The “Japanese Invasion”: Anime’s Explosive Popularity in the U.S.
By Brenda Velasquez | Asian Avenue magazine
For decades, a phenomenon has been rapidly growing within the U.S. society, developing into a unique subculture. Japanese animation has taken the country by storm since its boom during the 90s with hit TV series like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Pokémon. These series opened the floodgates for anime (pronounced “animé”) to permeate American society, reaching a level of popularity in the 2000s that has propelled the Japanese government to request the aid of experts in Colorado in understanding the reasons behind North America’s love for anime.
For readers unfamiliar with anime, and for fans interested in learning something new about their favorite pastime, Asian Avenue investigates the history, surveys the evolution, and explores the facets of the multi-colored universe called anime.
Not just for kids
Christian Nutt, of Shojo Beat magazine once wrote, “Anime, a vibrant and action-packed style of animation that originated in Japan, offers a unique experience for those people raised on traditional Walt Disney flicks, blending together a high-tech look, multidimensional characters, and fantastical worlds. It is an experience not to be missed.”
At first glance, anime, which features handdrawn or computer animation, appears to be simply Japanese-style cartoons for children, but anime in fact caters to a wide-ranging age demographic with a plethora of themes like love/friendship, coming-of-age, good vs. evil and so on. Similarly, anime spans a variety of subgenres from fantasy and sci-fi to horror, romance and comedy.
These subgenres appear under the umbrella of two predominant anime genres: shojo and shonen-the former targeting a female audience with its focus on human and romantic relationships and emotions while the latter targets a male audience with plots characterized by action, male camaraderie and attractive female characters. (Although these binary genres are virtually split between gender-based target audiences, both male and female viewers enjoy shojo and shonen content.) Examples of popular shojo series include Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura; examples of popular shonen titles include Dragon Ball Z and Naruto.
With its diverse subject matter and subgenres, Dr. Ian Condry, a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor of Japanese cultural studies at MIT-and one of the experts called upon to research the anime phenomenon in North America-explained how “anime filled a space that was missing in American media for a long time—animation for teens and adults.”
Indeed, the 1985 arrival of the sci-fi anime TV series Robotech demonstrated the versatility of Japanese animation, portraying an older protagonist growing up in a world of extraterrestrial invasions and battle-ready androids.
In an interview with Denver Post writer Joe Nguyen, Kevin McKeever, vice president of marketing for the company Harmony Gold which brought Robotech to the States, described the specific elements within this pioneering series that appealed to older audiences: “Robotech…had serialized story lines and love triangles that rivaled the daytime soap operas… It’s an animated soap opera with transforming giant robots.”
Accompanying this emphasis on narration, anime exhibits a strong focus on character development; within the first few episodes of a series, a character’s background, personality and role are introduced via storytelling techniques like inner monologues, dialogue or flashbacks. As a result, viewers quickly acquaint themselves with the characters, forming a bond that invites them to experience the characters’ journeys, giving anime a vividly engaging effect.
Manga: The jelly side
Just as a novel inspires a film, an anime series is usually based on a manga-the comic book version of an anime. And just as a person may or may not read the novel that inspired a film, fans of anime may or may not read the manga upon which the animation is based. Shojo Beat Senior Editor Megan Bates offers a ‘tasteful’ analogy: “Manga and anime are kind of like peanut butter and jelly: Some people prefer just peanut butter on their bread, others indulge in jelly sandwiches, and the vast majority revels in the sweet, nutty combination-but among fans there can be no argument that, together or apart, the individual components are simply delightful. And you really can’t think of one without the other coming to mind.”
Dubs vs. Subs and the desire for authenticity
Fans in the U.S. have the option of watching anime in English or in Japanese with English subtitles. Oftentimes, a sense of elitism can develop among fans who prefer subs (Japanese language anime with subtitles) over dubs (anime in which the characters are voiced by English language actors). These fans favor the original Japanese version over the ‘Americanized’ one-a preference possibly fueled by a desire for authenticity stemming from anime’s North American history.
Although anime had existed in North America for decades before the 90’s boom (the first Japanese animated feature to reach the U.S. being Panda and the Magic Serpent (1958) followed by the well-known TV series Astro Boy (1963)), North American distributors of anime initially modified the content through extensive editing to fit more seamlessly with American culture. This practice of cultural modification minimized anime’s foreign appeal, making it easier for Americans to approach, but once the population grew familiar with anime, its popularity began to increase and soon, many American fans sought the real deal, the original product.
This growing awareness of and desire for authentic Japanese culture prompted North American publishers to reconsider their initial actions. Though at first manga distributed in the U.S. was switched to the American left-to-right reading format, in recent years, the comic books have been returned to their original Japanese right-to-left format.
Additionally, North American distributors have advanced the accuracy of manga’s language translation with translators now providing detailed glossaries after the story explaining any Japanese cultural references made by the mangaka (manga author). Anime too, is showing signs of progress towards authenticity.
“Dubs are getting so much better,” remarks Evan Boucher, a University of Denver Computer Science major and Asian Studies minor, and President of the DU Anime Club. “Japan is becoming more aware of how important western sales are. They are translating and releasing titles faster than ever, which is good for both creators and consumers.”
Through these changes, distributors are educating American audiences on Japanese culture and building a bridge between the two regions. “That half of the world is so different,” responds Boucher when asked about the significance of this education and its consequent cultural connection.
“They have opposite solutions to religion, lifestyle, food, philosophy, entertainment. It’s really important to get that perspective, and it means that anime is always totally unique compared to anything else that you’ll see in the U.S.”
Anime aesthetics attract video game designers
Although many mangaka harbor distinct drawing styles-some more stylized others more simplified-anime aesthetics generally portray an anatomically-correct and vibrantly-colored style of character design marked by expressive large eyes, tiny pointed noses, and small mouth lines.
These iconic aesthetics have spilled into the realm of video games with highly popular games like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy exhibiting anime-influenced character designs-appropriately accompanying their anime-based storytelling emphases on narration and character development.
Shojo Beat Editor Jenifer Morgan explains: “Pac-Man, created by Toru Iwatani of Namco in 1980, was one of the first games to incorporate immediately recognizable, iconic character designs-a cornerstone of manga.
The Japanese also introduced narrative structure-another manga building block-to video games. Shigeru Miyamoto opened the famous Donkey Kong (1981) with a story. Modeling the game’s levels after a traditional four-panel manga, Miyamoto told the story of Donkey Kong in four scenes, using relatively well-developed characters and more-realistic environments. Later, in games such as Super Mario Bros., resolving a story (rather than just playing until you die or racking up points) became the primary goal. Final Fantasy (1987)…and other hit Japanese games continued to experiment with design and story elements based on manga and anime.
Today’s video games almost universally include a detailed story line, along with character backgrounds, motivations, and progression-all of which contribute to immersive gameplay.”
The installation of these storytelling elements and increasingly realistic anime-style designs (thanks to advancements in computer graphics) has facilitated stronger bonds between players and video game characters in the same way anime and manga fans form relationships with the personages on screen and on the page. Morgan continues: “Time marched on, computers got more powerful, graphics got even better, and people in games started to not only look more like humans, they started to act like them too. Now you could look at characters’ faces and tell when they were happy or sad. Even better, you were able to interact with the people on your computer. With all these emotions came relationships, and with relationships, games could be about more than just killing the bad guy. You could actually build digital friendships.”
The year 2000 introduced a new innovation in which video games further attempted to enhance the realism of anime characters with a gaming genre called AnimePlay published by Hirameki Inc. Shojo Beat writer Francesca Reyes reported, “Like a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book, Hirameki’s growing line of AnimePlay titles work more like interactive visual novels than actual games. Imagine watching your favorite anime and being able to call the shots at important crossroads in the story line via your trusty DVD remote.”
An example of these titles places the player in a theoretical romantic dilemma: “Hourglass of Summer – ‘You’re just an ordinary boy in love with the most popular girl at your high school…but what if you found out that in the future she would die in a horrible accident? And most importantly, what if you had the power to avert tragedy and change the future?’” Because of this ever-increasing correlation between gaming and anime/manga, gamers and anime/manga fanatics are typically one and the same-all participants of the blooming anime subculture.
Cosplay: A creative act of admiration
Another method of enhancing anime’s realism is cosplay. The term combines the words “costume” and “play”, and refers to a hobby in which fans don the costumes of their cherished characters from a comic book, video game, TV show or movie, in an act of creative admiration. The practice originated in Japan and has become a thriving culture in the U.S. with cosplayer communities developing all over the country.
Anime fans who participate in cosplay begin by choosing a favorite figure from a manga, anime or anime-influenced video game and don the character’s full costume, including hair (with the aid of wigs, hair dyes, or simple styling), outfit (store-bought or handmade) and props (for example a sword if the character is a samurai).
But the practice of cosplay doesn’t end at external appearance; this hobby challenges cosplayers to employ their best acting skills and imitate their chosen characters’ personality. Cosplayers perform the gestures, facial expressions and overall attitude of their beloved characters; as one Tumblr user named Kikikabuki wrote: “Cosplay isn’t about already being the character. It’s about becoming the character.”
Hsing Tseng, a University of Denver Journalism and Asian Studies student who has written several articles on cosplaying, and who is a beginner cosplayer herself agrees. In her article, “Why I Cosplay”, Tseng explains how cosplay “refers to the act of portraying a fictional character in both costume and actions.” Since becoming involved in cosplay this March, Tseng has collected three costumes and is in the process of creating more to wear at next month’s anime convention, Nan Desu Kan.
Within the cosplay community, the option of hand-making one’s costume is often favored over purchasing an outfit since the wearer can invest personal effort and love into the ensemble, particularly because the hand making process is an intricate and complex task, requiring great patience and work ethic.
“I taught myself to sew with help of friends and other cosplayers,” relates Tseng. “Cosplaying has taught me a lot as far as crafting, and turning ideas on the screen and on paper into 3D textile outfits that I can wear…I try to make the most accurate and unique product at the same time; accuracy is number one but I take budget and skill level into consideration so I can’t always be the most accurate but it also leads me to be creative in my approach.”
After choosing a character, the cosplayer must research the character’s outfit (the fabric, the colors, the shapes), research and purchase the materials needed, study crafting techniques, and finally spend countless hours-blood, sweat and tears-creating the ensemble. Depending on the detail of the character’s outfit, the process can take several months or more.
“Cosplay is something that you commit to and realize that even if it’s really difficult, it’s something that gives a great amount of fulfillment and pride,” says Tseng. “Making something with my own hands, cosplaying grants me the ability to express more of who I am so it’s something I’m going to continue doing for as long as I can.”
NDK provides local anime indulgence
Proud cosplayers eager to showcase their costumes and express their love for their favorite characters attend anime conventions where they can mingle with like-minded cosplayers and anime/manga fans. Anime conventions have cropped up across the nation since 1990, when fans in Dallas put together Project: A-Kon, widely considered the first anime con in the U.S.
Today, the largest conventions include Anime Expo (L.A.), Otakon (Baltimore) and Sakura-Con (Seattle), with smaller conventions in numerous states. Nan Desu Kan (NDK) is Colorado’s premier annual anime convention, spanning three days and housing a buffet of
anime-related activities like cosplay contests, video gaming rooms, panels, art shows and dances. Convention guests include English language voice actors, animators and producers.
“NDK is different in the fact that we are more homegrown, and so we put more emphasis on local interests,” says Jeremy Pieta, NDK Director of Hospitality and Technology. NDK is sponsored by the Rocky Mountain Anime Association (RMAA) which Pieta has been a member of for 14 years; this will be the 17th year for the convention.
“The RMAA was established in order to create NDK, which along with its sister convention, the NDK New Year’s Eve Costume Ball Convention, are the two primary ways that we achieve our purpose of advocating Japanese culture in the U.S.”
Shani Hime, founder of Colorado-based business Stitch in Time Costumes, is a vendor at this year’s NDK and a regular participant in the convention’s cosplay contest. Attending the convention has become a family tradition for her husband and children.
“Last year I started selling my hand-made items in NDK’s Artist’s Alley,” recounts Shani. “We have so much at the con we are part of now. We have met so many dear friends, have learned so much more about anime, cosplay, and ourselves; and love the people, the environment, and the fun. I couldn’t imagine a September without NDK.”
This year’s NDK occurs September 13-15th at the Denver Marriott Tech Center with entry badges ranging from $30 (single-day) to $50 (weekend).
SANA: An expert exploration of anime’s cultural appeal in North America
As mentioned in the article’s opening, the love of North American fans for anime has prompted the Japanese government to investigate the phenomenon with the aid of experts in Colorado. Earlier this year in March, the RMAA in conjunction with the Consulate-General of Japan in Denver held a day-long conference called SANA (Summit on Anime in North America) where academics, anime industry professionals and fans gathered for an intense exploration of anime in the U.S.
The conference held at the Denver Airport Marriott at Gateway Park, hosted 200 invited guests and a few members of the general public who gained entrance to the event via an essay contest.
Presentations were given by six keynote speakers exploring the history and development of anime and the possible reasons behind its cultural appeal in North America, alluding to anime’s diverse storylines, quality aesthetics and captivating storytelling effect. A Q&A roundtable discussion between the speakers and guests finished the 8-hour long conference.
SANA’s results are currently being reviewed by the Consulate-General of Japan and their colleagues in Tokyo but the discussions will soon be available to the public via podcasts on iTunes and the NDK YouTube channel.
Until then, readers can experience the phenomenon for themselves via popular websites like Crunchyroll or Netflix, and join the conversation surrounding this unique animation’s explosive popularity in the U.S.