Akira & Japan (chapter 2: Anime)

Chapter Two


I like the fact that we are actually living in the times they depict.

–   Fat Jon [American Hip Hop producer who in 2004 collaborated with anime director Shinichi Watanabe for his TV anime ‘Samurai Champloo’, answering why he likes sci-fi so much; http://www.hiphop-elements.com]

Anime is the word to describe Japanese animation, the source of the word is much debated, though most believe that it’s derived from the French word ‘animé’ (‘Animated’).  In Japan there are animated TV series which can run for years, or most usually 26 episodes (usually 30 minutes each), there are feature length anime films that have all the cinematic traits of normal motion pictures, there are anime series that are released straight to DVD also, called ‘OVA’ (Original Video Animation).  Anime is most usually adapted from a story that was created as manga originally, in the case of TV it is usually a straight adaptation, though when adapted to film, there are sometimes changes made depending on who is directing.  Sometimes an anime will be an original creation for TV or film, and will then be drawn into manga volumes; the two mediums are constantly working together and are inextricably linked.  They are in a sense much more than the western perception of ‘cartoons’ and ‘comics’, their importance on Japanese culture is substantial.

Manga is known to people in the west as Japanese comics; the origin for this word was touched upon in the previous chapter, it was derived from an art form beginning in the samurai era, and not developed into manga as it is known today, until the post-war period of World War 2.  A brief history of manga is required first as most anime stem from manga in Japan.

As was mentioned in the previous chapter, the form of woodblock painting known as ukiyo-e was the forerunner to what would later become manga.  It was not until the western influence of the comic strip entered Japan, at the beginning of the 20th century, that a form of manga began to emerge in the country.  The Japanese, inspired and influenced by American comic strips, began to draw their own, mostly used for the political arena as a form of propaganda and satire; artists like Ippei Okamoto were notable figures during this period.

After Japan’s defeat and during the American occupation, various artists (of various mediums of entertainment) were censored, and the development of this art form was halted for a period.  It wasn’t until the occupation ended that manga began to pick up where it left off, and due to mostly one man did it create such a stir, and that man was Osamu Tezuka, popularly regarded as the ‘Godfather of manga’.

Tezuka, inspired by Disney’s output, began to draw his own style of comic, a style not seen in Japan before that seemed to somehow transfer the excitement and energy of motion pictures onto paper; it was a big hit with people and brought him fame and a large following (Napier 2001: 16).  His stories were plucked from every genre imaginable; they were long and involving, like full blown novels, not episodic like the western influence, and told through images and action-packed scenes that hooked girls and boys alike.  His contribution to manga and anime is unparalleled as he practically invented the way manga is created today.

Tezuka would not only draw manga, but create anime as well, his (and Japan’s) first animated TV series was a sci-fi story about a man who loses his son in a car accident; the saddened man builds a robot that looks just like his son, but is disappointed by it and abandons it.  The robot child is eventually found by a scientist and the show follows his adventures as he longs to be treated like a real boy.  The show was called Tetsuwan Atomu (Tezuka, 1963-1966, Japan), also known as Astroboy in the west.

Manga and anime would continue to be popular and the stories told would continue to be creative and marketed to children (kodomo), young boys (shônen), girls (shôjo) and young men (seinen) and women (josei), while animation or comics in the west, most notably America the country that originally influenced Japan in the first place, would mostly continue to market (and be popularly perceived as) cartoons and comics towards children or family audiences/viewers.  Japanese creations for the most part were not rooted in or limited to fantasy and surrealism, like Tom & Jerry’s violent skits, or superhero comics such as Superman that were about crime fighting.

Japan’s manga and anime would not be afraid to tackle other topics like gender issues and sexuality in its shôjo manga (women writers and artists especially, saw a rise in the 60’s) which would include stories with homosexual characters and relationships, and soon every age range, from kids, to teenagers, young adults, for both sexes, would have established series and readerships.  The word that would best describe the difference between anime and manga, and similar art forms in other countries, would be: variety.  Japan had a story for everyone, they were long and involving, and it has come to a point where there is no stigma attached to anyone in Japan who watches animation or reads a graphic novel.  There is however a derogatory term for people who become obsessed with anime and manga, called ‘otaku’, the thought that too much of anything is bad, rings true here, as some fans lose their grip on reality and prefer fictional worlds rather than the one they live in.

The 60’s and 70’s would see a rise in new talent such as Hayao Miyazaki whose Nausicaa and the Valley of the Wind (Miyazaki, 1984, Japan) and eventually Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997, Japan) would raise him to legendary status around the world like Tezuka.  Interestingly, both of these feature length films were released in periods where Japan’s economy had been established as one of the world’s strongest, and would contain the same themes and concepts: the relationship between man and nature, the effects of destructive technology on our environment and how humanity would have to co-exist with the land to survive.  There is almost a nostalgic feeling throughout his films, longing for a simpler time without rushed modernity pushed on people and society.

The sci-fi genre seems to have predominance in anime and manga, and the stories are not limited to simply ‘sci-fi’ but have sub-genres such as mecha (short for ‘mechanized’; stories about mechanical devices that can hold a human being inside), space faring (set on spaceships), alternate history (set on a planet that resembles Earth but with an alternate history), dystopic (set in futuristic landscapes), and a whole range of styles, from romantic comedy to horror are crisscrossed with each genre, the variety is inevitably immense.

The sci-fi genre (and to an extent anime & manga itself) seemed to reach its first peak with the release of the anime Akira (Ôtomo, 1988, Japan), which was a worldwide hit; (in cinemas in Japan, and on video everywhere else) it captured the world’s attention for its epic vision and aesthetically beautiful execution.  For non-Japanese it was a surprise to see such a dour and mature dystopic story portrayed in animation, but for the Japanese, and especially fans of anime, it may well have been what they were looking for; it may have been a reflection of what they were feeling at the time, just before the catastrophic stock market collapse; a dark mirror reflection of Japan itself.

Akira will be the main anime that will be analysed in this essay; we will begin at the end of the 1980’s and end at the millennium.  The other anime that will briefly be referred to will be Neon Genesis Evangelion (Anno, 1995-1996, Japan), Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995, Japan), and Serial Experiments Lain (Nakamura, 1998, Japan), all popularly and critically regarded as the criterion that must be viewed by anime fans; all that pushed the sci-fi genre forward in some way.

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