When I think of Japan, I think of giant robots and delicious daifuku buns. I’m bound by my culture to imagine pizza and baseball when I think of the U.S.A; these things divide and identify our cultures. The culture-bound hard-wiring runs deep; it alters who we are, what we like, and what we buy. But we cannot truly grow as humans by ignoring influences from other cultures; after all, pizza and baseball both have roots in the Old World before being co-opted by America. Likewise, the Japanese comic art style was inspired by American artists before finding its own voice and style. Through this confluence of art and ideas, all cultures become enriched. Perhaps we should tear down the barriers which prevent most mature American audiences from appreciating Japanese manga, videogames and art style.
Art is one of the absolutes in defining culture, and it helps other cultures define us. American videogames feature macho, high-tech artwork, with extreme polygons and the newest-latest technology. Our cartoons conversely feature cuteness, bright colors, and fast action. As we Americans grow up, we leave our childhood behind. We realize while re-watching episodes of Thundercats or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was nothing like we remembered it, and we move toward the adult world of No Cartoons. We love the edgy, realistic styles of our adult games as we graduate from our baby world of Saturday mornings and into the big-kid world of consoles and computers.
In the East, and especially Japan, this progression is completely foreign. Since the 1950s, people of all ages regularly read comics (manga) in Japan. There’s no finite childhood phase of reading comics, and no social stigma on adults who continue to be entertained by them. Rather than the brutish characters and artistic realism used in Western comics, manga heavily features delicate lines, and super-deformed proportions. How is it that our styles of art differ so greatly? Naturally, there are exceptions, but by exploring the advent of manga and its influences, we see how the gap was formed, and why.
Traditional Japanese manga and animation can trace its beginning back to the miserly Scrooge McDuck in a little bit of “six-degrees of everyone but Kevin Bacon.” In 1935, a humble in-betweener (one of the worst jobs in animation) at Disney named Carl Barks began a career that would contribute heavily to comics on a global scale. You’ve likely never heard of him, though you’ve no doubt seen his depictions of Donald Duck. Even though he was not the creator of Donald, Barks was well-known as “The Good Duck Artist,” and his drawings of Donald became the most popular images of him.
Bark’s greatest influence on the world of art came from the artistic style of his Uncle Scrooge comics in the post-WWII era. Uncle Scrooge comics were an enormous hit in Germany, but they also found their way into the hands of Japanese anime legend Osamu Tezuka, the nationally beloved “God of Manga” and the father of Mighty Atom (Astro Boy in English). Tezuka was heavily influenced by Disney, and though his influences include Bambi (which he saw a reported 80 times), Mickey Mouse, and Betty Boop, his strong, bold line-work most resembles Bark’s own.
Not content to merely ape the styles of Western artists, Tezuka mimicked Disney’s art styles, but created all of his own characters and stories. Frederik L. Schodt, who wrote the English-language adaptation of Astro Boy, said that as the series grew, Tezuka stylized it and it “became more modern and ‘cute'” and was intended to be entertaining for elementary-aged boys. The cute style became the classic example of Japanese animation. National traditions remain in place to this day, protecting the cutesy big eyes and small mouths from obsolescence. Even in heady, violent films like Princess Mononoke, cute creatures fill the screen and Tezuka’s influence is apparent.
It wasn’t enough to just do cute, and, unlike most Western creators, Tezuka was not limited to any one style. From his first graphic novel to his death, he completed around 700 manga, somewhere in the order of 150,000 pages. More than just prolific, Tezuka also fathered modern anime in Japan, leaving the culture some of its richest resources from which to continue to build, including Metropolis, Princess Knight, and Black Jack. Today, the fruits of Tezuka’s labor have created a multi-million dollar industry in the U.S., not to mention catgirl cosplay.
Although this might sound like a lot of the early influences of Japanese animation and comics come from the U.S., the exportation of anime to the West has contributed just as much to American culture. My first memory of watching anime was the classic Voltron series in the ’80s, and I’ll admit that I had a little schoolgirl crush on villain, Lotor. Although Voltron was heavily edited, it was fascinatingly more complex than My Little Pony stories and was set in an interesting universe. The impact on my childhood was unforgettable, and not idiosyncratic; many others shared my love for Voltron, though I doubt that they watched the VHS tape until it literally melted.
Of course, Voltron wasn’t the first anime released in my country, and it wasn’t the only one, either. Star Blazers and Robotech were among the first clear examples, but other cartoons emerged from weird influences. The Japanese toy Diaclone, which were toy transforming vehicles, would later become Transformers comics, animated cartoons, and now a major motion picture franchise grossing over $700 million. Interestingly, Diaclone was designed by future Macross creators Shôji Kawamori and Kazutaka Miyatake. Another show (and a fan favorite) called Thundercats, though written, voiced and produced by Westerners, was animated by a Japanese studio.
The beloved Disney hit The Lion King was touted as an original story, but there is a litany of evidence that shows it’s actually based on Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion. Though the names have been changed (Kimba to Simba), it’s yet another example of the far reach of Japanese storytelling. Considerable cross-pollination between cultures has lead to Disney holding a large market share in Japanese television with Disney XD and Disney Channel Japan. They’re currently airing shows like “Secret Idol Hannah Montana,” and, with millions of subscribers, Disney is resonating with Japanese viewers.
Captivating the youth audience in both the U.S. and Japan with children’s entertainment seems to bypass potential culture barriers, possibly because young people have yet to be fully indoctrinated in their own culture to automatically reject outside influence. Still, a confluence of interest in that “outside influence” and American indoctrination has engaged older audience’s excitement for more “mature” anime like Akira and Ghost in the Shell, which doesn’t bear the typical cuteness. Predictably, hard-wired culture exerts its influence monetarily. Though anime is a multi-million dollar industry in both countries, anime movie popularity in Japan doesn’t seem to hold much bearing on whether a film will become a success for English-speaking audiences. Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke were all-time box-office hits in Japan, while, in the U.S., Pokémon: The First Movie outperformed both of them combined (and multiplied).
With anime television shows, children’s fare like Pokémon and Dragon Ball are more universally popular in the U.S. and Japan. As the age of the audience gets older, cultural preferences show through. In Japan, grown women will admit to being fans of Hello Kitty, while excellent shows like Princess Tutu are not given any attention by audiences in the U.S., because its title refers to symbols that our culture associates with female children. Therefore, no one older than eight would be caught dead watching it for fear of appearing uncool and immature. It’s tragic, because Princess Tutu has amazing storytelling, and creates a Gaiman-esque world of folklore and reality. It’s sad when our own culture affects us this way, though such barriers exist in Japan as well. The Japanese youth in the same age category can’t relate to lone-wolf characters, which would explain why Twilight suffered low box office sales, while Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was the third highest grossing movie in Japan in 2009.
Cultural hard-wiring can explain why Japan is bastardizing everything that we send their way (Japanese Spider-man), and we wonder if they really understand us. Do they get what we’re doing? Of course not. On many levels, our artwork is adapted to fit their traditions, and the artistic intentions of our animated works can be compromised or discarded. They dub over our shows, or they simply use a character from our own design and mold it into a robot or magical girl, and dramatize it with Japanese context.
Of course, we can also ask: Do we get them? The answer is no. We don’t. We dub over their voices, we edit and alter everything that they send our way (Beast King GoLion begat Voltron), and we know very little about their customs and values. We think of Japan as Otaku do, with our heads filled with samurai, geisha, and lots of videogames. Although it’s obvious that we don’t understand the appeal of Hard Gay, and they don’t get why Battlefield Earth was a mess, there’s value added through the crossing of the streams.
Japanese animation and art style may have been inspired by Walt Disney and Carl Barks’ depictions of Uncle Scrooge, but it has evolved over the last 60 years. As all culture and art does, manga has absorbed many influences over the years to become something different and wholly Japanese. The culture injection goes both ways, though, with the Japanese art style being seen in videogames and cartoon series meant for children here in the U.S. Perhaps it is time for Americans to withhold the conditioning that forces us to perceive “cute” as “childish” and engage in the crossing of artistic streams that enriches both our cultures.
Tiffany Martin is a former contributing editor at Computer Games Magazine, and is often caught playing tower defense classics and reading shoujo.