Monday, April 13, 2009

Japan's Finest: An Introduction to Anime and Manga

Like many others in the cyberculture and gaming crowd, I am a great fan of Japanese animation and comics. My love for that flavor fiction is so great in fact, that it led me to believe I loved Japanese culture as a whole, and inspired an ill-advised attempt to learn the Japanese language from scratch during my junior year. The experience provided a very unique brand of enlightenment. The kind that usually entails a trauma ward. Nonetheless, my love for cartoons from the land of the rising sun remains undiminished. So for the next few weeks I'll be doing a weekly bit on Japan's finest fictional offerings.

By now, almost everybody has heard the terms anime and manga, and probably even been exposed to them in some fashion, so I won't waste text giving a TL;DR version of what wikipedia will tell you. In the interest of accessibility, I will attempt to provide a condensed introduction to the US culture of Japanese animation, starting with how it rose to prominence in the US. For those of you who are familiar with the subject matter, I'm sad to say there won't be much actual analysis in this installment, but it makes for a nice walk down memory lane and funny links abound.

Anime has been making it's way to American shores for decades, though alot of it has been lost in translation as well. Many early efforts were poorly dubbed and aggressively edited in accordance with the quaint notion that all cartoons should be suitable for Saturday morning audiences. Deaths and injuries deemed too grim for the kiddies were often cut, forcing American producers to come up with alternative explanations for character absences and replacements on the spot, resulting in plots that were all but unintelligible. Furthermore, early production values were extremely low, and Japanese animators frequently fell back on recycling lengthy transformation sequences every episode to cut costs. This motif still persists to this day out of nostalgia, as it's become something of a hallmark of Japanese style, and looped animations have recently come back into style. Needless to say, the appeal of early efforts was limited, and anime remained a niche market for a long time.

Though many early adopters have fond memories of Osamu Tezuka, Hayao Miyazaki is widely regarded as the man who managed to present the unique stylistic and narrative merits of Japanese animation to the rest of the world. After decimating Japanese theatrical attendance records, My Neighbor Totoro made its way to US shores through the narrow channel of imported VHS, garnering great praise but little attention. Princess Mononoke (below) provided the real breakthrough, making enough of an impact on the international market that Disney hastily went about securing the rights for a US theatrical release. Even though Miyazaki denied them the right to edit the film for the sake of marketing it to their typical demographic, Disney agreed to release the film and even paid for an impre$$ive voice acting cast. Despite a disappointing box office return on Mononoke, Disney continues to release, (and undermarket, and delay) studio Ghibli's films in the US. All the films discussed or linked in this paragraph deserve your attention, regardless of your experience with and feeling for Japanese cartoons.

While Miyazaki established a critical reputation for anime, the imported shows were ultimately responsible for building an actual fanbase in America. Cartoon Network's Toonami programming block played a major part in this process by putting classic Japanese franchises (like Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and Gundam Wing) on basic cable with minor meddling. I realize some of these shows were shown on other networks earlier, but Toonami is the name people remember, and for good reason: It had attitude. While most adolescent advertisers hilariously fail at achieving that lucrative blend of hipness and rebellion, Toonami succeeded by balancing its hyper-kinetic shows with a very cool 'frame' for the block. Bumps and promos suggested the shows were being broadcast to Earth from a spaceship piloted by robots. These commercial buffers alternated between sequences of almost Zen-like calm, which simply showed the ship humming through space, and action montages set against slick, beat heavy techno. Fan favorite android host Tom (pictured below) was so smooth he could even sound cool when he was being preachy.

I was sad to learn Toonami is a thing of the past, but unsurprised, seeing how it handed off the torch of improting anime to Adult Swim. The transition has been a mixed blessing, allowing more adult shows like Paranoia Agent and Cowboy Bebop to be displayed without compromise. At the same time, the translation in their most recent efforts (Bleach, Death Note) feel half-assed. I have no idea about how much of the localization they handle, but they have to do better than this, especially since other networks (IFC and G4) are starting to pick up Anime as well.

Though to be perfectly frank, there's no risk of one network loosing a hardcore fan's business to another network because the hardcore fans never really depend on them to begin with. The 'official translations' are merely appetizers. Those who claim to be anime fans based only on the offerings of American TV are ridiculed by true aficionados who know better and get their fix from the web. This elder breed does not only have access to a wider variety of anime than what has been licensed in the US, but access to comics that less informed viewers will spend months or even years waiting for.

As I implied earlier, there is a very healthy overlap between anime and cyberculture. The practice of Fan Subbing, or posting Japanese anime and manga with subtitles and translations done by fans, inhabits a very dark legal gray area, but endures: A) because the license holders can do very little to stop it and B) because the fan subs generally blow "Mr. I'll Take a Chip and Eat It" out of the water. The superior quality comes from a combination of love and economic freedom. These weekend translators don't treat series as a product which needs to be re-packaged so it will sell to a specific demographic because they aren't worried about turning a profit and fans are seeking it out anyway. The practice hasn't affected anime too adversely, though the manga market is feeling the hurt.

Manga has been around in the states just as long as anime, but it has come to prominance much more recently, and far more rapidly. At this point I should also point out that most anime series are based on manga series. In Japan, various manga series are compiled and released in weekly or monthly anthology magazines, or in collected volumes that come out on a semi-annual basis. For a long time, only the volumes would show up in the states, and then only in comic book stores.Recently though, manga publishers have started releasing their compilation mags in the US, and major bookstores are allocating increasingly large sections of their floorspace to manga. Of course, since most of the series they peddle are available online for free, they take a huge hit on their profit margins.

All the same, the manga industry continues to mature and expand, as evidence by the recent trend of the manga Makeover. Everything from Star Trek to Shakespeare (above) is being retooled according to the hip aesthetics of Japanese illustration. There is some debate amongst purists as to whether these adaptations (which are typically done by American artists) count as true manga, however. There are isolated pockets of fans who feel that the noble heritage of anime is being dissolved by 'Narutards' and Death Note emos, despite the fact that these 'unenlightened noobs' are the only ones supporting official U.S. releases. Of course the elders would argue that the licensing companies are part of the problem...and just like that, we're back at the same old dialectic of the casual fan vs. the dedicated fan, much to the continued exasperation of one Captain Jean Luc Picard.

In any event, the anime and manga market has grown much larger than a niche market, and there is a lot more to talk about. Future installments of Japan's Finest will further your anime and manga education by discussing the difference between specific art styles (what's Shoujo vs. Shonen?) and in depth analysis of favorite series both new and old.

Until next time... See You Space Cowboy.

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