What are manga and Anime

By: Eri Izawa (rei@mit.edu)
From Here: What are Manga and Anime
Copyright 1995-2002 Eri Izawa. Used by permission.

Good question. There is no short answer.

So here’s a long one. (Pardon me for its length and its wandering;
I was doing chain-of-thought writing

Many people might say “Manga are Japanese comics, and Anime is the
Japanese version of animation. Anime is usually, but not always, the
animated version of popular manga.” That’s partially true, but it can
be misleading.

First of all, though an outsider might think Japan “stole” comics from
the West, this is not true. Japan has been making cartoonish art for
a very long time (there are humorous ink drawings of animals and
caricatured people from hundreds of years ago, bearing striking
resemblances to modern manga). True, some aspects of manga are taken
from the West (Osamu Tezuka, the “father” of modern manga, was
influenced by Disney and Max Fleisher), but its main features, such as
simple lines and stylized features, are distinctly Japanese. It may
be that Chinese art had more influence than Western.

(Also, speaking of China, I should note that Anime is now a general
Asian phenomenon, not just Japanese. I understand there are many fine
works of manga and anime being produced in many places around the
world. However, as far as I understand, the roots are in Japan, and
Japan is still considered, at least here in the US, the center of
the anime world. This may well change in the future.)

Secondly, Japanese manga and anime come in
all types, for all sorts of people. Unlike
the U.S., which generally seems to believe that “comics are for kids,”
Japanese manga-ka (manga writers) write for everyone from innocent
young children to perverted sex-starved men (there is even a category
for ex-juvenile delinquent mothers!). But even the kiddie stuff tends
not to be as simple-minded as the American versions (not including
intelligent American comics, but more thinking of TV shows).
Children’s manga and TV anime shows in Japan will sometimes depict
death — while the U.S. (on children’s TV) seems determined to run
away from such realities of life (note how the U.S. version of
“GoLion” (“Voltron”) deleted all references to one of the
protagonist’s death). And, not surprisingly, much of Japanese manga
and anime includes scenes of students in class or doing homework, or
of people working in their offices. The work ethic seems omnipresent
in the background. Manga and anime also tend to portray technology
sympathetically, while some U.S. comics seem almost to avoid it, or
revile it, or simplify it as much as possible.

A third major difference is the unique Japanese manga and anime style,
which is distinctive and fairly easy to recognize. This is not to say
the style is limiting. Within this broad common stylistic ground,
each manga artist’s technique is distinct and unique. The stereotype
is of characters with huge hair and large eyes, but there are many,
many variations, from L. Matsumoto’s seemingly unevenly drawn
squash-shaped “ugly” protagonists, to the soft-edged figures in
Miyazaki’s work. And, of course, there is less emphasis on the
“superhero” world of the U.S.. In most manga, the men and women
aren’t necessarily exaggerated extremes of their gender stereotypes,
and they wear things other than skin-tight costumes. In fact, manga
and anime characters tend to have unique and aesthetic tastes in
fashion. (It’s also true that many modern U.S. comics have thankfully
broken this stereotype.)

And one minor difference between Japanese manga and general superhero
comics like D.C. Comics or Marvel Comics (aside from the black and
white nature of manga), is that manga are usually the vision of a
single writer (though editors have a large say, and sometimes direct
the story). Unlike the general superhero type, where many writers
tend to do different plots and stories, manga are more like novels,
complete and detailed worlds that are the vision of a single author.
The characters remain consistent, and they are allowed to grow and
develop. On a related topic, manga also tend to be drawn for a weekly
or biweekly publication containing numerous other comics by other
authors — and the editors expect
cliffhangers/you-really-want-to-read-the-next-issue endings each time.
So the plot HAS to develop and HAS to be interesting at a fairly rapid
clip. (There are, after all, crowds of hopeful would-be manga-ka
waiting in the wings).

(One last difference is the onomatopoetic characteristic of the
Japanese language; sound effects fit in much better, and look less
stupid, than in English comics. This is just a facet of the language;
translated manga sound effects also don’t work as well.)

Perhaps it is the mix of harsh reality with the tantalizing world of
fantasy that makes Japanese manga and anime so appealing. Many
popular series, such as Doraemon, Ranma 1/2 and Kimagure Orange Road,
follow the lives of seemingly ordinary people — they go to school,
do homework, get reprimanded by parents — who have a shadow life
that makes them somehow special, whether by psionic talent or friends
who are rather different (robots from the future, or aliens from other
worlds). I suppose all this serves to allow the reader to sympathize
with the characters, and yet escape from bland, normal daily life to a
fantasy world that is far different.

Even in worlds that exist in the far future, or long ago, the reader
is drawn into a 3-dimensional character, one who is far from perfect,
one who has stupid little habits or major character flaws — and who
has hopes and dreams that the reader can sympathize with. Unlike some
American super heroes, who often seem to just go around defeating Evil
(as wonderfully spoofed in American comic “The Tick”), Japanese
characters usually have other goals in life that play large themes
within their lives. I heard recently the characterization that manga
and anime are “character oriented.” The more I think about, the more I
think this is the right description. Characters aren’t forced into
plots, like a foot into a too-tight shoe; instead, stories grow out of
the characters. The heart of manga and anime is in the hearts of the

That brings us to three other aspects of manga and anime that I really
like: the reality of the world, the spirituality, and the fact that
things end.

With comics, the merging of art and words creates a unique medium.
The art pulls in the mind, and the words make the reality. A picture
may be worth a thousand words, while words may convey what art cannot,
but the two types together are truly powerful. As for Anime,
animation can do inexpensively what special effects crews couldn’t
even touch until the recent rise of computer graphics. Art is a
limited form of virtual reality. Art, however, requires plot to make
a story come to life.

As I’ve said, even children’s Japanese comics and animation deal with
things like death. They also show that one’s enemies aren’t Just
Evil. In series like Gundam, you can see that the enemies have hopes
and dreams of their own, and do, in fact, have reasons for what they
do. They aren’t just crazy, or just plain evil. They’re real.

Actions have consequences. If the protagonist screws up, he or she
has to deal with those results … and, if the person is smart, he or
she will remember not to make that mistake again! The characters grow
and change, learn new skills, get better at old skills, mature and
gain wisdom (unless, of course, it’s a comical series like Doraemon

Another trait of manga and anime that I have always liked (though
perhaps I hadn’t realized it until recently) is their tendency to
contain a sense of spiritual optimism … and not just simplistic
good-over-evil stuff. Bad people can improve and find redemption.
Unhappy heroes can find themselves, through personal crisis, and in
doing so find happiness. Life does have meaning and purpose,
though it must be fought for. Hard work will pay off … but maybe
only in the long run. Difficulties occur, but they can be
overcome. Strength is found from helping others, even to the point of
self-sacrifice…. Not all stories have
these spiritual or philosophical
messages, but many do. And when these simple but universal themes
are woven more or less convincingly into the fabric of good plots and
characters, magic happens.

And finally, like all good stories and all real stories, manga and
anime have a tendency to end. Heroes and heroines die, or get
married, or disappear. The anime series are especially good about
this. They tend to have one of three endings: the hero wins (the
throne, the person of the opposite sex, whatever), the hero dies
(usually after winning), the hero sort of wins (but at a great loss).
Of course, the anime or manga is often carefully crafted to either
jerk tears out of your eyes, or make you stare in wide-eyed absorption
to the very very last line of the credits. I can’t describe it here,
but think of the ending to any truly good movie, and you probably have

I guess I’ve wandered quite a bit over this topic. I also probably
displayed a bias for semi-serious manga/anime (which I prefer), and I
also probably didn’t quite describe the nature of certain genres (such
as pure business manga, or sex manga, or the purely political humor
comics). And, of course, I’m sort of glossing over the fact that
there is LOTS of trash out there. Like any field, manga and anime
have their lemons, the ones with no plot, 2-D characters, truly
tasteless jokes, and artwork from hell. However, the best manga and
anime are true gems that should not be missed — little portals into
other worlds that will entertain, educate, and delight.