Darl Larsen

(Based on lectures given in animation history courses for BYU’s Animation and Theatre & Media Arts programs, and an Honors presentation in February 2004.)

We’ll start with a question that I pose to my animation students: Which country has the largest animation industry? Most say the United States, though they’re wrong by a mile (or a kilometer). Then comes the surprise—Japan is currently the largest animation industry in the world, in numbers of projects, studios, and regular attendance. For every Finding Nemo in this country, there are virtually hundreds of half-hour and longer Japanese animé produced for all ages, tastes and predilections.

The Japanese animation industry was born 50 years after the U.S. animation industry, but very aware of it. Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat and Bugs Bunny were well known characters in Japan by the time Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) was introduced in 1963, an animé (Japanese animated cartoon) from a manga (Japanese comic book) by Osamu Tezuka. The cartoon quickly gained huge popularity, mostly because it catered to an after-school audience in a practically wide open market. Tezuka can be credited with nurturing the blossoming, worldwide anime industry from that small seed.

Significantly, this industry was also born with sound and for television, as opposed to other animation cultures, like the U.S., where cartoons showed theatrically between about 1899 and 1963. And rather than animating every 2 or 3 frames (as in early Disney or Fleischer animation), animé moved to every 5 or 6 frames (or even more), a significant change that reduced costs and radically altered the aesthetic of the animation simultaneously. Rather than flowing from pose to pose, like the dancing hippos in Fantasia, animé characters leap from “extreme” to “extreme” with much less in between (and less in-betweening). Animé animators cut out what isn’t absolutely necessary for story and character development. This allows for the viewer to fill in the gaps for him- or herself, and after watching significant amounts of animé, traditional animation can seem positively leaden!

Though Japanese artists had dabbled in animation since about 1915, animation as an industry did not emerge until after the watershed year of 1963. Astro Boy was the first Japanese animated TV series and first of many to feature robots with human souls, a subgenre that animé has explored ever since. Animé first competed with quality Japanese features of the period (this was the time of Japan’s New Wave movement in cinema), then as movie attendance peaked in 1950s, animation (particularly for TV) overtook feature films in audience interest and investment. The rise of animé, then, coincided precisely with the decline of the Japanese feature film, and immediately filled a gap that audience members may never have perceived. From children's themes to animations for all ages, by 1999, animation accounted for 50% of all releases from Japanese studios.

Historically, the roots of anime and manga can be traced back to the Edo period (1600-1868)—kibyoshi, or illustrated books with humorous/erotic content, as well as comic/pornographic woodprints (ukiyo-e)—and even earlier in the Zen cartoons of the medieval period and the comic animal scrolls of the tenth century (Napier).

But television as a broadcast and creative medium became key, since TV allowed longer, serialized narrative structures (episodic plots and story lines with multiple cast members in disparate settings) quite foreign to Western animators. This also connected to the manga heritage, which featured long-running, connected stories and characters through serialized publications. TV also benefited from the availability of myriad talented animators who had little or no work in the more and more conservative Japanese feature film industry of the 1960s.

Television also allowed for animators to focus on the central character, not on a group, and time can and does slow down as the character concentrates on the action at hand. Time, as Henri Bergson described, becomes significant as it is lived, not as it might be measured. There are also “subversive” elements in animé that continually resist conformity, which is interesting when one thinks about Japanese culture and the supposed importance of conforming. Animé tends to resist or even avoid the "reassurance" that Hollywood films provide (happy endings, everything wrapped up satisfactorily), and where ideology is dealt with and contained. Fascistic governments and individuals, neo-nationalist military fervor, anti-American and pro-American sentiment—they happily share the same cinematic space in the animé world, along with their opposites and variations, and on.

In the early 1970s, when Huckleberry Hound was running (legs moving only) across your screen, from left to right (never toward or away from you), Japanese animé series were, according to Ranney and Ledoux, "absolutely overflow[ing] with tracking shots, long-view establishing shots, fancy pans, unusual point-of-view 'camera angles' and extreme close-ups.” The treasured “middle” space of the U.S. cartoon screen is exploded in favor of the whole screen, and in depth.

UT-Austin Asian Studies professor Susan Napier writes: "Animé is a medium in which distinctive visual elements combine with an array of generic, thematic, and philosophical structures to produce a unique aesthetic world. Often this world is more provocative, more tragic, and more highly sexualized (even in lighthearted romantic comedies) and contains far more complicated story lines than would be the case in equivalent American popular cultural offerings" (from Animé From Akira to Princess Mononoke).

And why, my students will inevitably ask, in most animé do the characters not look Japanese? Napier writes that animé creators participate in "what might be called a nonculturally specific anime style," which doesn't reinforce Japanese cultural identity, but problematizes that identity. Many Japanese commentators use the word mukokuseki, or "state-less," to describe the local/global world of animé. It is a struggle for identity in the postmodern age.

Animé ultimately reveals a fascination with (see Napier):

• All things mechanical (mecha subgenre, like Guyver: Out of Control [1986]; Bubblegum Crash; Evangelion; Ghost in the Shell [1995])

• The onslaught of technology (for good and evil)

• Gender roles and gender transgression (Why are so many of animé’s stars female? Napier thinks it is because the female is more caught up in the changes of a modern society.)

• Also, the meaning of history in contemporary society, often in a specifically Japanese context (see Akira, where nuclear apocalypse is demonstrated, or even Mononoke, where the changing place of women in Japanese society, and the protean connection to nature are discussed)

Napier writes:

Indeed, anime may be the perfect medium to capture what is the overriding issue of our day, the shifting nature of identity in a constantly changing society. With its rapid shifts of narrative pace and its constantly transforming imagery, the animated medium is superbly positioned to illustrate the atmosphere of change permeating not only Japanese society but also all industrialized or industrializing societies. Moving at rapid—sometimes breakneck—pace and predicated upon the instability of form, animation is both a symptom and a metaphor for a society obsessed with change and spectacle. In particular, animation's emphasis on metamorphosis can be seen as the ideal artistic vehicle for expressing the postmodern obsession with fluctuating identity. (12)

Thus, metamorphosis (called henshin in Japanese) becomes the overriding thematic/aesthetic/narrative element in animé. In Understanding Animation Paul Wells writes of metamorphosis:

… [as] the constituent core of animation itself…metamorphosis…means that it is possible to create a fluid linkage of images through the process of animation itself rather than through editing...metamorphosis in animation achieves the highest degree of economy in narrative continuity, and adds a dimension to the visual style of the animated film in defining the fluid abstract stage between the fixed properties of the images before and after transition. Metamorphosis also legitimises the process of connecting apparently unrelated images, forging original relationships between lines, objects, etc., and disrupting established notions of classical story-telling. Metamorphosis can resist logical developments and determine unpredictable linearities (both temporal and spatial) that constitute different kinds of narrative construction. It can also achieve transformations in figures and objects which essentially narrate those figures and objects, detailing, by implication, their intrinsic capacities. In enabling the collapse of the illusion of physical space, metamorphosis destabilises the image, conflating horror and humour, dream and reality, certainty and speculation. (69)

And the favorite object or site of metamorphic transformation in animé is the human body. From human to monster or animal, from fleshy to metallic, from corporeal to ethereal, from man to woman, etc. It is, more precisely, the adolescent body that is most often the site of metamorphosis, a body which can appear monstrous to the teen, his/her peers, the world of the film, and the audience. In Akira, Tetsuo undergoes a mutation which can be looked at on two levels, according to Napier: …"as [both] a fresh expression of an alienated youth's search for identity and as a cyberpunk meditation on apocalypse" (43). This is also discussed as “body horror,” and the results of a teen’s hormonal flux can be realized on literally the global or even cosmic level in animé.
Susan Pointon discusses this idea and the poly-cultural influences of/on animé in her article "Transcultural Orgasm as Apocalypse: Urotsukidoji: The Legend of the Overfiend":

It is impossible to ignore the constant cross-pollination and popular cultural borrowings that complicate and enrich the animé texts. The creators for the most part are young Japanese artists in their twenties and thirties who have been exposed since birth to western influences. Despite their Japanese overlay, many of these videos pay generous and obsessively scrupulous homage to sources as diverse as American television cop shows of the seventies, European GlamRock fashions of the eighties, and French New Wave cinema from the sixties. (43)

Critic Richard Corliss provided a short history of animé for novitiates (most of us, admittedly) when Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) premiered in this country in 1999. Mononoke became Japan’s biggest grossing film of all time, only to be replaced by Titanic, which was subsequently unseated by Miyazaki’s next feature, Spirited Away (2001). Now, the history:

• 1958—Taiji Yabushita's first animated feature Legend of the White Serpent inspires 17-year-old Hayao Miyazaki

• 1963-67—TV series Tetsuwan Atom, Gigantor and Speed Racer become popular in Japan and then the U.S.

• 1979—Miyazaki releases his first theatrical feature, Castle of Cagliostro

• 1982—The series Macross premieres, leading to the Americanized version Robotech

• 1983—Dallos, first made-for-video anime (OAV), appears in Japan

• 1983—Early manga, Barefoot Gen, translated into English, and later animated

• 1987—The Wings of Honneamise is released, making anime officially an “artform”

• 1988—Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo's tale of postapocalyptic teens in Tokyo, cues first stirrings of animania in the West

• 1991—MTV begins showing segments of Aeon Flux, an anime-derived U.S. cartoon, on its animation show Liquid Television

• 1997—"Pokemon" debuts in Japan

• 1999—Pokemania sweeps U.S.; Princess Mononoke gets big push into theaters

• 2001—Spirited Away (Corliss, TIME Magazine)

Today’s brightest star is certainly Miyazaki, whose Studio Ghibli is producing beautiful, family-friendly animé feature films. Spirited Away is a fanciful retelling of Through the Looking Glass, complete with bloated spirits enjoying a rest at a mystical bath house where young Sen (the Alice character) must work if she is to save her parents. Other titles—Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Delivery Service—though varying in content, are handled with loving craftsmanship that many thought disappeared from animation years ago.

Other animé, especially the works created for Japanese TV, must be carefully screened for family compatibility, but there’s more than enough out there for just about anyone. Those looking for interesting characters developed over multiple episodes and across myriad story line elements could do little better than made-for-TV animé (I show my writers selected animé cartoons as we discuss the intricacies of plot and character development).

Happy viewing!

Additional readings

Luca Raffaelli's "Disney, Warner Bros. and Japanese Animation" in Pilling's Animation: A Reader in Animation Studies, pages 112-136.

Also, Napier’s book mentioned above is the best thing out there for a thoughtful, academic look at animé of all kinds.

See Also


Princess Mononoke

Spirited Away

Grave of the Fireflies