Essay: Anime America: Exploring Japanese Animation’s Place in Western Culture

by Haley Fox

COMM 365 Sec. 004

Prof. Megan Ankerson

Animation in the United States has a long history as a popular form of entertainment media. Once viewed as strictly for children, some adult comedy shows like Futurama (1999) and South Park (1997) have changed the ways in which American society accepts animated media. However, in other cultures, animation has never been constrained by conceptions about its appropriate audience. One of those places is Japan, where anime was able to develop as entertainment for all types of viewers and then as a cultural export in America long before the commoditization of sushi. Like American television, anime runs the glut from light-hearted slice-of-life series to dramatic and gory thrillers. Anime can be separated into genres as broad as “shonen” and “shojo,” (meaning for boys or for girls, consecutively), but today’s anime titles can often be sorted into an ultra-specific niche, like high school sports team anime, giant robot post-apocalypse anime, and magical girl anime. Each genre has a very particular way of producing openers that prime the viewer for the show. In order to demonstrate some of those tropes, this essay will be analyzing the opening sequences of two very different shows: Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Ouran High School Host Club. Through this analysis, bigger questions surrounding anime’s unique ability to speak to large U.S. markets and fulfil a want that cannot be filled by traditional television will be answered. Anime’s popularity in the American theatre can be attributed to a powerful concoction of ‘other’ yet understandable cross-cultural semiotics that has its historical roots in the rhetoric of globalization and is just as pervasive in the anime titles of today, creating and defining a fan community.

The majority of literature surrounding anime’s history and dispersion into American markets approaches this phenomenon from economic and cultural standpoints, but more and more scholarly work is beginning to take fan participation and industry changes into consideration. Both are valid ways of approaching this medium, and together can form a comprehensive view of the history of anime in America. Anime in the modern sense of the word was born in the 1960s, when Osama Tezuka broadcast the first episode of Astro Boy (fig. 1) with an astounding approval rating of 27.4% (Clements, 219). Tezuka, considered by many to be the “Walt Disney of Japan” (Clements, 223), was limited by the enormous amount of labor that went into producing animation at this time, and had to employ cost-saving tactics such as reusing cels and only animating parts of otherwise still frames. However, these corner cutting techniques lent anime a narrative visual style that has endured to this day, most apparent in the repetitious fight scenes and prolonged internal monologues that anime seems to favor. One factor of anime that many scholars point to as evidence of anime’s cross-cultural capability is that it is “odorless” (Fennell et al., 441), meaning that the anime “style” prioritizes characters whose appearances are “nonculturally specific” (McKevitt, 900) This as well can be traced back to Tezuka, whose own style was inspired by the likes of Bambi (1942) and Snow White (1937). As the technology surrounding animation improved into the 1980s, so did anime’s quality and quantity. The availability of cheap video cassette recording systems began to break up the old top-down model of network-controlled television (Lotz, 25), allowing anime fans to copy and distribute titles among communities and access a more “authentic” product (McKevitt, 904). One important trait of fan communities of the 80s was the ability to access tapes in their original Japanese, even when no one in the community spoke the language (McKevitt, 910) in order to circumvent “Americanizations,” such as drawing over Japanese foods, censoring scenes of violence, or changing the meaning of the original dialogue (fig. 2) (Chambers, 99).  The anime of today is less culturally bleached, due to the recognition of anime as a market in which part of the appeal is its differences from mainstream media. One media theory that supports this response to anime is the uses and gratifications theory, in which “individuals consciously consume media texts for their own ends… reworking the textual meaning in order to integrate the text into their daily life” (Ott, 223). This theory would certainly help explain the use of anime as a phenomenon around which people formed fan communities. But what this theory doesn’t address is the outcomes of these reworkings, or their impact today. In looking at the ways an American audience member can interpret the signs in various modern anime openers, one can come to understand more about how these communities form.

Anime openers and television openers function in many of the same ways: they introduce the audience to both the genre and overall feel of a show, they prime the audience to re-immerse themselves in the show’s world, and they give credit to the people who created the show. Anime openers, however, are special not only because of their semiotics, but because of the incorporation of pop music to convey meaning, and their tendency to change over time to echo important developments in the series itself. To begin, on must consider the industry behind the creation of anime openers. Often, the OP is made by the same studio that does the main animation and are typically around a minute and a half long. Modern OPs use pop songs that are produced by musicians in collaboration with the animators, but these catchy tunes aren’t written exclusively for the show. Musicians and production studios converge in a show’s OP to create larger audiences for both parties. It’s also important to note that, while American television openers are used to credit the show’s actors, a majority of the text present on an anime OP is karaoke, often written in kanji, “romanji,” and English. Unlike American television openers, where the text is integrated into the sequence to “deliver dramatic explorations of… theme” (Soar, 4), these song lyrics are placed “on top of” the anime OP in a neutral font, directing the viewer to focus on the images first, and then learn the lyrics the more they watch the series.

Looking in to the actual visual rhetoric of an anime OP is not a simple task. Much of one’s ability to understand the complex and overlapping signs in an anime OP comes from “developing an understanding of these cultural differences through exposure” (Chambers, 95), meaning any scholar’s ability to research this phenomenon will be influenced by his or her own experiences with it. Even so, one can look to the tools of previous semiotic study as a means to obtain objectivity. It is fortunate, then, that an important part of the sense of community surrounding anime fandom comes from being able to understand certain anime semiotics, and this understanding through exposure means that anime loses its cultural neutrality the longer one spends time within the subculture. The complex semiotics of anime OPs are often referred to by fans as “tropes,” which are essentially a rebrand of  Barthes’ definition of myth. Tropes, like myths, are “constructed from a semiological chain which existed before it” (Barthes, 53) and extend from a history of cultural codes, meaning tropes provide the backbone to a “set of conventionalized ways of making meaning that are specific to particular groups of people” (Rose, 128), in this case the fan communities. Tropes are much more difficult to pin down than allowed by the static language of semiotics as defined by Saussure (Rose, 113), but by combining Barthes’ and Saussure’s techniques, one can begin to prune out the various ways anime OPs function to fan communities. The two OPs chosen for this study were done so because they represent many of the tropes present within two very different anime genres, shonen action and shojo romance, thus allowing for a thorough exploration of both.

Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, often shortened to FMA:B, is a highly successful anime franchise directed by Yasuhiro Irie that ran from April 5, 2009 to July 4, 2010, composed of 64 episodes, 4 films, and 5 different openers. The first opening for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood functions as an essential part of the creation of the tone for the entire series, and serves to introduce the viewer to different characters they will meet as the series progresses. This opener is also a virtual treasure trove of tropes, some that even foreshadow the way the series concludes. The first image of the OP is one of a complicated crest encrusted with jewels, surrounded with purple drapes, and lit from above (fig. 3), lending this anime an undercurrent of medieval eurocentrism from the start. Then, one can presume the shorter blonde boy and the suit of armor are the main characters, because they are on screen at the same time as the series title. The image of the main characters staring boldfaced into a raging fire (fig. 4) is perhaps easier to interpret without prior knowledge, as fire is often used to connote power in Western entertainment as well. In anime, the trope of ‘staring into the flames’ is often used when a character is speaking about their past or about some personal hardship, which then connotes to an anime fan that these main characters have faced or will have to face some form of loss. Throughout this opener, the presence of blustering wind is used to signify turbulent times, and the images of the characters as children interspersed throughout the opener important as well, for they reveal one of the show’s heavier themes–trying to reclaim one’s innocence. Another important trope in anime is the visual cue of glasses to signify intelligence, and, to quote Shakespeare, the use of a character’s eyes as a window to their soul. In anime, when a character’s eyes are obscured, especially when they are obscured by glasses glare (fig. 5), the audience can infer that this character knows something that they do not, and is not to be trusted. When the opener begins to flash through images of several different characters around 0:55, the audience is given visual cues through the presence of guns and uniforms that an active military plays an important part in the peacekeeping of this world, and may end up working with or against the established main characters. The presence of obvious villains, using the sign that black and red equated to evil, provides an easy counterpoint that provides this OP with tension that can be vented through fantastical action sequences. Additionally, the weather often plays an important part in the symbolic rhetoric of any scene. For example, at 1:12 the weather changes dramatically from rain to sunshine (fig. 6), suggesting this character will undergo a transformation of some sort, which proves true as the series develops. In these ways, the opener for Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood sets the stage for an action-packed anime while exposing the audience to a varied cast of characters even before they’re been formally introduced, while setting up points of conflict and internal turmoil that the series can expand upon as it progresses, and one’s ability to understand the cues and codes in this OP are what form a fan community.

By contrast, Ouran High School Host Club, shortened to OHSHC is a fairly typical example of a shojo anime, at least in terms of its visual rhetoric. The script of the shot itself tends to subvert some of these tropes, in part because the plot revolves around the main character, named Haruhi, as she poses as a male student. Ambiguously bisexual heroines aside, the opener for OHSHC is bursting with traditional tropes that pose this series as romantic, “reverse-harem” female wish fulfillment. Although Ouran High School Host Club appears to be vaguely eurocentric due to the “odorless” drawing style, there are actually several highly culturally specific tropes that are essential to understanding this series. The setting of a high school that may not be physically in Japan but exudes Japanese culture, for instance, is steeped in modern cultural codes that would confound a casual anime fan. For one, a “host club” is an extremely Japanese practice, in which women (or men) pay to spend time with elegant men (or women) as a form of night-time entertainment. Understanding these cultural disconnects are often a barrier of entry to being a part of an anime fan community, as much of community activity congregates around conventions that often offer ways to emulate these practices. For example, the University of Michigan anime club, Animania, regularly hosts a maid café luncheon as a part of its event planning. To speak to the images in the OP, the audience can infer that this is a character-driven romcom from the title card, which poses the cast against a pink background inside an ornate frame (fig. 7). The presence of school uniforms clarifies this as a high school setting, and the overwhelming presence of sakura blossoms and roses hits the viewer over the head with the fact that this anime is about love. Frequent eye contact is made with the viewer, almost inviting him or her to join the characters in their world. The comedic thread that ties the series together is evidenced through the use of iconography at 0:32 (fig. 8), letting the viewer know the series will not be heavy handed. An important instance that helps defines each character is the way they interact with Haruhi beginning at 0:48. An often used storytelling tactic in romance-centered anime is using a character as an audience surrogate, allowing the women watching the show to fulfill fantasies of being courted by several beautiful men. Because of her unmarkedness, it is clear from the start that Haruhi functions as this stand in. Each character of this show fulfills a different character trope: in order of appearance, the audience is introduced to the cute one, the troublemakers, the smart one, the mature one, and the prince. The myths associated with each stereotype have been honed over time, making it easy for an anime fan to understand the dynamic between the characters from the outset of the series. The cute one is often the token short character, and is drawn with overly large eyes and often has a childish personality. In the OHSHC OP, this character is never shown without his stuffed rabbit. Then, the twins are the troublemakers, signified by the lidded eyes in their character drawing as well as their fiery hair color. The intelligent one is of course signified by his glasses, and the mature one by the action of ruffling Haruhi’s hair. The creation of the prince character in this OP a much more nuanced; often times, the “prince” of a romance series is set up as an unobtainable goal for the heroine. A lot of what defines his character as the prince is by what signifiers he does not have, unlike the other, marked character types. Despite this vagueness, anime fans are still able to read his character as the true foil for Haruhi, and interpret this anime as a whole. This opener succeeds in introducing us to the colorful cast of characters, allowing the series to supplant these stereotypes to create meaningful plot arcs as the series advances.

Thus, the complex network of signs and myths that surround anime has create a base upon which fandom has developed. The popularity in anime in American markets has roots in the history of the animation industry as well as overall globalization, but the strong fan response to anime has been fostered by these interesting cross-cultural semiotics. It’s becoming more and more apparent that the anime fan culture of yesterday is creating the animated childrens’ series of today (fig. 9, fig. 10) which will lead to exciting new consequences for the mainstreaming of anime in American pop culture. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood and Ouran High School Host Club are just two recent examples of the vast, historical world of anime; each genre has its own tropes, its own language of conveying meaning to audiences in Japan and abroad. Even as fan and participatory culture increasingly become subjects of scholarly research, these fan communities are actively recreating what it means to make meaning, as well as what it means to be a global media consumer.



Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today.” Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. 109-143. Print.

Chambers, Samantha. “Anime: From Cult Following to Pop Culture Phenomenon.” The Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications 3.2 (2012): 94-101. Print.

Clements, Jonathan. “Tezuka’s Anime Revolution in Context.” Mechademia 8 (2013): 214-26. Print.

Fennell, D., A. S. Q. Liberato, B. Hayden, and Y. Fujino. “Consuming Anime.” Television & New Media: 440-56. Print.

Lotz, Amanda D. “Understanding Television at the Beginning of the Post-Network Era.” The Television Will Be Revolutionized. New York: New York UP, 2007. 1-52. Print.

McKevitt, Andrew C. ““You Are Not Alone!”: Anime And The Globalizing Of America.” Diplomatic History 34.5 (2010): 893-921. Print.

Ott, Brian L., and Robert L. Mack. “Reception Analysis.” Critical Media Studies: An Introduction. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. 221-37. Print.

Rose, Gillian. “Semiology: Laying Bare the Prejudices Beneath the Smooth Surface of the Beautiful.” Visual Methodologies: An Introduction to the Interpretation of Visual Materials. 3rd ed. London: Sage, 2001. 105-147. Print.

Soar, Matthew. “The Bite at the Beginning: Encoding Evil Through Film Title Design.” The Changing Face of Evil in Film and Television. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2007. 1-15. Print.


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