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—by Chad Kime

Anime. Manga. Roughly equivalent to Animation and Comics in Japan, these same words carry heavy connotations here in America, where fandom attaches an emotional significance. In general, I am sure that when fans outside of Japan think of Anime and Manga, they basically picture something developed in Japan by Japanese creators for Japanese companies who made the film with the yen they had in their bank accounts. However, times are changing. We are quickly approaching a day when the definition of Anime or Manga becomes a question of serious debate, as a more western (primarily American) influence works its way into the Japanese creative community, and the Japanese, in turn influence the American artists.
  Will this cycle of influence destroy what appeals to us about the Anime and Manga we have come to love? Will American product ever achieve a look and feel that deserves to be called Anime or Manga? The answer to either of these questions will never be resolved to everyone's satisfaction since nearly everyone has different sensitivities to specific aspects. Similar to the subtitled versus dubbed debate, or even the debate over what music really qualifies as Punk Rock, there will always be a hardcore minority of believers with particular perspectives, with the vast, apathetic majority swaying back and forth as the mood strikes them.
  So, if there is no answer, why am I bothering with this column? Simply put, the way in which these questions are addressed is equally as important as the actual answers. If we, as hard core fans, can develop the framework for this debate, and establish criteria for analysis and categorization, we are already halfway to influencing the answers in a direction that will satisfy us. I find the best way to develop systems is to take an answer and pick it apart, examining biases, checking assumptions, and evaluating each criteria until a general basis can be found that will separate personal opinions enough to present a reasonable analysis. In other words, I separate the emotional evaluation from the technical one.

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First, lets take a peek at the cycle of influence. After several decades of separation, the Manga market in Japan and the American comic book markets are beginning to cross pollinate (can anyone out there demonstrate a similar effect in Europe, or elsewhere?). American comic books are being adapted into Manga (SPAWN, X-MEN), and American authors write first-run series for Japan (MORNING and AFTERNOON, magazines published by Kodansha, have regular installments from non-Japanese artist and writers). Meanwhile, Japanese creators also publish comics directly in the USA (such as with Antarctic Press), and there are plenty of examples of translated Manga to choose from. This means more and more artists are drawing influence from various Manga styles, and the result is becoming a regular trend in the American Comic Market. There is even a new imprint, Cliffhanger comics, under the Image Comics publishing group that, especially in Black and White, looks very close to Manga styles - particularly the BATTLECHASERS title.
  With high profile original releases appearing now in the US, and the success of SPAWN Manga and others, we should see another cycle of influence in the professional ranks within the next five years where the Americans are going to be studying the Japanese take on American comics, and the Japanese will be influenced by the American take on Manga. There are two other factors that cannot be ignored: money and talent migration. Today, foreign money from the USA, UK, and other international sources is being used to make Japanese Anime, and gaijins have even begun to invade the Japanese production process (Ganbatte ne, Scott!). Anime and Manga are no longer exclusively Japanese even in Japan, and the success of the international Anime/Manga scene makes the corporations encourage products that are less distinctly cultural to maximize foreign appeal. So far, the influence of this western money has been seen mostly in the types of sequels and projects that have been developed despite poor performance in Japan (ARMITAGE POLYMATRIX, BURN UP W, etc.). While the actual quality of some of these products is debatable, there are enough gems still being created to ensure that the Japanese market is going to continue to be strong and product original exciting projects (EVA anyone?).
  This leads to the other question: will Americans ever develop a quality that will rival the Japanese? I am hardly unbiased when it comes to this question. From my days working on RIAP (Running Ink Animation Productions) projects in the Anime style (or some semblance thereof), we constantly struggled to emulate the Anime masters with really crappy budgets. Since we were actively involved in US productions, the answer to the this question was of great importance to us. Naturally, as Anime fans ourselves, we would like the answer to be a resounding "Yes!" Personally, I believe that attention to detail and a strong sense of artistic, directorial, and animation style can produce a product that retains the essence of Anime, regardless of whether we are looking at a Japanese production with western influence, or an American attempt at Anime.
  This leaves us with the real challenge—creative criteria for evaluation. These criteria should be based upon the basic elements of the project: story, art, direction/layout, and animation (obviously some categories are a moot point when it comes to Manga). While there are certain genres and story trends that seem to be more popular than others (Superheroes in the US, Giant Robots and sports dramas in Japan), there is no real trend, other than cultural that sets apart Manga from Comics (international definition here, not the myopically superhero concentration for the US), or Anime from Animation (potentially if not in practice); most influences are based upon specific films (BUBBLE GUM CRISIS from BLADE RUNNER), or trends based upon specific authors. Hence, it is not only appropriate, but respectful to the artistic contribution of the Japanese to evaluate the categories of Manga and Anime from the perspective of how the art is presented, and the style in which it is drawn and animated.
  This method has some advantages and disadvantages. As an advantage, it allows us to do away with ridiculous classifications such as Korean Anime, or to put an East Coast spin on it, "Korean Japanimation." Sure, the direction, or the story, or the character designs may not have been the best. It may even have been quite bad in some peoples opinions, but that alone should not disqualify a project (like RED HAWK), from being classified as Anime. If that was the case, we have to reclassify other Anime simply because it is poorly done. It is better to simply rate the product on a variety of standpoints.
  Here is where the disadvantages crop up. Suddenly we have a whole slew of potential criteria for evaluation, and no distinct way to separate out the personal opinions. For example, if one can't stand the art style for CRAYON SHIN-CHAN, will that same person claim the Manga is not truly Manga? The first thing to do is separate the Like/Dislike criteria from the evaluation. Obviously that would influence all future decisions.

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Second, when evaluating the art/animation it is important to be able to tell the difference between the application of the style versus the actual quality of execution of the line drawings (or smoothness of animation). In other words, compare apples to apples and oranges to oranges. For example, a comparison of DORAEMON character designs against the detailed designs for RECORD OF LODOSS WAR is completely unfair since each design was developed within a specific frame of reference appropriate for the purposes of the project. However, to compare the level of sophistication for the GEN 13 movie with BATTLE ANGEL ALITA or even GUNSMITH CATS might be more fair since each was an action-oriented project featuring women. If anyone ever decides to watch the GEN 13 movie, I predict they will be underwhelmed with the adaptation of the character designs from the comic, and the flat, uninteresting directorial style.
  Therefore, to develop a fair comparison, similar projects must be compared, and as with all adaptations, the faithfulness to the original product, or improvement on the original should be part of the evaluation. Personally, I am looking forward to the influence that Miyazaki's films will have on the American industry after Disney releases them this year, although after seeing the "adapted" cover designs done by Buena Vista's American designers, I am beginning to be nervous about the quality of the products. Let us hope that the dubs are not so drastically different that my Christmas column will be devoted to "Why Disney's Miyazaki releases should not count as Anime"...
  Does anyone out there have an opinion?

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