Saturday, March 22, 2003

The ABCs of Anime

by Charles Tan

You might have come upon the word anime from word of mouth, seen it on TV, read it from a magazine, or passed by it in a toy store, but it in either case, you probably have a vague idea of what it is. Of course ask a person to name an anime they know and each one would give you a different answer: Ghost Fighter, Sailormoon, Pokemon, Gundam, Voltes V, Beyblade... The list goes on. Ask them to define it and you’ll probably get as many answers as well. One then can’t help but ask, what really is anime and what makes anime anime? Those more ambitious might even ponder, why is it popular here in the Philippines?


In any evolving language, not only do words suddenly develop but different meanings arise as well. Look at any old English dictionary and you won’t find the term anime. However, newer dictionaries like the fourth edition of the American Heritage Dictionary has it in one of its entries and defines the word as a style of animation marked by colorful art, futuristic settings, and violence [Jap. < ANIMATION].

While that definition may serve for some, that is hardly the context the word anime is used. Not all anime are violent, a lot don’t have futuristic settings, and certainly some don’t even have colorful art. However, the dictionary does cite Japan as the source of the word and has its roots in animation.

Upon consulting a Japanese-English dictionary, anime is listed as the shorter version of the word “animation” and defined as an animated cartoon. Working with that framework, anime encompasses a lot of shows and includes productions from the West as well as the East. And strictly speaking, in Japan, movies from Disney and cartoons like Powerpuff Girls are indeed called anime.

Still, that isn’t how the word is used, whether on the Internet or in our local setting. Why do we call shows like Voltes V and Sailormoon as anime but not cartoons like Popeye or Flintstones? Perhaps a better working definition for anime is that when most people use it, it is to refer to animation produced by the Japanese, or Japanimation as it is sometimes called.

Why then do we not just modify the definition in the various dictionaries and claim it as a style of animation marked by colorful art, futuristic settings, and violence by Japanese? Or perhaps a Japanese animated cartoon?

For one thing, there is a certain stigma when we use the word cartoon, at least in the Western context. Our concept of cartoons is usually associated with slapstick comedy and shows made just for kids. While anime does have shows like that, it also has other shows that have mature content and certainly not suitable for children. The opposite extreme is to label it as animation that is purely futuristic or violent. The former characteristic describes the science-fiction genre and while some anime possess science-fiction elements, not all of them do so. The latter characteristic arises from the fact that one of the more popular anime imported in the West were bloody and full of gore like Akira and Ghost in the Shell. To a culture that is used to equating animation as tame and for the juvenile, certainly the violent aspects of anime is etched in their consciousness. But that description doesn’t do justice as well since there are anime that lacks violence and even aimed at toddlers.

Clearing the Misconception

The contradictory elements of anime might be confusing to some. How can animation not be for kids? Or if we consider it as adult cartoons, how come children watch it?

Anime is a medium, not a genre. A genre is limited by its theme and when people talk about cartoons, it’s usually in reference to the genre of animation that deals with entertaining kids. A medium, on the other hand, is just a means to convey a message. TV, radio, and film are examples of mediums and they aren’t stuck to one genre. TV might have several shows, each belonging to different genres: TV Patrol is nonfiction, Days of Our Lives is soap opera, Will and Grace is sitcom, and Smallville is action/drama. Similarly, anime is a medium that is capable of having shows that appeal to various genres.

I can’t blame you if your concept of anime is merely a cartoon geared towards kids. After all, that’s what most networks are cashing in on, just like the association of primetime TV with soap operas (at least here in the Philippines). But just because that’s the case does not mean it would always be limited to that. In fact, children-oriented anime are merely a slice of the bigger pie in Japan. With over 30+ anime airing every week, not all of them are aimed at kids. There are anime productions targeting high school students, the working class, and even married couples.


Japanese Comics

How did Japanese comics come into the picture, you might ask. Well, comics (or manga in Japanese), have been quite influential to the development of anime. Before animation was conceived, there were drawings, and these drawings eventually evolved into comics.

Even before anime was born, Japanese comics already possessed some of the distinct art styles evident in anime. The “father of manga”, Osamu Tezuka, was quite influenced by Disney cartoons and so his characters usually retained the big-eye motif. His illustrations would then later influence his generation and the generation after that so that by the time anime evolved into an industry, a lot of anime characters had big eyes.

Another vital contribution of comics to the anime scene is that a lot of anime have been adapted from comics. One of the first animated theatrical features produced, Alakazam the Great (1960), was adapted from Osamu Tezuka’s work. Tezuka would even later set up his own animation studio and start developing anime productions of his own. It’s also not surprising that a lot of today’s popular anime have been based on equally-successful comic titles, but the reverse is also true as famous anime are being adapted into comics as well.

Japan and its Animation History

Japan didn’t always have a successful animation industry. For all its current advancements, it owes a lot to American and European animators. In 1917, Japanese film hobbyists made an attempt to make an animated strip lasting from one to five minutes. At first, these cartoons were imitations of their Western counterparts like Felix the Cat but later on, they would shift to Oriental folk tales and adaptations from comic strips found in newspapers.

Anime’s identity wasn’t founded until after World War 2. By then, it was obvious that the Japanese had to adapt to the Western studio system, especially when you consider the fact that Japan was just recovering from the second World War. Their first such animation studio was named Toei Animation Co. and while it made a short cartoon, Doodling Kitty, in 1957, the first anime was Toei’s Panda and the Magic Serpent, a theatrical feature in 1958.

Future productions would follow the same pattern, producing theatrical features based on folk tales. It wasn’t until 1963 that Astro Boy hit Japanese TV sets. Whereas previous productions involved cinema, Astro Boy was made for TV and was based on the popular comic title of Osamu Tezuka. Soon, Japanese studios would not only develop anime tailored for the big screen but for TV as well.

Tezuka himself would help pioneer the image of animation as not “just-for-kids”. In 1969, he released the theatrical feature A Thousand and One Nights which retained the erotic flavor of Arabian Nights. Other genres of anime would later branch out such as adaptations of Western classics (Heidi of the Alps, Anne of Green Gables), sports, magical girls, and super robots.

In 1984, anime would move from the movie theater and the TV set to home video. Original Anime Video (OAV or sometimes interchanged with OVA) was created and this type of anime was released only via video sales. Since it wasn’t broadcast on television or film, it had more lenient standards and censors. Moreover, production qualities of OAVs tended to be better than anime on TV, but not as good as theatrical features.

How Anime Became Popular

Obviously, anime is popular in Japan. However, through some strange phenomenon, it managed to become popular around the world, although doing so did take years.

One of the first anime to hit the US was Astro Boy. Believe it or not, it was through chance that it was brought to Western shores. An NBC representative in Japan saw the show and bought (cheaply) the rights to it, not understanding a single word of Japanese or even the concept of the show. Through the help of producers and writers, it was adapted for US consumption and was quite successful. Soon, the US started importing other anime like Gigantor, Battle of the Planets/G-Force, Speed Racer, and Kimba the White Lion/Leo the Lion.

Europe, on the other hand, has been importing anime like Grandizer from Japan in the 1970s despite censorship. Even though some anime got cancelled because of the violence, they were popular enough that people kept on clamoring for it. Japanese adaptation of Western classics like Heidi of the Alps also got imported, helping induce demand for anime.

It would also seem natural for Asian countries to acquire animation from Japan, given the nation’s close proximity and the fact that Japan subcontracts its animation work to countries like Korea, China, and the Philippines. It is so popular in Asia that anime characters like Doraemon have become pop icons and similar shows have been translated into several languages.

The rise of globalization and the Internet solidified the hold of anime around the globe. Whereas anime fans previously had to acquire nth generation VHS copies of the shows they wanted, with the rise of the Internet, it was easier for fans to meet other fans across the world and swap anime. Fan clubs and groups became more accessible through online bulletin boards, mailing lists, and chat rooms. People could get the latest updates from Japan or get translations without being at the mercy of the TV network.

Globalization also helped increase awareness about anime. Whereas anime was previously dubbed in the vernacular, some fans produced subtitled copies of their favorite anime, the rights to airing it not being bought by their local network. People didn’t need to wait for anime to come out on TV – they could just watch in on tape, with subtitles. And since people were hearing it in Japanese dialogue, an interest in the language and the culture was sparked (and finding out these kinds of information became easier with the presence of the Internet).

Right now, one doesn’t even need video tapes to watch anime. People could download it from the Internet and watch it on their computers. What is even more surprising is that a few days after airing in Japan, anime is already being circulated around the world.

Eastern Animation vs. Western Animation

Since anime has traveled around the world, including the countries that originally influenced it, how different is this Eastern animation style compared to the West?

The first noticeable thing is the treatment of the medium. In Japan, anime is a means to convey a message to various age groups and classes as well as containing various genres. While there are anime geared at tykes and toddlers, there is also anime that appeals to teenagers, businessmen, housewives, and even the perverted. Western animation, however, more often than not, has children as a target audience. Of course this is slowly changing as animation for people other than kids are slowly developing but in the previous decades, cartoons were equated with children.

The second difference is animation. To experts, it is clear that anime lacks the smoothness and fluidity of Western animation productions like Disney. One reason for that is because Japanese productions don’t have high budgets compared to their Western counterparts. Anime characters usually have limited movement and static poses. However, Japanese animators make up for that using techniques found in cinema and stylized poses inherent in their culture. For example, a focus of Disney is the “illusion of life”, the dynamic movement of characters that fit their proportions. Anime, on the other hand, might focus on exaggeration like the transformation of a character into a child version of himself when he is throwing a tantrum.

Third, because the two styles of animation focus on different things, this has an affect on the way the productions are dubbed. In anime, all the animation is done first and when that is accomplished, voice-overs follow. Western productions, on the other hand, usually record the voice-overs first then animate it afterward. A look at behind-the-scenes of any Western animation production shows you that animators try to match the expressions and characteristics of their voice actors and actresses, and succeed in doing so. For example, the dragon in the movie Dragonheart was patterned after Sean Connery’s facial expressions. Similar methods are being done in popular animated theatrical features like those of Disney. Such techniques, while impressive, are simply not done by Japanese animators because of budget and time constraints.

That’s not to say anime is better than Western animation or vice versa. Fluidity of motion or themes present in the animation are merely characteristics of animation and not the defining measure of a work’s worth. It is when all the factors are combined that quality animation can be measured. Both anime and Western animation have their own strengths and uniqueness. One isn’t better than the other, but rather different and distinct.

Blurred Lines

For all the distinction between anime and Western animation, sometimes it’s hard to tell the two apart.

For one thing, animation companies subcontract to other animation companies. Thus it isn’t uncommon for Western companies to have Japanese animate their cartoons. Shows like Spiderman, G.I. Joe, and Thundercats have either been animated in Japan or by Japanese animators yet these are Western cartoons.

Further blurring this line is the show Transformers. Originally a Japanese toy line by Takara, Americans were impressed by it that they commissioned a Japanese animation studio to produce for them an animation series with the US audience in mind. Yet when the show was finally finished, it wasn’t only aired in the US but in Japan as well.

As I said before, Japanese also subcontract to other nearby countries. Korea is a country that receives such jobs and right now, they are producing their own animation. Could Korean animation be classified as anime or should it be treated as a separate animation style?


Anime in the Philippines

The Philippines experienced waves of anime in the past few years. Filipinos were watching it on TV, buying the various merchandise available, and even attending anime conventions by the droves. Would it then be right to say that Filipinos only got exposed to anime in the past few years? Or that it is just a fad like tamagotchi, shawarma, brick games, and zagu?

I beg to differ. Anime has always been part of Filipino pop culture, even as far as nearly two decades ago. American-translated anime like Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Gigantor, and Voltron has been available to us way way back and there are fans of those series even until today. And Western influence aside, Filipinos have watched anime when they were kids. You might remember Cedi, Candy Candy, Heidi of the Alps, Anne of Green Gables, Dog of Flanders, and other animated classics that had a literary and Western feel although in actuality, those cartoons are actually anime.

That being the case, why is it only recently that people are clamoring for anime and not two decades ago?

While I am saying that anime has been present in Filipino culture in the past, it is only now that there is a conscious awareness and appreciation of it. Whereas two decades ago we’ve just been passively accepting what’s on television, lately, there’s an active interest in anime fandom. For example, character names used to be translated in an arbitrary manner. Now, fans demand that the “Japanese flavor” be retained by preserving their Japanese names. Some anime fans don’t even want to watch dubbed anime but would rather view them with subtitles, either on the cable network AXN or through swapping video copies with acquaintances.

Success of Anime

In other for something to be successful, there must first be an awareness of it. That has already been established but for those still in doubt, here are other examples that prove anime is successful in the Philippines.

In the previous decade, anime was relegated to the early morning and afternoon timeslots. There are even barely any ads by the network to let viewers know they are showing these kinds of show. However, as of late, anime has reached mass consciousness. If anime weren’t so lucrative, it wouldn’t have been placed on TV’s primetime slots nor would it have been advertised. Stations like ABS-CBN and GMA have anime on their regular programming, and the latter used to air anime in place of its regular soap operas. Various newspapers and magazines also contain articles on anime as well as its sibling, manga. Should I also dare mention the numerous websites, fan fiction, and mailing lists circulating around the Internet?

Anime has also been used to increase sales. Gundams, plastic model kits that you assemble to form robots, have always been available in the Philippines for quite some time. In fact, it’s been a tradition that every Christmas, department stores and toy chains like Toy Kingdom go on sale and cut prices of Gundams in half in order to sell their old stock. However, in December 1999, that didn’t happen. Why? Gundam Wing, an anime, was being aired on GMA 7. Children and hobbyists alike were clamoring for Gundam merchandise, including the model kits. Ever since then, prices of Gundams have been escalating and the half-price sales were never to be seen again.

Third, anime is being used as propaganda. Hobbies like Tamiya’s mini-4WD (toy cars that go around a track) and Beyblade (hi-tech game of tops) weren’t popular in the Philippines. At least until their respective anime started seeing the light of day here in the Philippines. Let’s & Go made its debut in 2000 and is a show that had its protagonists using Tamiya mini-4WD. Not soon after, there was a sudden demand for such toys and mini-4WD tournaments were visibly held regularly. Retailers started selling Tamiya products when in the past, it was only the hobby shop Lil’s that carried it. At least as long as the anime was being aired. Beyblade followed suit and not so long ago, Beyblades were being sold in malls.

Why is Anime Successful?

I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in knowing as to why anime became so popular. Wouldn’t every businessman be interested in the formula for success?

I don’t think there is one definitive answer to this question. However, I can enumerate the various factors contributing to its fame.

First, it has been with us for quite some time. The best example of this is Voltes V. Many Filipinos were fans of it and when it was banned during martial law, that only added fuel to the fire. Flash forward several years later when fans of the show are now working and supporting their own families. When Voltes V began airing again, longtime fans felt nostalgia and people of the current generation were all awed by the stories their fathers and uncles told them of Voltes V.

Second reason is that anime is a medium hence having diverse genres. Anime is a term general enough that it can cater to a lot of people and not limit itself with a certain spectrum. The only prerequisites anime has is that the show in itself is animated and these animated shows have various stories to tell, appealing to the old and the young, boys and girls, romantic or masochistic.

Third, there is something to reinforce the liking of anime. With various toys, videos, soundtracks, games, and posters available out there, one can easily rekindle the passion one has for anime. And there are a number of shops that specifically cater to the anime community, selling nothing but anime-related products.

Fourth, globalization has helped spread awareness about anime. With websites and mailing lists available, people can easily find information about anime or meet up with fellow fans. What was once difficult to acquire is now as simple as clicking a button. It can’t get any easier than that.

Fifth is its aesthetic appeal. I mean I’m sure there’s at least one anime character you find cute, whether it’s Pikachu, Hello Kitty, or Sailormoon. And the variant art style lends something to this country already saturated with Western culture and icons.

Last but not least is that it’s widely available. I mean lately, one only needs to turn on the TV set at a particular time and we can immediately watch anime. Even mobile phones are not exempted from this as anime ring tones and logos are only a text message away. Then there’s the Internet, the radio, various people who sell videos, etc.


It cannot be questioned that anime has had a big effect in the Philippines. Its phenomenon is as mysterious as its meaning. And while we may not yet fully understand what anime really is, it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy or appreciate what it has to offer.

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