With hip subject matter and prices to match, Japanimation art is all the rage overseas. Find out if it's only a matter of time before this trend crosses the Pacific and lands in the arms of American art galleries.
She's young, beautiful, and she was raised by wolves. Her commanding presence is a combination of uncommon depth and realism, not to mention exquisite composition. She is Princess Mononoke, one of Master Hayao Miyazaki's most spectacular contributions to Japanimation. Now licensed through Disney, Mononoke's production cells--and others like them--are fetching thousands of dollars by avid collectors of the genre.
Perhaps it's because production cells, once considered refuse, have become increasingly scarce with the advent of computer animation. It may be a return to the nostalgia for the characters of animation. Most likely, it is the explosive popularity of the flat style of Japanese animation that has collectors of all ages seeking the imagery as an art form in galleries, art shows and the world's largest Anime Expo held at the Long Beach Convention Center every July.
"Fine art galleries that understand both animation and the Japanese culture are getting into this," said Jerry Lindberg, owner of the Mars Colony, which licenses video-game soundtracks and sells licensed products from anime properties out of Irvine, Calif.
"It's a whole school of art, this flat art. It's Japanese Pop; kind of Warholesque and very trendy, very hip," he continued. "And it's priced to be very collectible. It's a trend that's just developing here. The cells are the first form with their strong, sharp colors. It's not pointillist, it's not cubism--it's just in-your-face, comic art. It will have its true depth of value over time, but we'll see it come up very strongly in the next two to three years."
Anime and Manga
Japanimation is not new. It began as a way to infuse the greatest number and variety of people with the spirit and strength of Japanese culture at a time when both were buried under the rubble of the atomic blast. In an effort to rekindle a sense of cultural self and re-establish society, Japan turned to an obscure art form known as anime.
Anime is a form of storytelling expressed in an intricate and elegant style of moving images. In English, it is known as the animated movie. Its counterpart, manga, is the drawn story or comic; although neither definition does justice to the artistry of the style, which blends highly stylized animation with traditional Japanese painting and print-making.
Following World War II, the Japanese used these vehicles to gain a sense of personal power, to build hope and to entertain--much the way Americans used motion pictures during the Great Depression. While the Western interpretation of these art forms traditionally has been left to youth and children, in the East, anime and manga are appreciated by all ages. In fact, manga makes up 40 percent of all publications in Japan.
"Check out the top-selling magazines in Japan, and you'll have to look pretty far down the list before you find a non-manga magazine," wrote Matt Thorn, associate professor, Department of Cartoon & Comic Art, Kyoto Seika University, Japan. "And the range of subject matter and styles is as broad as the sales are high. Whether your tastes tend towards sci-fi, slapstick, history, baseball, romance, gourmet cooking or S&M, there's a manga for you."
Hence there is a proliferation of not only children's manga, such as Pokemon and Digimon, but also an abundance of adult themes, including considerably violent and sexually-charged subjects.
Unlike the caricatures of American cartoons, anime is committed to realism in both image and movement. Figures are drawn, painted and presented with great care and precision, yet the image remains flat.
"I've been thinking about the reality of Japanese drawing and painting and how it is different from Western art," artist Takashi Murakami told The Los Angeles Times in a January 2001 interview. "What is important in Japanese art is the feeling of fatness. Our culture doesn't have 3D."
Murakami is the curator of "Superflat," an exhibit of Japanese art and pop culture running through May 2001 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles.
"A major component of Superflat," said MOCA Research Assistant Michael Darling, who visited Murakami's studio, Hiropon Factory, in Japan, "is the influence of Japanimation on culture. From painting to photography, sculpture to fashion, each is touched in various ways by anime and manga. The show has seen an incredible outpouring of interest from the collecting community; there might be a burgeoning market for this. What we brought over from Japan was intended as archival, but this may change."
Certainly, many "super trends" in art have been rooted in pop culture, counter culture and foreign cultures, and Japanimation is no exception. While the artistry and unique style inherent in the anime and manga imagery have captured a diverse and highly "animated" audience, its assimilation into the high society of fine art lies in a likely yet uncharted future.
"Knowledge of anime and manga in the fine art world is largely being filtered through Takashi Murakami, other artists represented in the Superflat show and other well-known Japanese artists working internationally," said Tim Blum of Blum & Poe in Santa Monica, Calif., a studio-gallery of international contemporary art specializing in production. "This is why I think Superflat is so important. Most don't understand anime or manga as anything other than a surface read, a superficial medium. We are having to be educated on this."
Blum, who lived in Tokyo for five years and has known Murakami for 10, worked with the renowned artist on the Superflat concept and represents him, as well as other Japanese artists in his gallery.
"There are lots of different ways to interpret this art," said Blum, "extending from Chinese painting all the way through extemporaneous articulation. I think people are afraid of it, which is why the show will have such an impact. People think it's a show curated by a fine artist about fine art, so they find it strange. But that's not the point. The whole point of it is trying to draw a flat line between fine art, illustration, animation, manga and fashion. It's about drawing relationships."
At present, Japanimation may seem a totally different universe from most fine art galleries. Yet, Murakami's interest has been to expand the audience, to "cast lines from the ship of fine art to other circling ships, thereby creating a tension from which something interesting will happen." He's hoping the fine art world will catch on.
Styles of Japanimation
As with all artistry, style and technique--and popularity--vary among different Japanimation artists. From the more rounded style of Osamu Tezuka to the realism of Hayao Miyazaki, students of Japanimation learn to discern the differences.
Manga was brought to the forefront during the '50s and '60s by the artistry of Tezuka who, before his passing in 1987, created some of the most popular and recognizable anime characters in history, including Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy) and Jungle Taitei (Kimba the White Lion).
"Osamu Tezuka is called the God of Manga with good reason," wrote P. Duffield, contributing writer for Animerica and Animerica Extra. "No other creator, in Japan or the world, has written a greater amount or more diverse collection of work. Tezuka penned more than 150,000 pages, covering every genre and age group. His approach to comics was groundbreaking, and his success unparalleled. Without the pioneering talents of Osamu Tezuka, Japanese comics would not be what they are today."
Each passing decade seems to have created a wave of new interest, higher quality and inspired artistry in anime. Of great significance has been the feature work of retired artist Miyazaki, whose final masterpiece was Princess Mononoke.
"In Mononoke, the animation is 10 percent computer-generated and 90 percent hand-crafted," said Los Angeles-based animation director Scott Heming. "While the characters are presented in typical anime style, their emotions and acting are carefully drawn to emulate a live-action drama. The artistic appeal lies in the backgrounds, which are beautifully detailed renderings in watercolor tones, pulling the viewer into an emotionally charged world of fantasy."
A significant trend for anime in the United States has been the emergence of shoujo or "girls" manga--comics by females for females.
"Because Japanese women have been drawing comics for girls for the past 30 years," said Duffield from her Minnesota home, "a very different style of graphic storytelling has evolved. I'm not just talking story content, which tends to focus more on emotions and relationships than the stories for males do. Comics for males tend to have stricter rules and regulations about the number of panels per page, the distance between them, the linear flow of the content, etc. Comics for females haven't followed such restrictions in years. They tend to be more open and require more from the reader to follow the story."
Consider the artistry of Rumiko Takahashi, one of the most popular shoujo manga artists in Japan.
"While she has comedic genius and a knack for creating appealing, distinctive characters," wrote Duffield, "there's much more to her talents than the cute girls and laughs normally associated with her work. Quite simply, she's a master of graphic storytelling. Whether she's writing about fuzzy little fox spirits or man-eating mermaids, the timing and flow of her stories, from one page to the next and one panel to the next, grab hold of her readers and pull them into her many entertaining worlds."
Herein lies the appeal of Japanimation among a wide and diverse following of those who collect and those who simply appreciate the unique artistry. Perhaps most exciting is that a very large audience of intellectual teens are holding their own in collecting and critiquing this very adult art form.
"Here, it's animation; in Japan, it's art," said artist Ajen Prasad, 19, of Monterey, Calif. "Of course I collect it, but I'd much rather create it. There's no class for it, so I just learn by doing. I practice drawing the figures, using anime as my basis instead of life."…