Key Themes in Anime, 8/12/2009

In this session we looked at key themes in anime. Using the basic theme of war as an example, we talked about possible roots/inspirations for the theme, looked at different ways to interpret the basic theme  and the various threads that spin off from it, and saw clips reflecting a few of the ways anime has treated the themes of war and conflict:

as a reference to, reflection on or rewriting of Japan’s defeat and the atom bomb;

as a reflection on Japanese and Asian historical conflicts;

looking back to samurai/ninja literature and film, evolving from both history and legend, with heroic protagonists fighting impossible odds for a cause beyond their own gain or survival;

as a reaction to alien invasion, and the threat of difference;

as a reflection on the power of technology, both dark and benign;

as an indictment of social injustice;

as comedy.


We discussed why the theme of war hasn’t been as prominent in mainstream Western animation as it has in Japan over the past 60 years. These were the reasons we came up with:

Britain wasn’t bombed flat – although the Blitz had a serious impact on many cities it wasn’t so total as the firebombing and nuclear bombing of Japan.

The Allies didn’t lose the war so they were not stigmatised as Japan was.

After the war ended, Japanese society was more open and less contained. People had more opportunity to travel and to discuss and reflect.

Censorship could be a factor.

An attitude of “don’t talk about the war” has prevailed here, we tend to be more escapist and not to want to dwell on it. In just a few years after hostilities ended, Britain had the wedding of Princess Elizabeth, her Coronation and the Festival of Britain, focussing the attention of the whole country.

Western animation is mostly aimed at young children and war isn’t considered a proper subject for them.

There are still many anime and manga professionals who have experienced war and being bombed, and their experience influences their work.


Working in two groups, the class was asked to identify at least three key themes in anime, and list three titles as examples of each theme.

At the end of their discussions, both groups observed that many titles had multiple themes and could fit a number of categories. Everyone contributed good ideas to the discussion, and was able to identify several themes and examples, but because this exercise took place at the end of the session, it had to be kept quite brief.

Adam, Andrew, Rhiannon, Ruth & Sarah identified 5 themes but only had time to find examples for three of them:

Giant robots

Growing up/rites of passage

Family/team: examples – My Neighbours the Yamadas, Ranma 1/2, Sazae-san, Cowboy Bebop

Magical journeys: examples – Spirited Away, Vision of Escaflowne, The Cat Returns, Magic Knight Rayearth

Ordinary heroes (apparently average people who discover a talent waiting to be developed and follow the path it takes them down): examples – Naruto, Dragonball, Bleach

Azusa, Becky, Daniel & Jane also identified 5 themes and also only had time to discuss examples for three of them.

Robots: examples – Mobile Suit Gundam, Tetsuwan Atom, Patlabor

School life: examples – Full Metal Panic, Bleach, Ouran High School Host Club

Ninjas: examples – Ninja Scroll, Samurai Champloo, Naruto

Girl Heroes



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