Japanese culture vibrates with the energy of anime, an art form that's giving American pop culture a run for its money.
As taxi driver Osamu Nozawa waits for his next fare, he often reaches for his favorite manga to pass the time - a small graphic magazine about a sniper called GoruGo 13. While a grown man reading a comic book might seem unusual in other parts of the world, in this small island nation Mr. Nozawa is only one of millions of consumers of anime (as animation is known here). "I've been an anime fan since I was a child," says Nozawa with a laugh as he navigates the busy midday traffic. "So is everyone I know."Skip to next paragraph
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What began as a distinctly Japanese style of visual storytelling has gone global. As culture watchers from Tokyo to London point out, anime is far more than Pikachu and PowerPuff girls. The art form has achieved what no other indigenous cultural expression has managed to do: become widespread enough to challenge America's stranglehold on entertainment.
"It is one of the only true rivals to American pop culture," says Kaoru Mfaume, vice president of acquisitions for Manga Entertainment.
"Westerners tend to look at the style and think it's simple," says Al Kahn, CEO of 4Kids Entertainment, the firm responsible for launching the worldwide Pokémon craze. "But that's the secret to its success, especially with young people, because the Japanese [value] the story and writing more than the style."
The form emerged nearly a half-century ago from a war-torn Japan that was struggling to make sense of its losses. Japan has a long pictorial tradition and pictographs were a natural form of popular entertainment for artists, says Mr. Mfaume. "They began expressing all their fantasies about the future," he adds, pointing to the Japanese manga, or comic books, which became the foundation for the film and TV incarnations. "Everything they feared about death and war and life and peace after nearly being annihilated in the war, went into anime," he says.
The form first emerged with the work of Osamu Tezuka, who incorporated certain cinematic elements that began to distinguish anime from other forms of animation such as Walt Disney's familiar cel animation, says Joanne Bernardi, associate professor of Japanese film and media studies at the University of Rochester, New York.
"Tezuka was clearly preoccupied with ... a response to Japan's national psyche as it emerged from World War II," says Professor Bernardi. "The devastation of the nation physically, economically, psychically had a lot to do with his choice of subject matter - good versus evil, the conflict between humanmade technology and nature, even the basic questions of the meaning of humanity."
Anime still reflects these early concerns but has now morphed into a wide range of artistic expressions. However, says Bernardi, it is still characterized by its ability to accommodate what Americans might consider "uncartoonlike" or adult subjects "with a sophisticated sense of both narrative and visual style." This includes everything from the Saturday morning cartoons of "Sailor Moon" to bleak, psychosexual adult novels, to the entire world of "cos-play" in which fans adopt the costumes of their favorite characters. It also includes the bestselling works of perhaps the country's most internationally well-known anime artist, Hayao Miyazaki, whose latest film, "Howl's Moving Castle," opened earlier this month in the United States.
Mr. Miyazaki won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2003 for "Spirited Away," which was a top box-office draw in Japan. His other films include "Porco Rosso" and "Princess Mononoke." Tokyo's Ghibli Museum is devoted to his work. The playful building underlines how seriously the Japanese take their anime. Crowds of all ages file quietly through rooms papered with his drawings, studying the notations and elegant pictures. "We like anime," says 20-something Rie Tokura, "because it is not American. We like it especially because it is Japanese."