(aka: the thesis of this cruel angel)
I’ve already talked about movies, sports, TV, & music. I’ve given out grades and rankings. It’s time I introduced my last niche hobby to the blogosphere: animation. More specifically, animation created in Japan. But before I begin my primer, I need a give a prologue.
There are plenty of blogs geared towards the dedicated and hard-core fans. (Or as they like to call themselves, “otaku.”) The problem is that here may be more blogs than fans. So it’s a poor business strategy to enter in an over-saturated market like that. The opportunity, the untapped treasure trove is in the much larger market of potentially new and casual fans out there. Folks that want to know more, but are a bit wary of going to far into the deep end of fandom. (Because, let’s face it, there’s been a negative stigma attached to animation for over half a century now, and certain cosplayers exactly aren’t helping the cause.) I shall be the guide. Parts of this blog will be a gateway that will bridge the gap between the two worlds.
The history of animation goes way back to the early 20th century. And on both sides of the Pacific, animation was being viewed in movie theatres. In other words, the initial target audiences were GROWN UPS. I stress this because we’d been brainwashed to believe otherwise .And like any other form of art and/or culture the exchange of styles influences has been a two-way street. The big eyes – small mouth character design that we associate as primarily Japanese-style was originally done by good ol’ Walt Disney himself. As well as Max Fleischer, creator of Betty Boop, among others.
What do the following TV shows have in common: Kimba the White Lion; Astro Boy; Speed Racer; Gigantor; Star Blazers; Battle of the Planets (aka: G-Force); Robotech; and Voltron ? They were all made in Japan, but were edited to make it seem like it was domestic. From the 60’s until the late 80’s, studios and distributors hid the fact that these were made in Japan. Each title has its own unique case of editing and censorship, but the bottom line is that at least three generations of Americans (Busters, Gen-X-ers, & Gen-Y-ers) grew up on anime without even realizing it. Not only that, most of us loved those shows! Why? Because they were completely different from the cartoons that were being made in the West at that time. We mock Scooby-Doo (and every other Hannah-Barbera show) for its simplicity, predictability, and repetition. We were fascinated by these cartoons because: (1) they had story arcs; (2) they had a lot more action; and (3) they had a lot more tension such that anyone could
die, err… I mean, shipped on a bus.
It is easy to point to the advent of Pokemon as the tipping point of America’s acknowledgement of anime, but it goes slightly earlier than that. For Pokemon has always been regarded for what it truly is: an animated commercial geared towards kids (and their parents’ wallets). And that is no different from most American cartoons. What needed to occur was a change in the collective mindset set in place for the past half century: that animation was strictly made for kids and kids alone. There were three titles that help change that perception that were introduced around the same time: Akira, Ren & Stimpy, and The Simpsons. All three were successful not because they just challenged our pre-conceived notions, but because they delivered a high quality productions values that were rarely seen the past two or three decades. Yes, we had dark and edgy animated films (Watership Down, The Last Unicorn). Yes we had cartoons that satirized popular culture (Rocky & Bullwinkle). We even had gross-out humor (Fritz the Cat). But none had broken through their niche cult classic status into the mainstream.
Unfortunately, the introduction of Japanese animation into the American mainstream also brought with it the stigma and negative reputation that it can’t shake to this day, i.e.: that is mostly tentacle porn. So let’s get the record straight once and for all, anime is a MEDIUM. Like all other medium (e.g.: movies, television, comics, western animation), it has a wide variety of genres. And like everything else, Sturgeon’s Law is in effect.And since it is also a business out to make money, a good amount of that medium will pander to the Lowest Common Denominator. (This will be the one and only time I’ll talk about hentai: the use of tentacles was a creation in order to circumvent Japanese censorship laws. It is not a national fetish; most Japanese find hentai just as disturbing as we gaijin (non-Japanese) do. It is a niche market, just as live-action porn is a niche in the movie industry.)
Due to the strict censorship laws in the U.S. regarding what can and cannot be shown on children’s television, (e.g.: death, violence, inferences of sex – hetero or not) American distributors had to make a wide array of edits. And since they were in the chopping room anyway, they decided to change the scripts in the dub, i.e.: changing the characters’ name from Japanese to American, and removing all traces of the Far East in any setting – an easier process for sci-fi shows. They obviously succeeded because most people to this very day have no clue that they grew up watching anime.
Nowadays, it has become very hard to tell from an initial glance whether or not the cartoon you are watching is an anime, or anime-inspired. Shows like Teen Titans, Avatar the last Airbender, and Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi are anime inspired, while some anime have decided to go for an “American” look, such as Cowboy Bebop, and The Big O. Muddying the waters even more are American cartoons that were animated by Japanese studios, such as “Bionic Six”, or certain episodes of “Tiny Toon Adventures” and “Animaniacs.” And don’t even bring up “Transformers;” that franchises even confuses me in regards to its nationality. The need to “localize” the dubs have greatly diminished, partially due our increasing knowledge of Japanese culture and society. The other part is due to our increasing knowledge of the original source material (more often than not, it’s a manga.)
One would think that after the advent of Pokemon, and the mini-boom in the 2000’s that resulted from its success, a primer, or in this case a proto-primer would not be needed. Then again, when you see reports on how much we suck at history, and geography (as Jay Leno’s “Jay-Walking” segment proves time and time again), we need all the reminders we can get. I will provide such a primer in the near future, and perhaps adding a paragraph on manga as well. Working title: “Anime for Intermediates.” Because, let’s face it, you know a lot more on this subject that you care to admit. My goal is to get you folks out there to admit the truth. Do I want you to become an otaku? Not really, but hey, if that’s your thing. What I really want is to have honest discussions on animation, the same way most folks can talk about sports, TV shows, movies, music. And that, my friend, is the mission statement of this blog.