Next week, the anime feature Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train (full title the even larger mouthful of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba the Movie: Mugen Train) hits theaters. Directed by Haruo Sotozaki, Demon Slayer is a feature sequel to the Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba (translation: “Demon Slayer: Blade of Demon Destruction”) anime TV series, which itself is based on the popular manga series of the same name written and illustrated by Koyoharu Gotouge. It tells the story of Tanjiro Kamado, a young boy who vows to become a demon hunter after his parents are slaughtered and his younger sister turned into a demon.

Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train was initially released in Japan in October 2020, where it quickly became both the highest-grossing anime film and also the highest-grossing Japanese film of all time to go along with the manga series being one of the best-selling mangas of all time. Clearly, there’s plenty of excitement for the movie as it makes its North American debut.

To add to the excitement of anime fans, Fathom Events has partnered with GKIDS and recently announced a special event anime series in which they’re bringing back a few of their most popular anime film titles to theaters for limited engagements. Those titles include fan-favorites such as Children of the Sea, Weathering With You, Lupin III: The First and Promare. As with Fathom’s usual anime special events, all movies will be available in both the original Japanese with subtitles and English dub versions, and include bonus content. Along with that, Promare, Weathering With You and Lupin III: The First events will also be available in immersive 4DX format at select locations across the country. It’s a great opportunity for fans to catch a rare chance to see Japanese anime feature films on the big screen if they missed them the first time they hit theaters.

Beyond Demon Slayer and Fathom Events’ anime series, you may have noticed that anime seems to have exploded in popularity in recent years. No longer the domain of extremely niche specialty movies or “cartoons” watched by 13-year-olds, anime has crossed the Pacific from Japan to become wildly popular in the U.S. and Canada. Platforms like Funimation and Crunchyroll have made it easier than ever to collect and stream anime series that used to be hard to find outside of Japan. The aforementioned Fathom Events’ biggest special events every year are anime movie releases that come stateside. Even Netflix is getting into the game, becoming the go-to streaming platform for dozens and dozens of anime series dubbed in various languages for its international audiences. It’s also heavily invested in making original American anime content, such as Castlevania, Blood of Zeus, and Dragon’s Dogma, with plans to expand live-action movies into full universes with animated spinoffs for The Witcher and Army of the Dead.

The world of anime can be daunting, however, and for those unfamiliar with it, the unfamiliarity of the medium can be confusing. As with comic books, there’s so much content, and it’s in such a different format than what one might be used to, that it’s often difficult to know where to begin getting into anime. If you’re curious about jumping in, or want to learn more about that show your girlfriend/son/cousin always watches, here’s your beginner’s crash course on anime.

What Is Anime, Exactly?

Anime 'Your Name' (Credit: FUNimation Entertainment)
Anime ‘Your Name’ (Credit: FUNimation Entertainment)

At its most basic definition, “anime” is simply the Japanese term used to describe any type of animation, a shortened version of the word “animēshon,” which is the Japanese way of pronouncing “animation.” To Western culture, however (that’s likely you if you’re reading this), anime has evolved to mean the distinct and particular style of animation that has been around for about a century. The traditional manga and anime visual style we know today, however, was popularized by cartoonist Osamu Tezuka in the 1960s. His work widely influenced the Japanese animation that came after and set the highly stylized look of most Japanese animation.

Originally, most anime series were adaptations of manga – Japanese comics and graphic novels – with the same style carrying over from the manga comics into the animated adaptations. However, not all anime stories were previously told in manga; more and more anime series are original series with no manga source. More and more anime series are also being adapted from “light novels,” i.e. Japanese young adult novels. And, as noted, an increasing number of these episodic series are getting feature-length film adaptations that often serve as sequels to anime seasons.

Is There American Anime?

The Legend of Korra

The short answer is there sure is! But also, technically…no. It depends on who you ask; there is an ongoing debate about whether or not something can be called anime if it doesn’t come from Japan. Similar to how champagne can only truly be called champagne if it comes from the Champagne wine region of France, and whiskey can only be called Scotch if it’s made in Scotland, one camp of people believe something can only be called anime if it is made in Japan. Others feel calling certain animated series and movies made outside Japan anime as long as it’s in the style is fine. Still, most of the time you’ll see anime made outside Japan, it’s qualified as either American anime (or Korean or Middle Eastern, etc.), or referred to as anime-influenced animation.

That said, as anime increases in popularity around the world, other countries have started creating their own versions. Thanks to pioneering series like Rooster Teeth’s RWBY, the Funimation and Crunchyroll platforms, and in recent years to Netflix, American anime has experienced a boom in the past few years, with many recent series becoming as popular and widely watched as traditional anime series on the platform.

What Are The Trademarks Of Anime?

Villain Nine in 'My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising' (Courtesy: Funimation)
Villain Nine in ‘My Hero Academia: Heroes Rising’ (Courtesy: Funimation)

That’s a difficult question to answer, as it’s hard to exactly define what anime is and isn’t. As noted above, anime is a broad discipline that incorporates a vast spectrum of styles and ideas. That said, there are a few general characteristics that tend to exist across anime and that set it apart as a medium.

Exaggerated Physical Features

The most notable characteristic of anime is the visual style of its characters. Overly-large eyes, especially for younger characters, exaggerated facial gestures, and minimally sketched facial features, particularly noses, are all notable in the style. Visual shorthand is also often used to convey specific strong emotions, such as red hashmarks to indicate a character is blushing, a single drop of sweat on the forehead to indicate stress or embarrassment, or speed lines to indicate yelling.

Stock Character Tropes

Luckily, this is changing in anime. But for quite some time, there were about a dozen distinct character tropes in anime that most series cycled around. This is particularly notable with the “-dere” character types, such as tsundere, mayadere, and undere. As more women get into anime and animation, the trope of the helpless damsel in distress and infantilized female characters are slowly evolving into more well-rounded characters, particularly with American anime upending certain tropes popularized by anime. Likewise, male protagonists are evolving beyond stubborn and hotheaded young boys and damaged and stoic men.

Cinematic Fight Scenes & Action Sequences

Not all anime series and movies have fight sequences, but those that do tend to be extremely cinematic in execution, utilizing a number of camera angles, speed lines and slow motion. They also often involve exaggerated and complex weapons and movements that defy the laws of physics but can also be quite balletic in execution. Anime geared toward adults can also be quite gory at times, not holding back on blood or viscera. This fight scene from Netflix’s Castlevania series is a fairly good example of all of the above:

Complex Plots & Adult Themes

Anime may be “cartoons,” but that doesn’t mean it’s for kids. In general, anime tends to deal with more complex stories than simplistic cartoons, and many of the themes can be quite adult in nature, with more mature anime being quite graphic. Thanks to the length of most anime seasons, as well, characters can often be developed more completely and thoroughly over time, showing themselves to be far more complicated and layered than most characters in other animated series.

Of course, those are just a few characteristics of a very broad genre.

Do I Have To Read The Manga To Understand What’s Going On In Anime Shows?

In a word, no. It’s similar to American comic books and graphic novels: While it’s nice to have read the source material or at least have a passing familiarity with it in order to better understand details, it’s generally not necessary to understand the story. As with comic book movies and TV series, anime series and movies are adaptations of manga books that are meant to stand on their own. Likewise, more and more anime series are being made without being based on a manga or light novel beforehand, completely original stories and creations for the screen.

What Anime Series Should I Start With?

The crew of Cowboy Bebop

Cowboy Bebop. You start with Cowboy Bebop. Being serious, it truly depends on what sort of genres you’re into. Younger audiences can go with childhood classics like Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra and Sailor Moon. Slightly older classics geared toward teens and adults are My Hero Academia, Cowboy Bebop, Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Attack on Titan, Castlevania, Death Note, or Neon Genesis Evangelion. Similar to someone asking what album should they listen to, it’s hard to narrow down what anime to start with as the medium is so varied and vast that it genuinely depends on what you’re interested in at the moment. To that end, Paste Magazine put together a comprehensive list of the 30 Best Anime Series of All Time and it’s a great place to start as it covers some of the most influential anime series ever made. (But seriously, start with Cowboy Bebop.)

Demon Slayer The Movie: Mugen Train is in theaters starting Thursday, April 22. Meanwhile, the first film in Fathom Events’ anime series, Children of the Sea, will be in theaters on Sunday, June 13 (English dub) and Tuesday, June 15 (Japanese with subtitles).

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