. Serena, heroine of the Sailor Moon series, oversleeps, gets spotty grades and describes herself as a "bit of a crybaby." When she transforms into the lovely Sailor Moon and announces to a wrongdoer, "In the name of the Moon, I will punish you," however, her message of female empowerment resonates with adolescent girls all over the world.
Deku, the short, scrawny, unkempt hero of the hit fantasy-adventure My Hero Academia, looks more like somebody's geeky cousin than a Marvel hero. In the manga on which it's based, creator Kohei Horikoshi comments, "His sweat glands never have a day off" and his "tear ducts are always on duty." Despite his unprepossessing demeanor, Deku is ferociously dedicated to helping anyone in trouble — even if it means shattering his own wrist bones using his "Double Detroit Smash" attack.
But anime offers more than comic-book adventures. Recent features and series have tackled serious issues — bullying (A Silent Voice), economic inequality (C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control), young men's underemployment in the post-boom economy (Eden of the East), young shut-ins (Welcome to the N.H.K.) and even teen suicide (Colorful).
In the action series Megalo Box, brooding antihero Joe lives in the gritty "Restricted Area" of a post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Lacking the citizenship papers required to compete in a big tournament, he acquires a fake ID that leaves him vulnerable to threats of disqualification and blackmail. The tournament takes place in the opulent "Administrative District," which is physically adjacent to the Restricted Area but separated from it by an unbridgeable socio-economic gap.
In many anime stories, characters face grave moral challenges. During the conflicts surrounding the Meiji Restoration of 1868, Kenshin Himura, hero of Rurouni Kenshin ("Kenshin the Wanderer"), was a lethal Imperialist assassin. Once peace came, he took an oath never to kill again. When government agents ask him to fight a deluded samurai who's assembled a private army to make himself ruler of Japan, Kenshin must decide whether to keep his oath or revert to killing to prevent a civil war.
On the other hand, anime comedies can be as funny as any on American TV. When someone accidentally blows up a workshop in Oh! Edo Rocket, a carpenter frets, "They need it in the next episode!" Another character reassures him, "Yeah, but they can always draw another one." And it's hard to beat the no-holds-barred absurdity of The Devil Is a Part-Timer! Satan, the Lord of Demons, is blown through an interdimensional portal into modern Tokyo. Lacking his accustomed powers — and flat broke — Satan adopts a pseudonym and gets a job at the fast-food outlet "MgRonald." He becomes the "perfect MgRonald employee" and is promoted to assistant manager.
A cross-cultural cross-pollination is taking place wherein anime has become an essential part of youth culture worldwide. It affects American animation and live-action filmmaking — and vice versa. Blade Runner influenced Ghost in the Shell, which influenced the Matrix movies, which led to The Animatrix. Perhaps one day even the names Goku, Luffy, Deku, Denji and Tanjiro may become as familiar to stateside audiences as Neo.
On A Roll
Streaming services have an uncanny ability to transform a niche corner of entertainment into a mainstream juggernaut. For sixteen years, Crunchyroll has helped anime move from the periphery of pop culture to center stage. Mitchel Berger, senior vice-president of global commerce, attributes the brand's expansion to a continued focus on servicing the niche. "At Crunchyroll, we don't want to be something for everyone. We want to be everything to someone."
Founded in 2006 by fans as an anime piracy site, Crunchyroll went legit soon after and then cycled through owners including The Chernin Group, AT&T, Otter Media and WarnerMedia until 2021. That's when Sony Pictures and Aniplex (owned by Sony Music Entertainment Japan) jointly acquired the channel and merged it with Funimation, the other big anime hub.
Asa Suehira, chief content officer at Crunchyroll, says streaming helped rescue anime from the dark ages of distribution. "Being a salesperson in the early 2000s, we often had to talk to broadcasters, who were the gatekeepers," Suehira recalls. "We said to ourselves, 'Instead of going [business-to-business], what if we went [business-to-consumer]?'"
Thanks to classic content like Dragon Ball and Naruto and modern hits such as Demon Slayer and Chainsaw Man, Berger believes Crunchyroll's position as a nexus for fans has helped both anime and the company grow. "It feeds on itself. It becomes easier for existing fans to find content and easier for us to help create new fans." Crunchyroll licenses and commissions programming and operates an annual anime awards show and yearly fan expo.
For some, all of anime might seem indistinguishable from its most popular genre, shonen, stories aimed at male teens. However, Suehira says, Crunchyroll's 10 million subscribers and millions of global users are a testament to the company's complex content profile. "Shonen is the most popular genre, but in our data, we see that the female audience is growing," he says. "Anime has demonstrated that it has a place for all types of people, but we think it's time for the awards community to discover anime." —Devin Nealy
Ten Key Franchises
Cowboy Bebop: A jazz-inflected film noir aesthetic keeps this hard-hitting sci-fi adventure a perennial fan favorite.
Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba: Taisho-era teenager Tanjiro seeks to destroy the savage demons that slaughtered his family.
Dragon Ball Z: A mixture of slapstick comedy, martial arts training and all-out slugfests make this installment of the Dragon Ball franchise one of the most popular boys' series ever created.
Eden of the East: A quirky rom-com adventure that reflects the younger generation's concerns about Japan's future after the collapse of the Bubble Economy.
Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood: This moving, morally complex fantasy-adventure broke down the barriers between boys' and girls' entertainment.
Gundam Wing: The quintessential entry in the long-running giant-robot saga Mobile Suit Gundam.
Naruto: This tale of ninja-in-training and self- proclaimed knucklehead Naruto Uzumaki was a huge hit on both sides of the Pacific.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: A brooding, dystopic sci-fi series, it ranks among the most influential and widely debated anime series of all time.
One Piece: Eiichiro Oda's rambunctious pirate comedy-adventure is one of the biggest hits in animation history.
Sailor Moon: Girls around the world love this empowering romantic adventure. —C.S.
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine animation special, under the title, "Intro to Anime."