The history of anime is long and rich. Animated feature films, shorts, and television programming have been a staple for American audiences young and old for generations. The same can be said for the Japanese, whose distinctive style of animated programs, "anime", is now enjoyed throughout the world. While animation was part of the Japanese film industry going back as far as 1917, anime as we have come to appreciate it today is a newer form of animated film and television programming, having as its genesis the comic book-type "manga" characters developed following World War II.
History of Anime
The hero of modern anime is Astro Boy, an extraordinarily popular television series featuring the title character created by Dr. Osamu Tezuka, the "god of manga". Astro Boy plays a big role in the history of anime. Astro Boy debuted on Japanese television in 1963. Astro Boy was the prototype of anime characters, highly stylized with large, deep, round eyes reminiscent of Disney cartoon characters like Mickey Mouse and other animated characters that influenced Tezuka's style, such as Betty Boop. Astro Boy was so popular that his character was revived both in 1980-81 and later in 2003. Characteristic of anime, Astro Boy actually began as a manga character in the early 1950s.
Tezuka's manga portfolio encompassed 700 series totaling approximately 170,000 pages. Trained as a physician, Dr. Tezuka began his work shortly after receiving his medical degree in 1946. As critical to Japanese animation as Disney was to the American, Tezuka and Disney actually met in 1964 at the New York World's Fair. Disney's early work heavily influenced Tezuka's. In the early 1950's, the history of anime reached a pivotal point when Tezuka obtained a license from Disney to adapt both "Bambi" and "Pinocchio" to manga. In March of 2005, Disney agreed to allow the first reprint of these significant works.
Lions, Lions Everywhere
While Astro Boy is considered the character that launched the anime industry, he is not the only international star created by Tezuka. Unlike Astro Boy, however, the journey taken by the Jungle Emperor Leo was far more rocky. A manga character in the early 1950's, Leo was a white lion cub who overcame a number of troubles to eventually succeed his murdered father as king of the jungle. Owing to the success of Astro Boy, Leo got his own show as a television series in the United States. In syndication through NBC, key animators for the series are brought over from Japan to study at the Disney studios and the show debuts in America as Kimba, the White Lion.
Were that the end of the story of Kimba, the white lion would have lived a successful career on both American and Japanese television, and indeed Leo/Kimba remains a popular anime and manga character to this day. There would be no rest for the King of the Jungle, however, due to a little dust up in 1994 with the release of the enormously popular and critically acclaimed The Lion King by Disney. The similarities in the two characters and their stories cause a roar of protest in Japan, where over 1000 artists and fans of the anime character wrote to urge Disney to recognize the influence of Tezuka's work in the film. Disney declined the invitation.
Animated Yes, Cartoon, No
While both animated, the differences between anime and western animated productions are significant. Most anime is limited animation where backgrounds do not change from scene to scene, stills of characters appear, or where only the character's mouths move when there is dialogue. Initially this limited animation was to compensate for the lack of quality animators in Japan and to meet the production demands of television series. Over time, however, these techniques have been perfected to heighten dramatic emphasis in certain scenes and to create the distinctive highly stylized and detailed format now so associated with anime. Famed animator Yasuo Otsuka perfected this technique.
Feature film anime and original animated video (OVA) - the anime equivalent of "straight to video" - are more elaborate, bigger budget productions such as those from the Studio Ghibli and have less limited animation. Isao Takahata's "Pom Poko" (1994), produced by Ghibli, was not only the top grossing film - live action or animated - in Japan the year of its release, it was also submitted as Japan's candidate for Best Foreign Film Oscar.
Because of its huge popularity in Japan, anime can be a very targeted and commercial art form. While cross marketing is well known to the fans of the "Star Wars" movies, in the case of anime the marketability of characters is a critical component of programming, especially for younger audiences. Many specific genres have emerged where the emphasis is on characters who appeal to specific demographics, whether children, teens, or adults. One familiar genre is the "sentai", which is Japanese for fighting force or squadron. When super heroes band together to form a sentai in the form of a robot they create a "super sentai".
One of the most popular super sentai groups is the "Himitsu Sentai Goranger", better known to young western audiences as the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Other anime genres include "mecha", where the story features giant robots, "shōnen", with themes targeted to boys, "shōjo" with themes targeted to girls, and "hentai" which is pornographic or erotic anime in various forms. Anime features will reflect multiple genres.
Anime is now popular worldwide thanks to the accessibility created by cable television and the adaptation of both anime characters and concepts into western programming. Pokémon is indeed an anime and magna series, but it is one of the few times where art imitates games, as the characters began as a Nintendo video game. There are mecha elements in the Iron Giant, a recent animated film from Warner Brothers, that hearken back to the groundbreaking "Gundam" anime series that has enjoyed decades of success in Japan. Conversely, "Cowboy Bebop", an anime series started in 1998, has been enormously popular in America as part of Cartoon Network's "Adult Swim" programming.
Anime supporters in Japan and throughout the world are beginning to express concern that the commercial success anime enjoys today is now coming at the expense of creative quality. As long as anime stays true to its magna roots, however, it will remain a vibrant and popular medium for generations to follow.