Japanese anime and manga have influenced the readership of American science fiction, fantasy and comics.
Interest in anime and manga has moved to the mainstream in the United States, and their popularity shows no sign of waning.
Anime are Japanese animated television series or films and manga are Japanese graphic stories or comics. Their worldwide distribution is on the rise, and America is now home to an entire generation that has grown up watching anime and reading manga. This generation is now introducing them to its children.
“Anime has strongly influenced American animation, and American superhero comics,” says Ada Palmer, an American historian, author, and anime and manga expert who teaches in the history department at the University of Chicago. The same is true for manga. Palmer describes how Marvel and DC comics now show signs of influence of Japanese styles of art and narration.
“Anime has especially influenced animation aimed at teens, telling more complex adventure stories,” she says. She cites examples like the “Teen Titans” American animated television series, which show clear Japanese influence.
“In a larger sense though, I think, anime and especially manga have influenced the readership of American science fiction and fantasy and comics, more broadly, by bringing women into these genres,” says Palmer. “Other feminist influences were at work, but there are many, many more women now both reading and writing fantasy and science fiction. And many of the younger ones are also consumers of anime and manga.”
Dawn of manga
While manga is considered a subculture in the United States, it has been a thriving art form in Japan for decades.
According to Palmer, manga’s popularity in Japan is due to the prominence of woodblock printing as an art form in the country since the 18th century. These cartoon-like images have been a major part of Japanese culture for all age groups since then.
“In Japan, as much as 40 percent of all printed material is manga. Manga, like novels, treat a huge range of different genres, from romance to historical biography to cooking,” says Palmer. “Its range of subject matter and, especially, its range of intended audience are staggering compared to English language comics.”
Manga was introduced in the United States through distribution between fans. But, it wasn’t until shojo manga, or manga for teenage girls, took hold in the 1990’s that American girls discovered they, too, had comics made for them.
“To this day, American comic bookstore owners talk about how, when ‘Fruits Basket’ came out in 1998, girls suddenly started coming to their stores,” says Palmer. “Anime and manga appealed to female readers in a way that male-dominated Western comics, science fiction and fantasy never had.”
Rise of anime
The rise of anime began in the post-World War II period. By the 1960’s, the anime industry in Japan started to focus on selling its works abroad, particularly in America.
“Osamu Tezuka, creator of ‘Astro Boy’—the first popular anime television series—designed it with the hope that it would air in America. He used his manga and anime to try to encourage an era of cultural exchange between Japan and the U.S., which he hoped would foster international cooperation and prevent conflicts like world wars from happening again,” says Palmer.
From the 1960’s through the 1980’s, anime aired in the United States and Europe, but the works were heavily edited and dubbed so as to not look Japanese.
“For decades, many kids in America, Europe and even China grew up watching what they did not realize were Japanese cartoons,” says Palmer. But in the 1990’s, fan clubs began importing anime and sharing it. “By the mid-1990’s, fed by a few big hits and by the rise of video games, Japan was now ‘cool’ in the eyes of Western kids. Corporations found they could sell more by advertising the fact that anime was Japanese than they could by concealing it.”
By then, shows like “Pokémon: The Series” had become de rigueur, and fan conventions in the United States had begun to draw thousands of attendees and cosplayers.
“Japan was the first nation to make inexpensive animated series for broadcast television, and pioneered many techniques for producing animation cheaply. So, it has an enormous animation industry, producing animation for both domestic audiences and export,” says Palmer.
While live action productions are more popular than animated shows and films in Japan, these productions tend to cost more for genres like science fiction, fantasy and historical fiction. So, these genres are more likely to be made as anime.
“If the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series has taken audiences by storm with its complex ongoing story and imaginative setting, anime has been supplying at least 10 series just as complex and imaginative every year, which is what makes anime fans so excited,” says Palmer.
But hits in Japan don’t necessarily become hits in the United States, or vice-versa.
“The differences are often related to timing,” says Palmer. Those used to polished anime, from the 1990’s and later, may see earlier work as rough or “cartoony” by comparison, she adds. A flashy series like “Fullmetal Alchemist” might boom in the United States, as compared to bestsellers in Japan like “The Rose of Versailles” or “Black Jack.”
Japanese audiences seek out mecha stories, about giant robots, or moe stories, about a group of young girls. In comparison, Americans tend to gravitate toward teen, fantasy and science fiction anime and manga, mainly because such a small range of them gets translated into English.
“While Japan will certainly continue to produce great work, loved around the globe,” says Palmer, “it will be interesting to see what innovations Japan tries as it works harder than before to retain its supremacy as the world’s top animation producer.”
Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.