Anime and manga are among some of the most popular cultural exports from Japan, now a global billion dollar industry. Since Studio Ghibli’s anime masterpiece Spirited Away won Best Animated Feature at the Academy Awards in 2003, anime movies and TV shows have gained a huge and growing following in the Western world.
Even for those who are not particularly familiar with the art form, anime films are immediately recognisable. One of the main distinguishing features of anime (and by extension, manga—the comic book or graphic novel form) is visual abstraction, stylisation and exaggeration. But why is anime so popular in western culture?
Why has anime found a captive audience in Western culture?
Common anime tropes, such as visible battle auras, impractically huge weaponry and just a touch of folklore and magic, endorse our imagination and creativity. The simple aesthetic is particularly beautiful as well: flashing sword lines, staccato movements and incredibly vibrant colours and hues. It’s no wonder the TV series Naruto, Pokémon and Dragonball Z have all found a captive audience around the world.
The narrative is wonderfully compelling too, for children and adults alike. Anime stories tend to emphasise the bond of friendship, loyalty and triumph of good over evil. The characters have wonderfully humanising vices too, and the content has been found to be less censored than American and British cartoons. Storylines have been known to tackle such topics as androgyny, violence, sex and death. There is just no genre of Western animation that quite compares.
Japan Craft, London-based retailer of Japanese arts and crafts merchandise, describe anime as a culture people truly inhabit, one with which they are keen to identify. The craft store has enjoyed such demand for anime merchandise that it has warranted the establishment of a second store in London’s Camden Market, dedicated to all things manga and anime.
Anime is alternative, but widely celebrated at conventions like Comic-con and Anime Expo. At these events, fans take part in cosplay, a tribute of sorts, one which facilitates a sense of belonging and togetherness among participants. Anime cosplay also offers its participants a sense of escapism. Delving into the powerful narrative universe of anime sci-fi concepts gives participants a real sense of leaving the real world behind.
Why are anime characters so aesthetically pleasing?
Like the iconic aesthetic of anime animations, the same goes for anime characters: large and glowing (often blue) eyes, vibrant-hued hair, polished skin, big busts and bulging muscles. Given their bodily form, anime characters have sometimes been considered to be idealisations of western faces, but others have countered that it is simply not the case at all. What is true, is that anime characters are designed to have universal appeal.
Huge eyes, a small nose and mouth, and an unpronounced chin and brow are deeply hardwired within our biology to provoke a subconscious reaction. Using the psychological concept of the ‘Kindchenschema‘ (childlike characteristics), anime characters’ large eyes subtly evoke protective and nurturing feelings, like those of a parent towards a child. It’s the same trait that makes puppies, kittens and young animals look ‘cute’.
Second, maximising eye size is an effective way to convey emotion, something it’s difficult to do in cartoon form. As humans react extraordinarily well to eyes—they are the place where our gaze lingers longest on any given face—anime has established a new way of communicating through the eyes’ expressions. This has done wonders for the selling power of anime merchandise, as well as viewership of the films and TV shows. Emotion after all, influences our purchasing decisions more than any other factor.
Is anime set to gain more mass appeal?
Soon, Ghost in the Shell will hit cinema screens. Based on the internationally acclaimed sci-fi anime and manga series, it’s set to be one of the first and most notable live-action interpretations of the genre. But it’s been embroiled in a whitewashing row that critics have accused of removing the story from its core themes.
“Ghost in the Shell, while just one film, is a pillar in Asian media,” wrote comic book writer Jon Tsuei, complaining Hollywood had failed to comprehend the “totemic nature” of the story with Asian culture. Others hit back, arguing the decision to cast Scarlett Johansson emphasised that they had created an “international movie” that shows how anime appeals to a wider audience. We wonder if this isn’t a celebration of the universal appreciation and appropriation of anime culture after all?
Meanwhile, interest in anime and anime merchandise looks set to increase further with famous characters serving as ambassadors for the Tokyo Olympics. Tapping into the mass market appeal of the likes of Astroboy, Sailor Moon and Goku welcomes these anime celebrities to the world as part of the biggest and most watched international event of all. One thing is for sure—anime is set to enthrall viewer all around the world for years to come.