NIPPONIA No.27 December 15, 2003

Special Feature*
Animé — Japan's Animated Pop Culture
The first Japanese animated film was made about 90 years ago, and Japan is now the animé capital of the world. How did animé develop into an industry and a pop culture, and why have people around the world become animé fans? Here we examine the evolution of animated films in Japan, and discover the secret of their success.

The Worldwide Phenomenon of Animé: Past and Present
Written by Yonezawa Yoshihiro
Japanese Animated Films Sweep the World
Mobile Suit Gundam (Kidosenshi Gundam)
The human race has been living in different parts of the universe for 50 years. One group of cities in outer space is fighting a war of independence against the government of the Earth Federation. The young hero, Amuro Ray, somehow ends up controlling a secret weapon called Gundam (above), which belongs to the Federation forces. Amuro is then drawn into the war. In the saga, he worries about the tremendous responsibility on his shoulders, and has doubts about war.
Originally broadcast from 1979 to 1980.

After Spirited Away won an Oscar for best animated feature film at the 75th Academy Awards in 2003, Japanese animated films (animé) achieved instant fame worldwide. Of course, even before then, animé were being broadcast and enjoyed by children everywhere, although most did not realize they were watching a Japanese production. Animé have attracted fans all over the world since the early 1990s. In the U.S., the heroes in early TV animé like Astro Boy and Speed Racer have become icons. Heidi, Girl of the Alps and CandyCandy were televised in Europe. It has even been reported that almost 90% of Spain's population was in the habit of watching Mazinger Z. Some professional soccer players say they started playing avidly after watching Captain Tsubasa. The Sailor Moon boom in Germany a few years ago created tremendous interest in other animé as well, in that country. In Asia, Doraemon and Dragon Ball are apparently better known than Disney's animated films.
Cyberpunk animé that explore the near future — including Otomo Katsuhiro's Akira, Shiro Masamune's Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and Neon Genesis Evangelion — created a model that influenced films like The Matrix. The movie Pocket Monsters, a spin-off from the Pokemon video games, made waves in the U.S. and has become a classic. Around 50 or 60 new animé are produced every week in Japan, and a number of these are being exported.

Animé and Manga: An Interdependent Relationship
Why are animé so popular in Japan, and why are they now beginning to attract so much attention overseas? When answering these questions, we cannot ignore the strong appeal of manga, the ancestor of animé. Other possible reasons: many people enjoy the animated film genre, and the animé format makes it easy to change elements to fit the sensitivities of the audience in different countries. As a result, the fantasy world and characters of Japanese manga-animé pop culture are now widely known.
Actually, animated films were being produced in Japan before World War II by artists such as Masaoka Kenzo and Seo Taro. After the war, animated feature films for cinema, beginning with Toei Animation's White Colored Snake, followed in the footsteps of Disney masterpieces—and did it so well that some were released worldwide, surpassing Japanese expectations. And yet it was Astro Boy, a TV show quite different from the Disney model, that set the ground rule for modern Japanese animé — emphasis on character and storyline.
Tezuka Osamu was a great admirer and follower of Disney animated productions. When working on Astro Boy, he decided to cut the number of cell pictures and use the same actions often. This approach, while reducing movement and aesthetic appeal, made it easier to concentrate on the story and dramatic moment. Tezuka tried various ways to reduce production costs and keep turning out new work. He developed a unique art form by taking immobile pictures and making them appear to move, and stacking short shots together.
Astro Boy was a tremendous hit and launched a new era of science fiction animé, including titles such as Iron Man 28 and 8th Man. It also set the stage for the creation of a new TV animé business model, which was the development of animé character products and tie-ups with sponsors.
More than half of all animé produced in the 1960s were inspired by manga stories. After the science fiction boom, the TV animé that were based on manga stories went off in different directions, with such hits as Sally the Witch, for young girls, Q-taro the Ghost, featuring a timid ghost, and Star of the Giants, about a young baseball player who seeks the truth. Popular manga stories were transformed into TV animé, and established themselves in pop culture. Paradoxically, by attracting a large following among the very young and the not-so-young, animé ended up promoting greater interest in manga, boosting comic book sales.


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