Bollywood dance

Image source: iDiva

India suffers from a bit of an image problem. Foreigners are likely to associate it with bleak poverty, squalor, caste discrimination, religious riots, and obnoxious scams, in common with other poor countries. But what India has to offer that other developing countries (for the most part) do not is Bollywood, its domestic film industry. It is the biggest in the world, one of the most influential, and a national obsession with a storied past.

“Bollywood” is so-called because it is based in Mumbai (formerly called Bombay), India’s biggest and most hectic city. A melting-pot and magnet for the ambitious from all over India, its main language is Hindi, even though the part of India it’s in mostly speaks Marathi. This has sparked some resentment from native Mumbaikars, who complain that their local culture is overshadowed by a giant industry that caters to all of India, and there is a small Marathi film industry in Mumbai as well. In fact, Bollywood is just 1 of many film industries in India, and the south especially has significant industries of its own in each major state. Bengal and other regions of north India also tend to do their own thing. Although the international profile of other Indian film industries is growing, this post will only focus on Bollywood; that is, the Hindi industry.

Bollywood has quite the long history. Indian cinematographers took up filmmaking almost as soon as the technique was invented, and they found an audience for it. India has an ancient theatrical tradition and a love for storytelling, melodrama and choreographed dance numbers. These elements quickly became staples of Indian film. Hindu epics have influenced Indian movies both directly (in adaptations of the stories) and indirectly (in similar characters, motifs and themes). Bollywood movies’ long, long running time probably also owes something to this.

Ram Rajya

Still from Ram Rajya (“Rule of Rama”), a 1943 adaptation of the Hindu epic Ramayana

Bollywood came of age alongside the Indian nationalist movement, and its movies helped feed the growth of Indian national consciousness and the notion of Indian uniqueness and purity. Old Bollywood movies would have titles like Mother India and The Land Where the Ganga [a holy river] Flows and song lyrics like “My shoes are Japanese, my pants are British, the red hat on my head is Russian, but my heart is Indian.” They also tended to speak to the nationalist movements’ social concerns. While Mohandas Gandhi, a stubborn traditionalist, hated movies and saw them as corrupting and degenerate, India’s other founding father, Jawaharlal Nehru, loved them and saw them as building up audiences for his socialist dogma. A popular actor in the ’50s, Raj Kapur, won fans by portraying a lovable, roguish tramp with a heart of gold, and films often showed the plight of India’s impoverished farmers at the hands of greedy landowners, moneylenders, the weather, and bad luck. Villains were usually cutthroat dacoits (rural bandits) but sometimes corrupt officials or cops. The representative films in this vein are the aforementioned Mother India (which opens with a hammer-and-sickle logo) and the tragic, neorealistic Do Bigha Zamin (“Two Acres of Land,” basically).

Of course, these old movies were pretty modest. With cheap special effects, minimal production values and creaky sound, it’s not hard to tell that they came from a Third-World country with a sluggish economy. But Indians appreciated the catchy songs, the relatable actors and the dramatic stories, and eventually the industry began producing impressive epics for a newly independent country, like the lavish historical drama Mughal-e-Azam (“The Great Mughal”) and Sholay (“Embers”), an action movie inspired mostly by Westerns (and Once Upon a Time in the West in particular). By the ’70s, Bollywood’s production values had noticeably improved and it had become a fixture in Indian society. Although the old emphasis on rural and lower-class themes remained, movies took on a harsher tone as the idealism of the post-independence era faded. As India’s economy stagnated, Indira Gandhi resorted to dictatorship and corruption seemed intractable, the hero of the age was Amitabh Bachchan, whose characters were usually angry young men who rebelled against authority and resorted to their fists to solve problems. Movies helped give despairing audiences an outlet for their frustrations.

The big turning point in Bollywood history came in the ’90s, when 2 movies, Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! (“Who Am I to You?”) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (“The Big-Hearted One Takes the Bride”) prompted a shift in emphasis. Both were focused on families and weddings, which are standard themes in Indian culture but have since become Bollywood cliches. Both focused on young couples — cute, mischievous, sometimes sassy, always extremely good-looking teenagers or young adults who start off bickering and end up madly in love, but must conquer misunderstandings or their parents’ opposition first. And both depict lifestyles of the rich. From then on, depictions of slum-dwellers or farmers receded more and more, as producers realized the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful spoke more to India’s growing middle classes and were loved by the poor anyway, who saw the lifestyles as something to aspire to. This decade was also when India’s economy really took off after Manmohan Singh’s liberalizing reforms, making conspicuous consumption something lots of Indians could identify with. The new superstar of Bollywood was Shahrukh Khan, who absolutely nails the “troublesome jerk your parents don’t want you seeing but is actually a good person and quite the hunk to boot” role, and has demonstrated his versatility in comedic and dramatic parts too.

Hrithik Roshan, another hunky, glamorous actor who tends to play romantic leads

Overseas, Bollywood is probably most known for its music. There is good reason for that: the Indian pop music industry is closely tied to movies, and the titans of Indian music (Lata Mangeshkar, A.R. Rahman, Mohammad Rafi, etc.) spend their careers working for movies. From the advent of sound, it’s been obligatory for Indian movies to include at least 3 or 4 songs, and since they tend to run for more than 3 hours, they usually have more than that. As movies grew more and more ambitious and well-funded, the dance sequences that accompany these songs also got more impressive, well-choreographed, and lavishly costumed. For the most part, they are not very well integrated into the overall plot, serving mostly as vehicles for the singers (who are dubbed over the actors, usually quite obviously). This has tried the patience of foreign viewers, who have mostly lost interest in musicals, but in recent years Bollywood is moving past the obsession with singing and dancing, and some movies have omitted it entirely (or just insert the song in the background).

This dance number combines Amitabh Bachchan, Shahrukh Khan and a catchy bhangra song (bhangra being a Punjabi folk music especially popular in Bollywood movies).

For most of its history, the standard formula for Bollywood movies has stayed pretty much constant, fluctuations in taste notwithstanding. This is called masala (“mix”), much like the spice mixtures Indians love to eat. There is usually some sort of action, whether it be against murderous dacoits, super-cool Mumbai gangsters, scheming officials or stubborn patriarchs. In general it is bloodless, but some movies are more violent than others and in the 3rd millennium Hollywood-style action flicks with lots of guns and explosions have become more common. There is almost always romance; sometimes it’s a subplot, other times it’s developed carefully over the course of the movie. Thanks to India’s tradition of arranged marriage, opportunities for drama and heartbreak are never in short supply. There is usually some sort of tearjerking tragedy like a parent or love interest who suddenly dies, but also usually some sort of comedic relief (a goofy character, slapstick sequences, comic misunderstandings, wacky hijinks, wordplay foreigners don’t understand, etc.). The idea is to get as much bang for your rupee as the film allows, and to please the widest range of filmgoers possible. This has led to some extremely cheesy and formulaic drivel over the decades, and it’s probably wise for the uninitiated to choose their first Bollywood movies carefully.

Bollywood’s formula means there are some gaps in its coverage. Although foreign locations are increasingly used for exotic and romantic backdrops, foreign countries are rarely depicted in depth, and the linguistic limitation means that whatever action takes place there is strictly fixated on the Indian characters. Caste, an ongoing issue in India, is virtually never discussed; even in the old days where social issues were more prominent, it was implied or marginalized. India’s problem with sexism is reinforced by Bollywood; male characters get more screentime and there has been much more emphasis on feminine purity than holding men to the same standard. Despite India’s wide range of skin colors, dark-skinned characters are seldom seen in Bollywood movies, and actors tend to be very light-skinned. Bollywood’s infatuation with posh, ostentatious sets and dapper actors can present a skewed portrait of modern India, where these things are definitely valued but still far out of reach of most of the population.

But Bollywood movies have changed a lot in recent years. Their subject matter is getting more diverse and they are getting bolder about confronting and depicting once-taboo subjects. The 1995 movie Bombay shows the 1992 riots in Bombay which tore the city apart on religious lines. (To be fair, Bollywood has a history of being fair to Muslims; many of its songwriters have been Muslim, and the 3 biggest actors now, including the aforementioned Shahrukh Khan, are Muslim.) Rang De Basanti (“Color It Saffron”) daringly equates the modern Indian government with the imperial British and has a shocking, pessimistic ending. Dil Se.. (“From the Heart..”) depicts Shahrukh Khan as a journalist falling in love with a terrorist, with a similarly hair-raising ending. Storylines are getting more inventive and less predictable; a good example of this is the 2012 mystery-thriller Kahaani (“Story”), about a woman searching for her missing husband in Kolkata. Budgets and special effects are beginning to approach those of Hollywood; the 2015 historical epic Bajirao Mastani, about a macho general from the 1700s, cost ₹1.45 billion (about $23 million). Some movies focus more on women and develop them as well-rounded personalities; some include characters from remote regions of India or Adivasis (India’s native inhabitants). Chak De! India (“Go! India”) does both (although it’s mostly a by-the-numbers sports movie).

Bollywood’s blockbuster trilogy is the Dhoom (“Kaboom”) series, about a badass cop who partners with a doofus who knows a lot about motorcycles and Mumbai’s underworld to catch master thieves in high-octane chases. Image source: IMP Awards 

How much influence does Bollywood have overseas? This is hard to say. Historically it’s found an audience in Russia (where Raj Kapur was much admired in the ’50s), West Asia and sub-Saharan Africa (where Bollywood’s stricter sense of female propriety and avoidance of explicit sex scenes appeals to conservative tastes). But in the West, box offices are harder to crack. Outdated prejudices remain entrenched; some Western movies have been influenced by Bollywood (like the musical romance extravaganza Moulin Rouge!), but generally it’s window dressing over substance. Bollywood films are easier to find in Western theaters these days, but they’re usually targeted at the Indian diaspora. Americans in particular are reluctant to watch foreign films.

Still, it seems that Bollywood is brimming with potential, and could become an arm of Indian soft power elsewhere in Asia. India’s neighbors, who share the same basic culture, already lap up Indian movies and music. As India interacts more and more with the outside world and gets richer, its movies will doubtless change to reflect this. But they’ll always remain an obsession for its masses, who can always use a few hours at the theater to escape into a fantasy of bright colors, beautiful actresses, shocking plot twists, imported whisky, romantic ballads, and dashing actors. And it’ll always be an iconic element of Indian culture to dazzle and intrigue the outside world.



As an international relations buff, one of my pet peeves is when people can’t tell the difference between China and Japan. They have close links and many cultural similarities. Japan owes much of its civilization to Chinese influence. Chinese and Japanese people superficially look similar. There are other cultures that get confused often, like Spain and Mexico or Ireland and Scotland. But I still find the confusion hard to forgive. Anyone with at least a little knowledge of international affairs should be able to tell the difference between these 2 countries, since there are many, and fundamental ones too. China and Japan were never the same country and developed in isolation for most of their history. Their cultures are very different. It would be like confusing Russia with Britain — but I honestly feel that the difference is even greater.

Someday I may write a blog post on the many factors that distinguish China from Japan, but for now I’ll focus on one aspect that’s often misunderstood: language. Language is probably the easiest and fastest way to tell where something is from (written language in particular). It’s also something that’s rarely well understood by those who don’t try to actually learn the language, since languages are so complicated. In addition, language is considered a core element of culture, indeed one of its fundamentals, and a basic way of dividing them.

Does Japan use Chinese characters? Yes. This is a common source of confusion and probably one of the main reasons China and Japan are so often confused with each other. The details, of course, are a little complicated, so I’ll explain.

Chinese characters are logograms, meaning that each one represents a different concept (like “honor”) or thing (like “wall”). They are famous (or notorious) worldwide for their complexity and distinctiveness. In fact, they’re the only logograms that are still used (aside from some minor languages that use Chinese-derived script). While Chinese characters represent things, they also have pronunciations, since those things have their own pronunciations. Confusingly, the pronunciation often changes depending on the context; you have to learn which one to use based on the context. Many Chinese characters look abstractly like the things they represent (like 川, “river,” or 心, “heart”), but most are too complex for that; instead, a typical formula is to use one element (a “radical”) that represents the concept, and another element that gives a clue about the pronunciation. For instance, 腕 (“arm”) contains the “moon” radical (月), mostly used for body parts, and the radical 宛, which shows you that it’s pronounced wan. And just to make it more confusing, the thing Chinese characters represent also changes depending on context; so 明 can mean “clear,” “bright” or “understand.”

China, as the fount of culture in East Asia, spread its writing system to other countries; this included Japan. But the Japanese language is very different from Chinese. Not all of it can be expressed through Chinese characters. As a result, the Japanese developed their own writing systems, hiragana and katakana, to represent these words. Both hiragana and katakana (together called kana) are syllabaries, meaning that each character represents a syllable (so Japanese is thought of as made up of syllables rather than letters). Hiragana looks like this:


And katakana looks like this:


Both were originally derived from Chinese characters, but katakana is a more direct borrowing, as you might be able to tell from the blocky, straight lines. (Some of them, in fact, are just unusually simple Chinese characters.) Historically, katakana has been used more often, but in a series of post-World War II writing reforms hiragana was installed as the main script for representing basic words.

Does that mean katakana is old-fashioned, or no longer used? Hardly! Katakana is still used all the time in Japanese, but to represent foreign or made-up words, or just to write sounds with no obvious meaning. This means that Japanese, uniquely among languages, uses 3 scripts together. And I don’t mean like Serbo-Croatian or Hindustani, either (those languages can use either of 2 different scripts). In order to read Japanese you have to learn all 3 scripts, since they are used together. Reading any Japanese text will confirm this. Here’s a sample:

レゲエ は、狭義においては1960年代後半ジャマイカで発祥し、1980年代前半まで流行したポピュラー音楽である。

The first word is “reggae,” which is foreign, so it’s written in katakana. Katakana appears again with ジャマイカ (Jamaica) and ポピュラー (popular), both English words (the vast majority of the foreign words incorporated into Japanese are English). The Chinese characters you see express difficult or advanced concepts: 狭義 (narrow sense), 発祥 (originate), 音楽 (music). As for the hiragana, they mostly appear as particles, which are very basic 1 or 2 syllable words like は (is), で (in), まで (until), いつ (when), and so on. The final word, ある (“to be”), is an example of something so basic that it’s not usually written in Chinese characters, as is おいて (as for).

Do you have to use all 3 scripts together? No. The two kana sentence examples above prove that. But to Japanese, they look awkward. The hiragana example would almost always be written with several Chinese characters to express advanced concepts. The katakana example is a strained attempt to use cheesy English adjectives to describe a dress (called “one-piece” in Japanese, hence written in katakana). It is certainly possible to stick to kana only (or even just hiragana, if you can manage the difficult task of avoiding foreign loanwords), but in almost any situation, Japanese just don’t do it. (The main exception I can think of are children’s books, since kids can’t read Chinese characters yet.) Foreigners might pull their hair out and gnash their teeth at the prospect of memorizing thousands of Chinese characters that are much more complicated than the kana they could be written as instead, but Japanese don’t care. It is The Way Things Are Done, and many, many hours of elementary school education are devoted to drawing Chinese characters to drill their use into kids’ brains.

Why does Japanese use Chinese characters still? It’s a difficult subject that’s a little too complicated for this blog post, but suffice it to say that it can be easier to read (provided you know the characters) and immediately understand the concepts. The hiragana example sentence above looks like a blur to Japanese speakers; the Chinese characters separate concepts and words more. Japanese contains lots of words that sound the same, but using Chinese characters makes it obvious which meaning is meant. There are lots of opportunities for wordplay that would die if Chinese characters were phased out. And, probably most fundamentally of all, the Japanese are used to it and are uncomfortable with such a drastic change.

While Japan uses Chinese characters, there is a distinction between the Chinese characters used in China (hanzi) and the ones used in Japan (kanji). Kanji were simplified in the aforementioned postwar writing reforms, mostly using shortcut versions common in China. As a result, kanji aren’t quite the same as hanzi. Here are some examples of differences:

Simplified Chinese Traditional Chinese Japanese

But that’s not all! As you can see in the table above, there is a distinction between Simplified Chinese characters and Traditional Chinese characters as well. China simplified its characters in the 1950s as a compromise between just switching to the alphabet and grappling with tens of thousands of complicated characters. Other Chinese-speaking countries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore), overseas Chinese communities, and Korea and Vietnam continue to use Traditional characters. The difference between these characters can be quite drastic, as seen here.

Simplified Traditional

So effectively, there are 3 different kinds of Chinese characters: Simplified, Traditional, and Japanese (kanji). Where do the Japanese variants fall? If you’re interested in learning Chinese characters but aren’t sure which type to choose, I recommend Japanese, actually, since they fall roughly midway between Simplified and Traditional in terms of complexity. They lean Traditional, however; kanji readers have an easier time negotiating Taiwan than China. Those who don’t care about Japanese and just want to learn Chinese usually opt for Simplified given how much more important China is than other Chinese countries. (This wasn’t always the case, though: during Communist rule, China was so closed-off from the outside world that foreigners got more use out of learning Traditional.) The downside is that deciphering Traditional characters is much harder for Simplified-readers than vice versa. In any case, Traditional characters are still sometimes used in China, and anything from before the 1950s obviously uses them, so most students of Chinese pretty much have to learn them both at some point or to a certain extent.

Can Chinese-speakers read Japanese (and vice versa)? Sort of. Since they’re all basically the same characters, Chinese and Japanese can read many of each other’s texts. Simplified characters are hardest for Japanese to decipher. Snatches of phrases, or scattered words or concepts, are decipherable or the same. But entire sentences are hard to figure out. Japanese uses kana, which Chinese don’t know or use; meanwhile, Chinese uses a bunch of characters that Japanese doesn’t (because it substitutes kana for them). Some words are also expressed with different characters in the different languages; the classic example here is 手纸/手紙 (“hand paper”), which means “toilet paper” in Chinese and “letter” in Japanese. Basically, Chinese and Japanese can read parts of each other’s writing, but nowhere near enough to make out long passages.

Besides, even if they could read each other’s languages, they wouldn’t be able to speak them… which brings us to the spoken part of Chinese and Japanese.

This is what spoken Chinese sounds like:

As you can tell, it’s a tonal language. That means vocal tones go up and down while speaking. Each word must be expressed with the right combination of tones to convey the meaning properly. Chinese also contains sounds like dung, huang, sher, bien, chiao, fuhng, and shwei. Examples of Chinese names include Xu Jinglei, Hou Xiaochun, Li Ying, Zhou Nong, and Wang Renmei — in other words, they’re short and usually follow a 1-2 syllable combo. Chinese place-names look like Cao Hai, Xiexing, Ningxia, Yangming Shan, and Qingdao. (Note that they aren’t necessarily pronounced that way. Explaining how Chinese is pronounced is a little off-topic, but for example, “c” is like ts, “x” is like ksh, and “q” is like ch.)

On the other hand, spoken Japanese sounds like this:

Completely different, right? It’s not tonal — vocal tones are consistent and smooth. Japanese generally is more flowing than Chinese, which is choppy. The language also sounds very different; it is very vowel-heavy, and the vowels are the 5 basic ones (a, i, u, e, o). Consonants are also pretty simple, and syllables come in basic combinations (ka, tsu, shi, no, me — nothing like shlang or crap). Examples of Japanese names include Tsutomu Okumoto, Hiroko Kitahashi, Nobuo Okunoki, Fumiko Uchida, and Kenji Shimizu — they’re longer than Chinese (and there are also many more of them). Japanese place-names look like Kyouto, Saitama, Fukuoka, Biwa-ko, and Shikoku. They are easy to pronounce; it was not difficult to figure out how to romanize Japanese (that is, render it in the Roman alphabet).

Despite many similarities in Chinese and Japanese cultures, the languages actually have different roots. Japanese is unrelated to Chinese. In fact, it’s unclear what other languages Japanese is related to (well, probably Korean). It’s even unclear where Japanese people originally came from. The most likely explanation is somewhere in Siberia, leading some scholars to claim linguistic similarities with obscure Siberian peoples and even the Finns (who are way, way, way far away on the other side of Russia).

That being said, there are similarities between spoken Chinese and Japanese too. Japanese imported a lot of Chinese vocabulary along with its characters, and like French vocabulary in English, these words now fill up the Japanese dictionary and make up the bulk of Japanese words. Many of them sound fairly different, however. Here are some examples:

(Mandarin) Chinese Japanese English
gānbēi kanpai Cheers!
(pronounced “ssuh”) shi four
dìguó teikoku empire
ānquán anzen safety

Note that this flow wasn’t just 1-way, either: after Japan’s epochal Meiji Revolution, when it opened up to European influences and modernized, China adopted a bunch of words for “modern” concepts like “revolution” (Japanese: kakumei; Chinese: geming) and “telephone” (Japanese: denwa; Chinese: dianhua) from Japanese.

Does all this seem confusing to you? In fact, there are a few factors I still haven’t considered. 1 is other Chinese languages. You see, the language commonly known as “Chinese” is actually Mandarin, the official and dominant Chinese language. But there are others, like Wu, Cantonese and Xiang, and they have their own sounds while sharing the Chinese characters. It’s hard for foreigners to tell from the characters whether the language is Mandarin or something else. And then there’s Korean, which sounds sort of like Japanese but has sounds and a cadence all its own. It stands out clearly from its neighbor languages with its distinctive writing system, hangeul, full of circles and short lines.

But I think those are too much for this blog post. You shouldn’t have to be an expert to tell the difference between Chinese and Japanese. Remember these basic facts:

  • Spoken Chinese is tonal and choppy and uses comparatively short names.
  • Spoken Japanese is not tonal and flows and uses simpler sounds than Chinese and comparatively long names.
  • Written Chinese uses complex characters. If they’re more simple, they’re from China; if they’re more complex, they’re from somewhere else (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, etc.).
  • Written Japanese uses both Chinese characters and simpler kana symbols together.

Yes, there are ways of telling from the specific Chinese characters used, but for ordinary people this is probably asking too much. Thank you for reading, and good luck!



Akihabara, the mecca for anime and manga fans everywhere. Image source: 4chan

Japan has a rich, elegant and subtle culture. It’s famous around the world for its architecture, its warrior code, the tea ceremony and kabuki theater. …. But in modern times, it’s as or more likely to be associated with technology and electronics than its traditional culture, and the new face of Japan, for good or for ill, is its cartoons: anime and manga. They have a somewhat negative reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved, but they’ve been around for such a long time, and span so many works and genres, that it’s mostly unfair to stigmatize them.

Anime and manga have developed a strong, passionate, and very nerdy fanbase, but they remain obscure and strange to most people. Since this blog is all about examining foreign lands and explaining them to outsiders, I present to you my overview of Japan’s cartoon industry.

Note: This article mostly covers anime because it’s a smaller and less complex subject, but much of what it says can also apply to manga.

Cartoons in Japan actually have very deep roots. Long before modernization, artwork thrived in Japan; some of it, especially drawn on scrolls, told a story that advanced from picture to picture. By the early 1900s, this evolved into both comic strips (manga in Japanese) and animation (called “anime” for short in Japan).

The very first anime, from 1907. The characters say “moving pictures.”

Comics and animation developed more or less parallel to their counterparts overseas, but at first Japan lagged noticeably behind, as it was a much poorer country than its competitors in the West. It produced its own cartoon movies during World War II, but they were in black-and-white, lacked coherent stories, and had more stilted and cheap animation than anything Disney came up with. Japan failed to produce any internationally successful characters; imports like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were more popular, despite government discouragement. Comics fared a little better, since they were easier to make, but were still creaky and basic.

Japanese cartoons improved dramatically after the war, partly due to a more liberal creative atmosphere after the fanatical military dictatorship was disbanded. The single most important figure here — and in basically all of anime and manga history — is Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was a medical student who grew up idolizing Disney cartoons (especially Bambi) and added cartooning to his career. His comics were much livelier, more dynamic, and more interesting than any of the competition. He opened up new genres that wowed audiences used to cheesy gag-filled stories: action-adventure, science-fiction, fantasy, and historical drama. Tezuka is especially amazing because he created Japan’s first iconic, marketable characters (Astro Boy, a flying robot hero boy; Kimba the White Lion, a young King of the Jungle with the difficult task of bringing predators and prey together; Black Jack, an incredibly skilled surgeon) as well as crafting intricate, philosophical dramas with well-written characters and a cinematic sense of style. And he drew over 700 volumes of comics in his lifetime. Aand he created Japan’s modern animation industry along with its modern comics too, with animated adaptations of his most popular works. It’s hard to pick which aspect of Tezuka is most amazing.

Following Tezuka’s lead (as well as some improved cartoon movies in the 1950s, like Legend of the White Serpent), manga and anime finally took off in the ’60s and ’70s. Cute cartoon characters like Anpanman and Doraemon captivated little kids. Other creators made bigger, more exciting robots than Tezuka’s Astro Boy, until they were skyscraper-sized and battling giant monsters while being piloted by teenagers. The energy and dynamism that exemplified that heady era was channeled into sports sagas about aspiring athletes that trained every day in brutal conditions to hone their craft to its utmost potential. Unusually for its time, the manga industry discovered the power of female consumers, and produced stories of romance, growing up, and the social anxieties of puberty for girl readers. Space sagas like Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock presented an image of masculinity and bravery that appealed to a Japan that had lost a big war but was determined not to lose its vim and vigor.

This is today a bygone era with a very narrow fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. The animation was usually still pretty bad (especially in the ’60s); anime studios cut corners wherever they could, resulting in limited animation and lots of recycled footage. The art was basic and less differentiated from Western cartoons than it is today. Storylines could be glacially slow and relied on melodrama. But they made Japan a cultural force to be reckoned with, as many of the less culturally specific anime were exported to West Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

This fun video shows the exuberance (and emerging nerdiness) of anime in the early ’80s. Don’t worry too much about what it all means, though.

Despite some porno and a few edgy movies like Belladonna of Sadness, most anime was still more or less kids’ fare, though. This changed in the ’80s, when movies like Akira came out. Disturbing, energetic, lavishly drawn and animated, and with a futuristic, cynical edge, it spoke to a foreign audience that had long lazily assumed that animation was for kids. Anime started getting edgier, more violent, and more sexually explicit. It also started working with more sophisticated plots and themes and getting more stylized. Although it was much more niche back then, an open-minded, international fanbase began to take notice of a country that was going in interesting directions with its cartoons — and all without losing sense of the fun that most people associate with cartoons.

In the ’90s, anime finally went mainstream (at least to an extent). Sailor Moon combined the tropes of girls’ romances with those of transforming action hero stories, striking gold worldwide. Dragon Ball gradually spread overseas, enchanting boys with its muscular, super-powered fight scenes, science-fiction trappings, and goofy, unique sense of humor. Most importantly, the end of the decade saw Pokemon, an international monolith that combined a wildly popular video game series with trading cards and an anime. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, I remember Pokemon being more popular among kids than anything else — surely this must count as one of Japan’s greatest triumphs.

Knights of Ramune

Knights of Ramune, an especially exaggerated example of ’90s anime art style. Image source: Maybe Later

While anime hasn’t ever quite reattained the peak in popularity that Pokemon reached, it’s still very popular worldwide, bolstered by a newfound interest in manga, which was seldom exported last millennium. The formula of long-running TV shows with an action theme and plucky, likeable heroes continues, winning audiences for shows like One Piece and Naruto. The more popular shows with mass appeal get picked up for TV. But the vast majority of anime is now a niche pursuit, watched (legally or otherwise) online or through DVDs sold online. Much of it requires a knowledge of Japanese culture and some sort of familiarity with anime style to really appreciate. Most of it is also made mostly for Japanese audiences, which means there are references that will go over foreigners’ heads (especially kids’ heads).

Although there is plenty of anime for younger kids and some for adults, anime mostly aims for teenagers now. This means lots of teenage protagonists (even when this would be really implausible), lots of settings in junior high and high school, and a preoccupation with romance and interactions with the opposite sex. It has also led to the development of a big nerd fanbase. Anime fans, called otaku (“house,” because that’s where they spend all their time), have a reputation, especially in Japan, for being very hardcore in their hobby. They buy figurines and wall scrolls of their favorite characters, listen to anime soundtracks, draw fanfiction expanding on their favorite stories, and dress up (“cosplay”) as anime characters. This has led to a closet industry of anime-related merchandise; while mostly underground, it is visible in Japan in the Toukyou district of Akihabara (pictured above) and the Oosaka district of Den-Den Town, both of which used to be electronics-oriented. Voice actors have cult followings. Comiket, a twice-a-year gathering of fan artists, attracts around half a million visitors.

As a result of pandering to teenage tastes and cultivating such a nerdy fanbase, anime has taken on a rather sleazy edge. Ever since the ’60s, porno, or at least sexually explicit anime, has been part of the medium. This is still underground (or rather, behind the curtains) in Japan, but a lot of anime runs on “fanservice,” which are elements included just to titillate fans. Girls wear short skirts; the “camera” lingers on long legs and boobs; guys keep walking in on girls when they just happen to be naked; stories find more and more excuses for girls to get naked. In recent years, there’s been a trend towards eliminating male characters completely, since the target audience doesn’t care about them. Since the sketchy days of the ’70s, anime art has evolved toward subtly sexualizing characters; it now strikes a sweet spot, where characters look just realistic enough to be sexy but just cartoony enough to be relatable. Some of that anime merchandise, like body-length pillows of cute, half-undressed girls, encourages otaku to get turned on by anime girls.

This would be why anime now has a bad reputation, and it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t get a little creepy sometimes. Arguably the worst part is that Japan’s obsession with cuteness leads the ideal to tread a narrow line between cute and sexy; a lot of anime fans topple over that line and start fetishizing little girls. (Even back in the ’70s, A LOT of those family-friendly shows focused on little girls, and the UN has frequently criticized Japan for having too much child porn.) But it would be wrong and a jump to conclusions to assume that anime fans are necessarily creeps and perverts. A lot of anime is straightforward and even family-friendly by some Western standards; the fanservice is mostly there to nudge and wink the more horny fans (who also spend the most money on the industry). Sexually explicit scenes are also pretty rare in anime; anime and manga set in high school tend to be pretty chaste and rely more on hints and sexual tension than on outright hanky-panky. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that anime has plenty of female fans, and there’s almost as much fanservice to appease them as there is to appease men.


The recent anime Shirobako, a mostly realistic behind-the-scenes look at the animation industry itself, is also a good example of how cute girls (technically young women in this case) have practically taken over the medium. Image source: Shirobako official site

It’s also important to remember that anime spans a dizzying array of genres. Action and romance remain prevalent, but anime now dabbles in mystery, horror, political drama, wacky comedy, satire, workplace stories, lazy slice-of-life tales, cute girls just doing cute things, and weird combinations of some of the above. In general there’s a preference for “speculative fiction” that involves the supernatural and magical powers, partly because the target audience likes that and partly because animation lends itself to that, but these days anime can pretty much be about anything — even fighting bad guys with nose hair or a bibliophile reincarnated as a dog kept by a sadistic, scissors-wielding writer. And that’s not even counting manga, a much richer, more prolific field with subjects ranging from mahjong to office ladies drinking beer together.

Anime and manga are easily most popular in their homeland, but they have also achieved popularity across East Asia, especially in South Korea and Taiwan (which has a small version of Akihabara in its capital city). Elsewhere, they are still mostly cult phenomena, popular mainly among comic book nerds and kids (or those who haven’t completely grown up). Some anime from the ’60s to the ’80s are more popular in Latin America, Europe and/or West Asia than Japan. North America is probably the non-Asian market of most interest to the anime industry; its conventions attract thousands of fans and are the closest things otaku there have to Akihabara (a place where they can mingle with like-minded fans and buy anime-related merchandise).

One exception to the underground popularity of anime (besides the big kids’ shows mentioned earlier) is Studio Ghibli. Often described as Japan’s answer to Disney, this is the studio that puts the most effort and care into its craft, producing movies usually considered “magical” and “enchanting.” With a simple but appealing art style that’s remained mostly the same since the ’80s, a love of the fantastic, mostly wholesome stories, superb animation and a feminist, environmentalist and pacifist tilt, it’s gradually gained the appreciation of snootier cinephiles around the world. Like Disney, it mostly aims at kids, but its stories contain enough depth and sincerity to win over lots of adults too. Unfortunately, it’s been heavily dependent on 2 artists, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both of whom have retired. Its future is now uncertain.

Anime can be sleazy and creepy. Sometimes it’s stupid and blatantly commercialized. After over 50 years, it recycles a lot of its most successful stories and tropes. Of course, its famous art style gets it a lot of hatred. But love it or hate it, anime and manga have become two of Japan’s most recognizable symbols and part of the national identity. Even if most Japanese don’t watch anime, they’ll still remember favorite characters or shows from their childhood, and cartoon characters are ubiquitous in the country. If nothing else, it gives the country a cute and/or cool image that does a lot to compensate for its sometimes harsh and soulless reputation.

If you’re interested in learning more about anime and manga, check out the website I work for, Anime News Network. If you’d like to sample a few classics and don’t know where to start, here are my tips.