Culture Clash - the effects of the West on Japanese Animation (Anime)

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It is said that if a butterfly flaps its wings in China it will cause a tornado on the other side of the globe. So, what about a gunshot in a Hollywood movie?Anime and American film influence one another - to deny this fact would take an impressive level of stubborness and a distinct lack of insight. Whether this influence is always positive is questionable, but the impact has certainly been high enough to warrant analysis.


Censorship and Financial Problems

It is a widely accepted fact that Anime has been strongly influenced by American media ever since the end of the Second World War thanks to the occupation of Japan by America: All Japanese films released in the decade following the war were carefully monitored and regulated by American film censors to ensure that nothing that might 'incite the masses' to rebel against the occupying forces was released. Due to this limitation - plus of course the fact that after the war Japan was in dire financial straits - few homegrown films were made. This lead to two important developments for what would become Anime: firstly; many American films were imported for the Japanese public, meaning that Japan would soon become awash with the Hollywood blockbuster and the works of Walt Disney. But if Disney films were an important influence for the creation of Anime, then financial troubles brought about by the war were the major catalyst: it was much cheaper to create an animated film where the sets, costumes and special effects were all hand-drawn than it was to make even a low-budget live-action film. The above two elements were also important in the development of what is now what is seen to be the typical anime 'style'.

Aping Disney

While very early Japanese cartoons closely resemble early Western cartoons, the two started to branch off in the 50's and 60's - ironically due to attempts by animators to mimic Disney's efforts. Having realised that they couldn't possibly afford to use Disney's methods of production, but wishing to create animation with an equally powerful impact, Japanese animators sought to find cheaper ways to achieve the same results as Disney. Trying to replicate Disney's ability to render emotive faces on their characters, but not being able to afford to spend hours animating realistic characters, Japanese animators instead made characters with unusually large eyes, and mouths that were tiny when closed, but potentially huge when open, thus enabling the easy conveyance of emotion whilst limiting any fine-detail required on the face. Other cost-cutting techniques were the drawing of hair in 'clumps' rather than as individual strands to minimalise the work required, reusing animation cells in different situations, and moving the landscape behind a stationary object in co-ordination with 'speed lines' in order to give it the appearance of movement, thus only requiring the animators to draw a single frame for the entire animation - all common staples of the anime genre even now.

Dredging up the Past

Never Forget...

Of course, while this covers the technical influences the West had on early anime, it doesn't illustrate how the themes of the films were effected. Perhaps the most enduring and obvious influence on anime was that of Japan's defeat by the US in World War II - and more importantly the use of the atomic bomb by the US. Since then there have been countless anime concentrating on both the war and Hiroshima, such as Grave of the Fireflies (which tells the tale of a brother and sister left to fend for themselves after their mother is killed by a US napalm strike) and Barefoot Gen (which illustrates the plight of a child who was in Hiroshima when it was bombed). It is interesting to note however that due to the great losses sustained by Japan during the war, the Japanese media (and even history lessons) tend to display America as the aggressor, rather than Japan. While this can be somewhat understandable (the firebombings and atomic bomb being both hard to justify) the fact that it is very rare for the issue of Japan's actions leading up to the war with the US - i.e its invasion of much of Asia (initially with the backing of the US, who gave Japan the all-clear to invade Korea in 1904) - to be tackled in the media can at times suggest that the people of Japan are unwilling to show remorse for their actions prior to World War II. It is this reluctance to admit that they were both oppressor and oppressed that has on occasion infuriated both North and South Korean peoples, and unfortunately many anime seem to carry on Japan's denial of responsibility. While there have been many anti-war anime virtually all of them have been taken from the viewpoint of the suffering Japanese at the hands of the Americans; and never, say, the the suffering of the Koreans at the hands of the Japanese. This brings to the fore another issue entirely; one that is too complex to go into within the constraints of this article.

This willingness to portray themselves as the innocents carries through even into shows which appear to be fairly innocent tales at the outset, such as Saber Marionettes J, a show which is ostensibly a romantic comedy, with occasional action sequences thrown in for good measure. Set in the distant future, on another planet, it tells of a world in which the only humans are cloned males. What is worth noting; however, is the background to which the show is set - in this world there are six states, three of which we are introduced to early on in the show: Japoness, Gartlant and Petersburg. Japoness is a civilisation much like feudal Japan, with people dressed in the sort of clothes one would expect in a period drama, and headed by a Shogun. Gartlant on the other hand is a dystopian, militaristic nation, with dark and gloomy skies, and a blonde leader named Faust, referred to as the fuhrer. He decides to take over the planet in a series of shock attacks, and initiates his war by invading Petersburg - all of which bring to mind Germany during the Second World War, even down to the name of the country he invaded first, though unlike the city it's based on the country falls instantly to Gartlant's attack*. The other, major difference between the series and the actual events of the Second World War (and an example of revisionism taking place even in a fantastic environment), is that Japoness takes a stance of peace against Gartlant, loudly denouncing its aggressive actions.

Hidden War

Aside from anime that have obviously been based around the war; however, there are also many films and series that have been heavily influenced by it, even if they refrain from confronting the topic head-on. Indeed, many of the mecha* genre can be seen as metaphors for World War II as seen from a Japanese perspective: generally featuring small teams of outnumbered but technically advanced 'good' characters against invading hordes of 'bad' characters - the technical advancement often being seen as a hint that this represents Japan due to the technical superiority that it can claim over most other countries at present, while the populist Japanese view of the war tends to portray Japan as having been completely overwhelmed by the sheer brute force of the United States. Of course it is also fair to argue that the underdog is a popular protagonist in all media, and that the only reason mecha are used is because mecha are 'cool'; and in many cases this is probably the case.

Altering the Past

More obvious revisionist titles are those which actually seek to imagine what the world would be like had the war not been won by the Allies: notably the series Deep Blue Fleet, which has a Japanese pilot go back in time to save Japan from the Americans. This rather disturbing anime revels in the idea of a Japanese success in the Pacific (which leads to Hitler declaring war on Japan), and is certainly worth a look simply to see the writer (Yoshio Aramaki)'s unusual idea for a story (and potentially distasteful portrayal of it, from an American point of view at least). Jin-Roh is another anime that deals with an alternate history, but in this case it is the Germans who won the Second World War, and it is they who have taken over Japan. Aside from being a great film, Jin-Roh offers another interesting viewpoint - this time it can be seen as almost pro-American occupation - the German-controlled Japan is shown to be a much more dystopian place than the US-controlled one ever was. It is also worth noting that Jin-Roh is one of the growing number of anime that, due primarily to increased budgets, are moving away from the traditional anime style, featuring as it does realistically proportioned characters, all with distinctively Japanese features.

Freedom from Censorship

Loud Critics

The years of censorship have left their mark as well; now that directors are free from the censorship of the United States many anime have displayed openly negative depictions of the US, particularly its government and organisations. A good example would be Spriggan, in this case depicting a world in which the Pentagon fights against a research organisation (and more specifically the Japanese shoolboy hero Yu Ominae) in an attempt to start a new Ice Age. Certainly not the most American-friendly of titles. Another title worth a mention is Patlabor 2 - however; unlike Spriggan, Patlabor 2 seems to be more anti-bureaucrat than anti-American, as both the American government's foreign policy and Japanese government's ministry big-wigs are shown in an extremely negative light, with them all appearing to be working against each other in such a way that could lead to another war. In most recent anime; however, anti-Americanism is kept at a fairly low-key, and most anime don't really contain anything that could be considered anti-American. However, its presence in any shows is still worth commenting on.


Imitiation is the greatest form of Flattery

Hollywood's influence is evident in many action-based series from the past three decades. One of the biggest and most obvious influences has been the western, which has influenced much of Japanese cinema (Most famously Seven Samurai; often described as the first Japanese 'Action Film', and many of the techniques Akira Kurosawa* used were borrowed from well known director John Ford* - "mention is frequently made of the influence of John Ford's wide-screen cinematography and large scale mise en scène on Kurosawa's depiction of action sequences"*. Of course, the real irony in this situation is that, in the long run, Kurosawa was to have a far greater influence on westerns; The Magnificent Seven is effectively a remake of the film, set in the Wild West, while other of his films have been remade in other settings also*. However, the legacy of the western lives on even now, as recently several anime have transferred the themes of westerns into the setting of a space-opera - thus easily removing the geographical limitations that would normally be posed by the genre. Two of the more well-received examples of this would be Cowboy Bebop and Trigun: Cowboy Bebop is about a group of bounty-hunters ("cowboys") who go about fighting for money (which they never seem to get) and yet always end up doing good, while Trigun stays truer to the traditional setting by placing all the action on the desert planet "Gunsmoke", and offers a mixture of comedy and western with its gunslinging hero - the greatest outlaw on the planet - who refuses to kill anyone. Star Wars has also had a large influence, with titles like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind 'borrowing' ideas and imagery from it (Nausicaa also owes much of its imagery to Dune). Blade Runner also appears to have had quite an influence on anime, with many films and series "borrowing" ideas and imagery from it - perhaps the best known show to lift elements from Blade Runner would be the ever-popular Bubblegum Crisis.

One Coin, Two Sides

However, while it might be fair to say that more anime are blatantly influenced by Hollywood than vice-versa, anime have also had influences on American film. One of the better known examples of anime's influence comes in the form of the director James Cameron - perhaps best known for directing the first two Terminator films and Titanic - who is frequently quoted on the packaging of animated films, such as Ghost in the Shell* and Metropolis*. On top of that, it is known that he will in fact be directing the upcoming live-action conversion of the Battle Angel Alita anime*. Indeed, Hollywood seems to be trying to cash in on the recent upsurge in anime's popularity outside of Japan with a whole host of live-action conversions of anime currently in production, including conversions of Dragonball, Akira, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Ninja Scroll.

Aside from direct conversions; however, anime has also had general influences on the direction of hollywood films, with directors such as the Wachowski brothers* listing anime amongst their influences - a transcript of the relevant interview can be found here, in which the Wachowski brothers state that Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll and Akira are the anime that have influenced them the most*. And indeed the Matrix is particularly heavily influenced by anime, takeing many of its cues from themes covered in Ghost in the Shell, such as 'ghost-hacking', and the 'sockets' in peoples' bodies through which they directly interface with a gigantic network. On top of this the fight-scenes in the Matrix films are stylistically reminiscent of many anime action shows, with their use of slowdown, 'bullet-time' and unbelievable aerial-based martial-arts, not to mention the post-apocalyptic setting, one that is, as mentioned above, very popular in anime.

Another director openly influenced by anime is Quentin Tarantino*, known for making all his films as open 'tributes' to other sources. In Kill Bill Volume 1 he made use of major anime production studio Production I.G.*, asking them to make an animated segment showing (in gruesome detail) the childhood of one of the major villains of the piece. However, not all filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves, and one company notable for raising a furor within the anime community for this is that of Disney. Many in the community are convinced that two of Disney's animated films - The Lion King and Atlantis: The Lost Empire - are heavily influenced - some would say rip-offs - of two classic anime series, Kimba the White Lion and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water respectively. Suffice to say that Disney has denied all influences, going so far as to suggesting that not one of the staff who worked on The Lion King had ever even heard of Kimba the White Lion*

Outside the filmmaking community anime has had a large influence, not least on western animation. Most notable is the tendency for western animation studios to mimic anime stylings, with shows like Samurai Jack, The Powerpuff Girls and Teen Titans wearing the influence on their sleeves. This understandably followed the upsurge in popularity of shows that were 'blatantly' anime* amongst younger children in the west, notably in the late 90's with the massive popularity of the Pokémon franchise (also bringing up the issue of computer games and their relationship to anime, but that's an issue for another entry to deal with).

There are almost certainly other cases of western studios being affected in one way or another by anime, but few as blatantly and/or openly as the above examples. And as the popularity of the medium increases, so should its influence.

The Future?

American Uptake

Of course as anime get more popular in the west (particularly now that Disney seem to be taking more of an active interest in pushing Studio Ghibli*'s titles into the market) one wonders how long it'll be before more 'Americanised' titles start being made. In the past decade or so there have already been a fair few titles designed with the American market in mind, and unfortunately this has seemingly resulted in most of them being rather dumbed-down affairs. Hopefully this practice won't become too popular, as I'm sure many viewers (including myself) would be devastated were the medium to oversimplify in a bid to westernise. Of course, the chances of this seem rather slim, and the pull of western money is unlikely to make that much of a difference: after all, most anime are rather shallow affairs at the moment anyway - there just happen to be enough diamonds in the rough to make up for that fact. As long as these gems don't disappear anime fans will continue to be well catered for.


Original Source and Bibliography

NB - the original version of this article was first published on my website. This updated version has, of course, been uploaded here with my permission ^_^.

Also, in constructing this article I mostly went on my own observations and experience of anime, but particular mention must go to "The Anime Encyclopedia - A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917" - Jonathan Clements and Helen McCarthy [2001 - Stone Bridge Press] and "Anime from Akira to Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation" - Susan J. Napier [2002 - Palgrave Macmillan] as extremely useful resources for understanding the mindset behind the creators of Japanese animation.

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