Anime Is Not The Japanese Word For "Cartoon"
An Exploration Into A Media Phenomenon That Has Had An Impact On Society In At Least Three Ways

In recent years, anime has had a considerable impact on society. It has demonstrated to mass audiences in Western cultures that animation is not only a valid art form but also a respectable communicative and entertainment medium to mainstream and niche audiences. In addition, its recent upsurge in popularity has incurred a large influence on the voice acting industry (in America, namely) as well as world commerce through the mass merchandising possibilities it brings to the global market. It comes to light that Anime is not simply the Japanese word for "cartoons".

With few exceptions, cel animation has been a part of American society traditionally in the form of nonsensical and comical television programming. Commonly referred to as cartoons, it had at its heart the goal to entertain children with humor and mirth. Although Hanna Barbera's The Flintstones was the first animated program to air during primetime decades ago, obviously targeting an adult audience, it was still understood that cartoons were children's fare and lacked the sophistication to warrant the attention of older and more mature audiences. In later years, shows like Batman: The Animated Series, South Park, and The Simpsons with their dark storylines or contemporary adult humor would change that view... albeit slightly.

According to Pulver and MacKinnon in their book, Big Eyes, Small Mouth, Japanese animation, or anime, "has garnered more respect in its native country than North American cartoons have in Canada and the United States." Unlike its Western counterpart, anime was never limited to appeal to only young audiences. As such, it was allowed the ability to delve into more sophisticated fare and into multiple genres that would better attract teenagers and grown-ups of diverse walks of life.

In an About.com interview, Carl Macek, named " one of the individuals responsible for ...anime's ...current popularity", says that this type of animated entertainment came to America by way of a fluke:

It was almost an accident. While doing marketing and promotion for the movie, Heavy Metal, he began to research animation that wasn't oriented towards the kid market. This led him to anime, which he recognized as being different 'directorily and content wise'. It wasn't adult animation, but it certainly wasn't oriented solely to kids either. For Carl, this was something new in film and he felt it was worth pursuing.

Acknowledging the seriousness by which the Japanese approached their brand of animation, Macek thought it would be advantageous to bring it over to the states.

And it was.

But not without notice.

U.S. kids, accustomed to the more slapstick Western approach to animation, were surprised with what children on the other side of the world were being exposed to. Many an American child of the mid-80s will recall the day that one of the main protagonists of the hit show Robotech (an animated series Macek successfully brought to the Western audience) actually died. A contributor to the everything2 online database community, "advid" comments: "Children's manga and anime shows in Japan will sometimes depict death; while the Western stories (on children's TV) seem determined to run away from such realism." Grittiness suddenly became a part of "cartoons" for youngsters all over the nation.

Another area marked with dissimilarity was in the way the stories were told. Wherein Western animated programs were plot-driven and story-focused, anime dealt more with character development. A relationship between the viewer and the participants of the story was formed with the progression of a television series as one was given the opportunity to watch a character grow. As opposed to the more one-dimensional, caricature personalities that Western animation relished in, japanimation characters were more like real people. Like their viewers, they, too, had dreams and fears and convictions. Soon, America began to open its eyes to the notion that animation can be used as a serious and acceptable (and even comparable) alternative to live action depictions of human drama. This is demonstrative in the recent feature length animated films released in the United States, namely in such movies as The Prince of Egypt and Disney's Atlantis, which not only had character death but depicted scenes of collateral damage.

Animation was not just kids' stuff anymore.

In an Animation World Magazine article, Kath Soucie writes:

In the last few years, animation and voice-over have become a source of great interest to folks, but for quite some time it was a niche that was enjoyed and appreciated mostly by children. As the field has become more and more sophisticated and `toons are more artfully executed, the entire subject has become far more mainstream.

With its rising popularity in the U.S., most anime these days, though written originally in Japanese, is now available dubbed in English. Before, anime fans would be satisfied with the subtitled versions of anime titles for the simple reason that the voice acting was by leaps and bounds of better quality in the video's native tongue. The reason for this is simple: as Western cultures have only recently begun to take the animated medium seriously, the accompanying skill of voice acting has had little opportunity for growth there. In Japan, however, voice actors, or seiyuu, are artists in their own right, insofar as attending special schools to hone this art. They are celebrated members of society and are considered on par with screen actors.

In the last decade, the quality of voice acting in America has improved with the rising popularity of anime. This is evident in the Japanese animated series Bubblegum Crisis. Released in the U.S. in 1988, the English-speaking vocal performance in this piece, much like other translated series at the time, was lacking in emotion and dramatic timing. Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040, a remake released in the last three years, is not only rich in distinct character voices but it successfully expresses personality and feeling in the vocal dramatic area. A good amount of the dubbing quality can be attributed to the creative liberties taken in translating the script from its original Japanese. In the last ten or so years, the emphasis has moved away from literal verbal translations to more accurate and analogous cultural translations.

Before the significance of seiyuu was brought to the forefront in the United States, it was a rather small and tight industry. Soucie writes:

It's a commonly held notion that there is only a small group of actors who do the great majority of voice-over work and I would like to say that, for the most part, it is true. I have spent the last 12 years of my life voice-over-wise in the company of pretty much the same band of thieves.

She adds: "...it is not uncommon to see the same actors several times a day both on the job and at auditions." The voice acting industry in America has swelled in recent years. With the release of the much celebrated feature length anime, Princess Mononoke, in America, a lot of Hollywood stars jumped on the bandwagon to lend their unique sound to the film. In their number are Academy Award winners Billy Bob Thornton, Gillian Anderson, and Minnie Driver.

Carl Macek adds his own two cents on the issue:

Between 1970 and 1990, the field became flooded with new performers and, since then, it's only gotten more crowded. As a result of Disney features, "The Simpsons" and a general depression in Screen Actors Guild employment, it is no longer unfashionable for on-camera actors to do cartoon voice work. Many animated shows have rushed to cast actors who are best known for their work on live-action TV series on the questionable (I think) premise that employing these folks elevates the cartoon to some higher level.

Now, the American seiyuu industry has demonstrated a competitiveness that rivals its screen acting sibling. Macek also describes an instance in which a top voice agent received in excess of two thousand submissions for potential talent one year and only accepted two as clients. In an attempt to catch up with Japanese voice acting, America is elevating its cartoons to "some higher level."

Aside from the impact it has had on the acceptance of cel animation and vocal dramatic performance as respectable art forms in the U.S., Japanese animation has had no small contribution to the world market. Before going into merchandising derivative of Japanese animation, consider first how anime is distributed.

There are three ways anime is disseminated: theatrical releases, television programming, and direct-to-video releases (called Original Video Animation or OVAs). Typically, most anime finds its way to Japanese TV. Being budgeted for a season at a time and with thirteen episodes per season, the quality of these series, though great, often suffers. If a particular anime is believed to do well at the box office, it will be released in theatres. Though common in Japan, the U.S. has only begun to move in that direction, having Princess Mononoke and Laputa as the first major anime features to reach American movie theatres. As opposed to how direct-to-video features are thought of in the United States, OVA animation often means that the production staff involved has been granted a larger budget. Also, not being broadcasted on television, Original Video Animation are frequently given more creative freedom than is their wont, sometimes demonstrating a slightly different feel or style that was not present in the television series. The distribution of these three versions of anime brings a tremendous amount of money locally. When they are shipped overseas to, say, America and Europe, even more money shifts hands.

Being dispersed world-wide, popularity increases exponentially. With the rise in global appeal, mass merchandising of anime-related paraphernalia becomes a possibility. Consider the Pokemon craze of recent years. In an About.com article entitled "Pokemon: The Road To America", the question "Why is Pokemon successful?" was answered:

Mr. Kawaguchi revealed that one of the reasons for Pokemon's success was the fact that they did not just import a product but a strategy, which they call a 'Mixed Media Strategy'. Using this strategy, they create and sell a video game, the tv series, and a card game. Each of these individual products reinforces and supports the other products

What was originally a simple animation series has now spawned a video game, a collectible card game, and a growing number of movies and videos/DVDs. In the interest of profit share, strategic business partnerships have also been forged. Burger King, for one, joined with Pokemon during its U.S. theatrical release. The makers of this anime now have their fingers in different industries and are reaping the benefits. Pokemon has become a formidable opponent in the global market.

Dragonball Z, another anime of growing status in the United States, is no slouch, either. By virtue of its overseas distribution, DBZ is a contender in the collectible action figures market in North America. In a press release, Irwin Toy speaks to the opportunities globalization has provided them:

The universally popular Dragon Ball Z anime TV program that originated in Japan and now reaches children around the world, has proven staying power and its popularity is reaching new heights. The TV ratings, web success, toy sales and products in a variety of categories are truly making Dragon Ball Z an increasingly important part of pop culture. Kids follow the adventures of Dragon Ball Z every day on TV. The main character, Goku, uses his powers to right injustice and protect the innocent. Each story of the mystical action adventure saga is like a mini-morality play with good conquering evil.

Armed with the fame of Dragonball Z, Irwin Toy also has its fingers in other industries.

With a nod to the celebration of geek culture, adult consumers are also taking up anime merchandise. Being that a vast majority of Japanese animation falls under the categories of science fiction and fantasy, it is only natural that it would be found appealing to the technically oriented or geek-minded. It is not uncommon to find Neon Genesis Evangelion action figures (with eight points of articulation, no doubt) used as computer monitor decorations in Information Technology departments or to discover that most subscribers to the A. D. Vision Films new releases mailing list are software programmers or application developers. A cursory click-through at Slashdot.org, a 'zine geared towards the geek elite, will find oneself inundated with not only technology ad banners but anime ones as well.

Through the efforts made by merchandising, anime is quickly making its way to be everywhere. At this rate, a little bit of Japan is making its way to every home in the world.

Japanese animation has had considerable impact on society. Being a worthy participant in the world market, it has encouraged the growth of commerce on an international level. Proving itself as an art form to be reckoned with, it has begun the validation of the animated medium in Western cultures. Recognized as a significant forum for dramatic expression, it has fostered the growth of the voice acting industry in the United States. No, anime is not the Japanese word for "cartoons". Rather, it is nihongo for "a compelling art medium that is known the world over for its style, versatility, and character."


Sources

  • ADVID. "anime (thing)". Online posting. everything2. 7 October 2000. Everything Development Company. 20 July 2001. <http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=778444>
  • ATESH. "anime (thing)". Online posting. everything2. 17 June 2001. Everything Development Company. 20 July 2001. <http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1082698>
  • BOYD, Bobbi. "Dragon Ball Z Is Hot! Irwin Toy's Action Figures Sure to Please Fans." About.com. 2 May 2001. Irwin Toy press release. 22 July 2001. <http://actionfigures.about.com/library/press/bldbz050801.htm>
  • EVANIER, Mark. "A Voice Is A Voice, Of Course, Of Course." The Comics Buyer's Guide. Krause Publications, 1996.
  • PULVER, David L. and Mark C. MacKinnon. Big Eyes, Small Mouth. Second Edition. Canada: Guardians of Order, Inc., 2000.
  • SOUCIE, Kath. "And I Get Paid!?!: The Life of a Voice Actor." Animation World Magazine. Issue 2.12, March 1998. Animation World Network. 23 July 2001. <http://www.awn.com/mag/2_12soucievoice.html>
  • "An Interview With Carl Macek. San Diego Comic Con. July 2000." About.com. 15 February 2001. 18 July 2001. < http://anime.about.com/library/weekly/aa021501a.htm>
  • "Pokemon: The Road To America." About.com. 8 February 2000. 22 July 2001. <http://anime.about.com/library/weekly/aa020800.htm>

Anime (Titles translated to English)

  • Bubblegum Crisis.
  • Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040.
  • Neon Genesis Evangelion.
  • Perfect Blue.
  • Princess Mononoke..
  • Ranma ½ The Movie: Big Trouble In Nekonron, China.
  • Robotech: The Macross Saga.

Suggested Anime Websites

  • A "Matrix" & "Ghost in the Shell" comparison:
    <http://www.geocities.com/tacobelll/matrixgits>
  • A. D. Vision Films:
    <http://www.advfilms.com>
  • Anime World Turnpike:
    <http://www.anipike.com>
  • The Official Robotech Website:
    <http://www.robotech.com>
Sorry to deflate your bubble, but anime is the Japanese word for Cartoon in the sense in which it is often used in English, i.e. any kind of movie that is animated. Disney movies are called anime in Japan, and placed right next to the domestic animated products.

As for the "compelling art medium", this is a minority view in Japan nearly as much as in the West, the view of fans and those in the industry. Most people consider anime kids' stuff, something you grow out of. Seiyuu are celebrities, but only to a relatively small circle of fans. Megumi Hayashibara of all people complained (in an interview that I read recently, but which I can't find anymore) that people were not taking her work seriously because she voiced anime, and that this was changing somewhat only recently.

Sure, there is a noticeable difference: the number of fans, of otaku, is of course much larger in Japan, and everyone is a bit more willing to concede exceptions to the norm and admit a lasting fondness for their own childhood favourites, but by and large, anime is most certainly not considered a medium for adults.

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