To general western audiences these days Japanese animation has grown to have a rather large reputation as primarily being a children’s form of entertainment mangakakalot. This global identity which has become familiar with most parents was most likely the result of this distinctive visual art form becoming popularised through children’s television on weekend mornings. While this belief that Japanese animation is mostly aimed at children is well known amongst parenting groups in the Americas and Europe, this is, for the most part, only half-true.
Japanese animation, or simply called anime, is in fact a lot more popular amongst teenage groups due to a majority of content having more adult appeal. As Susan J. Napier wrote in her book Anime: From Akira to Princess Monoke about Japanese animation’s popularity in both cultures “The “culture” to which anime belongs is at present a “popular” or “mass” culture in Japan, and in america it exists as a “sub” culture. However, as Treat’s point about the mercuriality of value suggests, this situation may well change. Indeed, in Japan over the last decade, anime has been increasingly seen as an intellectually challenging art form, as the number of scholarly writings on the subject attest. ” (Pg. 4).
As the film making industry flourished in Japan during the years following World War II, so did its sister medium of animation and became both a “mass” culture and a “sub” culture as discussed above. And while this style of animation had entered markets foreign to Japan as early as the 1960’s it wasn’t until the 1980’s and 1990’s that it began to grow as a major cultural export. As Fred Patten wrote about Japanese animation’s first experience in North america during the 1960’s in his book Watching Anime, Reading Manga: 25 Years of Essays and Reviews “Most viewers never realised these were not American cartoons. If they did, they must have concluded that animation was not popular in Japan since there seemed to be so few programs. In fact, these programs were the early efforts of an immensely successful Japanese cartoon industry. ” (Pg. 219).
Although a lot of people today will still view anime to be a type of ‘limited’ animation aimed at children, a vast majority of its storylines and visuals involved postmodern settings and content which was seen as a welcome diversity in a country where Disney was mostly popular in the animation field. Today anime has become embedded in our culture almost as much as it has in Japan and continues to influence animators and illustrators worldwide.
With this ever growing fandom of anime it probably become easy to overlook how anime became a world-wide phenomenon in the first place. In the united states it seemed a lot of adult content had been focused primarily on live action film making, and example being the futuristic dystopian set Blade Runner (1982, USA). Although there were some film directors that have made animated films aimed at adults, a well-known example being Fritz the Cat (Ralph Bakshi, 1973), which to this day is the most financially successful independent animated film, most producers probably didn’t see adult content cartooning having a wider appeal outside of its underground roots and into the mainstream market, especially with the regaining popularity of Disney animation. But while live action film making was just as popular in Japan, animation had become equally mainstream (almost half of film releases in Japan from the 1970’s onwards were animated) so it seemed a lot of film makers saw their form of animation’s somewhat illustrative style would be a perfect suit for adult content and mature themes.
A notable Japanese film maker who not only used animation in such a way but also helped popularise Japanese animation in foreign countries is Katsuhiro Otomo. Otomo can be seen as an excellent example of an auteur for we can see how he repeats his visual style and treatment of genre throughout his films and even how he conveys his experiences and self imagery into the hand drawn line, which has been embedded in narrative structure, visuals, symbolism and just about any other aspect of film making. He really proves how flexible a stylistic medium such as animation can be in conveying his own self and experiences onto the screen. A great way to take an auteurist approach to Otomo’s film making is to compare and contrast a few of them. Akira, Cannon Fodder and Steamboy are all good films to explore.
The film that Katsuhiro Otomo is probably best known for is his animated epic Akira (1988). In any film the one thing that should become immediately obvious is the genre of the film. Otomo’s treatment of genre in his stories is consistent throughout his work in the way that he’ll set it in a particular time period and fantasise it in some way with a lot of postmodern elements. As Paul Wells writes in his book Animation: Genre and Authorship “At one level it is still easy to recognise a ‘horror’ film, a ‘western’, a ‘musical’ and so on, but such is the hybridity of generic elements in many films that there are many aspects of crossover and combination within established genres that in effect, new ‘sub-genres’ have been created. These intersections and adaptations means that any genre rarely operates in an exclusive way” (pg. 41).
Akira is one of the most notable examples of the ‘cyberpunk’ genre which derives mostly from science fiction. While many cyberpunk stories will involve computers and technology such as Ghost in the Shell (Mamuro Oshii, 1995, Japan), it is supernatural and psychic powers that play a more dominant role in this film. The film is set in Neo Tokyo forty years after World War III when an atomic explosion destroyed the old city. This atomic explosion is revealed to have been the result of the Akira experiment which becomes central to the plot.