Giant Robots and race cars, oh my
If there is anything that has brought the cultures of the East and West together, it is anime. The Japanese, inspired by our own animators, sought to create shows and films that had depth of character and explored more mature themes, not only sex and violence, but pain and loss. For American kids growing up in the 90’s, it gave us the animated shows we loved as children, only growing up with us, and speaking to our experience and tastes even as they changed. These days, the influence is felt on both sides. John Lasseter of Pixar has cited Hiyao Miazaki as one of his influences, and other seek to remake classics like Akira. In Japan, animators draw on both the cinematic techniques of our luminaries and the stories we tell ourselves. This was not instantaneous, however. The arrival of anime on our shores is a story of decades, of dedication, of piracy, and of art.
Anime as we know it began with a man named Osamu Tezuka. While other animators made children’s fare, inspired by Walt Disney’s work, Osamu combined that with a love of French New Wave cinema to create a story of a robot boy, Tetsuwan Atomu. Made in the likeness of his creator’s son, he is rejected because he will not grow. He finds a
caring home and he works to defend a society that rejects him. It brought Japanese cultural issues to a medium unused to them, and it worked beautifully. An American producer, Fred Ladd, became enamored with the show and thought it could work on American shores. It was polished, sold to NBC, and after syndication the western world was introduced to Astro Boy. Thus, the First Wave began.
Other shows followed suit, America was introduced to Gigantor, Eight Man, and Marine Boy. The expanding role of television in the household helps these stories take hold. This first wave peaks with the most famous show, Speed Racer. This tale of a daring racecar driver and his family is eaten up by young boys everywhere during the Sixties. Little girls also had a favorite in Kimba the White Lion, a show that you may have heard of for a completely different reason.
Anime’s impact on our culture slowed in the 70’s. A newfound love of sci-fi due to properties like Star Trek and Star Wars brought us Star Blazers and Battle of the Planets. However, interest from networks dwindled. Shows had to be heavily edited not only for content (Anime at this point had no issues depicting violence or even death in their stories), but also to create a greater cultural relevance for Americans. Fans, however, persisted. They sought out the original runs, unedited by western networks. They subtitles works themselves, at times simply providing scripts that could be downloaded or purchased and then read while you watched. Shows were copied and passed around from person to person.
Anime continued as an underground culture until the early nineties. In Japan, anime had suffused every genre. There were animated action films, romantic comedies, period dramas, and even horror. Additionally, the advent of the VCR created the OAV, or Original Anime Video. This Japanese version of direct-to-video served a different purpose than in the states. While straight-to-video is usually the home of low budget fare, the Japanese saw it as an opportunity to explore stories and themes that would not be accepted from television or film. This explosion of media created three stories that would start the Second Wave of fandom and cement anime’s place in our culture, Robotech, Akira, and finally Sailor Moon. Soon other shows like Dragonball Z and Pokemon followed suit. Western studios began to collaborate and now each side feels the influence of the other.
The Medium is the Message
Anime works well for horror partially for the same reason books work well, or film, or even podcasts. Animation is a format for telling stories, and all stories can be told through it. The Japanese abandoned long ago Walt’s idea that cartoon were only for kids. They can make you laugh, they can make you rage against an injustice. I have long said that anyone that didn’t think a cartoon could make them cry should watch Grave of the Fireflies. Of course, in this day and age there are several features that could do the same, but anime even involved emotion where western animation feared to go, like fear, revulsion, and dread. Believing that this medium was valid for anything, everything was shown. You can find tense psychological thrillers, and you can find buckets of blood and gore. Both of these extremes are going to be explored this month. That said, anime has its beautifully crafted masterpieces, and shameless cash-ins. It has art, and shameless excuses to show tits or sell toys. It is, after all, a medium, not a story in and of itself.
Animation is especially suited to particular genres, horror included. The imagination is closer to free in the
animated realm. While conventional cinema is limited at least by the abilities of practical effects artists and the endurance of its actors, animation can surpass those. Make a killer who moves through the truly surreal landscape of a dream (yes, I know, Nightmare on Elm Street and Cell. Watch Paprika and tell me there’s not a difference). Make a boy, burdened by his new psychic abilities, grow like a tumor to the size of a stadium. The only limit is your artistic skill and time. Movies are coming closer with CGI, but the only way they will truly match it is to just become animation. This unleashing of the imagination can also unleash the nightmares that dwell on the fringes of that imagination. I hope this will inspire you to explore those fringes with us.
More on the podcast in the following episodes…