Like most things, anime is self-referential and even series which are not parody-heavy will refer to either established anime tropes or actual anime series which have come before. In order to be a good translator of anime you need to be able to tell when this is happening and how to handle it. Even if you’re not motivated by professional zeal and work ethic on this one, trust me, there will be fans who notice if you’ve missed a reference or screwed it up. You’re probably not always going to get every reference–some of them will be ridiculously obscure. However, you want to get to the point where you can usually tell that there is a reference being made. To do that you’re going to need core knowledge so you know what the major parody/allusion subjects are and can begin to see how they are referenced. At the very least you must familiarize yourself with the general outlines of anime history and with the key series/movies.
Getting Your Background
You need to read up on the history of anime, and optionally the history of the American fandom as well. You could probably pick up most any book on this topic and get pretty much what you need, so start searching and learn the way you want to learn. One of the things I read was Fred Patten’s Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews. It focuses more on the history of the American fandom and titles significant for us Yanks, but it does contain a lot of very useful information. One downside is that since it’s 25 years of his essays, some of them basically recover the same things.
|Giant Robots – Gundam||Gundam – Giant Robots is a genre, but within that the Mobile Suit Gundam franchise is its own genre. Every anime creator and every anime fan in the entire nation of Japan is familiar with Gundam in some form. A surprising number of them are familiar with Gundam in every form. Gundam will come up. If you don’t know what “Gundam” refers to, you need to start finding out. In terms of required watching, you need to watch at least one Gundam series. My Gundam consultant suggests you watch one early Gundam series (she suggests the Gundam Compilation Movies, which are basically a retelling of the original Gundam series in three movies) and one modern Gundam series (she suggests the Gundam SEED TV series or the Gundam Wing TV series).|
|Giant Robots||Neon Genesis Evangelion – Whether we want to or not, all of us eventually have to suck it up and watch Eva. Watch the Platinum Edition, as it features better video, 5.1 sound, and a clean translation (the original DVD release translation left much to be desired). Note that there are now new Eva movies coming out in this decade as a retelling of the story; these are worth watching for sure and can function as a short primer if you don’t have time for the TV series right away, but the original 1990s TV series is still the Eva that influenced today’s anime directors, producers, and writers, so many references you see will still be to that classic Eva.|
|Magical Girl||Sailor Moon – You don’t have to watch all (or even most) of Sailor Moon, but you do have to watch some Sailor Moon. The original if you can, one of the subsequent Sailor Moon series if you can’t. It’s the seminal magical girl show, affecting everything that has happened since, and it continues to define and inform a huge chunk of the anime made today. Try to watch 13 episodes. As a side note, you will never translate a show that parodies anything that does not parody Sailor Moon.|
|Sentai/Combining||Sentai and combining mecha anime are together here because they almost always overlap. The trick here is that you need to watch some of at least one sentai/combining mecha show, but what you’ll be mainly trying to see are the tropes, so it’s not necessary to follow any one show for more than five episodes or so if you don’t feel like it. Two seminal anime in this genre are Gatchaman and Go Lion (Voltron). Gatchaman is the original classic sentai anime and does involve combining but not combining in its final standard form. Hundred Beast King Go Lion (better known in the US as Voltron, which is Go Lion recut and combined with Armored Fleet Dairugger XV) is a classic combining anime with the kind of combining mecha that has been typical since. Only caveat: if you watch Go Lion or Voltron, I’m not sure how many episodes it takes to really see the combining groove settled into. See, I’m excused from being an expert on those because I’ve seen all 105 episodes of the original Gatchaman.|
|Crazy Escapades||Lupin the Third – Lupin the Third (also known as Lupin III and even occasionally spelled “Rupin”) has been so copiously produced in such a vast array of incarnations by such a wide number of people that it’s almost its own genre. Lupin and his friends form a huge institution more or less universally recognized throughout all walks of anime. Characters from other unrelated anime will randomly dress like Lupin. The good news is that it’s so episodic that it’s really only necessary to watch a small amount of it. Watch a Lupin movie, watch a couple episodes of a Lupin TV series, or read a couple volumes of a Lupin manga. If you don’t quite have a handle on who everybody is and what they’re after, hop online and give yourself a quick rundown on one of the many Lupin sites. Update for 2013: There is now a new Lupin series out in the US called Lupin the Third, The Woman Called Fujiko Mine. I like it a great deal personally, and it’s visually stunning, but it’s not a particularly good introduction to the franchise for this specifically educational purpose, since it’s a prequel that occurs before the group dynamic is in place and the escapades start in earnest.
Ranma 1/2 – This anime is one of many based on the work of Rumiko Takahashi. Rumiko Takahashi is the queen of “crazy daily life” and one of the best-known manga artists of our era, possibly of all time. As a consequence she’s one of the wealthiest women in Japan. I recommend watching about the first five episodes of the Ranma 1/2 TV series or reading the first volume of the manga (after that it becomes episodic and there’s not much more for you to learn). Other ridiculously well-known Rumiko Takahashi works include Urusei Yatsura (which is often referenced) and Inuyasha. All of her stuff has the same “feel,” but the settings are drastically different.
|Fighting Anime||It’s true that “fighting anime” and “sports anime” are two different animals. However, in general I find you can think of them as basically the same category, as they share many of the same tropes. For reference purposes there isn’t really one specific fighting or sports anime that you need to watch or that’s going to get you by, since references to these types of shows are generally either so broad that you can’t screw them up or so specific that you’d have to watch every sports/fighting anime ever made to get them all. Again, the key is to recognize that a reference may be taking place, rather than necessarily to get the reference right away. To round out your basic anime knowledge it’s probably a good idea to work some kind of fighting anime in, but it’s not necessary for you to watch any of these shows in its entirety if it just doesn’t interest you at all.
There are countless anime to choose from in this category; what I’d do would be to catch a chunk of either the Dragon Ball or Dragon Ball Z Kai anime, and then familiarize myself with at least the overall outline of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Fist of the North Star, either in animated or manga form. (You don’t necessarily have to experience FotNS; just know the basics.) Here’s my reasoning: the Dragon Ball franchise is another one of those franchises that everybody on the whole planet knows about (plus it’s probably the only one on this list that you could get by simply by watching the dub on TV). It’s also much like Sailor Moon in that if something is a parody show, it pretty much has to parody the Dragon Ball franchise at some point. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure is a title that doesn’t have a huge following in the US, but is extremely well-known and oft-referenced in Japan. And for some reason even though I’ve never personally watched or read Fist of the North Star, by now I’ve had to become familiar with many characters and plot points because it just comes up all the time. Also, tip: if anyone ever says 「お前はもう死んでいる」, it’s a Fist of the North Star reference.
|Harem Anime||Tenchi Muyo – Watch 13 episodes of Tenchi Muyo. I mainly selected that title because you need to watch a harem anime and Tenchi Muyo is less painful than many of them, and the Tenchi franchise more or less defined harem anime as we see it now. Much of it since has been fairly derivative; you’ll see most of the tropes if you make it through 13 episodes of this show. However, 13 episodes of another generic harem show such as Sekirei, Maburaho, Magikano, or Love Hina would work just as well. (These are “generic” in the sense they are not trope parodies, trope inversions, or meta-commentaries on the harem genre–all of which abound!) If you make your first harem show a stereotypical one like this, you really only need to watch one.
Side note: For some reason, possibly because of its more-than-usually formulaic nature, this genre’s recent examples tend to be highly referential to many different types of series. I think part of the principle is that Japanese “otaku” are a staple audience of harem anime, and they’re the population likely to appreciate references and parodies.
|Samurai||You don’t really have to watch a samurai anime, but you do have to generally familiarize yourself with the history of the Shogun era and the bakumatsu. There are just way too many samurai anime and way too many high school anime where, believe it or not, you’ll eventually end up needing to know the exact same things. If you don’t know what the bakumatsu is or who the Shinsengumi are, time to go crack open a history book. Get acquainted with the major names and the timeline. That way later you’ll at least have enough memory to know where to start looking things up, and hopefully enough not to make any stupid mistakes because you’re unfamiliar with the material. If you want to check out a samurai anime probably the one to grab is Rurouni Kenshin TV.|
|People to Know||Osamu Tezuka – Osamu Tezuka is known in Japan as the “God of Manga.” He’s had an almost incalculable influence on both manga and anime (ever heard of Astro Boy?). There have been various anime based on his manga, but in general you’ll get the most bang for your buck in terms of essential knowledge by acquainting yourself with his major manga works and cast of characters. Well-known for: major contributions to all genres ever. Major works include: Black Jack, Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion, Princess Knight, Unico. Sites for reference: TezukaOsamu.net, Tezuka in English.
There are a few more people with whom you should probably try to have passing familiarity. You don’t necessarily need to watch/read one of their works, but maybe read an article and check out a few screenshots:
Go Nagai – Go Nagai has been one of the big influential forces in anime. Big as in, he’s one of the key men behind the entire Giant Robot genre, among other things. He’s a legend. But much like Tezuka, his influence has been felt not just in one genre but in several. Well-known for: highly sexualized and violent material. Major works include: Cutey Honey, Mazinkaiser, and Devilman.
Hayao Miyazaki – I actually assume you already know about Miyazaki, but I include him just in case you’ve been living in a box in 1867. As a human being you should do much more than read an article on him; you should watch most everything he’s ever done. But as a translator, at least just know who he is. He’s ridiculously famous, he’s very very good, and his films are some of the best-known films in Japan, where everybody watches them, even the people who don’t watch anime. Google him and you’ll find a wealth of places to start your journey. Well-known for: general awesomeness. Major works include: all of them, but especially My Neighbor Totoro. Japanese audiences also associate him with the Japanese animated TV series based on Heidi.
Leiji Matsumoto – Leiji Matsumoto is Mr. Space Opera. He was also one of the first names in anime to be well-known in the United States in the early days of fandom. He’s a good one to check out screenshots of because his characters tend to have a very distinctive “look,” especially the women. In addition, general references to his stuff, especially to his character Captain Harlock, are apt to show up in parodies. Well-known for: his distinctive look. Major works include: Space Battleship Yamato and its related works, Space Pirate Captain Harlock and its related works, Galaxy Express 999, Galaxy Railways.
Shotaro Ishinomori – Another legend whose work continues to influence multiple genres, Ishinomori began as an assistant to Osamu Tezuka. His most famous creation, Kamen Rider, is actually live-action. However, he is notable in the manga/anime world particularly because of Cyborg 009. Well-known for: the role he played in shaping the sentai genre. Major works include: Cyborg 009, Harmagedon (Genma Wars).
Tying it All Together
All right, now that you’re familiar with the basics, familiarize yourself with some of the ways that parodies and references happen. As you’ll discover, most parody-heavy shows will not only reference anime but live-action and video games. That’s another place where your “knowing how it’s done” is going to save you. I think a good way to get a quick handle on some of the ways references work is to watch a couple of parody-heavy shows. Remember, many shows will have some light parody (This Ugly Yet Beautiful World, which is not a parody anime, still finds time to reference Urusei Yatsura, Please Teacher, and Sailor Moon). But a parody-heavy show will bring out the big guns and shoot you until your body learns the lesson. ^_~ So, here are some titles which have heavy parody and also include translator’s notes for you to look at:
UFO Ultramaiden Valkyrie 2: December Nocturne – An example of a parody-heavy anime with a larger original plot. The reference notes are in the “Anime Encounters” extra.
Magical Shopping Arcade Abenobashi – Parodies everything from RPGs to space opera anime to girl-get games (if you don’t know what girl-get games are, you need to find out). So again, not every episode will be an anime-based parody; some will be parodies of other things. To see the reference notes, watch with Vidnotes enabled.
Excel Saga – One of the best-known parody anime. It has no mercy. It is gonna put the pain on you. To see the reference notes, watch one of the ADV releases with Vidnotes enabled.