What Is Anime?: A Look Into the Past and Present of Anime

Anime is hot right now, having grown dramatically in popularity in the western world over the past decade or so.

What was once a Japan-only craze, and then a fascination of “geekier” subgroups in the west, is now a worldwide phenomenon.

But what is anime? If you have friends or family who are into this form of entertainment and you’re trying to understand, you might be confused. After all, anime can be confusing.

When you look up anime, everything that comes up might look different! What’s the deal?

We want to help explain so you can either get into it yourself or have something to talk about with your anime-loving friends and family members. Keep reading for our guide on anime, styles, and how it’s developed over the years.

What Is Anime and When Did It Start?

Anime is a style of Japanese animation. It features characters with exaggerated features and it comes in all different genres. While anime is often considered a genre in and of itself, it’s more of an umbrella term.

It’s diverse, and it’s more of a medium than anything else. It isn’t often grouped with western animation because it has so many individual elements and genres that western animators never adopted.

While the term means animation, it’s recognizable as its own thing. There are television shows, music videos, and feature films that are all anime. People adopt anime styles for things like videogames and visual novels now that it’s gotten more popular.

Anime has become its own subculture.

Anime has been around for a long time and it’s changed forms over the years. Let’s take a look at how anime has developed from the time it originated through 2020.

A Brief History of Anime

While it wasn’t the same as anime as we know it now, it actually originated in the 1910s. It had more of a resemblance to western animation at that time. While there are instances of anime through the earlier decades of the 20th century, anime didn’t really hit its stride until the seventies.

In the eighties, anime started to make its way to western audiences. It started to boom in popularity and more animators and artists got into the field. Anime started to develop distinct genres (more on that later) and artists developed their own art styles that started to define anime as a whole.

Popular filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (and his studio, Studio Ghibli) started to rise at this point, and people started taking anime more seriously. His movies are nationally acclaimed and award-winning.

The term “otaku” also arose during this time in Japan. While it’s sometimes used affectionately, it refers to a person who is consumed by their interests, most commonly anime and manga. In the western world, it’s only for anime and manga enthusiasts.

As we made our way through the 90s, popular animes like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z defined their genres, paving the way for the future of anime.

In the early 2000s, anime was still considered a “niche” interest in the west. If you wanted to buy anime merchandise you’d need to find an actual anime store to buy from. As more and more animes made their way to western TV screens and got translated to English, this changed.

Now in 2020, anime is popular enough that merchandise appears in brick and mortar shops and cosplayers are “cool”. In only a few decades, the culture around anime has made serious changes.

Cosplayers? What are those?

Cosplay is a shorthand form of “costume play.” People who cosplay dress up as their favorite characters from anime, manga, and videogames and go to conventions where they get to meet their favorite artists and voice actors and hang out with other like-minded people.

Cosplay has been popular since the eighties, but it’s had a popularity boom that aligned with the popularity boom of anime.

Anime vs Manga: What’s The Difference?

Some anime newbies see anime and manga and assume that they’re the same thing. These people are on the right track, but there’s a major difference.

Manga is the written and drawn form of anime. In other words, manga is what we’d refer to as comic books in the west.

Many (if not most) animes originate in manga form before they’re adapted for the screen. Mangakas (or manga artists and writers) create the storylines, character designs, and worlds that the shows (or games) will then adapt.

Mangas and animes are often so similar that the characters look identical and the anime plotline follows exactly with the manga, but there are exceptions. Sometimes anime creators choose to expand on the manga stories or go in different directions so that readers still have a purpose for watching the show.

Anime and Japenese Culture

A lot of anime reflects elements of Japanese culture that people in the west can’t relate to. Through anime, western audiences learn about the Japanese school system, societal norms, and the way Japanese history has shaped it.

Early anime existed in the form of propaganda. Some modern animes ignore history entirely, while others incorporate it in magical or mundane ways.

Miyazaki, for example, creates animes that connect with Japanese culture and history in ways that children can understand. He writes about war in his adaptation of Howls Moving Castle without an “in your face” war representation.

Akiyuki Nosaka’s story, Grave of The Fireflies, takes a more direct approach, addressing the horrors of World War II in a way that tugs at the emotions of viewers and offers a different perspective than most western audiences had of the war.

While too many westerners associate anime with Japanese culture (to the extent that they know very little outside of it), there are important connections to be made.

The Progression and Development of Animation Styles

Anyone who watches anime knows that there’s a distinct “old anime” look. At the time, this animation looked awesome. It was fresh and new. To our modern eyes, though, it looks scratchy and dated, but that’s part of its charm.

People will notice this happening every few years. A show that looked great to you when you were a teenager might look ugly or outdated in your twenties. We get so used to advanced animation styles that we don’t even realize that it’s happening.

While old animes exclusively used traditional animation, newer ones often incorporate small elements of CGI.

The styles of characters also change. In the nineties, for example, the silhouettes of male characters were often very triangular with narrow waists and broad shoulders regardless of the character type.

Female characters had pinched waists, pointy noses, and heavy detail on the faces. All genders of characters used bright and bold colors.

In the 2000s, characters were softer and less detailed (though this varied by genre). Many characters had flatter and smoother colors and a “cuter” appearance. By the 2010s, characters were more detailed again, and shading was assisted by more advanced animation methods.

It also became common to have super detailed characters while backgrounds stayed static so more attention went towards what was important.

Popular Genres of Anime

As we mentioned, anime is less of a genre and more of an umbrella that covers many other genres. It’s just a method of presentation for genres that already exist (though there are some that are specific to anime and manga).

There are many popular genres in the anime world, but a few stand above the rest

Shonen vs Shoujo

Shonen and Shoujo are more umbrella terms that contain a variety of anime genres, but they’re also genres in and of themselves.

Shonen animes are geared towards younger to teenage males. There’s a lot of energy and fighting in these animes, and they may have harsher art styles. If there are female characters, they appeal to a male audience.

Shoujo animes are geared towards younger to teenage girls. The characters are less sexualized and softer and the animes contain themes of love, friendship, and “girl power.”

Slice of Life

Slice of life is one of the most popular forms of shoujo anime. It features real-life situations and interactions between characters, most often those who are in school.

The anime will focus on interpersonal relationships in settings that viewers can relate to. There will be things like clubs, classes, work, and more.

These animes are usually calm and have elements of comedy and drama. Modern trends lean towards sad slice of life animes that contain tragedy and aim to be tearjerkers.


Sports animes are almost always shounen animes, though there are exceptions. These are pretty straightforward. The main character (or a group of main characters) are athletes and you follow them through their athletic progress as well as their day-to-day struggles.

Sports animes often contain slice of life elements. The athletes may be in school or they might be working. Sports animes range from basketball, swimming, tennis, and more. There are very few limitations aside from “must be about sports.”


Fantasy is a broad genre of anime. It has a lot of overlap with other genres and many animes fit under the fantasy umbrella.

A fantasy anime is any anime that contains fantasy elements, even if they aren’t what we typically think of as “fantasy”. While there are some princesses, dragons, and fairies to be found in anime, there are plenty of other ways that fantasy presents itself.

Some popular animes feature fantasy worlds where “real life” things are made larger than life. Ninjas become an entire character class with their own worlds and subgroups. Pirates gain superpowers and travel the seas forever. Videogames are all VR and they can have an impact on the real lives of the characters.

There are demons, monsters, magical girls (covered more in the next section), and more but these things are often still subject to the slice of life plotlines that are so popular.

Magical Girl

While magical girl animes are all fantasy animes, they deserve their own section due to their prevalence and popularity. The most recognizable magical girl anime is Sailor Moon, which many people still buy (and create!) merchandise from today.

Thousands of cosplayers choose Sailor Moon costumes every year. They’re cute and recognizable and have a level of “girl power” that wasn’t really seen in anime before that point.

The original series ran from 1991 to 1997 and there’s been a remake.

Sailor Moon paved the way for many more magical girl animes for all age groups. People love the idea of a “normal girl” transforming into a superhero that still gets to be soft and feminine. Her femininity is a valuable part of her power; it doesn’t detract from it.

Magical girl animes are often for children, but there are ones that cross over into the psychological or horror genres that aim for older audiences.

Horror and Psychological

Horror and psychological animes are popular within their niche audiences, but they don’t get enough credit. Some horror animes are straightforward and fit neatly within the genre while others are genre-bending (such as popular magical girl anime Puella Magi Madoka Magica).

Horror anime follows a similar style to other Japanese horrors, relying more on suspense and dread (as well as traditional themes) than the jumpscares of western horror.

While most horror animes have psychological elements, not all psychological animes are horrors. Slice of life animes sometimes lean in the psychological direction and “get weird” as they progress.

Anime Isn’t Just a Genre

So what is anime? Rather than it being a generic genre of entertainment, it’s an entire medium that covers a broad range of styles, genres, audiences, and more.

While many animes follow a formula, the medium in and of itself has a lot of diversity. There’s something for everyone once they’re willing to get past the misguided idea that cartoons are for children.

If you have an interest, there’s an anime that covers it. Why not take a look?

For more articles about all of the things you’re curious about, check out the rest of our site!