Cartoons from Another Planet: Japanese Animation as Cross-Cultural Communication

Article excerpt

Geisha, samurai, kimono, sushi, sumo ...eccentric mind-boggling animation? For years, Japanese animation has been heralded as an exciting, albeit bizarre, artistic phenomenon from the same country that introduced us to the tranquil Zen garden and the shockingly hard-working businessman. Despite often being stereotyped as nothing more than senseless cartoons featuring cutie-pie romping pocket critters, anime, as it is commonly called, is a delightfully inventive reference manual into the world of Japanese symbols, folklore, religion, history, social musings and aesthetic traditions. When audience members are no longer exclusively Japanese, anime unexpectedly becomes a vehicle for cross-cultural communication. Examining the history of anime distribution and fan appreciation in America is a free-for-all revelation into the effects of cultural appropriation, as well as a reflection of Western mores and artistic preferences. It also serves as an example of how art forms can cross national boundaries, uniting audiences from all over the globe under the guise of pure unadulterated entertainment. Disney fans beware; the following just might have dear Uncle Walt spinning in his cryogenic freezer!

Don't Call Me a Cartoon

Once upon a time, in a far away land, there lived a beautiful princess trapped in a shining castle. One moonlit night, a handsome prince rode up on his brilliant white horse and rescued her to live happily ever after. Unfortunately, being the cyberpunk flesh-craving gamine cyborg that she was, the princess had to neuromancer his brain, then decapitate and eat him. Naturally the prince, a genetically engineered resistance fighter, willingly sacrifices himself to her vampire-like appetite in accordance to his people's code of honor. But I digress...

This is not your father's animation. Nor is it really yours. Or is it? Welcome to the world of Japanese animation, a world where any imaginable subject, setting, or theme can pretty much find itself represented in the likeness of entertainment. Anime (a term borrowed from the French by the Japanese to refer to the entire medium of animation, but adopted by the West to refer solely to animation from Japan, go figure) is an art form used to tell stories in ways barely even alluded to in Western animation. In America especially, with the Disney name brand practically inseparable from the word "animation," this particular art form unfortunately suffers a restricted and limited fate. Animation here is predominantly kiddy fair (or at least stereotyped as such), stuck in the overly exhausted realm of fairy tales with manufactured happy endings and token animal sidekicks voiced by television comedians who were annoying enough before they were animated. American animation that veers away from the socalled harmless Disney model (Bambi is excluded; I still find it traumatizing!) always seems to be forced into sub-cultural, limited exposure film festivals labeled with names such as "Sick and Twisted."

This is not to say that anime (also called Japanimation) is only intended for older viewing generations. Much of it is highly geared to appeal to youngsters of a variety of ages. Japanese animation, however, does have a much freer palette from which to choose its audience and subject matter. It is hard to think of any cinematic or literary genre that is not represented in anime. Within the medium of Japanese animation, you can find: wrenching dramas, cheesy romances, storybook adventures, spooky thrillers, historical fantasies, robot shows, gothic fairy tales, slapstick parodies, futuristic dystopias, sports dramas, sci-fi series, gimmicky sci-fi series, sexy cyberpunk techno-- mythologies, misogynistic violent pornography, sword and sorcery stories, spoofs of sword and sorcery stories, epic environmental cautionary tales, Norse Goddess romantic comedies, not to mention your normal, everyday life family soap operas. All of this is achieved with nowhere near the stratospheric budgets allotted to big Disney productions, which tend to reach skyward of $100 million. …

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