Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Rise of Japanese Anime and Pop Culture

The Japanese have given much to the world, from sushi to origami, but if there’s something that appeals to the young and old alike – it is anime.

Anime or Japanese animation resonates with children, teens and people of all ages. Even those who can’t speak a word of Nihonggo, can’t help but be curious and even enthralled with anime. After all, who can’t help but feel nostalgic watching cartoons?

What is anime?

For the otaku or die hard fans of the genre, anime is not just about cartoons. In the most technical sense, anime is a highly stylized cartoon that is actually geared for a more mature audience. Many shows deal with explicit and mature themes, but are presented in a sometimes comedic and highly exaggerated manner. Anime is for television and movies, as Manga is for comic books.

Cosplay at the Tokyo Temple

In Japan, anime is used to refer to all forms of animation. For the western world, anime is specific to the Japanese style of animation. The body proportions of anime characters are quite unrealistic. The head is significantly larger than the rest of the body. Large eye styles are the norm, even though the Japanese traditionally have small eyes.

A quick look at history

Japanese animation began in 1917. However, it may be surprising to know that other countries influenced the animation techniques of the Japanese. The Japanese decided to play around with the animation techniques of the French, Germans, Russians and Americans. Some of the early pioneers of the genre are Shimokawa Oten, Junichi Kouchi and Seitaro Kitayama.

The style took off and appealed to the Japanese market, so that by the 1930s, animation became a credible format to tell stories. The cartoon style was utilized by the Japanese government to help educate the public about various public campaigns and propaganda. The support of the Japanese government to the growing creative field helped popularize the media. Today, cute anime characters can be seen in various signages around the country to express a message, such as a warning to express danger or a smiling face to welcome someone.

Osamu Tezuka

When Walt Disney released the feature film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Japanese animators became inspired even more with the success of the cartoon movie. The style that we see today became popularized in the 1960s. Being Japanese, efficiency was an underlying theme in the development of the cartoon genre. Osamu Tezuka modified the animation techniques employed by Disney to help cut costs and to expedite the animation process.

Although Tezuka is more popularly associated with Manga, he is credited with developing many of the main elements found in modern day anime. He developed the concept of the Super Robot, or the Mecha, which became popular in the 1980s under the names Gundman, Voltes V, Voltron, Daimos, Gigantor and The Super Dimension Fortress Macross. He is also believed to be the first artist to draw large eyes on the characters, as inspired by the American images of Betty Boop and Mickey Mouse. Tezuka eventually became known as “the god of Manga” and there is a Manga museum dedicated in his honor in Osaka, Japan. He popularized Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion (which became the basis of Disney’s The Lion King) and Black Jack, which remain hugely popular till today.

The term anime became popularized in the 1970s. Some claim that the term is an abbreviation of the way the Japanese pronounce the word “animation” while others believe that it is derived from French words “dessin anime.” By the 1980s and 1990s, anime became more mainstream, as it spread to other parts of the world.

Anime and the western world

Anime found its way to western shores and in many parts of the world. It enjoys tremendous popularity in Asia, Europe and even Latin America. In the United States, anime exports are a $4.5 billion industry. The advent of the Internet is also credited with the spread of Japanese anime.

Anime has been adapted to suit the local culture of the country. For example, violent themes are edited out during the dubbing process to appeal to a younger demographic, such as in the anime series Volton. However, Robotech and Star Blazers are just some of the cartoons that have been accepted by the audience outside of Japan without much tampering of the original format and script.

The universal themes of good fighting evil or being the underdog resonate with audiences. Anime physics, which is largely gravity defying, is at work in Avatar: The Last Airbender. Speed Racer has become a live action movie.

The highly stylized form of animation popularized by the Japanese has influenced the way other people have developed their own animation. For example, the way the Power Puff Girls and Kim Possible are drawn, with big heads and large eyes is a clear influence of Japanese anime. The large eyes enabled artists to express emotions more clearly.

Facial expressions are oftentimes exaggerated, such as bulging veins to express stress, a bloody nose to indicate an attraction towards the opposite sex or a large sweat drop, squiggly lines or a deep blush to express embarrassment or nervousness. The use of x’s over the eyes to show the character as knocked out or ill is also the influence of anime.

The play of angles and camera effects is another influence of anime on western animation. Rather than just providing a single point of view, anime animators give various angles for different scenes. Extreme close-ups, zooming in and panning are just some of the animation techniques popularized by anime that can be seen today.

Anime has become mainstream, being shown on cable channels such as Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, Anime Network, Jetix and Animax. In the United Kingdom, there is AnimeCentral.

Pokemon and Astroboy

Perhaps the two most popular anime characters of all time are Astroboy and Pokemon. In Nagoya, Japan, children from all over the world see all things Pokemon (or pocket monster). Astroboy has become a purveyor of Japanese pop culture. In fact, it is the mascot for Japan’s bid for the 2022 Olympics. Dragon Ball Z and his search for the seven mystical orbs is another worldwide hit. For girls, there’s Sailor Moon and Spirited Away.


Today, there are Anime Expos, Animethons and Otakons held all over the world. There are anime clubs in schools and in online communities. The participants come wearing costumes of their favorite anime characters or Cosplay. This is another spin off influence of anime. Grown men and women, as well as children and teens can be seen walking around Akihabara district in Tokyo in cosplay.

Anime has given the rest of the world a taste of Japanese culture. It is a clear example of the creativity and love of play of the Japanese. The delightful way the characters are drawn, woven in a story with universal themes and presented in a comical, action packed and highly entertaining manner has resonated with the rest of the world. Perhaps it is because it reminds us of our own childhood and taps into our imagination that anime has become so popular. Even though we don’t yet have super robots to fight our battles for us, it allows us to enjoy the possibility of the impossible.


markson said...

These profoundly adapted expressions have earned the consideration of crowd from all parts of the world.

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