Animation Meets Anime: America and Japan’s Pop Cultural Romance


How two great countries changed the face of animation, comics, TV and film.

Popular culture has produced some of the best collaborations in modern history.

Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp.

Miles Davis and John Coltrane.

Then there’s America and Japan. Cultural boundaries aside, some incredible work has sprung from these two countries.

From anime to comics, film and television, Japanese culture has made meaningful contributions to America’s many art forms — and vice versa. These “dynamic duos” changed not only the course of history but the way we rock, laugh, cry, think and feel.

They’re the best of friends, the most passionate of lovers, and their offspring is still evolving just this side of the 21st century into subtle objects of beauty we have yet to name.

Anime in America

It started in the late ’70s with Battle of the Planets. This superhero team (known as G-Force) introduced young American audiences to the fictional world of anime.

Battle of the Planets animationBattle of the Planets / Art by Alex Ross / Tatsunoko Production

Americans were ready for it because, let’s face it, ’60s Japanese live-action products such as Godzilla, and especially Ultra Man, provided a framework for the propulsive energy and imaginative landscape of anime to take hold.

ultraman animationUltraman / Tsuburaya Productions

And it continued to evolve.

The ’80s were home to an animation explosion. Arguably the biggest thing to come out of the mid-’80s besides the Transformers and G.I. Joe was a show called Robotech. A sprawling space opera with a big heart, Robotech was broken up into three different series, The Macross Saga, The Masters and The New Generation. The Macross Saga was the most popular. Then came Voltron and a slew of imitators. Americans were getting a taste of what was possible but only from a family-friendly and usually episodic perspective.

Robotech- animationRobotech / Harmony Gold USA

But anime wouldn’t be contained by home viewing.

The feature film Akira swept into the coast like a hurricane bearing the “good news” of anime, and just how popular, how good and how cool it really could be. More importantly, the visual effects were so much more than what anyone — even George Lucas’ Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) — could produce. It showed that Japanese animation could take a concept and launch it firmly into the stratosphere with compelling stories, great voice acting and innovative animation. The film got film critics, including Roger Ebert, extolling the innovation of the art form.

akira- animationAkira / TMS Entertainment

Arguably, along with Robotech, these two properties brought Japanese animation to the forefront of American audiences young and old. That same audience would eventually grow up and seek sophisticated storytelling well into the ’90s and the new millennium.

Ghost in the Shell (1995) introduced us to a new kind of heroine — an AI (artificial intelligence) who seems more vulnerable, and more three-dimensional, at times than most “real” characters on the screen.

ghost-in-the-shell animationGhost in the Shell (1995) / Production I.G

Subsequently, anime blazed a trail of critically acclaimed offerings including Cowboy Bebop, Witch Hunter Robin, Hellsing, Blood+ and many more.

Anime’s influence, however, was not simply relegated to animation — it touched film as well.

Adding a Taste of Anime

The Matrix was not only groundbreaking for its special effects in 1999 but for its homage to anime. The Wachowskis (then the Wachowski Brothers) were heavily influenced by anime, from the highly stylized action sequences to the unusual camera angles typical of the medium.

the-matrix - animationThe Matrix was heavily influenced by such anime films as Ghost in the Shell and Ninja Scroll. Via Warner Bros.

The siblings later released The Animatrix, a series of short stories told in the world of The Matrix, directed by popular anime directors, as a tip of the hat to the film’s progenitors.

In America, you can surely see anime’s influences in 2D animation, such as the popular Cartoon Network show Teen Titans Go! which looks like a manga come to life. It has the very same smash-cut, scene-to-scene energy as Pokémon, only with superheroes.

teen-titans-go animationIf you had to guess whether American cartoons are being influenced by anime, look no further than Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go! Via Cartoon Network.

Marvel’s superheroes were given the anime treatment with Marvel Anime’s Iron Man, X-Men, Wolverine and Blade.

The lines between American and Japanese anime have blurred even further with live action.

Live Action Anime — The Great Debate

Is there a live action adaptation that captures the spirit of anime while matching the visuals?

That depends on your perspective. Anime, being a highly stylized visual medium, doesn’t usually translate well to a live action format. Something is usually lost in translation.

You can have a comic book movie come to life in Sin City, but should every comic book movie look like a comic book? Of course not. So some of the most popular anime-to-film efforts are mixed at best.

sin-city animationSin City / Dimension Films

Some most recent live action anime films include Blood: The Last Vampire, Dragon Ball: Evolution; Robotech, which should start production soon; and the upcoming (2017) adaptation of Ghost in the Shell starring Scarlett Johansson.

ghost-shell-movie-scarlett-johansson-major animationGhost in the Shell (2017) / DreamWorks SKG

Love them, hate them or avoid them, Hollywood filmmakers will undoubtedly raid anime’s reservoir of content for new ideas — or, rather, reboots of old properties.

Comics, Manga and the Art of Sequential Storytelling

While live action anime has a lot of room for growth, manga continues to inspire generations of readers.

Anime is a byproduct of manga, Japan’s version of American comic books. It’s read by people of all ages. Whereas in America, it took awhile to move outside of the “comics are for kids” era, Japan was creating sequential art with not only sophisticated story lines but romance, sex and complex characters.

DC Comics, responsible for such mature comics (with complex, often morally gray characters) as Watchmen, The Sandman and The Dark Knight Returns, used its many imprints to reach niche audiences. Whether it was through Vertigo, WildStorm, or any number of imprints that are now defunct, DC was never afraid to try something a little different.

batman animationBatman: The Dark Knight Returns / DC Comics

They even had a line called CMX, which published manga from 2004 to 2010, when they pulled production of their titles.

Dark Horse Comics (publishers of Hell Boy and Buffy the Vampire Slayer) continues to publish a line of manga. Titles include Blood+, Gantz, Neon Genesis Evangelion and a host of others.

Demo, an American comic book published by DC’s mature imprint Vertigo (originally published by AiT/Planet Lar), has a manga feel, in both visuals and approach. It’s a comic book about superpowers without costumes and with an emphasis on character and emotion.

demo animationThe American comic book series Demo clearly had some manga influences in both presentation and style. Via AiT/Planet Lar/Vertigo Comics.

Conventions and the Cosplay Factor

For many, superheroes — and their colorful worlds — are all about the costumes. In fact, costumes should be celebrated. It can be individual, or a family affair. Anime, comic books, science fiction and other types of conventions provide a warm gathering place for like-minded fans to share their passion for whatever counterculture moves them.

cosplay animationDragon Con 2016, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Thomas John Spanos.

At nearly every comic book convention, San Diego (the biggest) and others, you’ll find some anime programming as well as cosplayers.

Cosplay is its own movement, and anime cosplay has its own participants, which is convenient because there are plenty of anime conventions out there, including the biggest, called Anime Expo, which according to Forbes has nearly 100,000 attendees.

This, if nothing else, shows just how popular Japanese anime is in America today.

coplay2 animationDragon Con 2016, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo by Thomas John Spanos.

Watching More Anime

While it’s true that some of the most cutting-edge anime produced today can be found by hunting around the web, you’ll still find offerings on traditional as well as digital platforms.

Anime Network is available through most cable or satellite providers. Launched in 2002, the network provides 24 hours of programming a day for anime enthusiasts.

There’s also the Toonami block of scheduling Saturday nights on Adult Swim (Cartoon Network’s late-night half).

Or if you prefer to keep your anime mobile, Crunchy Roll has the best manga, anime, Japanese TV shows around, through an app available on iTunes or Google Play.

It’s obvious that America and Japan will continue to influence one another for the foreseeable future.

The only question is what manga and anime will look like in another 25 years.

Time will surely tell. end


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