America’s fascination with all things Japanese long predates Keanu Reeves’s backflips or the recent adaptations of Ringu. The popularity of Japanese pop culture is a huge subject and even tackling Japanese manga and anime is daunting. Experts in the fields of manga and anime will have to excuse the necessary compression needed to introduce some of the history of these – by now – inescapable art forms.
To begin, manga are comics and anime stands for animated film in Japan. Due to its popularity, Disney animation left a big mark on anime on pre-war Japan that anime and manga absorbed. Those incredibly big eyes that Japanese cartoons sport are simply Bambie’s grandchildren in disguise. But there the parallels soon end. Whereas American animators seem to be positively ashamed of the two-dimensional space they are confined to and have been searching ever more novel ways of using 3D, Japanese manga and anime are at home in 2D and try to pack as much as possible into every frame or panel as is conceivable. A manga comic book will utilize panel space in a manner American comic books often frown upon. As mass-produced art, anime has a stature and recognition even American animated films, long accepted as a respectable style of filmmaking, have yet to achieve.
This isn’t to exaggerate how matters stand American comic strips are able to gain a large audience beyond committed comic strip fans. But manga and anime are able to call upon a much wider set of readers from all age groups than animation usually is able to elicit. Mamoru Oshii’s The Ghost in the Shell, for instance, is clearly targeted for adults. Even the original Godzilla or Gojira contains a notable sophistication even good animation like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Donald Duck lack.
The level of narrative depth of Osamu Tezuka’s Atom Boy (more commonly known as Astro Boy) is hard to match. Why, then, is anime still despite being everywhere not more well known? For starters, the Japanese anime that many people are familiar with (Speed Racer, Transformers, etc.) is often consciously drawn and created differently than the original versions to make it more appealing to a younger audience. To be sure, this is done in Japanese video games as well. But the latter often retains the epic-length and mentality anime has. What one is struck by is that anime conventions treat their favorite animated films and comics as worthy of comparison to Shakespeare and costumes are often hand made with detailed care.
This isn’t to make manga seem more scholarly or even foreign than it is. The male-driven audiences that, initially, composed most of the fandom clearly liked Japanese Pop more for its leggy, slender girls packing guns – a familiar image – than the complexity of story-telling. Nor is this to begrudge Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Alien, and The Terminator and similar efforts their place in the sun. But Hayao Miyazaki’s female-oriented tales like Princess Mononoke or the classic Akira have very few parallels to the West.
The sad fact is publishing books much less creating movies cost money. Though one can see the commercial appeal of Dragon Ball, Patlabor, and Doraemon with their action-filled stories featuring witches, Nazis, ninjas, cyborgs, and plenty of blood and guts, manga and anime also feature more subtle and lengthy adaptations of Frankenstein and Dracula. Even Cowboy Bebop, which contains massive amounts of violence nods to the western genre (paying pretty clear homage to Pulp Fiction) tries to reach out for often very grand and transcendental themes. The title Cowboy Bebop the Movie: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (whose title was inexplicably altered in translation) obviously is something of a give away in terms of spiritualism and irreverence (clearly referencing the rock group Guns n Roses).
Critics, of course, see this as just a cheap form of Buddhism and Shintoism served up to please a decadent Western audience, etc., etc. that underestimates the diversity of J-Pop. To take only one example, girl fans usually shunned or unwelcome in comic books are often embraced as both subjects of stories and creators of them. For instance, Tokyo Babylon and X were both created by the four-women team, CLAMP. Similarly, a huge genre in the so-called shōjo manga or girl’s manga is the yaoi genre featuring female fantasies of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame (among many other pairings) in romantic stories. Obviously, lesbian fantasies have made onto the cinema but the length and scope of manga and anime in exploring these themes remains unchallenged.
Another problem with dismissing manga and anime is the ever-growing books showing just how radically the Japanese have beyond the formulaic plots about apocalyptic danger American cinema is still tied to. One of the reasons that may account for the popularity of manga and anime is, paradoxically, that it is often not specifically Japanese. Though the atomic bomb and the McCarthy witchhunts are a permanent subtext of much manga and anime, the political and religious themes are rarely done in a manner that might easily offend or even confirm what an audience expects. Osamu Tezuka’s controversial Buddha series, for instance, contains some radical revisions as well as continuities with the historic Buddha.
This might not seem worth stressing given that Japanese filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa have achieved legendary status among American film fans. But oftentimes audiences seem little aware of how strongly and badly animated films and comic books are stuck in the physical comedy genre (for all its greatness) disallowing the medium to go beyond a very confined area of concerns. Even fans of anime and manga seem to think the point is just to draw and animate big eyes and even bigger guns. However, as Art Spiegelman’s Maus shows even an incredible topic like the Holocaust can be encompassed in a seemingly “juvenile” form.
Whereas American films are increasingly under pressure to tell a story under two hours, Japanese role-playing games (RPG) that feature anime-like characters can stretch on for entire days’ time. Final Fantasy VII or FFVII, one of the biggest selling games as well as most influential ones, of all time has spawned not just animated films like Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children but among fans and professionals derivative works have been made of incredibly high value. Though many efforts are made to make fans feel a part of the aesthetic experience of a film or even television series, fans of Japanese manga are, literal, participators in the creation of anime and manga themselves. American film fans are often derided for producing films featuring poor lighting, bad acting, and lazy camerawork. Both US and Japanese fans produce anime and manga that could easily be mistaken for fully professional works.
What does all this mean for American film? Perhaps the most important lesson is that the juvenile angle often taken in both translating and expanding on Japanese precedents need not be the only game in town. Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla failed most particularly seems in thinking since the original Godzilla was an exercise in camp that an updated versions should also be campy in style. But the original wasn’t camp but only considered as such because of audience reception that took it as such.
The original Godzilla is a great film not simply due to being a monster movie but because much more was occurring in the human characters (completely re-edited and cut in the American release) who acted out a potent allegory about political morality and artistic responsibility. The fact that Godzilla’s gender is left open and variable is only one of the ways even well-known Japanese fictional icons differ greatly from their Western counterparts; motherhood is often treated ambivalently in much anime and manga as The Ghost in the Shell demonstrates. Its hard to imagine Superman or the Hulk going through similar gender-bending stories that The Ghost in the Shell takes for granted with its sexually vibrant but gender-shifting cyborgs.
Western science fiction films, in contrast, often are forced to choose between making a good or a thoughtful film. Granted, not everyone is into or needs to be into Sailor Moon’s schoolgirl hero, Usagi Tsukino or the extreme heterosexual voyeurism that Legend of the Overfiend with its extensive action occurring in women’s locker rooms seems obsessed by. But even here at their seemingly exaggerated worst, manga and anime may be saying more than is apparent. Some have conjectured that the (clearly) comical and ridiculous sexual orgies in Legend of the Overfiend maybe (an admittedly problematic) satire on the financial orgies then prevailing in Japan. But focusing on the pornographic elements of the work (as clearly present as they are) misses the sheer ambition of the piece that references the famous 1923 Kanto Earthquake in Japan and Hiroshima.
Critics have obviously been more comfortable applauding My Neighbor Totaro for its conformity to more generic expectations of fantasy. This has been a mixed blessing. Japanese and American businessmen were no doubt highly disappointed that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), one of the biggest anime films yet made, was a commercial failure. Many reasons can be adduced and can’t be covered here but needless to say the film was radically different from the Final Fantasy series. None of the major icons that the series is known for (Cloud, Zack, Tifa) appeared and, in tone, the film seemed to try to be too much like an American action film. And this is sadly where things stand.
What has made much of Japanese anime and manga able to achieve the holy grail of commercial and critical success has been the just-right mixture of exoticness and familiarity. A great film like Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (Spirited Away) stands on its on feet as an enjoyable but also deep experience is that it is a storyteller telling a great story that undoubtedly nods to Western influences but is not completely defined by them. Given the new generation of fans, a genuine hybrid set of creations may be even now formulated than manages to combine what Japanese has to offer in creating richer and fuller films that have heretofore been made. That, at least, is one hopeful assessment of this rare but fruitful instance of East meeting West.