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Anime Genres Explained

In a world where Studio Trigger's Promare aired in actual movie theaters and Halloween means glimpsing more than a few four-foot-tall Vegetas wandering around, anime is no longer obscure. Cowboy Bebop is getting a live-action series! Internationally famous Russian figure skaters perform tributes to Sailor Moon! Every so often, Kanye West weighs in on just how massively he's been impacted by Akira! Your grandma might not know the difference between One Piece and One Punch Man yet, but watch out — soon she'll be schooling you on the early works of Studio Ghibli.

Yet anime's rise to prominence doesn't mean viewers in the English-speaking world know the medium inside and out. Genre, for example, operates uniquely in anime. Western animation can't really be used as a rigid frame of reference, nor Western genre fiction as a whole: Anime is a storytelling ecosystem unto itself that must be understood as such. That's why we're here with a primer on the major genres found in anime, for all your demystification needs. Sit back, relax, and prepare to learn about all the different sorts of giant robots a hot-headed teen protagonist can find himself piloting.


When you think of anime, what comes to mind is likely shonen. My Hero Academia, Dragon Ball Z, Slam Dunk — all of it is comfortably shonen, despite how widely those titles might vary. That's because shonen really just means "for boys," making it more of a demographic category than a genre. In the age of anime as export, however, the term has gained genre connotations that cannot be ignored. When a kid loves Bleach and wants to read something else in that vein, he's going to end up searching for "shonen" — and generally speaking, he's going to find something new to love.

Shonen anime encompasses an enormous variety of subgenres: Sports, fantasy, science fiction, and even horror stories are found beneath this umbrella. Compare something like Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann, a candy-colored giant robot story, against Eyeshield 21, which follows a high school football team on their way to sports stardom. They feature wildly different motifs, storylines, and settings, and yet they are both solidly shonen. What unites them, and all shonen anime, is a focus on young men, often seeking to become the best at what they do, to right a terrible wrong, and/or to protect the ones they love. These are passionate, idealistic stories about youth at its most zealous, full of action and heart. It's no wonder that shonen is the most popular genre of anime — who can resist a hot-blooded do-gooder, whether he's a rookie shortstop, pirate captain, or wannabe pilot?


Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Fruits Basket, Nana: They might range far and wide in terms of story, but all of these series are shoujo. Like other entries on this list, shoujo (literally "young girl") is technically a demographic, warped by time and export into a genre term. Accordingly, shoujo anime ranges far and wide in terms of subject matter. Sailor Moon falls under this umbrella, as do other magical girl stories of young heroines in fabulous costumes fighting evil with fantastic powers. Yet so does The Rose of Versailles, a historical drama set in Marie Antoinette's Versailles, The Heart of Thomas, a love story between two boys, and Ouran High School Host Club, an often-slapstick school comedy.

What unites shoujo? An emphasis on relationships, for one thing, most obviously evidenced by shoujo's plethora of romance series. Yet this interest in what connects people goes beyond romantic love. Series like Tokyo Mew Mew and Nana might involve love triangles, headlining couples, and fandoms chock-full of shipping, but platonic relationships are just as big a part of their narratives, especially when it comes to friendships between young girls. Moreover, shoujo's visual motifs are strikingly different: though magical girls and shonen-based giant robot pilots might triumph over evil, only the former does it in bursts of hearts, stars, and flowers. There's beating the bad guy, and then there's beating the bad guy with gem-encrusted scepters that summon attacks like "Starlight Honeymoon Therapy Kiss."


If you're looking for robots, action, magic, and warfare, you've got a lot of options when it comes to anime. But what if you're not interested in wide-eyed hijinks, school stories, or wild teen emotions? That's when you turn to seinen.

Technically, seinen just boils down to meaning "anime for young men." In practice, this translates to a wide variety of stories that can portray R-rated levels of violence and sexuality, murkier morals, and characters that are not promised any sort of absolution. Anime like Black Lagoon and Ghost in the Shell examine characters living on the margins of society, their black-hat hacking and mercenary violence taken as a given. These aren't stories about people looking to save the world — in fact, they're often about people who tried, failed, and now live in the wreckage of that dream. But don't think it's all doom and gloom: Though crime, action, psychological horror, and particularly dark takes on science fiction and fantasy are often the order of the day, comedy falls under the seinen umbrella as well. One-Punch Man, with its bachelor protagonist, is often considered seinen, as well as absurdist romps like Haven't You Heard? I'm Sakamoto. After all, who needs a laugh more than adults?


There's manga for girls, full of first crushes and school-bound secrets, and then there's josei: manga for women who want to go beyond the schoolyard.  Josei is where you'll find relationships examined beyond the initial kiss, lives after graduation, and a lot more action between the sheets. The distinction might appear to be murky: Josei anime like Paradise Kiss, Princess Jellyfish, and Kids on the Slope deal with breakups, makeups, and all the attendant drama, just as anime aimed at younger girls might do. But here, the starring couple really might end up being fully, finally incompatible, and the road to a better life might require brutal years of change, heartbreak, and disappointment. 

But that's not to say that josei is an entirely melancholy affair — quite the opposite, in fact. Slice-of-life josei can find transcendent joy and laugh-out-loud humor in observing the rhythms of life in Ristorante Paradiso's bustling restaurant, or the world of classical music portrayed in Nodame Cantabile. Another prominent thread in josei is that of BL stories, or "Boys' Love": romances between male characters that can, within josei's more mature environs, be portrayed with far more explicit sexuality. Beyond josei anime lies the creatively fertile world of josei manga, much of it wildly experimental and unlike anything even seasoned anime and manga fans might be familiar with. Erica Sakurazawa, Moyocco Anno, and Kyoko Okazaki in particular are creators whose work is available in English and worth anyone's time.


"Ecchi" is a flexible word in anime. It can be used as an adjective, to describe something sexual in a way that connotes naughtiness — sort of like describing a magazine as "dirty." It can be a noun, applied to someone who is a bit of pervert. You can likely guess what the genre known as "ecchi" contains, by this point. If it's sexy, naughty, risque, and/or flirty, it's squarely ecchi.

There's a major distinction to be mindful of when it comes to ecchi: it's sexy, but it's not pornographic. Oh sure, ecchi anime will refer to sex, even revolve around sex, and is absolutely meant to entice. But ecchi doesn't depict actual, uncensored sex acts, nor is it totally bereft of plot or character development — in fact, there are a great many ecchi series that are as beloved for their world-building and story as for their panty shots and double entendres. Kill la Kill, High School of the Dead, Zero no Tsukaima, and Rosario to Vampire are undoubtedly infamous for their bodacious babes, but fans also flock to them for their storytelling and humor. Humor, in fact, is as much a part of ecchi anime as short skirts and succubi, to the point that some series like Ebichu revolve entirely around sex-centric comedy, sans actual titillation. Yes, ecchi is a diverse field of anime indeed — but you still probably want to make sure not to watch it on the bus.


What's better than one love interest? How about six? Harem anime certainly thinks so, and its popularity proves how many agree. Typically, harem series center around an average dude, somewhere between 15 and 30. He's likely a little rootless, unsure of what he wants in life, nursing a passion he has yet to properly pursue. Then he finds that he is heir to a fantastic destiny, about to be posted to a job in a girls' school, or simply dials the wrong number, and suddenly his life is crowded with gorgeous girls. All of whom, from the wackiest rabble-rouser to the most demure damsel, want desperately to be with him.

Many harem anime series incorporate other genres. Tenchi Muyo spends as much time on its epic space saga as it does its bevy of beauties, for example, while Trinity Seven takes place in a world of magical conspiracy. Certain character types do tend to predominate across subgenre lines, however: The lustful smirker, cheerful young housewife, and blushing tsundere, who will bicker with the protagonist right up until the moment she kisses him, are tried-and-true stalwarts of the genre. But don't think harem is an entirely dude-centric affair. "Reverse harem" series, in which multiple boys vie for a girl's affections, are a small but mighty minority within the genre, represented most famously by Ouran High School Host Club.


You can't talk about fiction without talking about escapism. Isekai anime takes this to another level by building a genre entirely around ordinary people being whisked away to fantasy worlds. Sometimes they're familiar with the worlds in question, sometimes they're allowed to bring along their smartphone, sometimes they're reincarnated as a slime. But one thing holds true, across trope or plot: they were an ordinary person in our ordinary world, and now, by virtue of being transported to a fantasy land, they have become extraordinary.

Isekai exploded in popularity in the 2010s. No Game No Life, That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, Re: Zero – there seemed to be no end to stories about world-jumping, stat-manipulating, and smartphone-wielding. But isekai has been part of anime since the beginning: Fushigi Yugi, Magic Knights Rayearth, and even Studio Ghibli's Spirited Away all fall under the genre's umbrella. Moreover, not every isekai unfolds according to the most obvious tropes available. The Devil is a Part-Timer, for example, deposits a fantastical being — in this case, Satan — into our everyday world. Demons, dragons, magic — none of those wow him like a killer deal on his fast food employer's signature salt and pepper french fries. Isekai, beyond anything, is all about watching a fish out of water acclimate to a new ocean, and that's a fantastically flexible premise indeed.


Does anything scream "anime" more than giant robots? Mecha anime, the genre to which giant robot anime belongs, is likely what many picture when they think of anime as a whole. Early works like Mazinger Z and Giant Robo set the stage for genre tentpoles like Patlabor, Full Metal Panic!, and the vast universe of the Mobile Suit Gundam series, creating a history of work that continues today in anime like Darling in the FRANXX.  Brash pilots in enormous robots, fighting for what's right — it's the premise that just won't quit.

An important distinction must be made, however. Within mecha as a genre, there are "super robot" stories, about enormous humanoid robots with incredible powers, and "real robot" stories, which stick closer to the limitations of our world. Some series blend the two — Neon Genesis Evangelion, infamous for blurring all sorts of genre lines, does this — but the two approaches claim a wealth of distinct work all their own. Some, like Code Geass, portray mecha that border upon being magical, their abilities are so vast. Others, like Armored Trooper VOTOMS, find brilliance in the nitty-gritty details of military science fiction. One thing unites them: the possibilities of storytelling in worlds with giant robots.

Slice of Life

It's all in the name, when it comes to slice of life anime: It's a genre containing stories that observe everyday life as it is lived by an individual or group of characters. This is anime that glories in the details, drawing meaning from events as intimate as a single meal or a school ceremony. No one is going Super Saiyan, no one is getting into their 12-story-tall robot. Life is being lived, in whatever form that takes.

It's that last bit that makes slice of life such a unique genre, however. "Life" might mean something like K-On!, a series about a high school club dedicated to making music. But it also might mean Kiki's Delivery Service, a movie in which magic is a very real thing. That's the beauty of slice of life: It takes an intimate approach, even if that approach is being used on very unique people and places. Anime like The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Ms. Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, and Aria: The Animation include supernatural phenomena, dragons, time travel, and life on other planets — and yet each is a slice of life series. Sure, Haruhi is a reality-warping quasi-deity, Ms. Kobayashi accidentally befriended a dragon who now lives in her house, and Aria follows the lives of Martian gondoliers. But the story isn't about any of those things to the exclusion of all else. It's about people, living life, one day at a time. Sometimes with dragons.


Many of those unfamiliar with anime might think the entire medium could be described as kid's stuff. Yet even those who understand that Cowboy Bebop and Pretty Cure are very different works of art with very different audiences might not know what kodomomuke anime is. it is, in short, it's the actual kid's stuff, for the youngest viewers out thereSome kodomomuke series are familiar to Western fans, like Pokemon, Hamtaro and Yo-Kai Watch. Many, however, are not — consider Doraemon. At most, a Western fan might recognize the titular character from a piece of merchandise at their local anime convention, but few are actually familiar with the robotic cat's story, despite the fact that character is a Japanese institution. Beyond him lie series even more obscure to Anglophone eyes, like Anpanman, a superhero series starring a do-gooder with a pastry for a head. Some might wince at the stigma of watching stuff for the youngest eyes, but be assured that anyone can have a great time watching kodomomuke anime's greatest hits. After all, where else are you going to watch an anthropomorphic red bean bun fight a giant alien germ whose greatest weakness is soap?


Iyashikei, which means "healing," is a little tricky to describe. Often it overlaps with other genres, especially slice of life, and is more defined by the experience of watching it than the actual story content. Succinctly put, it is anime that soothes you as you watch it. Gorgeously painted backgrounds, gentle scenes of nature, people working together towards a greater goal — that's the stuff of iyashikei, the animated equivalent of a long, hot bath.

As you might guess, there's a fair amount of variation within iyashikei as a genre. Laid-Back Camp is one example, starring a group of girls who enjoy camping. The soundtrack is lilting and gentle, comedy isn't ever over the top, and creating a cozy atmosphere is the clear goal of the entire production. Yet iyashikei can contain dramatic elements as well. Girls' Last Tour takes place in a bombed-out apocalyptic landscape in which two girls, our heroines, wander aimlessly. Their lives are, in some ways, bleak — and yet they find peace and comfort in each other. Iyashikei isn't about any one particular element or feature, but an overall emotion. That can be found in stories set in a wasteland as readily as ones that take place in the foothills of Mt. Fuji.