Japan-imation

As Jan Wiacek, at central London comics specialist Forbidden Planet, puts it: “If you’ve grown up on Scooby Doo, this will come as a culture shock.”

He’s talking about one of their best selling Anime videos – Anime being the animated version of Japanese Manga comics. AD Police features bastardised cyborgs going insane, and indulging in some startling ultra-violence against the humans who both created and then corrupted them. With its graphic cover and an 18 Certificate worn like a badge of honour, it seems to be an archetype for Anime.

Three years ago, the release of the feature film Akira led European critics to praise a “new” genre of cartoon. With its post-apocalyptic setting and unremitting bleakness coupled with graphically precise animation, Katshurio Otomo’s masterpiece signaled the start of some long-overdue interest in Anime outside Japan. It’s also when the trouble began. “In some ways, Akira was very damaging,” says Helen McCarthy, editor of Anime UK, Britain’s leading Anime magazine. “It was as if this film had come out of nowhere.” In fact, the first full-length Japanese animation, Momatoro, was  shown in Paris in 1918, and since then a huge industry has grown up, covering everything from soap opera, through wild farce and sci-fi to the “sex and tentacles” element that seems to have saturated the British market.

Although it’s tempting to disregard Anime with such titles as Voomer Madness and Geno Cyber as boys’-shoot-’em-up fantasies, these are light years ahead of the American garbage that fills kids’ TV in the UK. While there’s no doubt that “big guns sell”, the best of these are subtle, intelligently plotted, and give us an insight into Japan, not least its obsession with technology. As Chrys Mordin of Forbidden Planet says: “Technology is part of their everyday life – you must remember that it has literally been the making of post -war Japan – so it’s natural that Anime explores all of the possibilities, all the possible futures.” This fascination with the darker side of technology, bio-technology and mutation, reflects the more mature relationship the Japanese have with technology. Like it or not, it’s the future.

While there’s no doubt that sci-fi, and now cyberpunk, are hugely popular in Japan, they’re far from the the whole story. In fact, Anime is as broad as the manga comics it derives from – and is just as much a part of “real” Japanese culture. As Chrys comments: “One huge difference is the acceptance of Anime as a valid cultural form – in Britain.

It’s this realisation, plus some very smart marketing from UK market leader Manga Video, that many feel has done Anime’s reputation no good at all. One industry insider makes the point “After Akira, Manga were testing the waters with various Anime: they decided that the easiest market to crack was 18 to 24-year-old boys: hence the heavy metal cover artwork and release of sex and violence titles like the notorious Legend Of The Overfiend. An Anime expert notes that Manga deliberately added a load of swearing to the English dub so that it got them the 18 certificate they wanted.”

“The real fan base started up around 1990,” McCarthy says, “with people meeting, talking, but most importantly swapping original Japanese Anime.” It was here that these “Otaku” (which translates roughly as “anoraks”) helped spread the word that Anime could be funny, sexy, subversive, or plain mad. It’s this mixture of farce, soap opera, and plotlines that Pioneer hopes will open up the UK market. The standard of the animation is remarkable, and the English voice actors surprisingly convincing, but the cultural leap may be too much. Mordin says that Anime introduces us to “ideas we simply don’t have in our own culture – the characters often look European, but what’s underneath is emphatically Japanese.” Take sex: Moldiver, also released on Pioneer, is a brilliant take on the Marvel superhero genre, featuring a lad who invents a suit which gives him superpowers. There’s just one problem, after his sister alters it, he finds it turns him into a leggy babe-superhero.

Anime also shows how the Japanese see us, nowhere more critically than in the infamous Golgo 13, which consists of its hero killing people and having sex. While British fans were outraged at this morality, this particular anime had been made especially for a Western audience. “This is how we appear to the Japanese – these are the values they think we hold.”

Anime is still a small scene with a lot of prejudices to overcome, but as McCarthy remarks: “It’s only recently that black culture has been regarded as non-alien, and has started to enrich traditional British culture. Why shouldn’t Anime do the same for Japan?”