During our first few tours of Japan, The Dragon Trip realised the world is full of anime and manga lovers. They’re mostly in the closet, afraid to declare their love for Japanese cartoons. But once they’re in Japan the tears of joy and the smiles on their faces are a total giveaway.
Caught unaware by this phenomenon of closet anime love, The Dragon Trip felt obliged to get clued up about anime/manga/cosplay (what’s the darn difference?!?). So, here’s our idiot’s guide to a quirky but huge part of Japanese culture. Written by an anime idiot for other anime idiots. Non-idiots can stop reading now and feel smug about their non-idiot status. Idiots, here we go…
Anime is the natural starting point. The word is a Japanese approximation of the word “animation”, though its exact origin is uncertain. Anyway, all us idiots need to remember is that anime involves movement: think cartoons on TV or in feature films.
As with so much that is quintessentially Japanese, anime’s pioneers were influenced by the West. The animation techniques and cartoons that emerged in the USA, and from Disney in particular, in the 1920s and 1930s found a receptive audience among Japanese animators. They began to adopt the styles and create their own cartoon reels. The government paid for much of the best work to produce war-time propaganda films. The recognisable Japanese anime aesthetic did not emerge until much later on.
Now, this is where things (if you’re an anime idiot like me) get a bit complicated. Alongside the development of Japanese anime you also have manga, which is the Japanese for comics.
With roots in stylistic traditions from Meiji Japan and even earlier, Manga flourished in post-war Japan when Japanese and Western influences came together. Characters such as Astroboy and Sazae-san were created in those early years and retain a special status. The manga publishing industry is now a roughly $5.5bn market.
The illustrations that were developed in the 1950s and 60s in those manga comics were instrumental in developing the distinctive Japanese style (exaggerated features, large eyes etc). When some of the most popular manga comics were adapted in the 1960s for TV in anime format, those artists embraced that manga aesthetic and Japan’s anime industry has not looked back since.
But only a tiny proportion of manga gets turned into anime for TV or film. Equally, plenty of anime is not based on manga and is created in anime studios in the same way Disney or Pixar would create a feature film.
Japan’s Walt Disney
The Walt Disney of Japanese manga and anime is Osamu Tezuka. He was the creator of Astro Boy, Black Jack and Phoenix. And he was also involved in bringing those stories to life on TV and film. Stanley Kubrick was such a fan that he asked him to be the artistic director of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Manga is a huge industry because of the sheer diversity of work produced. It is not a niche aimed just at young boys. There’s manga for adult men and women, and a huge array of themes. Romantic manga, nostalgic manga, incredibly violent and gory manga, manga with dark political messages, and manga that is X-rated cartoon pornography. It caters for all ages, which is why it’s not unusual to see middle-aged men in suits reading manga on their way to work.
Another defining feature of manga is that it doesn’t have to be fantastical and other-worldly, even if it often is. Some of the most popular manga is set in real life situations – high school dramas, kids overcoming some sort of adversity etc.
What are some of the seminal pieces of manga and anime that us idiots should be familiar with? There are too many! Dragon Ball, One Piece, Golgo 13, Naruto top the manga best-selling lists. For anime films, Spirited Away – released in 2001 – is the biggest grossing film ever in Japan. It also won the Oscar that year for best animated film. Akira, Princess Mononoke, Porco Rosso, Castle in the Sky are other popular anime films.
Dressing the part
So, what about cosplay? That’s a bit more straightforward. The word is a contraction of “costume” and “play”. So cosplay is simply the activity of dressing up in costume. In Japan this is often as your favourite anime and manga characters or a mashup of styles inspired by anime and manga.
Manga and anime is such an enormous part of Japanese culture. So many of the quirky sides of Japan are a by-product of ideas that started in manga. Video games, arcades, maid cafes, cosplay, sci-fi robot cabarets. They all take inspiration from the Japanese anime “look”.
Places in Tokyo for anime and manga fans
Akihabara – the absolute centre of all things anime and manga.
Ghibli Museum – Studio Ghibli is the most famous anime studio in Japan. And this theme park – a celebration of all their iconic work – is as imaginative as you’d expect from such a creative bunch. Make sure to get your tickets in advance!
Nakano Broadway – a huge shopping complex with two floors dedicated to anime stores.
Want to learn more about Japanese pop culture? Check out our blog post on the top 10 quirky things to do in Japan!