The following dissertation will discuss how Asian animation, more popularly known as anime, has influenced Western culture. This is an interesting and almost counter-intuitive question to address, since most analyses of non-Western cultural phenomena are usually concerned with impacts of Western culture on alternative art forms. That we can even pose the question speaks highly of how pervasive the genre is becoming.
In proceeding, an introduction to what is meant be ‘anime’ will be given, incorporating a brief historical overview. Theoretical approaches to globalization, which is often used to look at such questions in our contemporary context, will then be given. The essay will then turn to two ‘case studies’ which aim to address whether anime can be said to have influenced the west and how it has done that, using American animations and comics as a counterpoint. We will then discuss how anime might be seen to have witnessed different cultural phenomena in general, before reaching our ultimate conclusion.
Anime is the generic term given to animation of Japanese origin. The earliest known example dates from 1917 and it can be distributed via television, video, and online as well as theatrically. The style which has come to be associated with it is used additionally in videos, computer games, advertisements, films, and even novels. It can be both hand-drawn and computer animated. An associated art form is manga, which are Japanese comics or graphic novels (O’Connell, 1999).
Anime is considered to have begun early in the twentieth century when Japanese animators began playing around with film-making techniques which had been popularized in Europe and America, namely from Russia, France, Germany and the United States. What is commonly regarded as the first piece of Japanese animation was a short, of two minutes duration, featuring a Samurai who lost control of his sword. The preoccupation with Shinto ideals – of which the Samurai has long been a feature in Japanese culture – has pervaded the genre ever since, and is considered to be one of its defining characteristics in terms of content (Poitras, 1998).
By the time the 1930s came around, animation had managed to secure a large share in the Japanese film market as in that country, live action films were not afforded the same kind of funding that was lavished on Hollywood productions. A shortage of actors and locations meant that film-makers were able to construct lavish alternative worlds and scenarios by drawing their environments rather than constructing them. It is said that the success of the 1937 Disney feature film, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, further inspired Japanese animators to reach mass audiences. One man in particular, Osamu Tezuka, was particularly impressed by Disney’s technique and went on to pioneer his own method of producing animated films which required less frames per minute and further reduced the cost of producing films of this kind; it also meant he required less skilled personnel and could turn out animated features at a much faster rate than had previously been done. The resulting style, which has come to characterize anime, is known as a form of ‘limited animation’ – where the eye is tricked into thinking there is more movement on screen then there actually is, because of the juxtaposition of images.
Tezuka is generally considered to be the father of Japanese animation (Sharp, 2007). Amongst other characters, he invented the popular and recognizable Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion. It wasn’t until the 1970s that manga attained the mainstream popularity which had been so longed for by its creators and which it retains today. The associated growth in interest in anime occurred in the 1980s, and shortly after popular television series in the anime style were translated and distributed to overseas markets. While it still poses no threat in terms of any potential domination of the visual medium over live action film and television, it definitely enjoys a cult following around the world and many sub-cultures have sprung around it both in Asian countries and those of the so-called ‘West’. Of course, animation isn’t just for the kids. A notoriously seedy form of Japanese animation is overtly sexual and openly pornographic. Anime clearly caters for all ages and tastes. Nor is it necessarily benign, as
identifying it with cartoons might suggest. One commentator recently noted that in 2007,
13 manga comics, including “Rape Me in My School Uniform” and “Pedophile’s Banquet II,” were labeled “harmful books” by the Kyoto Prefecture for featuring excessive sexual acts involving girls under the age of 13 (Bosker, 2007).
Regardless of the questionable ‘wholesomeness’ of certain forms of the genre, there is no doubt that it is a profitable business to be cultivating. According to the Japanese External Trade Organization, the market for anime in the United States alone is worth some 4.35 billion dollars every year. This is one of the biggest money earners for Japan abroad. Not only that, but the cultural vanguard has now realized that animation is now more easily recognizable as something ‘Japanese’ than their tradition artforms have been, with Journalists noting that
Japan’s cultural diplomacy has generally focused on more traditional Japanese art forms, such as kabuki and noh theater and okiyo-e woodblock prints. These days it’s doubling down on cartoons (Bosker, 2007).
The fact that much anime promotes Shinto ideology and this is seamlessly transferred to a foreign audience means that it provides a means of using new methods to transmit age-old lessons to new audiences, and can work to keep Japanese culture alive, almost by stealth. It is hoped, amongst other things, that anime can be used to pass on age-old lessons to the next generation, in a form that they are happy to engage with.
2. Theoretical framework: Globalization and Culture
This essay will look at Asian anime and its influence on Western culture. On one level, this is a question for contemporary art, under whose auspices the likes of animation as a style unquestionably falls. Analyses of this kind would trace the development of the art form and detail the influences which informed its development.
While no doubt valid, this is not the most interesting approach. Another way to view the topic is as a phenomenon of globalization, tracing how something produced in a specific time and place has permeated other ways of thinking given the increasingly mobility and fluidity of ideas and styles in the global village. This is more interesting and, arguably, relevant given the concerns of the question.
Globalization can generally be described as the increasing scope and scale of global interconnectedness. This is presented as being characterized by the high technology which enabled instantaneous global communication, financed by global markets, supported by global trade and led by global companies and organizations.
There are two different ways of looking at globalization: from the economic or cultural positions. Economic analyses focus on the factors outlined above, while cultural globalization concerns itself with theorizing about changes in social life brought about by the phenomenon. A variety of different frameworks have been advanced to study social processes affected by globalization, including the network theories of Castells and the complexity analyses of John Urry (Castells, 2000). Another ongoing debate is centered around the question of hybridity and identity; it is this that is of most relevance for the topic under discussion here.
An influential analysis of identity under globalization is the ‘Americanization’ debate. What this is, is essentially a revamped theory of hegemony – something which has been an object of sociological and philosophical debate for many years. In terms of globalization, many influential thinkers express concern that American culture, being the dominant cultural force, is rendering other cultures obsolete as Hollywood films and Western pop music come to dominate markets around the world, elbowing out local competitors unless they imitate the dominant style which it espouses and generally resulting in a kind of monocultural output. From this perspective, the question of how Asian animation influences Western culture is somewhat counter-intuitive, as from this standpoint any influence would surely work the other way. Commentators concerned with Americanization would look at how anime, or any other art form, would adapt itself to American tastes either to ensure its continued existence or be subsumed entirely under the larger umbrella which it offers. Has this happened? That is what we need to ascertain.
Examples exist of where this hasn’t been the case. A notable example comes from India and the so-called Bollywood film industry. Indeed, Bollywood films are thriving despite the growing Indian middle class who have the means to access American television and films. There are many reasons why this is, but cultural preference at home surely accounts for some of it. It does not, however, explain the increasing popularity of Bollywood movies outside of India. Of course, certain ‘crossover’ films – which combine elements of Western and Indian film-making – are largely responsible for easing international audiences into wanting to consume the original product: it is hardly surprising that one of the most popular films of the last year was Slumdog Millionaire, a film which had Bollywood stylings but was made by British film-makers and presented itself more in a narrative than musical form as is the tradition, making it more readily accessible to foreign markets. There are examples of anime which do the same thing.
At the same time, looking at Bollywood in this manner ignores the fact that there is considerable resentment of the medium in its native India, largely because it focuses largely on the culture of Mumbai in which the Indian film industry is based. In a country with as many ethnically, and linguistically, diverse groups as India has, this has the potential to upset a lot of people. So hegemony is not only something that works between countries; it can also be within them. Which is to say, Asian animation does not represent or speak for all of Asia; it is not indicative of the tastes and beliefs even of all Japanese people. This is something of which we must always remain mindful.
Approaches to cultural globalization which favour hybridity would look to try and see if and how anime manages to negotiate two different influences, the Western and the traditional, and how it might use these to make something new, mixing styles together. Analysts who take a network approach would usually favour a constructivist appropriation, arguing further that the different influences work together to continually make and re-make the final product as part of an on-going negotiation from which it is impossible to ascertain which would be the dominant influence and which the more passive. Constructivists believe that the question is moot, as the resulting product will always be contingent on all influences (Urry, 2003).
Before we establish how Asian animation has influenced Western culture – and indeed, if it still does – we have to ask why it is even able to at all. This has to do with the interconnected nature of the two. Like Slumdog Millionaire appealing to people of different backgrounds, anime too is a kind of bridging culture which can speak across multiple worldviews and reconciles them. It is at once both familiar and foreign, which is the key to its popularity. We will now look at what may have made it this way.
3. Case Study: Anime and Manga
It is somewhat ridiculous to apply the Americanization thesis too anime in the first place, simply because anime was inspired and influenced by Western culture first and foremost. This is not surprising, given the dominant view that the era of globalization which we are now thought to be living through is actually the second period of intense global activity. The first occurred at the turn of the last century and preceded the First World War, which ultimately cut it short. The world may look very different today, had the turn of historical events been different. In any case, it was following the First World War that the animation of the West found its way to Japan and inspired filmmakers there.
As discussed previously, the animators from Disney inspired Japanese filmmakers, who adopted and then changed their techniques to fit their own purposes. Rather than deploring the ‘decline’ of anime, which it might be tempting to look as an authentic Japanese art form which has been corrupted by encroaching Western influence, anime always was already a hybrid form in the first place. And rather than as some kind of cultural victim whose defining features crumbled under pressure from hegemonic forces, Japanese innovators took what they found useful from Western techniques and adapted them for their own uses: their popularizing the limited animation concept shows how this is possible.
This is not to say anime is devoid of Western influence: it isn’t. The influence is everywhere, but the point is that it always was.
It is, also, difficult to ascertain the degree of influence so it is very tricky to make any kind of argument which would aim to ‘measure’, in some sense, the extent of Western versus authenticity. Take for example, one of the most celebrated characteristics of Japanese animation: the stylized eyes of the characters. Many theories about this exist, but it is generally accepted that the style of drawing wide eyes was developed because these are one of the physical traits related to people of ‘Western’ appearance which the Japanese found attractive and wished to imitate. As animation posed no physical limitation to the realization of this, artists were not limited to picturing their characters as they may have existed in reality, and thus the style was developed.
Not everyone agrees with this view. Indeed, Cultural anthropologist Matt Thorn argues that Japanese animators and audiences do not perceive such stylized eyes as inherently more or less foreign (Thorn, 2004). At the same time, anime is also associated with often portraying characters who are ‘super deformed’ – having heads much larger than their bodies than is physically normal, and also has a disproportionate number of robotic, humanoid and anthropomorphic animal characters, none of which have much basis in reality. In light of this, how much can we say that the stylized eyes are actually an attempt to mimic western features, than they are any other kind of imagined being? Is it even fair to call this an ‘influence’ at all?
Western animation, too, features anthropomorphic animals and robots: but these are not something to which it has any distinctive kind of cultural claim and are surely common to all cultures.
Taking another example, anime has conventionally used a set of particular techniques by which is characters are shown to display emotion. Characters that are shocked or surprised will perform a ‘face fault’, in which they display an extremely exaggerated expression which freezes for several seconds and is held in position, to had emphasis. Angry characters may exhibit a ‘vein’ or ‘stressmark’ effect, in which lines representing bulging veins will appear on their forehead and remain visible to long as they wish to portray this emotion. Angry women will often summon a mallet from nowhere and strike someone with it, leading to the concept of Hammerspace in cartoon physics and is probably a vestige of the sexist attitudes with which women were regarded when both comics and mange were developing as a medium earlier last century. Male characters developing a bloody nose when they are with their female love interests, signifies arousal (based on an old wives’ tale). Characters will produce sweat-drop (traditional anime) or show a deep red blush, or show squiggly lines underneath the eyes, to manifest repressed romantic feelings. The look this symbolizes is something like “going ga-ga” or weak at the knees.
The evolution of these conventions are not borrowed directly from Western animation, but the use of conventional signs which act like a kind of secret language, understood by an audience familiar with the genre, is also found in Western animation. Think, for example, of cloud-like bubbles used to indicate private thoughts, rather than spoken words, in comic strips or the frequent use of the aside in animated Western cartoons. These tendencies can be claimed by neither side as belonging to ‘them’, and are merely examples of communication techniques common across cultures.
It bears repeating that it is difficult to argue that something has lost its authenticity when it was always a mélange product to start with. Certain anime, being a commercial venture, has always been about making money for its creators and as such some purists may argue that it has no place being considered as serious art, This essay will not concern itself in any detail with this particular question, except to say the following: one of the author’s first experiences of the anime style was through an animated children’s television show made in the 1980s and distributed across the world. The animation was completed in Japan and displayed many of the stylistic features outlined here, yet was based on a script written in France by a French company, and its funding came from French and American sources. The series was set in South America during the Spanish invasions of the 1500s and the mythology it introduced was based on Incan and Mayan philosophy. The question this poses is, can this show not be considered anime? It looked like anime. It used many of the conventions used by anime. It was drawn in Japan. But it wasn’t ‘Japanese’, at least not the five-year-olds watching it and certainly didn’t even seem to be to the author either, until many years later. How do we define when something does or doesn’t fit a particular national or cultural mould in an era of globalization?
Clearly, ascertaining the extent to which anime can said to be Western influenced is tricky, but what about the reverse? Can we say that anime influences Western culture? We will address this firstly by looking at whether Western animation can be said to be increasingly anime-influenced.
4. Case Study: Comics and Cartoons
It is true that anime’s influence is becoming stronger in the dominant ‘Hollywood’ mainstream. The popularity of television shows such as Pokemon and all the paraphernalia that came along with it that it is no doubt becoming increasingly influential as a pop culture phenomenon favoured by Western youth of today. Whole programming blocks of mainstream cable channels such as the Nickelodeon network feature anime-inspired shows, and even mainstream cinema is churning out live-action features based on what were anime cartoons and video games (currently, the Dragonball movie springs to mind). However, is anime itself as some kind of superior genre the ’cause’ of this: is this a claim that we can make?
The answer to this is: doubtful. The rise in popularity of comics and associated art forms in America took place in parallel with their development in Japan: the two almost developed side by side, not really achieving mainstream acceptance until the 1980s. This is another reason why talk about which influences the other is somehow pointless. In terms of art, these are both new mediums and their popularity was probably brought about by the same kind of social and cultural factors working in the two locations simultaneously.
While anime is gaining wider acceptance and finding ever larger audiences, at the end of the day another trend is working in parallel. If we look closely, it is not only that anime and manga cartoons are being ‘discovered’ by Hollywood: on the contrary, it is all manner of cartoons and comics that are being translated into live action films. The last decade has seen the Spiderman series become a series of blockbuster films, not to mention the X-Men phenomenon, while a big-budget adaptation of the Incredible Hulk graced cinema screens across the world in the not-to-recent past. It is rumoured that a Wonder Woman feature is in development, while Superman was franchised long ago as all but the most introverted under-rock dwellers will tell you.
There is no definitive answer which springs to mind as to why this might be the case, unless we want to read in all kinds of subliminal undertext about the global population looking for a strong leader who has the capacity to right all our moral wrongs and make everything right again in the world. The fact that we look to something with extra-human powers in order to do this only speaks to our feelings of failure as a species, as in we feel we alone are not capable of undoing the mess we have gotten ourselves in to. Who knows what the reason is. The point however, is that we are increasingly turning to comic book heroes to be the subjects of our mainstream cultural outpourings. In such an environment, is it any wonder that anime has been swept up in the phenomenon? It would surely be more surprising in this case if it had not have been.
It is not just blatant comic book adaptations which show anime and animation influences, of course. Movies such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill series, to name just one example, are cultural products specifically created to invoke an anime style while having no one particular reference in mind. Indeed, in many subcultures which have nothing to do with entertainment, anime is held in particularly high regard. It is in this context that anime can be most readily seen to be influencing Western culture.
5. Discussion: General influences of Anime on Western Culture
While it is difficult to identify whether anime has greatly affected the cultural output of something like Hollywood, its growing influence on Western culture in general – and particularly the subcultures in which youth participate – is more noticeable. Again, this happens alongside any number of phenomena and it is difficult to identify the extent of its influence, but it is nevertheless there and highly visible.
Something readily associated with Japan is its ‘street culture’ and style of dressing in an almost comical fashion. Young doyennes from Tokyo wear brightly coloured clothes and make-up, and do extraordinarily things with their hair in the name of fashion. Much of this is predicated on the depiction of anime characters, whom lovers of street fashion tend to emulate.
Again though, we must be wary: even though it is tempting to say that Tokyo street fashion is ‘unique’ especially because it has come to be so readily associated with modern Japan, again its influences draw heavily from a desire to emulate something Western. The end result may look too exaggerated to bear much resemblance to the original, but nonetheless this is the underlying intention. The celebrated ‘Ganguru’ girls of Tokyo street fashion fame where brightly colored clothing including mini-skirts and patterned sarongs. The style features bleached hair, fake eyelashes, black and white eyeliner, a dark tan, platform shows, and in the end has been derived as they wish to more like a foreigner. Similarly the Kogal style of dressing, which is like Ganguro, shares many of these features but places greater emphasis on make-up and hair. The intention though, is to look like a “Californian girl”.
Ironically, this practice has become associated with modern Japanese society, while the people who engage in it wish to distance themselves from exactly that.
A particular form of street dressing is known as ‘cosplay’ short for “costume play”, and is an activity where participants dress up in costumes like their favourite anime or video game characters and try to act as they imagine those characters would, as if taking on their persona. This kind of activity collapses the distinction between reality and imagined worlds, and can be read as symptomatic of the kind of society where socialization is increasingly mediated through technologies and is increasingly impersonal, acting as a barrier to one-on-one links between people. Adopting ‘masks’, like cosplayers do, might sustain these masks even in a “real life” situation, ironically allowing those that wear them to retain a distance from others while ironically standing out in a dramatic way, in public. Cosplayers reveal little of themselves in their quest to look like something else entirely.
While something like cosplay is yet to find widespread acceptance in the Western world – indeed, it is still not highly popular in Japan, and is considered to be more of a kind of performance art – it does have some advocates. Most people though are less extreme, and tend to mimic simpler Asian fashion trends. In any event, what motivates them is a desire to break with a tradition, rather than reinforce either the one they are acting out against or that of another society.
Regardless, perception is the key, and the wearer is powerless to control the associations those who look at them do. To most onlookers, the rising popularity of street fashion is synonymous with rising interest in all things Japanese, ranging from motorcars to sushi bars. It can be seen not only in what people wear, but also what they do.
Video games – themselves once considered the domain of teenage boys and computer nerds – are now something of a mainstream pastime. All major computer game console manufacturers, with the exception of Microsoft – who got in to the game relatively late with its X-Box, anyway – are Japanese: Nintendo, Sega, Atari and Sony (the maker of Playstation). This has the potential to take Japanese products into the entertainment mainstream, even if most of the titles released to Western markets are specifically made to appeal to consumers in these places and most Japanese titles are only released nationally. Regardless, characters like the Mario Brothers and Sonic the Hedgehog, which were all Japanese and in an anime style, are pop culture staples easily recognizable by Western members of generations X and Y. In the sense that anime has pervaded something like computer games and the popularity of that phenomenon has taken off in its own right, anime can be said to have influenced Western culture even if be default.
This dissertation has aimed to discuss Asian animation, known as anime, and how it has influenced Western culture. It has done this by discussing the theoretically bases of globalization and looking at the different approaches to cultural change in an era of globalization have made this possible. It then gave specific examples of how anime was both influenced by, and itself influenced, the West. It cautioned against arguing too strongly in favour of a chain of linear influence, as it is often difficult to qualify the extent to which one thing can be said to have influenced another. In the end, it has agreed and given examples of how anime has influenced Western culture, largely by using other cultural phenomena as a vehicle. As for whether this trend will continue, or what will happen next – we simply cannot say. But this was never the aim.