Get up to speed with basic anime tropes.
If you’re an anime newbie listening to a conversation about the latest shows, it can feel like everyone’s speaking a different language. And after you remember to turn on the subtitles, you might still be a bit confused.
Don’t get me wrong, anime isn’t necessarily hard to follow. Much of anime builds upon and elaborates on tropes and clichés that are prevalent in eastern media. For western audiences, this means certain characters or concepts will seem borderline alien without the proper context. While you could fill a book with trope explanations to educate budding otaku, anime newbies should be pleased to find that a lot of basic ideas and terminology isn’t all that hard to understand.
If you’re in the market for a quick and easy primer on the most basic of anime tropes, here are 4 common terms that you’ll see a lot of in anime.
Shonen is a catch-all term for anime and manga intended for teenage boys. Most localized anime of the late 90s and early 2000s falls under this category. Examples include Dragon Ball Z, Naruto, and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagaan.
Beyond the target demographic, there’s no hard definition of what a shonen anime is. Shonen anime are instead defined by loose overarching themes that are common in the genre. These can include high intensity action scenes, optimistic characters and stories, and over-the-top humor.
Shonen is also used to describe certain character archetypes in anime. If a show’s protagonist is an upbeat teenage boy with a strong sense of justice who is totally oblivious to any flirtatious advances, you could probably describe him as a shonen protagonist.
Why the trope works: Shonen anime may be intended for teenage boys, but many shows in the genre have appeal that crosses age and gender. The Japanese Weekly Shonen Jump magazine actually has a sizable audience of young girls and 20+ year old readers. Since western audiences largely grew up on shonen anime, there’s sizable international appeal as well.
Even the usual Shonen character archetypes have some merit. Many “shonen protagonists” can be generic and cheesy, but they do a good job of letting viewers project themselves onto the character. This doesn’t necessarily make for great story telling, but it does make for an enjoyable anime none the less.
In the song “Ananas,” James Taylor serenades a woman who is “so sweet on the inside, rough on the outside.” This is literally a tsundere.
In anime, the tsundere character usually has feelings for the protagonist, but can’t express those feelings without being abrasive. Typical calling cards include overuse of the word “baka” (or “idiot”), a lot of “hmphs,” and of course, justifying any sign of affection with “… but it’s not because I like you or anything!”
In truth, there are a lot of “deres” in anime that we could spend a whole article explaining. The tsundere is just one of the more common ones.
Why the trope works: Tsunderes predominately exist in romance anime and practically write their own character arcs. While a tsundere may be introduced as haughty and mean, eventually they let down their guard and are able to show their soft side to the protagonist. It’s the sourness of the character’s introduction that enhances their sweetness in the end.
In truth, the “tsundere” character arc is neither new nor exclusive to anime. Heck, you could say Mr. Darcy from Pride and Prejudice was the original tsundere. Yes, though tsundere is usually used to describe female characters, boys can be tsundere as well.
3: Mahou Shoujo (AKA Magical Girls)
As a wise man once said: if it looks like Sailor Moon, it transforms like Sailor Moon, and it saves the world like Sailor Moon, then it’s probably a mahou shoujo anime.
Like “shonen,” “shoujo” anime is a catch all term for shows catered towards teenage girls. Mahou shoujo, or magical girl, is a subgenre of shoujo anime about teenage girls who magically transform into glamorous alter egos and fight evil. Of course, magical girls can also appear in anime outside the mahou shoujo genre. The protagonist of Kill La Kill is sometimes argued to be a magical girl.
Why the trope works: Like shonen anime, magical girl shows have a lot of universal appeal. Characters like Sailor Moon are fantasies for young women, but anyone can appreciate epic stories and high-energy action scenes. Some magical girl shows are specifically tailored towards boys and lean harder into their fan service, but that’s a discussion for another time.
Despite how they look at a glance, some magical girl shows can get really dark. Puella Magi Madoka Magica is often cited as a notable example of this, but even Sailor Moon wasn’t afraid to kill major characters. Magical girl is a genre that a lot of writers aren’t afraid to analyze and deconstruct, which makes for entertaining media regardless of who you are.
4: The power of friendship
When all the chips are down, and the world seems on the brink of destruction, there is one supernatural force that can almost always save a hero from the brink: the power of friendship.
This can take the form of an all out attack, a dramatic transformation into a stronger form, or even a way to rewrite the laws of the universe and/or the virtual reality video game you’re stuck in. Anime can invoke the power of friendship trope under less dire circumstances as well, like when a superstar idol needs her friends to give her confidence on stage. But no matter how you slice it, expect the power of friendship to show up somewhere in the next anime you watch.
Why the trope works: Like we discussed with Tsunderes, anime certainly didn’t invent the power of friendship trope. However, given the subject matter of a lot of anime, its use is potentially more noticeable and potent.
We as viewers can’t relate a whole lot to shows depicting heroes fighting against gods and almighty beasts. However, we can relate to the metaphors these battles convey. We all know what it’s like to be the underdog in a situation that feels impossible, and hyperbolic anime scenes can give form to these complex internal feelings. It’s like “literally me” memes, taken to a much more intense degree.
Sure, the hero somehow defeating a godly enemy with the power of friendship is blatant deus-ex machina in a lot of cases. But we as human beings are social creatures, and we all crave close friends and family members in our lives. A “power of friendship” moment in anime is satisfying to us because it validates that desire that’s rooted so deep in us. It’s as if the show is saying “These are my friends who will always be by my side, and my struggles prior to this point were because of the pain I feel when I am alone.”
The power of friendship isn’t always a sign of great writing in anime, but it is a reliable way to get an emotional response out of us. But regardless of how you feel about any of these tropes, at least you’ll be a little less confused when they pop up in the next show you watch.