While Disney’s wannabe-superdog and Pixar’s dysfunctional robot stormed theatres last year, Hayao Miyazaki’s latest anime film, Ponyo on the Cliff by The Sea made a quiet entrance on international screens. Ponyo is a goldfish who wants to become a little girl so that she can be with Sasuke, a five year old boy. In a moment of sheer will, the delightfully floppy Ponyo sprouts limbs, breaks free of her magician father’s confining bubble and wobbles on to chase the boy she loves. The movie is a mélange of heart breakingly sweet characters, cultural references, and a story so wild, one cannot not help but be absolutely captivated by it. These are exactly the same reasons why fans love anime.
What is anime? Shivankar Jayaprasad, founder of Animestan, India’s oldest anime club explains, “The word anime when used in Japan refers to animation of any sort, including their animation and western cartoons. When it is used outside of Japan, it refers exclusively to animation made in Japan.”Anime is not a genre within the wider framework of animation, but a medium in itself.
Most anime has its roots in manga, or Japanese comics. By the 20th century, manga was being read in trains, classrooms and on the streets. It had become an essential part of Japanese culture. When Japanese animators began to imitate their American and European counterparts, the stories and the style of drawing in manga were carried into anime. Since then, the anime/maga trend has evolved into an international sub-culture. It has something for everyone – from toddlers to people with fetishes for women violated by robot-tentacled monsters. It is rumored that every original plot has been taken by the Japanese; even the fine art of baking bread has been turned into a series (Yakitate!! Japan).
Often, the public’s perception of animation tends to be limited to Disney, Pixar, and Popeye the Sailor. This is also because American production houses tend to be far bigger, and have larger resources than Japanese studios. An article in the New York Times reports that an average Pokémon episode costs about $100,000; but the average cost of an original episode of an American-made cartoon is estimated to be about $500,000. In animated movies, Disney and Pixar primarily due to their size as multibillion dollar companies have managed to dwarf an entire generation of talented film makers. Ironically, Europe and America have also become the chief centres for anime-centered counter cultures. The monopoly of the animation giants has lead the anime subculture into expand in cultish proportions. Japan’s export of anime to the United States alone, stands close to five billion dollars.
Anime fans stay connected through internet forums and groups, some of whose members meets up in real time. They share information, discuss news from the industry and try to improve their Japanese slang. India boasts of its own online anime forums, like Animestan and Animeindia. Cosplaying, or dressing up as the character and role-playing, and well as creating AMV’s (anime music videos) is common.
To the general public, anime is seen through two extreme perspectives – either as childish, or an excess of gore and erotica. Often, the vast middle, the bits that talk about high school romances (Whisper of the Heart) and discuss socio-political issues and solutions (Akira) are often missed. This is because these shows rarely make it to international audiences, and are virtually unknown except to discerning viewers. Therefore, series like Dragon Ball Z and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers draw regular flak from the media for excessive violence, while series like Maison Ikkoku in which it takes 30 episodes to the boy to hold the girl’s hand remains unknown.
But these complaints about sex and gore in anime are not completely groundless either. Anime is not just about entertainment and lost children who find their way. It has also become the platform for expression of unrestrained fantasy and every known form of sexual perversion. This has lead to the creation of an entire genre of anime with violent and explicit content meant for adult audiences, popularly known as hentai. Anime has also grown some socially-unacceptable subsections, such as ecchi that is just toned down hentai, and moe which is sexualisation of pre-pubescent girls. Extreme fandom by some otakus (anime fan to the point of obsession) also leads to other fans being labeled as ‘different’.
Regular anime does feature scenes of nudity and sexuality but these scenes are usually tied to the character and plot development of the story. Since children are exposed to anime at a young age, this creates an added threat. A child who is prone to violence may take inspiration from whatever material is easily available, in this case, anime. Shivankar explains why violence can be problematic when adults fail to realize that anime is not entirely a children’s genre. “I watch the most disturbing gore flicks but I know how to differentiate between reality and fiction children cannot make that differentiation so their activities need to be monitored.” He stresses, not all anime is meant for children.
Incidentally, Japanese audiences seem to have a more open perspective to nudity and violence than anglo-euro tastes permits. They are open to idea of nudity appearing in series meant for younger audiences, like Naruto, which often shocks western viewers. If the fault of western cartoons is that they are didactic, then anime’s fault is that it is relatively amoral. The larger structure of good Vs evil exists in several plots, but anime is more likely to question morality than cartoons generated from western production houses. Maybe because a large part of the world still sees anime as ‘cartoons’ as associated with a children’s genre, and not as an independent medium in itself, it becomes increasingly difficult for adults to accept the nudity, sex and gore in anime.
In India, anime has been around only for eight years or so. Many of the anime fans today, started off by watching the anime block on AXN, Toonami on Cartoon Network, and the all-anime channel, Animax. There are nearly 800 registered fans, and many other casual watchers. Srikanth Chinta, a student from SASTRA University, Tajore, reveals that nearly 85% of his college follows the popular anime series, Naruto. Since the amount of anime and manga that enters the market is rather limited, fans depend on the internet to be updated on the latest news. Anshumani Ruddra, writer and anime enthusiast remarks, “The number of truly dedicated fans who follow every latest issue of a manga online or download the latest episode of an anime is still small. But this number is certainly increasing. And cheaper and faster broadband connections are ensuring that people interested in manga/anime don’t have to wait for a new title to come into India through traditional means (TV, book shops).” Animestan, and other groups of enthusiasts often hoast small meetings in the major cities, where they meet other like-minded fans, swap dvds, and practice their broken Japanese. Sanjay, a self proclaimed otaku says, “I have a huge network of friends with whom I watch anime on a regular basis, usually twice a week we meet up at my place and watch latest episodes and other shows.”
What makes anime popular with Indian fans? The cultural codes are different, the language foreign and the characters remain Japanese. In fact, fans try to keep the series as Japanese as possible, choosing subtitles over dubbed audio tracks. The first rule of the Animestan manifesto is “Thou Shall Not Dub.” Each anime fan has a different special reason why they love their favorite series. Surprisingly anime fans are not so drawn by the cultural closeness to the Orient, but more because three major aspects – its diversity, the interesting plot and characters who peel off layers like onions, and the exquisite artwork. What appeals to anime enthusiasts is its universality – the feeling that the story can be supplanted into any other culture and it would still make perfect sense and retain its flavour. Anime features a vibrant plethora of contemporary characters that don’t to belong to any one culture or nation.
However, the anime fandom in India is not large. Sanjay Ramjhi points out that several fans are nervous about coming out and discussing anime because they are afraid of being chided for being ‘childish’ or are scared of being judged. Additionally, the anime that is aired on television hardly reflects the quality of anime that is available, further complicating the issue.
Anime fans constantly bemoan the restricted market for anime and manga. Several manga fans agree that they would buy manga it was priced reasonably between 50 to 100 Rs, rather than the exorbitant 350 Rs which seems to be the average. Retailers however have a different story. Landmark has the largest stock of manga and graphic novels in Chennai. Mr. Arif from Landmark, Chennai remarks, “Further north, their collection (of manga) is threefold of ours. In Chennai, there is no market.” He adds, customers seem more interested in graphic novels than manga. Additionally, manga need to be directly imported, as there are no publishers who hold reprinting rights. The few titles that are moving fast include Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai and Executioner, the Chronicles of Buddha series. The popular anime series in India, like Naruto, Bleach, Full Metal Alchemist, One Piece and Death Note have not made their way to the Chennai market in manga form. The stock is meager; erratic at best.
Just as anime is a foil to western cartoons, the manga fandom often competes with the graphic novel following. Anshumani Ruddra explains, “I think manga and graphic novels are two completely different beasts. The aesthetics and content sensibility behind both is as far apart as Western and Oriental philosophy. And yet, we Indians always seem to be traversing the thin line between the East and the West. Hence the popularity of both manga and graphic novels here.”
Though the manga and graphic novel followings are small, they have been an active enough group to start creating their own art. Samit Basu, author of the Gameworld Triology and who is currently working with Virgin comics remarks, “the market for graphic novels, is tiny but quite vocal and has generated a great deal of media attention. The graphic novel is in its nascent stages in our country – there have been only three noteworthy books so far – but there’s still a very long way to go, it’ll take several years before there’s a significant body of work and anything approaching an Indian style. But we certainly get to read about it quite a lot.”
Whether the anime trend in India will fizzle and fade out in a couple of years, or stay to grow into a full-blow subculture is yet to be seen. But for now, there are a group of dedicated followers who are vocal and who are trying their best to reveal the treasure min that anime can be.
Wrote this for our ‘Journalistic Writing’ paper, August 2009, so a bit outdated. Also, had to dumb it down for various reasons, hence the ‘introduction’ in the title. Will put up source links a while later.