The Appeal of Anime (something different and fantastical)

Anime has undeniably grown in popularity in the west in recent decades, and interest ranges from casual viewing to die-hard fans. Anime stems from the word animation, and in the west animation is often associated with children’s films and cartoons. So, it may leave some people wondering why adults would be attracted to the medium – what is it about anime that people like?

Anime is an exotic medium containing boundless variety that satisfies a yearning for fantasy and exploration of challenging subject matter. Its unique style of storytelling with engaging characters, complex storylines and distinctive style of animation is captivating to its audience.

To those unfamiliar with anime, it offers a whole new world of media consumption to explore and enjoy. It contains the familiar and universal storytelling elements found in western media and has commonalities with both live action works and cartoons. It might be helpful to think of anime as a blend of both mediums, but also understand that it is distinct from both.  

Since anime is in fact animation and from a visual perspective, very cartoon-like, it is easy to categorize it as children’s cartoons. But this categorization would only be correct to a limited extent. In fact, it might almost be more correct to categorize anime as cartoons for adults. But in any case, the following quote from Professor Susan J. Napier, an American anime scholar, sums it up well.

“To define anime simply as ‘Japanese cartoons’ gives no sense of the depth and variety that make up the medium.”

Susan J. Napier [1]

Depth and variety are certainly attractive features of anime, but If I were to add one more, it would be exoticism. It’s unique from what is typically found in the West. The table below shows a brief comparison of Japanese anime and American animation, which comes from a paper by Professor Natsuki Fukunaga, in which several university-aged anime fans contrasted the two mediums.

Anime (Japanese animation)American animation
Variety of issues, no censoring
Distinctive art style
Quirky sense of humor
Detailed and continuous storylines
Deep, involved relationships
Stronger character development
Limited variety, strict censoring
Controlled contents
Sitcom style
Childish stories
Differences between anime and American animation [2]

The distinctive art style is certainly one of anime’s more prominent features that make it exotic to western audiences. The modern style is heavily influenced by the work of the Japanese godfather of manga and anime, Dr. Osamu Tezuka, creator of the famous Astro Boy. Although anime’s art style is indeed unique, interestingly, Dr. Tezuka’s main influence was animations from early Walt Disney [3].

There is often quite a bit of humor infused into anime, some of which is quite unexpected and novel. It’s true that there is a lot of slapstick in anime, which is common in western works as well, but there also tends to be more risqué situational comedy in anime, which would not be found in a western cartoon for children. This ties to the comment about censoring.

There is also yet another type of humor in anime which is uniquely Japanese, the Manzai style of comedy. In Manzai, one character plays the role of the boke, and another plays the tsukomi. In a given situation, the boke will say or do something ridiculous to the point of it being highly comical, then the tsukomi, will highlight the ridiculousness of the boke and rebuke them for it.

Detailed and continuous storylines are a hallmark of anime. Certainly, there are live-action western works that employ this storytelling technique, for example many series from HBO, Netflix, and soap operas. It’s an undeniably engaging form of storytelling, but it’s not necessarily the norm in the west, whereas in anime it is. Perhaps author Patrick Drazen says it best with the following quote.

“[In anime] instead of a series of self-contained scripts that barely relate to each other except through continuing characters, there is one colossal story arc, from beginning to end.”

Patrick Drazen [3]

It’s worth mentioning again that the observations contained in the table above were made by adults, young adults to be sure, but adults nonetheless. However, it does seem to be true that anime fans tend to be young. The International Anime Research Team conducted an age survey of people 18 years and older who identified as anime fans and found that the majority by a large margin were younger than 35, with a mean of 24.4 years [4].

Something that might explain this is simply, exposure. For several decades now anime has had an increasing presence on western outlets. In terms of children’s anime, several popular series are prominent in the west and featured on TV alongside western made cartoons. Pokemon, for example, is probably a familiar title.

For slightly older kids, Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon are probably also familiar titles to many. But then there are titles that might be less familiar. Fans of a certain age will also know titles like Naruto, One Piece, Inuyasha, Gundam, Full Metal Alchemist, Eureka Seven, Bleach, Death Note, and Ghost in the Shell. These series were featured in the 2000s on outlets like Adult Swim on Cartoon Network in the US.

We can glean two things from the above, one is that, in more recent years exposure to anime has become more commonplace. Anime may not yet be mainstream, and it may never be, but it’s far from niche. Particularly on digital streaming platforms like Netflix, it’s now a regular offering. Exposure is almost inescapable.

The other thing is that anime is a medium that can grow with you. As a child, it will probably be indistinguishable from other cartoons, but for older kids and adolescents growing away from more childish themes and stories, and who are interested in more challenging subject matter, the world of anime has much to offer.    

Coming of Age with Anime

This is where we tie together the threads of exposure, depth, and variety. I have a theory that if you are exposed to anime as an adolescent, you will continue to be a fan into adulthood (this is certainly true of my own experience). As an adolescent, you are not too far removed from your children’s cartoon watching years, so animation remains something you are open to.

For me, I first saw the anime Inuyasha on North American TV when I was 13, and it was revelatory. In fact, when I saw just the opening theme for the first time, my pupils probably dilated to the max. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The exotic style of the animation, the action, the intricate relationships between the characters, the romance, the intriguing storyline…

It was clearly what I wanted but just didn’t know it. And I would not have known had the opportunity to be exposed not come about. Back again to Patrick Drazen who makes a similar comment about Star Blazers, the American adaptation of Uchu Senkan Yamato, when it aired on US TV in 1979, …some of the older kids in the audience were watching as much for the personal interaction (some characters die, others fall in love) as for the space battles… [3].

Inuyasha and Uchu Senkan Yamato are just two examples of anime with depth and exploration of mature themes that adolescents (and adults) are seeking. But let me share a few more titles that perhaps more clearly target the late teen and adult audience. A title that always bears mentioning in any writing on anime is the 1988 film Akira.

Viewers might find Akira reminiscent of the 1982 live action film Blade Runner. There are many violent and frightening scenes throughout the film and it’s not uncommon for it to be given the equivalent of an R rating in many countries. Fans of Akira will also probably be fans of the next title, my personal favorite, Ghost in the Shell.

Ghost in the Shell comprises multiple series that follow an elite police unit mainly focused on counter terrorism. There is a lot of violent action surrounding the takedowns of the terrorists, but the series also addresses complex geopolitical issues, and the merger between humans and technology. One final title, for the sake of variety, is the film Perfect Blue, classified as a psychological thriller horror.

We’ve now covered that anime has offerings to suit all age ranges, but it’s equally important to stress that anime has huge variety! There are genres and blended genres that could suit almost any taste. Perhaps the ones more commonly associated with anime are fantasy, sci-fi and action. But works from the comedy, slice-of-life, romance, mystery, and psychological genres are also abundant.

Anime is an Escape to Fantasyland

Further to its variety, anime is a world where anything can happen. This is made possible in part due to the very fact that it is animation where there is no underlying expectation of any kind of normality [1]. Suspension of disbelief is a little easier and immersion into fantasy can happen a little more readily. This is also part of anime’s intrigue.

With the above in mind and as mentioned, it will probably come as no surprise that two of the most prominent genres in anime are science fiction and fantasy, with fantasy being the more dominant in recent years [1]. Back to Professor Napier who says that fantasy… may be particularly appealing to a society that is at some level deeply uneasy with its past, present, and future [1].

In fact, a certain subgenre of fantasy called isekai (lit. other world) is one of the most common types of anime [5]. The English equivalent term is portal fantasy. It’s a story in which a character is transported to another world and must cope there. A good example of an isekai anime is Studio Ghibli’s Oscar-winning Spirited Away. There is a clear interest in isekai among anime fans. The majority of respondents in a 2022 survey of fans reported that they like the subgenre [6].

Indeed, the fantasy world of anime is easy to immerse oneself in, and dare I say, a world in which to escape? I am not the first to say this but, perhaps one of the appeals of shows on television and other digital media platforms is not just the entertainment aspect, but the opportunity to distract oneself from the rigors of daily life and temporarily escape to somewhere different.

Anime often contains quite imaginative worlds and storylines, but the same can also be said of western-made media. So, what makes anime special? I would venture to say that the difference with anime is… its difference. It’s produced in a completely different culture which makes it novel, and even if it’s just daily Japanese life being depicted, it can be quite exotic for those who are unfamiliar with Japan.

Furthermore, there is no tapestry of elements that can’t be woven together in anime, which allows for some unique and entertaining works unlike any found anywhere else. Kimi no Na wa (Your Name), a popular 2016 romantic fantasy film, is a good example. If you watch the film, you will recognize quite a number of plot elements that are also used in western works.

The interesting thing is that there are so many of them, and it almost doesn’t seem like they could all fit into the same story, yet the film manages to brilliantly weave them together. Kimi no Na wa is also a good example of an anime film set in Japan. Viewers can enjoy depictions of modern Japanese city-life, country-life, and elements of traditional Japanese culture.

Conversely, it’s interesting that although anime comes from Japan and does contain elements that reflect the culture of its origin, in many cases the lands and characters in anime are not recognizable as coming from any country. There is an amorphousness to anime. It can be anyone, anywhere, which seems to be particularly appealing.

This quality of anime has been referred to in Japanese as mukokuseki, which literally means ‘no nationality’, but has also been translated as ‘statelessness’ by Professor Napier who also says “the very quality of “statelessness” has increasing attraction in our global culture. It is not just Japanese audiences who search for more varied forms of electronic entertainment, who long for an “anywhere” …” [1].

Japanese pop culture writer Brian Ruh highlights mukokuseki as something that allows anime to travel transnationally with relative ease [7]. The mukokuseki look of anime characters plays an important role as it makes it easier for any viewer to identify with them. Indeed, both Japanese and non-Japanese audiences can appreciate the opportunity to identify with something different from their own reality.

Whether you are looking for an escape into a different world or you’re just a fan of fiction and fantasy where anything can happen, the world of anime is a great place to visit. And with its huge variety, it will surely have something that suits your interests. Back to Patrick Drazen who I think sums it up well with the following quote.

“…. slapstick and sorcery, humor and horror, sports and sex, machines that rule the sky and gods that rule the forest all coexist in anime.”

Patrick Drazen

Connecting with Anime through the Endearing Characters

There remains one critical element which we’ve barely touched on that makes a huge contribution to anime’s overall appeal and deserves to be stressed, that is the contribution of the characters. Enjoyment of watching the characters is probably just as important as enjoyment of the story.

Because they are animated, everything about them can be exaggerated such as their looks, expressions, reactions, personality traits, voices, abilities… which make them all the more endearing and entertaining. If you watch enough anime, you will probably begin to recognize various character archetypes. A good example that showcases the various archetypes is the popular series Demon Slayer (Japanese title: Kimetsu no Yaiba).

Demon Slayer features the unlikely protagonist, Tanjiro, a young man with a good heart that goes to extreme lengths to become a demon slayer so that he can save his little sister from being transformed into a demon. Throughout the story all sorts of characters are introduced, but one of the most important introductions is the Hashira, a group of the most elite demon slayers.

The Hashira in particular showcases many of the character archetypes found in anime. They all have exaggerated personality traits, but each one is different. Viewers of Demon Slayer will probably all have a favorite Hashira member. Mine is Tomioka. The reasons for liking a character are various, perhaps you identify with them, perhaps you desire to be more like them, or perhaps they are just entertaining.

In any case, because character types are recurring, even in completely different anime, you’ll likely find character types that you like and recognize. In fact, media theorist Hiroki Azuma suggests that there is a database of characters that exists in the collective consciousness of anime culture from which characters can be drawn and transferred from medium to medium [7].  

There’s a remarkable case in which a character did not come from the anime medium but has achieved global recognition and fandom. The case is that of Hatsune Miku, an adorable 16-year-old girl with a sweet singing voice. She is the personification of a voice synthesizing software product, called a Vocaloid, made by the company Crypton Future Media.

She is not the mascot of the software product, but rather she and the product are one. Those that work with the software and even those that don’t adore her. On Hatsune Miku’s biography page, Crypton Future Media states: Hatsune Miku has traveled an interesting path from vocal synthesizer product to beloved collaboratively constructed cyber celebrity with a growing user community across the world [8].

Comparing Anime to Live Action Dramas and Western Cartoons

As previously alluded to, in the end some may still feel that despite the arguments presented, an adult’s interest in anime is still perplexing, because anime is still… animation. There are plenty of fantasy and science fiction-based live action films and television series, but they look real, and the characters are real people, not cutesy cartoon characters. Game of Thrones and Star Wars are good examples.

So, it may be the cartoon-like animation itself that people cannot seem to find themselves interested in. Perhaps it might be helpful to look closer at the example of Star Wars. Many adults seem to be able to watch and enjoy the live action films, but perhaps only the die-hard fans can also enjoy the animated Clone Wars from 2003 & 2008. Those that do will probably also like anime. I am certainly one of those people.

New live-action Star Wars stories are still being produced and from what I can tell, die-hard fans and more casual viewers alike clearly enjoy them, but the animated Clone Wars story just might not attract the full adult audience that the live-action stories do. The stories and characters are from the same universe (technically galaxy, a far, far away one) but the only difference is the animated vs. live-action medium.

Two other examples of animated works that also have live-action counterparts are The Animatrix and Batman Gotham Knight. These examples are of particular interest because western (American) and Japanese filmmakers partnered-up to take originally American creations and recraft them into a series of animated stories in various anime styles. Amazing things can happen when east meets west.

A possible exception to an adult’s general non-interest in animation are works centered on adult oriented humor, familiar examples might be Family Guy and the Simpsons. If you’re interested in adult oriented humor, but have not yet explored anime, The Way of the Househusband might be an entry point for you. It’s a Japanese anime but has an English dub and began being featured on Netflix in 2021.

It’s not quite as extreme as the above-mentioned titles, but the exaggerated humor surrounding daily life situations I think is something that adults can enjoy, even those that for the most part are not interested in animation. But then again, not everyone is interested in these types of comedy shows and even if they were, it could still be that animation, regardless of the story, just cannot evoke their interest.  

Anime: A Gateway to Japan and New Possibilities

For those that are open to animation, we know they have an amazing universe to explore when it comes to anime. And if you become a fan, the universe extends even beyond the vast number of available titles. Anime can spur an interest in attending anime conventions, Japanese culture, traveling to Japan and learning Japanese [6], [7]. It certainly motivated me to do these things.

Anime has meant a lot in my life. Beyond just being endlessly entertaining, I have made friends through our shared interest in anime, and I think it even inspired me to become an engineer (probably driven by my like of sci-fi anime, particularly Ghost in the Shell). I am also grateful to anime for being my impetus for learning Japanese – a venture that enriches me constantly.

Whether you’re an anime fan or not, if you’re interested in learning Japanese, but don’t know where to start, might I recommend the Genki textbook series, which I write about here. But before starting, it’s also good to understand that learning Japanese is an investment of time and money. I write about how many hours to study per day and how long it will take to achieve working proficiency here. I write about the cost to learn here.

And of course, if you are an anime fan, you may also be interested in the following questions, which I have also written about. Can anime help you learn Japanese? see here. Is it ok to learn Japanese just because you like anime? see here.


[1] Napier, Susan J. (2005). Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Japanese Animation. Palgrave Macmillan.

[2] Fukunaga, Natsuki. (2006). “Those anime students:” Foreign language literacy development through Japanese popular culture. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 50, 206-222.

[3] Drazen, Patrick. (2014). Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation. Stone Bridge Press.

[4] The International Anime Research Team. (2021). International Anime Research Project. Anime Survey 2021 Preliminary Results.

[5] Wikipedia contributors. (2024). Isekai. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.

 [6] The International Anime Research Team. (2022). International Anime Research Project. Anime Survey 2022 Preliminary Results.

[7] Ruh, Brian. (2014). Conceptualizing Anime and the Database Fantasyscape. Mechademia: Second Arc, 9, 164–175.

[8] Crypton Future Media, INC. (2024). Who is Hatsune Miku?

Colten Dumonceau

My goal is to provide information that will help you learn Japanese as quickly and effectively as possible. I have spent more than ten years learning Japanese, mostly self-taught, from absolute beginner to an advanced level. I believe its possible to go much faster than I did. Please let me share with you the best learning strategies I have uncovered.

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