Unless you live under a rock, without any contact with modern civilization, it is very likely that you have watched at least one Japanese cartoon, or as they are referred to, Anime or seen some Japanese comic books, better known as Manga, lying the shelves of your local bookstore. Contrary to what many people believe, these cartoons and comic books are not only aimed at children, but to people of all ages, and include genres such as comedy, adventure, action and drama. Both of them form part of the strong and continuously growing Contents Industry of Japan, becoming an enormous and lucrative business not only in the Land of the Rising Sun, but worldwide. Both, Anime and Manga have become an icon of Japanese popular culture all around the world, and they both mean serious business. For example, according to the Ministry of Economy Trade and Industry of Japan, around 60% of the animation shown globally is made in Japan. For the case of Manga, contracts of translation and publishing generate around 4 billion yen in license sales and another 80 billion yen of sales of original Manga, just in the East Asian region. They both show the traditions, beliefs, and fantasies of the Japanese society, mixed with glances of modern everyday life. Therefore, watching Anime and reading Manga is not just a quirky hobby, but a trip through the desires, fears, problems, dreams and aspirations of Japanese people, displaying every aspect of life. As a consequence, it is very easy for people of all around the world to identify themselves with the main characters.
A little bit of history. The origins of Manga can be traced all the way towards the XII century, to the “Animal Scrolls” painted by Bishop Toba (1053-1140), where he depicted animals such as frogs, hares, foxes and monkeys, dressed in human clothes and involved in everyday human activities, satirizing the upper Japanese class of the time. Later on, during the Edo period (1603-1867), a different style of drawing and printing became popular among the commoners, such as the Otsue, Tobae, as well as books that contained picture collections, some of them following a story, such as the Akahon (red book), Kibyoshi (yellow jacket books), Kurohon (black book) and the Aohon (blue book). Nevertheless, the most influential art form that preceded Manga are the Ukiyoe, literally, “images of the floating world,” and is an art form of the popular folk genre. Originally popular among the merchant urban classes of Edo Japan, they spread quickly thanks to the development of woodblock printing. They depicted actors, sumo wrestlers, famous beauties, landscapes and historical events. It was one of the most famous artists of this genre, Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), who first used the term Manga, through the publication of his fifteen-volume Hokusai Manga.
Big Eyes. However, although Manga continued to be published during the Meiji era, it wasn’t until the Post War period when it developed its modern characteristics. It was Ozamu Tezuka who defined the style of both, modern Manga and Anime. In the beginning, there was a huge influence from American comic books and animation, Tezuka himself was a big fan of the works of Walt Disney. However, later on he developed his own style, characterized by the famous big eyes, that allows the artists’ characters to display a big array of emotions on a black and white paper sheet; as well as the cinematic style of the comic books, that gives a bigger visual impact on the readers. This way, Tezuka combined the artistic tradition of the Japanese narrative with the illustrated humor, creating a completely new genre. Tezuka also developed the unique style of Anime. During the 1960’s he was determined to follow the steps of Walt Disney and enter into the world of animation. However, he faced the big obstacle of having a small budget to work with. Therefore, he elaborated a new system of animation, rather limited at first, which focused on moving just one part of the images, such as the eyes or mouth. This allowed him to accumulate a great stock of animation cells, with backgrounds and characters, which reduced both, the cost and time of production. This became the trademark of Anime, and differentiates it from the western cartoons, as it focused on the storyline and character development, instead of the looks. Ideas are emphasized through movement. Nowadays, Japanese Anime displays both, fluid and realistic movement with emotional plots.
Green Haired Schoolgirls. Another characteristic that you will immediately notice about Manga and Anime is that the main character often has different and unusual colored hair, and more often than not, the main character is very young in age. The first characteristic is the result of a development of technology; as in the black and white versions of Manga and Anime the hair of the characters was distinguished through the usage of different scales of gray and black, but when they made the transition into color, it was necessary to increase the range of colors used, in order to be able to distinguish characters from each other. The second characteristic, being the character’s young age, is related to the idea of Roman: idealism, innocence and dreams of achieving great things in life. The vast majority of Manga and Anime stories have teenagers as the main characters, in their high school years, and they are involved in a romantic world of self-discovery, highlighting the importance of youth, the desire to discover new things and the importance of carrying on, no matter what. As a result, the audience can identify itself with their favorite characters, as they show the same virtues and flaws of people, the same dreams and desires, as well as the same joys and sorrows. Scholar Anne Allyson explained in her text “Sailor Moon Japanese Superheroes for Global Girls,” that, for example, its main character, Usagi Tsukino, is a girl that has the same problems to those of her readers: she has to deal with arriving on time to school, failing exams, wishes to find true love and has a very united group of friends.
Giant Robots. If you have watched some Anime or have taken a look into the Manga section of your bookstore, you probably have noticed that robots and technology play an important role in the plot. This is due to what some scholars refer to as the “technological optimism” of Japanese Pop Culture. Japanese society has a very different perspective about the relationship between humanity and the technological development. From a western perspective, the idea of technological improvement is always related to an obscure fate that will damage humanity. However, in the Japanese understanding, technological development can be the key to improve human life. For Japan, technology is not a bad thing, what matters is how humanity uses it. Therefore, many histories, beginning from the world famous Astroboy, a creation of Tezuka, center its plot on how technology can have both, good and bad uses, and it is up to people to decide which it would be.
So…what’s the fuss about? I hope that until now, you have been able to understand the importance of Manga and Anime, as well as the reasons behind its’ popularity. These characteristics are just some aspects that attract many people around the world, joining conventions and social circles centered on both types of media. What I would like to emphasize before I conclude this article, is that the creators of Anime and Manga only have the Japanese market on their minds when developing a new story. Therefore, images of people eating bento, going to a Shinto Temple or even some streets of the Japanese cities are depicted in both. This is what makes the phenomenon of its popularity more interesting, even with these big cultural differences and with no marketing towards the West, it managed to become one of the most famous Japanese products. Manga and Anime do not have a specific audience, they are stories for all tastes, for kids and adults, with fantastic or realistic settings, each one of them opens a new window into understanding the many different aspects of Japanese society and culture.