October 2003

The Wonderful World of Anime


Susan J. Napier comments on the American experience of contemporary Japanese animation.

  Susan J. Napier turned her critical eye from Mishima Yukio and Kenzaburo Oe to the likes of Otomo Katsuhiro and Miyazaki Hayao for her latest book, "Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke," published by Palgrave Macmillan.  

ONE of the first movies I ever saw was Walt Disney's Fantasia. I loved it and went on to see many more animated films while I was a child but, like most Americans, turned increasingly towards live action movies as I grew older. Then something strange happened: While living in London in 1990 I saw the British premier of Otomo Katsuhiro's animated film Akira. I was stunned by its sophisticated visuals, complex story line and dark emotional tone. Ultimately, I became engrossed in anime and went on to write a book about it.

It turned out that I was not the only non-Japanese to be impressed by this new cultural import from Japan. In the years since Akira's first showing, more and more people around the world have become fascinated by Japanese animation. On a recent trip to France I walked into a small bookstore in Burgundy to find no less than six (yes, six!) magazines devoted to anime and its related medium manga (comic books). In March I attended a conference on anime hosted by the Agency of Cultural Affairs (Bunkacho) in Tokyo for representatives of ASEAN countries and was amazed to hear how many artists in places such as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore have been inspired by anime. Perhaps even more exciting, in April of 2003 the Japanese animated film Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi) directed by Miyazaki Hayao won the Oscar for best animated film, beating out four American entries including two from Disney.

What are the reasons behind the enormous popularity of anime around the world? Part of the answer undoubtedly lies with globalization and its related elements such as the growth of worldwide markets and information technology. Where, forty years ago, American children might have been able to watch a very few Japanese animated series such as Tezuka Osamu's popular Astro Boy, (Tetsuwan Atomu), years after they premiered in Japan, now fans can access the immense range of Japanese animation almost instantly through the magic of DVDs and computers. Furthermore, globalization and the rise of the electronic entertainment industries have created an ever-increasing demand for new cultural products to fill the electronic space around us.

But such an answer only raises a more fundamental question: why anime? Unlike Hollywood, which over the last decade or more has consistently employed a strategy of "dumbing down" and homogenizing its products to make them more generic and more accessible to a global audience, Japanese animation remains uncompromisingly Japanese in its values, aesthetics, humor and story lines. And this may be precisely the reason for its appeal. In a world where popular culture seems increasingly heading toward cookie cutter uniformity, Japanese animation stands out because of its uniqueness, a challenging and exciting alternative to American mass culture.

At least this seems to be the feeling of most anime fans. In researching my book on anime I have interviewed hundreds of American fans in an attempt to discover anime's attraction for them. Although the responses vary widely, the most common thread is undoubtedly anime's "difference" from mainstream popular culture. Not only is anime "different," for many of my interviewees it is superior. Fans speak glowingly of anime's beautiful artwork, haunting musical themes, and fascinating and varied story lines. Since animated features, by some estimates, account for around 50% of Japanese television and film output, the fans have an enormous range of anime to choose from. Anime includes brooding apocalyptic visions, lighthearted romantic comedies, elegiac historical dramas, and elaborate science fiction and fantasy worlds.

Indeed many fans enthusiastically enter what might be called the "world" of anime itself, a world, which includes computer chat rooms, fan art and fan videos and, most importantly, the many anime "cons" or conventions, which are becoming an increasingly important part of the American anime landscape. At the "cons," thousands of anime devotees get to mingle with their fellow fans, meet famous anime voice stars from Japan, sell and purchase anime memorabilia, see new and classic anime, and, perhaps most enjoyably, engage in cosu pure ("costume play") in which participants wander the corridors dressed as their favorite anime characters, or else take part in cosu pure skits on stage to appreciative audiences. To many fans, the anime world operates as a surrogate family, or even a surrogate lifestyle.

In fact, many anime fans have told me that they strongly identify with anime characters. For most older Americans, accustomed to thinking of cartoons as childish things to be left behind as one enters adulthood, such a willingness to mentally engage with obviously unreal characters may seem surprising. But for young people all over the world, raised in an age of computer graphics and virtual reality, the world of anime may seem just as real and perhaps more welcoming than the uniformity and sterility of modern life.

Susan J. Napier is a professor of Japanese literature and culture at the University of Texas at Austin.

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