Anime, animation of Japanese origin, is by definition a medium, but the widespread use of cliches are a major reason that anime is often viewed as a genre.
Many of these cliches are common to other forms of Japanese entertainment media, especially sentai shows (such as Ultraman or Power Rangers), Japanese dramas, variety shows, sci-fi, and samurai dramas.
Some cliches come from the basic need to communicate economically. Simplified or overexaggerated emotions are naturally less expensive to animate. Anime also has a strong stylistic heritage in manga - generally printed in black-and-white, with stark, simple designs. The need for still frames also comes from manga.
Lastly, and perhaps most obnoxiously, is the simple tendency of Japanese popular culture to ruthlessly imitate anything even vaguely successful. It's a given that any breakthrough anime will encourage a hoarde of clones, as well as its own sequels. Eventually, its offspring will mate with the more successful clones. (A recent example would be Pokemon and Digimon.) The anime industry is both bizzarre and predictable, with perfected subgenrification resulting in strong cliches present in most anime genres.
Anime that mock anime cliches are not unheard of. (Examples include Samurai Pizza Cats, Combustible Campus Guardress, Assemble Insert, or, more recently, Martian Successor Nadesico.) In order to enjoy these shows, you must understand and eventually appreciate the cliches in themselves.
Character is perhaps the most important aspect of any story. A critical difference between good anime and crappy anime is that good anime seeks to humanify characters, while crappy anime tends to rely upon stereotypes to create stock characters with little depth.
General Group Cliches:
- Colour coordination - Team of near-identical characters differentiated mostly by their colouration. (e.g. Red Ranger, Yellow Ranger, Pink Ranger...) Also expemplified by groups where the red-coloured character has power over fire, the blue-coloured character has power over water, etc.
- harems - 1 guy and 7 girls, or vice-versa. Of course, all are potential love interests, and generally must vie for the affections of the protagonist.
- Group of Three, Five or Seven - Four and nine are unlucky numbers in Japan; you will very seldom see groups of this number.
A group generally contains:
A group of three female characters archetypically consists of:
Character name jokes / "profound" meanings. Strangely, this is very rare in normal Japanese dramas, but almost ubiquitous in anime and manga. The characters must either be named in a related series(Trunks, Bra, Bloomers...) or have a name which is indicative of their personality or role. Unusual Chinese characters may be selected for names, connoting some aspect of the character's personality or destiny.
Blood type / Astrological sign stereotypes. Originally popularized by the media, now mostly held aloft by morning TV programs and horroscopes. It is mandatory for any developed character to have a birthdate and blood type, so their personality can obey the dictated stereotype.
"Normal" (Japanese) characters can look like anything, but other races generally conform to the following:
- American (yes, American is a race.) - Blond hair, blue eyes. Fake gaijin accent.
- Chinese (ditto) - Black or dark purple hair, pointed eyes. Either very smart (Lee-kun) or very dumb (Shampoo).
- Black - Depicted with big lips and tiny eyes that would constitute a hate crime in the US.
- Korean - Japan's closest cultural neighbor will only be seen in the credits.
Japanese people can also be stereotyped:
SD (SUPER-DEFORMED) EFFECTS / OVERREACTION / "GAGS"
These techniques serve to simplify animation and cartoonize emotions. While amusing in moderation, it is hard to respect a show that overuses these effects. They have a distinctly Japanese flavour, but, along with other "manga style" imports, have been seen in certain American cartoons as well.
Shimmering eyes. Shimmering, reflected light is used to indicate conflicting emotions, grim resolve, grief -- generally in only two or three frames of non-key animation. Its effect is either humourous or melodramatic.
Tear Jets, bulging veins, burning eyes, other overreactions. Exaggerate emotion to reduce detail.
Sweat Drop. A large, perfectly vertical, blue sweat drop appears on a character's head to represent embarassment or awkward consternation. The drop may grow as the situation heightens. A possible origin of this effect is Charles Schultz's "Peanuts".
"Tokyo feet". The dissolution of a character's feet represents panic or discombubulation. Can be done with two frames of key animation.
Bulging Vein (# mark) or Giant Head. These effects are used to express anger. The bulging vein normally shows pent-up anger; twitching is optional. Converseley, the giant head is generally used for an explosive release.
- Any angry girl may beat an aggravating character to a pulp. The character will be uninjured but sport a bandage for an arbitrary period of time.
- A character who is sufficiently shocked will fall over in a puff of dust, and pop back up sporting a bandage.
TIME WASTING / MONEY-SAVING TECHNIQUES (See also: Anime: the lazy-man's animation)
These techniques are generally seen in cheaper, mass-produced TV anime. They serve to conserve limited financial and plot resources, and ultimately bloat the series. Good anime makes sparing use of these.
Gasp! When anything warranting an emotional response (eg. the protagonist is injured in a fight, misses a shot in a tennis match, or gets dumped by her boyfriend) occurs, all characters present receive a facial close-up to show their reaction, which is invariably "gasp!", "(Character name)..." or "...". Also ubiquitous in Japanese variety TV shows.
Triple take. Any sufficiently significant blow or move will be seen three times, sometimes from different angles, but in very cheap anime, simply repeated more slowly. This does not apply only to fighting, but also to any sports technique, the tearing up of a love letter, or presentation of a special dish of food.
Speed lines. Employed in order to extend the time or distance between start and finish of an action. This allows entire dialogues to be carried out in between the moves of a fight or sports match. Sometimes used to represent the speed of thought of characters.
Slow motion scenes. The speed in which a scene is rendered is inversely proportional to its significance to the plot or characters.
Still frames Owing to manga roots, a single, detailed frame will be used in place of a lengthy animation sequence. Some shows (The Violinist of Hamelin) can barely be called animated due to overuse of this technique.
Glaring / "kiai". A staple of jidai geki and chambara films, where a character will defeat his enemy spiritually with a lethal gaze before the fight starts. "Don't move until your opponent does. Then, you move first."
Transformation / Power-up Scenes. (or "Battling Seizure Robots")
These effects make liberal use of stock footage; it is not uncommon for three or four minutes of a 24-minute children's anime to consist of stock power-up / transformation scenes.
Characters are generally invulnerable while transforming, or time is frozen.
Also includes combination of characters or mecha.
Super Attacks. Generally, in order to be effective, a super attack or weapon must have a name, which must be said while used. (In more serious anime, a minor character who is watching the fight will gasp (see above) and say "It couldn't be... that's the (technique name)!")
Time is generally suspended for super attacks; the enemy will generally be too aloof, impressed or frightened to respond.
Sometimes the kanji for the attack will be superimposed somewhere. (Originally seen in Hokuto no Ken.) Other techniques require the usage of Chinese characters (ie. ofuda.)
In cheaper anime, stock footage will be (ab)used. In extreme cases, an entire episode can be consumed by powering up and using one attack.
Tournaments. Sometimes gratuitous fighting tournaments (some shows even revolve around the concept of a fighting tournament), and sometimes more subtle. Instead of fighting enemies all at once, the action can be spread out over a longer period. Typically, fighting one enemy can take an entire episode. Instead of a single, climactic battle, the hero should slowly work his way through the bad guy's henchmen. (Recommended reading: Trunks)
Training. The protagonist most hone his skills or develop a new technique. Can take many episodes or entire seasons.
Monster-of-the-week. The hero will face a disposable henchman which is generally summoned by the enemy boss. This will generally consume an entire episode and not really advance the plot, if at all. Resembles western episode-based cartoons.
Recap / Preview. Due to the continuous storyline, the adjacent episodes must be summarized in case of VCR failure. Fortunately, the episodes are generally so diluted that they can be summarized in 30 seconds or less. Recap episodes are common about halfway through TV anime seasons.
Redundant Commercial Hangover. The last 15 seconds before the commercial will be repeated after the show resumes.
OP / ED (opening and ending animation) These 90-second imagefests are generally made by specialist animators. (Lately, these are mostly outsourced from Korean animation firms.) Following the Japanese tradition of overpackaging, these sequences almost always feature better animation than the actual program. Almost always accompanied by a new J-Pop single licensed by the distributor of the anime. Standard for all TV anime -- even "experimental" shows like Serial Experiments Lain would never dare change this convention. Also often used in OVAs.
OTHER CLICHES / CULTURAL CLICHES
Injuries. A greivous injury may be shaken off, sometimes in the middle of a fight or sports match. Conversely, a scar caused by a scratch to the face will never fully heal.
Nukes. Japan is the only country with the dubious honour of being deemed necessary to receive a nuclear attack. Many major anime attacks (Kamehameha, SDF-1, Wave Motion Gun) are nuke-like in appearance. This also includes the "laser of death" (Robots in Laputa, God-Soldier in Nausicaa, Angel's Beam in Evangelion), which strikes the target and causes it to explode after a small delay.
Giant Robots. For some reason, humanoid fighting vehicles are much more effective than conventional tanks or jet fighters. (cf. Godzilla) In rare cases, they are depicted as specialized forces which are not invulnerable to conventional weaponry. (See: Patlabor) Note that Japan is pretty much the most advanced country in the world when it comes to robotics.
Poses. Common poses include the "V" sign, "guts" pose (ganbaru!), banzai. Also commonly seen in variety TV / comedy and J-Pop scenes.
Food. Food is a very big thing in Japan, and it permeates many aspects of popular culture. Good anime will use food to develop character and reinforce humanity, as when San feeds dried meat to Ashitaka in Princess Mononoke. Cliched anime will use the overreaction patented by Japanese food shows and variety shows, generally reducing food to a joke device. Another food cliche: hyper little girls who eat tons.
Superstitions. Nosebleeds are caused by sexual arousal. Sneezing means that someone is talking about you behind your back.
Inaudible "cute" sounds. Examples include "niko" (the sound of smiling) and "poit" sounds caused by blinking or prancing. Seen often as manga sound effects. (See Japanese onomatopoeia.)
Whoa... that turned out a lot bigger than I had anticipated. Additions are more than welcome, though!