What is Anime? Simply put, it is Japanese animation which is highly stylized and often deals with mature themes.
While anime has quite the large and loyal fan base worldwide, it’s still considered somewhat of an underground story-telling medium with limited growth potential. Anime is believed to be inaccessible to general audiences since it is animated. In Western societies cartoons are for kids and most cartoons for adults are either pornographic or of a satirical ribald nature i.e. South Park. The truth is however, that anime is a medium that has excelled under the tutelage of Japanese storytellers.
In Japan the film industry is quite small, therefore it’s difficult for filmmakers to make films as they envisioned them. Instead they turned their attention to animation, a medium that’s a fraction of the cost and the only limit to its potential would be the imagination of the writers.
You see, anime wasn’t just a medium to tell kiddie stories, instead it became a method for these writers to escape the shackles of real world limitations, giving us stories that took us into space and re-imagined a world with cyborgs. And all they had to do is just draw it. For all the wonder and beauty they created with a stroke of a brush, the stories that came with it were just as profound.
It Wasn’t American, It Was Japanese
Many people think that the first anime they watched, saw or just heard about was Pokémon. The truth is that you have been watching anime longer than you think and you just didn’t know it. Shows like Astro Boy and Speed Racer are inherently Japanese anime. In fact, Astro Boy is probably the first recognizable anime.
While we all know that Hasbro produced Transformers toys, what many people don’t know is that Transformers were actually co-produced with the Japanese toy company Takara Tomy. In fact the very first animated Transformers series was also a co-production with the U.S., writing and providing the budget for the series with Japan animating it. In other words Transformers was anime.
At the end of World War II, the Japanese were dismayed and broken, at this time Osama Tezuka was only 17, yet he created his first piece of work, Diary of Ma-chan and then Shin Takarajima. Both properties were Manga (Japanese Novel sized Comic books) which he sold to local commuters heading to work, this young boy would begin the golden age of manga, a craze comparable to American comic books at the time.
Osama Tezuka would go on to become the “Walt Disney of Japan”, creating many facets and genres that are still alive in the medium today. His very first Anime would be the aforementioned Astro Boy.
Astro Boy’s first Manga publication was in 1952 and ran until 1968. The animated series which was a first of its kind premiered in 1959. The story of Astro Boy followed a robot boy who struggled between his human nature and his computer programming in a Post-Apocalyptic world.
Most stories today that take place in a Post-Apocalyptic world can be traced all the way back to Astro Boy. The majority of sci-fi or action based anime take place in a post-apocalyptic world. Have you ever considered why?
To this date Japan has been the only nation that has experienced the devastation of a nuclear attack. In some ways what happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was somewhat of an apocalyptic event for the country. Having stories set in a post-apocalyptic world was very much a remedy or better yet mass therapy for a nation. It showed them that there is still hope and life after all this destruction.
The Golden Age of Anime
It’s debatable when the Golden Age of Anime truly was, but to most it would be around the late 80’s until the early 2000’s. This was the time when many of the classic anime we enjoy today released.
One thing that really stood out was the maturity and complexities of the ordeals that characters in these anime would be facing. Many directors such as James Cameron (Avatar), Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan), Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight), Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and many others will attest to this. These anime films and series have certainly influenced film in terms of how scenes are shot, how action scenes develop and philosophical levels of the story.
Anime like Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Perfect Blue and Gundam went far and beyond anything that Hollywood was doing at the time and it certainly inspired many filmmakers who would “borrow” from anime.
The Matrix Opens Western Audiences to Anime
Before the Matrix, Anime was somewhat of a niche market, very small but loyal global market. In Japan it’s an industry that’s booming but wasn’t quite the same everywhere else. While Western Audiences had a taste of Japanese storytelling, they never experienced anything as significant as what was to come.
The Matrix was and still is a pure live action anime film, and rightly so, as it’s a self confessed anime inspired film. The Matrix has an anime look, feel, aesthetic, about it that showed the world what an anime live action was suppose to be even though this wasn’t based off of an actual anime. Ghost in the Shell was a primary influence on the material and it certainly didn’t go unnoticed with many facets of the film inspired from it.
With the world having tasted a film that was so starkly different, so original many studios looked for something that would be original and capture the minds of the world.
Pokémon would soon make an International Splash, with kids all over the world soaking up the fun filled adventures with Ash, Pikachu and the rest of the gang. Once Pokémon hit it big, shows like Digimon, Beyblade, Yu-Gi-Oh and DragonBall Z soon made their way to Western audiences as anime became a hot property.
This wave of anime would soon dwindle but wouldn’t disappear. It gained a loyal fan base that would search for this material and continue to watch it despite it no longer playing on television.
The West Meets East
Anime made its mark and showed that it is not going anywhere with a small but loyal international audience, but it could no longer be ignored.
After the Matrix came out the Wachowski’s were once again instrumental in bringing anime to the attention of the world as they co-created Animatrix with the Japan. The Animatrix would go on to be a smash hit and achieving cult status for its story-telling right alongside the original Matrix film.
After Animatrix the west reared its head towards Japan, with shows like Afro Samurai, Highlander & WitchBlade all products of USA-Japan collaborations.
Studio Ghibli was co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, who has to be one of the most creative, ingenious and extraordinary minds in all of film today. Under his tutelage his idiosyncratic story telling and absorbing, stunning, splendid and magnificent art have won the world over to anime.
Miyazaki stories are unlike anything I have ever seen, filled with wonder, excitement and adventure. These stories tend to romance the viewer as child and adult alike dissipates into his fantastical worlds. Miyazaki influenced nearly every writer, director and producer in anime, and his list of admirers across the world is just as wide and near uncountable.
Pixar was co-founded by John Lasseter, a avid Studio Ghibli fan. In fact he has gone on record saying that Pixar strive to creating stories that are just as wondrous and creative as Ghiblis. The two studios have an amiable working relationship.
Hayao Miyazaki has unfortunately announced his retirement with THE WIND RISES, which is highly anticipated, being his last film to date. The Simpsons will have a special episode dedicated to Miyazaki as they pay tribute to one of the finest storytellers who has lived.
Anime on the Big Screen
When it comes to adapting anime to the big screen its clear Hollywood is quite inept in making the transition. Hollywood just can’t seem to understand why we love it and what we love about. Instead, they try and make their own half-assed version of it to make a quick buck.
I was hoping Kite would be film that would show the world how to adapt a anime. But after seeing the latest trailer, it would seem that we have yet another failed anime adaption.
Tom Cruise will be staring in Edge of Tomorrow, which will come out later this year and I have to admit that it certainly looks like it will be amazing. The film is based off a Japanese manga called All You Need Is Kill, with a strong, yet white washed, cast, a solid budget and amazing special effects. We are looking at what could possibly be the first successful anime adaption. If that happens who knows how many other anime or manga properties will get the full-scale passionate live action adaption?
Once James Cameron is finished with his Avatar films, his next project will be the Japanese Manga, Battle Angel. It’s another passion project of his, and looking at how his treated Avatar, Battle Angel will look nothing but spectacular.
The world of anime is bigger then you think it is. It’s filled with wonder and amazement, action and romance, sci-fi and psychological thriller masterpieces. All you have to do is dip your toe in the stream of Eastern storytelling and you will soon find yourself hooked.
Check out Crunchyroll.com, to stream anime and read manga.