ANIME AND MANGA: AN INTRODUCTION

 

      The greatest and most dangerous mistake a person new to the world of anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comic books) can make is to assume that they are essentially the same as their American counterparts. They are not. Although some anime series that the common person may be familiar with - such as Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Digimon - do superficially resemble American animation, these are Americanized versions that should not be taken as representative of anime as a whole. Some of the discrepancies between American and Japanese versions of animation and comic books are the result of cultural differences, while others are the result of divergent paths of evolution over the course of the past few decades. The purpose of this essay is to explain the differences and prepare novices for a more informed and enjoyable reading and viewing experience.

 

ON MANGA

      Although comic books have achieved a fair amount of popularity in the U.S., they are nowhere near as pervasive as manga is in Japan. This is primarily because manga reaches a much broader audience due to a much wider range of specializations. In Japan, manga can be found that is aimed at virtually any age and gender group, and it would not be unusual to see a typical adult reading manga on a train. This would be unheard of among any but the “geek” crowd in the United States!

      In the U.S., comic books are typically published in three formats: individual issues, “graphic novels” that reprint several issues into a book, and serialized in anthology magazines (although the latter has been rare in the U.S. over the past couple of decades). By comparison, manga in Japan usually gets serialized first in weekly or monthly magazines and later collected into volumes, called tankoubon, that typically have page counts between 160 and 240 pages and consist of 4-7 chapters plus bonus material. When manga is imported to the U.S., it has occasionally in the past been released chapter-by-chapter in regular American comic book format or printed in anthology titles such as Shonen Jump, but the overwhelming majority of American manga releases these days are available only in graphic novel form. At first manga translated for English publication was reversed and printed in the order American readers are more familiar with (traditional Japanese format reads right to left and back to front, with the binding on the right side instead of the left), but over the past few years manga printed in the original Japanese format has become the norm; many titles even retain the original Japanese sound effects.

      Manga and American comic books differ in other significant ways:

 

·       Interior Art. Most manga is done in black-and-white, while in the U.S. nearly all mainstream comic books released by major publishers are done in color. Here, black-and-white artwork is strictly the domain of newspaper strips, small independent labels, and underground titles (although in the last few years black-and-white comic books that parody RPGs and fandom, such as the Knights of the Dinner Table franchise, have been popping up in increasing numbers).

·       “Sound Words.” In American comic books, sound words are generally only used to highlight dramatic actions. In manga they are also used for more common sounds. This may seem like a minor difference, but readers who have grown up on American comic books can be driven batty at first by extra sound words that don’t carry great significance.

·       Subject Matter. American comic books are dominated by super-hero stories, with comedy and fantasy ranking a distant second and third, respectively. Horror and Western titles, both of which were staples in the U.S. up through the ‘70s, are now rare, and titles focusing on anything else are usually limited to niche labels. Manga can be about virtually anything, though, from romance to the supernatural to comedy to sci-fi giant robot stories. Even soap opera-like dramas are not unusual in manga. Popular genres include shojo (titles aimed specifically at teen and preteen girls, which generally focus on romance and relationships) and shonen (titles aimed specifically at teen and preteen boys, which generally tend to be more action-oriented).

·       Production. In the U.S. the creation of most comic books is a team effort, whereas manga are most commonly the product of a single creator or collaborative duo, occasionally with assistants for the grunt work. As a result, manga-ka (creators of manga) generally work on only one title at a time, while American comic book professionals commonly work on multiple titles at once and specialize much more in their aspect of production (art, lettering, inking, etc.). Most manga characters are also creator-owned, whereas company-owned characters are more the norm in the States. One byproduct of this is that crossovers between titles, which are common in U.S. comic books, are quite rare in manga. Another byproduct is that a manga title only lasts as long as the creator is willing to devote time and effort to the series, while popular comic book characters in the U.S. can far outlive their creator’s interest or even life span. This means that the writing and artwork for manga are much more consistent over the series run, but it also means that the reader is restricted to only one artistic interpretation of the characters. Whether or not this is a Good Thing depends entirely on your personal tastes.

·       Multimedia. Manga being turned into animation is a common path in Japan – in fact, manga is the most common source of inspiration for anime – but the reverse has been more commonly true here in the States. (Although there are, of course, numerous exceptions.)

 

ON ANIME

 

      I will leave it up to a more informed writer to explain the details of how the differences in the way Americans and Japanese regard animation arose; the (very) short version is that cultural differences are involved and Japan did not have early animation giants like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbara establishing their prevailing philosophies behind animation. The result is that Japanese regard animation as just another entertainment medium that can be appreciated by everyone rather than as one only targeted at specific audiences. Because of this, Japan produces far more – and far more diverse – new animation every year than any other country in the world; by some estimates as much as 40% of all new animation produced worldwide every year comes from Japan, which is several times as much as what is produced in the U.S. each year. More new anime series aired on TV in Japan in 2002 than did new live-action TV series here in the U.S., and that doesn’t even consider direct-to-video releases; that trend has doubtless been maintained in the years since, given that 50+ new anime series have debuted every year for the past several years. Anime series and movies range the gamut from romantic comedies to  real-world” dramas to action stories to sci-fi to fantasy to supernatural tales to giant robot stories to horror, and many other genres that I’m probably forgetting. There are anime series made specifically for children, teen and preteen girls, teen boys, young adults, older adults, stay-at-home mothers, families, sports fans – you name a demographic or interest group and there are probably multiple anime titles targeted at it. There’s even a thriving and open market for purely adult (some in the U.S. would label it pornographic) anime, which is called hentai.

 

Graphic Content

      Japan has different standards for showing blood and graphic violence than American television. Bloodshed, decapitations, and dismemberment are all rare in American animation – and certainly would never be seen in animation aimed towards children – but mild amounts can appear even in family-oriented anime. In action-oriented anime titles intended for more mature audiences, the graphic violence, bloodshed, and gore can reach extremes beyond even those seen in the messiest American slasher films. You should understand that not all or even most anime intended for more mature audiences gets that graphic, but you should also be aware that there is a definite subgenre of action/horror anime that emphasizes being as graphic as possible. The age recommendations given on anime packaging are there for a reason.

      Other variations on sexuality exist in anime that you will never see in American animation, such as transgender characters. A character that is a woman under some circumstances and a man under others can be found in several different series (Ranma ½ and Maze immediately spring to mind), transvestites can be found in other series (most notably 3x3 Eyes), and if you watch enough hentai then you’re going to run into a hermaphrodite character at some point (Bible Black being one example). Androgynous characters abound, which has occasionally led American companies dubbing anime to change the gender of a character in an anime series to make the situation easier for an American audience to understand. Although not pervasive, homosexuality is not uncommon in regular anime titles, and anime titles which focus specifically on homosexual content even have their own genres; yaoi and shonen ai are terms used by American fans to refer to titles with overt male homosexual content (whether eroticism is involved or not determines which term is used), while yuri refers to anime or manga titles containing overt lesbian content. The former are quite popular with teen girls, while the latter have only recently begun to make inroads into the American market.

      One significant artistic difference – the premium placed on vocal tracks matching mouth flaps – is a result of different production methods. In American animation (and particularly in feature films), the animation is tailored to conform to the vocal tracks. In Japan, the reverse is usually true. As a result, a viewer raised on American animation is far more likely to be bothered by words not matching mouth flaps than a viewer raised on anime. That’s one of the main reasons why English dubs of anime differ from the more literal translations used in subtitles: because American production companies know that conforming the dialog so it will match to the mouth flaps is something that American viewers expect.

      Anime also uses some different artistic conventions than American animation does; a breakdown of some of these can be seen in Anime Conventions.

 

Sound

      The big difference between anime and American animation, audio-wise, is in their song content. Anime features are almost never musicals, whereas a good chunk of American animated features are. Even American animated features that aren’t musicals have a tendency to pause once or twice during the movie so that its characters can sing a song. (Toy Story 2 is a particular example.) In anime, songs included in the series or feature are usually either a part of the musical score itself or fully integrated into the storyline. An excellent example of the former can be seen in the animated version of Metropolis, where the classic Ray Charles song “I Can’t Stop Loving You” plays while the Ziggurat collapses. Examples of the latter can be seen in Perfect Blue, both major Bubblegum Crisis series, various Macross series, and Key The Metal Idol (among many others), all of which have professional singers as lead or major supporting characters.

 

Story Content and Thematic Elements

      There are also differences in themes and story content. American animation has always been rife with anthropomorphic talking animals, but these are unusual at best in anime and when they are present they are typically represented as gods, demons, spirits, or magical creatures - all of which abound in anime but are much rarer in American animation. Hamtaro is a notable exception to this but it is the only title commonly-known to American fans that I can think of that resembles the classic Disney, Warner Brothers, and Hanna-Barbara tales in the way it uses common animals. On the other hand, giant robots are so intrinsic to anime that they often pop up even in series that aren’t focused on them, but beyond Transformers and Go Bots (both of which were inspired by anime), they rarely appear in American animation. Sports stories and real-world romances are two genres that never see animated treatment in the U.S. beyond a few old shorts but both are staples of anime. Even psychological thrillers, though not common in anime, are not unknown; the movie Perfect Blue is exactly the kind of thing Alfred Hitchcock would have made had he ever used color animation.

      Perhaps the single most important thing to understand about anime is that it is made by Japanese for Japanese viewers. As such, it is a reflection and promotion of their culture, values, and beliefs. Many fledgling anime fans – and even some more veteran ones – lose sight of this fact and complain when anime does not meet their expectations, but the problem is, of course, that anime, with rare exceptions, is not intended for them. It is certainly possible for non-Japanese viewers to appreciate most anime, provided that they accept that rules work a bit differently in Japan. One glaring example of this is that American audiences tend to prefer closure in any story, while Japanese audiences tend to prefer open-ended conclusions. As a result, many American viewers frequently get annoyed with anime stories that are not brought to a satisfying conclusion in the end. Sometimes this is because of production problems or bad writing, but most often the story was never intended to be completely resolved.

      One prevailing theme in many anime series is a group of disparate people coming together as a family or community. Although this is not an unusual theme in American entertainment, it is far more common in anime because Japan is a nation firmly grounded in its sense of community. Belonging to groups, and functioning within them, is so intrinsic to Japanese culture that its system of morality is heavily based on not dishonoring or bringing harm to the family/group. One place where this particularly shines through in anime is in the presence of school clubs, to which all Japanese students are expected to belong (whereas only a fraction of school students in the States involve themselves in extracurricular activities). Because Japan is so focused on community, loners are outsiders and generally looked on in a very unfavorable light, whereas the “lone gun” or “lone wolf” type is heavily romanticized in American TV and cinema. That’s why anime series focused around adventuresome “lone gun” types – like Outlaw Star and especially Trigun and Cowboy Bebop – have become big and enduring hits in the U.S. anime community despite having only mediocre short-term success in Japan.

      Another important thing to understand as you watch anime is that “cute rules” could practically be a national motto in Japan. This influences almost every aspect of any anime title that is even partly light-hearted, and is the explanation for the garish, often ridiculous costuming seen in many series. It’s also why many anime titles intended for girls and younger audiences are more loaded with concentrated sugar than Sweet Tarts. This is the land that is home to Hello Kitty and Pokemon, after all (both of which are still immensely popular over there), not wisecracking rascals like Bugs Bunny and Bart Simpson.

 

      A reader might get the impression from the above essay that I automatically rate the merits of anime over American animation. I do not. Although I do feel that the average anime title that makes its way over to the U.S. is a higher caliber of entertainment than the average American title, I also acknowledge that American viewers only see the better, more popular, and more marketable anime titles, so the real dregs of anime rarely make it to the States. The range of quality animation from the best to the worst is just as broad on both sides of the Pacific, and at the very top of the scale American animation still holds a slight edge. To put it another way, I would still say that Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and Akira (which I feel are the all-time best anime movies) are in the same class as Beauty and the Beast, Prince of Egypt, and Shrek (which I feel are the best American animated movies of the past two decades), rather than the other way around.

 

 

 

 

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