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Anime-ted Japan

Japanese culture vibrates with the energy of anime, an art form that's giving American pop culture a run for its money.

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Scholars outside Japan have begun to take anime seriously because they say it serves as a window onto deeper trends. "I would more accurately call the phenomenon the emergence of an art movement or way of thinking and viewing the world," says Marjorie Manifold, assistant professor of art education at Indiana University, "just as Impressionism presented a new way for artists, musicians, and philosophers to view the world at the turn of the 19th to 20th century." The Internet has helped the style spread from country to country. The fans who dress as their favorite characters are part of a larger cultural shift as well, one she describes as life as theater and theater as life.

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Anime does have its dark side, says culture writer Masanobu Sugatsuke, editor in chief of Composite Magazine in Tokyo. This includes everything from the violent pornographic subculture to what he calls the "nerd factor."

The streets of Akihabara, once known strictly as the electronics hub of Tokyo, are now filled with young men in pursuit of the growing number of anime shops. "These guys just hang out, [they have] no other life," he says, standing on the sidewalk next to a small knot of anime fans. A young woman nearby, who does not want her name used, adds, "many of them don't know how to love a real woman because all they know are these silly anime women."

Nonetheless, anime continues to earn new fans - and please the old. Tamotsu Ohnishi grew up with Astro-Boy, one of the earliest international symbols of anime. The cab driver, who's in his 60s, says he still reads the mangas and likes the movies of Miyazaki. "It's Japanese, but it's all over the world," he says. "It's just anime now."

A director who stands as one of Japan's national treasures

Mitaka, Japan - Newcomers to Hayao Miyazaki's world often wonder why so many of his films feature a plucky young heroine. A stroll through Miyazaki's creative process at the Ghibli Museum here makes the answer clear. Deceptively simple images of children reveling in natural settings - fighting the power of machines and triumphing against malevolent specters - illustrate the important role of the child. In the timeless fashion of spiritual teachers and prophets, this man whom many regard as the greatest living practitioner of the art form, takes the innocent child as his foil for the evils of the world and as an agent of change.

"He sees the world through the eyes of a child and makes the truth appealing to everyone," says Rie Tokura, a 20-something fan from Tokyo.

Miyazaki is often treated as a cross between a rock idol and a head of state. He travels with a large retinue, and his many assistants seem to be in awe of him. But this is not an accurate picture of the man, say those who know him. "He's a very normal man," says Kaoru Mfuame. "When he is working through a new idea, he will often go down to the local Pachinko parlor to mingle with everyday people."

This emphasis on innocence and simplicity is what allows anime to serve as a window into the Japanese soul, says William Ellis, assistant professor of English at Penn State and a past president of the International Society for Contemporary Legend Research. "It certainly reflects the Japanese lack of distinction between religion and 'real life' concerns," he says. "Everyday social issues tend to get transformed into mythological adventures in anime - not to exaggerate or dramatize them, but to point out that if we are all angels-in-training on this earth, our daily adventures are mythological in nature."

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