A Gaijin’s Guide to Anime and Manga

Many of you who’ve visited this magazine over the last few months have probably been asking “What the heck is anime and manga?”  hey are indeed mysterious terms to the average American; less so to kids nowadays; and even less so if you’re into comic books and cartoons.

And that’s exactly what they are: comic books and cartoons. The Japanese language is riddled with words borrowed from gai-jin (foreigners), words that are slightly modified by the Japanese to fit their peculiarly Japanese way of pronouncing things.

Manga (pronounced mahn-gah, although most American manga buffs still insist on rhyming it with “bang-uh”) is the Japanese term for magazines (specifically, comic book magazines).

Anime (pronounced ah-nee-may, with each syllable equally stressed) is the Japanese version of the English word animation, and it refers to cartoons. (Hard-core American fans of anime cringe at the term “Japanimation”.) If you’ve seen Speed Racer or Dragonball Z or Pokemon, you’ve seen anime. Most anime shows or films are adaptations of original manga stories.

But don’t think that Japanese animation and comics are nothing more than rip-offs of American art forms. While it’s true that post-World War II Japan has been heavily influenced by the import of American entertainment, the roots (particularly in style and story presentation) of anime and manga are quite different from their American counterparts.

The first American comic books, published in the late 1890s, were magazine-sized reprint collections of newspaper cartoons. Since the subject matter was mostly humor, they were commonly referred to as “comic” books; this name still applies to all genres, regardless of whether they are funny or not.

The introduction of Superman in Action Comics #1 in 1939 caused the American comic book market to explode (mostly in the superhero genre), and American servicemen (many of them kids themselves at the outset of WWII) took their comics with them. In post-war Japan, this invasion of American entertainment undeniably influenced the direction of Japanese movies, television, and magazines.  

Japanese comics have an equally interesting history. Cartoonish illustrations go back centuries in Japan. Indeed, comic books were published in Japan in the early twentieth century; the more popular ones were martial adventures aimed at children. But in 1947, the modern Japanese comic was created almost single-handedly by a gent named Osamu Tezuka. His first comic book New Treasure Island, inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, was wildly successful, selling hundreds of thousands of copies at a time when many in occupied Japan were near starvation.

Although Tezuka was obviously influenced by the American comic book as a format, his content did not mimic the most popular American genres at the time (namely superhero, war, and westerns) because the American Occupation placed restrictions on publications of a militant nature. Tezuka’s storytelling was influenced as much by the style of Western motion pictures as much as the storyboard techniques of American comic artists.  American comics at that time were still rather two-dimensional and straightforward visually; Tezuka tried to imitate film’s three-dimensionality and sense of motion in his paneled sequences.

Tezuka’s work was a sensation in Japan, and nearly overnight hundreds of artists were busy at work trying to copy his success.

Tezuka tackled the superhero genre (sort of) in 1951 with his most famous creation: Tetsuan Atom (Astro Boy). It told the story of a scientist who created a robot to replace his lost son. Again, unlike American comics, whose plots were (and mostly still are) ridiculously simplistic, Tezuka’s Astro Boy was complex, dealing with the larger issues of life, death, struggle, and happiness.

In 1963, Tezuka brought Astro Boy to Japanese television. It was an instant success. Turnabout is fair play, and pretty soon Astro Boy invaded America. A few other shows made it across the Pacific as well, most notably a show called Go Go Mach (renamed Speed Racer for American audiences).  

Over the last four decades anime has continued to come to the West, mostly in the form of children’s cartoons like Astro Boy and Speed Racer. (Manga has had a much more difficult time penetrating the American comic book market.) The 1980s brought the cartoons Space Battleship Yamato (aka Starblazers) and Robotech. In the 1990s we’ve seen Sailor MoonDragonball Z and (ye gods!) Pokemon.  

But these kiddie shows just scratch the surface. In America, comics and cartoons—even today—are viewed primarily as children’s entertainment (although this view is slowly changing), but in Japan anime and manga exist for nearly every demographic, from kid stuff to soap-opera sitcoms to pornography (which derives in part from the age-old Japanese tradition of sexually explicit woodprints). Ride any subway in Japan during rush hour and you’ll see middle-aged salarymen reading manga.  

Today it is estimated that 40% of the Japanese publishing industry is manga. Thousands of television shows and feature-length anime movies have been made over the years. For a sampling of the best in anime movies, I suggest AkiraGhost in the Shell, and Princess Mononoke (note that these movies are not intended for children and contain some adult content and graphic violence).  

Ironically, American comic books have never really penetrated the Japanese market. Marvel Comics tried unsuccessfully to sell a translated version of The Amazing Spider-man back in the 1970s. The effort was a flop, until Marvel licensed Spidey to a Japanese publisher, who created an all-new origin for Spidey and used Tezuka-style anime art (in black and white, no less). Once tailored for the Japanese palate, Spidey was a success!

Anime and manga are steadily creeping into the American cultural mainstream. Star Trek: The Next Generation contained several sneaky references which only hard-core fans would recognize. American cartoons (for example, Batman Beyond) are heavily influenced by the anime style. And comic books are being created by American- and Canadian-born artists which are nearly indistinguishable from manga straight off the boat (check out the brilliant Dark Minds and Neon Cyber series by the folks at Dreamwave Productions). A testament to the growing popularity in America of anime/manga culture is the fact that ten years ago, only the most obscure American voice artists were used to dub Japanese anime for import to the States, and those movies usually went straight to video; but in 1999, when Princess Mononoke was adapted for the US, it was voiced by such stars as Gillian Anderson and Billy Bob Thornton, and released in theaters! Finally, people who raved about the groundbreaking techniques used in the science fiction blockbuster The Matrix might be surprised to known that the Wachowski brothers cite anime as one of their primary influences. The Matrix is in many ways a live-action anime movie! So, it appears that the influence of Western movies which so impressed the young Osamu Tezaku has come full circle.

[Originally posted at SciFiDimensions.com.]

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