An Introduction to Anime and Manga
In recent years, there has been a surge of interest in anime and manga by Western cultures. Before, mentioning the terms anime or manga in casual conversation would have been met with confusion, but more and more it’s met with “What do you watch?” or “Which one are you reading right now?”
Most anime and manga available in the US are Japanese and so that’s what this article will assume, but they can be from other Asian countries as well.
Finding and loving a particular anime or manga is often an exercise in extreme patience – and also hoping that, if you don’t speak Japanese, it or its sequels will eventually be translated and licensed in your country.
Since this is Fantasy-Faction, all anime and manga examples given will be speculative in some way or another (fantasy, sci-fi, supernatural, etc.)
Anime is animated, but the medium is quite a bit different than cartoons. While there is children’s anime, much more of it is marketed to older demographics. Older animes are usually made the same way older cartoons were – by hand drawing everything. Now it’s easy to find anime that has been produced with computer effects.
Anime is simple to consume – you just watch it like you would any TV show or movie, and it’s available on a wide variety of platforms. Four of the most easily accessible places to watch anime are Crunchyroll, FUNimation, Netflix, and Hulu. The selections will vary based on the licenses each company holds.
There are two vital terms you need to know when it comes to watching anime: subbed vs. dubbed. ‘Subbed’ anime means that it has translated subtitles, but all the voices are in the original language. ‘Dubbed’ anime has been voice-dubbed, usually in English, though other languages are sometimes available as well. The quality of the subtitles or voice dubs really depends on the company, and sometimes, sadly, it’s hit or miss. Which type you decide to watch will also depend on your personal preferences, and how patient you are. Subtitles are almost always available sooner than dubbed versions are.
There are a few ways anime is created – some has been adapted from books (Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo), or adapted from manga (sometimes more than once – like Black Butler and Fullmetal Alchemist), or original anime that is not adapted from anything.
When anime is adapted from a manga, there are a few different things that can happen, depending on how far into the plot the manga has been published. There is either a complete series that flows well (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood), an incomplete series that may or may not get picked up again later (D.Gray-man and its sequel, D.Gray-man: Hallow – Hallow still doesn’t finish out the main plot, because the manga is ongoing), or a series with an infinite amount of filler episodes that have pretty much nothing to do with the main plot as the screenwriters wait for more canon material (Naruto).
Eventually, you’re also going to run across the term OVA. This stands for Original Video Animation, and they are usually bonus episodes to an anime (or short video adaptations of manga) which are released directly to DVD or BluRay (often in a special bundle volume with a manga), and sometimes available for streaming as well, but they aren’t released with each season.
The closest print media we have to compare manga to are comic books and graphic novels. Most manga is black and white line art, and it is serialized in magazines and/or published in volumes. Those volumes are sometimes sets of short stories, but many are collections of chapters in longer stories. A volume can also include the full collection of a story.
The most important thing to note about manga is that Japanese is read from right to left, instead of left to right (like English). When manga is translated, the drawings are not redone or flipped. Hence, when you pick up an English manga volume, the format will be ‘backwards’ from the books we’re used to.
The framing and action sequences will flow right to left, then from top to bottom. Frames that span all the way across or all the way from top to bottom take precedence over the smaller frames on the page, while still following the right/left, top/bottom rule, and will help you determine the order in which to read the dialogue and descriptions.
How To Know What You’re About To Read or Watch
Anime and manga are usually both categorized with the same system – they are assigned a demographic, and then any applicable genres. There is a target audience, and then a genre (or multiple genres, if applicable). The target audience is defined vastly different than what Western publishers/producers use, but I often find it more reliable for determining the content and context of what I want to consume.
This is the target audience for adult women. Situations and relationships will often have a very realistic take to them, and will deal with more mature subject matter at times. Some titles that fall into this classification are Karneval and Pet Shop of Horrors.
This is the children’s demographic. I have not read or watched anything in this audience range, so I have no examples to give. Considering that I’ve been avidly watching anime for years now, and only recently ran across this demographic even being mentioned, you’re probably not going to stumble across it much, especially if you’re looking for speculative genres.
This demographic is basically adult males 18+. This does not mean that it’s all sexually explicit, though some certainly can be. Well-known titles that fall into this demographic are Mushishi and Ghost in the Shell.
This is the demographic for pre-adolescent and adolescent girls. They usually portray idealized relationships, happily-ever-after romances, and comedy. Examples for this demographic are Attack on Titan: No Regrets (OVAs), Yona of the Dawn, and The World is Still Beautiful (Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii).
Shojo-ai/Shoujo-ai and Yuri
Shojo-ai means ‘girl love,’ so I bet you know what this target audience is now. In Japan, shojo-ai is used to describe any female/female romantic relationships depicted, whether they are sexually explicit or not. Western audiences have split it up into shojo-ai (relationships depicted are more focused on the emotional aspects rather than sexual ones, and presumably still in the age-range of the shojo demographic) and yuri (which includes the sexual aspect of the relationship as well).
This target audience for this label is pre-adolescent and adolescent boys. Many of these fall in the ‘adventure’ genre as well, and the main character is usually a boy. This doesn’t mean that they’re light-hearted, though. Fullmetal Alchemist is shonen, and deals with some very heavy subject matter, but is still a humorous and heart-warming. Black Butler (Kuroshitsuji), Death Note, and Attack on Titan (Shingeki no Kyojin) are also targeted for the same demographic.
Shonen-ai/Shounen-ai and Yaoi
Guess what this one means! Yup, that would be ‘boy love.’ You may also encounter this categorized as ‘BL’ on some English sites. However, this is typically targeted for a female audience, rather than the male one of the shonen demographic. Once again, in Japan, they bunch all of it together, regardless of sexual content or lack thereof, under shonen-ai. And once again, Western audiences split it apart by shonen-ai (non-explicit, more focused on the emotional aspect) and yaoi (with the sexual aspect included in the relationship.)
A Note About ‘Light Novels’
This is a term you will encounter if you start really consuming anime and manga, and it will usually be in the context of noting that something is an adaptation of a light novel. Light novels are basically the Japanese equivalent of the young adult genre, though some light novels are targeted towards more adult audiences. In my experience, though, anime or manga that have been adapted from light novels are usually shojo or shonen.
There are many overlapping genres between our Western genres and what they use for anime and manga, such as action/adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction, romance, etc. We’re not going to go over those, but just some of the anime/manga specific ones, as well as a few that are a bit more specific than the genres we’re used to.
This is not quite a genre, and note quite a demographic, but this is the best place to put this particular label. Doujinshi is, essentially, self-published manga. It usually falls into two categories – original works, and what is the equivalent of fanfiction for manga. For the most part, you’ll only find fan-translated doujinshi, unless a publisher has decided to pick it up.
The criteria for the harem genre is that there are multiple people (3+) pursuing the affections of the protagonist. If the protagonist is male, that makes it the harem genre. If the protagonist is female, it is reverse harem. An example of each, respectively, is: Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? and Fruits Basket
This is pretty much exactly what it sounds like – girls with magic powers. Apparently (at least according to Wikipedia, so take it with a few grains of salt) this genre was inspired by the Japanese voiceovers of Mary Poppins and Bewitched. However, having a girl with magic powers present in the story doesn’t automatically make something magical girl genre. The magical girl is usually the protagonist(s), and activating their magical powers usually means they transform into a really frilly outfit with an oversized weapon. Sailor Moon probably the most well-known magical girl anime.
Certainly one of the more popular anime/manga genres, mecha is recognized by the mechanized suits used in these stories. There are several familiar titles in the genre: Code Geass, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Full Metal Panic!, Mobile Suit Gundam, etc.
Slice of Life isn’t as well-known as a genre to Western audiences, though it is used in the theater. Sitcoms are probably the most similar televised media there is to slice of life for the average American. But in anime and manga, slice of life is often more than just humorous coping. It is depicted by accurate representations of everyday life, and is usually without an overarching plot or goal. Example: My Neighbor Totoro
This genre is not quite softcore porn, but generally includes innuendo and fan service (unrealistic boob movement, panty shots, etc), without being explicit. The sexualization of women is common in this genre, but these stories will still adhere to a plot and character development. Example: High School DxD
Hentai is the Japanese word for ‘perverted,’ and this genre is essentially hardcore porn. I’ve not encountered it on any legal anime/manga websites in the US, but just in case you stumble across some either in a store or online, this definition is here so that you know what you might see beforehand.
A Final Note on Anime/Manga Availability and Consumption
Because anime and manga is foreign in creation, there is the added frustration of dealing with the availability of it (or lack thereof). In your seeking, you will come across a few different things: officially licensed media (which a publishing or production company has paid for the rights to distribute), fan translated media, and straight-up pirated media. Sometimes, these things overlap and it’s difficult to discern which is which.
Going to a store and buying physical copies of what you want to read or watch is always going to be the most fool-proof way to make sure you’re consuming the legal version of something. The next best is a digital format through a licensed publisher or distributor (such as Crunchyroll, Hulu, Netflix, Viz Media, Funimation, etc.).
Sadly, the licensed versions of things can also lag behind – sometimes by years – what is available in the original language. Sometimes, things don’t get licensed for translation at all. In that case, if you absolutely must read or watch something, your next best bet is to find a fan translation. If it is something that is licensed and you’re just staying current, make sure to contribute to the actual licensed products when they do become available.
An example of fan translation is Hisazuki, who I linked to earlier. Her translation that I follow – the sequel to the Library Wars manga – is looking like it will never be licensed for the English speaking market. I read it there because otherwise I wouldn’t get to read it at all, but I am in the process of buying the complete set of the original manga series, so the artist and the original author are being compensated for my enjoyment.
And then there’s free anime streaming sites, which can be dangerous at worst (malware, viruses, etc.) and legally-gray at best.
This is just a brief overview to get you started on your anime and manga journey. If you have any other questions, please leave a comment, and I will answer as best I can!