History Of Japanese Animation In The U.S.

The history of Japanese Animation began long before Pokemon and Gundam Wing invaded the shores of the US - Over twenty years of feature films are behind this new wave in animation.

With the popularity of Gundam Wing and Pokemon, more and more people are asking themselves where this variety of animation came from; full of action and often adult-oriented topic. Japan, of course, is the answer. But the anime invasion isn't a new occurrence - in fact, it's been going on for over twenty years.

The earliest animated programs in Japan were created in 1917, consisting of storytelling of old Japanese folk stories. Most of these were only a few minutes long, but it spawned an entire generation of animators who reached both back into the Oriental past and far into the future for inspiration.

Many different styles were experimented with at this time, including paper silhouette animation; a type of art that still can be seen to this day in different areas of creative arts. During the 1920's and into the early thirties many small animators worked out of their own home in small studios where they would sell their work to theatrical companies in exchange for production money for their next work. This way their artwork could be distributed far and wide, and they maintained a very unique home atmosphere where the assembly-line creations of the United States never came to be.

During the 1930's the folk tales changed into a darker, more militaristic genre as the rise of Japan's military was reflected in their anime. Many of these became propaganda cartoons much like our own Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse did in the Western world during WWII; urging the population to save and to support the soldiers at the front. The Japanese followed the Disney atmosphere in giving animals human characteristics, resulting in a popular character called Private 2nd-Class Norakuro; a very unlucky dog soldier (literally). In the early forties as the war began to shift the Imperial government commissioned their first animated feature; a black and white hour-long propaganda film that showed the valiant and brave animal sailors of the Imperial Navy fighting in Malaysia and freeing the occupants from the nasty rule of the Western forces. The irony is that this feature was released within months of Japan's surrender.

The competition with the American studios began soon after the occupation of Japan, with the animators having to deal with films coming in directly from America with the forces and a slow economy as the country struggled to recover. The first color feature didn't appear until 1955 as the Japanese animators found a mix between the American way of having studios and specific tasks for each worker and artist and the individual creativity of the Japanese soul.

Toei Animation Company was formed in 1956, with their first creation being a short cartoon called "Doodling Kitty" in 1957. Toei had watched Disney closely and began to follow the same techniques; releasing feature films a year apart based on folk tales - Oriental rather than American, but the formula was the same - cute, lovable creatures that appealed to an audience wanting to forget the past and dream for a few hours.

Many of these were released in America only a few years after being produced and gained a small audience in the United States where the Disney studios had a strong hold on the American public. Due to this lock on the market, Japanese animation disappeared soon thereafter for the next twenty years until suddenly returning with a vengeance.

Astro Boy burst upon the American public in 1963; the animated adventures of a robot boy trying to be more like a real boy and still having to save the world before dinner. The different storylines and creative spark filled a gap in American animation that had become trapped in repetitive storylines and weak animation as studios tried to compete with the Disney giant and failed.

Suddenly the airwaves were filled with Japanimation, from giant robots battling to protect Earth, controlled by a young pilot (MazingerZ) to the resurrection of the battleship Yamato from the bottom of the Pacific to save the Earth in space (Space Battleship Yamato) to space pirates (Captain Harlock). The American public jumped at the thick storylines and characterizations that far outweighed the lighter Saturday morning fare being produced for kids. In Japan, the movie and television industry leapt into action, producing more series and films in a single decade than had been seen in North America and Europe in a lifetime. Comic books also jumped into the mainstream, either adaptations of the movies or as intricate creations on their own. Like the comic books in America, the Japanese built their own system of heroes and villains, many of which made the leap to the animated screen easier than in America.

In the late 80's a major screen release about a futuristic Tokyo and genetic mutation hit the American screens, Akira. Shocking and mystifying the general public, it depicted a future where a third World War had taken place and the day to day struggles of teenagers who had grown up in both a familiar and unfamiliar world and the sudden problems occurring as a result of these times. Catching the eye of the general public, it signaled one of the first major waves of Japanese animation into the mainstream media and away from the small clubs that had been the sole source of the unique storytelling of the Orient for years.

Suddenly Japanese animation series were hot commodities in the US, and many rushed to dub them into English and release them to the public. Some dumbed down the complex and adult storylines, creating sometimes silly and incoherent plots. But the demand grew and grew for the unique animation genre, and eventually the dubbings grew to include the adult audience in their vision.

Space Battleship Yamato became Star Blazers; Macross and the other sister series becoming Robotech as series were re-created for the American audience. As more and more fans were drawn to this new genre, more and more demand grew for the complicated storylines to be included in the dubbing and less and less editing, resulting in more accurate dubbing and editing. Produced in Japan for an adult audience, the new series of animated movies began to be translated for the adult American audience, instead of being dumbed down for Saturday morning children. The result is a burst in interest for all things Japanese in animation; the Gundam series being the latest and most current hot trend.

This ongoing series of giant robot fighters continues to be one of the hottest properties in Japan and the United States, with the models and videos flying off the shelves faster than they can be stocked.

At the same time Pokemon continues to dominate the younger set in both countries, the episodes being dubbed into English at a rapid pace to meet demand. Products imported from Japan sit alongside American versions as the toy makers race to keep up with the demand for the newest and hottest versions of the small creatures and their trainers.

As well, animated film features are becoming just as popular. Princess Mononoke, an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, did well in Japan and the United States, drawing such famous actors as Minnie Driver and Gillian Anderson to lend their voices to the English dubbing; making it more mainstream as ever.

In the new century the future seems bright for Japanese animation as it crosses over into American homes and toyboxes; creating a true global village for all its fans.

© High Speed Ventures 2011