Japans animators have
already helped to shape popular culture worldwide and now with the
release of the new movie Appleseed, they are yet again setting new
standards in art and entertainment. To mark the occasion KS has
arranged a little tour of mangas hyper-animated universe.
Pikachu is part of every North American
kids lexicon, Daft Punk hires a Japanese cartoonist to make
their videos, Spirited Away took away an Oscar last year,
and Tarantino is talking of a Kill Bill prequel done anime style.
Japanese animation, or anime, has sunken its claws,
tentacles, or what have you, deep into Western pop culture. Its
complex characters, intricate storylines and fresh art style continue
to snare more and more fans outside of Japan, much to the delight
of its producers. As the number of children in Japan decreases,
anime companies are looking to the global market to fill their coffers,
and making good on their goal. Anime heavyweight Toei, once dubbed
the Disney of the Orient, currently makes 40% of its
sales in America and Europe. But while the last few years have yielded
an anime explosion, the fuse was actually lit a long
Astro Boy, animes most recognized icon,
was the first Japanese cartoon to be adapted for Western television.
The robot-boy with black cowlick and jet boots, programmed to save
the world, fired onto American airwaves in 1963.
His arrival started two major trends. First, it
began the practice of Japanese programming being re-packaged and
put on U.S. air, a trend still seen today with popular cartoons
like Gundam, Hamtaro and Duel Masters.
Second, Astro Boy-artist Osamu Tezuka established
one of animes defining traits characters with huge,
saucer-like eyes. This optic-elephantiasis is often assumed to be
an Asian perception of Occidental facial features. It was, in fact,
Tezuka paying homage to his mentors Walt Disney and Max Fleischer
by drawing characters with eyes like those of their cartoon animals.
Following in Astro Boys success, crime series
The Eighth Man was launched in 1965. Much darker than smiling
Astro, and predating Robocop by decades, Eighth Man was a slain
detective resurrected as a crime-fighting robot. In the original
Japanese comic, he smoked energy cigarettes to power up. For American
audiences, the more upstanding practice of popping energy pills
As the anime field was showing great promise,
three more series went west the following year. Another of Tezukas
titles, Jungle Tatei, was scooped by NBC Films and shipped
overseas. Re-named Kimba, the White Lion, this tale of a
domesticated lion named Kimba returning to the savannah was syndicated
in America. Concept sound familiar? Anime aficionados thought so
and accused Disney of ripping it off for The Lion King, their
tale of a lion named Simba who returns to the savannah. Despite
the thematic, physical and namesake similarities, Disney maintained
Giant-robot story Gigantor, formerly Japans Tetsujin28,
made its mark that year. Small-time player Global Products also
hoped to get in on the anime game with Zoran, Space Boy.
Unlike Zoran himself, the series didnt fly.
The first dual-country cartoon effort between
America and Japan came in 1967. Marine Boy (Katai Shonen
Marine), an adolescent Aquaman, was released simultaneously in both
countries. It was smooth sailing for the series in Japan, but hit
rough waters in America. Its cartoon violence was considered too
intense for American kids, the National Association for Better Broadcasting
calling it one of the very worst animated shows
expresses a relish for torture and destruction of characters.
Marine Boys distributor was compelled to cut three episodes
from the original manifest.
The same year, Trans Lux TV in the U.S. picked
up Go Mifune, the story of a hip teenager who fought villains
in his Bond-esque sports car, renaming it Speed Racer. Not
only successful upon its release, Speed Racer was repackaged in
the 90s, its theme song done techno, and aired on MTV.
Space Is The Place
The late 60/early 70s was a dry spell for anime
overseas, with companies like Hanna-Barbara and Warner Brothers
dominating the cartoon market with superhero and western titles.
When Star Wars exploded in 1977, however, American youth demanded
science fiction shows a ready commodity in Japan. Game show
distributor Sandy Frank, smelling the potential profits, leap-frogged
the American animation studios frantically working on sci-fi cartoons,
and acquired Gatchaman, a Japanese cartoon series which ran
from 1972 to 1974. The plot involved five teenagers who, when not
eating junk food or wearing bellbottoms, were an intergalactic superhero
team called G-Force. Hanna-Barbara veterans James Brewer
and Alan Dinehart III were hired to adapt the series into English,
snipping bits out and drawing bits in. Almost one-fifth of the original
series hit the editing rooms floor, deemed too graphic for
the U.S. market, and a cute narrator droid was pencilled in to patch
plot holes. By the spring of 1978, Battle of the Planets
was ready for blast off.
The success of Battle, which is most likely still
being aired somewhere at this very moment, ushered in a battalion
of sci-fi cartoons from the east. Star Blazers, adapted from
the 1974 series Uchu Senkan Yamato, hit the airwaves in 1979,
followed by Voltron, from Japans Voltus 5, in
the early 80s. The next year, a giant Japanese robot named Mazinger
Z entered America under the title, TranZor Z.
As the Star Wars generation matured and wanted
more drama in their space tales, Captain Harlock (pieced
together from two different series) and Robotech (pieced
together from three!) were introduced. Both series, which appeared
on U.S air in 1985, concentrated more on personal struggles and
relationships, and less on laser battles and funny robots.
The Next Level
Since the early 90s, one anime series after another
has captured the imagination, and Christmas lists, of kids abroad.
The adventures of superhero schoolgirl Sailor Moon was an
unprecedented anime smash, only to be topped by her successors Pikachu
and his Pokemon pals. The creatures of Digimon, the game-inspired
stories of Beyblade and Yu-Gi-Oh!, and the kung fu-packed
Dragonball have ruled the roost as of late. Youth-targeting
channels YTV (Canada) and Cartoon Network (America) currently run
14 to 17 different anime series.
Near-future tale Appleseed, hitting movie
screens this month, is being hyped as the next stage in animes
evolution. Anyone who has seen the trailers believes it. The characters
have the look of traditional 2D animation but fluidity of human
actors, their action supplied by performers in motion-capture suits.
The computer-generated backgrounds are being touted as some of the
most realistic ever to grace the screen. Set in a utopian society
regulated by humanoids, the story follows members or an elite police
force attempting to thwart a terrorist group determined to restore
mans rule. With its club music soundtrack, Matrix-like action,
and curious human/android love story, Appleseed will surely keep
the anime flame burning abroad.