For many people around the world, the first word that comes to mind when talking about
Japanese pop culture is anime. Like manga, it has entered the
youth vocabulary and needs no translation. Perhaps the main reasons it is such a big
industry in Japan are that it has always been taken seriously and it has the diversity
to appeal to all age levels, as has the manga format
that gave birth to it and continues to seed it with new ideas. Popular manga sell in the
tens of millions, so the fan base for any new manga-based anime is huge and loyal.
Commercialism is never too far away, of course, and many popular kid's anime series have
been developed to further the interests of toy and game makers rather than artistic integrity.
Tezuka Osamu (1928-89) is considered the father of anime
in Japan. Like his U.S. counterpart Walt Disney, he was a renowned mangaka (cartoonist).
He adapted one of his own manga to bring anime to the TV screen for the first
time in 1963 with the legendary Tetsuwan Atomu (Mighty Atom), better known outside
Japan as Astro Boy. The boy robot may have been cute, but the robot "mecha" genre that
Tezuka and his disciples developed in the 1970s were far less so. The huge popularity
enjoyed by series such as Gundam in the 80s still continues today and has spawned
many other successes. Perhaps the most notable was 1995's ground-breaking Neon Genesis
Evangelion (still image above) and its three movie spin-offs. That series started out as a
post-apocalyptic mecha action series but later
branched into the psychoanalysis of its characters. This is said to have been based on
director Anno Hideaki's personal battles with depression and psychotherapy. Such is the depth
and seriousness that underpin many anime productions.
There are as many anime genres as there are types of live action movies, varying from science
fiction to melodrama to porno. There's shojo (like Sailor Moon) for girls, shonen
(Dragon Ball Z, pic) for boys, kodomo (Anpanman or Doraemon) for younger kids. And
then there's ones focused on baseball (Kyojin no Hoshi), soccer or just about any popular sport,
street racing (Initial D), historical themes (Hotaru no Haka)...you name it.
Because of the language barrier, it was long thought that Japanese
anime feature movies would probably never achieve much commercial
success outside their homeland. But among those in the know - and
following the 2002 Academy Awards that meant just about everybody - they
have recently become so successful and popular that a special category, 'Japanimation', has been created for
them. Usually people think of cult classics like Akira or Ghost
in the Shell, both of which live up to Japan's image as a futuristic techno-world, or the
elaborate fantasy worlds created by Studio Ghibli.
Ghibli, Japan's answer to Disney, is also home to its most famous anime director,
The studio has turned out a string of hit fantasy movies during the last few decades, such as
My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Oscar-winner and the most
successful Japanese movie of all time, Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no
Kamikakushi, 2001), and Howl's Moving Castle. Like the recent Hollywood
animated features from Pixar or Dreamworks, these movies can now enlist
the voice talents of major stars, giving them yet more marketability.
The success of the Ghibli productions, supported by distribution through
Disney, has given a real impetus to the industry and helped raise the profile
of other recent big productions like Innocence and Steamboy.
Despite all this success, the vast majority of anime movies never make it beyond Asia or
last beyond the life of their marketing campaign even at home.
Hit TV anime series continue to be a popular source for
movies. But these are almost always just extended versions of the TV shows and have
little appeal beyond their captive audience. Many, such as Pocket Monsters,
Anpanman or Crayon Shinchan, are also aimed very much at younger kids. They draw fans to theaters -
especially during summer vacation - but make most of their money from the rental market