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An Anime Explosion: Challenging themes, complex characters make Japanese animation a global phenomenon


What was the last Japanese movie you saw? Chances are it was “Spirited Away,” the largest grossing movie ever to come out of Japan, or maybe it was “Princess Mononoke,” another very popular film. The better question may be, “What was the last live-action Japanese movie you saw?”

That’s because more than half of all movies and television programs produced in Japan are animation, or anime as it is better known. But these are not the cartoons of your youth—they are often sophisticated, sometimes violent and frequently have adult themes. You won’t find the likes of Betty and Barney Rubble in these films. Instead, you’ll see complex stories including love, growing up and female empowerment.

Dr. Susan Napier at Momoko. She stands next to a plush toy from 'My Neighbor Totoro'
Dr. Susan Napier says that teaching an anime class is a unique pedagogical experience. She stands next to a character from “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988) directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

Dr. Susan Napier, the Mitsubishi Professor of Japanese Studies in the Department of Asian Studies in the College of Liberal Arts, first chanced upon these stories a dozen years ago when a student showed her a Japanese comic book, or manga. Rather than the children’s entertainment she expected, Napier found herself drawn into an intricate story line and richly detailed art.

“This student showed me a manga called ‘Akira,’” she said. “It was a groundbreaking manga that was later turned into anime and started a tidal wave. The artwork was beautiful—very dark and set in a post-apocalyptic future. That alone was so very different from my favorite Superman comics.”

Not too much later, Napier happened to be in London when the anime “Akira” was released there.

“I was just amazed,” she said. “I loved animation as a kid, but this was very different from any Disney animation I had ever seen. It was just superb, but darker and the music was very intense—it was an extraordinary, almost visceral experience. So much more sophisticated than I ever dreamed.”

Seeing this film led her to write a paper to present at a conference on Japanese popular culture, which in turn led to writing her third book, “Anime: from Akira to Princess Mononoke” (Palgrave Macmillan), a book that was published in 2001. The book is in its fourth edition and already has been translated into Japanese, and will soon be translated into Korean.

“When I first presented at this conference, about half of the audience—those over 40—was unimpressed and somewhat disturbed,” she said. “They were asking why I was wasting my time on this. The other younger half was very interested because they too had students coming to them to discuss it. I’ve found that it is such a huge subject, there are lots of interesting ways to approach it.”

Certainly, anime has made its place in the hearts of American children with shows such as “Pokemon” and “Dragonball Z,” but its popularity hardly ends at adolescence. Napier is working on a book about anime fans and what it is about anime that resonates with people of all ages and cultures.This student showed me a manga called 'Akira.' It was a groundbreaking manga that was later turned into anime and started a tidal wave. - Dr. Susan Napier

“When I ask people why they like anime one of the first things they say is because it is different,” Napier said. “They usually mean the animated style, the music, more adult content with challenging themes and more complex stories. In the old days you wouldn’t have Archie and Jughead dealing with the apocalypse.”

Though the films are animated, Napier said that people often say that the stories feel more real than Hollywood cinema.

“You don’t always have a happy ending,” she said. “In America, we’ve had this desire for resolution—the guy and girl get married and go off into the sunset with everything tied up with a little bow at the end. Of course, real life is not necessarily like that—one of the things that fascinates me is when people say anime is more real than Hollywood film. They are saying animated work is more real than live action through the psychology of the stories, and the characters deal with things in a way that is more real. In the case of anime, it doesn’t always work out. Sometimes the hero is left wandering or dead, and doesn’t get the girl or the guy. I think that especially for young adults who are dealing with a difficult world, it is strangely comforting to not see the Hollywood ending, but one they can identify with.”

Anime’s reach goes well beyond Japan and the U.S.—a glance at a schedule of anime festivals turns up events in Costa Rica, Poland, Brazil, France and Germany to name a few.

“At this point, it is the only real alternative to American popular culture,” Napier said. “What is fascinating is that—in an almost stealth operation—Japanese popular culture is huge. Not just anime and manga, but also things like Hello Kitty and video games. This is really making inroads into worldwide popular culture. It’s very exciting to think that a very distinctive culture like Japan could have such an impact on the rest of the world.”

But why animation, instead of live action film? It’s all about the money.

“It’s very hard to compete with Hollywood,” Napier said. “Japan has a great cinematic tradition with Kurosawa and Oshima—they were world-class directors. But they are from the past. In the 1960s, as Hollywood geared up, the Japanese film industry started to lose ground and couldn’t compete with the money in Hollywood. A lot of very talented people who may have gone into film, went into anime because is was so much cheaper to produce, and there was steady work for it in television.”

One of the things that fascinates me is when people say anime is more real than Hollywood film. - Dr. Susan NapierThe jump to anime also makes sense when you look at the Japanese tradition of mangas and graphic novel storytelling. It was an easy transition from printed cartoon storytelling to animation.

“You have the manga tradition which is very important—in Japan you see adult men and even older women reading manga in a way that we don’t in America,” Napier said. “You had a comfort level with cartoons, and then not being able to compete with Hollywood blockbusters, it’s almost inevitable that talented and original people would move into anime, where television was a very ready market. Then in the 1970s, you had television anime directors crossing into films and becoming very popular, and it created a snowball effect. You see a very different career path for talented, artistic people than you would in America.”

While anime does have its own visual style, one component of that style is the lack of national, racial and sometimes even gender, distinction in the characters. The characters generally do not have the facial characteristics of the Japanese, or any other nationality for that matter.

“One thing that heartens me about this new world we are living in, is that with animation you don’t have to look a certain way,” she said. “You are no longer in a representational world where you have to be a white female or a Hispanic male—all of a sudden you can be anything you like. Everyone can enjoy this animated world where we have the freedom to choose any identity we like.”

One thing noticeably different about Japanese anime versus American productions is the abundance of female protagonists. In addition to the very popular and mainstream “Spirited Away,” and “Princess Mononoke,” females are the central players in other series and films such as “Ghost in the Shell,” “Vampire Princess Miyu” and “Revolutionary Girl Utena.”

“There is a tremendous number of anime and manga that star female protagonists,” Napier said. “A lot of people appreciate seeing a strong female character doing things, taking an active role in helping the world and having an interesting and active life.”

But why is it so popular in Japan—a very patriarchal society? Napier believes you have to look at the country’s past as well as its place in today’s cultural landscape.

“Hayao Miyazaki (director of ‘Spirited Away”’and ‘Princess Mononoke’) definitely likes to use female characters,” she said. “He has said that it makes the story line more interesting than if you use an archetypical male hero—it can be fresher and more original.

“I think there may be a deeper subtext, a fascination with the female character as it represents modern Japan,” she added. “Throughout Japanese culture the female principle has been very important. Early Japanese novels were written by women, which is very unusual, and their female protagonists were very important. If you look at folklore, there are many strong female characters, both good and bad. I think to some extent Japan often identifies itself in more of a female way, despite having a patriarchal culture.

Image of female anime character. Tag reads, 'Oh my goddess!'
Japanese anime has an abundance of female protagonists.

“Over the last couple of decades, there has been more interest in the woman—the young girl in particular, I think this may be a reflection of Japan’s unease with itself and where it is going,” Napier said. “I wonder if it is a projection about what it is to be Japanese in the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century, particularly in a film like ‘Spirited Away.’ I don’t think it’s any accident that it’s a young girl pictured; I think it is these girls who are seen as representing the Japanese psyche. I think one reason it may resonate in America is that we are also wondering where we’re going, who we are—not just female audiences but male audiences as well. It may be that we connect with the more vulnerable, less fixed kind of character of a girl rather than a boy who is more determined. A girl can explore things more and I think both male and female audiences can respond to that.”

According to Napier, teaching an anime class is a unique pedagogical experience.

“It’s more intense than anything I’ve ever done—which is great on one hand but exhausting on the other,” she said. “What surprises me is that students are invested in the subject in a way that I’ve never seen before.”

She said the discussions with students are much more lively than most classes because many of the students have been watching since childhood and they are dedicated fans of anime.

“It’s hard sometimes to keep a balance in the classroom,” she said. “I’m a fan, too, and I present myself that way, but I’m also a scholar and I can’t always love anime all the time. For many of them it’s entertainment, and some of them are disturbed that I’m looking at it from a theoretical point of view. They feel like I’m taking away their pleasure because I’m forcing them to look at things. Some people really enjoy that aspect and I’ve had them come up and say, ‘Thank you for helping me justify why I love this so much, for helping me explain why it is complex and it’s worth taking seriously.’ But others say, ‘Gosh, Professor Napier, you have too much time on your hands. What are you doing reading all of this into it—it’s just popular culture?’

“It’s been an interesting experience and I feel more invested in it, too,” she said. “I love my literature courses, but it doesn’t involve the same level of commitment from the students. While I have some authority since I’ve written a book, the students have their own form of authority because they will have watched every episode of a show and they’ll have watched it four times. I can’t compete with that, and I don’t try. I let them know up front that it’s not all anime all the time, but that it is a course in which we talk about themes and structure and aspects of popular culture. I hope that I’m showing them that they can approach their favorite thing in a different way. They may not like that, but I think that it will percolate down to them that these are subjects worthy of discussion on a fairly high intellectual level.”

Robin Gerrow

Photos: Marsha Miller

Special thanks to Momoko,
705 West 24th Street,
for photo opportunities.

Banner graphic shows scene
from “My Neighbor Totoro” (1988)
directed by Hayao Miyazaki.

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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