In the past two decades East Asian cinemas have captured the imagination of Western audiences, perhaps most of all the cinema of Japanese anime, which has gained both critical and popular acclaim. The fandom that surrounds this genre is specialised, but present nonetheless; particularly among the cult sectors of ‘fan fiction’ (where entire websites are devoted to stories written about anime characters); ‘cos-play’ (or dressing up as anime characters) and conventions and video games which are both increasing in frequency. It is also worth remembering anime’s origin in the form of manga as they share aesthetic style, and while this is an even more specialised sector of Japanese culture it too is finding a place in the West; as Levi states, ‘San Diego’s Comic-Con[…] began in 1970 with a gathering of 300 fans[…] the turnout for the 2004 Comic-Con[…] was estimated to have been between 75,000 and 87,000’ (2008, p45). Even though Comic-Con is not devoted entirely to anime and manga the growth in 34 years is startling for such a specialised subject. I will attempt to provide a reason for the growing popularity of anime in the West using Hayao Miyazaki’s work as a case study; primarily Princess Mononoke/ Mononoke-hime (1997) and Spirited Away/Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001). I will examine various writings on anime to gain a better understanding of this popularity, particularly the scholarly works of Rayna Denison and Antonia Levi, and while Susan J. Napier has the tendency to equate Westernisation to Americanisation I believe her work has merit also.
While anime was once almost purely Japanese in terms of identity, this is no longer the case; indeed as Napier says, ‘despite its indisputably Japanese origins, anime increasingly exists as a nexus point in global culture’ (2005, p22). It would be difficult to argue that anime is not transnational in our modern society because Western children now grow up with the same cartoons as Eastern children. Pokémon/Poketto monsutâ the television series first aired in 1997 in Japan and it was not long before it was also being shown in the West. Programmes like this, Yu-Gi-Oh/Yûgiô, and Dragon Ball Z gained such a large following through the collector based merchandise of cards, toys, and video games that it would be difficult to find somebody between the ages of 15 and 30 that has not heard of these titles. It is through the younger generations therefore, that anime has also found a home in the West, but why are these cartoons universally successful among children?
According to Napier, ‘the characters in anime often do not look particularly Japanese, instead they participate in what might be called a nonculturally specific anime style’ (2005, p24) if one considers Chihiro in the opening scene of Spirited Away this becomes quite clear. First and foremost, Chihiro is Caucasian, this does not place her specifically within a particular Western aesthetic, but one could argue that it does place her outside of an Eastern aesthetic, or to use Napier’s term; it places Chihiro in a ‘nonculturally specific’ image. Chihiro’s clothes are perhaps easier to overlook, but they are no less important in identifying this nonculturally specific style: she is wearing a green striped T-shirt, pink shorts and unremarkable shoes; in short Chihiro could be any girl, anywhere. It is perhaps this universal aesthetic that allows all audiences to relate with the characters; providing the possibility in the first place for anime to be popular in the West. This same technique is used within the setting animation as well, Denison draws attention to, ‘mixed Japanese and Western styles of architecture, décor and costuming’ (2007, p310) when talking about Spirited Away. It is not difficult to notice the difference between the fairly generic house that Chihiro is moving into (it is portrayed in long-shot, revealing no particular points of interest)s and the elaborate bathhouse of Yubaba (with its bright colours and Japanese influenced design). It is through this universal aesthetic then that a balance is drawn between an exotic representation of Japan and a familiar one, ensuring that anime in the West is not a completely foreign experience and that it can be accepted by Western audience in the first place.
It is important to realise however, that just because anime may be recognisable in the West due to its integration through the younger generations, this does not by any means indicate that anime is just for children; it is only the means towards an end if you will. If one takes the extreme example of Legend of the Overfiend/Chôjin densetsu Urotsukidôji (Takayama, 1989) with its vivid and frequent depiction of gore and rape it becomes clear that anime can quite easily be targeted at an adult audience as well. Considering this the certification of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away under parental guidance label may, or may not be a shock. Miyazaki, in both of these films, has created a fine line between anime for adults and anime for children; the bright colours, and happy resolution of Spirited Away suggest the latter however, close-ups of Haku after he has been attacked by Zeniba’s magic are particularly disturbing as he vomits blood and flails around in agony. Princess Mononoke is noticeably less ambiguous than Spirited Away so may come as more of a surprise as it is under the same certificate. The resolution of the film, if indeed it can be called that, leaves a sense that nature and technology have not settled their conflict. This can be seen through the fact that San and Ashitaka remain separated. One could argue in fact, that the conclusion has no re-equlibrium and that Miyazaki is implying the self destructive nature of humanity is cyclical. Princess Mononoke is also thematically more adult than Spirited Away, the notion alone of apocalypse is unsettling, but Miyazaki’s portrayals of the forest rotting away and of the Forest Spirit’s death are certainly not targeted at children. One could argue that this could be a reason for Miyazaki’s success in the West; through the misconception that anime is for children Western audiences have a different set of expectations when viewing anime films and as a result are surprised by witnessing the unfamiliar within the familiar.
Along with universal themes and aesthetics, recognisable archetypes are also present in anime; again if one takes for example Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, even if Chihiro and Ashitaka may not be identical to any specific Western characters; they are both marginal within their respective societies: Chihiro is taken away from the familiarity of her old school when her family force her to move, and Ashitaka, after his banishment loses his position as a prince bringing him down to a recognisable level, one should also consider San as marginal to both of her communities; she cannot be accepted as wholly human, or wholly forest god. They are all forced into unfamiliar worlds and because of this they have a strong bond with the audience who are also experiencing the unfamiliar. The marginalising of protagonists is fairly common practice in Western cinema as well, if one considers the western as a genre, how many times does the protagonist ride in from out of town to be confronted with a society’s practices? By creating the ‘everyman’ in this manner filmmakers ensure that audiences can relate with the protagonist. It does not matter therefore, if Ashitaka is faced with the supernatural forces of the forest gods, or indeed if Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs; and it may be unfortunate that Western audiences can overlook Japanese tradition, but again, through all this they can still relate with and understand the protagonist.
Despite examples of universal aesthetics and mixed degrees of adult content, anime is still primarily targeted at a Japanese audience. I have already raised examples of how Spirited Away has both Eastern and Western elements. It is perhaps the Eastern elements which tend to occupy the fantasy aspects of anime (if one thinks of Yubaba’s bathhouse, or the forest gods in Princess Mononoke their Japanese origins are plain to see; if one regards Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) the similarities between the palaces and Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away are numerous). Aspects such as these reveal this predominant targeting of anime at a Japanese audience. These films are culturally encoded, quite heavily in some cases, and these culture-codes can be lost on Western audiences; that is to say, because anime is primarily targeted at Japanese audiences there are inevitably going to be observations made specifically about Japanese society. Napier states that ‘Princess Mononoke undermines the myths of traditional Japanese identity while offering a counternarrative in their place’ (2005, p233) so an audience must first understand Japanese tradition and identity before they can understand that it is being undermined and read into the counternarrative. In Princess Mononoke the representation of the samurai and the stereotypical relationship between Japan and nature are both good examples of aspects that are being undermined; Napier draws attention to the myth that Japanese people live in harmony with nature (2005, p231-248) and when considering this within the framework of Princess Mononoke one can see that to fully understand the film one must be familiar with this myth first.
This is a major problem when considering the act of ‘fansubbing’ and the phenomenon of ‘fan fiction’; because of the cultural differences major aspects that are encoded by the filmmakers for a Japanese audience, can be overlooked by the Westerners that resubtitle, or write stories using the films as a basis after having decoded them with their own cultural framework. While this process of ‘encoding and decoding’ (Levi, 2008, p43) allows viewers to get their own meanings from the films (and this could account for some of the popularity in the West) it is certainly a problematic situation in terms of original authorial intention, depending on exactly how ignorant the fan who is writing the story, or resubtitling the film is.
Considering that Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are culturally encoded one should ask themselves the question: who can truly understand these films, as knowledge of culture, history, tradition and director are all required fields? Does a Japanese man necessarily understand more than an educated Westerner? This is not to say that nobody can understand these films, because universal themes and problems are also present within Miyazaki’s work; themes that all audiences can understand and appreciate. If one takes for example Princess Mononoke’s comments on how for the sake of technology we are forsaking nature, this can be understood by everyone because it is a problem for humanity as a whole. Miyazaki portrays this theme in an incredibly visual manner as well; the sweeping long shots of the forest that begin the film are separated entirely from the walled city of Tatara creating a binary opposition of nature against technology. Miyazaki is not however, as subtle as this throughout the film. In the following scene a boar is thrashing through the forest, the audience will later learn that its grotesque appearance is the result of technology; the boar taints everything it touches with the black sludge like substance that covers its body, and its deep red eyes have connotations of hatred. As the boar rots and dies reaction shots are shown of the villagers disgusted by the smell. Even if subtleties in the narrative are missed by the Western audiences because of mistranslation or a lack of knowledge regarding Japanese society, the overarching themes are clearly visible to all because of Miyazaki’s extremely visual way of portraying his film’s agenda.
One can see this generality, or accessibility in Spirited Away as well; even if the bathhouse is a completely unfamiliar space for an audience, the film’s use of the theme of identity ensures that at least some aspects of the narrative will be familiar to all as identity is an issue with most, if not all human beings. So as with character and setting aesthetic, themes too draw a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar allowing for a Western audience’s escapism without a distancing effect.
This balanced escapism is arguably one of the most influential reasons for why Miyazaki’s films are popular in the West. Hollywood’s preoccupation with making money combined with its dominance has ensured that most cinema audiences are exposed to escapist cinema. If one considers the cinema of World War Two with ‘screw-ball comedies’ such as His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) this notion of going to the cinema to escape the every day is clear to see. While Miyazaki’s films have fantasy aspects throughout, one could argue that to an average Western audience the escapist value of these films is twofold because the Japanese aspects are unfamiliar as well much like the fantasy elements. This could be over simplification however, because if one was to consider a Western audience in the form a British ‘art house’ cinema, perhaps they would be more acquainted with social realism rather than escapism; this is why I must make it clear that when the West as a united audience is mentioned, it is only in the most general sense; it is intended to embody the majority of Western audiences.
It has become apparent that anime may not be as unfamiliar to the West as one might originally have thought. One major way that Hollywood in particular ensures that anime films gain a level of familiarity is through dubbing; a relatively simple and successful process if one compares the comical effects of dubbing live action films; the works of Bruce Lee come to mind. In the American releases of Studio Ghibli films, dubbing is obviously given a high level of importance. Spirited Away made use of well known voice actors, but Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle/Hauru no ugoku shiro (Miyazaki, 2004) use established stars from the Hollywood A-list: Billy Crudup; Claire Danes; Christian Bale; Lauren Bacall and Emily Mortimer all feature in one of the two titles. Along with a familiar animation style that Western children are growing up with, they now have recognisable voices for their characters as well. One should also remember however, that with these voices comes the star and character personas of previous roles adding yet another layer of familiarity.In bringing this familiarity however, there is a possibility that the audience may expect certain character traits which are not present within this particular narrative and this could detract from what the characters are intended to embody.
Similarly one should realise that Ghibli’s films are distributed through Disney in the West, first and fore mostly this provides yet another level of familiarity through the label and prestige of the Disney title, but it also reinforces the misconception that these films are for children; this is yet another possible reason for Western audiences to be perhaps pleasantly shocked that they are being presented with films that do not conform to their usual set of expectations. It is possible however, that the expectations of a Ghibli film released under the Disney title may not be completely subverted. According to Napier, ‘Tezuka himself was a strong admirer of Disney animation, as were many of Japan’s pioneer animators. Even today Japanese animators are strongly aware of American animation’ (2005, p16). Could one not argue therefore, that Western audiences can see aspects of Disney within Japanese animation; an aspect of the familiar within the unfamiliar? If it is true that a kind of crosspollination is occurring between Japan and Hollywood this could drastically reinforce the argument that anime is not as foreign as it seems.
If one regards Spirited Away it is interesting that the further the film moved away from its origin the more emphasis was placed on the dubbed version of the film; to quote Rayna Denison, ‘the further Miyazaki’s film moved West, towards its American release in September 2002, the more negotiation and change took place’ (2007, p310). As with ‘fan-subbing’ the question one needs to ask is; is something lost at the cost of making these films more accessible to the West? If one considers John Lasseter’s thoughts in the commentary for the US release of Spirited Away, ‘We added a few words here and there just to inform someone of what they’re looking at’, but who decides which few words are necessary? How does this affect the flow of the narrative? And perhaps above all, who has the right to add words to somebody else’s film?
Another interesting trend that has appeared as Miyazaki’s films in particular travel west is the relationship between blockbuster and the art house. When talking about Spirited Away’s reception in France Denison states, ‘Le Voyage de Chihiro therefore reveals movement away from the film’s popular ‘blockbuster’ roots towards a conception of it more concerned with the film as a work of art’ (2007, p314). Both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away were successful in Japan (Princess Mononoke being the highest grossing film ever (Napier, 2005, p232)), but if one takes Spirited Away for example, as it travels west it enters film festivals; picking up the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival and winning the Audience Award at Cambridge Film Festival. When it reaches America it wins Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, one can see that by the time the film finally reaches the United States it has entirely lost its blockbuster identity. Ironically the artistic nature of Spirited Away was the reason that it was popular in the West in the first place even though the blockbuster image is generally more popular in Hollywood. One should not underestimate the extent to which this artistic success reinvigorated Spirited Away. Winning the Oscar almost cancelled out the effects of the limited cinema release, in fact the Oscar triumph is now addressed on the DVD case and through association other Ghibli films are labelled with statements such as ‘from the creator of Spirited Away’.
Through a combination of familiarity in the themes, characters and aesthetic, and the rebranding of the films through the changing titles and the dubbing, Japanese anime has become a familiar staple in the West. Yet through the Japanese aspects of these films a sense of the ‘other’ is still present for a Western audience, and this allows for a romanticised exotic image of Japan that entices an unfamiliar audience in the same way as James Bond’s exploits abroad do. There is also a sense that because the films are essentially cartoons; people are willing to be more accepting of a thought provoking narrative, where a live action film about the same subject may be more daunting. One wonders if a live action film about consumerism, or pollution and technology would have been received in the same manner as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have been. There is also the issue of misconception and how this can inadvertently lead to a pleasant surprise. While this may explain to a certain extent why Miyazaki’s films have become popular in the West it does not answer the question of why anime in general has become popular because if one considers Ghost in the Shell/Kôkaku kidôtai (Oshii, 1995) or Akira (Ôtomo, 1988) the differences between these apocalyptic science fiction anime films and Miyazaki’s work are vast. Another issue is to what extent Western countries are similar because it is very easy, as Napier has done, to equate the West to America, or even to assume that the West can indeed be grouped. It would perhaps be more accurate to state that I have offered possible reasons for Miyazaki’s success outside of Japan rather than uniting the West under one shared group of pleasures that they find in anime.
Denison, Rayna (2007) ‘The Global Markets for Anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001)’, In: Philips, Alastair and Stringer, Julian (eds.) Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts London and New York: Routledge, pp. 308-321.
Levi, Antonia (2008) ‘The Americanisation of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture’, In: Brown, Steven T. (ed.) Cinema Anime New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 43-63.
Napier, Susan J. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, New York: Palgrave Macmillan
Akira (Ôtomo, 1988)
Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995)
His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)
Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004)
Legend of the Overfiend (Takayama, 1989)
Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)
Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)
Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)