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Hello, Class, and Welcome to Anime 101

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Until fairly recently, Americans have long considered cartoons to be kids' fare, only suitable for Saturday mornings and after school. Animation follows a different path in Japan, where there are comic books and cartoons for every conceivable interest. Without the preconceived notions that cartoons are just for kids, the Japanese animation industry has risen to the challenge to create entertainment that just happens to be inked and painted.

So if you're ready to take the anime plunge, is here to help you with the basics.

Anime is more than just Pokemon

A lot of anime is aimed at kids, but that's because a lot of television is aimed at kids. You wouldn't judge the American television industry just by looking at kids' shows, because TV comprises everything from Sesame Street to Dexter. Actually, anime is less of a television genre and more of a storytelling a medium. Animation is a cheaper to produce than live-action series. And in Japan, where cartoons aren't just for kids, anime is an accepted method for telling all kinds of stories—from ironic comedies to elaborate historical dramas.

The Sci-Fi Connection: Japan is the Future

From the very beginning, anime has told stories of robots and cyborgs and artificial intelligences of all stripes. Astroboy? Robot. Gundam? Fighting robots. Ghost in the Shell? Robot bodies with human brains. What's the deal with the robot overload? Everyone knows Japan is ahead of the rest of the world technologically. Sci-fi anime series are often set in the near future, and the most important series tell stories of what humanity ends up doing with all this technology. Hint: Things rarely end well.

Angels and Demons

Though Japan is thought of as a technological wonderland, it still has a rich and ancient mythology that's heavy on the supernatural, with demons, gods, and monsters and the humans who hunt and/or fall in love with them. It's no wonder that a lot of anime series comb through those legends and myths in order to tell (and retell) the past. Case in point: A few of those cute little Pokemon characters are based on mythological Japanese creatures, and even Naruto picks through legend to find basis for a lot of those jutsu. Meanwhile, Bleach takes an unorthodox view of the afterlife and what happens to a soul after its body dies.

And don't think the West is ignored in this aspect either. Neon Genesis Evangelion, one of the most popular anime series of all time, features protagonists who fight against gigantic monsters that are named after Biblical angels. Need a vampire fix? Anime has tons of them, including Hellsing, Vampire Hunter D, Blood +, and Vampire Princess Miyu, among others. Oh, and there's magic, too: Anime tells stories of magic schools that are worlds apart from Hogwarts, many of which warn of the dire consequences that result when wizards go rogue and start using their powers against plain old human beings.

A Slice of Life

Anime series set in high school are popular in Japan, and can run from the silly to the angsty and anywhere in between. There are stories about teens who build up cred as street racers (these stories existed years before The Fast and the Furious) and stories of young rock bands struggling to achieve stardom. And yes, there are the prerequisite love triangles and rectangles and other polygonal shapes.

Technically, anime isn't restricted to a specific genre. There is sci-fi anime series and fantasy anime series and sports anime series and plain old soap opera drama anime series. There are stories of all kinds waiting to be told—the one constant is that they all happen to be in cartoon form.

What follows is a rundown of some of the most popular anime titles of all time. If you don't know where to begin, start by watching one of these.

Astroboy (1980)

One of the first anime series brought to the US, Astroboy is a modern take on the well-known story of Pinocchio. After a scientist's only son is killed in an accident, he builds a robot in his son's likeness. The stories focus on Frankenstein-inspired questions: Is it ever okay to play God, and what does it mean to be human? Based on Osamu Tezuka's long-running manga (comic book) series Tetsuwan Atom, Astroboy has become an iconic symbol for anime. The big-eyed illustration style is so prevalent in today's anime shows that the medium seemingly owes a huge debt to Astroboy, but Tezuka reportedly based his original design for the boy robot on an American cartoon character named Mickey Mouse. Do you see the resemblance?

Robotech (1985-1988)

Many of today's anime fans were introduced to the medium by Robotech, and the series sets the bar high. A generation-spanning epic of mankind's first contact with aliens, Robotech must have been pretty heavy fare compared to the rest of '80s afterschool TV: In this sci-fi story, characters acted like real people. There were love triangles and even character deaths (and not in the cartoony blown-up way where the "deceased" returns two seconds later). Heavy stuff for an after-school "cartoon."

Fullmetal Alchemist (2004-2006)

Set in an alternate ancient Europe where technology exists hand-in-mechanical-hand with magic (known as "alchemy" in the series), Fullmetal Alchemist has become one of the more popular anime series of the past few years. The premise centers on two brothers as they seek redemption for their unforgivable sin of trying to raise the dead. The first episode not only sets up the universe that the Elric brothers roam in, but also offers a great introduction to how alchemy works.

In the next few weeks, we'll tackle a few more of the most popular and influential anime series, all available for you to watch right on the site. Stay tuned!

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