The Japanese are a paradoxical culture. In some respects, they're socially conservative almost to a fault; in others, they're wild and unrestricted. It is this aspect of them that makes them so intriguing. Japanese life is very structured. At birth, a child's life has already been predetermined for them. It has already been decided which school the child will go to; sometimes, as well, whom the child shall marry. They are fed with information from infancy until adulthood and then left to fend for themselves in the real, stressful world. A part of the way that they relieve the stress of maturing is by indulging their fantasies in escapist literature and other assorted media. That is what this essay will examine: a facet of Japanese culture called Manga.

In the seventeenth century, artists in Japan were selling narrative print series on woodblocks, which were as popular and keenly collected as comic books are today. It was the great woodblock artist Hokusai who coined the term Manga--'irresponsible pictures.' After World War II, comics were one of the most important ways that Japan absorbed the blow of the transition from an undefeated nation to a ruined heap of rubble. Manga back then was very primitive, often employing only two or four colours of paint in still artwork. The leading artists in comics, led by Osamu Tezuka, realised that they could use the same techniques in TV and cinema that they use now in Manga. Thus, the Manga comic was transcribed into cartoons. Animated Manga shorts began to emerge, but were not nearly as sophisticated as Walt Disney or Warner's cartoons in America. However, this new movie art form was rising in prominence, and soon became termed Anime. 'Anime' is not actually the Japanese word for animation, though. It is a 'loanword'--a name taken from a foreign language and incorporated into Japanese. Both Manga and Anime entered the Sixties, unaware of the amazing boom they would both experience.

At the start of the Manga boom in the early sixties, the age of the readers was restricted to mostly under fifteen years old. But, unexpectedly, those readers never outgrew their desire for it; suddenly all the children of the post-war era had grown up and all of them took their Manga with them. Manga was now feeding into the adult's as well as the child's collective. Japan first began to export its work to America in the late Sixties, when an Anime by Tezuka called Tetsuwab Atom first appeared on American television under the name Astro Boy. This series chronicled the adventures of a small boy- robot who had to save mankind from evil and learn lessons about life in each episode. The appearance of a robot in Anime was an important event, because it was the launching pad for other 'Mecha-Animes' yet to come. The most popular, and longest lasting Anime to star a robot was the series Mobile Suit Gundam. First shown on Japanese TV in 1979, Gundam was the first Anime to depict gigantic robots battling for the fate of the Earth. This series would continue for sixteen years on television, span several volumes of Manga, produce six feature films, and two home video series. Gundam was immensely popular, and it is estimated that there are ten Gundam toys for every man, woman, and child in Japan! Gundam was also revolutionary in the fact that it was the first series to show women in strong, dynamic roles. The next step in Japan's approach to the West was a series called Science Ninja Team Gatchman. Under the title Battle of the Planets, it was a huge hit in both North America and Europe in the Seventies and Eighties.

Japanese art, when simply looked at, serves no real purpose; that is, it isn't didactic. When a Manga picture is looked at, the looker may not even know what is going on in the illustration. But place the art in a Manga comic or an Anime movie, and the picture comes alive in that context. The boyish Chara, with his spiked hair and cape, scowling at the viewer, may seem incomprehensible. But if the viewer knew that this character had been altered in a laboratory, and given psychic powers; and now all the armies of Neo-Tokyo are after him, while he slowly goes mad and is being distanced from all his friends; he would understand and see the pain of losing control of his friends, his world, and of his own body in his eyes. Most Manga has plotlines and characterization as complicated as what was just described, and that is the purpose behind Japanese art: looking at just one still of a Japanese picture means nothing; looking at a series of these in Manga or actually seeing them in motion in Anime is what makes Japanese art so powerful. The artist goes to great efforts to show the silent madness in just one frame, or the fear for the future in another.

Although the Manga scene was mostly dominated by male talent, it wasn't without its female writers. The best female creator of Manga and Anime is Rumiko Takahashi, who emerged during the Eighties. Her first Manga, Fire Tripper, became a best-seller, but she doesn't consider it to be her best work. To her, the best are her social realism pieces like Maison Ikkoku, the series about a young widow who is a manager of a Japanese boarding house. Quiet, but powerful, the story revolves around the tenants and the romance between the widow and one of the boarders. Maison Ikkoku is devoid of the 'traditional' science-fiction or fantasy elements found in other Manga, and relies on the writing and the characterization for its strength. Takahashi has also produced other series such as Urusei Yatsura, Rumik World, and the immensely popular Ranma1/2.

The Manga that opened the eyes of everybody in the world was the milestone Akira. It first appeared in graphic novel form by Katsuhiro Otomo, and then was converted into Anime in 1988. When Akira was released into theatres in North America in 1989, everybody knew it. Time, Newsweek, People, and newspapers everywhere ran stories on Akira and 'Japanimation' (as they liked to call it) in general. Even movie reviewers Siskel and Ebert reviewed it in their show. This is the movie responsible for the stereotype of Anime being violent, grotesque, and obscene. Now the U.S. Congress believes that any work that comes out of Japan is too violent for our fragile minds. Such is the problem with the big Power Rangers dispute currently in America, but that'll come later. Akira isn't about the violence (yes, it has some), or the nudity (total number of shots=1); it's about the characterization. The setting is Neo-Tokyo, several years after World War III. The main character (but not the protagonist), Tetsuo Shima, has lived a tough life. He was always picked on as a child for being smaller than the rest. One day, he is attacked by a biker gang called the Klowns and starts hallucinating. Tetsuo is picked up by men in a van and is brought to a top-secret medical lab, where he is injected with radiation. He becomes psychic and slowly remembers events from his past, latent in his memory. He realizes that he has been different all his life, psychically gifted and dangerous as a child. He can't control his growing power and goes mad, destroying parts of Neo-Tokyo with mere thought. Meanwhile, his friend, Kaneda, searches him down in order to help him. Tetsuo is beyond help now, after discovering that World War III was not caused by fighting between Japan and other countries. The laboratory's former project, Akira, went mad as well and blew up Tokyo in attempt to end his pain. Akira, to his own dismay, survived the holocaust, but was secured and biologically degenerated into a collection of nerve cells, and stored in cannisters miles below Neo-Tokyo. Tetsuo is revealed to be even more powerful than Akira, and he begins changing form. All the latent memories from across the ages, all the way to those of the simplest amoeba, are instilled in him. Tetsuo begins absorbing matter and growing in size (just like the amoeba), and he unconsciously absorbs his one true love. At the end, the world is converted into pure thought; and, at the moment that Tetsuo is about to die, he makes himself lucid enough to save earth from annihilation (when he dies, all thoughts, including the earth, disappear), for humanity's sake. The earth lives on, with a new hope for the future. The viewer of Akira can only feel sorry for Tetsuo; he lost touch with his friends, but sacrificed himself for the good of humanity.

As is evident, Manga and Anime are wonderful media for conveying values. I believe that this is an effective and entertaining art form to give a message. So do, unfortunately, large American companies. Saban Entertainment is interested in bringing to North American television several Anime shows from Japan. While the average Manga enthusiast may think this is a great idea, I know better. Saban plans to 'Americanize' all of the shows to make it more 'palatable' for an American audience. What this means is that they will remove all violence, nudity, and all other elements that make Anime 'too Japanese.' They then plan to inject American content into the shows, making the final product unrecognizable from the Japanese substrate. The worst thing that they plan to do is to make all these altered shows geared for a young, young, very young audience (as are most cartoons in America.) They seem not to realise that the shows that they plan to alter were popular among children and adults alike in Japan. Saban did this very process when they made a show called Power Rangers. Preschoolers in America watch it, and it has received a lot of criticism from parents for being too violent. What nobody seems to care about is the fact that the unaltered series in Japan was produced with young adults--not preschoolers--in mind. Thus, in an attempt to popularize Anime in America, the corporations have probably made it unpalatable for the mass audience now that it is too childish: altered, truncated, destroyed. I believe that Manga and Anime have a bright future, providing that lovers of Anime-- not large, money-hungry corporations--grab its reins and direct it towards the future.

--Grade 12