The Anime Review FAQ
1. Questions About The Anime ReviewWhy don't you update more often? And why don't you review more new shows?
Simply, I pace myself. For many years, The Anime Review updated every week without fail. However, life has often gotten in the way. In 2013, we're now in an era of TV anime being what everybody watches via streaming. To watch 26 episodes (or even 13) for one review can be a challenge! The reality is, every other single-reviewer anime site open in the 1990s is now defunct -- except The Anime Review. I also don't review more due to the fact that I am a pastor who preaches, teaches, and leads music at my church, and I have a family with two young boys. A real life -- what a concept! But enough excuses from me...
As far as the second question goes, I realize that I can't keep up with everything that's out there. If you want to do that, you can via the great Anime News Network. My goal these days is to watch shows from every era of anime that I think I'll like and then tell you what I think afterwards. My goal is to be a long-term resource that helps the newcomer find the best material throughout Japan's history of making anime and helps the veteran find the hidden treasures they might have missed. That means I'll review new stuff, but not at the expense of the old.
Many shows weren't completely reviewed because I saw them back in the day of the 4 episode, $25 DVD. Nowadays, between streaming and box sets, that's not a big deal. However, I've got a lot of catching up to do. I do try to evaluate offical DVD/Blu-Ray sets when I can; if you're paying for it, you should know exactly what you're going to get! Since 90% of the material I review nowadays has been released in the US, the packaging of shows plays an important part. It used to be cost that prohibited me from reviewing a lot of long series, but now it's an issue of time. I'll continue to give you what I have when I have it.
I've been watching anime since 1985, with the advent of Robotech hitting the airwaves. I've logged a few thousand hours of anime viewing time. I lived through the age of very little translated anime, as well as the era of having to sit in stuffy college study rooms with strange and scary people just to see the latest episode of Saint Seiya. I have a BA in Mass Communication with 16 hours of Japanese language credits (which means virtually nothing when trying to understand how people actually talk in anime,) as well as my Masters of Divinity. I've fansubbed six different shows and learned just how good an Amiga could be with JacoSub and a genlock. I'm also a film fan, so I compare a lot of things in anime with counterparts in American media. But really, all that qualifies anyone to review anime is an open mind and a healthy opinion.
I wish there were more of them still around. Since I last updated my FAQ, only my friends at THEM Anime remain. I miss a great number of sites that I mention in memoriam: The Anime Meta-Review (Andrew Shelton), Lord Carnage's Super-Ultra-Gargantuan Anime Reviews Page, Anime Jump, The Anime Critic (Pete Harcoff), MARP, The Anime Cafe/A Parent's Guide To Anime, Julie's Anime Reviews, and the original Anime on DVD. Nowadays, I hang out at THEM Anime a lot, and I get my reviews from them and Anime News Network. (The work of Justin Sevakis and Bamboo Dong is particularly good over there.) While there are tons of blogs out there with anime reviews, there aren't any that I follow that are still updated.
Absolutely not! In fact, I think properly done anime reviews are a huge part of keeping anime fandom alive and growing. Everyone who's introduced a friend to anime has played reviewer in some fashion--giving that friend tapes that you know they'll like, avoiding titles that they will probably hate, etc. I've known many people who were turned off by anime by watching the wrong title first. Hopefully, sites like The Anime Review can help to guide people a bit.
There's something that I learned from Roger Ebert a long time ago. I've been reading his column for a while, and as such I've learned what his tastes are. In many circumstances, I can even tell when I'll like a movie that he's trashed, such as The Usual Suspects, because I've started to understand the way he looks at films. In the same manner, a regular reader of The Anime Review should be able to start seeing and understanding the author's preferences and should be able to compare them to their own viewpoint. As such, reviews written by one consistent author should help the whole community reading those reviews, even if some of them are negative.
I've been asked this question in less pleasant terms, but I'll try to answer it as honestly as possible. When it comes down to it, there are a lot of anime created for an audience different than me. Saying that I can't understand it or enjoy it, however, is foolishly naive. A negative review on a title that happens to be in a particular niche genre doesn't mean I dislike the genre; it means I disliked that title. As anime becomes more and more popular and more niche titles hit the American market, reviews of those titles are going to be more and more important. The typical Western anime fan isn't likely to know or care who the target audience was in Japan; they want to know if they are going to like it or not. I have no strong feelings about niche anime (save for hentai, which I actively avoid,) but promoting it just because it is "special" anime is plainly unethical for the reviewer to consider. It's no different than assigning the same film reviewer to see Pacific Rim, Before Midnight, Monsters University, and Anchorman 2. They are vastly different movies for vastly different audiences, but the reviewer still is responsible for coming up with a fair review for each one. Same for anime.
1. Wings of Honneamise
2. Robot Carnival
5. My Neighbor Totoro
6. Macross '84: Do You Remember Love?
7. Cowboy Bebop
8. Omoide Poroporo (Only Yesterday)
9. Voices Of A Distant Star
10. Lupin III: First Contact
Honorable mentions go to Bunny Drop, Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers, Millenium Actress, Kimagure Orange Road, Maison Ikkoku, Lodoss Wars OVA, Arion, Castle in the Sky, Video Girl Ai, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirited Away, Memories, and Berserk.
Tons, but I really want to watch Kids On The Slope, the upcoming Berserk and Evangelion movies, and From Up On Poppy Hill.
2. Questions About Anime (and yes, these are real...)What is anime?
Anime is a Japanese term derived from the English word animation. In Japan, anime technically refers to anything animated, included imported products such as Disney films. However, in the English speaking world, anime refers exclusively to animated works that are primarily created and produced in Japan. Currently, animated projects such as Final Fantasy that are produced in Japan but not primarily created by traditional animation methods are generally not considered anime (though some would disagree.) Anime covers a wide range of subjects, and it encompasses a variety of different artistic styles. However, anime is set apart from its western animated counterparts by its willingness to explore adult themes and topics in sometimes graphic detail, its sophistication in dialogue and artwork (even in shows meant only for children), and its depiction of all genres of entertainment, from horror and sci-fi to romantic comedies and melodramas. At times, almost half of Japan's movie product has been animated, and a substantial amount of Japanese television programming is also anime.
Manga are the Japanese equivalent of comic books. However, they are far different from their western brethren. The typical manga is actually a collection of stories by a variety of writers and artists, and they cover a wide variety of genres. Manga are usually published in large volumes (often jokingly referred to as telephone books), printed on cheap paper, have perhaps 300-400 pages, sell for a few dollars, and are considered diversionary entertainment that most people throw away after reading. Particularly successful manga stories are usually republished in smaller, higher-quality collections that are much more suitable to collect. Although manga are extremely popular, judging by the number of copies sold and seen on the streets of Tokyo, they are still not completely socially acceptable. Since Japanese society has become incredibly individualistic, most readers aren't very concerned about this, but it's not considered the same as reading great literature, either. An extremely large amount of anime has its basis in manga stories, which has its pros and cons--although it's often great to see favorite characters on the screen, many anime simply don't have the opportunity to tell the detailed, intricate stories manga often feature.
The Western reader may be surprised by how a manga looks and is read. Japanese books are ordered in a way that is reversed from Western literature, from back to front as we think of it. Manga panels are ordered for the same flow, as well, and so can be confusing. (Incidentally, manga released in the West have been intentionally flipped to make life easier for the reader.) Manga are also very visually oriented in comparison to standard Marvel and DC comics; whereas our standard comics tend to have lots of dialogue and static pictures, manga often feature small amounts of dialogue per panel and lots of action shots. This makes them much easier to translate into the animated medium, as well, since they read much like a filmbook would.
In the Japanese language, these simply refer to "boy" and "girl". The reference is essentially the same when it applies to manga. Manga collections for boys are often referred to as 'shonen', and manga collections directed at girls are called "shoujo." This extends to anime created from these works as well.
Until recently, most of the anime licensed in the US was "shonen", and that's no real surprise--what appeals to Japanese men is not all that different than what appeals to American men, and men used to make up the vast majority of the western fan base. However, things are changing quite rapidly. "Shoujo" comics and anime are starting to come to the States in larger numbers now that women are finding themselves interested in the hobby. As anime starts to grow in influence throughout American culture, it is certain that the types of material brought over will even each other out.
What can be confusing is that many "shoujo" stories fall into well-known subsets. "Bishonen" is a term that refers to anime and manga that offer "pretty boys" that are visually appealing to women; the characters in "bishonen" stories often find themselves in homoerotic situations. Although these relationships are occasionally taken to their logical conclusions (ahem), most often they are not, and the tension between the characters is the actual factor of interest. Meanwhile, "yaoi" refers to anime and manga that deals with male homosexuality in detail. In Japan, "yaoi" stories are considerably graphic in nature. The term "yaoi" literally means "nothing" and refers to a sexual relationship that is meaningless. Most "yaoi" stories are fan creations that put favorite characters in homosexual positions never dreamed of by their creators. There's also a third term, "shonen-ai", which really means "boy love" and fits somewhere between the two, where characters are intimately involved, but depictions of such are highly romanticized. The term "yaoi" has been co-opted somewhat incorrectly by American fans as referring to anything with homosexual content when the terms "bishonen" and "shonen-ai" would be more appropriate, since "yaoi" stories are pretty explicit.
Hayao Miyazaki is the foremost creator of Japanese animation today. His films command gigantic audiences in Japan, and many of his films are in the top-ten grossing films of all time in that country. His film Spirited Away holds the record as Japan's highest grossing film of all time at $230 million in Japanese box office receipts alone. His stories tend to appeal to younger people while still attracting adults, much like the best Disney animation used to do. He is also well-known for tackling environmental issues in many of his anime. His films are gorgeously animated and appeal to virtually all animation fans, even those that don't like anime. Disney has released almost all of his films in the U.S. as of 2013. Most every film of his is a good starting point into anime. Miyazaki is also known as the primary founder of Studio Ghibli, which produces all of his features, as well as those of his friend Isao Takahata.
Katsuhiro Otomo started off primarily as a manga artist, but his most well-known creation, Akira, sent his name recognition into the stratosphere. Akira, with its incredible animation and insane plotting, is possibly the best-known anime ever. Although Otomo has worked on and directed several other works, such as Memories, a section of Neo Tokyo (AKA Manie Manie), and Roujin Z, none has the status of his masterwork. Although rumors persist of a sequel to Akira, there is no substantiation to them. (Considering the ending of the film, a follow-up would be most difficult indeed.)
Mamoru Oshii is the Stanley Kubrick of anime. Oshii tends to direct films that move slowly and deliberately; they also touch on philosophical concepts most live-action films would never dream of taking on. Oshii's brilliance came to the forefront with his art film Angel's Egg, which contained less than 25 lines of dialogue yet stunned audiences with its visual conceptualizations of a world of shadows based primarily on Christian symbolism. Most of the rest of his work is vastly more commercial, such as the Patlabor movies. His best-known work to date is Ghost in the Shell, which has done extremely well despite mixed reviews.
There are several reasons why anime characters typically look Caucasian rather than Asian. To get into all the details would take a long time, but I'll go over the primary ones. The anime industry got its start in the post-war 50s. One of the pioneers of that era, Osamu Tezuka, was significantly influenced by the work of Walt Disney; though his character designs don't look like those in Disney's features, they do contain some noticeable characteristics, including the Caucasian "look" and skin color. This carried into other animators' work until it became standard in almost all anime.
Secondly, the Japanese culturally have a love/hate relationship with the West. Although they hold the West as inferior in many aspects, Caucasian features are considered quite beautiful within the culture, and as such anime reflects this. Third, although animators never considered this a huge issue, using Caucasian character types made anime a much easier sell across international lines. In this same vein, many anime are set in science-fiction and fantasy settings where specific racial characteristics are unnecessary. Surprisingly, the Japanese seem to think much less of the whole subject than western fans do.
Meanwhile, the most unique feature to many about anime is the look of characters' eyes. Although some of this goes back to the designs stemming from Osamu Tezuka, a primary root of it stems from the ancient Japanese belief that the eyes are the window to the soul. As such, the "good guys" generally have the largest eyes (and particularly pupils) of anyone. This has actually come to the rescue of many a fan watching a show without translation in sorting out who's fighting who. In reverse, the "bad guys" often have tiny eyes--or, sometimes, large eyes with extremely small pupils. The concept at play here is that antagonists are not inherently evil; they simply have not had enough light reach their souls. This also explains why the definitions of heroes and villains are often less clear-cut in anime, where bad guys can also make heroic sacrifices and good guys can wind up doing incredible evil often by accident. The other excuse for big eyes is that they look cool.
The Japanese have never had a cultural problem with nudity in a non-sexual connotation, which is reflected in their animation. In fact, since going to the bathhouse for a dip with a bunch of other people is common practice, there's not much surprise to see the natural appreciation of the human form in anime. Japan is becoming a little bit more sensitive to this issue, which is why you see less nudity now than you did 20 years ago. However, this whole discussion is primarily a Western one that most other countries don't share, as anyone who watches much in the way of European film can tell you right away. In fact, the reverse question--"What's up with all the violence in Hollywood pictures?"--is probably the more significant one.
Now this doesn't get into the issue of sexuality in anime, which can be explained from the fact that a lot of anime is intended for adults and teenagers. When you think about the fact that anime makes up a good chunk of Japan's total film output, it's not surprising that anime gets into more delicate matters such as this. Again, the cultural sensitivity to this is ours, not theirs.
There are a few good web resources, but there are also some particularly fine books on the subject that might help. If you're looking on the web, you should start at Anime News Network. Their forums aren't wonderful and their reviews are occasionally off, but they are the most reputable anime site on the Web, period. Their encyclopaedia includes almost every title ever released in Japan. Go there first for your research. As far as books, a good place to start is The Complete Anime Guide. It lists all the major shows and series from the mid-70s on. Although the author's opinions are particularly skewed and not very reliable, the actual information on each title can be very helpful. While it's out of date by now (unless a new edition had been published), there's enough cultural information in there to be of use.