Why these cartoons are taking the U.S. by storm

By Andrew Lam, Pacific News Service

Japanese productivity has been limping for a decade, but one export is kicking competitors abroad–mangas and animes. What is it with these comic books and animated cartoons that they are taking America by storm?

Aug 28, 2003 – On a crowded train in Tokyo recently, I counted 16 adults in one compartment alone reading mangas–Japanese comic books. Standing or sitting, all were engrossed in their picture-novels. So intense was their concentration that a few kept on reading as they exited the train. One man actually missed his station.

The Japanese are passionate about their comic books and animated cartoons (anime), but many are tickled that Americans are finding their passion contagious. Mangas and anime are taking the United States and many other countries by storm.

Paradoxically, while Japan has suffered from a decade-long economic stagnation, it has become an exporting powerhouse of popular culture, especially animation, comic books and video games. American fan websites of mangas and anime abound. There are conventions on the genres.

Japan even won an Oscar this year for animated feature with Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away,” a poetic story of a little girl fending for herself in an enchanted world full of witches, spirits and ghosts. It beat out Hollywood heavy-hitters like “Ice Age” and “Lilo & Stitch.”

According to Koike Kazuo, a history professor and the famous author of the “Lone Wolf and Cub” manga series, Japanese anime and mangas are different from their American counterparts because they often “tend to deal with complex characters that are both suited for children and adults.”

Superman, Green Lantern and other superheroes, observes Koike, “are too overwhelming, like the U.S. military forces with their high tech weapons. You grow up and get bored by them.”

It’s not the same with Japanese comic characters, he says. “The characters may have some powers, but they are vulnerable. They might be beaten by somebody, and people who read manga sympathize deeply with the characters.” On the deepest level, he explains, “Serious mangas are about spiritual drama and love.”

Koike can speak with authority. The first issue of the “Lone Wolf and Cub” series U.S. edition sold around 120,000 copies in the late ’70s, making it the best-selling manga in the United States for decades. Next year, the professor will launch a sequel, where Daigoro, the samurai’s little boy, grows up. His fans are waiting impatiently.

Cowboy Bebop MangaCoined in 1815 by woodblock artist Hokusai, “manga” describes his illustrated doodles as “involuntary sketches or unintentional pictures.” But manga didn’t turn into entertainment for children until 50 years ago when Tezuka Ozamu created the modern comic book with Astro Boy, a robot with heart.

These days, major bookstores like Barnes and Noble offer all kind of mangas. Amazon.com has an array of Japanese movies and comic books. Or you can simply turn on the TV to watch some 20 cartoon shows like “Pokemon” and “Sailor Moon” on various channels. According to Tokyo Pop, which sells comic books, sales of DVD’s and videos cassettes alone are expected to reach $500 million dollars in America this year.

The latest craze to hit the country is the “Cowboy Bebop” anime, about a group of futuristic bounty hunters who catch bad guys throughout the galaxy. It has won a large following. “[Cowboy] Bebop as a whole is phenomenal,” writes one fan in Amazon.com, ” I loved the characters, the music and the visuals. I would recommend this to anybody– and that’s saying something.”

Spirited AwayThat animation is doing so well in America pleases Momoko Mano, a graduate student at the University of Tokyo, but she didn’t know it until “Spirited Away” won an Oscar. “Japanese are so insulated that we sometimes have no idea that our culture is being exported and appreciated,” she says. “For so long it’s been the other way around–we were at the receiving end.”

She can see why the world of animation can be very seductive: “Like soap opera in the U.S. you feel very involved with the characters. Teenagers have committed suicide because their favorite characters were killed.”

Nobuhiko Horie, CEO of Raijin Comics, says the time is ripe to take advantage of American interest. “Previous generations were resistant to Asian products but younger Americans have grown up with Streetfighter and Jackie Chan and sushi and walkmans,” he says. “There is a growing appreciation for Asian visual styles and action scenarios that Hollywood lacks.”

Raijin Comics is testing the water and selling about 20,000 copies of its weekly in English. Readers get five continuing narratives, ranging from basketball to a serious and very popular political drama called “The First Japanese President,” in which Japan finally moves out from under America’s shadow to make its own political decisions overseas.

For his part, Koike finds it interesting that the uniqueness of Japanese imagination is what now what sells overseas. “I never wrote my stories thinking they will be read by non-Japanese. But I am glad that the world is now fascinated with what we created to entertain ourselves.”


Other Readings of Interest

  • Happy Birthday, Astroboy!
    By Gil Asakawa, NikkeiView
    Before Dragonballz, before Pokemon, before Yu-Gi-Oh, there was…
  • Anime Nation
    By Gil Asakawa, NikkeiView
    Nan Desu Kan makes Japanese pop art a truly American family affair
  • Speed Racer: Still Go, Go, Going Strong!
    By Gil Asakawa, Nikkei View
    The early anime series was distinctly different, and Japanese, like me
  • Secret Asian Man
    By Village Artist-in-Residence Tak Toyoshima
    The complete Secret Asian Man comics archive @ Asian-American Village


Andrew Lam:

PNS Editor Andrew Lam is a recent Knight Fellow at Stanford University, journalist and short story writer whose commentaries air frequently on National Public Radio.  Copyright Pacific News Service. All rights reserved.

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