When you think of Japanese culture, there are so many things that could come to mind. You might think about their vibrant theater community, which brought the world the art of kabuki and many original stage plays. Or their performance arts, which have produced popular music acts that have found success, fame, and fortune via their fans all around the world. Or you could think about their absolutely heavenly fine food, including the art of sushi. If you’re like me, however, the first thing that pops into your mind when you think Japan is anime and manga!
Recently the question was raised to me about just how important is anime and manga to Japanese culture and I’ve decided to research and explore that topic in this feature to answer the question as best as I possibly can.
It’s said that it wasn’t until October 1958 that Japan truly entered the global animation market with their screening of the movie Panda and the Magic Serpent. From there, it was just a hop, skip, and a jump forward a few years to the 1960s when we began to see the form that anime would take in the future; most notably the large physical features (including the big eyes that anime is now known for). In this decade we got Astro Boy in 1963, which would inspire and influence countless future creators.
In the 1970s, anime would enter a more experimental phase with new studios such as Sunrise and Madhouse being formed by former Mushi Production staffers. This was also the first time that we saw classic characters and stories being told with Tomorrow’s Joe and the first two seasons of Lupin III airing this decade and in 1978 over 50 anime programs aired over the period of the year.
Over the next 40 years leading into the current decade, anime has grown, changed, and evolved into the product that we know today. We’ve seen the medium go through various stages and trends, including the most recent isekai fad, and are now starting to see a renaissance of series that aren’t adaptations of existing work but rather are attempting to their own original stories.
This is probably the easiest question to answer in this entire feature because the answer is no. It’s always funny to see people who have this rose-tinted view of Japan as an anime paradise where they can go and talk about whatever obscure series they want with any random passerby and feel like they’ll finally be understood. You can’t and you won’t.
That isn’t to say that there aren’t anime fans in Japan. There are lots of them obviously, otherwise, the industry would’ve died decades ago. The thing to remember, however, is that anime and manga is a hobby just like any other in any part of the world. Some people will be absolutely hardcore anime otaku just like you, but there are also many others who are only casual fans or even infrequent fans who only watch the major mainstream or tent pole series. To generalize and say that everyone in Japan is an anime nut is unkind, insulting, and just not true.
With the mass commercialization of the product, anime has become a worldwide sensation and a multibillion-dollar industry. While anime in the west was present in the 80s via VHS tape trades (kids, ask your parents), it wasn’t until the 90s that technology caught up enough that we saw a much more concerted effort on behalf of companies to get anime merchandise such as home videos into the hands of consumers. Sure, you were usually paying $20-30 for two episodes (sometimes more if you wanted it to be dubbed), but still, it was fresh anime! In the present age, anime is easily accessible with only a high-speed internet connection.
According to the most recent anime industry report put out by The Association of Japanese Animators (AJA), anime has recorded ten years straight of positive growth with 2020 marking the best year for anime, 2.51 trillion yen (over $23 billion US dollars), with the help of both domestic and overseas fans. In fact, overseas fans are now making up almost half the total anime market!
With so much money to be made, it’s little wonder that Japan sees anime as a strong cultural export that they can ship out to the rest of the world, and that’s really the billion-dollar statement right there. If you’ll forgive me for sounding just a bit cynical, what does anime mean to Japanese culture? Cold, hard cash.
In a panel held during the virtual convention Anime Lockdown held in 2020, presenter Timeenforceranubis laid out some hard facts regarding the business, and the truth is that most anime serves the role of an animated infomercial to get more people into the original source material.
The idea behind “Cool Japan” was to export cultural products that overseas fans perceived as “Cool” including (but in no way limited to); music, television programs (including anime), robotics, and just about anything else you can think of that is widely associated with Japan. In 2013, they formed a special Cool Japan Fund Inc in order to fund ventures outside of Japan, which promoted Japanese products positively, which included a $30 million investment in Sentai Holdings in the US in 2019.
Now, don’t get the entirely wrong idea that there is no love for the craft left within the industry and that everyone involved in just looking to make a few bucks. Yes, creators want their works to be successful, but that doesn’t mean that they are staying in a rather low-paying industry in search of that elusive golden paycheck. There are still plenty of talented individuals present in the industry today who are expressing themselves thoughtfully by writing or directing original stories and thoughtful adaptations of beloved works that genuinely have things to say and here are a few:
Known for a rough animation style that tends to be an acquired taste, Yuasa is affiliated with studio Science Saru who have worked with him to create some of his most famous works over the last decade, including Night is Short, Walk on Girl, Lu Over The Wall, and Devilman Crybaby.
While he’s largely stepped out of the spotlight, the last couple of decades have been very kind to Simbo on a professional level. After breaking out with the series Bakemonogatari (and all of its subsequent follow-ups), Simbo found massive success once again immediately afterward in the following decade by directing the megahit Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
While Voices of a Distant Star and 5cm Per Second might have initially drawn some attention towards this creator, it wasn’t until this past decade that Shinkai really hit his stride with three hit movies in a row: Garden of Words, Your Name, and Weathering With You. It’s worth noting that the movie Your Name is now the third highest-grossing anime movie ever.
Like Shinkai, Hosoda is mostly known for his movies and while he had some early success, it wasn’t until this past decade that he became an international success story as pushed his way forward with Wolf Children, Boy and the Beast, and Mirai. He’s not even close to done either with his new movie, Belle, being released at some point in 2021. Hosoda has already said that this movie is the one that he’s always wanted to make.
To be blunt, anime can be seen as a shadow of its former self. While back in the 1980s and 1990s it could be seen as wild and edgy, anime has become a mainstream product and revenue source for Japan and is one of their largest industries. However, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Anime might have been commercialized beyond recognition, but that doesn’t mean that the product is automatically bad. Even if anime is meant to serve as a gateway towards the source material, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with enjoying it and consuming new series as they are released each season. Anime might be a product and we might merely be consumers, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s still something that can move us and make us feel things that we had long since forgotten about inside ourselves.
Anime is a powerful medium that I will never get tired of and with any luck, I’ll be able to enjoy it all the way until I’m gray.