Japanese Animation: A Worldwide Culture

Ghost in the Shell (1995)


Anime (AH-nee-may or AN-nee-may) – Short for “Animation”. Anime refers to “Japanese Animation” and is seen as the Japanese abbreviation of the English word.

Japanese anime has become a worldwide culture for many reasons. Becoming popular in Japan after the second world war, anime provided an alternative format for storytelling. The common misconception in the west is that animation is primarily aimed towards the children, a subject we shall look into further, but this is not the case in Japan. Just about every genre imaginable is represented in anime ranging across all age groups, each product appealing to a different audience.

When Japanese animation began its export into western countries in large quantities during the 1970s, many people who had watched these programs at that time may not have known that they were watching anime. This is because once it was dubbed into English the American distributors and voice actors would often take credit over the original Japanese creators. Adults today would have probably seen anime as children, perhaps without even realizing that it was from Japan. The 1990s saw great international success with the likes of ‘Pokemon‘ and ‘Dragon Ball‘. Children from all over the world were after the very latest in Pokemon merchandising. It wasn’t until ‘Akira‘ in 1988 that most other adult orientated animation became popular, particularly ‘Ghost in the Shell‘ in 1995 helping popularize anime and helping it establish it’s legitimacy as an art form in its own right.

Akira became both a critical and cult hit and in many ways can be seen as the film that started the anime boom in the West. The films adult themes of dystopia and apocalypse and its superbly detailed, viscerally exciting animated style amazed Western audiences.

As a result of this rise in popularity, many earlier anime and manga (comic books) only available in Japan has been sought out, translated and distributed worldwide.

Akira (1988)


Japanimation (jap-A-neh-MAY-shun) n. – A combination of the words “Japanese” and “Animation”, used to refer animation from Japan and the industry as a whole. Some fans consider this term outdated (preferring instead to use the word “anime”) since This term was more widely used around the 80’s when anime began to become more popular in other western and international countries.

Up to and during the second world war the presence of western animators such as the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney dominated the early 20th century animation industry, setting the standards for animated motion picture for years to come. The Japanese during this time however were hardly mentioned due to their slow approach and any comparisons made were completely one-sided in favour with the west‘s revolutionary animation.

After the Second World War had passed Japanese economy had fell into a state of disaster making it impossible to support the vast industry of film. This meant that many people had to express themselves through other medium, most notably by drawing manga. Manga itself was influenced by the western comic books that had made it’s way to Japan after the war. But as Japan began to recover and it’s film industry began to grow it was only a matter of time before the deep and compelling storytelling found in most manga would crossover to film. However instead of the use of live action to recreate these stories the focus on Japanese film making was to animate them thus keeping the overall feel of the original manga intact. Even today this focus on filmmaking is unchanged in Japan and anime continues to play an important part in Japanese entertainment but how much of this has made an impact on the western side of the world?

Osamu Tezuka, a factory worker during the war, had created the first manga to reach the United States in 1952. This manga was named ‘Astro-Boy’ and curiously instead of developing the unique characteristics of Japanese physical traits Osamu Tezuka mimicked that of the west creating characters with disney-like characteristics such as their large innocent eyes. This was quickly followed up by an animated series based on ‘Astro Boy‘ in 1963 which also became the first anime series to be broadcast outside of Japan. Tezuka became a pioneer to the growing Japanese manga and anime industry, drawing on the influences of western cartoons he had seen as a child. A style that had quickly caught on resulting in most manga and anime not bearing the characteristics distinct to the Japanese public. Historians even believe that Osamu Tezuka was the precursor to not just anime but manga as well. He was first to come out with a full length graphic novel titled ‘Shintakarajima’ (translated ‘New Treasure Island’) in 1947 before producing ‘Astro Boy’.

Mazinger Z vs. Devilman (1973)

As time went on however the Japanese animation industry began to see changes that diverted from the previous western influences and highlighted many techniques and trends that would go on to become what is now known as the uniqueness of Japanese anime. The most obvious of these trends was the giant robot sub-genre of anime known as ‘mecha’ in the 1970‘s. The earliest ‘mecha’ anime was known to be ‘Mazinger Z’ created by artist Go Nagai who then went on to create another highly influential trend in anime years later known as ‘Devilman’ that ignored the ‘good vs. bad’ storytelling of old and created an ‘anti-hero’. Go Nagai now considers ’Devilman’ his life’s work. Western culture however really began to appreciate anime after the release of ‘Akira’ in 1989 with it’s very complex animation and compelling science fiction storytelling making it a success and allowing anime to leave Japan and enter the rest of the world for all fans to consume.

Today anime continues to develop and evolve with new series being shown on Japanese TV networks almost everyday despite Japan’s economic hardship. Internationally an increasing fan base has helped to bring Japanese animation across the world in both it’s original Japanese and in dubbed format and as anime expands, the cycle of cultural influence extends into the USA and European markets with western work such as ‘Perfect Hair Forever’ and ‘The Animatrix‘ taking much influence from the Japanese.

Princess Mononoke (1997)


Otaku (oh-TAH-kuu) – From the Japanese, literally meaning “house”. In Japan, the term refers to someone with a heavy interest in something. In the Japanese culture it also carries a derogatory meaning, in the context of being someone with no real social or personal life outside of the object of their obsession.

Napier, Susan J. Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, 2002.

Napier explores Japanese Animation in such great detail as she breaks down and analyses the many different genres of anime. Both the differences and the similarities in these genres are explained. Napier also demonstrates how anime often portrays important social and cultural themes in a sophisticated yet entertaining way and how many of theses similarities fit into those themes. Further into the book we discover how identity appears in all sorts of genre, from hentai to horror, within anime. ‘Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke‘ also explains that some films deal with themes that challenge the modern day Japanese society.

Kelts, Roland. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has invaded the U.S, 2007.

Kelts takes a look at both Western and Eastern film production. He mentions that while Hollywood struggles to fill seats, animation releases in Japan are increasingly out pacing American movies in sheer numbers and, more importantly, in the devotion they inspire in their fans. He also makes comparison to our very own ‘Harry Potter‘ series and how despite it being a very ‘English’ release it is loved worldwide in all formats. Much like the way Anime is also deeply Japanese, making its popularity in the rest of the world surprising. ‘Japanamerica‘ covers everything from the family orientated Hayao Miyazaki’s epics to the burgeoning world of hentai, or violent pornographic anime. His insight regarding both nations highlights the shared conflicts as American and Japanese pop cultures dramatically intersect and therefore shares a familiar view to that of Susan Napier’s ‘Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke‘.

“For most Japanese consumers of anime, their culture is no longer a purely Japanese one (and indeed it probably hasn’t been for over a century and a half). At least in terms of entertainment, they are as equally interested by Western cultural influences as they are by specifically Japanese ones.” (Napier, 2002)

Devilman: The Birth (1987)


Original Video Animation (OVA) – A term used for Japanese animation titles that are released direct-to-video, without prior showings on TV or in cinemas. OVA is sometimes used to refer to any short anime series or special regardless of its release format.

Japanese animation is thought to be related to extreme violence and explicit sexuality, and this is no less true than in the great OVA series ‘Devilman‘. This analysis will observe the cultural meanings of Anime and it’s relationships specifically within in the films ‘Devilman: The Birth‘ and ‘Devilman: The Demon Bird‘. Both ‘Devilman‘ OVA’s are effectively remakes of the original ‘Devilman‘ manga and 1970’s TV series. The series has since spawned a third OVA, a TV series set in an alternative universe, a live action film and a multitude of different spinoffs in both film and manga.

Symbolism within Japanese animation, as with all cinematic work, references certain situations and/or emotions displaying them in simplified (and even iconic) terms. Our hero (or rather anti-hero) Akira can be found in many of these compromising situations where normally one would feel nervous or scared but instead of conveying these feelings through dialog or facial expression, the emotions are simplified and conveyed as a symbol or icon. For example Akira awakes from a hideous dream which has since made made him nervous. This is conveyed by simple beads of sweat down his forehead.

Anime often rejects basic symbolism and creates new symbolism. The most recognized of the new could be the over sized eyes. These signify the emotions of the character we are watching and there innocence within the plot. You will notice that in ‘Devilman: The Birth‘ Akira has quite large rounded eyes to begin but by the end of the film and throughout ‘Devilman: The Demon Bird‘ his eyes have became much smaller and bolder. This conveys Akira’s loss of innocence throughout the two films due to his transformation into Devilman.

The symbolism found in Japanese animation creates such a complex sign to communicate situation and emotion that it makes anime one of the most important cinematic symbols not just for Japanese culture, but for worldwide culture as a whole.

Co-written with Sam Williams and Daniel Harrold.

Ken Wynne

⚡ EIC [¬º-°]¬ for Attack from Planet B ⚡ Contact: