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How Japanese animation has influenced Western pop culture
THE RECENT ANIME BLAST CONVENTION HERE IN CHATtanooga exceeded expectations with well over 1,000 in attendance, most of whom showed up costumed as their favorite anime character. Anime Blast co-chair Michael Miller, better known as "Zippy" to regular con-goers, stepped away from all the excitement to explain why Japanese animation matters to American Culture.
For the past several years, Miller has hosted "Tokyo Tower," a show on Chattanooga's State online-only radio station WAWL, which features music from anime shows, Japanese pop music, and news and interviews relating to the expansive world of anime culture.
The very word "anime" has several different meanings. With regard to its culture and conventions, "anime" becomes an inclusive general term that encompasses print, video and cinematic media. In its stricter sense of "anime" as "animation," the word applies to television cartoons and animated films. In many cases, TV shows and films have originated in "manga" form, basically Japanese comic books brought to life, in which the more general sense of "anime" become a comfortable fit.
"Anime speaks to a lot that is not available in the United States," Miller explains. "There is a different point of view that develops more mature themes in cartoons, and this is not only an Eastern point of view, but it often also show their view of our own culture."
This representation of Western culture has great value because it provides a cultural dialogue that both examines cultural issues and brings both our cultures closer together. Historically, it's fair to say that Disney cartoons arrived in Japan and inspired interest in animation there. Not so long ago, Miyazaki's "Ponyo"—an anime version of "The Little Mermaid"—was released here as a Disney film, bringing the cultural exchange full circle.
This is a bit reminiscent of the British Invasion of the sixties, when a core of American music, much of which was repressed in America, came back across the Atlantic to flood American pop music airwaves. Not surprisingly, artists in Japan have also responded to American blues and jazz, and examples of this enthusiastic response can be found in the intense cyber-punk film "Darkside Blues" and the "Cowboy Bebop" television series.
"Japanese writing seems more substantial," Miller notes. "Light or full novels, sometimes connected to manga, open a portal and can be a connection force."
Anime fan Lazarus Hellgate, of Chattanooga's Subterranean Cirqus performance troupe, agrees with Miller. "Anime writing is full of strange and interesting details that are really absorbing."
It should be noted here that "anime" can also extend to live-action presentations. For example, "Power Rangers" became widely known, and, in fact, Johnny Yong Bosch, who played the Black Ranger, was a guest at Anime Blast. He even brought along his band, "Eyeshine."
The strangely surreal manga "Mushishi" was adapted to live-action, imbuing reality with mystery. Likely a greater impact will be noted as Spike Lee releases his "American" version of "Old Boy."
This fascinating manga has already been adapted in an Asian live-action film that won the Palm D'or award at the Cannes film festival. Lee's effort is intended to bring the this story to a wider audience, though it should be noted the initial release did not exactly set the American box office on fire.
Without a doubt, Japanese writing expressed as anime has been influential. A recent episode of the television show "Supernatural" worked with a concept expressed in Miyazaki's film masterpiece "Princess Mononoke," in which gods can become demons. There may be other Eastern sources that speak of such transformations, but this concept does not readily emerge from Western mythology, where gods tend to be on one side or the other of the "good/evil" dichotomy, even though ambiguities may arise.
Anime films by Satoshi Kon illustrate well the deep intensity of Japanese novels. His "Perfect Blue" is considered among the best anime, adapting a novel of perils threatening a pop singer actress. The narrative structure of this film may well have influenced Aronofsky's intense ballet drama, "Black Swan".
Of more significance, the now famous film "Paprika," originally a novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, became the cyber-world link between "The Matrix" and "Inception." Tsutsui's world merged surreal dream space and cyberspace with a shattering force and magnificent artistry.
Miller points out the importance of empathy in anime, which results in attractive teen role models. He finds a comparison between Bella of the "Twilight" series and Winry from "Fullmetal Alchemist" very instructive. Both series are authored by women. Winry, though lonely, is a kind of practical genius, designing and fabricating the flexible prostheses that replace Edward Elric's limbs lost in his catastrophic encounter with alchemical power. The initial manga chapter of "Fullmwetal Alchemist" brings deep affection, and though its outcome has violence, its motivation is compassion.
Anime also uses a variety of form that employ visual intensity to tell intense stories that involved ordinary people. The girl at the center of the violent maelstrom in "Perfect Blue" emerges stronger beneath the perfect blue skies of Tokyo. Hideaki's "Neon Genesis Evangelion" details the difficulties of young people who must pilot machines to fight aliens. Another woman author, Rumiko, created the popular series "Inuasha" in which an ordinary girl falls into extraordinary spiritual adventures, only a little like the ones Alice experienced in her journey through Wonderland.
Lastly, Miller extols on the power of innovation in anime. This emerges in various forms both as concepts and as artistic finesse. For example, in the credit sequence of "Perfect Blue," the girl is riding on a train. We see her virtual reflection in the window she is standing near by. Then we see another train pass by the outside of that window. This photographic effect that occurs regularly in film, has now been duplicated by art, drawn to look like "real" film.