Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
Sometimes, it can be a little jarring to live in a world where anime is so mainstream, especially when I grew up as a closeted anime nerd. I remember going to school in the fall after Pokémon first came out in Japan, and no one in Hawai‘i had heard about it yet. But seeing how popular it was in Asia, I took a risk and had a Pikachu keychain proudly hanging from my backpack zipper. When I got a lot of bombastic side eyes and pointed questions like, “What is that, a yellow rabbit? A squirrel? So, weird!” I eventually removed it. Six months later, when Pokémon finally came to America, the kids did not remember teasing me about my Pikachu, and I was a too cool middle schooler pretending I was above it all. Hiding my anime love meant that the only time I’d dare to cosplay was Halloween. Beyond that, I took creative inspiration from anime in the way I captured photos and posed for them myself; when the kids were born, I dressed them as anime characters for Halloween until they started requesting their own looks.
Nowadays, it’s perfectly normal to see Luffy from “One Piece” and characters from “Demon Slayer” printed on tees sold at Uniqlo. Seeing those same characters casually referenced for a fashion shoot in Ebony Magazine, and watching effortlessly cool celebrities like Meghan Thee Stallion cosplay as Mirko from “My Hero Academia” reminds me that anime – like graphic novels and Star Wars – are no longer “just for the dorks.”
My throwback favorites include “Dragon Ball-Z” and “Sailor Moon,” but I also loved series that were culturally relevant in Japan such as “Case Closed: Great Detective Conan,” about a genius teenage detective who is given a drug that made him a child who continues to solve crimes under this new guise, “Nintama Rantaro,” a story of three boys attending ninja school, and “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro,” a story about a group of supernatural kids and creatures fighting evil. And I loved them because while I was away from Japan, anime was a (slightly) more accessible form of staying connected to the culture, pre-internet; I’d fly back and the shows would still be airing, and I could pick up where I left off. In the summers, anime was my Saturday morning cartoons, and I read the newspaper specifically to look up the weekly airing schedule for all of my favorite shows.
When I found out that I could watch anime online, I would seek it wherever I could. Imagine the thrill of discovering Crunchyroll – an anime-specific platform – as an adult. It reconnected me with the shows I loved as a kid while also keeping up with simulcasted series that would air in Japan and uploaded to America an hour later. Crunchyroll became one of my first paid subscription services when I realized that pirated anime was detrimental to the industry and keeping the artists and studios from making more; I was hoping to atone for the years of college-aged me scrounging the web for anime and manga scraps by going legit. Plus, you really can’t beat that simulcast!
While Ghibli was my gateway drug into the artform as a kid, I came to understand anime as a whole was never a genre on its own – it’s an industry, like Hollywood. And while the stereotype is supernatural fighting, magical outfit changes and girls with colorful hair (and really big boobs), anime has a lot of industry-specific subgenres. I should also note that there’s a whole article to be written about the nuances, problems and “othering” in anime (which, I promise we’ll get to). But today, I’d like to start with a sort of crash-course guide to the top most popular categories. Feel free to use that as a way to connect with loved ones that love anime.
Shonen & Adventure
I knew it in my bones that my husband Brent and I were meant to be when I found out that he also loved anime and that he enjoys watching it in Japanese while reading the captions in English because “it’s more authentic that way.” So, hot. Anyway, Brent and I tend to watch action-packed fantasy, in other words shonen, or the young boy genre. Shonen because they are typically stories written for boys (think Marvel comics) where there’s usually an element of teamwork, friendship and achieving a big goal. Most of the “blockbuster” popular shows tend to fall under this category and many collaborate with the likes of Universal Studios Japan and even Sky Tree for limited attractions.
We are currently obsessed with “Demon Slayer,” which believe it or not, falls under this category; it can get quite dark and gory but the story is very interesting and the protagonist is empathetic and pure. Consider yourself warned. We also have been watching “One Piece” for years. It’s one of the longest running anime shows and its creator was inspired by “Dragon Ball-Z.” If you’re new to it, backtrack to the beginning of the Edo Arc, or watch the latest movie before you dive in. “My Hero Academia” also falls under this category; it’s got a lot of action (and killing) because the concept is a deepdive of a world with superheroes and supervillains and the overreliance on those that swear to protect. I recommend starting this one from the beginning for the full story.
If you’d rather laugh, cry and crave whatever is getting cooked up in the latest episode, “Food War! Shokugeki no Soma” is another very popular series that I’d consider shonen while also falling under the cooking subgenre. They make fun of the ridiculous nature of anime but are true to actual cooking techniques and styles. Case in point, when the food is exquisite, characters burst out of their clothes while introducing the audience to global culinary preparations and flavors. Yes, it’s as silly and educational as it sounds, watch it anyway.
Shojo & Romance
If “Dragon Ball-Z” falls squarely in the shonen category then “Sailor Moon” is your typical shojo, or young girl adventure. In stories written for girls, they emphasize crushes and a sense of fashion, and there’s usually more than one boy that’s interested in the main character (I’m not mad at it). The girls are usually relatable and have a sort of Cinderella arc where they discover that they are stronger and more resilient than they were made to think. It’s refreshing to watch but can come with a heavy dose of problematic concepts (such as emotionally abusive love interests) as well.
My college-aged sister who (ahem) shares my Crunchyroll account with me seems to watch the same shows I enjoy. We both enjoyed “Fruit Basket,” a complex love story about the 12 animal zodiacs reincarnated as humans, and “Spy x Family” about a little girl adopted by a spy as a cover for his operation–romance, comedy and action ensues. “The Ancient Magus’ Bride” is a Brother’s Grimm-level dark love story about a girl coming into her own as an apprentice and bride of a sorcerer. “A Lull in the Sea” feels like a modern “Little Mermaid” and “My Dress Up Darling” connects two people with seemingly very different interests. They take rom-com and rom-drama to the next level.
A few years ago, Brent and I also saw “Your Name.” at the Hawai‘i Film Festival and loved it so much, we brought it on Apple when it was available. It feels like a Ghibli Studio film and was met with widespread critical acclaim; trust me, you won’t regret watching this one.
Fantasy, Supernatural & Horror
It’s no secret that this genre has been doing really well on a global scale; “Game of Thrones,” “The Last of Us” and “Squid Games” could easily fall into this genre if they were anime as well. Supernatural and demon-related shows have always done well in Japan “Ge-ge-ge no Kitaro,” a story about a gang of supernatural beings that fight evil and led by a boy named Kitaro, was likely an inspiration for generations to come for shows that expertly weave in Japanese lore with a modern adventure.
“Chainsaw Man” is about a teen who’s given a second chance (and a purpose) after his demon pet dog saves his life, while “Attack on Titan” is a dark tale of vengeance, humanity and hope … and beings with the ability to explode into titan-sized giants. “Jujutsu Kaisen” is like a grown up “Kitaro” with demons, spirits and gore galore. All have very interesting and unexpected storylines, making them compelling enough to sit through the scary parts.
While I could go on and on with recommendations I’ll end it here with this: I think that anime, like music, is a universal connector. As I mentioned earlier: problems, there are plenty. But it’s hard to discuss the negatives without ever sticking your toes in the perfect rippling shimmering water of this art form first. Just like music, without first coming from a place of appreciation and understanding, we can’t have a nuanced discussion of what could be (and is getting) improved. Luckily, there’s so much to watch, you’re bound to find something that appeals to you now. And hopefully, it will bring you closer to those around you that have been fans all along.
Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR & Marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer.