The popularity of anime in the 1990s and among nerds reflects in part a historical contingency: the failure of American and Western media to deliver long-form narratives dealing in fantasy, science fiction, and non-realism of every type, and which can cater to a niche or reflect a unique artistic vision (enabled by the cheapness of manga/LN production and the 1980s–1990s OVA economic model) while benefiting from the flexibility of animation in depicting anything without enormously costly SFX, while instead Western media focused on syndicated mass market lowest-common-denominator live-action series. The post-90s TV renaissance and extraordinary rise of ‘prestige series’, science fiction and superhero franchise, and continuous exponential increase in SFX capabilities/decrease in cost, sucked much of the wind out of anime’s sails. While still hugely popular both in America & overseas, and an accepted part of the culture, it no longer is as exciting as it used to be, or a growing juggernaut.
So if anime can no longer boast unique access to diversity and long-form SF/F narrative, what does anime still uniquely offer us? Why not just go geek out over the latest MCU or Star Wars movie ad nauseam? I suggest it is simply that it is one of the most-developed foreign media sources, which gains value simply because it is different–foreign, and not so American. Haven’t you seen enough of that? Even a mediocre foreign work gains interest from the novelty and differences.
One might wonder whether a hobby can be a ‘better’ hobby than another. Maybe genre preferences is something you just shouldn’t argue about, like whether chocolate ice cream is better than vanilla. But it is sensible to think about. Why should anyone like anime or watch a lot of it?
“How do you justify anime/manga as a hobby? I catch a lot of flak and because of that tend to hide my hobby from others.”
There’s no hard-and-fast distinction between a hobby and a job (knitting Katamari Damacy hats), or a career1, or mere consumption (is ‘TV watching’ a ‘hobby’?), or charity (building houses with Habitat for Humanity), or morality (learning modern theology, discussing issues in utilitarianism2). ‘Hobby’ is not a natural kind. No one would question whether you should try to compare jobs, careers, consumption3, or charity4.
Which of these issues is more important will depend on specifics, of course; the tea connoisseur is more affected by economic & social justice issues, while the job-hunter may worry more about corporate ethics, and the TV watcher may be interested in recommendation algorithms to optimize enjoyability per hour (since there is more to watch than one could see in a life), or issues of privacy (see Narayanan & Shmatikov 2008). But there are issues to think about.
The question is often posed by anime critics. How to defend watching anime? It’s interesting that anime is this popular; you don’t hear people asking how to defend their love of Korean wave movies and soap opera. It wasn’t always this way—back in the 1970s, anime was so rare as to not be worth discussing, and even in the 1980s it was a phenomenon limited largely to college campuses where homemade VHS fansubs could be aired for select enthusiasts.5
It seems to be a fact that anime is overrepresented in the American market compared to moving picture products of other countries. How many British productions does one see in America, despite England being one of the closest culture to America, despite all their productions being in English by default, despite 70 years of television excellence by the BBC, etc. etc.? Not very many. Or how about Bollywood, one of the most prolific cinemas in the world, active since the 1930s? Or the aforementioned Korean films? (That the American remake of the critically acclaimed & commercially successful Oldboy fell through, and the DVD release obscure, only emphasizes the point.)
Perhaps the failure of all non-Japanese sources is due to some market defect. Hollywood is infamous for its accounting standards, less than transparent dealings, and backroom agreements; it is reasonable to suggest that the game has been rigged. Or maybe the market is oversaturated—too many would-be cooks. But why would either of these not have kept anime/manga at 1970/1980 levels? What exempts them? Or perhaps the Japanese are somehow simpatico with Americans and can specially appeal to the American psyche; but then, why aren’t British works cleaning up (surely the British are even closer culturally), and why are French manga sales (with 1/6 the population of America) even stronger than American sales? I know of no explanation, so in the absence of convincing evidence, shouldn’t the default argument be that anime/manga is simply a better quality product than the American competitors?
What precisely is good about anime/manga is highly debatable, to say the least. Nor is it something that we need to discuss for the purpose of defending anime watching, as long as we have evidence that anime is worth watching. As the Buddha remarked on someone asking after the nature of heaven & hell rather than how to obtain enlightenment:
It is as if a man had been wounded by a poisoned arrow, and his friends & relatives procured him a surgeon. But the man says, “I will not have this arrow out until I learn whether my injurer were Brahmin or Kshatriya; tall, short, or medium; black, dusky, or of yellow skin; from this or that city; whether it be an ordinary or claw-headed arrow…” The man would die without learning all this.
But let’s discuss it anyway.
I have heard people say that the edge comes from American media’s abandonment of the serial format in favor of a static episodic format that would syndicate profitably and which would draw no criticism by its anodyne content in which the good guys always win, or from maintaining a diversity of genres ranging from moralistic child tales to comedy to business wars to detective stories while American comics slowly degenerated into ever more involuted superhero comics and American TV retrod the same action-adventure formulas. What follows is my subjective take, gleaned from my own idiosyncratic anime watching, book reading (eg Notenki Memoirs), and SF reading habits. This seems plausible to me, anyway. Defending anime on esthetics grounds seems easy. American cartoons were, before the advent of anime, marked by an episodic format that destroyed any detailed overarching plot-line, and were not visually accomplished; further, they were highly stereotyped and commercial enterprises, in a bad way. Japanese productions were quite commercial too, but the devil is in the details—Mobile Suit Gundam was designed to sell toys, but has become so much more than a model advertisement. In America, it would never have become more. Japan hosts amazing fandoms like Touhou Project or Vocaloids which invite participation67, but one of the most active fandoms in America, for George Lucas’s Star Wars (& MLP:FiM to some degree), is characterized by the copyright holders doing their best to limit fans to passive consumption8:
“We’ve been very clear all along on where we draw the line,” said Jim Ward, vice president of marketing for Lucasfilm. “We love our fans. We want them to have fun. But if in fact somebody is using our characters to create a story unto itself, that’s not in the spirit of what we think fandom is about. Fandom is about celebrating the story the way it is.”
American animation was ham-stringed to be both a single medium and a single genre (children’s). In comparison, Japanese animation was a single medium that covered every genre that TV covered9. One could grow up in Japanese animation, from Hamtaro to challenging films like Mind Game. One could not do this with American animation. (Director Hideaki Anno has wondered “if a person over the age of twenty who likes robot anime is really happy.” The jury is still out for Japanese robot anime, but American animation has already pled guilty & been sentenced.)
Further, anime excelled in genres that American TV confined to ghettos. There are many fine fantasy and SF anime from the 1990s, but I find it painful to try to watch live-action American products from the ’90s like Hercules or Babylon 5. The counter-examples like The Matrix almost prove the point, the Wachowski brothers having been quite explicit about their debt to anime and sponsoring The Animatrix.
What competition does anime have in America?
Disney was a big player here, but as Anno says, their output is highly limited and they’ve been burned by big animation failures such as Treasure Planet or The Black Cauldron. Pixar comes to mind for repeated excellence, but that’s a Disney second-party and again just one studio with inherent limits. There’s Dreamworks, but you don’t need to be a film critic to see that they chase Pixar’s taillights, and like Disney & Pixar, they are focused on the occasional film release.
There’s a lot of TV kids animation, but they seem to be focused almost exclusively on either preteen stuff (Disney Channel and Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network), or on crappy low-budget adult comedy (Adult Swim—Comedy Central runs little animation nowadays). Further, they’re all pretty episodic—the sustained dramatic plot arcs and development that is anime’s signature is usually non-existent. (And this despite technological advantages and larger budgets than anime.10) For many decades, American animation has been a disappointment outside of Disney.
“The visual aspect of comics is what got me into the profession in the first place. It seems ridiculous to not take advantage of that to the fullest extent you can. Animation is, I think, the fulfillment of the cartoon. There is nothing you cannot do in animation. Unfortunately, animation has not taken advantage of that either, and usually ends up with stupid stories or crude art. The whole cartoon industry has degenerated over the years.” –Bill Watterson, 1989
The interesting thing is that thinking back to my childhood, as painful as the live-action SF or fantasy were, there were actually a lot of good cartoons. I remember thinking to myself at some point while watching Nickelodeon in the early 2000s that there just didn’t seem to be any new cartoons there that were anywhere near as memorable as Ren & Stimpy, Rocko’s Modern Life, Doug, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters etc.—apparently the ’90s have been dubbed the Renaissance Age of Animation or the American animation renaissance and more specifically, the Disney Renaissance eg. Duck Tales (comments).
But as good as the ’90s were for American animation, the good times never last and Japanese animation stood in the wings waiting for its opportunity, which would come in the late ’90s and 2000s.
To get an example of what I mean, look at the 2 seasonal listings (eg. those charts posted for each season) for anime. There’s not always a lot of good stuff, but there are still usually 4 or 5 series a year worth watching. And that’s not counting any movies or OVAs that may be releasing. (Can you imagine the Garden of Sinners movie series being done in America? Impossible!) Heck, the Noitamina11 block alone probably show more sophisticated, artistic, and adult-watchable anime every year than Disney or Pixar. Anime producer Hiroaki Inoue estimated in 2003 that, despite the small anime industry in Japan (most work is outsourced)12, still “roughly 80 thirty-minute episodes of anime are produced for weekly viewing on Japanese TV, for a total of about 4000 episodes a year; on top of this, roughly 15 animated theater-bound movies are made per year, and about 100 thirty-minute OVAs”. Inoue suggests that the crucial ingredient is not so much that anime adopts plot-intensive arcs, but simply that they sometimes are produced by people with an idiosyncratic vision, and there are enough tries that the occasional diamond is created13. (As compared to live-action, the virtue of animation is that it makes the easy things hard, but the impossible harder.)
And this happens, year after year.
Critically-acclaimed series like Samurai Jack were a reaction to the demonstrated consumer demand for long-form series. Truly episodic TV fictional shows seem to be ever rarer, and survivors from earlier eras, like The Simpsons, have grown more plot-oriented—in an earlier Flintstones era, it would have been edgy to merely reference events from previous seasons and unthinkable to kill Maude Flanders. It’s interesting to speculate on why. I’ve heard many theories, from DVRs to premium cable channels like HBO to greater IQ14.
What’s interesting about anime is that if you look at American print SF & fantasy and whatnot, it’s wildly creative and fascinating, but anything in moving pictures is either a critically successful failure or dreck. In Japan, the literature isn’t so impressive (with honorable exceptions like Haruki Murakami), but the manga and anime are really good. They Were Eleven would be merely a mediocre short story if it were published in an American SF magazine, but instead, it’s one of the better SF movies around (because all the American SF movies are so bad). Or consider Star Trek; while Star Trek has been hugely popular in American SF circles almost to the point of synonymity, Star Trek was merely fairly popular in syndication in Japan15. American TV series offer another case in point: one of the best received SF series of the 2000s was Firefly, which was almost surely influenced by the popular 1998 anime Cowboy Bebop.16 None of the SF stories in either Firefly or Cowboy Bebop break new ground in SF, instead trading in classic SF stories and tropes; but they do so in a polished, stylish fashion.
From that perspective, it’s not a surprise that if we look at the respective markets, we find that American print SF is very popular in Japan17, and Japanese anime/manga is very popular over here. You might call this comparative advantage at work.
But what do I know? Maybe anime is really about preparing Americans to be colonized by their Japanese masters18 or maybe the real reason is that anime is so stereotyped & repetitive & poorly animated & over the top that even mentally defective nerds can enjoy it, and so they do. Perhaps anime gained a toe-hold here and grew exponentially because it is bad:
“Raiders of the Lost Ark is a robust potboiler, tongue-in-cheek, very competently done. I think it’s enjoyable, but even among those who don’t, it’s hard to see the film attracting actual derision. Boredom or irritation, probably, but nothing more. Star Wars, on the other hand…. From one perspective, it’s an entertaining space opera, but from a slightly different perspective, an imperceptible twist of the glass, it’s laughably awful. Utterly ridiculously bad. And it’s this very badness that makes so many people take up arms in its defence… The quality of the work, in the face of such glaring shortcomings, becomes a matter of faith – and faith is a much stronger bond than mere appreciation. It drives fans together, gives them strength against those who sneer. The sneers make their faith even stronger; the awfulness of the work reassures them of their belief. And so the fan groups of Tolkien, Star Trek, Spider-man, Japanese kiddie-cartoons etc. develop an almost cult-like character. I need to stress that I’m just talking about aspects of badness; the above works all have their many admirable qualities which attract people in the first place (though in the case of Anime I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what they were).” –“objects of fandom”, Stephen Bond
I have no idea how to respond to such an argument (what could possibly disprove claims like those he makes?), but will simply note that it seems like an awfully suspicious damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t line of thought.
What the old school guys mourn isn’t the loss of their [anime] community, their sense of propriety over an unappreciated art, or the thrill of hunting for strange and rare artifacts from a mysterious foreign culture. What’s missing is the newness, that starry-eyed open-mouthed gape of a child at a world heretofore unimaginable, and the excitement of sharing that new experience with those around us. Today, we are not the children, we’re the chaperons shouting, “slow down!”—oblivious to the joy in the room.19
The critic of anime probably consumes American pop culture himself, and has some argument for its entertainment value (let’s call its value AV). Anime is Japanese pop culture so let’s call its entertainment value JV. If the Japanese pop culture is merely as entertaining as American pop culture (as we have license to believe based on its inroads into America), then it can win on other grounds. It carries educational value sheerly from its origin (call educational value JEV). One will learn little from an American production by virtue of being an American. If AV = JV and JEV>0 then JV+JEV>AV (just as x+1>x).
To defeat this, one needs to argue one of the following:
deny the second premise, and say that JEV = 0
deny the first premise, and claim that JV < AV
Say that Japanese pop culture’s entertainment value is worse than American pop culture, hence JV+EV is not necessarily greater than AV; this position is difficult to defend, given anime’s commercial and critical successes. If anime is less entertaining than American pop culture, then why is it so popular? Are the fans systematically irrational?
And if the critic reaches even further and tries to argue that anime is bad for you, they invite the counter-question: “And why do you think American pop culture is not equally or even more toxic for one’s mind?”
Deny all premises and say that pop culture in general is valueless, that all values = 0
0 > 0 is a contradiction, and the argument collapses. But this position exposes the arguer to charges of hypocrisy, since why does he consume pop culture if all pop culture is worthless, and on what ground could he criticize anime at all? Most arguers are trying to establish a ranking in disfavor of anime, not simply say ‘a pox on both your houses’.
We could re-run this argument with ‘novel’ or sense of wonder rather than ‘educational’. We have no prior reason to suppose Japanese pop culture any less innovative than American pop culture, but to an American, the Japanese media will be highly novel. Even a boring Hindu fable could be interesting if it’s the first one you’ve ever seen.
This is a general purpose argument for preferring foreign media or literature. To some, this would be a reductio, but to others it will make perfect sense. Why read about things you are already familiar with? It may be a crude sort of Orientalism to value anime just for its “Japaneseness”22, but why does this matter if one enjoys it as so many do?
Most people wouldn’t appreciate these 2 arguments, so I don’t usually try to justify watching anime, and just say de gustibus non est disputandum or à chacun ses goûts23. (If someone wants to discuss philosophy, though, that’s fine. “When you meet a swordsman, show him your sword / do not offer a poem to any but a poet.”)
Facebook wasn’t incorporated from the get-go, and the 1990s and 2000s are littered with technological giants which started as a hobby such as Linux.↩︎
I read in the archived text files of one BBS that sometimes when fansubs were unavailable and no one there spoke Japanese, anime clubs might watch an episode anyway.↩︎
Even if the invitation could be best described as a kind of trolling; from the talk “Riding on Fans’ Energy: Touhou, Fan Culture, and Grassroot Entertainment”
Touhou also motivates fans to create because it has serious flaws: ZUN knows how to create wonderful characters, yet his drawings leaves much to be desired. If Touhou were a commercial endeavor, none of his drawing would appear in it, but ZUN has kept the Touhou games as amateur works from the start. Fans are frustrated with the drawing style, so they take upon themselves to beautify ZUN’s drawing. A large amount of fanarts that are ‘better than the real thing’ follows. Ironically, many fans (myself included) are attracted to Touhou because of these secondary artworks.
I surmise that the same reasons explain why Touhou appeals to music listeners. ZUN’s music are imperfect: while they contain many catchy motifs, they don’t sound harmonious and can be arranged better. Again, because they can be improved and have many good parts, Touhou musics became popular among remixers. Some groups such as dBu music republish ZUN’s compositions song by song, changing only the MIDI instruments. Other groups would arrange the musics into different styles (such as Jazz), recombine motifs them to make new musics, or add lyrics. These musical arrangements seem to be the most effective advertisement for the Touhou series nowadays. Many oversea fans discovered Touhou through a flash video clip used to promote ‘Marisa ga Taihen na Mono wo Nusundeikimashita’, an arrangement of Alice Margatroid’s theme by IOSYS. Touhou musics are also widely used to make MAD movies in Nico Nico Douga. Popular songs such as ‘U.N. Owen ha Kanojo nanoka?’ and ‘Native Faith’ would have hundreds of MAD videos under their belts.
…It is interesting to note that, in the case of The Matrix or Planet of the Apes, the creators created deep and consistent worlds so that viewers can be absorbed in uncovering the details.  Gensoukyou, however, is a shallow and inconsistent composition. It situates in a mountain in Japan, yet there are European vampires living in it. ‘I like to put western things in there because it’s “Eastern”, hehe,’ said ZUN.  Also, the culture of Gensoukyou is that of 19th century’s Japan, but all Touhou games take place in the years they are released. For this, ZUN commented that ‘Well, I live in modern times, so it makes it much easier. And I get to include things like rockets. If I had a setting in the past, I’d have to study a lot of history.’  Moreover, the Hakurei Border that separates Gensoukyou from the outside world is porous, allowing people and objects from modern Japan to go in. In fact, the demon controlling the boundary even knows how to use iPod! It’s clear that ZUN chooses to make a malleable world rather than a consistent world so that he can keep making new Touhou games easily. While this choice deters fans form deciphering the world, it encourages fans to create their own stories because nothing in Gensoukyou is sacred and a lot can still be added to it. The large amount of doujinshi accounting daily lives of Touhou characters is a proof of this tendency.
For example, The Phantom Edit was initially released anonymously, Star Wars Fan Film Awards begun reluctantly & with highly restrictive rules, and it is well-known that any fan production which is sold, lives under Damocles’s sword, regardless of how much it costs to distribute.↩︎
To quote Anno again:
Japan is the only country in the world that actually has an anime industry, and can mass-produce animated works of a high quality for a large audience. It’s only natural then, that this product would be in demand from the rest of the world. Japan is unrivaled in this sense. Disney is really no competition because Disney can only release one film at a time. They are not capable of handling the wide range of stories that we see in Japanese anime. Real anime exists only in Japan, and this is about the only original product Japan can offer to the world—anime, manga and computer games.
Inoue 2003, being paraphrased/quoted/summarized by Eri Izawa:
There are two main reasons that full 3D rendering is not that common yet. Firstly, of the 80 episodes airing each week, only a few series will run for a full year. Many last only 13 episodes (a single cycle of episodes, or a “Cool”), so there is no economic incentive to invest in full 3D modeling and rendering. Secondly, the costs of Japanese TV animation are still about a quarter the cost of producing American TV animation. A third reason that Mr. Inoue later mentioned is that 2D art has certain strengths over 3D art…With Disney animation, recent movie scenes featuring many horses or other animals are made possible by computerized animation. However, too often in Japan, there is not the manpower nor resources to do these extensive scenes. Unfortunately, this results in such scenes being avoided completely. For the sake of story-telling and remaining true to a story, computer graphics are necessary for Japan’s animation industry.
I’m a big fan of the Noitamina series. What a selection—Tatami Galaxy, Wandering Son, AnoHana, Shiki, House of Five Leaves, Bunny Drop… Some of these series, I wonder whether American networks outside HBO would even dare run a live-action version. Could you imagine Wandering Son on Fox TV? I can’t.↩︎
Mr. Inoue was asked how many people it takes to create a show. He explained that a typical 30 minute TV anime show takes roughly 120 people: perhaps 2-5 character, mechanical, and background designers; 4-6 scenario writers, 40 in the animation team, 30 people to do finishing/touch ups, background, and compositing/combining; and 20-30 people to do voice acting and sound tech. A film such as Sen to Chihiro (Spirited Away) requires about 500 people. Studio Ghibli itself, although comprised mostly of animators, only has about 100 people; they rely on nearly 500 or so people outside the company for contracted work, sounds, and other support. In addition, 2/3 of the animation jobs are overseas, contracted out to animation companies in Korea, China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. These days, he noted, 80 episodes a week would require tens of thousands of animators, but Japan simply doesn’t have the numbers of people required for that much work. Mr. Inoue later explained that currently in Japan, there are about 10 large animation houses, 30 medium sized ones, perhaps 2000 tiny companies (sometimes with as few as 3-4 people). In the larger company, of the 300 or so workers, only 20% are actual employees with benefits; the rest are basically contractors. Hence (he noted) there is no job security, and he “can’t recommend the industry” unless a person is particularly good.
One might call this the auteur theory of anime:
Mr. Inoue also spoke with me privately at length about why it is that Japanese animation has been able to produce so many shows of good caliber (he believes 20% of most anime is actually good quality, as opposed to our usual saying that “99% of everything is crap”). Part of this is because, he suggests, once a director has established himself as a successful money maker, the studio become tolerant of his desires to make experimental or visionary productions. So, although Spielberg may have had to use the proceeds off the popular Jurassic Park to fund his personal project Schindler’s List, Japanese studios seem to be willing to make deals with their directors—allowing them to make small market or niche films so long as they do not exceed a certain budget (as examples, he said a dream film budget may be set to 2 hundred million yen, while a studio money-making film may have a full budget of five hundred million yen—which is fine as it may bring in three billion yen in revenue). Mamoru Oshii, who directed the popular anime Patlabor, took advantage of this allowance to make a live action film [The Red Spectacles]. Also, he noted, a successful director can often push the envelope—such as happened with Gundam, one of the earliest series to portray the death and destruction of war in such a realistic way. Aspects such as these, Mr. Inoue believes, has allowed the Japanese animation industry, despite being a commercial enterprise that must make a profit to survive, unusually blessed in its ability to create works of profoundness and insight.
Mr. Inoue mentioned another factor in the diversity of anime. He said that “ever since Evangelion, there is no anime [series] that is watched by everyone.” In other words, modern anime is no longer is tied to the mass market, and it may be freer to seek out niche markets and smaller audiences.
America already had Disney animation and a tradition of comics, but they had a strong image as being strictly for kids. However, in Japan at some point, animation had headed off in a separate direction. Visual expressions never before seen. Beautiful pictures. Complex stories. Masterful performances. And the distinctive personalities of each member of the cast of characters. Animation was thought to be cheap, but it was an art which had risen to a level worthy of the appreciation of adults. To Americans, with their love of new things, it looked really cool. And so the people, things, and cities appearing in Japanese anime became their new image of Japan. This was spreading not the customary exoticism, but cyber and pop Japanese culture.
Anime’s “success” in those heady years of Toonami and Dragon Ball Z being the highest-rated cartoon show on television and whatnot… it was totally a “right place, right time” situation. By that time anime had sort of found its “niche” in the Western market thanks to the groundwork laid out by Streamline and Akira and Ghost in the Shell, in the sense that people had a sort of vague idea what anime “was” and that it was this different, edgy thing comprised of limited but kinetic animation and complex stories and other things they haven’t seen before. And, thanks to some savvy marketing and slick presentation courtesy of Cartoon Network and Teletoon and others, anime was, for the first time, readily and easily available. You could flip on the TV and catch an episode of Outlaw Star or Inuyasha or Cowboy Bebop and recognize that it was anime, but it was presented and marketed in such a way that made it seem cool and alluring. And as a plus, the shows were really good and they were made for a wider audience than Japanese Otaku. The audience for anime was ready for it, but they hadn’t had it presented to them in a simple way thus far; now that it was literally in their homes and edited so it was “safe,” anime was, by all accounts, a cool thing.
Or “oddity” or “insanity”; from “Popularity Contests”:
Really quickly on this, before I launch into a completely separate issue entirely: yes, yes, yes! InuYasha is more “popular” because of its TV airing on Adult Swim and Teletoon and elsewhere in the Western world. Millions upon millions of English-speaking fans were exposed to it. And they loved it. Why wouldn’t they? Rumiko Takahashi knows how to hit an audience’s narrative and character pleasure centers like a tactical missile strike. Fun, lovable characters in outlandish scenarios, fighting tooth-and-nail against impossible odds. Romantic entanglements with slapstick jollyment. Never mind that Ranma ½ never got a TV airing; how in the world could it ever be aired on national television? Even if you cut out the nudity (rendering entire scenes and episodes unairable), the entire premise of a sex-changing protagonist is something far outside the comfort zone of most broadcasters. Especially in the early-to-mid 90’s, when Ranma was one of the hotter anime commodities.
In a way, though, that oddity is exactly what helped it in those early days of western fandom. Where else, outside of anime and manga, could such insanity exist? I remember my exposure to Ranma came from the Super Nintendo game—specifically, a review in EGM. “What the heck? A boy who turns into a girl, whose father is a panda? Characters named ‘Mousse’ and ‘Shampoo’? What is this quackery?” I thought to myself. A couple trips to Blockbuster Video some years later, and I understood. Boy, did I love it.
Yasuhiro Takeda (in The Notenki Memoirs) could only describe Japanese Star Trek fans as “a large percentage” of all Japanese SF fans; an American would probably have had to say ‘nearly all fans’, especially before Star Wars offered an alternative.↩︎
Consider all the discussion of the two in my CSE. It’s worth noting that Joss Whedon’s first hit, the 1997 Buffy doesn’t have any clear connections to anime besides a vague resemblance to mahou shoujo, but Whedon has acknowledged the canceled animated Buffy series’s debt to Batman: The Animated Series—whose co-creator Bruce Timm is a fan of anime like Neon Genesis Evangelion.↩︎
Hard-to-obtain sales figures aside, I believe this assertion because I see all sorts of American SF references in anime which one might not expect. Takeda’s The Notenki Memoirs mentions a number of Japanese SF authors who also translated English SF on the side, and Gainax’s work is littered with American references, from Cordwainer Smith’s Instrumentality of Mankind to Flowers for Algernon to Larry Niven’s Known Space to Harlan Ellison’s “The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World”; most extremely, I ran into one rumor that a particular well-regarded author had hired a student to translate new stories from American SF magazines which he would then rewrite for domestic consumption!↩︎
So what is the problematic conclusion Newitz reaches in this article? I think it can be summed up in her concluding sentence: “Anime help accustom Americans to a subordinate position in relation to Japan.” In other words, watching anime is setting us in the US on a path for a cultural and economic takeover by Japan. (This idea may seem farfetched now, given the current economic climate, but may have been genuinely worrisome in the late 1980s and early 1990s.) That’s quite a claim! Surely she must have an array of solid evidence and detailed analysis to support this. Unfortunately not. She discusses that there are many different races represented in anime (specifically mentions Riding Bean and Bubblegum Crisis as examples), yet all of these characters speak and (sometimes) act Japanese. Therefore Newitz draws the conclusion that this “American-looking multiculture is in fact Japanese,” intended for a target audience outside Japan, and presents an ominous view of the future in which Japanese culture and language have taken over the world. And it’s a benign takeover for anime fans since, according to Newitz, “When Americans are anime , they are in a sense admitting that they want to be colonized by Japanese culture.” This of course overlooks the more straightforward idea that anime is in Japanese because it’s intended for a Japanese audience.
Anime naturally demonstrates a variety of Japanese values (although one might not draw all the same lessons), from literary allusions to ordinary parts of life like not wearing shoes indoors or students cleaning the schools or sillier examples like the akanbe gesture or the kancho prank. One could claim further differences: Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics emphasizes the different approaches manga often takes in depicting events or scenes, and there are persistent claims that one sees entirely different story-types focusing less on conflict, such has the popular iyashikei and slice of life genres (the latter often exemplified by yonkoma manga). One irony is that legends of the American anime/manga scene sought to minimize the Japaneseness of works; for example, the late translator & businessman Toren Smith brought many classic series to America, but ultimately quit the business in disgust, partially due to his chosen style—flipping pages, localizing by relettering sound effects, translating into idiomatic English eg, removing honorifics, as exemplified in his release of Nausicaa —becoming less popular & profitable.↩︎
Japanese films are interesting to us because they were made by a culture for itself. The problem that George [Lucas] and I found with science fiction films that we saw is that they felt that they had to explain these strange rituals to you, whereas a Japanese film would just have the ritual and you’d have to figure it out for yourself.
Let me speak personally here as an American and hope that I’m speaking for others as well. I am attracted to the pseudo-Japan of anime and manga simply because it’s not America. As the dominant culture, we are everywhere in the world. We have to watch as our culture suffocates traditions all over the world, and to be honest it feels kind of bad. I don’t like being part of this, yet there’s nothing I can do to fight it. When I hear that some nation’s domestic film industry can’t compete with our imports, I realize that it is their own choice to let their culture wither in favor of the American culture. So, my reaction to the Japanese elements in anime is gleeful, because to me it is an example of a culture holding its own, preserving itself even while embracing the new world society. I get saturated with our culture every day, I see it reflected back at me in other nations, but when I look to anime, I see a change, and this to me is refreshing.