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In What Way Does Anime Reflect Changing Culture? Posted Jul 9, 2020

As any anime fan will tell you, the themes contained within this world are broad and uncompromising. From horror to romance, action to slice-of-life drama, every imaginable avenue within anime is explored and only widens with each new year. That is not to say, however, that all popular anime and their themes are created equal. In anime, there are certain standouts and patterns which ebb and flow with time. To an outsider, these patterns might seem random, but by taking a more in-depth look, a more definite shape begins to form. Using some popular examples of anime and other media, we want to try to connect these patterns to greater social-cultural shifts, to see why certain themes are bound to certain events, and why some remain seemingly timeless.

The Changing Times

One of the biggest breakout concepts in the last few years of anime is that of MMORPGs. The first anime revolving around this concept aren’t entirely new, with early titles such as .hack//Sign dating back to at least 2002. Not coincidentally, this also marked the era when MMORPGs reached the mainstream gaming audience. Perhaps the biggest contributor to this front, at least in Japan, was the success of Phantasy Star Online, released in December 2000 for Sega’s ill-fated Dreamcast. While the console might not have lasted, the concept of MMORPGs only grew, with later games like Final Fantasy XI and Ragnarok Online consolidating the player bases on Playstation 2 and PC in 2002.

In What Way Does Anime Reflect Changing Culture?

Our collective fascination with these games, which commonly leaned on anime stylings, created a sort of feedback effect into anime. In 2012, this would evolve into arguably its final form, following the international success of the Sword Art Online anime. Anime with these themes continue to succeed to this day, often adopting VR style trappings as real-life VR similarly reaches the mass-market.

The Test of Time

While MMORPGs illustrate evolution based on changing trends, there are also those which manage to maintain popularity through ageless appeal. There is an enormous range of avenues in this regard, from anime targeting real-life relationships to ones that go for more conceptual struggles or long-lasting cultural interests. Some even combine of all of the above into something greater than a sum of its parts.

Cowboy Bebop, released in 1997, is one of the most successful examples of a fusion of ideas and interests. As a backbone, its setting combines future tech and past attitudes, with jazz, spaceships, and cowboy-era bounty hunting, all working together far better than they have any right to.

It also borrows heavily from casino culture. In this area, Cowboy Bebop again looks backward as it moves forward. Today, online slots like the Mustang Money and Siberian Storm have evolved down the digital route, finding their place within a sector where varied themes reign supreme. Bebop goes in an entirely brick-and-mortar direction, however, using physical machines in its series for a more dated feel.

In more general terms, we could look at anime like the Dragon Ball series. Originally airing in 1986, Dragon Ball and its sequels followed a universal tale of adventure, struggle, and growth. Perhaps owing to early inspiration from the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West, released around 1590, elements from this story never really went out of style or failed to inspire. Even today, Dragon Ball continues with great interest, some 36 years since its first manga release.

One of anime’s biggest strengths comes from its inherent flexibility. Without the constraints that live-action shows imply, anime is capable of portraying feats and ideas relatively unrestricted. Whether using this freedom to tell classic tales, or relate new trends, the nature of animation gives it near-infinite possibilities. Because of these factors, anime can reflect all elements of our culture, no matter how we change. For fans like us, who always crave more, this suits just fine.

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