Beyond the television screen, the world of animation within the entertainment industry is as complex as it is global. Focusing on two particular spheres of influence already yields a multitude of complexities that interact with each other in a long and complicated history: Japanese animation and Western animation, with the latter focusing mainly on the American industry as its subject. Japan began its foray into animation in the late 1960s, drawing heavily on the booming Western studios such as Walt Disney for their expressive style and success. In many shows, even the appearances of the characters go beyond mimicking Western style to the appearance of Westerners themselves, with blue eyes and brown hair (Mckevitt, 2010, p. 600). Considering how Japanese animation, or anime as it is commonly referred as, is heavily influenced by so-called “WEIRD” culture described by Ethan Watters in his essay We Aren’t the World (2015, p. 378), it brings to mind a curious question about the truth behind anime and its identity. Has Western culture, particularly American culture, permanently altered the development of Japanese cartoons, or as time developed there is now a change in the medium? And, as we move into the 21st century, does this globalization of Western culture prevail as the successful model? This is a question brought up time and again by fans of the genre, many of which grew up in the 1980s and 1990s watching these shows brought over on American televisions, and the current resurgence among today’s generation leads one to wonder where the source of success lies. To examine and ultimately attempt to answer this question, Mckevitt’s 'You Are Not Alone!': Anime and the Globalizing of America and Price’s Cartoons from Another Planet: Japanese Animation as Cross-Cultural Communication will be referenced, as well as shows from Western animation today such as Avatar: the Last Airbender and Steven Universe.
To begin analyzing this question, the origins and evidence of Western influence on anime must be established. When Japanese animators attempted to enter the market in the late 1950s, Disney had already established the dominating style as the most successful; as such, in 1958 Toei Animation produced the first “anime” film, titled Hakujaden, emulating Disney’s animal characters and fluid movement. The success of later anime from the 1960s, such as Astro Boy and Speed Racer, also drew on the popularity of science fiction already present in the West (Mckevitt, 2010, p. 898). On the surface, the appearance of anime has its roots deeply set in Western culture; even its characters are tinted “Western”, such as with Shinji Ikari from Neon Genesis Evangelion, portrayed as a Japanese boy but with brown hair and blue eyes (Mckevitt, 2010, p. 900). But anime goes beyond pure visuals with its Western influence, but also with its content. Much of what resonated with Western audiences was the reflection of western hierarchies and gender topics. For example, shows such as Ranma ½dealt with feminism, disguised as a rather fun-to-watch television show (Price, 2001, p. 158). Shows that were successful on Western markets were the most relatable, and it’s often due to the Western ideas implanted in the minds of the animators, in turn to be shown in an animated show.
However, to try and view Japanese animation through the eyes of a Western viewer would commit the sin that Watters (2015) expresses—to take anime out of its Japanese context therefore expects anime to operate independently of its context, per Western philosophy and style (p. 383). With all of its Western influences, anime ends up playing a much different role in Japanese society than animation does in the United States. As anime exists today, it exists in many different forms compared to Western cartoons. Whether it be sci-fi or magical-girl genre, anime appeals to both the older and younger generations. Unfortunately for the Disney brand and others like it, they suffer from a “restricted and limited fate” through a largely children-based audience (Price, 2001, p. 153). While the majority of American cartoons finish with the happy ending, anime is subject to a much broader pool of genres. Anime’s history not only includes Western cartoons, but also the preexisting medium of light novels and manga. The latter is more akin to an American “graphic novel” (Mckevitt, 2010, p. 897), and it alone spans a great deal of topics for both the young boys and girls and older businessmen that read them. Such a wide range of subject matter is a characteristic of the Japanese: anime and manga as entertainment is not just pigeonholed into children’s media. Of course, some shows are criticized for their large amounts of fan-service, or plot details specifically for the audience’s demands, because of this greater variety of media—shows that display more sexualized characters at the seemingly abandonment of plot, for instance. This has caused numerous cases of backlash and censorship of shows by American companies (Price, 2001, p. 159). However, as Price (2001) explains, “Japan is a shame-based culture, and not a guilt-based one” (p. 160). Yet another key characteristic of Japanese animation, the audience knows when to separate fantasy from reality—as a result, this separation allows for a greater degree of creative expression and imagination, something very distinct from Western culture. While it’s true that anime owes a lot to the Western animation industry, Japan’s underlying media culture and its attitudes towards it allow for anime to flourish into its own zany, unique identity.
While the change in Japanese animation is present, it now draws a difficult question. The success of Japanese animation can be attributed to both Western animation and Japan’s culture, but what does that mean for the West? As Watters points out, the idea that Western, urban children grow up akin to “malnourished children” within their WEIRD spheres of culture is unsettling to the supposed “success” of Western animation (2015, p. 379). After all, Western animation suffers from the good endings and anthromorphic side characters of Disney. However, just as Japanese animation once borrowed from its Western neighbors the keys to success, so have Western animation looked back upon its predecessors for help. Anime succeeds in that its diversity allows for a maturity not found in Western media, all the while performing in a creative and beautifully animated medium (Price, 2001, p. 167). Whether its loss, death, sorrow, regret—Japanese animators do not shy away from the thought of offending the audience, but embrace the opportunity to spark a conversation about human life. When examining shows on Western networks such as Cartoon Network, success is found in those emulating these Japanese principles. Rebecca Sugar’s Steven Universe tackles hard-to-swallow topics in a pastel, minimalist animation style, such as the main character Steven growing up in the absence of his mother (2013). Even at more shallow examination, the style of animation echoes Japanese legends from the 1990s; a key swordfight scene in one episode of Steven Universemimics the hit anime Revolutionary Girl Utena from 1999 (Johnston, Liu, & Sugar, 2013). On Nickelodeon, the popular series Avatar: The Last Airbender most prominently borrows anime’s signature look and feel from shows such as Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo (Matthias, 2010). The appearances of these shows on their respective networks outshone many others that were airing alongside them, simply because they chose to ignore the slapstick comedy and surface-level depth that plagued children’s television at the time in favor for what they resonated with best—when they were the audience, watching anime on American channels.
Whether Japanese or Western animation prevails as the overall champion of the animation industry is not a very interesting question. Mckevitt’s argument best sums up the true case—that “as much as America has changed the world, the world has changed America” (2010, p. 895). It’s easy to sympathize with Watter’s worry that WEIRD ways of thinking may close off our openness to other cultures (2015, p. 379), but on the onset of 2015, it seems as though the opposite has occurred. American influence on anime allowed it to absorb Western ideals and mix with Japanese experimentation; then, those principles were released back on the Western world to mix and create new ideas and an increased spread of the analysis of the human mind and human nature in general. The end result—a better understanding of ourselves through media such as cartoons, of all things—is a triumph of both Japan and America.
Matthias, K. (Director). (2010). Avatar Spirits [Motion picture]. United States: Prologue Pictures.
Mckevitt, A. C. (2010). ‘You Are Not Alone!’: Anime and the Globalizing of America. Diplomatic History, 34, 893-921. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7709.2010.00899.x
Price, S. (2001). Cartoons from Another Planet: Japanese Animation as Cross-Cultural Communication. Journal of American & Comparative Cultures, 24, 153-169. doi:10.1111/j.1537-4726.2001.2401_153.x
Sugar, R. (Producer). (2013). Steven Universe [Television series]. Burbank, CA: Cartoon Network Studios.
Watters, E. (2015). We Aren’t the World. In. Department of Focused Inquiry (Ed.), Focused Inquiry Reader: True Stories 2015-2016 (pp. 374-383). Plymouth, MI: Hayden-McNeil, 2015.