Many cartoon openings have catchy theme songs and engaging visuals that get us excited for the show and tell us about the characters. The Flintstones, The Powerpuff Girls, Avatar: the Last Airbender, Steven Universe, and dozens of other cartoons have songs or succinct narrative backstories that are unique to each show and give us a taste of what to expect in each episode. The words of a cartoon theme song or an opening narration apply specifically to the cartoon itself and wouldn’t logically make sense with a different show. Opening sequences in Western cartoons lead us to expect a certain tone. They typically don’t make us anticipate one thing from the show only for the show to deliver something entirely different.
Anime openings, however, leave much more to the imagination. The songs rarely name-drop the series or explicitly introduce the characters. They’re often longer than Western cartoon openings and can sometimes feel like promotional music videos for the series. Anime openings can even be deceptive, leading audiences to expect a light and happy show only to deliver something dark and tragic. The lyrics of anime openings are not always specific to the series themselves. They may match the series thematically, but plenty of anime opening songs could plausibly apply to other series.
Let’s take a look at some anime openings and what they lead us to expect.
This opening is playful with its numerous pop culture references, but these references aren’t just for kicks. Combined with the chill, steady music, we get the sense that this series is a mixture of drama and humor. We get brief shots that clue us in to each character’s personality or interests, but nothing in the song lyrics or on screen explicitly tells us who they are. We don’t make the connection between The Great Train Robbery reference and the character shown until we learn from the show that this character is obsessed with trains. Most anime openings build in these sorts of character and plot clues that only become obvious the further you watch in the series.
Attack on Titan
Longer anime series can have two, three, or even twelve openings. Openings will typically change after a story arc ends or at the beginning of a new season. Attack on Titan has only one season so far, but there are two openings because the season covers two story arcs.
The first opening is energetic and intense. We see huge titans rampaging the city and humanity desperately fighting back. The dark colors mixed with the epic, operatic sound prepare viewers for a gripping yet violent story and that’s exactly what Attack on Titan delivers.
The second opening is just as epic and energetic as the first, but it also reflects changes in the story. Now, humanity can go outside of its city, but quick smirks and shady glances from some characters give us hints that the titans aren’t humanity’s only enemy. However, the opening doesn’t explicitly tell us anything. It’s a puzzle that we gradually figure out as we watch each episode.
Whereas Attack on Titan, Naruto, and other lengthy anime series typically use new songs and animations when it’s time for a new opening sequence, Sailor Moon uses slightly different versions of the same song for four of its five seasons while changing the animation as new story arcs begin. In the first opening, we see three girls together in several shots, indicating that they’re part of a team. We get shots of the moon, some menacing glances from bad guys, and alternating images of Usagi as a regular school girl and Usagi as Sailor Moon.
Yet this opening doesn’t explicitly name these characters or tell us how they got their powers. We can glean some clues from watching it before each episode, but we have to wait for the anime itself to tell us how the characters are all connected.
Now, here’s what happened when Sailor Moon came to North America in the mid-90s. Back then, many anime were not only dubbed but adapted to be more appropriate for children and appealing to English-speaking audiences. Sailor Moon got a new theme song that’s melodically similar to the original Japanese opening, but has lyrics that explicitly introduce the characters, just like most Western cartoons.
In both cases, the opening leads audiences to expect the trials and tribulations of a team of super heroines, but the English dub opening doesn’t require viewers to read into it as much as the Japanese one does because the song provides a lot of specific information. The lyrics to the Japanese opening, on the other hand, leave much more to the imagination. Sure the moonlight imagery clearly connects to the show, but the song could still theoretically apply to other series.
We also see this explicit vs. implicit difference in openings when American cartoons are adapted into Japanese anime, as is the case with Powerpuff Girls Z. The original Powerpuff Girls opening has a narrated backstory that names the main characters and explains how they got their powers. The Powerpuff Girls Z opening has a song that could easily apply to any anime and a range of scenes from happy to dramatic, but we don’t learn anything about the girls’ backstories.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica
Some anime openings are intentionally deceptive like the one for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The opening leads us to expect a good mixture of girl-power, teenagers being silly, and epic battles to save the universe, but instead the show delivers a dark spin on the magical girl genre. This jarring effect intensifies our experience of the series. Because Madoka’s opening is misleading, it’s much harder to guess the plot. Most Western cartoon openings wouldn’t employ this tactic, except for cartoons made for adults.
Because Western cartoons are mostly targeted to younger children, it makes perfect sense that they usually narrate the backstory or work introduce characters with a catchy theme song. You want to remind kids of the basic story and main characters so they can enjoy the episode. Anime, on the other hand, has a much broader target age range, so its openings typically ask for a little more audience interpretation. Of course, there are some anime openings that explicitly introduce characters and some Western cartoon openings with songs that aren’t as specific to the shows themselves and leave more to audience interpretation. No matter which approach is taken, openings aim to engage us into a story that’s about to unfold.