Culture Clash: Japanese Anime's Influence from and Inspiration on Western Animation

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It is said that if a butterfly flaps its wings it will cause a tornado on the other side of the globe. So, what is the influence of a gunshot in a Hollywood film?

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. Yet this influence is not simply one way. Just as Japan is influenced by the United States and the west, the United States film industry and others do not exist in isolation and are part of the interconnectedness of all things. Anime and Hollywood films influence each other, though whether this influence is always positive is a matter of debate. The impact has certainly been high enough to warrant analysis.

While not every Japanese director of anime films and series adopts a homogenous 'anime' style, there are factors that are often, though not always, present. Each animation team has their own styles and ways to tell their individual story, yet when many of the challenges faced are the time, particularly making as many minutes of animation as possible on as small a budget as possible, the way to solve these problems often involve using the same tried-and-tested solutions. These include giving characters big eyes, particularly on female characters, and 'elastic' mouths, which inevitably creates a degree of overlap.

Occupation: Censorship and Financial Problems

All Japanese films released in the decade following the Second World 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 home-grown 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. 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 50s and 60s - 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. This enables the easy conveyance of emotion while limiting the 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, the use of repetitive animated sequences, for example when walking, the characters repeat the same movement with the same sequences.

These techniques are all common staples of the anime genre even now and are collectively known as Limited Animation. Examples of cartoons that extensively used limited animation in the West include Star Trek: The Animated Series and The Flintstones.

Dredging up the Past: Never Forgetting (with Selective Memory)

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 Allies particularly the US in the Second World War - and more importantly through the use of the atomic bomb. Since then there have been countless anime concentrating on both the war and Hiroshima. Notably Grave of the Fireflies (1988), which tells the tale of a brother and sister left to fend for themselves after their mother is killed by a US firebombing raid, and Barefoot Gen (1983), which illustrate 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) display America as the aggressor, rather than Japan. While this can be understandable to a degree, with the civilians killed by fire-bombings and the atomic bomb being 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 - ie its invasion of much of Asia1 to be tackled in the media can at times suggest that the people of Japan are unwilling to show remorse for their actions up to the Second World War.

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, the suffering of the Koreans and others at the hands of the Japanese.

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 (1996-7), a show which was ostensibly a romantic comedy, with occasional action sequences thrown in for good measure. Set on another planet in the distant future, 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 Führer. He decides to take over the planet in a series of shock attacks, and initiates his war by invading 'Peterburg' [sic] - which deliberately brings to mind Germany during the Second World War, even down to the name of the invaded country which falls instantly to Gartlant's attack2. The 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

In addition to anime obviously based around the war, many films and series have been heavily influenced by it even if they refrain from confronting the topic head-on. Indeed, many examples of the mecha subgenre can be seen as metaphors for The Second World War as seen from a Japanese perspective. Mecha comes from the word 'mechanised' and refers to the giant mechanical suits and robots that populate many anime. These generally feature small teams of outnumbered but technically advanced 'good' characters fighting against invading hordes of 'bad' characters. The technical advancement serves as a hint that this represents Japan due to the technical superiority it claims over 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 cultures across the media, and the appeal also lies in the fact that mecha are 'cool'.

Altering the Past

More obvious revisionist titles are those which imagine what the world would be like had the war not been won by the Allies: notably the series Deep Blue Fleet (1993-2003), 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 (1999) 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 (1998), in this case depicting a world in which the Pentagon fights against a research organisation (and more specifically the Japanese schoolboy 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 (1993); 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 everyone working against each other in a way that could lead to another war. In most recent anime anti-American sentiment is kept at a fairly low level, although it is worth remembering America has become an important overseas market. While more recent anime rarely contains anti-American opinion, its presence in any shows is still worth commenting on.

Hollywood: Imitation 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 genre influences has been the western, which has influenced much of Japanese cinema. Most famously Seven Samurai (1954) often described as the first Japanese 'Action Film', and many of the techniques director Akira Kurosawa used were borrowed from acclaimed Western director John Ford, particularly widescreen cinematography and large scale mise-en-scène3. Of course in a move showing the interconnectedness of all things, Kurosawa also influenced westerns, with Seven Samurai remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and set in the Wild West. Kurosawa's films have influenced other directors and genres4.

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 (1997-8) and Trigun (1998). Cowboy Bebop is about a group of bounty-hunters or "cowboys" who fight for money - which they never seem to get - and yet always end up doing good. Trigun perhaps stays truer to the traditional setting by placing all the action on the desert planet Gunsmoke, and offers a comic western with its gun-slinging hero - the greatest outlaw on the planet - who refuses to kill anyone.

As well as being in part inspired by Japanese films Star Wars has in turn also become a large influence. Oscar-winning director Hayao Miyazaki's film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984) 'borrowed' ideas and imagery from it, as well as Frank Herbert's novel Dune. Blade Runner (1982) also has had a strong n influence on anime, with perhaps the best-known show to lift elements from it the ever-popular Bubblegum Crisis (original 1987-1991 with several spin-offs).

One Coin, Two Sides

Anime have also strongly influenced on American film, with one of the better-known examples director James Cameron. Perhaps best known for directing the first two Terminator films and Titanic (1997), he is frequently quoted on the packaging of animated films. For example, Ghost in the Shell (1995) quotes him calling it the first truly adult animation film and Metropolis (2001) with the words 'Metropolis' is the new milestone in anime, a spectacular fusion of CG background with traditional character animation. It has beauty, power, mystery, and above all... heart, with Metropolis a loose anime remake of the 1927 classic silent German film. It is therefore unsurprising that many of the themes in Nausicaä would inspire James Cameron's Avatar (2009). Back in 2003 it was announced that Cameron would direct a live-action adaptation of the Battle Angel Alita (1993) anime adaptation of the popular manga5. After being distracted by Avatar the live-action Alita: Battle Angel film was finally released in 2019 and only produced by Cameron, directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Anime has also had general influences on the direction of Hollywood films, with directors such as the Wachowskis6, best-known for directing The Matrix trilogy (1999-2003) listing anime amongst their influences. The Wachowskis have said that Ghost in the Shell, Ninja Scroll (1993) and Akira (1988) are the anime that have influenced them the most. Their producer Joel Silver has asserted that the Wachowskis showed him an anime, presumed to have been Ghost in the Shell, and telling him that they wanted to make a live-action version of it when they approached him about making The Matrix (1999). It is clear that The Matrix is particularly heavily influenced by anime, taking 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. The fight-scenes are stylistically reminiscent of many anime action shows, with their use of slowdown, 'bullet-time' and unbelievable aerial-based martial-arts. The post-apocalyptic setting is very popular in anime. Conclusively the first sequel to The Matrix was The Animatrix, an American-Japanese anime film of nine stories based in that fictional world with four of the stories written by the Wachowskis. They have since adapted 1968 anime series Speed Racer into a 2008 film.

Another director openly influenced by anime is Quentin Tarantino, the independent director of films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994). He is known for making his films open 'tributes' to other sources and for Kill Bill: Volume 1 (2003) he made use of major anime production studio Production I.G., which is responsible for films and series including the Patlabor and Ghost in the Shell series. Together they made an animated segment showing in gruesome detail the childhood of one of the major villains.

Anime has had a large influence on western television animation. Most notable is the tendency for western animation studios to mimic anime stylings, with shows like Samurai Jack (2001-4, 2017), Star Wars: Clone Wars7 (2003-5) and Teen Titans (2003-6) and sequel Teen Titans Go! (2013+) wearing the influence on their sleeves. This understandably followed the upsurge in popularity of shows that are purely anime among those who, as children in the west, grew up in the late 90s with anime shows such as Pokémon around them and so accept Japanimation as perfectly normal. Western animated series that were inspired by anime have even in turn led to spin-off series being made in Japan, notably The Powerpuff Girls (1998-2004, 2016-17) inspiring an anime adaptation, The Powerpuff Girls Z (2006-7).

Disney Dismay

Not all filmmakers wear their influences on their sleeves, with Disney particularly noted for raising a furore within the anime community. This is because two of Disney's animated films - The Lion King (1994) and Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) - are heavily influenced - some would say remakes or even rip-offs - of two classic anime series, Kimba the White Lion (1965-7) and Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water (1990-91) respectively. Suffice to say that Disney has denied being influenced by these earlier Japanese series, going so far as to suggest that though Disney opened a Disneyland park in Japan in 1983 and in 1988 Disney opened Walt Disney Animation Japan, not one of the staff who worked on The Lion King had ever even heard of Kimba the White Lion. The explanation given for similarities between Atlantis: The Lost Empire and Nadia was that both were inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

Scrub a Sub Dub: Lost In Translation

Do Western observers see anime in the way originally intended, or is too much lost in translation? Does cultural context make the watcher interpret it in terms of their own country, and so change its meaning? This is a key question in the 'Sub or Dub' debate which covers the two different ways of translating a film from one language to another: subtitles or dubbing. Both methods have strengths and weaknesses. Dubbing has to balance both translating dialogue and matching mouth movements as closely as possible to not interfere with the suspension of disbelief audiences experience when watching films. Cultural elements in the West, such as Japanese spiritual beliefs may be watered down and even filtered out in order to keep the dialogue moving and there being no direct equivalent in a monotheistic culture. When subtitles are used the translation has more freedom to closely match what was originally said, providing more accurate and potentially longer translations of the original dialogue, but subtitles are viewed by many as more intrusive and often put off potential viewers.

Princess Mononoke (1997) was a key film in the 'Sub or Dub' debate. When the US DVD release originally planned to contain only the English dub, a fan petition called for both the English translation and Japanese language original to be included, which became the standard for many releases since.

Looking at Language

Language can also be visual as well as spoken and images too are subject to cultural interpretations. All images of people are subconsciously seen through cultural filters and people are assumed to belong to what the viewers consider to be their 'default' image of what humans are, unless they see key or stereotyped indicators, such as skin colour or other features8, which they interpret to mean that the person seen does not match their default view. The often-used example is that in the West when people see a picture of Marge Simpson, as her image does not contain the indicators used in the West that to mean she belongs to a different ethnicity, white viewers there automatically categorise her as being white even though she has yellow skin and blue hair.

This phenomenon also affects the perceptions of anime, where Japanese cartoons do not adhere to Western cultural perceptions the characters do not contain the indicators that Western viewers subconsciously use to suggest a character is Japanese. This occurs even when the Japanese animators themselves may see their artwork as clearly belonging to their own default view of a human being and therefore being clearly Japanese. In fact Manga and anime tend to portray people as mukokuseki, meaning 'stateless (without nationality)' or 'unmarked', deliberately free from containing any indicative ethnic features. This means Western viewers often incorrectly assume that anime characters are being portrayed as white even though they are not.

The Future?

As the popularity of the anime medium increases, so does its influence. As anime get more popular in the west one possibility is that Japan makes more 'Americanised' titles in an attempt to appeal to the wider market, which has led to some worry that in an attempt to appeal to the lowest common denominator they end up dumbed-down and lack the spark of more adventurous anime.

Fusion and Confusion

As anime becomes more pervasive an increasing number of small touches here and there can be found in films, so even when an entire film isn't an anime adaptation, a scene or moment here and there can trace its origins back to that art form. As manga and anime influences the comic book world as a whole, American and Canadian comics adapt to use that visual language and adaptations of those comics therefore contain anime influences, such as can be seen in film Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010), which flopped on release but has since gained a cult following. Anime's influence is not limited simply to the cartoon and action genre, with critically acclaimed Black Swan (2010) also strongly reminiscent of classic anime Perfect Blue (1997) – with the director of Black Swan having bought the film adaptation rights to Perfect Blue in 2000.

Japanese and Western animations are not so separate as often thought and there has long been a tradition of joint productions. Those growing up in the 1980s look back in fondness on the great French/Japanese co-productions, Ulysses 31 (1981) and The Mysterious Cities of Gold (1982). American/Japanese cartoons were made even earlier, such as The King King Show (1966-9), and later popular hits such as Transformers (1984+) and Dungeons and Dragons (1983-5), which while hugely popular were not advertised as being Japanese animation specifically.

Indeed, Hollywood has tried 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 remaking series Dragonball Z (1989-96) as the live-action Dragonball Evolution (2009). There have also been a plethora of Transformers live action films. Pacific Rim (2013) and sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising (2018) are certainly continuing the Japanese Kaiju ('strange beast') subgenre of films featuring giant monsters attaching cities, the best known of which is Godzilla. Godzilla (1954) was a remake of Ray Harryhausen's The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953). Hollywood has since made their own adaptions of the Godzilla film series.

American film adaptations of Japanese anime often flop in Japan, and many have underperformed worldwide. Examples include the live-action adaptations Speed Racer (2008), and Astro Boy (2009), based on the character introduced on television in 1963 and with subsequent series in 1980 and 2003. The Last Airbender (2010) was announced to be the first of a trilogy of live action adaptations of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) but due to disappointing returns the sequels were cancelled following the faux pas of having the heroes now all white and the villains played by Asian actors. Alita: Battle Angel (2019) recouped its production budget and broke even. Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), a sequel to Final Fantasy: Legend of the Crystals (1994) was the first photorealistic mo-cap film and the first to enjoy a widespread release; however, it was a box office bomb, recouping only half its budget. However the first live-action Pokémon film, Detective Pikachu (2019), was highly successful.

Western Whitewashing and Asian Erasure

One criticism with Western, typically American, remakes of Japanese films is that of whitewashing, with Japanese characters in an original film replaced with white, usually American, actors. In the early 2000s a wave of Japanese horror films such as Ringu (1998) were remade in the US following the success of The Ring (2002), often relocated to be set in the US. One film that particularly caused controversy was the casting of Scarlett Johansson in the American live-action remake of Ghost in the Shell (2017). Curiously though this outrage did not originate from Japan, where the common perception was that it was to be expected, but from Asian Americans living in the US, it does not make it right. Even the online provider Netflix have remade anime classics starting with Death Note (2017), a film critically panned for whitewashing as well as containing scenes of a real train crash in which 19 people died.
Yet the lack of representation is a serious form of racism that is too often overlooked. Yet when white actors replace those of other races this can be seen as a form of cultural imperialism or a form of artistic ethnic cleansing, and against the principle of embracing diversity and equality.

Yet following the outcry on the release of recent films many Hollywood studios have taken the complaints seriously and are taking steps to avoid this in future, particularly with the growing importance of China as the world's largest film-viewing economy.

It's a Small World After All

Globalisation in all its forms continues to bring people all around the world closer together, allowing the sharing of ideas and making it increasingly difficult to separate one nation's culture from another. Hollywood and Japan are already beginning to merge, with Japanese company Sony owning American Hollywood studio Columbia Pictures since 1989. Another symbolic step in the meeting of East and West can be seen when that most Japanese of animation studios, Studio Ghibli, co-produced their 22nd film, The Red Turtle with German animation studio Wild Bunch and directed by Dutch director Michaël Dudok de Wit. Similarly, in Disney's Big Hero 6 (2014), which is set in San Fransokyo, a city combining both San Francisco and Tokyo with both American and Japanese characters.

1Initially with the support of the US, which gave Japan the all-clear to annex Korea in 1905 following Japan's victory in the peninsula in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-5).2Peterberg is unlike the Russian city of St Petersburg (then known as Leningrad) which hosted one of the greatest sieges in history, besieged by the Germans for twenty nine months3French for 'placing on stage', this covers anything that the audience sees and is filmed by the camera and how it is arranged in the scene, including the actors (and costumes worn), the props, how the scenes is lit and how everything seen is arranged. 4Yojimbo (1961) was remade as Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars by Sergio Leone, which was itself remade again in 1996 as Last Man Standing, while The Hidden Fortress (1958) was cited by George Lucas as one of the primary influences on his Star Wars films (1977-1983, 1999+).5'Manga' is the Japanese word for comics, in English it specifically refers to Japanese comics.6Originally known collectively as the Wachowski brothers, Larry and Andy, they have both come out as trans women, Lana and Lilly Wachowski, with Lana Hollywood's first major transgender director.7The cel-animated series whose title does not contain the word 'The', not to be confused with later computer-animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008-13, 2019-2020).8If a character is seen in a kilt then the viewer recognises them as Scottish but if they are in a stripy top, beret and carrying onions the viewer will automatically categories them as French even though the practice of Brittany farmers travelling to Britain to sell onions door-to-door sharply declined following the Second World War.

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