One of the most basic questions that can come up in anime/manga studies is simply – where and how can someone begin learning about anime and manga. Where can a person start if their goal is to find out more about the origins and history of anime, identify the major themes that Japanese animation and Japanese comics feature, evaluate the work of major leading creators and directors, and explore the range of critical responses to anime/manga?

“Look at books on anime/manga” is an easy answer to this question – but, given that there are current more than 100 such books, from Fred Schodt’s 1983 Manga! Manga!: The World of  Japanese Comics to the brand-new essay collection The End of Cool Japan: Ethical, Legal and Cultural Challenges to Japanese Popular Culture, it’s a too-easy answer. These books, published over more than 30 years now, and serve different goals (or, in other words, meet different information needs). So, a much more effective approach to the question about resources for learning about anime/manga is to break it down into several parts. What kinds of books are there on Japanese animation and Japanese comics? And what are the best books to consider for particular questions about anime/manga?

I Want to Know More: Books on Anime/Manga, Part 1 – Introductions and Overviews

Books on Anime/Manga, Part 2: Specific Directors/Creators

Books on Anime/Manga, Part 3: Essay Collections

What are the books to recommend to someone who really knows almost nothing about Japanese animation/Japanese comics, and wants an introduction that is both accessible and reasonably comprehensive? For anime, I would highlight three such books:

From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
Susan J. Napier (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)

From Akira to HowlSusan Napier, then a professor at the University of Texas (she currently teaches at Tufts University) is often credited – rightly – with more or less single-handedly launching the field of anime studies in the U.S. With this book, originally published in 2001 as From Akira to Princess Mononoke, and updated in 2005, Naper presents a broad survey of Japanese animation as a medium, cultural form, and phenomenon, and identifies three “modes” (apocalyptic, elegiac, and carnival) that can be used as basic frameworks for any kind of critical approach to Japanese animation. Similarly, the individual chapters, may of which focus on one or two specific single anime, are grouped into three broad parts: “Body, Metamorphosis, Identity”, “Magical Girls and Fantasy Worlds”, and “Remaking Master Narratives: Anime Confronts History”. Obviously, this book could use another update, but the author’s basic approach remains valid and valuable, while her language is generally fairly straight-forwarded, and critical without being condescending or dismissive.

Anime - DenisonAnime: A Critical Introduction
Rayna Denison (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015)

Although Prof. Denison does mention the inevitable “what is anime?” question, her goal is not as much to provide an answer as it is to “seek out the range of meanings that have become associated with anime”, and highlight different ways of and approaches to analyzing anime. More so than Napier’s volume – which Denison readily acknowledges and praises – it is an introduction to thinking about anime and to critical approaches to anime – and so, is a foundational text in anime studies as an academic area or field.

Rough Guide to Anime
The Rough Guide to Anime
Simon Richmond (Rough Guides, 2009)

Now somewhat of a curiosity, and out of print, this title was an entry in the travel publisher’s attempt to bring its reader-friendly and somewhat irreverent style to reference guides. The Rough Guide opens with a breezy, 30-page “The story of anime”, then guides readers through “The canon: the fifty greatest anime” (both films and television series), and concludes with short and intentionally easy-to-read chapters on “creating anime”, “the manga connection”, and major themes and topics. Obviously, it is a different kind of book, with a different purpose and intended for a different audience, but nonetheless, I think it does fill its particular niche – especially for a reader who is specifically not looking for an academic text.

Turning to manga, one thing I have always found interesting is that to date, there simply isn’t anything out there that would be directly comparable to either Anime from Akira to Spirited Away or to Anime: A Critical Theory. So, the available options for introductions include:

Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices
(Dark Horse, 2013)

Manga - Introduction
This handbook, which I have highlighted in a separate post, was designed primarily for librarians. But, of course, nothing prevents a casual, non-specialist reader from picking it up as well – and its structure, with each chapter covering a broad subject category (Shonen, Shojo, Seinen, Josei, Yuri, Boys’ love) – is equally friendly to the casual reader.



Rough Guide to MangaThe Rough Guide to Manga
(Rough Guides, 2009)

A companion title to The Rough Guide to Anime, and also out of print, this book is again best though of as “aggressively pursuing” the same kind of reader who would be interested in a travel guide – but for books.


Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga
Frederik Schodt (Stone Bridge Press, 1996)

Dreamland JapanAlso unfortunately dated, this book nonetheless – even if by default – remains the standard starting place for any English-language discussion of Japanese comics. Like the other two, it is much more a survey of both the entire manga ecosystem and of particular creators and their works rather than a critical study of particular themes or styles. And, perhaps more so than any of the other five books I have profiled, it can be treated as a “starting point” in exploring critical English-language approaches to Japanese comics and animation.


Of course, there are other books on anime/manga that I could conceivably include in an “Introductions and Overviews” list. But some of these are even more specifically aimed at librarians, while others are either out of print or hard to acquire. Though of course, suggestions on books to add to any such list are always welcome.

And, in Part 2, I will move on to books about specific directors/creators, and even specific works.


7 Comments on I Want to Know More – Books on Anime/Manga: A Guided Tour, Part 1

  1. I’d definitely recommend Jonathan Clements’ Anime – A History – I think material wise, some of it might seem a little too business/pre-war anime centric that it might alienate people used to more recent anime, but in terms of readability and quality I find it hard to beat. I find so many anime books are either too scholarly, or too casual, in terms of writing quality – and I think Clements’ books strike the perfect balance between the two.
    Also, for manga – Helen McCarthy’s Manga – A Short History is very good. It’s short, but has some stunning colour prints of cover art in it, and again, I’ve found it to be the most accessible, up to date work out there that tries to capture a wide swathe of material – old and new

  2. When I searched anime criticism in Google Scholar I noticed that most of the literature focused on one of:
    – cyberpunk
    – Ghibli
    – post-war mentality, 90’s bubble crash and lost generation
    – magical girls
    Is the same true of these books, I wonder?

    • Napier’s certainly goes into these quite a lot. But “Anime: A Critical Introduction” is more of an overview of how other critics have responded to anime than itself a survey of series or themes. And, I’m specifically not mentioning books like Tom Lamarre’s “The Anime Machine” or Marc Steinberg’s “Anime’s Media Mix” – because because they are far too complex and specialized to be considered “introductions” or “overviews”.

      • I’d agree that Ghibli and Cyberpunk are overwhelming represented in terms of thematic studies. But yeah – the media mix angle, along with associated themes like globalisation, transnationalism, cultural odour, statelessness etc. often crop up frequently.

        Looking back on this post, I think from an academic sense, Napier and Denison’s books are without a doubt the single two most important ‘must read’ books, and the ones most people tend to gravitate around as the best-written.

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