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Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle
Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation
By Susan J. Napier
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2005 Susan J. Napier
All rights reserved.
There are many answers to the question that titles this chapter, as the rest of this introduction will demonstrate, but for now it is worth exploring the question itself. Japanese animation, or "anime," as it is now usually referred to in both Japan and the West, is a phenomenon of popular culture. This means that much (some would argue most) of its products are short-lived, rising and falling due to popular taste and the demands of the hungry market place. Can or even should anime be taken as seriously as the extraordinary range of high cultural artifacts, from woodblock prints to haiku, that Japanese culture is famous for? Can or should anime be seen as an "art," or should it only be analyzed as a sociological phenomenon, a key to understanding some of the current concerns abounding in present-day Japanese society?
These are legitimate questions. As John Treat, one of the major scholars in this area, notes in his ground-breaking introduction to Contemporary Japan and Popular Culture:
To worry about the relation of the popular to high or official culture is to think about the perennial problem of value: perennial first because value is so exasperatingly mercurial ... and second because its determination only deflects us from understanding how cultures high, low and in-between exist in discursive and material relations of exchange, negotiation and conflict with each other."
The "culture" to which anime belongs is at present a "popular" or "mass" culture in Japan, and in America it exists as a "sub" culture. However, as Treat's point about the mercuriality of value suggests, this situation may well change. Indeed, in Japan over the last decade, anime has been increasingly seen as an intellectually challenging art form, as the number of scholarly writings on the subject attest.
Furthermore, anime is a popular cultural form that clearly builds on previous high cultural traditions. Not only does the medium show influences from such Japanese traditional arts as Kabuki and the woodblock print (originally popular culture phenomena themselves), but it also makes use of worldwide artistic traditions of twentieth-century cinema and photography. Finally, the issues it explores, often in surprisingly complex ways, are ones familiar to readers of contemporary "high culture" literature (both inside and outside Japan) and viewers of contemporary art cinema. Anime texts entertain audiences around the world on the most basic level, but, equally importantly, they also move and provoke viewers on other levels as well, stimulating audiences to work through certain contemporary issues in ways that older art forms cannot. Moreover, precisely because of their popular reach they affect a wider variety of audiences in more ways than some less accessible types of high cultural exchange have been able to do. In other words, anime clearly appears to be a cultural phenomenon worthy of being taken seriously, both sociologically and aesthetically.
The following anecdote illustrates the often surprising ways anime affects its audience. In 1993 the Japanese critic Ueno Toshiya made a visit to the city of Sarajevo in war-torn Serbia. Wandering through the bombed-out city, he encountered an unexpected sight. In the middle of the old city was a crumbling wall with three panels. On the first was drawn a picture of Mao Zedong with Mickey Mouse ears; the second had a slogan for the Chiappas liberation group, the Zapatistas, emblazoned on it. But when he came to the third he was "at a loss for words. Incredibly, it was a large panel of a scene from Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira. Against the crumbling walls of the collapsing group of buildings, that 'mighty juvenile delinquent' Kaneda was saying 'So it's begun!'"
Ueno's story is a thought-provoking one. Unquestionably a masterpiece of technical animation, Akira is also a complex and challenging work of art that provoked, bewildered, and occasionally inspired Western audiences when it first appeared outside Japan in 1990. However, it is not a work whose image might have been expected to appear on a wall in Sarajevo three years later as an icon of political resistance. At the time of Akira's first appearance in the West, animation was generally regarded as a minor art, something for children, or, perhaps, the occasional abstract, art-house film. Animation from Japan was marginalized even further. If audiences took note of it at all, it was to fondly remember watching Speed Racer after school on television, often without realizing its Japanese origin. The notion that a sophisticated Japanese animated film could cross international borders to become a political statement in a war-wracked European country would have been deemed bizarre at best and most likely absurd.
Things have changed. Whereas Japan has been known for such "high cultural" products as haiku, Zen, and the martial arts, the Japan of the 1990s began to develop a new export, animated films and videos — anime, a Japanese abbreviation of the English word "animation." Anime has now entered the American vocabulary as well, to the extent that it has appeared in recent years in a New York Times crossword puzzle.
Through anime Japan has become an increasingly significant player in the global cultural economy. Indeed, one scholar has gone so far as to label anime Japan's "chief cultural export." As a 1997 cover story in the Japanese version of Newsweek makes clear, anime's reach extends around the world. Its products are popular in countries such as Korea and Taiwan, and also in Southeast Asia, where the children's animated series Doraemon became a big hit in Thailand in the early 1990s. Anime has also penetrated Europe, from the United Kingdom, where Akira was a top-selling video in the year after its release, to France, a country not known for its generosity to non-native cultural products, which in the mid 1990s carried over 30 hours a week of Japanese cartoons. In America as well, anime's popularity has grown enormously in the last decade. While even a few years ago it was known only to small subgroups among science fiction fans, anime is increasingly moving to at least a marginal niche in the mainstream. Whether it will ever be totally integrated into Western pop culture is still debatable. Indeed, a strong part of its appeal, as will be seen, is its difference from the Western mainstream.
Despite (or thanks to) this difference, anime clubs continue to attract growing numbers of members. Anime is shown on the Sci-Fi Channel, is available at such mainstream video venues as Blockbuster Video, and has a whole section devoted to it at Virgin Megastore in London. Anime's influence also extends beyond Japanese exports of actual tapes and videodiscs to include everything from the Pokemon toy give-away in 1999 at Kentucky Fried Chicken (a product tie-in with the extremely popular children's animated television show) to American museums where anime-inspired artists such as Yanobe Kenji have received favorable critical comment. Perhaps anime's "greatest" moment of transcultural recognition so far was a cover story about Pokemon in Time (November 22, 1999) that included a special section on anime in general.
What exactly is anime? To define anime simply as "Japanese cartoons" gives no sense of the depth and variety that make up the medium. Many definitions in the West attempt to explain anime by comparison to American animation, specifically Disney. Thus, the Time article attempts to answer the question by suggesting that in comparison to Disney "anime is all kinds of differents ... Anime is kids' cartoons: Pokemon yes, and Sailor Moon ... But it's also post-doomsday fantasies (Akira), schizo-psycho thrill machines (Perfect Blue), sex and samurai sagas — the works." If anything, Time's focus on the more extreme visions of anime actually minimizes the variety of the form, since anime also includes everything from animations of children's classics such as Heidi to romantic comedies such as No Need for Tenchi. Nor do the insistent comparisons with Disney permit the appreciation of the fact that anime does not deal only with what American viewers would regard as cartoon situations. Essentially, anime works include everything that Western audiences are accustomed to seeing in live-action films — romance, comedy, tragedy, adventure, even psychological probing of a kind seldom attempted in recent mass-culture Western film or television.
It is not surprising, therefore, that animated works are a major part of the output of Japanese studios. Japanese television studios produce around 50 animated series a year and a comparable number of OVAs (Original Video Animation). Animated films are also far more important in Japan than in the West, amounting to "about half the tickets sold for movies." In fact, in 1997 Princess Mononoke broke all box office records to become, briefly, the highest-grossing film of all time in Japan, and it remains to this day the highest-grossing Japanese film ever.
Unlike cartoons in the West, anime in Japan is truly a mainstream pop cultural phenomenon. While rabidly fanatical fans of anime are called by the pejorative term otaku and looked down upon by conservative Japanese society, anime is simply accepted by virtually all the younger generation of Japanese as a cultural staple. Viewers range from little children watching Pokemon and other child-oriented fantasies, to college students or young adults enjoying the harder-edged science fiction of films like Akira and its many descendants, such as the bleak Evangelion series. Sometimes, as was the case with Princess Mononoke and other films by its director, Miyazaki Hayao, anime cuts across generational lines to be embraced by everyone from children to grandparents.
Images from anime and its related medium of manga (graphic novels) are omnipresent throughout Japan. Japan is a country that is traditionally more pictocentric than the cultures of the West, as is exemplified in its use of characters or ideograms, and anime and manga fit easily into a contemporary culture of the visual. They are used for education (one manga explains the Japanese economy), adornment (numerous shirts are emblazoned with popular manga and anime personages), and, of course, commercial enterprise. When the hit television and manga seriesSailor Moon was at its most popular in the mid 1990s, pictures of its heroine Serena (Usagi in the Japanese version) peered down ubiquitously from billboards, while Sailor Moon–related paraphernalia — everything from "moon prism power wands" to bath towels — were snapped up by devoted fans of the series, largely young girls who were attracted by the characters' unique combination of cuteness and fantastic powers.
On a more ominous note, Japanese society has on occasion convulsed into what the sociologist Sharon Kinsella has described as a "moral panic" regarding the otaku culture, as it determined anime and manga to be socially unhealthy. The first time this occurred was in the 1980s when a young man accused of murdering four little girls was found to be an avid watcher of violent pornographic anime. More recently, the Japanese media, indulging in an orgy of blame-finding for the disastrous sarin gas subway attack in 1995 by the cult group Aum Shinrikyo, claimed that many of Aum's "best and brightest" followers were also avid fans of apocalyptic science fiction anime.
Reasons to study anime within its Japanese context should by now be obvious. For those interested in Japanese culture, it is a richly fascinating contemporary Japanese art form with a distinctive narrative and visual aesthetic that both harks back to traditional Japanese culture and moves forward to the cutting edge of art and media. Furthermore, anime, with its enormous breadth of subject material, is also a useful mirror on contemporary Japanese society, offering an array of insights into the significant issues, dreams, and nightmares of the day.
But anime is worth investigating for other reasons as well, perhaps the most important being the fact that it is also a genuinely global phenomenon, both as a commercial and a cultural force. Commercially, it is beginning to play a significant role in the transnational entertainment economy, not only as an important part of the Japanese export market, but also as a small but growing part of the non-Japanese commercial world, in terms of the increasing number of non-Japanese enterprises that deal with anime. These range from small video rental operations in big cities throughout the world to mail order houses up to and including such behemoths as Amazon.com (which has a special anime section) and most famously the mammoth Walt Disney Enterprises, which, in 1996, made a deal with Studio Ghibli, Japan's most well-known animation studio, to distribute its products in America and Canada. To be sure, its international commercial impact is still small compared to the global returns on a successful Hollywood blockbuster, but anime and its related products are increasingly drawing attention from marketers around the world.
Investigating anime as a cultural force is even more fascinating than inquiring into its commercial aspects, as it brings insight into the wider issue of the relationship between global and local cultures at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In a world where American domination of mass culture is often taken for granted and local culture is frequently seen as either at odds with or about to be subsumed into hegemonic globalism, anime stands out as a site of implicit cultural resistance. It is a unique artistic product, a local form of popular culture that shows clear indications of its Japanese roots but at the same time exerts an increasingly wide influence beyond its native shores.
Westerners raised on a culture of children's cartoons may find anime's global popularity surprising. Noted scholar Arjun Appadurai has suggested that "the most valuable feature of the concept of culture is the concept of difference," and certainly one salient aspect of anime, as Time's disquisition makes clear, is its insistent difference from dominant American popular culture. As Susan Pointon astutely comments, "[W]hat is perhaps most striking about anime, compared to other imported media that have been modified for the American market, is the lack of compromise in making these narratives palatable." This is not only true in regards to the many specifically Japanese references within the narratives, but also in regards to narrative style, pacing, imagery, and humor, not to mention emotions and psychology, which usually run a far wider gamut and often show greater depth than do American animated texts.
Anime is uncompromising in other ways as well. Its complex story lines challenge the viewer used to the predictability of Disney (or of much of Hollywood fare overall, for that matter) while its often dark tone and content may surprise audiences who like to think of "cartoons" as "childish" or "innocent." Indeed, what appears to be the single most-asked question about anime in America, "why is anime so full of sex and violence?," is an inquiry that, while betraying an ignorance of the complexity and variety of the art form, is still significant in that it reveals the bewilderment of Western audiences in confronting so-called adult themes within the animated medium.
Given its apparently uncompromising "otherness," why has anime succeeded so remarkably as a cross-cultural export? The short answer to this, culled from many interviews with anime fans in America, Europe, and Canada, would have to do with the fact that the medium is both different in a way that is appealing to a Western audience satiated on the predictabilities of American popular culture and also remarkably approachable in its universal themes and images. The distinctive aspects of anime — ranging from narrative and characterization to genre and visual styles — are the elements that initially capture Western viewers' attention (and for some viewers these may be the main keys of attraction), but for others it is the engrossing stories that keep them coming back for more.
Up to this point, much of the academic discourse about anime has centered on its visual properties; understandably so, given that this is what most obviously differentiates animation from live-action cinema. It is also important to emphasize how the visual style of anime is significantly different from mass-audience American cartoons. As anime critics Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney point out, even early 1970s Japanese animated television series "absolutely overflow with tracking shots, long-view establishing shots, fancy pans, unusual point-of-view 'camera angles' and extreme close-ups ... [i]n contrast [to] most American-produced TV animation [which] tends to thrive in an action-obsessed middle-distance."
However, Japanese animation merits serious consideration as a narrative art form, and not simply for its arresting visual style. Anime is a medium in which distinctive visual elements combine with an array of generic, thematic, and philosophical structures to produce a unique aesthetic world. Often this world is more provocative, more tragic, and more highly sexualized (even in lighthearted romantic comedies) and contains far more complicated story lines than would be the case in equivalent American popular cultural offerings.
Excerpted from Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle by Susan J. Napier. Copyright © 2005 Susan J. Napier. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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