Anime’s Journey to Becoming a Global Representative of Japanese Culture - by Zainab Sayed
5 March 2021
Anime’s Journey to Becoming a Global Representative of Japanese Culture
A great number of foreign artistic mediums have made their way into American fanbases, but perhaps the most well-known among them is anime, or Japanese animation. Though oftentimes disregarded as simply for children simply due to the fact that it’s animated, anime targets essentially every possible demographic, and the number of anime specifically for children is outweighed by series aimed at adolescents and adults. As someone who has attended half a dozen anime conventions and met hundreds of fellow anime fans, I can attest to the fact that appreciators of this art form can range from a seven-year-old who grew up watching Naruto with his siblings to a seventy-year-old grandmother who became obsessed with Tokyo Ghoul after watching it to relate to her granddaughter. This equation to the American expectation of what animation can do dismisses the ability of anime to express matters of the human condition in a way that American animation is not intended to, among anime’s many other capabilities. Anime is an incredibly versatile and globally impactful artistic medium with a rich history that serves as a prime example of the cultural value an art form can maintain.
A discussion of the reach, versatility, and growth of anime is impossible without first addressing its origins in manga, or comics.
Though anime today derives from various types of source material—or a lack thereof—the original wave of anime was borne nearly entirely from manga adaptations. The Japanese anime industry as known today began with a major boom in the regular serialization of manga. Although serialized manga traces all the way back to the 1930s, manga as it is known today did not come to form until the end of World War II, when the distressed population was in desperate need of uplifting and engaging entertainment. It was then that the foundations of both modern manga and modern anime were established by the talented hands of individuals such as Eiichi Fukui, and Shigeru Sugiura, among others. Most important among these pioneers was Osamu Tezuka, author of the still-famous Astro Boy and the man who is heralded to this day as “the Godfather of Manga” (Ito 466). Furthermore, Tezuka—who greatly appreciated the works of Walt Disney—was in fact the one to launch Japan’s anime production, animating his own manga and other available works. The entertainment value of manga and anime aside, many works published at this time took a fantastical or otherwise fictional approach to contemporary issues including politics, economy, and social issues (Ito 465, 467). The types of series Tezuka produced included a variety of subject matters and human experiences presented in a genuine, mature manner, making them appealable to people of all ages and statuses, including grown adults (Price 155).
It is this very widely-applicable nature that has led to the global popularity of anime, and particularly the United States, though slow-moving at first. The introduction of anime to the United States came in two forms nearly simultaneously: commercial licensing and individual sharing. The latter of these played a particularly major role in developing the early American fanbase for anime. American military personnel stationed in Japan and youths participating in exchange programs became invested in anime and their freedom to explore different subjects and target various audiences; these individuals then brought back tapes of anime, which they were able to share with peers (Price 160, 153). In a similar vein of time, American companies were beginning to take interest in anime that could be marketed toward children, though the series were dubbed in English and had to undergo severe cultural censorship. Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy was actually the first anime to have any modicum of success in the U.S., running from 1963 through 1965; however, anime could not have been considered anything close to popular until the late 1990s, when Pokemon started airing (Otmazgin 59). Though other series did not gain the insanely high degree of popularity Pokemon was able to—despite many attempts of American companies to buy and dub low-quality-anime—multiple other series achieved significant success, including Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball.
Closely following this time period came the most important element of America’s anime boom: the internet. Nissim Otmazgin, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Asian Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, notes that anime’s internet availability came at a time when young Americans were demonstrating a “sense of fatigue in…the same old narratives being used repeatedly” (63). Internet pirating of anime allowed prospective fans to explore the available varieties of anime without the cultural censorship of American dubbing companies or the limitations of airtime allotment. Additionally, it came at the perfect time to engage children who grew up on officially aired series, and who translated their childhood interest to adulthood investment in the versatile artform of anime (Price 161). As anime fans—commonly known as otaku—have grown increasingly vocal in their fandom, streaming services like Funimation and Crunchyroll began to license anime in the United States, adding official subtitles and dubs that lacked the censorship of broadcast companies. More recently, companies including Amazon and Netflix have also caught on to the growing anime fanbase, making deals with American licensing intermediaries and—in the case of Netflix—directly with Japanese production houses (Netflix). As it stands, North America maintains the most licensed anime series overseas, with 42.9% of all internationally licensed anime (AJA Anime Industry Report).
Overseas popularity aside, anime is a global industry from the inside nearly as much as it is a global product from the outside.
The road to the globalization of the anime industry began in the 1960s, when the production of manga developed into a system of multiple members that included several assistants and colorists, and that could also include an artist separate from the author (Ito 468). Once separated into various parts to be assembled by a team, the opportunity for international involvement made itself known. Increasingly since the 1980s and into the modern day, portions of anime production have been outsourced throughout Asia; in more recent times particularly, partial funding for anime production comes from the U.S. and China, though the anime is still primarily produced in Japan (Suan 12). A single anime series could have some degree of involvement from half a dozen countries. Shirobako, an anime about making anime, is a prime example: it is co-produced by a Japanese studio and a Japanese subsidiary of an American company; finishing touches to animation are completed by studios in South Korea and the Philippines; and certain background scenes were produced by a Vietnamese studio (Suan 13).
This international participation has become particularly prominent in the United States, with all credit due to Netflix. Netflix originally partnered with Production I.G. and Bones in 2018, and made deals with four new production houses in 2020, including the currently renowned MAPPA studio (Netflix). One must note, however, that Netflix maintains a public image implying a greater degree of production involvement than the service usually has, as it does with a number of other non-anime series. The label “A Netflix Original Anime” does not usually refer to whether the story was written by Netflix or if Netflix played a major role in production, but rather the fact that Netflix has funded those series, or that the series is directly licensed to Netflix without an intermediary. In the past couple of years, however, Netflix has begun to recognize the value of investing in the increasingly large American fanbase, co-producing a number of titles such as Devilman Crybaby and The Great Pretender (Baron). As Netflix continues to license and co-produce large quantities of anime, the accessibility of anime to existing otaku continues to grow, and the magnitude of Netflix’s audience invites a greater number of individuals who were previously unaware of anime to join the fanbase.
Anime plays another major global role aside from entertainment, serving as a tool for Japanese soft power, particularly as part of the “Cool Japan” project. Before and during World War II, Japan relied heavily on hard tactics, building its reputation and international reach practically entirely on these tactics (Akbas 99). In the postwar period, Japan had to move swiftly to shift its approach to international matters, rebuilding relationships with surrounding countries and orienting the national philosophy toward economic prosperity as a primary goal. Both traditional and popular Japanese culture had a part in this reconstruction of image, particularly in reconciliation with Southeast Asia, and aided the increased global consumption of Japanese products to various degrees (Akbas 100-101). The Japanese government recognized the ability of pop culture to serve as an ambassador for positive relations with Southeast Asia, and in 1991 founded the Japan Media Communication Center, or JAMCO. The government continued to fund a number of organizations dedicated to producing and broadcasting Japanese series, which eventually developed into the “Cool Japan” project that came to be incorporated into foreign policy as a form of “pop-culture diplomacy” (Akbas 105).
The aim of “Cool Japan” was, quite simply, to build positive relationships overseas through “cool” products such as anime, manga, video games, and J-Pop. The strategy was internationally recognized, with Time magazine noting that Japan was “turning pop culture into a major industrial resource” (Akbas 106). The Cool Japan project gained significant momentum in 2013, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe proclaimed his support for the project and had the public-private Cool Japan Fund established. Ibrahim Akbas, M.A. Student of Political Science and International Relations at the TOBB University of Economics and Technology, notes the unique position of anime and manga as part of this project in that “the main content of Japanese popular culture emantes [sic] from anime and manga…[they] are seen as the flagship of the Cool Japan project” (109). Essentially, despite the fact that anime and manga offer less economic contribution than video games within the scopes of this project, anime and manga are more culturally tied to Japan, and offer significantly more value in this way (Hernandez-Perez 9, Akbas 109). Particularly, the artistic styles, narratives, and ideals found in anime closely reflect Japanese culture.
Depending on the genre of the series, much of anime’s cultural value can be found at a surface level.
The presence of references to Shino gods and narratives, for example, are common, as are the close ties to nature they represent (Ito 156). In the anime Bungou Stray Dogs, every superpowered character is named after a major figure in Japanese classical literature, and has a special ability related to the central theme of their most recognized work. Japanese symbolism becomes quickly apparent as well, such as cherry blossoms in bloom representing ephemeral beauty and red spider lilies acting as omens of death and rebirth (Ito 156). Other nods to culture are more subtle, such as concern for the environment and ecological future as seen in director Hayao Miyazaki’s works like Spirited Away and Nausicaa in the Valley of the Wind, both of which have stories primarily focused on fantastical journeys with characters intrinsically tied to nature. To move in even closer, habits of interpersonal relationships can also be expressed through anime. Kinko Ito, Professor of Sociology at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, notes that Japanese communication—in reality specifically, but also in its translation to anime and manga—tends to rely on more subtle elements like expressions, gestures, tone of voice, and carefully timed silence (Ito 457). Though not found in all manga and anime series, these subtleties and other mannerisms of Japanese communication nonetheless become recognizable to the regular anime watcher, which serves as an addition to that individual’s cultural competence. As a general rule, narratives in anime are deeply rooted in aspects of Japanese tradition and society, ranging from history to folklore, from morality to aesthetics (Price 156).
Other anime offer fantastical and metaphorical takes on major events and concerns unique to Japan. The series Gate: Jieitai Kano Chi nite revolves around the Japanese Self Defense Force—a normally powerless entity—suddenly being put into a position of major power when a gate to a fantasy world appears in Japan. Based on a light novel series written by a member of the JSDF, Gate illustrates the political struggle of being considered a militarily helpless nation that has a devoted and earnest self-defense force. Mawaru Penguindrum, a series that originally appears to be about two brothers trying to aid their penguin-demon-possessed sister, is revealed in later episodes to be a metaphorical reflection of the Tokyo subway sarin attack, a gas attack performed by a cult that killed over a dozen people and injured thousands more. Penguindrum explores themes of helplessness in the face of loved ones being harmed, sharing suffering even when one party has not experienced it, and accepting reality in whatever form it takes. Of course, not every anime represents something significant; some are purely comedic, others exist for the sake of visual beauty, and others still are pure run-of-the-mill speculative fiction. However, it would be amiss to deny the fact that, no matter the subject matter, the inherent Japanese cultural perspective must go acknowledged and respected.
From its roots over half a century ago and through to the modern day, anime has proven its worth both as a global product and a versatile artform. Though anime’s arrival in the Western arena of media was a slow and difficult process, the fact that it has earned such a major fanbase illustrates its value as an art form, both in terms of the general human condition and as a connection to its country of origin. Via its vast demographic range and artistic freedom, anime cultivates a cultural relationship between Japan and the world, contributing to international cultural competence about Japan and acting as a remarkable tool of soft power. Anime is taking an increasingly large role in mainstream media in the United States, demonstrating its ability to flourish in popularity despite preconceived American notions of what exactly animation is capable of expressing and whom it is meant to address. By doing so, not only is anime able to reach a wider international audience, but it also exemplifies the importance of looking past one’s preconceived notions of an artform, and to recognize the different approach another culture may have to the same medium. Once a viewer removes their own cultural lens, they are free to explore these wonderful fictional worlds through others’ eyes—to find a new way to define love, to learn what it’s like to share another’s suffering, or to see one’s own world from a completely different perspective.
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“Anime Industry Report 2019 Summary.” The Association of Japanese Animations, https:// aja.gr.jp/download/anime-industry-report-2019-summary_. Accessed 4 March 2021.
Baron, Reuben. “Which Anime Are Really Netflix Originals?” CBR.com, https://www.cbr.com/ which-anime-are-really-netflix-originals/. Accessed 6 March 2021.
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Ito, Kinko. "A History of Manga in the Context of Japanese Culture and Society." Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 38, no. 3, 2005, pp. 456-475. ProQuest, http://lrc-proxy.abtech.edu: 2048/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/history-manga-context- japanese-culture-society/docview/195368472/se-2?accountid=8387.
“Netflix Bolsters Anime Programming Through New Partnerships With Four Leading Production Houses in Japan and Korea.” Netflix, https://about.netflix.com/en/news/ production-line-partnerships-2020. Accessed 6 March 2021.
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