The growing popularity of anime in America is frustrating to me in some ways because it has overshadowed the popularity of American animation which is still my primary love. So many of my friends love anime and they don’t share my passion for American cartoons. But it’s hard for me to hate anime because many of Japan’s films and shows are just objectively amazing. Their creativity makes it impossible for me not to love them. So what is it about anime that is so irresistible?
Japan is Asia’s most influential country to American pop culture via the nation’s animation, manga, video games, music and fashion, which is surprising since America and Japan are so culturally different.
Every country has a rigid set of rules to follow, but Americans tend to be iconoclastic and we value individuality and breaking the norm. However, for all of America’s talk of valuing freedom, we tend to be conservative with our art and restrictive about what we are allowed to show or even talk about in our films and shows.
Japan is the polar opposite. Japan is a nation that values restraint and conformity in their everyday lives but the majority of anime and manga is way more creative and less restrained by censorship than American entertainment, and that’s because Japan values imagination much more. You can clearly see this is true when you look at their films and shows. Even when you compare American video games (Halo) to Japanese video games (Super Mario Bros.)
Fictional characters in American animated shows tend to be much more cynical than the characters in anime. American animated shows constantly wink at the audience. Japanese animated shows tend to be more sincere, unembarrassed by emotion and reflective of the human spirit. Even though they tend to exaggerate, they often feel more real.
Some people like Japanese artist Takashi Murakami theorize the embracement of these emotional types of stories found in anime as well as anime’s tendency to look forward with futuristic sci-fi stories was a result of the “post-apocalyptic” society that Japan felt like following the trauma of the atomic bomb during World War II and a need to leave the past behind them. Some authorities on manga and anime have disputed this theory and called it simplistic, but the idea that anime was inspired by Japanese culture and the traumas of society was certainly true.
Roland Kelts, journalist for The Japan Times and author of the book Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., actually points out that the seeds of modern anime planted in Japan after the trauma of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has a similarity to Americans embracing anime following the trauma of New York on September 11, 2001.
Think about how all the most popular anime in America (Akira, Ghost in the Shell, Evangelion, etc.) has a post-apocalyptic feel and features young people fighting corrupt organizations and being forced to become warriors in the face of gargantuan obstacles, often telling stories darker and more extreme than American cartoons which can make anime much more cathartic to watch. Common themes in anime could be resonating with audiences because they tap into our anxieties, although the complex and free-for-all style of most anime may also offer a thrill that’s just plain addictive.
As I’ve mentioned in my last blog, anime worlds are a lot more immersive, with Star Wars being one of the few American equivalents. Plus let’s be honest. Compared to most American cartoons, the anime style is often more sophisticated, sexy and intriguing.
There’s nothing like anime and I’m ultimately glad that it has become so huge in the U.S. because the more diverse animation styles are accessible to film fans, the more popular the medium will become and the greater the chances it will inspire the next generation of artists to take it to the next level.