You can try, but there is absolutely no way to explore the intricate puzzle that is Japanese pop-culture without acknowledging it`s special brand of animation, or anime. Walking down most streets you will inevitably run into at least one of the bright, wide-eyed faces smiling at you from shop windows, glaring underneath flowing neon colored hair. Posters of them rendered in everything from pen and ink to computer graphics adorn the walls of videogame shops and the arcades. These characters and their wide array of stories have become a symbol of Japan around the world and the growing popularity of anime has spawned many a convention and film festival aimed at pleasing fans. I must confess that I also enjoy it myself on occasion. What is it that I and so many find fascinating enough to pass up a live-action movie for “cartoons”? I`m glad you asked.
The term “anime”, as you may have guessed, comes from the shortening of the Japanese pronunciation of animation, animeshon. Including everything from television programs and advertisements to feature length theatrically released movies, anime is often characterized by fantastic themes, vibrant graphics and well developed characters. The first professionally made animated short, called The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa (Imokawa Mukuzō Genkanban no Maki), debuted in 1917. It`s creator, Oten Shimokawa, joined a group of animation pioneers who helped popularize the art form in Japan. Later came the first animated feature film, Momotaro`s Divine Sea Warriors, in 1944. However, it would not be until the 60`s and 70`s that anime would emerge into it`s more modern form with the work of legendary artist Osamu Tezuka, the “godfather of anime”. Tezuka, like many at the time, was profoundly influenced by the animation quality of Disney`s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, experimenting with the company`s techniques. Inspired by cartoons like Betty Boop and Disney`s Bambi, he invented the famously “large eyes” style that typifies most anime characters. The fruits of his efforts; Kimba the White Lion (inspiration for “The Lion King”), Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu, “Mighty Atom”) and his most profound work, Phoenix, went on to encourage many young Japanese animators to test boundaries and expand genres.
These genres are one of the aspects of Japanese animation that sets it apart from the western variety. Though I have memories of many awesome cartoons from my childhood, when I revisit them again today, they are either lacking in thematic variety, poorly animated or reveal themselves to be heavily edited anime re-released in the states as a new show. Though there has been some change in recent years, the western view of animation has and continues to be that it is ultimately geared towards children. However, in Japan the industry overflows with endless diversity of fresh genres, intelligent writing and significantly higher animation quality, the last element being a key factor in drawing (heh) different ages and audiences. Tezuka himself started the giant robot genre called “mecha”, which in turn branched out into the “super robot” and “real robot” genres of the 1980`s. Super robot anime like Mazinger Z (Tranzor Z in the states) portrayed robots with fantastic, superhero-like powers whereas the later real robot series, like Mobile Suit Gundam, depicted more realistic and scientifically grounded designs and stories.
These days the tales that can be spun through the anime lense continue to widen as new series and films emerge in horror (Vampire Hunter D), funky film noir (Cowboy Bebop), Japanese History (Grave of the Fireflies), martial arts (Dragonball) and action/adventure (Naruto, One Piece), among many others. There are also animation houses, like the great Hayao Miyazaki`s Studio Ghibli, that have risen in popularity as creators of anime that defy normal classification. Films like Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro walk the fine line between sublime artistry, child-like whimsy and deep themes. This variation in the styles of anime story telling has of course effected the manner in which they are drawn as well. Some are very juvenile and colorful in appearance, looking as if drawn by a 6 year old (Crayon Shin Chan) while others utilize powerful images of realism (Ghost in the Shell).
Japanese animation is an institution that is growing and deepening in incredible diversity. With all of the artistic and thematic possibilities out there, one question remains; maybe there`s an anime out there for you?