Anime’s supersized U.S. audience [video]

In the last two decades, Americans’ appetite for anime and manga — Japanese cartoons and comic books — has grown exponentially, attracting fans of all ages and leaving an indelible mark on American culture.

In Japan just after World War II, manga and its many science-fiction action stories pointed the way to a new future. Illustrator Osamu Tezuka is considered the father of modern manga. He established the style and tone still evident today, with adventure stories about the future and other worlds, some of which subtly comment on the times in which they’re written.

His most famous creation, Astro Boy, is a powerful robot who fights injustice.

“Tezuka was very influenced and excited by Western culture,” said Ada Palmer, a history professor at the University of Chicago and an authority on Tezuka and anime’s history. Tezuka’s father believed strongly that Japan’s future prosperity lay in partnership with the United States and raised his son on American imagery. “There are constantly Westerners appearing in it as peaceful scientific collaborators. That’s the future he imagined.”

Along with many other manga creators, Tezuka in the 1960s transformed his creation into an animated series. “He designed them from the very beginning to be exported,” said Palmer.

Many other anime series were successful in the U.S. in the following decades, including action adventures for children with names like Gigantor, Tobor (The Eighth Man) and Speed Racer. But it wasn’t until the 1990s that anime became a focus of intense American fan interest.

One way of measuring anime’s popularity is the massive growth in attendance at anime conventions across the country. In its first year in 2002, the organizers of Anime Boston expected 500 attendees and 2,000 turned out. Recent crowds have consistently surpassed 20,000. The largest anime event in the U.S. is Anime Expo, held yearly at the Los Angeles Convention Center, with over 100,000 attending.

In the last two decades, imported anime series such as Pokemon, Sailor Moon and Attack on Titan developed huge U.S. audiences. Similarly, the English-language versions of films by animator Hayao Miyazaki, distributed through the Walt Disney Company, attracted audiences of both children and adults. His feature Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature in 2003.

Americans’ love of anime has seeped into homegrown American films. The Matrix, itself a hugely influential film, drew greatly from the style and tone of anime in its aesthetic, said Palmer. Academy Award winner Quentin Tarantino used an extended anime sequence to provide a character’s backstory in his otherwise live-action Kill Bill: Vol. 1.

In recent years, Hollywood has created live-action versions of anime and manga stories, such as Ghost in the Shell and Oldboy, trying to capture those forms’ energy and creativity in the same way Tezuka used Western models for his early anime.

“I’d describe it as a sort of conversation back and forth,” said Palmer. “Cultural contact and cultural export — it’s not just about money, it’s about having a positive relation between these countries so that there will be a peaceful and productive future.”

What are anime and manga?

Cartoon image of young man (Shutterstock)

In Japan, anime is simply an abbreviation for “animation.” Outside Japan, anime refers to the specifically Japanese style of animation. So while an animation from anywhere in the world is called “anime” in Japan, in the U.S. and elsewhere “anime” means animation created in Japan.

Similarly, to the Japanese, manga means all comics and cartooning. It comes from two Japanese characters for “whimsical” and “pictures.” Outside of Japan, manga identifies the Japanese style of comics created for both children and adults.

A large percentage of anime is adapted from existing manga books, and some successful anime series are adapted to manga versions.