Anime: What Makes It So Special?
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Anime: What Makes It So Special?

By ELIZABETH GIBSON for The J-Pop Exchange

I remember the first time I had ever heard of anime.

Somewhere around 2007 or so, I was perusing through Myspace (like every other 14 year old was doing in the aughties). I was painstakingly picking my “Top 8” friends when I came across a relatively new friend’s profile. She had just moved to the small town I had grown up in, and her page was chock full of this type of animation I wasn’t too familiar with.

In fact, I had never seen anything like it. The characters had these completely unique, vibrant expressions, and the graphics were so colorful. The art and themes were so unusual and fantastical. I was intrigued.

Her Myspace page featured a couple of blogs about the “best animes of all time” and her “favorite anime at the moment,” as well as a post about how she always got upset when people called Japanese animation “cartoons.” There were a few of her own drawings inspired by anime characters and even some photos of her cosplaying (something else I had never heard of at the time). I thought it was so sophisticated that she was so into this thing that I had never even encountered.

Having not talked to her a lot in “real” life, as she was a new transplant to the area, I went up to her in the halls of our junior high the next day to ask her about her experience with anime.

Unfortunately, having learned by reading and not by listening, I made a bit of a mispronunciation.

“Did you just say ‘ah-nih-mee?’” she asked, laughing. “It’s pronounced ‘ah-knee-may.’”

My face turned beet red.

“Oh, no, that’s okay.” She opened up her locker and I took a peek inside while she switched books to and from her backpack. The walls of her locker were covered with drawings and photos of anime characters. “What do you want to know?” she asked.

She was very nice about my pronunciation snafu, and we talked about anime as well as her other interests for awhile. Unfortunately, by the end of the school year, her family moved again (as her father was in the military). So my source of all things anime was off to Arizona, probably to teach some other innocent teen how to properly pronounce the word.

It’s been over a decade since my first encounter with anime, and only now have I begun really delving into its whole expansive universe. I can tell there are some genres I won’t be into as much (action/adventure) and some I will really like (more slice of life stuff), although my husband has some suggestions all lined up for me. I’m having a great time with it. We recently began watching some Studio Ghibli films and I really loved My Neighbor Totoro. I think I want to watch From Up on Poppy Hill and The Wind Rises next.

These days, I’m interested in the history of anime and even the etymology of the word itself rather than simply critiquing and enjoying a show or a movie at face value.

I find it very interesting, for example, that the word anime has been criticized extensively.

In 1987, Hayao Miyazaki — film director and co-founder of Studio Ghibli — said he despised the truncated word “anime” because to him it represented the desolation of the Japanese animation industry as a whole. He equated the desolation with animators lacking motivation and creating mass-produced, overly-expressionistic products lacking depth and sophistication, allegedly ignoring any emotion or thought. 1

I tend to disagree, and think that language is ever-evolving. In this case, the word “anime” evolved (at least for Westerners) into a simplistic term encompassing all forms of Japanese animation targeted to an adult and/or child audience. Also, just like there are occasionally not-so-great movies coming out of Hollywood, there are bound to be some sub-par anime films.

However, there are plenty of Japanese animators keeping the material fresh and of high quality, and, of course, finding a way to feature Japan's history, language and worldview in a beautiful, artistic way.

Over the last 40 years — despite having to overcome obstacles and the forever-changing landscape of retail, the economy and the internet — anime has become an international phenomenon, attracting millions of fans worldwide, and being translated into many languages.2

The rise in popularity over the past few decades is, I think, due to exactly why I was drawn to it over ten years ago: it’s different.

And it’s extraordinary.


1. Miyazaki, Hayao (July 31, 1996). "日本のアニメーションについて" [Thoughts on Japanese Animation]. 出発点 1979-1996 [Starting Point 1979-1996]. San Francisco: Viz Media. pp. 72ff. ISBN 978-1-4215-0594-7.
2. Yegulalp, Serdar. "A Brief History of Anime" ThoughtCo, Feb. 19, 2017,

More by Elizabeth Gibson:

It Started In Japan: A Brief History Of The Emoji

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