Americans to anime: 'You've changed'
August 30th, 2011
05:31 PM ET

Americans to anime: 'You've changed'

When the wave of Japanese animation first hit American shores, it started in small ways.

It wasn’t shown in movie theatres. Friends gave tapes and laser disks to their other friends. Neighborhood Blockbusters quietly built new, narrow shelves, conspicuous against the endless, over-polished stream of new releases. Those shelves bore a tiny nameplate, with a single new word.


The vivid art on the covers of the VHS cassettes of the early 1990s captured American attention, even though there were few to choose from. The anime titles available to stateside consumers at video stores had dark themes: “Akira,” featured a cyberpunk/sci-fi flavored plot about a biker gang that discovers a secret that led to the destruction of Tokyo. “Vampire Hunter D,” combines several pulp genres to tell the tale of a vampire hunter who is half vampire himself. “Battle Angel,” followed a female cyborg that falls in love with a human boy who has a burning desire to reach a paradise in the sky.

These films were not new in their native country of Japan - some dated back from the mid-nineteen eighties. But as American viewers consumed this media, a community of Japanophiles began to take shape.

Drawn to stories that had the courage to touch darker themes that American cartoons had rarely crossed the boundaries of, fans all over the world started to notice that something was coming out of Japan that was unlike anything else they’d ever seen. And they wanted more.

Bound by their shared love of Japanese cartoons, anime fans grouped together, happy to obsess over every detail of their favorite shows. They went to fan conventions to watch anime they couldn’t buy or rent. Later, they would watch and analyze anime on the internet.

“Online, you had the option of pirating shows through torrent sites, a problem that plagues the industry even today when legal streaming anime is easy to find,” Lauren Orsini, writer and founder of Otaku Journalist said. “Pirating is an especially difficult problem to fix because some anime fans see grassroots distribution of anime as an act of fandom. Though illegal, fansubs, fandubs and scanlations are a community activity in [anime] fandom.”

“Today, anime imagery is everywhere. Kids carry ‘Dragon Ball Z’ school supplies, adults wear manga inspired T-shirts, and even my mainstream fashion magazine tells me how to use makeup to get "those big anime eyes." Anime has gone global and future [anime fans] can find out about it simply by word of mouth,” Orsini said.

It was 1952 when manga artist Osamu Tezuka created the signature oversized “anime eyes” look, writing landmark anime titles such as “Astro Boy.” Some would argue anime had been around even before that, since the earliest Japanese animation dates back to 1917 and depicts a samurai silently testing a new sword on his target.

By the 1970s, anime had moved on to bigger subjects, quite literally.

“Super robots”, an anime movement spearheaded by Go Nagai’s “Mazinger-Z” featured a powerful giant robot as a central character, constructed by humans to help fight the forces of evil. The show was conceived during a time period when hope for a technology-rich future was no longer looking like an elaborate fantasy, thanks to the excitement generated by the Apollo moon landing in 1969.

This genre hit a new height in popularity with the premiere of “Mobile Suit Gundam” in 1979. The cartoon spawned dozens of related shows and inspired a new level of fan obsession in Japanese and American followers alike.

“In the late seventies, later-generation super robot shows tried to restore some of the moral complexity promised by earlier shows,” says Mark Simmons, writer and Gundam consultant for Bandai. “The upstart studio Nippon Sunrise (now Sunrise) produced a series of darker super robot series aimed at slightly older viewers, which addressed formerly taboo subjects like civilian casualties, and the psychological toll their job took on the heroes.”

The eighties heralded the evolution of the Otaku subculture. Anime fans named themselves after the term “Otaku,” which was coined by humorist Akio Nakamori in 1983 to mean “people with obsessive interests,” but especially interest in anime, manga, video games and other “nerdy” pursuits. The word was a double edged sword, taking on a derogatory tone in Japan, but interpreted as a cool niche in America, like a secret “inner circle.”

“The popularity of Otaku culture arrived at a time when mainstream programming and advertising were increasingly removed from reality,” Orsini said. “It's near impossible to conform to what we see on the screen, so it's no wonder more and more viewers are feeling like the odd one out, the "geek" or "nerd" of the bunch. Otaku culture lets us forget about those pressures. It gives us a place to be our weird, imperfect selves.”

America may have just been on the cusp of embracing anime, but in reality the industry was struggling for survival in Japan due to low sales. As the success of shows such as “Pokemon”, “DragonBall Z” and “Sailor Moon” blossomed here in the states during the 1990s, they also acted as the saving throw that revitalized the industry, creating a new source of revenue.

However, the stress of the near nosedive struck an emotional chord with many animators in this time period. Most memorably, Hideaki Anno channeled his personal depression into the direction of “Neon Genesis Evangelion.”

The epic action series deconstructed the giant robot genre by portraying the protagonist as a vulnerable, self-conscious child thrust into unwanted responsibility largely by a broken relationship with his father, instead of the typically heroic, morally-upright youth. “Evangelion” communicated Japan’s tenacity in the face of fear and chaos. The show flirted with biblical themes and addressed questions about the meaning of life, which effectively ranked it as one of anime’s most powerful franchises.

Also in the nineties, anime developed the “Magical girl” trend. These shows depicted a team of young girls with alter egos that give them magical abilities, and who fight evil to protect earth. Although “Magical girl” anime has been around since as early as 1966, the show that made the genre a household name was “Sailor Moon”, which debuted in 1992. Much like the “Super robot” shows depicted a fantasy of victorious masculinity, “Magical girl” shows presented women with similarly empowering themes of taking charge.

That same decade, Cartoon Network (which, like CNN is owned by parent company Time Warner) played an instrumental role in growing the American anime fanbase with “Toonami.” An action-oriented animation channel, “Toonami” launched in 1997 and featured an anime programming block in 1999, called “Midnight Run.” “Toonami” brought shows such as “DragonBall Z”, “Naruto”, “One Piece”, “Sailor Moon” and “Cowboy Bebop” to an American audience, attracting both young and mature viewers.

Many of these anime series were long running, like the mangas (Japanese comic books) several of them were adopted from. This resulted in a long-term viewer commitment in order for fans to keep up with the storylines, and millions of people happily obliged.

In the early 2000s, a new trend began to take hold in the anime world: “slice of life anime”, in which characters didn’t really do anything, but spent a lot of time talking about nonsensical subjects and looking pretty. “Moe” characters - young, adorable girls on the cusp between puberty and adulthood - were a pervasive signature of these anime shows.

“Slice of life anime” marked a stark shift between darker themes and comedic themes, affecting the climate of anime on a major level.

“There may be a correlation between the up-tick in social regression - such as “hikkikomori” (a term used for the relatively new social phenomenon of Japanese youth who shut themselves away in their homes in response to the stresses of urban life) - and the increase in slice-of-life anime, most of which are light comedies,” says Gia Manry, Associate Editor at Anime News Network.

“Maybe shows like that, which revolve around groups of friends, are particularly attractive as sort of a stand-in for real-life friends. They're also the subject matter that fuels relationships online, so maybe they also serve as a "mutual friend" in that respect,” she said.

And now in 2011, the anime landscape is far more complicated and discernibly different from both the simple illustrations of “Astro Boy” and the scary visions of “Akira’s” apocalyptic future.

So what’s changed? Japan has. As Japanese culture evolves, so has the tone of Japanese media. The evolution towards anime with lighter subject matter seems to indicate that Japan needed to laugh more and worry less.

Around the time that “slice of life” shows started to explode in Japanese popularity, it became obvious to the dedicated Otaku viewer that the heart of anime was changing. For example, the average length of a show has changed from 26 episodes to 13, giving directors a little over half the time to build a story and allow characters to develop fan followings. Production focuses on quantity over quality, with twenty or more shows airing every season.

This lighter approach has not taken the reins of the anime industry completely: There are deeper stories to be found in its animated films, such as “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” and series such as “Eden of the East”, which explored topics such as technology, terrorism and political uprising.

To some, it may appear as if Japan has traded a willing exploration into the darkness for escapism in the form of silliness, but the rising popularity of comedies shows that Japanese audiences are enjoying them tremendously. Especially after the Tokoku earthquake earlier this year, the country needs more reason than ever to stay positive and lighthearted, and perhaps shows such as this help to fuel them.

The question now is, how will the rest of the world view the latest iteration of the Japanese export which spawned an entire nerd subculture? Which type of anime do you like best, and why?

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. animes online

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    November 17, 2012 at 9:32 pm |
  2. vhdtv

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    May 14, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
  3. yourmom

    Cowboy Bebop, good stuff.

    November 24, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
  4. outawork

    The big robot animes started back in the 60's. I've seen some of them that were in black and white.

    October 26, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  5. KajinPL

    It's been a while since I watched an anime that held my interest. I think what kindof put me off anime for a while was "Air Gear". I really miss shows like Gundam Wing, Outlaw Star, Saint Seiya and others like that. There are still good anime out there that doesn't rely on the usual excessive "gravity-defying body proportions". That's what "Air Gear" did to me. It mislead me to think that this was gonna be a good action anime, but it was just used as a way to show as much nudity and perverseness as possible. It's the reason why I read manga more than watch anime because at least I will know what I'm getting into before I start.

    September 7, 2011 at 5:05 pm |
  6. TylerDurden

    I think the author might mislead the reader to believe anime as some sort of evolving genre. It's not. It's a medium. I think it's inaccurate to simplify the medium into a timeline that evolves from stories about super-robots into shows with panty shots of prepubescent girls. The fact is, you can find just about any genre represented in anime.....ANY. While it may be true that some shows have earned their place in the 'hall of fame' of the medium because of their popularity and/or uniqueness. It's not as if the anime medium was ever defined by any of these single genres, nor can it, nor should it.

    September 3, 2011 at 11:15 pm |
  7. Nanteen

    Cowboy Bebop is up there. Along with Dragon Ball Z. Especially the Saiyan Saga. All the new Anime that is being released now I leave to the younger crowd. That way, they can grow to love it, just like I did when I was a teen.

    September 2, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
    • neoritter

      Cowboy Bebop is a top five anime no questions, period. Dragonball Z though never makes it in the top 50.

      September 3, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  8. Maggie

    Evangelion was amazing.

    September 2, 2011 at 1:33 pm |
    • Squishy

      Bar none! Every time I watch it, I get goosebumps.
      If you haven't been to Japan, I wholeheartedly recommend it. I made my first trip when I was 30, and knew in my heart I should have gone 10 years earlier. Dojinshis were everywhere, you can compare them to fanfiction, but I was very amazed at their quality and quantity.
      Fansubs need to be explained a little more. During the pre-streaming days fansubs served a function -> to expand the fanbase of an anime to entice a publisher to license the product. Fansubbers, who are true fans devoting time and energy to sing a show's praises for free, would then take down their stuff as soon as licensing is announced. Failure to mention this implies to non-otakus that fansubbers are pirates, but many of them have the show's welfare in mind.

      September 5, 2011 at 11:36 pm |
  9. Redhood

    I remember watching Sailor Moon when it first debuted in America. I thought I had dreamed the show for the longest time, until Toonami. However, I was forced to be a closest anime fan throughout junior high and high school, simply because the teasing nearly made it unbearable.

    I don't really have a favorte type of anime, Sailor Moon still remains a strong favorite, but I'll watch anything with a decent story. Especially if it features strong female characters.

    September 2, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  10. Shay Guy

    The evolution towards anime with lighter subject matter seems to indicate that Japan needed to laugh more and worry less.

    "Take a rest! Take a rest! Take a rest! Take a rest! Take a rest! Take a rest! Take a rest!"

    And on the subject of laughing more:

    ...damn I miss Kon.

    September 1, 2011 at 1:12 am |
  11. Ari

    Granted, the whole slice-of-life section felt condescending, but she probably had a bad taste in her mouth from moeblobs such as K-On!!. Slice-of-life (/good/ slice of life, comedies and dramas) are my absolute favorite type of anime.

    Plus, watch Toradora, and try to not have your heart melt~. Slice-of-Lifes are like the other side of a sit-com or American prime-time drama. In those shows it's always the same 5 characters (the nerd, the ditz, the gay one, the awkward one, etc) in a different location. You can have those same 5 people in a cafe in New York, in a hospital in Baltimore, in a coffee shop in Chicago. Nothing but the location changes, really. With Slice-of-life, you have the same location every time–a highschool. But the characters are always so different and interesting, and their emotional developments are so unique!

    /steps off of soapbox

    September 1, 2011 at 12:26 am |
    • neoritter

      Usagi Drop is a slice of life anime that doesn't take place in a highschool.
      Hanasaku Iroha takes place at an inn in the Japanese countryside.
      Yokohama Shopping Journal: Quiet Country Cafe takes place in a cafe among other places.

      September 3, 2011 at 1:21 am |
  12. Ari

    @Whatever: Did you look at the author of the article? She writes for a couple of different Otaku blogs. She even writes for a /really/ niche blog for figurine collectors.

    September 1, 2011 at 12:26 am |
  13. Whatever

    This article completely talks down to anime fans. Way to pander to nerd subculture, CNN. It'll be interesting to see how fast this section of the site becomes completely irrelevant while you struggle to catch up to what other otaku sites have been doing for years.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  14. Ernest

    Anime...and a lot of other "otaku" things are from from different or mainstream. Dont beleive me? Look at the originals in Japan as compared to american releases. The originals are far more edgy and mature then even the most mature american release of anime...and its broadcast on TV in all its glory. And even as accepted as anime is in Japan its far from mainstream. Assuming all Japanese love anime or video games is like assuming all Americans are playboy rappers(which is how a lot of people in the part of Japan Im in do) I am a proud otaku, not of one thing in particular, I love anime, games, Japanese culture in general, etc and as I said hasnt changed...people are just trying to be cool now. The real Otakus will always be a minority

    August 31, 2011 at 10:08 pm |
  15. tiffany

    I used to stay up late watching Robotech and Tenchi on pbs. Later I would rent Evangelion and Armatage III, and watch Sailor Moon with my little sister. Now my kids watch Fruits Basket, Chobbits and InuYasha.

    August 31, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  16. Agentgerbil

    I agree with alluranimesRbelongtous, american companies don't care about the quality of shows anymore they just see dollar signs, fansubs are the way to go for the really good shows that don't always get licensed here in america.

    on a side note, love this new blog CNN thanks!

    August 31, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  17. alluranimesRbelongtous

    Not only has Japan changed, but the American audience has changed. And the distributors. Back in the day, the people bringing over anime from Japan were not corporations looking to make money from it, but fans of the art form itself. And they didn't bring over shows for kids, primarily. It was mostly geared towards young adults – adults.

    Now that there's a proven market in the US, it's all about the cash, not the quality. So people are bringing in anime geared towards younger and younger audiences, who will buy dragonball z shirts to wear to kindergarten. They market the crap out of relatively lame anime shows with little style and content, and they know that the masses will buy into it.

    In the meantime, those of us who have been into the good stuff for years get the short end of the stick. Although we can't get many good shows mainstream, like always, we can rely on some fansubbers to bring us stuff we might actually like to watch again.

    And just for the record, all the styles you mentioned have basically always existed. It's a wonderfully broad world of animation.

    August 31, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • neoritter

      I think you're mostly right here, but there's another issue too. The Japanese Otaku. If you look at the anime releases from any given season you'll find one show with little to no fan service for every 3 anime that do have it. The Japanese fans of gone farther and farther into fan service anime and that has trickled increasingly into the anime that get's shown here. Just take a look at Fractale a recent anime, where the director Yamamoto Yutaka says he will quit anime if this old-fashioned, fairly moe-free show isn't a success. There's been a losing battle by the old-guard anime makers that don't like the newer ones. They feel the new kids just want to make money and don't care about the art of the shows. And if you look at most of the horrible anime that comes out each season it really shows.

      I mean look at the Spring and Summer line ups that came out in Japan and you'll see what I mean.

      August 31, 2011 at 4:03 pm |
  18. Shaltiar

    Great post from the twitter queen of awesomeness. I suggest an anime movie called "5 centimeters per second" to show those interested in trying out anime for the first time. Beautiful emotional film that shows what the genre can do.

    August 31, 2011 at 11:45 am |
    • TylerDurden

      Anime is a medium, not a genre.

      September 3, 2011 at 10:44 pm |