In the West, we get the impression that the Japanese love anime. Like, they really love it: unless they are at work, the Japanese, we imagine, are watching Dragon Ball, Gintama, or Fullmetal Alchemist anime shows, reading Cowboy Bebop or Neon Genesis Evangelion manga series, or playing one of the million video games based on anime characters.
We really do believe that it makes up a fairly major part of Japanese culture. And really, we’re not the only ones. China banned Death Note and Attack on Titan – and some commentators saw this as a response to the specifically Japanese nature of Japanese animation.
Yet, is this really true? Are all Japanese people anime fans? Is the country really full of people mad about anime and manga, Goku and Code Geass?
The answer – obviously enough – is a little more subtle and complicated than this. And this will be the topic of this article.
So, let’s dive in and have a look at the strange relationship between Japan’s most famous cultural product and the country itself.
And you can learn everything about anime in another article.
What is Anime?
Whilst, to the rest of the world, anime is something they do in Japan, for the Japanese themselves, this term means something a lot broader. ‘Anime’, in reality, is just short for ‘animation’.
This means literally any animation production, Japanese or non-Japanese, for kids or for adults. Consequently, anything you might see on Cartoon Network or Adult Swim – regardless of its geographical provenance – could be called anime.
However, things with this word are a little more complex than this – as not all Japanese animators like the term.
The famed animator, Hayao Miyazaki – known for his work with Toei Animation and, later, Studio Ghibli, with whom he made the hit films, Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke – is one of these. His argument is that this shortened term, ‘anime’, really expresses the decline of the animation form.
This term came about in the eighties, with the mass production of anime series, and its verbal contraction expresses the new limits of the form in general.
Each to their own; it’s not the place to have these conversations here. However, this attitude suggests that not everyone is over the moon about the state of Japanese manga and anime.
A Bit of History.
Anime – as we shall still call it that, for ease – started, people say, in the late 1910s, when a number of painters, cartoonists, and political caricaturists became interested in working with animated images.
These guys were working off the back of European and US influence, and the same can be said of the big breakthrough in Japanese anime in the 1960s. This came, pretty much, with the celebrated Osamu Tezuka, whose works – like Astro Boy and Princess Knight – were heavily influenced by the popularity of Disney’s movies from the thirties.
Remember that name, Tezuka – because it was him who really defined the style that we know today as ‘typically’ anime or manga. That’s the large eyes – able to express all sorts of emotional depth – and the wacky hair.
After this, anime and manga boomed – throughout the seventies and into the eighties. Classics like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam were early favourites, whilst hugely influential works like the film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind and Dragon Ball came later on.
The first of these gave Japanese animation a global audience – and transformed the image of anime from a sub-cultural trend into an art form with really profound possibilities. If we’re identifying the moments at which anime became hugely culturally influential, this was one of them. People all around the world began to watch anime – and people of all ages too.
However, when Neon Genesis Evangelion arrived in 1995, it emerged during a bit of a slump for the form. The eighties were a difficult decade economically for Japan, and, as a result, the anime industry had struggled. Evangelion changed this – and it became a bit of a sensation, influencing the next decade of anime productions.
Ten million people in Japan watched the last episode of Evangelion – and anime went mainstream.
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So, Now, Why is Anime So Popular?
The history puts into context the developments in – and the growing popular awareness of – this art form known as anime. But does it explain its enduring popularity?
No, we suppose not.
The key things to know about anime is that it is a massive industry, it’s a form of cultural identity and power for Japan, and it is a hugely diverse scene. It is not a monolithic thing, but rather the name we give to a very broad category of different products. These, if not the history, are the things that explain its success.
Let’s take a closer look.
It’s a Massive Multibillion Dollar Industry.
Let’s be a little cynical, just briefly.
The anime industry is worth a huge amount of money: $19.1 billion annually – or at least in 2017. To put this in perspective, the entire global film industry is worth $136 billion annually – including box office and home entertainment.
Even though this figure includes everything from the light novel to the anime games, the merchandise to the anime movies themselves, Japan’s anime makes up a fairly huge chunk of the world’s film industry.
This isn’t to be scoffed at. And, one of the reasons why anime is so big around the world is because Japanese producers deliberately exported their work, since the days of Tezuka. They did this precisely because not enough people were watching their animes in Japan. (This sort of exposes the idea that all Japanese people love anime, no?)
By selling these Japanese cultural products cheaply to the rest of the world, the audience grew. In Italy, Spain and South America interest in anime grew massively.
An Example: Pokémon.
The really interesting thing about anime’s popularity is that it was never only about the animated series themselves. It became, rather, a whole cultural identifier and multimedia franchise.
Pokémon, for instance, was originally a computer game. Yet, the success of these games produced an anime adaptation, as well as a manga series. And, then, The Pokémon Company released a card game, as well as films – including a live action film – music, and even a theme park.
This was anime’s breakthrough franchise in the US. It has since become not only the biggest media franchise in the world, but also the biggest selling video game franchise and the highest grossing anime film in the US.
The reason for this was that Pokémon became a part of life – with all sorts of different cultural forms available to engage with this universe.
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Japan’s anime industry is massive. And, as a result, anime imagery is everywhere across the country. This doesn’t necessarily mean that recognisable anime characters are everywhere. However, the style and tropes of the form are ubiquitous.
In airports, in railway stations, on school buses, on snacks and on bottle water, you’ll find images from anime almost anywhere you look.
It’s a Symbol of Japan.
As we said above, anime has become associated with Japan – for better or for worse. Whilst this sounds obvious – because it all comes from Japan – the point is a bit of a different one.
When people talk about a country’s influence around the world, they talk about two types of power: ‘hard’ power and ‘soft’ power. ‘Hard’ power is the sort of power which we conventionally understand as power: with guns, invasions, and soldiers.
‘Soft’ power, however, is about culture. The US is very good at this: everyone across the world listens to American music, watches American films and TV shows, and speaks English.
Anime is Japan’s own version of all this. If everyone is watching Japanese anime, of course Japan is going to be happy about this – and so will give the industry as much help as it can get.
And There’s an Anime for Everyone.
Less cynically, then, part of the broad appeal of anime in Japan is that it is a form that has an audience across all sorts of demographics, ages, and genders.
Shonen manga, for example, is aimed at teenage boys. This might include Dragon Ball. Then there is shoujo manga, aimed at girls.
There is something like this for all different demographics in Japan – and this gives anime a really broad and diverse audience.
This, really, is the great achievement of specifically Japanese anime: even adults enjoy it. That’s because there is a type of anime designed with them in mind: serious themes, complex plots, and adult humour.
No. Not All Japanese People Like Anime.
So, yes, anime is popular in Japan.
However, it wouldn’t be so surprising if we were to find out that Japanese people often ask, why is Disney so popular in America? Or, why is Coronation Street so popular in the UK?
These would be good questions. Yet, we know, living here, that, really, not everyone likes or even watches Coronation Street.
In the same way, of course a lot of Japanese people don’t care at all about anime. Just as plenty of Americans don’t like Hollywood or plenty of Colombians don’t dance.