Ask John: Is Anime Really a Global Medium?

Have you see a video titled “Anime The Global Medium” by The Canipa Effect on Youtube? If you have seen it, what are you though about it?

Speaking as both a veteran anime fan and as a professional intellectual (I am a college English teacher), I can easily and absolutely agree with all of the points made in Callum May’s short documentary video. However, I’d also like to point out that the Canipa Effect’s “Anime: The Global Medium” video is limited to an accurate yet very limited perspective on anime creation. The video clip cites recent internationally co-financed anime productions including Idol Jiken, Akiba’s Trip, Kemono Friends, and Masamune-kun no Revenge as evidence of the increasing globalization of anime production. In fact, foreign investment and even creative input into anime production has been occurring for decades. Toei released its first color anime film, Hakujaden, on October 22, 1958. The film was pushed into American theatrical release by Global Pictures on March 15, 1961. NBC began broadcasting an English dub of Tetsuwan Atom on American TV only eight months and one week after the series premiered on Japanese television. “In 1981, The Christian Broadcasting Network created a children’s animated Bible series as part of an outreach to the nation of Japan. Little did we realize what impact the series would have in Japan and throughout the world. The English name for this series was ‘Superbook.'”(1) Scooby-Doo producer Fred Silverman developed the original idea for the Osamu Dezaki-directed “anime” series” Mighty Orbots that was co-created by TMS Entertainment and MGM/UA Television. The series aired on American TV in 1984 yet never had its first Japanese television broadcast until 2010. In the modern “American anime distribution industry” era, UK-based Manga Entertainment co-funded the production of 1995’s Ghost in the Shell. Due to its involvement in the anime’s production, Urban Vision released the Shihaisha no Tasogare ~ Twilight of the Dark Master OVA in America two months before it was released in Japan. In 2003 the Wachowski Brothers deliberately contracted studios including I.G. and 4C to animate The Animatrix as “anime.” And Quentin Tarantino commissioned Production I.G. to animate a segment of Kill Bill Volume 1 as “anime.” In 2005 Bandai USA commissioned studio Xebec to create the original American anime series D.I.C.E., which aired on Japanese television eleven months later as Dinobreaker. In particular ways, anime has always been a global medium. Foreign money has been invested into anime licensing and production as far back as the very first modern anime production from 1958. Japanese production studios have been sub-contracting animation work to studios in Korea, China, and the Philippines for decades. Foreign companies have had limited creative input into anime for Japanese consumption since at least the early 2000s. However, up until now the origination of anime has always been exclusively Japanese.

As the Canipa Effect video states, “If you take one animator from Massachusetts whose biggest inspiration is Masayuki Nonoka and another from Fukuoka who was inspired by Shinya Ohira both continue a legacy of Japanese aesthetics.” Indeed, foreigners have directed anime productions, including Michael Arias helming Tekkon Kinkreet and Se Jun Kim directing Mobile Suit Gundam: Twilight Axis. However, the 2006 Tekkon Kinkreet movie was based on Japanese manga created by Taiyo Matsumoto. Five of the film’s six storyboard artists were Japanese. The film’s art director and animation director were Japanese. Gundam: Twilight Axis was written by Kojiro Nakamura and animated by Sunrise. I’m not trying to undermine or discredit these non-Japanese directors. My point is that despite having foreign directors’ these anime still originate from Japanese creators with Japanese philosophies, perspectives, and sensibilities. The high profile involvement within anime of creators including Michael Arias, LeSean Thomas, Thomas Romain, and Stan Lee prove the video clip’s assertion that “Whether it’s producing animation outside or inside Japan, it’s something that anyone can be a part of regardless of what country they happen to be born in.” But working on anime and helping produce anime is not quite the same thing as originating the concepts and philosophy of anime. As the video clip states, presently foreigners can and do replicate the “Japanese aesthetics” of anime, the visual appearance and kinetic style of anime. But creating the underlying cultural philosophy that inspires anime is quite a different circumstance.

Foreigners watch and enjoy anime for more than just its visual appearance. If anime was merely a visual aesthetic, we’d be equally or more receptive to and fond of contemporary Disney animation, or Powerpuff Girls, or Legend of Korra. Yet even the most receptive fans and viewers still notice that there’s an intrinsic difference between The Little Mermaid and Mermaid Melody Pichi Pichi Pitch and Seto no Hanayome, and between Legend of Korra and Seirei no Moribito. Anime is more than frenetic action, wild haircuts, and big eyes. Skilled animators worldwide can replicate the visual appearance of anime, but presently it still takes creators raised in Japan, who have a Japanese psychology, to evoke the uniquely Japanese sensibilities that underlie Japanese anime. The earliest regularly broadcast weekly television anime was 1963’s Tetsuwan Atom, a story about a man who builds a robot replacement for his son. November 1963’s Eight Man revolved around a human being living inside a mechanical body. The 1972 Mazinger Z anime was the first anime to depict a pilot riding inside a giant robot. From its earliest inception, Japanese anime has exhibited a fascination with the relationship of humans to mechanical technology and the integration of humanity with technology. The fascination springs from Japan’s post WWII technological rebirth. Original American cartoons including Megas XLR and Generator Rex have also emphasized human interaction with robots and machines, but these shows have been conscious homages to Japanese mecha anime rather than representations of uniquely American philosophy. Anime series including Hand Maid May, Steel Angel Kurumi, and Saber Marionette revolve around humans falling in love with robots. Saishuheiki Kanojo depicts a struggle to sustain a romance when one partner becomes a cyborg weapon of mass destruction. Japan, in real life, is developing robots to supplement and even replace human beings while the idea of robots replacing humans is abhorrent in American culture. The concept of “moe,” a passionate fascination with something, whether the object be little sisters or glasses or school uniforms or pop idols is a prominent theme within anime that’s complete alien to American culture. Anime series including Aho Girl and Fight Ippatsu! Jyuden-chan depict teen boys routinely beating teen girls nearly into unconsciousness. In anime such depictions are played for humor. Similar depictions would be considered unthinkably immoral for inclusion in American animation. Anime series including Kamichu, Inari Konkon Koi Iroha, Gingitsune, Nekogami Yaoyorozu, and Etotama distinctly revolve around the Japanese spiritual idea of “kami,” an idea that doesn’t exist in American culture. No major studio produced American animated feature film in history has ever approached the degree of dense, challenging intellect present in Japanese animated films including Ghost in the Shell, Jinroh, or even Perfect Blue. Even seemingly small and minor details present in anime make Japanese animation unique. For example, in countless anime students can be seen cleaning their own school classrooms. American schools don’t operate that way. And in the final episode of Action Heroine Cheer Fruits a Japanese government official respectfully bows to a portrait of a deceased community leader. The concept of bowing is alien to American culture. The idea of bowing to an inanimate object, especially when no one is looking, is even more unthinkable to the American psychology.

Whether or not they consciously realize, non-Japanese viewers are intrigued by anime because it’s different; it’s uniquely Japanese because it naturally and subtly depicts and is even fundamentally based on Japanese culture. The vast majority of foreign animators may be able to replicate to visual design of anime, but they can’t instinctively grasp and incorporate the natural, native experience and psychology that Japanese creators have. The distinct pacing and timing of anime is another aspect of anime that’s uniquely Japanese. The most prominent illustration is Dragon Ball Z, sometimes facetiously called “Drag On Ball.” If Dragon Ball Z had been directed by a foreign director instead of by Daisuke Nishio, its pacing would unquestionably be different. It wouldn’t be quite the same show.

I absolutely do agree with the video’s assertion that “Anime is a global medium, not just in the way people all over the world enjoy it but in how it’s been adopted as an aesthetic and how people have traveled miles to become a part of it.” But the video only addresses anime as a “global medium” in a very narrow, restrictive sense. Anime is global in its popularity. International companies are involved in the production and distribution of anime. Hakujaden, the first anime of the modern era, was based on a Chinese myth, so modern anime has always been conscious of global influences. Foreign animators have worked in anime production. But no foreign creators have yet originated an animated production that’s indistinguishable from anime conceived of by native Japanese writers. I suspect that it’ll still be another ten to fifteen years before we see foreign animators adept and knowledgeable enough to be able to originate “anime” that’s indistinguishable from Japanese invented concepts and stories. It’s only within the past 15 years or so that the first generation of Americans have grown up with an extensive and expansive exposure to contemporary Japanese anime and an awareness of Japanese customs, traditions, and moral values. I suspect it’ll take another generation or two before American artists are familiar enough with the subtle inherent cultural characteristics of anime to be able to create their own original animation that has a degree of thematic and cultural nuance that makes it as fascinating, unique, and complex as Japanese animation.

As the video documentary short says, “With the closure of many Japanese animation schools, the anime industry is on a path towards global reliance. They will need to take more flights to foreign animation schools in Europe and America to find new talents to help create the increasing workload of anime in Japan.” That statement is true. But presently the Japanese industry is employing foreigners to develop concepts and stories introduced by Japanese writers. Productions including Adi Shankar’s Castlevania animation, LeSean Thomas’s Children of Ether, and studio D’Art Shtajio’s Indigo Ignited are significant landmarks on the start toward globally created anime, but judging by present example, they’re not yet equal to and indistinguishable from the appeal and technical production characteristics of native Japanese created anime.


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