Anime is big business today, and the characters found in these often-complex storylines are extremely popular not just in Japan, but all around the world. The latest Doraemon 「ドラえもん」 movie earned US $100 million outside Japan. Takamasa Sakurai 「櫻井 孝昌」, an anime expert, says, “Japanese anime broke the convention that anime is something that kids watch.” He further mentioned that Japanese anime have more elaborate story lines and character involvement.
Although it is difficult to pick from amongst the thousands of characters that exist within this genre, here are 5 of the most loved Japanese anime characters:
1. Totoro 「トトロ」
Created in 1988 by renowned film-maker and founder of Studio Ghibli, Hayao Miyazaki 「宮崎 駿」, Totoro is a mythical forest spirit that appeared in the film ‘My Neighbor Totoro.’ Roger Ebert, an influential movie reviewer of the 21st century, called the movie ‘one of the five best movies’ ever made for children. Director Miyazaki is known for creating semi-supernatural realms that intertwine with ours to create a fascinating animated portrayal of the world as seen through the eyes of a child.
In ‘My Neighbor Totoro,’ the title refers to a giant, furry, forest spirit befriended by two little girls after moving into a house near the woods. All over Japan, Miyazaki is known as the Japanese Disney, except he physically draws his characters. Totoro is shown as a giant creature with big, round eyes and a tiny mouth, all conventional features of a Japanese anime character.
This character is not a traditional mythological Japanese forest-creature, but was created specifically for the movie. This beautifully-animated children’s movie also resonates with adults due to the way it deals with sensitive topics such as a parent’s illness and exploring new surroundings. Totoro is huge, yet lovable and leaves a mark on anyone who watches this timeless classic. Perhaps, this is why Totoro has remained immensely popular in Japan for over 20 years since the movie’s release.
2. Spike Spiegel 「スパイク・スピーゲル」
Spike is a character in animated series, ‘Cowboy Bebop.’ A mobster-turned-bounty-hunter, Spike doesn’t speak much and is a man of action. He lives a simple, yet dangerous life chasing bounty with his partner, Jet Black. Spike only takes on jobs that have a element of danger about them and potentially carry the risk of death. Before becoming a bounty-hunter, Spike was a feared member of a gang called the Red Dragons. His role was to enforce actions, spread fear and bring down anyone who challenged the syndicate.
A serious of unfortunate events leave Spike’s life turned upside-down, turning him into a shadow of his former self. He becomes a man going through life, unable to be truly present in the moment. Spike’s life is a vacuous one, his character is deeply flawed and the audience loves him for it. Shinichiro Watanabe 「渡辺 信一郎」 created this noir hero, who continues to be loved by viewers around the world.
3. Pikachu 「ピカチュウ」
Pikachu is possibly one of the most-recognized anime characters around the world . After the recent explosion of Pokémon Go 「ポケモンゴー」among teens and adults alike, Pikachu remains firmly seated on this list.
In fact, in 2001, New Zealand released a one-dollar coin featuring the tiny creature’s face on one side and the country’s coat of arms on the other. Pikachu is the Mickey Mouse of Japan. This comparison speaks volumes of its popularity. It is a lovable, happy, furry and tiny creature, possibly similar in some ways to a household pet!
4. Motoko Kusanagi 「草薙 素子」
This purple-haired, enigmatic woman is not entirely human. She is the protagonist of the popular show ‘Ghost in the Shell,’ created by Masamune Shirow 「士郎 正宗」. Motoko is a cyborg and the squad-leader of Japan’s Public Security Section 9, an intelligence department that operates under the Ministry of Japanese Home Affairs. Motoko is often referred to as ‘The Major.’ In charge of investigating cyber-crimes and terrorist threats through technology, Motoko leads her team against evil forces.
Motoko’s back story is fascinating. As a child, she was in an almost-fatal plane crash and thus, at the age of 9, she was transformed into a cyborg with only a bit of her brain left to remind her of her human origins. With her transformation, Motoko gained an exceptionally durable prosthetic body. This made her stronger and faster than most humans. She is also able to use the implants in her brain to hack into other cyber-brains and computer databases, making her a lethal agent.
This cyborg super-cop represents strong females everywhere. Unfortunately, in 2015 when Paramount Pictures decided to cast Hollywood actress Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi, fans did not take well to it, arguing that a Japanese actress should represent this much-loved Japanese character.
Kodansha 「講談社」 publications finally released a digital version of the ‘Ghost in the Shell’ Manga comics in 2016, much to the delight of fans around the world. The ever-increasing popularity of anime has led to the rise of large pillows known as ‘Dakimakura,’ 「抱き枕」which feature anime characters on them. An example of this is the granblue fantasy dakimakura.
5. Astro Boy 「アトム」
This Manga series was created by Osamu Tezuka 「手塚 治虫」, the artist credited with designing the ‘anime eye,’ i.e. the large, round eyes that have become the trademark of anime creations today. Osamu is known as ‘the god of Manga’ and his drawing style was heavily influenced by Walt Disney and Max Fleischer. His Manga series, Astro Boy, was the first of its kind not only to be translated into English, but distributed overseas as well.
After being released in 1963, Tetsuwan Atom 「鉄腕アトム」 was the name of the main character that became Japan’s first cartoon hero. Inspired by the legend of Pinocchio, Astro Boy is the story of a man who tries to build a robot to replace the real son he lost.
Whether or not you are familiar with Japanese anime characters, their universal appeal means there is something for everyone. Check out the most loved characters mentioned above to see why this genre is as popular as it is all over the world.