Japan has a rich, elegant and subtle culture. It’s famous around the world for its architecture, its warrior code, the tea ceremony and kabuki theater. …. But in modern times, it’s as or more likely to be associated with technology and electronics than its traditional culture, and the new face of Japan, for good or for ill, is its cartoons: anime and manga. They have a somewhat negative reputation, and it’s not entirely undeserved, but they’ve been around for such a long time, and span so many works and genres, that it’s mostly unfair to stigmatize them.
Anime and manga have developed a strong, passionate, and very nerdy fanbase, but they remain obscure and strange to most people. Since this blog is all about examining foreign lands and explaining them to outsiders, I present to you my overview of Japan’s cartoon industry.
Note: This article mostly covers anime because it’s a smaller and less complex subject, but much of what it says can also apply to manga.
Cartoons in Japan actually have very deep roots. Long before modernization, artwork thrived in Japan; some of it, especially drawn on scrolls, told a story that advanced from picture to picture. By the early 1900s, this evolved into both comic strips (manga in Japanese) and animation (called “anime” for short in Japan).
The very first anime, from 1907. The characters say “moving pictures.”
Comics and animation developed more or less parallel to their counterparts overseas, but at first Japan lagged noticeably behind, as it was a much poorer country than its competitors in the West. It produced its own cartoon movies during World War II, but they were in black-and-white, lacked coherent stories, and had more stilted and cheap animation than anything Disney came up with. Japan failed to produce any internationally successful characters; imports like Mickey Mouse and Popeye were more popular, despite government discouragement. Comics fared a little better, since they were easier to make, but were still creaky and basic.
Japanese cartoons improved dramatically after the war, partly due to a more liberal creative atmosphere after the fanatical military dictatorship was disbanded. The single most important figure here — and in basically all of anime and manga history — is Osamu Tezuka. Tezuka was a medical student who grew up idolizing Disney cartoons (especially Bambi) and added cartooning to his career. His comics were much livelier, more dynamic, and more interesting than any of the competition. He opened up new genres that wowed audiences used to cheesy gag-filled stories: action-adventure, science-fiction, fantasy, and historical drama. Tezuka is especially amazing because he created Japan’s first iconic, marketable characters (Astro Boy, a flying robot hero boy; Kimba the White Lion, a young King of the Jungle with the difficult task of bringing predators and prey together; Black Jack, an incredibly skilled surgeon) as well as crafting intricate, philosophical dramas with well-written characters and a cinematic sense of style. And he drew over 700 volumes of comics in his lifetime. And he created Japan’s modern animation industry along with its modern comics too, with animated adaptations of his most popular works. It’s hard to pick which aspect of Tezuka is most amazing.
Following Tezuka’s lead (as well as some improved cartoon movies in the 1950s, like Legend of the White Serpent), manga and anime finally took off in the ’60s and ’70s. Cute cartoon characters like Anpanman and Doraemon captivated little kids. Other creators made bigger, more exciting robots than Tezuka’s Astro Boy, until they were skyscraper-sized and battling giant monsters while being piloted by teenagers. The energy and dynamism that exemplified that heady era was channeled into sports sagas about aspiring athletes that trained every day in brutal conditions to hone their craft to its utmost potential. Unusually for its time, the manga industry discovered the power of female consumers, and produced stories of romance, growing up, and the social anxieties of puberty for girl readers. Space sagas like Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock presented an image of masculinity and bravery that appealed to a Japan that had lost a big war but was determined not to lose its vim and vigor.
This is today a bygone era with a very narrow fanbase, and it’s easy to see why. The animation was usually still pretty bad (especially in the ’60s); anime studios cut corners wherever they could, resulting in limited animation and lots of recycled footage. The art was basic and less differentiated from Western cartoons than it is today. Storylines could be glacially slow and relied on melodrama. But they made Japan a cultural force to be reckoned with, as many of the less culturally specific anime were exported to West Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
This fun video shows the exuberance (and emerging nerdiness) of anime in the early ’80s. Don’t worry too much about what it all means, though.
Despite some porno and a few edgy movies like Belladonna of Sadness, most anime was still more or less kids’ fare, though. This changed in the ’80s, when movies like Akira came out. Disturbing, energetic, lavishly drawn and animated, and with a futuristic, cynical edge, it spoke to a foreign audience that had long lazily assumed that animation was for kids. Anime started getting edgier, more violent, and more sexually explicit. It also started working with more sophisticated plots and themes and getting more stylized. Although it was much more niche back then, an open-minded, international fanbase began to take notice of a country that was going in interesting directions with its cartoons — and all without losing sense of the fun that most people associate with cartoons.
In the ’90s, anime finally went mainstream (at least to an extent). Sailor Moon combined the tropes of girls’ romances with those of transforming action hero stories, striking gold worldwide. Dragon Ball gradually spread overseas, enchanting boys with its muscular, super-powered fight scenes, science-fiction trappings, and goofy, unique sense of humor. Most importantly, the end of the decade saw Pokemon, an international monolith that combined a wildly popular video game series with trading cards and an anime. For a few years around the turn of the millennium, I remember Pokemon being more popular among kids than anything else — surely this must count as one of Japan’s greatest triumphs.
While anime hasn’t ever quite reattained the peak in popularity that Pokemon reached, it’s still very popular worldwide, bolstered by a newfound interest in manga, which was seldom exported last millennium. The formula of long-running TV shows with an action theme and plucky, likeable heroes continues, winning audiences for shows like One Piece and Naruto. The more popular shows with mass appeal get picked up for TV. But the vast majority of anime is now a niche pursuit, watched (legally or otherwise) online or through DVDs sold online. Much of it requires a knowledge of Japanese culture and some sort of familiarity with anime style to really appreciate. Most of it is also made mostly for Japanese audiences, which means there are references that will go over foreigners’ heads (especially kids’ heads).
Although there is plenty of anime for younger kids and some for adults, anime mostly aims for teenagers now. This means lots of teenage protagonists (even when this would be really implausible), lots of settings in junior high and high school, and a preoccupation with romance and interactions with the opposite sex. It has also led to the development of a big nerd fanbase. Anime fans, called otaku (“house,” because that’s where they spend all their time), have a reputation, especially in Japan, for being very hardcore in their hobby. They buy figurines and wall scrolls of their favorite characters, listen to anime soundtracks, draw fanfiction expanding on their favorite stories, and dress up (“cosplay”) as anime characters. This has led to a closet industry of anime-related merchandise; while mostly underground, it is visible in Japan in the Toukyou district of Akihabara (pictured above) and the Oosaka district of Den-Den Town, both of which used to be electronics-oriented. Voice actors have cult followings. Comiket, a twice-a-year gathering of fan artists, attracts around half a million visitors.
As a result of pandering to teenage tastes and cultivating such a nerdy fanbase, anime has taken on a rather sleazy edge. Ever since the ’60s, porno, or at least sexually explicit anime, has been part of the medium. This is still underground (or rather, behind the curtains) in Japan, but a lot of anime runs on “fanservice,” which are elements included just to titillate fans. Girls wear short skirts; the “camera” lingers on long legs and boobs; guys keep walking in on girls when they just happen to be naked; stories find more and more excuses for girls to get naked. In recent years, there’s been a trend towards eliminating male characters completely, since the target audience doesn’t care about them. Since the sketchy days of the ’70s, anime art has evolved toward subtly sexualizing characters; it now strikes a sweet spot, where characters look just realistic enough to be sexy but just cartoony enough to be relatable. Some of that anime merchandise, like body-length pillows of cute, half-undressed girls, encourages otaku to get turned on by anime girls.
This would be why anime now has a bad reputation, and it’s hard to deny that it doesn’t get a little creepy sometimes. Arguably the worst part is that Japan’s obsession with cuteness leads the ideal to tread a narrow line between cute and sexy; a lot of anime fans topple over that line and start fetishizing little girls. (Even back in the ’70s, A LOT of those family-friendly shows focused on little girls, and the UN has frequently criticized Japan for having too much child porn.) But it would be wrong and a jump to conclusions to assume that anime fans are necessarily creeps and perverts. A lot of anime is straightforward and even family-friendly by some Western standards; the fanservice is mostly there to nudge and wink the more horny fans (who also spend the most money on the industry). Sexually explicit scenes are also pretty rare in anime; anime and manga set in high school tend to be pretty chaste and rely more on hints and sexual tension than on outright hanky-panky. Finally, it’s worth pointing out that anime has plenty of female fans, and there’s almost as much fanservice to appease them as there is to appease men.
It’s also important to remember that anime spans a dizzying array of genres. Action and romance remain prevalent, but anime now dabbles in mystery, horror, political drama, wacky comedy, satire, workplace stories, lazy slice-of-life tales, cute girls just doing cute things, and weird combinations of some of the above. In general there’s a preference for “speculative fiction” that involves the supernatural and magical powers, partly because the target audience likes that and partly because animation lends itself to that, but these days anime can pretty much be about anything — even fighting bad guys with nose hair or a bibliophile reincarnated as a dog kept by a sadistic, scissors-wielding writer. And that’s not even counting manga, a much richer, more prolific field with subjects ranging from mahjong to office ladies drinking beer together.
Anime and manga are easily most popular in their homeland, but they have also achieved popularity across East Asia, especially in South Korea and Taiwan (which has a small version of Akihabara in its capital city). Elsewhere, they are still mostly cult phenomena, popular mainly among comic book nerds and kids (or those who haven’t completely grown up). Some anime from the ’60s to the ’80s are more popular in Latin America, Europe and/or West Asia than Japan. North America is probably the non-Asian market of most interest to the anime industry; its conventions attract thousands of fans and are the closest things otaku there have to Akihabara (a place where they can mingle with like-minded fans and buy anime-related merchandise).
One exception to the underground popularity of anime (besides the big kids’ shows mentioned earlier) is Studio Ghibli. Often described as Japan’s answer to Disney, this is the studio that puts the most effort and care into its craft, producing movies usually considered “magical” and “enchanting.” With a simple but appealing art style that’s remained mostly the same since the ’80s, a love of the fantastic, mostly wholesome stories, superb animation and a feminist, environmentalist and pacifist tilt, it’s gradually gained the appreciation of snootier cinephiles around the world. Like Disney, it mostly aims at kids, but its stories contain enough depth and sincerity to win over lots of adults too. Unfortunately, it’s been heavily dependent on 2 artists, Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, both of whom have retired. Its future is now uncertain.
Anime can be sleazy and creepy. Sometimes it’s stupid and blatantly commercialized. After over 50 years, it recycles a lot of its most successful stories and tropes. Of course, its famous art style gets it a lot of hatred. But love it or hate it, anime and manga have become two of Japan’s most recognizable symbols and part of the national identity. Even if most Japanese don’t watch anime, they’ll still remember favorite characters or shows from their childhood, and cartoon characters are ubiquitous in the country. If nothing else, it gives the country a cute and/or cool image that does a lot to compensate for its sometimes harsh and soulless reputation.
If you’re interested in learning more about anime and manga, check out the website I work for, Anime News Network. If you’d like to sample a few classics and don’t know where to start, here are my tips.