Kelts explores origins of anime, its popularity in America

“Pikachu soar[ed] high above Fifth Avenue in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade,” was just one of many examples Ronald Kelts used to highlight the extent to which Japanese culture permeates American society in his lecture entitled “Japanamerica” held at the Clark Art Institute last Thursday. Kelts described a relationship of cultural give-and-take between America and Japan, which he terms a “mobile strip.” He proceeded to detail how anime, manga, and other elements of Japanese pop culture are a fusion of American artistic innovations and Japanese traditional art.

Kelts detailed a unique relationship between America and Japan, which dates back to 1945 and came about as a result of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Following its surrender, Japan became a sort of “little America,” as its nationalism was crushed by defeat and its emperor’s divinity was lost. Kelts identified the dropping of the atomic bombs as the particular catalyst of this relationship. A sense of “Little Boy Japan,” namely the emasculation of the Japanese at the hands of Americans put Japan into a culturally receptive position.

Kelts also emphasized the Emperor’s treatment as a commoner as instrumental in reversing centuries of tradition. “For many Japanese, seeing Emperor Hirohito standing on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri with General MacArthur looming over him really hit, a hit from which the Japanese people never really recovered,” Kelts said. Thus, during the 1950s, the decade in which anime was in its infantile stage, the almost overwhelming presence of American culture on the islands exerted enormous sway over the art form’s development.

Kelts then discussed other sources of inspiration for manga and anime, namely traditional Japanese artwork. Scroll-paintings, called Makimono and woodblock prints, called Ukiyo-e show the same emphasis on lines and outlines that distinguishes anime and manga. “Rather than emphasizing the artist’s perspective or depth perception, the outline of an object is what was most distinctive in early Japanese art,” he said.

Instead of the shading found in American comics which grants characters such as Superman or Spiderman a lifelike appearance, “usually to illustrate bulging muscles or, in Wonder Woman’s case, her cleavage,” the Japanese aesthetic is simpler and more line-based.

Kelts mentioned two classic animators who defined anime. Osamu Tezuka, who is generally credited with inventing the genre, created the first manga comic books on the streets of Osaka after the war. According to Kelts, Tezuka drew his inspiration from Walt Disney. “He claimed to have watched Disney’s Bambi eighty times,” Kelts said. Tezuka started his rather prolific career selling a book of the Bambi story entitled Walt Disney’s Bambi by Osamu Tezuka.

Tezuka acquired name recognition in the U.S. with Astro Boy, one of the earliest examples of anime to find its way onto American television. Hayao Miyazaki, Tezuka’s successor as the preeminent anime artist, is also known throughout America for his movies, including My Neighbor Totoro, Princess Mononoke, Sprited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle, with the latter three receiving critical acclaim and box office success.

The lecture concluded with several explanations for anime’s popularity in the U.S. Primarily, Kelts asserted that Japan has a “heightened sense of visual aesthetics” and its animations are “based on visual subtlety rather than the noisy intrusion of self in American culture.” He also believes that the “post-apocalyptic” mentality that took over Japanese culture after the dropping of the atomic bombs “may have struck a chord with young Americans in a post 9-11 world.”

Japanese stories often begin with the end of the world, and deal with the rebuilding and renewal of order. In addition, the notion of a “never-ending saga”, facilitated by cliff-hanger endings in every episode of an anime, as seen in shows like Pokemon, keeps viewers hooked while at the same time allowing the artist the freedom to continually expand the world he or she has created.

Finally, much of the appeal for Americans comes from the fresh and yet familiar nature of the art form. As Japan absorbed American culture “there was a gestation period where generations of Japanese artists could draw upon American influence without having to draw for an American audience,” Kelts said. Thus anime and manga are just familiar enough not to come across as “weird Japan stuff,” but are different enough to pique our interests.

Kelts is the author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S.