What makes an anime popular?

We all have shows that we adore for various reasons. Whether it be the plot (Seikon no Qwaser), the deep characters (Lucky Star), or just the right dose of humor, there’s usually at least one show per season that you look forward to every week on the edge of your seat.

While most people can easily identify why they enjoy a specific show, what qualities drive them into legends? Generally once per year an anime will skyrocket its way into the upper reaches of coveted popularity. Why?

Much to my surprise, I discovered a cozy little Japanese/Anime import shop at the local mall a few years ago. I quickly pegged it as a lost cause, but now it is a buzzing, successful store that is no longer strange to stop by if you’re hanging out with your friends. I typically visit a few times per month to see if there’s any new figurines or nendroids (Sadly 90% of them end up being fakes). While I was there, I noticed an array of huge posters on one wall, all easily recognizable titles like K-On, Haruhi, Code Geass, Full Metal Alchemist, and even some Vocaloids.

Upon seeing these, I started to wonder… What exactly made each of those shows so popular that they would become such big titles in Japan, even to the point of being marketed here in the U.S.? Each anime had its own distinct qualities, and there was no obvious correlation. Besides that, why were some top-selling animes like Bakemonogatari, who dominated the blu-ray sales charts until late 2010, not being dubbed and marketed?

Now I obviously can’t judge what makes a show popular by whether or not it gets marketed in English, but it got me wondering about both ends of the spectrum! I couldn’t decide why a show like K-On would propel to the top, leaving another like So・Ra・No・Wo・To in the dust. Arguably, So・Ra・No・Wo・To has a much more engaging plot, dynamic characters, and beautiful scenery crafted based on a real village (I forget where). The reason I compare the two is because as many people know, the character designs for the two shows were so similar in style that it was humorously labeled “K-On goes to war!”. A funny coincidence? I couldn’t ever decide.

In the end, you can explain some facets of popularity based on how the company markets the product and builds the show. Many people claimed that Shaft may have skyrocketed their Blu-Ray sales by leaving parts of their show cut and unfinished (albeit, in an acceptable and interesting manner except for the Nadeko arc) . I couldn’t explain big titles like Haruhi and K-On personally. It boils down to what makes a show popular to you. The more people it appeals to, the bigger it becomes.

So tell me! What about an anime makes you come back for more?

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About Anima

"You know, when you're standing on the platform at the station, don't you have things that cross your mind. Like, what would happen if you jumped?"
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50 Responses to What makes an anime popular?

  1. feal87 says:

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    But of course, it's my presence that makes everyone come back for more. 😀

  2. Azure Hoshizora says:

    Where’s that store in the local mall you speak of at?

    I don’t really care about popularity much; I tend to start getting a little conscious when something I watch actually becomes popular, cuz that would just be odd.
    The studios probably have something to do with it, Code geass and gundam stuff being from Sunrise and there’s also KyoAni…
    The weirdest show that I rewatched a couple of times have to be Basquash. The sheer awesomeness of mechas playing basketball fascinates me.

    I can’t really see how you can adore Seikon no Qwaser’s plot though justifiably, it IS pretty awesome.

    • Anima says:

      Actually I meant that as tongue-in-cheek sarcasm. We all know nobody watches Seikon no Qwaser for the plot. ^-^

      The store is called Niko Niko and it’s in a far corner of the mall away from most of the popular stuff. It’s really awesome because I’ve never found another store like it, and it’s such a random place to find one. They sell figurines of all sizes, backpacks, posters, wall scrolls, odd Japanese candy and drinks, cosplay outfits, DvDs, etc…

  3. HerpyDerp says:

    Lucky Star? DEEP characters?
    You really meant “derp” right? It’s a typo, it’s just next to each other.

    …right?

    • TRazor says:

      I think it was sarcastic, seeing that Seikon no Qwaser was in brackets for plot. If the SnQ remark WAS serious, then you and I have very, very different tastes.

    • Anima says:

      But… The level of exploration of the psychology of the characters and their interactions with every day-

      Kidding. Yeah I was being sarcastic about both.

      • TRazor says:

        How dare you!

        No one insults my beloved Seikon no Sucker.

        Have you ever seen a non-hentai with nothing but boobs the size of a cereal box and a pansy boy going around giving free dips?

        Have you ever seen an anime where the women are forever lactating?

        Have you ever seen an anime with such FANTASTIC and INNOVATIVE plot twists?

        Have you ever seen a woman who loves a man who goes around having free licks at random women?

        Mmmm-hmmm, that’s right, girl. You ain’t seen this anywhere else. Now, I’m going to marathon the first season and write speculative blog posts about the upcoming second season.

        • Anima says:

          DO IT. I will loyally sit by and read them.

          Did I mention I had the misfortune of working with Doki Fansubs on several Qwaser episodes? Heh, heh.

  4. Jo says:

    The town Sora No Woto was based on is call Cuenca in Spain..
    as seen here..
    http://reliqueabandonee.blogspot.com/2010/09/cuenca-day-1-part-1.html

    Why do I come back more? I honestly can’t really say. I guess it’s fun, I enjoy it and (most of the time) there is a definite end to the series. Once a series/season is finished I go onto the next one. I dislike TV series that pointlessly go on for years and years, when you know it should have stopped 3 seasons ago or something like that….

    Cute characters and a plot of some sort helps as well…
    A good anime always leaves you wanting more, so I guess thats why I come back..
    =)

    • Anima says:

      I used to adore shows like Naruto, but then around episode ~210 I got really tired of it. I wanted more plot continuation and less filler.

      Isn’t it too bad that sometimes the ones leaving us want more only have that one short season though? Then you’ve got big titles that go on for hundreds.

      • Jo says:

        But if the short ones have a good ending and everything ties up, it makes for a memorable series…

        ha..actually I lie, sometimes I do wish the short ones went on for more than one season..^^

        =)

  5. Jo says:

    Almost forgot…anime have really awesome soundtracks..!!
    So yeah, definitely the music..

    =)

    • Anima says:

      Oh god, I adore a good soundtrack so much. If you ever want to recommend a show’s OST to me, please do. 🙂

      I think my current favorite is the sound track to 5 centimeters per second. Absolutely stunning!

      That, or So Ra No Wo To in close second. 🙂

      • Jo says:

        Have you heard/got ‘Promise Project: 10 Years of Makoto Shinkai & Tenmon’. Because Tenmon does all the music for Makoto Shinkai’s films, its like a best of album, but better! ^^

        Other than that I’d say the soundtrack to Simoun by Toshihiko Sahashi is something you should definitely check out…

        The OST’s to Neon Genesis Evangelion series and movies is something that I always go back to…

        I enjoyed the soundtrack to Sora no Woto as well, really captured the atmosphere of the show…

        oh, and the Katanagatari OST..

        =)

        • Jo says:

          I might as well add this so you can compare the original you’ve got up there and the Promise Project version.

          Enjoy..
          =)

          • Anima says:

            HNNNGGGG- Awesome!
            Thanks for sharing this. I hadn’t heard of it before! I’m definitely getting my hands on this Promise Project CD soon.

            Also we seem to share quite a similar taste in OSTs! I love the Evangelion soundtracks as well. Katanagatari is still on my list of shows to watch though. 🙂

  6. Valence says:

    Great first post, Anima.

    I suppose it boils down to multicausality. A combination of enjoyable plot, good music and something which really ingrains itself in the viewer’s minds. For instance, see how much the shows Lucky Star and Fullmetal Alchemist differ, and yet, both of them are so popular nevertheless.

  7. Hogart says:

    I’m being tongue-in-cheek, but popularity is all about mass-market appeal. To achieve that you just need to pick and choose just enough things with mass-market appeal. For instance, I’ve noted that a show for teens really just needs to have at least three of the following (their quality is rarely an issue):

    – any teen-friendly theme (social acceptance, rebellion, saving the world).
    – cool action sequences (mecha a big plus)
    – moe schoolgirls/bishies (harems a big plus)
    – half-decent pop music
    – melodramatic situations/backstories
    – ecchi fanservice

    • Anima says:

      Is it just me or is the ecchi fanservice option seeming to hit its peak lately? Maybe I just wasn’t paying attention, but a year or two ago there didn’t seem to be quite as much of it, and nowadays you have whole seasons being dominated by it.

      I get the feeling it will die down, though. Kind of like a phase?

      • Hogart says:

        Fanservice has always been rather prominent in anime, but I’d agree that it feels more prominent these days. It’s not just panty flashes, shoujo bishies, and over-designed mecha anymore.. it’s almost as though everything must be tailored to pander to someone these days. It’s probably just rose-colored glasses on my part, but I don’t remember it feeling quite so obvious a few years ago.

        In fact I’d say that “incredibly shallow” is the order of the day for the past few seasons. It seems like all you have do is give a character a tragic backstory to make an anime seem “deep”. That’s downright pathetic when you stop to consider the big-name popular anime from a few years back.

  8. kluxorious says:

    strong characters that are not only likable but relatable. That’s the selling point for me. The reason why I love Haruhi so much is because there are such uncanny similarities between her and myself. I like Workings!! because the characters are likable and don’t seem fakes.

    Like you said, it all boils down on each person’s preference. The reason I can’t tolerate K-ON (except for Ritsu’s character) was because I can’t seem to relate to them but people like Yi has repeatedly said how relatable they are to her in real life. So yeah…

    This one is pretty subjective.

    • Anima says:

      I can definitely understand that. I don’t think it’s exactly when I relate to a character, but I get very interested when they have depth and complexity. It’s really nice to feel like you’re not watching a bunch of 2d cardboard cutouts, am I right? 😛

  9. TRazor says:

    Answering the core question, “What makes an anime popular?”:

    Two reasons IMO (Popularity of anime based on MAL’s Most Popular List).

    1. Pushing the boundaries of a genre :
    This is basically not just the ability to break cliches, but to make something different and worthwhile. This is the difference between being creative and innovative that I talk about (too) often. Let’s take the most popular show, Death Note. You have a boy who gets a note that is able to kill anyone, and along with it a creepy Shinigami. In most cases, this setting would probably promote a shonen type story, which would probably involve Light and L being long-lost brothers, using their Shinigami to battle or some crap like that. Instead, it incorporated all its genres, Thriller Mystery Psychological and Detective, to create something totally out of the box. Code Geass might not have been as smart, but it was still something that was yet to be witnessed in the Mecha Thriller Psychological genre combination. A combo that Evangelion played differently (and stood out). Elfen Lied… I don’t even think I need to go deep into this one. Melacnholy of Haruhi is something that was a hit-or-miss that toyed with genres such as sci-fi and parody to make something, for better or worse, extraordinary. Spirited Away – Satoshi Kon. ‘Nuff said. Clannad for looking like a harem, but being something beautiful that was funny and gave birth to one of anime’s most loved couples.

    2. Playing for the crowd:
    This is simple really – give the people what they want and would cater to a wide audience. Shonen for example, is one of the most popular genres because it is accessible. It throws in a little bit of everything. A side-story shoujo involving the lead male and female, funny supporting casts, tons of fanservice and a large helping of “good triumphs evil”. Love it or hate it, shonen is something that is relaxing and when made well, exciting. It isn’t going to have you thinking, but it sure is fun sometimes. This is illustrated by the phenomenal success of Naruto, Bleach and the like. Anime like TTGL provide the same content, except in Gainax style. In short, these are anime with limited substance but substantial light-hearted entertainment. Shoujo anime should fit in comfortable in this category as well.

    But of course, there are several other reasons such as quality of the manga the anime is adapted from, the studio producing it, the budget and promotion etc.

    And then there’s K-ON. I’m still clueless as to how this anime was as succesful as it was, despite KyoAni’s monstrous production values.

    Quite a ramble here. Might very well be a blog post 😄 Good post though. Got me thinking. And writing.

    • TRazor says:

      Oops, screwed up the HTML. Gomen ne ^^”

    • Anima says:

      Haha, thanks for the thumbs up! 🙂

      You can definitely get agood grip of why some shows became popular, like you said with Death Note, Code Geass, and the classical shonen types. Similar to you, I couldn’t really honestly describe why K-On is so popular. Personally I think it has to do with the way it’s presented to the viewer. The bulk of the show isn’t mind-blowing or deep, but what they do is put one or two really great scenes in each episode, and then wrap it in a really high quality OP/ED.

      Take that azunyan~ “Nyaaa~” episode for example in the first season. That was pure gold for making people come back for more.

      I also like your distinction between creative and innovative; it’s a great point. There’s a lot of shows that are really creative, but in the end they fall into a niche viewer base because either not enough people can relate, or it wasn’t incorporating the new creative ideas well enough.

      • TRazor says:

        Lol, I just can’t resist using this pun:
        (unrelated at this point)

        Who’s the author for this post?

        Valence…or is it Guity?

        On second thought, it isn’t really funny. Meh…

        I don’t even remember the episode. In fact, its hard for me recalling any K-ON episode.
        Ep. n – Eating cake
        Ep. n+1 – Feeding turtle
        Ep. n+3 – Karaoke
        Ep. n+4 – Fixing giitar
        Ep. n+4.5 (Special!) – Blowing money borrowed from non-existent parents
        Ep. n+5 – Some other stupid moe pander.

        Oh, didn’t I mention? I don’t like K-ON >.^

        • Anima says:

          Haha. I only braved it through Season 1 and then threw in the towel. I’ve sworn to myself that I’ll watch Season 2 some time soon just so I can keep up with discussions… Or out of some weird sense of duty. Your summary there was spot-on.

          I’m neutral toward it. : )

  10. It depends on the series–each anime has a different reason for appealing to so many people. I know people who hate anime pretty seriously and they STILL like FullMetal Alchemist. What makes a series like that appeal to people is the characters, the setting, the brotherly bond; everything about FMA is engaging.

    Then you have the ones like Haruhi and Lucky Star which, in my opinion, get big because they appeal to the little kid inside all of us with being so silly.

    With me personally, it always depends on the series, what makes me like it. There are some silly plotless pieces of crap that I can’t stand (the thank-God-it’s-over-now Dragon Crisis!) whereas there are others (Ika Musume) that I can’t help but fall in love with. Then again, there are also the types that I don’t care for regardless–if it’s all just breasts and blood, I’m not interesting (here’s talking to you, Gantz and Freezing).

  11. Vince says:

    Fan service is one *giggles* xD

  12. Marina says:

    Well, I’m glad I read some of these comments, because now I don’t need to rail on you for listing Seikon no Qwaser as deep plot and Lucky Star and deep characters :p I guess I didn’t get the humorous tone at the start?
    Anyways, when it comes to popularity for the general audience, I agree with TRazor’s points of boundary pushing and playing to the crowd’s interests, be that lots and lots of mecha, but mecha in some awesomely unique way never seen before, or cutesy girls who know how to play their interests and make our hearts go ‘kyun!’ When it comes to my personal interests though, I tend to go for the first and drop the last. If anything, I prefer to check out the lesser hyped anime first before trying out the current popular ones. You talked about Sora no Woto, which I actually liked much more than K-ON! While a lot wasn’t explained in Sora no Woto and the plot changed part way through, I still found the premise a lot more intriguing than a bunch of girls in school playing their instruments somewhat OK.
    Something else that grabs my attention is art style and music. If the first episode doesn’t pull me in on either of those accounts, I start to lose interest quickly. And of course, the number two things that make it or break it are the two items you name at the very start, plot and character. This is why I end up loving shows like Monster, Gankutsuou, and Kara no Kyoukai. Wins on all accounts.

    Also, great first post 🙂

    • Anima says:

      Thanks! And I’m glad to hear the masked sarcasm worked. 🙂

      I have a similar problem in that I tend to stray away from shows that are very popular each season. Angel Beats, Toradora, and some others I actually end up enjoying very much, but on the other hand I still have yet to see shows like K-On S2, Haruhi, P&S:G, and Infinite Stratos. You can usually pick out which shows are going to kick off hard for the season, and which shows look interesting but might not get a large viewer base at first. I always shoot low and then work my way up.

      Art style, music, plot, and character. All are such attention grabbers. Definitely depending on the viewer, one might grab you more. K-On is heavy on the character, while Bakemonogatari was more plot and art style. Seems as if they appeal heavily to different audiences, which makes for a good marketing tactic.

  13. MkMiku says:

    I think it’s the moe characters that make anime so popular. At least for me. >>

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  15. biotoxic says:

    Hi there Anima, an interesting first post topic. I can’t answer why certain anime are more popular than others, but I can comment on what I like. Looking at my top favourite anime on MAL I must say it’s a combination of a few factors which makes an anime great as opposed to something I’ll watch and enjoy.

    A solid ending that wraps up the overall plot, but still keeps enough open for audience speculation is something I enjoy. For example I liked how the original Evangelion TV series ended with Shinjis mental dilemma. I hated the EoE Movie ending though.

    Some sort of emotional attachment is another. Clannad is a perfect example of this where you just get hooked on the characters and their story. Elfen Lied is another I enjoyed in that regard.

    The final aspect I enjoy is when the plot or characters take unexpected twists that makes you think “fuck yes, you got owned”. You just can’t wait for the next episode with these ones. Code Geass had oodles of these moments as did Death Note.

  16. baka~ says:

    My criteria for popular shows would be a balance between Seiyuu cast and Music involved and the anime’s Story.

    For instance, if an anime had a powerful Seiyuu cast and/or is backed up with appealing musical themes that drag viewers into watching it, even if the story is mediocre, the anime will still have fans since good Seiyuu can breathe life to the characters that they are portraying. Best examples of this , imo, would be K-On, Oreimo, Shakugan no Shana s2, Zero no Tsukaima 2 and 3 (almost series sequels by JC staff… orz). Story-wise, these anime are simply average and, to an extent, fanservicey , but the power of the lead cast was good enough to pull in viewers.

    Likewise, even if the Seiyuu cast is bad or the music is just meh, if the story is good (to an extent), it will still have a fanbase. Take for instance, interesting series such as Blassreiter, Baccano!, Eve no Jikan, and Giant Killing. Though these series only had very few prominent Seiyuu under their cast, the story is good enough to grab people’s attention.

    But I guess that these imbalances presented does not necessarily guarantee a show’s popularity. As with people having different tastes, the criteria for one’s popular show will always be a hit or miss when it comes to another.

    • Anima says:

      Definitely a good point. I’m actually fairly biased when I look up upcoming shows. Anything with my favorite seiyuus (all time favorite being Yuuki, Aoi) I’m automatically inclined to like. Like you said, they can breathe life into the characters that could otherwise be very mediocre.

      I’m also a sucker for a fantastic OST, so I have to agree on that one too.

  17. afkeroge says:

    I think it will be at least two of these things:

    1. Good storytelling – many of us simply enjoy a good story. Even if the plot is simple (e.g. Clannad or most other Key works), if they manage to keep me interested, then it’s all good. I also think that this is one of the reasons why Valence liked the OVA of Anata to Koibito Tsunagi. 😉

    2. Characters we can relate to (or the complete opposite) – realistic, human characters are good, but there are merits to characters that we know nothing of. Take Akemi Homura. She was popular even before her story was told. Also sometimes, the average lead character becomes boring as he is too ‘known’ in the sense that people can relate to him too much (most male leads are like this. Ugh.).

    3. Visuals – Good art gives you a better feeling overall than when you watch something out of a kindergartener’s doodles (yes, I’m talking about those crappy cartoons that they show everywhere). Not to mention that animating special effects in anime is much more acceptable than crappy CG work

    4. Audio – A good selection of soundtracks, while not enough to make an anime good to watch, can convert someone from being a non-viewer into an instant fan (trust me, I know).

    5. Voice acting – I think this is where anime really stands out from the rest of the other cartoons out there. Anime voice acting (in original Japanese) is very good. Enough said.

    And since I didn’t have the time to welcome you because of finals:

    Welcome to the blogosphere, Anima!

    • Anima says:

      Thanks for the welcome! Props for Chemical Engineering and eroge. I’ve added your feed to my RSS. 🙂

      I’m such a sucker for audio; number 4 and 5 always get me. If you’re listening closely and you can feel the emotion in the seyiuu’s voices, accompanied by a fantastic soundtrack… It totally sells me on just about anything.

  18. Nopy says:

    If it’s something new (ie, something I haven’t seen before) then I’ll probably like it. When an anime is basically a carbon copy of another anime I’ve seen, I lose interest in it very quickly. This also applies to episodes within a series. If every episode is the same, then that anime will find its way to the recycle bin.

  19. ~xxx says:

    Probably GA Geijutuka Arts Design Class and ARIA.

    Madoka was the new addiction to my list…
    and even K-on! way back in 2009.

    Also CLANNAD, in which I spent some nights crying in the drama side of the show.

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