Beginner Anime

Two major categories have sprung up in anime discourse. There are referential anime such as Yakitate Japan and Lucky Star, and there are anime which are designed to be watched with no prior knowledge of anime, such as Bleach and Naruto. In keeping with the concept that otaku culture is like a language to be learned, I will refer to the former as “advanced” anime and the latter as “beginner” anime.

"Make no mistake: I'd hit it."

Obviously this is a simplification. These categories are not pure and exclusive. Many essentially non-referential shows, such as Full Metal Panic, still have the occasional reference. Heavily referential shows such as Genshiken or Dai Mahou Touge can still be watched without getting all the references. Overall, however, there is an increasing creep of metatextual issues into the actual body of anime that air each season.

Is this good or bad?

Before we answer that, we should take a good look at the phenomenon. The creep of meta-issues has happened before in other media, and continues to go on to this day. Music critics talk about music which is made to appeal to musicians as opposed to music which appeals to the casual listener with no knowledge of musical theory. Film critics have similarly gone on about things for so long that Kevin Smith released Jersey Girls with a disclaimer that it was “not for critics.” (While this was an appeal to the fact that hyperawareness of criticism can stifle the creative atmosphere, he was roundly mocked for it.) Webcomic artists broke the fourth wall with astonishing regularity in the 1990s, after which it rapidly became painfully unfunny and overdone.

This is not to say that “beginner anime” are not intellectually complex or do not warrant attention. Just because a show does not reference other anime does not mean it does not reference other things. Bleach references many concepts from Kendo and Buddhism, most obviously being a “spiritual swordsman,” a metaphor it makes all too literal. Naruto contains elaborate motifs that refer to legends of tengu, kitsune, and other mythical creatures. Melody of Oblivion, perhaps the most exaggerated example that comes to mind, is an hours-long foray into classical Greek myth, Indian concepts of enlightenment, “Music of the Spheres” mysticism, and the philosophical aspects of Zen archery. It is quite possible to watch the show without first having cultivated an appreciation for at least a few of these things, but the details of the world will seem much more arbitrary. Patterns will not be apparent.

Read Zen in the Art of Archery and then watch ep 1. You will get it.

It is not necessary to know about the story of the Dutch boy with his finger in the dike to get the idea that Sky Blue’s sacrifice in his opening scenes is morbidly heroic, but being aware of it adds the sense that the author of Melody of Oblivion has chosen his references and scenes deliberately.  One who has the cultural context of, say, Double Suicide at Sonezaki will appreciate the subtleties of the historical Japanese use of suicide as social critique, as opposed to its absurd frequency of appearance in Sayonara Zetsubo Sensei.  However, even without such context, keeping a date book for double suicides is naturally absurd.  Thus, even if the meta-level parody is unappreciated, the goofiness on a literal level is universal.

In Bleach, viewers laugh at Kurosaki Isshin’s tendency to attack Ichigo at random – but there really is a classic Japanese tale of a swordsman whose master trained him by attacking him at all hours, day and night.  Not knowing this makes Bleach seem that much more inane and random.  On the other hand, the story is written so that appreciation of this nuance isn’t strictly necessary.  In a similar nod to practicality, the heavily referential Lucky Star opens not with a reference to Super Robot Wars, but with a skit about eating chocolate cornets.


In the end, anime must be accessible.  It must be familiar, somehow, to the audience.  Whether that familiarity is one of shared archetypes, shared watching experiences, or shared knowledge from outside anime, the requirement is there all the same.  “Advanced” and “Beginner” or “predominantly referential” and “nonreferential” are merely labels we apply to make it easy to steer someone to the anime best suited to them.

We would do well to remember this.

Author: moritheil

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8 thoughts on “Beginner Anime

  1. They’re certainly labels.

    The first anime I ever watched all the way through was Martian Successor Nadesico, which is about as laced with references and tropes as you can get (even its Japanese title alludes to two other franchises). I spotted very little of what was happening, but enjoyed it heartily anyway, because it’s funny and, underneath its outer skin of stupidity, rather cunning. (Nowadays I can spot more of what’s going on, but I’m sure there’s a lot in Nadeisco I still miss.) I don’t know if that would’ve happened if I’d been watching, say, Pani Poni Dash, which has less of a story to sustain itself.

    I wouldn’t agree that anime always has to be accessible, though. There are some viewers who want inaccessibility, opacity, alterity: drunk fifteen-year-olds who want to try some of that anime stuff because it’s reputedly zany and not for kids, for example, or art film fans who want to be made to feel cosmopolitan by watching something in a foreign language from a long way away.

  2. Honestly, this needs to be true of all media, whether anime, manga, movie, video games, whatever. If a product isn’t accessible then it has no audience, then there’s no point, and all media is a product to be consumed. Some products are more esoteric than others and that’s fine, it’s why sites like thinkgeek and the ilk flourish as well — but a niche audience is still an audience and thus the product is still a product.

  3. Thanks for your comments.

    @IKnight – Accessibility is perhaps not the precise word, as you point out, but somehow the experience does need to line up with something desired by the audience (even if they didn’t necessarily go in seeking that particular thing.)  In the case of people who want something opaque, I would argue it’s that actually inscrutability that makes the work accessible to them.

    @Kiri – We know products which are useless to us are simply aimed at a different group of consumers.  Yet somehow when we start viewing anime, we sometimes have a strange tendency to not imagine another group that it might be aimed at.

    @Toonleap – Thanks! That is Tanaka Punie from Dai Mahou Touge, wearing her black uniform.  (Her normal dress is pink and frilly.)

  4. If there were any references in the earliest anime I’ve seen, I most certainly missed them:

    Choudenji Machine Voltes V
    Mazinger Z
    Toshho Daimos
    Scientific Ninja Team Gatchaman
    Space Battleship Yamato

    etc. Hmm, even in the second wave of anime I’ve seen (at this point around 7 years old I’ve no distinction for the concept of ‘anime’) I don’t get any references (even in hindsight):

    SDF Macross
    Cedie (Little Lord Fontleroy)


    Hmm even in the third wave of anime I’ve seen (at this point I was in high school going on university) I missed any references in shows that aren’t sequels:

    Dragon Ball Z (technically a sequel but I hadn’t seen the original)
    Ghost in the Shell
    Ninja Scroll

    I only started seeing referential shows like Lucky Star, Gurren Lagann a few years ago. Could it be I was lucky to have only been watching ‘beginner anime?’

  5. Good post. I don’t think it matters if a show is “beginner” or “advanced” per se; of either type, if it’s still accessible and any watcher can enjoy it (for instance with Zetsubou Sensei) then there isn’t really a problem.

    Kind of reminds me of something I was studying about Shakespeare, where in some plays he wrote partly for the more learned people of society with discussions on the nature of leadership or law, for example, and partly for the masses, with his comedic sketches. Everyone still had something to enjoy, in any case.

  6. @ghostlightning – Very well put. I also wanted to explore the disconnect between what we now term “beginner anime” and the concept that only beginners would watch such fare.  Interestingly, Urusei Yatsura has quite a few references to other material, though it’s from movies, not other anime shows. (It is, of course, a 1980s anime and 1970s manga.) I suppose someone could try to put together a “references in anime” timeline.

    @Omisyth – Indeed.  Come for the references and in-jokes; stay for the trenchant social commentary.

  7. Thanks for your quick answer…I think I will find more info on that girl and probably will check out the anime…looks interesting… 🙂

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