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."
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."
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.
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."
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."