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Anime Boston: Astro Boy Leaves Bambi Earth-Bound

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The “cosplayers” are coming! An annual rite of spring, Anime Boston draws over 15,000 fans, many dressed as favorite cartoon characters, to the Hynes Convention Center (May 24-26). How has anime become such a global phenomenon? And why does anime spark such passionate energy among its fans?

Anime (AH-nee-may) refers to animated Japanese television and films. By some estimates, 60 percent of the world’s TV broadcast cartoons are Japanese in origin. One might think that the US — home of Disney, Pixar and other leading animation studios — would be in the dominant position globally, but no. Why is that?

In the 1960s, Japanese animators surpassed Walt Disney in an important way. They figured out how to make animation on the cheap, notably, with Japan’s first weekly TV cartoon series, “Astro Boy” (“Mighty Atom” in Japanese), which began airing New Year’s Day 1963.
Prior to that, from the late 1950s, Japan’s leading animation studio, Toei, had struggled to be “the Disney of the East” by creating quality, feature-length films, generally, like Disney, by creating new characters, worlds and stories for each film.

Meanwhile, Osamu Tezuka, the godfather of Japanese comics (or “manga”), was growing increasingly popular through his serialized story “Astro Boy.” But he really wanted to make television animation. Given the enormous amount of labor required to make the style of full animation of classics like “Bambi,” Japanese TV animators had to cut corners using extremely limited animation – reusing flying scenes, cutting down the number of drawn movements, honing the technique of dramatic poses, almost like kabuki actors, and thus radically reducing the number of frames to be drawn (and hence, lowering the budget too).

As a result, seasoned veterans of Japan’s animation studios, and Western observers, viewed the animation of Astro Boy as pretty crappy. And yet the TV show was an enormous success. The widely accepted reason was that fans of “Astro Boy” reveled in the limited animation because they just wanted to see their favorite character on TV. Fan energy was the key to success.

The close connection between manga and anime continues to this day. Roughly 60 percent of Japanese animation is based on already popular manga. Because this limited animation anime can be made relatively cheaply, Japan can export more readily to countries otherwise priced out of American offerings.

(A currently trending anime is called "Sword Art Online" and the director, Tomohiko Ito, will be speaking at Anime Boston.)

There is a second issue. Why did the manga world develop differently in Japan compared to the US? The answer highlights the dangers of sensational, junk science.

Today, it is common for Japanese manga to be thought of in terms of extreme violence and transgressive sexuality. In the 1940s, however, American comic book artists were famous for violent and salacious tales as well. But a psychiatrist by the name of Frederic Wertham wrote a book called “Seduction of the Innocent,” which made broad claims about the negative impact of such comics on children. Televised Congressional hearings followed. In the wake of the hoopla, and growing concern among drugstores and other retailers fearing a public backlash, US magazine publishers agreed in 1954 to a Comics Code that limited comic book material to that which is appropriate for children. Recently, more evidence has emerged to call the results of Wertham’s work into question.

Although Japan has seen its own protests against some comic book content, none has led to a similar kind of self-regulation. The openness of Japan’s manga industry is partly what forms the basis of anime world that appeals to both children and adults, and much earlier than we saw in the US with shows like the “Simpsons” and “South Park” and more grownup-oriented graphic novels and underground comics.

In these and other ways, anime has achieved its success by building upon the energy and excitement of fans for particular characters. Some anime studios, such as Sunrise, the creators of the long-running “Gundam” giant-robot series, encouraged fans to develop their own alternative worlds around the franchise as a way to build interest. In this regard, anime can be viewed as part of the pre-history of social media’s emphasis on crowd sourcing and user-generated content.

What Japanese animators recognized is that the desire of fans for particular characters can be as crucial, if not more important, than the quality of the animation per se. Indeed, we scholars in media studies are increasingly aware that media should be viewed less as “content” (something to consume) and more as a “platform” that fans and other creators can build upon. Characters operate as a kind of platform, and we can see that very clearly in the (mostly handmade) costumes that American fans will be wearing at Anime Boston.

So, the next time you bump into an anime fan dressed in costume near Boylston Street, you might pause to consider that this may be the future of entertainment media, where fans get equal consideration alongside creators.

Ian Condry, professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT, is author of "The Soul of Anime: Collaborative Creativity and Japan’s Media Success Story" (2013, Duke University Press). He will speak at Anime Boston, May 25 at noon.

Click here for an excerpt of the book.

This program aired on May 23, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.

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