World Building in Anime

World Building in Anime

Introduction to World Building

According to my calendar today’s topic is world building in anime. A behind the scenes fact about is that I don’t plan what I’m going to write ahead of time. I just come up with topics, and when the day comes, I write about them.

But, as you probably expect, crafting an entire world takes a lot more planning than that. And while what I’ll be discussing today can really be applied to any medium in which a world is crafted and a story is told within that world, this is an anime blog.

So today I’ll be covering four different aspects of world building in anime: Story & characters, physical world building, cultural world building, and large & small scale worlds.

Story & Characters

Before you yell at me in the comments, over on Twitter (@DoubleSama), or even via email as one particularly angry reader has in the past, I understand that some people would say story and characters aren’t world building. But I’m here to tell you that they are.

The story is really the framework upon which the world is built. And the characters are what make that world come alive. Without either, you don’t have a world — you have an empty wasteland nobody cares about.

To see how the story affects world building, let’s take a look at different genres of anime. Of course, there are always going to be series which cross between genres, but to make things simple let’s pretend they don’t.

A map from the anime series The Rising of the Shield Hero
A map from The Rising of the Shield Hero

Adventure anime tend to lend themselves to expansive worlds which we get to explore a large portion of. On the other hand, slice of life anime tend to be fixated on a single, or small group of, location(s). This ties into the large & small scale world’s I’ll be discussing later on, but the point for now is that the type of story you’re telling is going to affect the world.

And while the story is what sets up the world, the characters are what complete it. Once the world has been physically created, the characters who inhabit it should be molded by the world in which they live. This will become more apparent when we get into the section on cultural world building.

Physical World Building

If you’ve read any of my episodic fantasy/adventure series reviews, such as those for That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime (TenSura) or Somali and the Forest Spirit, you’ll likely be familiar with my love for maps in fantasy series. Maps are a great way to quickly give viewers an overview of the physical world which has been built.

Those of you who enjoy fantasy/adventure novels are probably also familiar with this. Why do you think basically every fantasy/adventure novel has a world map right on the first couple of pages?

Once the story has been established, the physical world in which the story is going to take place needs to be built. Going back to the fantasy/adventure example, what does the world physically look like? Is it mountainous? Is it an archipelago? Are there many different biomes spread around the “known world,” or is it fairly monotonous?

A map of Morioh from the JoJo's Bizarre Adventure Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable manga
A map of Morioh from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable

These questions can be further specified to be geared towards smaller worlds as well. If the series takes place in a single city, what’s the layout of that city like? If it takes place in a single building, what’s the layout of the building like? A single room, how is that laid out?

When the physical world is being built — that being the world which the viewers will actually see — scale doesn’t matter. Regardless of scale, the same amount of detail needs to be added. The only difference is how small of a space that detail is condensed into.

For example, JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure Part 4: Diamond is Unbreakable takes place entirely in the fictional town of Morioh. So for this series, while we don’t know where Morioh lies compared to other towns, we know where various notable areas around town are compared to each other.

Cultural World Building

Now that the physical world building is complete, it’s time for the cultural world building. This is where the characters first come into play, but at this stage there aren’t necessarily any individual characters yet. Basically, you look at the world and come up with what life would be like for those who live there.

Depending on where people live, how they live can be very different. People who live in the slums of a city aren’t living the same as the high-ranking government officials. And people who live in a rainforest aren’t living the same as people who live in the desert, or on mountains, or in grasslands.

If everyone lived the same way and had the same traditions regardless of location, that would make the world feel fake. That’s not how our world works, and that’s not how any world would realistically work. It goes against the physical world building.

Hellywood towering over the wasteland from the anime series Now and Then, Here and There
Hellywood towering over the wasteland from Now and Then, Here and There

Now and Then, Here and There is a great example of cultural world building. The world in that series is a post-apocalyptic wasteland in which water is the most valuable resource. People live in scattered communities around a giant desert and fight for what little water they can find.

However, it’s not like everyone in this world lives the same. There are the small villages barely hanging onto life, and there’s the giant, mobile fortress nation which oppresses them. Both are products of the world in which they exist, and yet they’re extremely distinct because they represent different aspects of the world.

Cultural world building can even work on small scales, like how people behave based on where their seat is in a classroom.

Large & Small Scale Worlds

What I find most interesting about building both large & small scale world building is that it’s basically the same. Aside from the scale, the only real difference is what part of the world they prioritize.

Large worlds are large. That may seem obvious, but what I mean is that they often create a sense of scale much larger than what we ever actually see in the series. This is accomplished through maps, which show us distant places our characters will never actually travel to, and simple mentions of faraway places, like other countries.

There are anime which I would say take place in small scale worlds, but from which we actually see just as much of the world as some large scale world series. The difference is that these small scale worlds are essentially self-contained. They don’t frequently mention the world outside of what we immediately see.

Namishiro Park from the Monogatari Series anime
Namishiro Park from the Monogatari Series

The Monogatari Series is a pretty good example of this. We know there’s a world outside of what we see, but it’s hardly ever mentioned. Instead, we see a bunch of self-contained areas within a single city with no idea how exactly they’re connected. The greater world isn’t what matters in that series, the specific locations are what matter.

And for anyone who would argue that the Monogatari Series locations are too abstract to be meaningful, I counter that by saying they’re all distinct and give off different feelings. Even the various rooms in the Araragi household are extremely unique and can tell us about those who inhabit them.

In a large scale series we might have cultural world building between nations. In a small scale series we might have cultural world building between different after school clubs. It’s all the same at the end of the day — the focus is just different.


Hopefully this has given you a greater appreciation for world building in anime. It might not be as flashy as shounen battle series character abilities, but there’s arguably just as much, if not more, to discuss about world building.

What’s your favorite anime world? Let me know in the comments. I know I didn’t mention it at all throughout this discussion, but the world of Naruto is definitely up there for me. There’s just so much content within that world that the world itself has been fleshed out by proxy.

If you enjoyed this discussion of world building, remember to click the like button ❤ down below. Also follow me over on Twitter @DoubleSama so you don’t miss out on any future content. And come join our Discord server if you’re interested in discussing anime with other members of the community.

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