Like many people who have been to Japan, my first taste of Japanese culture was from the wonderful (and weird) world of anime. Some wonder whether they can get a real sense of what Japan is like from these beautiful and masterful animations.
Can an animated film or series actually depict what an entire country is really like? Lots of anime-lovers like myself would wholeheartedly say yes! Despite the prevalence of magical and often unrealistic storylines, there are aspects of anime that really do show you what it’s like to live in modern-day Japan. For those who are interested in the backstory of this beautiful country, there are animes that accurately depict its rich history too. Which Anime most accurately represents life in Japan? And what aspects of Japanese life do most anime films and shows get right every time?
Japan’s love of anime is well documented and known throughout the world. We’re going to consider how anime came to be, how it became popular with western audiences, the things that most animes get right about Japan, and I’ll personally share a few of my favorites to get you started.
What is anime, and how did it start?
Contrary to popular belief, anime doesn’t mean anything technical or unique. In Japanese the term anime simply refers to all forms of animated media, so technically every cartoon you see is “anime”. However, as Japanese animation became popular in the west, the term anime came to represent something very specific: animation that has specifically originated in Japan, which is incredibly vibrant, dramatic, and sometimes magical in nature.
Not to get too “political”, but it’s worth mentioning that the desire we in the west have of putting anything new into a neatly definable box means that using this term is a little problematic – since anime is a Japanese word describing all animation, using it to distinguish Japanese cartoons from the world of animation is pretty reductive. Some scholars believe that it’s even an act of “orientalism”, or possibly cultural appropriation. We’re not going to cover such a difficult but necessary debate in an article about Japanese animation, but to keep things simple, whenever I use the term “anime”, that’s what I’ll be referring to (sorry Japan).
Anime can be traced back to 1906 in some forms, but the first commercial anime to be broadcast was in 1917. It continued to be developed throughout the decades, but the art style we most commonly associate with modern-day anime arose in the 1960s. Gifted artists such as Osamu Tezuka and Riyoko Ikeda pioneered their own beloved art-styles and preferred genres, making anime more accessible to modern Japanese audiences, both in tone and availability. It’s a fascinating history that’s worth an online deep dive if you have the time.
Pre-WWII, animators in Japan struggled to compete with foreign productions due to their lack of technology and support from external sources. Disney was already making a huge impact around the world, and small animation studios in Japan were not able to produce anything as advanced without the financial backing of bigger companies. Animators worked diligently to get their work out wherever possible, using methods such as cutout animation, and they relied heavily on sponsorship, making educational films, advertisements, and government propaganda.
Japanese animation progressed rapidly post-WWII though, as animators and studios pushed to incorporate much of the technology used by other prolific animators at the time. As artists became more prolific, so did studios and support for what they were creating. The 1980s brought with it an entire wave of people who referred to themselves as “otaku” – literally translated geek or nerd, these were people who devotedly followed their favourite hobbies, one of which being anime! Their firm devotion, the hard work of thousands of animators over the decades, and the introduction of the internet helped anime become the phenomenon that it is today.
Japanese animation is both prolific and iconic. Film-lovers cannot claim to be so without having delved into some of Japan’s most quintessential animated works. But if anime is so wonderful, why isn’t it as popular in the west?
It’s no longer a niche interest, I tell you!
It’s always confused me that western audiences historically haven’t been interested in this beautiful art form, especially when you consider how much we love animation in general. Would you believe that when anime was introduced in America, it failed for one very strange reason: American audiences “didn’t like the idea of cartoons characters having human traits and feelings”.
When I read this theory, I was skeptical, to say the least, but the earliest American animations were all of animals! This was in direct contrast to Japanese animation, which almost always featured a human protagonist or at least one that was human in most respects. In 1960, in an attempt to introduce American audiences to anime, a producer named Fred Ladd pushed for “Astro Boy” to be aired on NBC, it received abysmal ratings and didn’t even get to complete its run on-air – a tragedy that undoubtedly cost the American public the chance to see some truly amazing Japanese shows over the years.
For another few decades, anime and manga were considered to be niche interests that were hard to satisfy until the internet came into fruition. Otakus from around the world had to seek out small stores that would provide them with the latest anime and manga, and even those were primarily based in big cities. What’s more? They were rarely subbed or dubbed, so unless you spoke Japanese, you’d have a hard time understanding what was happening.
Of course, collaborations like Thundercats and Transformers meant that often people were watching anime without even realizing it, but most were still missing out on the breadth and depth of Japanese animation. Many young kids like myself had their first experience of anime through cartoons that managed to break through to the major channels in the 90s: Dragon Ball Z, Digimon, and my all-time favorite Saturday morning cartoon – Pokémon (brownie points if you can guess how old I am from this). Older anime otaku at the time also enjoyed amazing shows like Cowboy Beebop and Sailor moon, and Cartoon Network’s “Toon Time” which purposely brought shows like this to the fore.
Japanese animation certainly didn’t need validation from western audiences, anyone who’s stumbled on a Studio Ghibli film will attest to the beauty of the animation; the detail of the storylines; the incredible musical compositions that excite and delight. The internet has enabled many to see that animators in Japan are masters of their craft, regardless of whether audiences overseas are witness to it or not. But is there a reason that even modern-day audiences have been reluctant to accept anime into their lives, and why many dismiss anime-lovers as “weeaboos”, AKA complete nerds? There are some key differences between Japanese and western animated features that could contribute to this, and that you should definitely consider before you delve into your first one.
A wide variety of the wonderful (and the super weird)
Yes, there are some super weird animes. If you’ve been unfortunate enough to have seen one of the more unusual ones before any others, there’s a good chance it’s put you off for life. But not all Japanese animation is weird, despite the memes and stereotypes suggesting that’s the case. That’s just a small part of it, one that you never have to encounter if that’s not your thing. Most Japanese animation is just like any other mainstream animation around the world – sweet, complicated, magical, dramatic, violent, and with real human stories. Studio Ghibli has even sometimes been dubbed as “Japanese Disney”, although many like it much better.
Another possible reason (hear me out) many people are thrown by anime is a simple one: Japanese storytelling is just different from western storytelling. Neither is better or worse than the other, they just do things a little differently than American or European audiences might be used to. The characters are emphatic and very expressive, and their language utilizes different sounds than we might be accustomed to, which can sometimes be a little jarring for reserved moviegoers. Anime has sometimes been criticized as being “cheesy”, and sure, sometimes that’s true. But Hollywood has been guilty of some pretty cheesy stuff too – you just have to be discerning if you want to avoid it. Sure, even some of the best animes have slightly cheesy moments, but that does definitely not cause for dismissal. Give One Piece a chance!
What does anime get right?
It’s probably too reductive to suggest that you could get a 100% perfect depiction of any country from a work of fiction. Unless you’re watching a well-made documentary, you’re not going to see one film or series that accurately shows you everything you need to know about Japan (and even then, the bias of the filmmaker could affect what’s being shown). Many animes are fantastical and magical in nature, and therefore unrealistic in many ways. However, there are elements of most animes that the majority of people would agree are pretty spot on. Let’s take a look at just a few of them. (Side note- all the animes I’m going to recommend here are pretty entry-level, and lots of them are available on Netflix!)
The breathtaking scenery
It’s hard to convey in words, but during my first trip to Japan, I was taken aback by how the countryside and cities I’d seen in animes were an almost perfect reflection of what was in front of me. The attention to detail in many modern-day animes is breathtaking: the wind rustling blade of grass in rural Japan or the momentary calm in a sea of Tokyoites rushing for the train. Many animes are based on real locations throughout Japan, and you can curate your own tour of your favorite anime locations with just a little research.
As well as the detail, it’s impressive how much many animes manage to capture the feeling of a particular place. I recently saw the new Makoto Shinkai film ‘Weathering With You’, and watching the city scenes was like being transported right back into Tokyo. Yes, there was magic, and yes some of the plots were a complete fantasy, but the film genuinely captured what it’s like to walk around Tokyo and absorb the sights sounds and smells.
To see real Tokyo locations in anime, watch One Punch Man, Weathering With You, and Tokyo Ghoul.
The food (oh, the food!)
Food is one of the most accurately portrayed aspects of Japanese culture in anime, and for good reason – Japan takes its food very seriously. From the customs, to the preparation, to the etiquette, even poorly made animes stick to the truth when it comes to food. The minute details are what makes anime food stand out, like the steam rising from a bowl of warm rice, or the way Japanese people pour other people drinks but never their own. My first bowl of ramen in Japan was so immaculately presented it made me feel like I was in my very own anime series about a British girl obsessed with bunny island.
To see Japanese food perfectly animated, watch Flavours of Youth, Sword Art Online, and A Silent Voice.
Even if you’ve heard about Japan’s love of vending machines, many people dismiss the appearance of them in anime as exaggerated. It does seem pretty excessive – in most animes, there seems to be a vending machine at every corner containing just what the protagonist was hoping for – so it’s hard to believe it could be accurate. While the frequency of vending machines seems excessive, it’s really not far from the truth at all. There are more than 5 million vending machines in Japan, and they really do sell a vast array of products: hot drinks in cans, draft beer, underwear (ick), food, umbrellas, and much more. So, if you see an anime character getting just what they were craving from the nearest vending machine know that it’s a common occurrence you’ll likely experience yourself when you go there.
Even with all the niche sub-genres, it’s hard to find any animes completely about vending machines (@me in the comments if you’re a die-hard vending-machine-anime otaku), but for an abundance of them, watch any modern-day anime set in the city.
Bowing – it’s not just for performers
You can read this post here to find out why Japanese people take manners and respect so seriously but watching anime will also give you a pretty good idea of how it’s done. You might notice that anime characters do a lot of bowing, which seems a little old-fashioned but is a completely accurate representation of Japanese manners. Bowing is done in all kinds of circumstances, both casual and formal, and Japanese people have different angles of bowing for different levels of respect – the deeper the bow, the more respect is shown to the person you’re bowing for. So, while it might seem twee when featured in a cute Japanese cartoon, anime manners are the real deal.
Just as with vending machines, it’s hard to find an anime solely about bowing and manners, but they are featured in almost every anime, so I’m just going to recommend you watch Pokémon: Indigo League because it’s awesome.
What anime should I watch first for an accurate idea of Japan?
Unfortunately, there’s no one anime (that I know of) that completely encapsulates the entire country of Japan. The catalog of anime is vast with many different genres, and every animation fan probably has a different opinion of which anime you should watch first. It really depends on your tastes, your favorite types of stories, wherein Japan you’d like to get a sense of, etc.
I’m going to recommend a few of my favourite, entry-level animes. If you’re reading this and you’re an anime expert I’m sure you have lots of other choices – let us know what they are and why in the comments! My suggestions are going to be highly biased by the things I enjoy but will be, in my humble opinion, the most universally appealing animes to get started with, if you’re looking for something that gives you an accurate impression of Japan.
Historical Japan in Anime form
My Neighbour Totoro – 1988
(Tonari no Totoro – となりのトトロ)
If you haven’t seen this already, you’ve undoubtedly seen the adorable, giant, cuddly creature for which the film is named – Totoro. Set in 1958, the film centers around a father and his two young children, who move into an old house to be closer to the hospital their mother is staying in. Satsuki and Mei, the two children, explore the house and fields surrounding it and find magical creatures that take them on a surreal adventure. The magical element to the story is intertwined with the sad story of the girls’ mother, who is recovering from a long-term illness, and their father, who works as a university professor.
This is one of the quintessential Japanese animes, and undoubtedly one of the most popular. It’s (obviously) fantasy, so don’t expect to see a real-life Totoro or Catbus anywhere in Japan, but it certainly gives a breathtaking glimpse into rural Japan. The interactions between adults and children and the picturesque landscapes are strikingly similar to rural Japan at the time, and the fantasy element allows adults to experience the simplicity of a child’s imagination once again. Despite the fact that the storyline seems ideal for younger audiences when the film was shown as a dual release with ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (coincidentally my next pick) in 1988 it received critical acclaim. According to the book ‘Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation’ it was “one of the most moving and remarkable double bills ever offered to a cinema audience”.
You can watch ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ in a variety of formats, both subbed and dubbed. It is definitely not one to be missed.
Grave of the Fireflies – 1988
(Hotaru no Haka – 火垂るの墓)
Before I go any further, this recommendation comes with a warning: you will cry when watching this film. I was not warned before I saw it and unexpectedly bawled my eyes out, so it’s a good job I was alone. For total transparency, I even got a little teary revisiting the plot of the film for this article. However, this is still one of the best films I’ve ever seen that I won’t watch more than once or twice.
Grave of the Fireflies is a film that portrays the difficulties of war and is based on the true short story (of the same name) by Akiyuki Nosaka. It tells the tale of a brother and sister trying to survive in Kobe after their house is completely destroyed in a firebombing. Aged only 14 and 4 respectively, Seita and his sister Setsuko face real-life challenges throughout the film as they try to survive. The surrounding landscape and depiction of Kobe is completely authentic, and gives you a realistic if upsetting impression of war-time Japan.
Nosaka wrote this harrowing book from his own experience in Japan during WWII, but for many years he refused offers of film adaptations because he did not feel that the truth of his account could be properly captured in film. That was of course until he was offered an animated version by Isao Takahata and his team, along with storyboard suggestions for what the film would look like, and Nosaka accepted. This tale certainly won’t be for everyone, but if you’re willing to see a realistic depiction of the struggles that come with war, you’ll enjoy the fantastic attention to detail and beautiful animation.
Your Name – 2016
(Kimi no Na wa – 君の名は。)
Your name is a romantic drama film, with strong elements of fantasy, and a perfect choice for your foray into anime. It tells the story of two teenage strangers who find themselves linked inexplicably. Mitsuha is a teenage girl who lives in a beautifully illustrated mountain town, and dreams of the city, while Taki is a teenage boy who lives in Tokyo and aspires to be an artist. When their lives intertwine from a distance, the two have to navigate their strange circumstances, often with strange and hilarious results.
Your Name received critical acclaim when it was released in Japan, and critical acclaim when it was then released to western audiences. It is the fourth highest-grossing film in Japan, and the ninth highest-grossing (traditionally) animated film, winning countless awards and even inspiring an American live-action remake (although the Japanese animation is already perfect in my eyes). The film depicts living in the city and countryside with startling accuracy, albeit a little romantically. Watch this film to get a real feel or what it feels like to walk around Tokyo – I watch it sometimes just to reminisce.
Sakura Quest – 2017
(Saukura Kuesuto – サクラクエスト)
The only series on my little list, Sakura quest is a light, slice-of-life anime series that does a great job of showing what life is like in modern-day Japan. Again, it has a slightly unusual premise, since the lead character Yoshino Koharu is mistakenly given the job of “Queen” of a small village. Still, the scenery, characters, and interactions are praised for being very realistic depictions of tourism, business, and tradition in Japan. This one might be a little harder to get your hands on, but fans of romance, comedy, and ultimately Japan will feel it’s worth the effort.
And there you have it! Whether you want to get into some new avenues of animation, you want a taste of what it’s like in Japan before you go, OR you just want a way to reminisce until you can return, hopefully, this list can help get you going. I’m sure there are many opinions floating out there on my choices and reasoning – let me know what you think in the comments!