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Autumn 2003  -  Japanese Anime Intro  -  Koji Yamamura  -  Tabaimo

Japanese Anime

Anime, the distinctive style of animation born of Japanese genius, is outrageously popular — outrageous in the sense that it has achieved an avid audience light years beyond the usual level of market penetration, and outrageous because it has a potential powerful enough to shake the art world. Increasingly, anime artists are viewing their metier as a calling akin to contemporary art.

The Appeal of Anime

text by Susan J. Napier

Last March, when I visited New York for the annual conference of the Association of Asian Studies, a colleague recommended that I visit the Louis Vuitton store in Soho. "Isn't it a little fancy for professors?" I asked. "I'm not saying that you should buy anything," she said. "I'm just thinking that you should check out the anime installation they have there."

Japanese animation at Louis Vuitton? Intrigued, I hurried to the store. Sure enough, several people stood mesmerized before a large, flat-panel display screen installed on the shop's elegant hardwood floor. I joined them and soon was absorbed in a charming story of a young girl's descent into a brightly colored fantasy world. The animation was created by Takashi Murakami, famous for his "super-flat" images. I had never encountered his animation before, and found fascinating both the quality of the work and its presence in an upscale shopping environment.

Clearly, Japanese animation, or anime, has come a long way.

Less than two decades ago, American anime fans were few and most were self-styled geeks whose first encounter with anime was watching bootleg videotapes late at night at science-fiction conventions. Today, there are still elements of geekiness among the hard-core aficionados; many proudly call themselves otaku, the Japanese term for an obsessive fan. But anime has spread well beyond that narrow base to become a household word around the world.

American children avidly watch Japanese cartoons (or sometimes cartoons inspired by anime), while their older brothers and sisters join anime clubs and attend anime conventions (some drawing more than 10,000 participants), where they watch the latest anime; exchange fan art, fiction, and videos; and dress up as their favorite anime characters.

College students crowd courses on anime and Japanese pop culture, and throng to blockbuster films such as The Matrix, whose creators have openly acknowledged their debt to anime. In a world many criticize as increasingly dominated by American pop culture, anime is a fascinating exception.

What accounts for the enormous popularity of a cultural product so distinctly different from the conventional Hollywood studio fare? Part of the explanation is unquestionably aesthetic. As the Louis Vuitton exhibition demonstrated, anime at its best is a genuine art form with an exceptionally appealing visual style. Animation in general is increasingly accepted as one of the most important art forms of the 21st century, and young people brought up in a world of computers and video games are particularly open to its distinctive aesthetic.

Many scholars trace Japanese animation's roots to some of the great traditions of Japanese art. Many anime are based on manga, the ubiquitous comic magazines read by Japanese of all generations, and manga style clearly incorporates elements of 17th- and 18th-century woodblock prints, as well as even earlier influences. Among them are the medieval e-makimono (picture scroll narratives), which were sometimes satirical, sometimes romantic, but always aesthetically appealing.

In Japanese artistic tradition, the grotesque and the beautiful have long worked together to create memorable art. This is still the case in contemporary anime, where directors such as Hayao Miyazaki, (whose Spirited Away won the 2003 Academy Award for best feature-length animated film), Mamoru Oshii, and Katsuhiro Otomo produce masterworks that can be at once beautiful, terrifying, and moving.

But the appeal of anime is not just visual. The complex and stirring narratives of many animated features are intellectually stimulating as well. Far more wide-ranging than most Western animation, anime includes apocalyptic and dystopian narratives, picaresque historical dramas, and light-hearted comedies. At its best, as exemplified in works such as the popular series Neon Genesis Evangelion and the cult favorite Ghost in the Shell, anime raises challenging existential questions that involve complex spiritual and psychological issues.

Often, these challenging anime are particular favorites of young people in the West, as the works allow them to explore their own developmental crises through a format that is fetchingly entertaining.

In my interviews with anime fans, I have been fascinated to discover how many of them identify with anime characters. Even though they come from half a world away, the complex, dynamic, and sometimes troubled characters of anime seem to speak to Western fans in ways that their own culture does not.

In short, the appeal of anime may simply be the circumstance that, in a world of increasing homogeneity and uniformity, it offers a refreshing and original alternative, a realm of action and beauty that viewers around the world can enter and enjoy.

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