How anime took off in the United States
Read the original Medium post here.
It’s fair to say that anime, especially in the United States, has somewhat of a negative image. This may be partially due to what’s called, in the lexicon, a “weeb” (short for weeaboo): someone obsessed with Japanese culture, arguably to the point of wanting to be Japanese themselves. Most commonly, it connotes an obsession with the food, language, and imagery of Japanese culture, often fed by a prospectively unhealthy (and sexualized) consumption of anime.
This image has become distended to anime viewership broadly, especially in the United States, where cartoons are seen as childish. Thus, the peripheral view of anime, like all stereotypes and quick glances, isn’t enticing to a large demographic on its surface.
Although insulated within this exterior image, anime is a multi-billion dollar global industry. It includes fans from musicians Thundercat and Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig to Oregon’s tourism agency and Keanu Reeves. Much more than just a few recent shows, anime is a juggernaut of cultural exportation and trans-media marketing, which has made it one of the most profitable media ecosystems in the world.
That’s all to say its impact on the world extends much farther than the kids you thought were weird in high school. It’s a global cultural phenomenon akin to the Walt Disney Company, a mainstream form of entertainment not just in the United States, but in countries from El Salvador to France and Saudi Arabia.
I couldn’t say how many times I’ve been asked, “why do you watch anime?” The stigma around the medium keeps many of its viewers silent when asked about their fandom, despite the numbers showing that millions of viewers enjoy thousands of hours of content each month. And so, after the latest iteration of this question, my mission was clear: to explain why fans watch anime in the United States — from the perspective of someone who, well, actually watches anime.
The origins of anime, and how it got to America Osamu Tezuka depicted with his manga characters.It’s not wrong to consider anime a cartoon, though it isn’t exactly right either. The term comes from the Latin word Carta, meaning paper, and prior to newspaper panels and sepia Disney animations, the term was used in Italian to describe a preparatory drawing — a practice sketch before painting, for example. In the 19th century, as the word began traveling the world, it came to mean a series of drawings or animations. Merriam-Webster’s first known use of cartoon in this context was sourced from a British humor magazine called Punch.
It’s with this humor-driven frame of mind that we link shows like Adventure Time alongside South Park, because even without stylistic or moral similarities, their animated medium makes them feel ‘cartoony,’ or childish. With the additional legacy of Walt Disney, this association of animation with childishness continues to create a sharp divide in the perception of anime abroad, even as adult-themed cartoons continue to gain popularity in the US.
Anime certainly fits this description of a cartoon; and yet, for me, it feels separate. From an outsider’s perspective, it would be hard to spot the difference. But the origin of anime — and its arrival in America — is a story of 20th-century utopian experimentation. The United States and Japan have a complicated relationship, with flashes of shared shame and triumph, antagonism and partnership. As we’ll see, anime’s arrival in America is just one ingredient in the balm made to heal our shared history.
Prior to Japan’s entry into World War II, manga — what we might consider comics, published in the form of newspaper strips, gags, and full volumes — was a prominent form of Japanese entertainment. Often placed within women’s magazines, these panels were written for mothers to read with their children, including themes married women would enjoy alongside elements their children would find amusing. Once Japan invaded China in 1937, however, all literary production halted in favor of propaganda. For ten years there was a complete absence of “frivolous literature,” meaning a generation of young kids matured with war pamphlets instead of children’s books. Osamu Tezuka, the eventual “god of manga,” grew up in this entertainment desert. He was just young enough to avoid military conscription and worked in a munitions factory during his studies, drawing out four-panel comic strips on toilet paper in the factory bathroom. By the time the war ended in 1945, he began publishing children’s manga, featuring a bright red cover laden with cartoonish animals and courageous children. His work was an immediate success.
“It was some of the very first manga aimed at kids that this whole generation had seen,” says Dr. Ada Palmer, an associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Chicago, and an expert on Tezuka. Over a Zoom call Dr. Palmer says that Tezuka’s work was a common inspiration for many of Japan’s most distinguished minds from that era: “You get over and over the same vignette of, ‘I walked miles to the through the destroyed countryside to the bigger village, and it had a bookstore and there on the shelf was Tezuka’s book, and it was colorful and had a puppy on the cover and a robot and it was red and yellow. I bought it with my savings and brought it home, and every kid in my family and our friends read it over and over and over, until it fell apart.’” Tezuka pioneered a generation of manga, ranging from every genre imaginable.Post-war, Japan is forced into a military occupancy by the United States. Censorship continues even with the Americans in place, the wounds of war visible but going unspoken. While the general public is obliged to ignore the state of upheaval the nation’s defeat has brought them, Tezuka’s manga creates a conversation — a place to begin admitting the pitfalls of nationalism’s hubris and its resultant public shame. Because his volumes appear childish, following the adventures of rotund robots and animals, they escape the censors, even as they begin tackling the haunting problems of racism and genocide.
Astro Boy, which published from 1952 to 1968, is an early paradigm of Tezuka’s educational philosophy. In a high-tech future when humans and robots co-exist, Astro Boy — an android created by the Ministry of Science — uses his seven incredible powers to fight evil and injustice. But this playful setting is a mask for Astro Boy’s true nature as a defender of peace and civil rights. Across his 16 years of adventures, he battles a number of recognizable enemies, including a dictator named Hitlini, who tries to strip robots of their civil rights and enact an anti-robot genocidal purge. In one edition, he stops the United States Air Force from wrongly bombing a Vietnamese village.
Astro Boy was Tezuka’s way of transcending the era’s taboo on national self-reflection, allowing parents to explain the destructive nature of the world through the blunted vision of a cartoon.
“When I have friends who have kids who are six or seven, I’ll often give them volumes of Astro Boy and say, ‘Look, this is how to have a conversation with your kids about what racism is, and about what’s happening in the US, or anywhere,’” Dr. Palmer says. “Because kids are aware that something strange is happening, but they’re not necessarily aware that they don’t know how to talk about it. And most US children’s literature doesn’t want to be about that.” The success of Tezuka’s early work fosters a revolution in manga, and his immediate vision is to expand his drawings through all genres, not just humor cartoons in women’s magazines.
He’s prolific, adapting versions of Crime and Punishment and Faust alongside Shakespeare. Genocide is his recurrent theme, with Astro Boy being one of the few story-worlds to escape it. Artists such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi join him in expanding the medium past humor strips for children and into issues of the real world: subjects such as prostitution, dark crime, and euthanasia. As its popularity swells, manga becomes the herald of a new literary form. “To a lot of people coming out of the war, manga was like the medium of hope, the medium in which we can express anything, the medium with which we can depict the kind of worlds we hope for,” Dr. Palmer tells me. “The medium with which we can depict a utopian future when Japan, and the US, and everyone else are friends.” Astro Boy was a commercial success both as a manga and later as an adapted anime.It’s around this time that Tezuka sets his sights on animation. While there exists a young animation industry in Japan, the global industry is dominated by the rising work of Walt Disney — whom Tezuka is fanatical about. He watched Bambi nearly a dozen times and saw the potential for animation to take off as a result of the new popularity in manga, both of them being produced through hand-drawings. He pitches television networks for an animated adaptation of Astro Boy, and when they turn him down, he builds his own company named Mushi Productions, one of his eventual two studios. As Astro Boy continues its prior success, now in animation, other companies follow in proliferating animated work. Anime catches its legs.
Tezuka then sets his ambitions even higher.
“Tezuka’s expectation and understanding of the observed World War II is that genocidal hatred is very common,” says Dr. Palmer, “And that working hard to overcome those differences and be friends and be connected is not something that’s going to happen on its own; that it’s something that we have to work really, really hard at. And so he was eager to have animation, especially, be a bridge, between Japan and the US in particular, but also the rest of the world.”
For Astro Boy’s animated debut Tezuka filled billboards with both Japanese and English script, a plan to draw in occupying and newly-immigrated Americans to the program. He was a devotee of pacifism, and exporting manga (and the Japanese influences behind it) was part of his life-long mission to encourage cultural exchange — his antidote to xenophobia, and what he believed was the preventative to a third World War.
Tezuka’s work inspired a global attraction to animation and manga, and soon, both mediums came to dominate Japanese entertainment media. Astro Boy became one of the first Japanese animated programs to be dubbed in English and syndicated to America, the first domino in the United States’ relationship with anime.
At its face, Tezuka’s dream for cultural exchange is realized.
A critical gap in American media
The growing popularity of anime abroad meant a deep well of content and a nascent multi-generational audience. As studios gained more viewers, and ergo, more power, salient genres of anime became more easily formalized, especially in the 1970s and ’80s. This was partly due to popularity but was aided immensely by the relative affordability of animation.
Live-action is an expensive medium of production, while animation can transcend genres, eras, and themes for the same relative cost — animation is animation, regardless of medieval fantasy or modern true-crime. Additionally, the ability to convert manga into anime created an artistic pipeline of creatives and animators (many of whom are exploited in today’s competitive industry). And so, as it grows, anime becomes siloed by age and gender, with content ranging from children’s shows to graphic adult thrillers.
Shounen manga is marketed for young male teens aged 12–18, with shojo manga being the equivalent genre for girls. Seinen manga is targeted toward men aged 20–50, with more adult content (including depictions of sex and violence). Josei and Kodomomuke are additional and often-cited subgenres. While trends continue to evolve, the triumvirate of shonen, shojo, and seinen manga represent the bulk of mainstream anime consumption today.
The first arrival of anime targeted toward teens in the United States came in the 1970s. At the time, without the ability to record television for later viewing, American programming was largely episodic — meaning they were self-contained for viewers who likely didn’t see the episode prior and wouldn’t see the episode after. Long-form television — and one which sought out complex plots requiring consistent viewership — wasn’t a profitable or pragmatic industry in the United States. Manga, by contrast, was a flourishing literary scene with individual series running dozens of volumes (Tezuka himself drew 150,000 pages of manga and directed more than 40 animation projects).
When anime began adapting popular manga, they inherited the ambitious storylines that came with them. Because shows were viewed by television authorities as cartoons, and therefore written for children, numerous series with complex storylines, battle scenes, sexual innuendo, and outright profanity began airing undetected around the world. When censors finally saw the “cartoons” these children were watching, they were furious; but the children were now hooked on a series of action-packed, long-form dramas that took the world, and them, seriously. In places like Italy, where censors cracked down on anime viewing after the fact, underground anime VHS tapes became prized collectibles.
Thematically, anime became a liminal medium, one which kids and teenagers could enjoy as a bridge between childhood cartoons and adult content. Over the next several decades some of the most influential anime cements itself in the American canon, including the start of Hayao Miyazaki’s career, the explosion that was Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira, and the emergence of adult anime films like Ghost in the Shell. In a continuation of Tezuka’s educational philosophy, these animes focus on relatable childhood themes while insisting on a darker moral lesson. Heroes face the troubles of alienation, broken friendship, and personal responsibility while fighting to stop antagonists bent on racial superiority, technological dystopia, and planetary genocide. In the emerging American television culture of the late 20th century, anime occupied a critical gap in young adult entertainment — a gap it continues to dominate today. A bike chase clip from the opening of Akira.It’s also at this time that some of anime’s most legendary franchises spread outside of Japan. The Dragon Ball franchise, first published as a manga in the 1980s and continuing to this day, is widely considered to be one of the most influential global media franchises of all time.
The original Dragon Ball, published in a serialized weekly shounen magazine, was created by Akira Toriyama and ran from 1984–1995, totaling 519 individual chapters and 42 manga volumes. It chronicles the journey of Son Goku, an eccentric child and martial-artist, as he joins various characters in search of a set of seven mysterious orbs called the Dragon Balls, through which wishes are granted. It’s a classic tale of growing up and growing into ambition, as Goku must gain allies to stop the tyranny of his world’s overlords.
Dragon Ball was adapted and distributed as an anime by Toei Animation, a legend in the industry (and one of the original competitors to Tezuka’s Mushi studio). In an important move, Toei split the original manga into two series: Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, with the latter detailing Goku’s domestic (if chaotic) adulthood. While Dragon Ball focuses on themes of companionship and the struggles of growing up, Dragon Ball Z builds on this foundation to include fatherhood, family life, loss, and the existential threat of the Saiyans, an ancient race imposing their superiority over the galaxy as they seek to fulfill their planet-destroying hunger. Goku no longer deals with childish misadventures, but battles looming existential threats.
Successive legs of the franchise, including Dragon Ball GT and Super, continue these themes alongside sleek breakthroughs in animation technology, to make the action that much more visually stunning. While battle scenes tentpole the series, the underpinnings of harmony across race and species, alongside the moral responsibility of power, churns underneath.
With successive variations continuing production even today, Dragon Ball’s near 40 years of runtime are emblematic of the longevity of anime franchises, as well as the maturation of these series. Viewers begin with childhood anime and, as they progress through the canon, the show ages alongside them. Protagonist Goku from Dragon Ball Z.This established multi-generational aspect is critical for many of anime’s largest franchises. Naruto, a massively popular series based on an orphaned ninja boy with a demonic spirit sealed within him, plays on this formula. The original Naruto traces the eponymous character’s upbringing, with themes of companionship and the struggles of growing up with and without friendship; Naruto Shippuden, the follow-up series, begins with an older teenage Naruto, who’s now found his place in society and grapples with adult issues of war, nationalist hatred, and political empathy; and Boruto, the latest installment in the series, features Naruto as a father taking care of his new son, Boruto, during his misadventures. Each installment promises a gradual maturation of themes that keep in tune with the aging of its viewers, promising a viewing experience that can last decades and transcend age. Brilliantly, it’s a strategic media form designed around the life experience of the viewer.
This is another lasting artifact from Tezuka, who understood the need for this progression in maturity in his own career.
In a story called “The Ants Legs,” a recursive role of one of Tezuka’s protagonists, Kenichi, shocks the readers by revealing he’s become paralyzed in the years since his first appearance in Tezuka’s manga. Society shames him as he crosses a public mountain pass in an attempt to combat the culture’s stigma, the moral being that even the most revered of heroes decline with age, and that even the most graced can become the most downtrodden. “Tezuka is very aware of generationality, and that he can have the grown-up conversations in the ’70s with the people that he had the kid conversations with in the late ‘50s,” Dr. Palmer tells me.
When trying to think of an American analog, I come up blank. The changing American landscape of cartoons such as Scooby Doo, Adventure Time, and Spongebob seem explicitly childish and tend to reboot more than they reconceptualize. Adult animated programs such as Family Guy, Futurama, and The Simpsons market themselves as explicitly for adults. Japanese anime, in contrast, seems beholden to neither demographic individually, instead emphasizing it’s a platform for both adults and teenagers.
For children, anime promises a level of maturity outside of the narratives American cartoons are willing to give them; for adults, it promises content on par with other American adult media — while also playing to childhood naivety and sensibility. Decades-long narrative arcs are a prime driving force of viewer investment, as parents can watch additive stories with their kids, or simply continue watching a single franchise over a lifetime. As young adults grow into teens and further into adults, the parallel progression of these stories promises to follow their viewers as they learn more about a world filled with complex personal relationships, an ongoing penchant for war, and the anxiety of growing out of childhood. Critically-acclaimed series take nostalgia seriously while bending to adult preferences in violence and proclivity.
These are series with a strong attachment to viewers and the acumen to know a franchise should change alongside them, knowing that this practice of longstanding world-building creates an attachment to franchises that is partly nostalgic and partly loyal. Multi-platform marketing and trans-media world building Pokemon Cards first began at the advent of Pokemon, and have since grown to global popularity.As we’ve established, the success of these megalithic anime franchises is partly due to their ability to fill in genre gaps through marketing to teens and young to early adults. Another critical cornerstone is anime culture, mainly fueled by merchandising and trans-media engagement opportunities.
To begin, the first anime I watched as a kid was the original Pokemon series, shortly followed by Yu-Gi-Oh. These two series especially promised young viewers not only an animated television show, but interactive multi-platform investment in a constantly-growing story world. The original Pokemon TV show (which is indeed an anime) was modeled after the original Red and Blue Nintendo Gameboy handheld video games. In Pokemon’s case, the bingeable television product followed an interactive video-game with a narrowly defined story arc. The two products then grew together symbiotically, with Pokemon Yellow adapting the game to more closely follow the show’s progression. At its early maturation, Pokemon invited fans to interact with content across multiple mediums, tethering passive viewing with individual agency inside the Pokemon universe. That relationship continues to produce new video games and television arcs today.
Even after the development of tandem video games and anime, the added introduction of Pokemon Cards meant the Pokemon franchise now had a digital, analog, and media-accessible story-world. It wasn’t simply about watching a television show and purchasing merchandise as collectible fandom but fostering a complex system of intractability. Pokemon tapped into the incredible potential of nascent video and card game platforms to offer viewers a new experience, where players could follow the paths of their TV heroes or foster their own, individualized editions. A cinematic opening to an early Pokemon handheld video game.Numerous other anime franchises have tapped into this marketing strategy, which has fueled anime as a dominant industry around the world. Dragon Ball, Gundam, One Piece, and Yu-Gi-Oh are all valued at $20 billion or more thanks in large part to video games, unique merchandise, and card game variants of the manga and anime. Yu-Gi-Oh invented a corresponding children’s anime to market its competitive card game. Gundam, a series featuring giant mechanical suits battling in space over the right to pacifism, began in the 1980s and now oversees a billion-dollar market for Gunpla, plastic models of the mechanized suits featured in the anime. Dragon Ball has run a lucrative video game franchise since the ’90s. One Piece is the only franchise I’ve referenced thus far to have manga sales be its majority source of worth.
The numbers behind Pokemon alone are staggering. The brand is worth an estimated $95 billion, with the video and card games being worth $19 and $11 billion, respectively (their largest chunk of earnings is licensed merchandise, at $64 billion). This makes Pokemon one of the highest-grossing media franchises in history, worth more than Mickey Mouse or Star Wars.
Anime was by no means the first to unlock merchandising potential in its world-building. Star Wars is a perfect example of a brand utilizing fandom to make billions of dollars in sales over toys, video games, and extended media. The success of other English-media brands — such as Harry Potter, Disney products, the Marvel and DC Cinematic Universes, and Barbie — clearly shows that fandom is successfully tied to the ability to market your franchise across unique interactive modalities. But while in the US we might call intense fans dorks or nerds — and more recently, stans — anime fandom has its own Japanese label: Otaku.
Defined as an obsession with anime to the point of social isolation, Otaku culture is a phenomenon and byproduct of world-building depth and multi-platform intractability of anime franchises. This includes an obsession with collectibles — such as Yu-Gi-Oh cards and Gunpla — and cosplay culture, when fans dress up as their favorite characters (oftentimes at incredible costs). Otaku culture has drawn sharp criticism as a form of escapism, and anime creators have been grappling with the intense fandom over their products as it's grown. But even outside of an obsession with Japanese culture or a specific anime franchise, it’s easy to become engrossed in the merchandise ecosystem.
I’ve been an ideal Pokemon consumer for 25 years. After first watching the anime during its American debut, I bought cards for collecting and purchased and played every perennial generation of video game (a total of eight games). I quickly aged-out of the show, but have continued to find other means of interacting with the series, and not just for nostalgia’s sake. Each successive generation of Pokemon games promises a companion television series and an expansion of the relationship between childish novelty and a sharpening of gaming acumen and skill. Companion card games draw on that same competitive spirit to build global tournaments and high-priced collectibles, with other toys and model sets merging technical hobby skills with brand devotion. The industry’s strategically brilliant belief in this system of consumption ensures that anime remains ageless.
Aesthetic cohesion and problems of the industry In our conversation on Tezuka, I asked Dr. Palmer about the stigma of anime viewers in the United States. When inquiring, I had in mind the elements of an Otaku’s obsession with Japan, the perceived childishness of animation, and the belief that men, particularly, watch anime for many shows’ hyper-sexualization.
“The stigma of anime comes from people not understanding the difference between a genre and a medium. Because anime isn’t a genre. Science fiction is a genre; mystery is a genre. Television is a medium. Film is a medium. Novels are a medium. Anime is a medium.”
Stereotypes, while reductive, are built on sampled truths. Dr. Palmer’s point is that mainstream anime is a mere sample of a deep and wide-ranging industry. With anime — whether Japanese, American, or otherwise — being a diverse, multi-national entertainment powerhouse, you can find franchises for any number of genres, subgenres, and topics. It’s true there are animes which explicitly appeal to the male fantasy — but this is also the case for film, literature, and any medium through which we find entertainment. If you feel any of the dozen or so trending animes don’t suit your tastes, there is likely a series that fits into your live-action preferences. Though, a lack of variation and depth within mainline genres is still a problem.
This brings me to my final theory as to why anime has caught such strong fire in the United States: aesthetic cohesion. That is, the artistic and narrative consistency across anime franchises creates a cohesion that makes widespread anime viewership more easily possible. Drawn with big eyes, physics-defying hair, and featuring a range of emotive and cartoonish faces, most all mainline animes you’ll find share an aesthetic style regardless of the quality. In my estimation, doing so allows viewers to watch new animes without feeling thrown off by their visual experience of the show. An example I’ve heard is the discrepancy between South Park and Family Guy, two shows with similar leniency for crudeness but with drastically different stylings that define their experience, and which correspondingly turn off many audiences because of their animation.
By using consistent aesthetics, anime ensures that viewers feel comfortable with the universe being given to them. It could be a period piece such as Samurai Champloo, about disparate samurais wandering Japan; or Full Metal Alchemist, a remorseful hero bent on using alchemy to restore a brother transmuted into metal; or Attack on Titan, featuring a dystopic struggle for preservation against humanoid giants — all, because of their aesthetic resonance, feel familiar to a viewer, even as individual shows sharpen their artistic identity out of the dominate form.
It also helps that many animes share tropes across their narrative arcs. The hero's journey is a frequent choice found in many of the most popular anime franchises. Featuring a young hero of special ability, these animes follow their protagonist into battle after battle, only to be defeated, gain new powers, and arise victoriously. During this sequence, there are most likely flashbacks to friends now wounded or dead who motivate the hero into a new level of power, or moments of self-doubt and the recycled adage of, “I wasn’t strong enough.” You find this trope especially in shounen anime, such as Dragon Ball, Naruto, One Piece, Demon Slayer, Fire Force, and Sword Art Online. Within the first episode of a show a viewer can typically intuit at what pace the story will progress, which characters will die only to triumphantly re-emerge, which character is the lecherous pervert, and how many episodes will be devoted to emotional flashbacks, all elements which repackage themselves over and over again. As a viewer this repetition is tiresome, though not incurable by skipping through episodes to find fight scenes and narrative climaxes. Yet by incorporating these tropes, animes ensure that audiences are familiar with the narrative flow of a series, and therefore reassure them that regardless of the subject matter, they can expect the same growth in experience, ties made between friends, and insistent recurrence of their enemies. The lack of variation, while stale, is nonetheless entertaining. What inevitably draws me in is the sheer skill of animation, the angular coolness of its characters, and the improbable immensity of its fight sequences. Where narrative falls flat, aesthetic eye-candy flourishes.
While it’s not fair to say “if you’ve seen one anime, you’ve seen them all,” the axiom isn’t altogether unfair to most mainstream animes. At its base, this mainline formula promises an infinitely scalable level of maturation, skill, and destruction. It promises audiences a continued momentum in the series while reassuring them that yes, this is like other animes — if you enjoyed 400 episodes of another series, you will likely enjoy 400 episodes of this one.
In Conclusion The core protagonists of Gundam Wing.What I hope to show is that anime is not just an embarrassing teenage obsession. Its multifarious genres present limitless opportunities in storytelling when an industry decides to treat animation seriously. For decades, anime has filled a gap in American media consumption and taken its viewers seriously. As a testament to that, the canon of both television and feature film anime is a cultural touchstone inspiring some of the United States’ biggest artists, musicians, and filmmakers. Its trans-media approach to companion gaming and collecting has turned many franchises into some of the most valued brands in the world. And anime’s consistency in style and narrative, while sometimes boring, continues to entice new viewers into a reliable aesthetic universe.
While each anime may not take place within Japan (though many do, both realist and fantastical), they often offer strong cultural elements from the country, like katana-based sword fighting, zen principles, or Tezuka’s lasting theme of technological armageddon. Most hardcore anime fans will tell you that the original Japanese dubbing is the best way to enjoy a show, but anyone who’s watched an anime has undoubtedly watched portions of a series with English subtitles. English dubbing is expensive and time-consuming, meaning viewers will most likely see half a series before they run out of English dubbed episodes. For fresh animes, you’re likely to watch the entirety in Japanese — which is, in my experience, the most exposure I’ve had to a second language. It’s worth noting that on the language learning app Duolingo, the largest number of Japanese learners outside Japan is in the United States, part of a trend showing that U.S. language-learning is largely driven by an explosion of pop culture from Korea, India, and Japan.
Osamu Tezuka hoped his work would provide an opportunity for cross-cultural understanding, and by doing so, encourage empathy. America’s anime diet, however flawed in its obsession, is a testament to that mission’s success.
“In a big way, he wants [his work]to be the antidote to a lack of understanding. He wants this to communicate across the language of pictures,” Dr. Palmer says. “Pictures are something that can communicate across any kind of void, and communicate with anybody, no matter where they are. And therefore, it was the union of words and pictures and the union of narrative and pictures that should be the most effective in reaching out globally.”
Tezuka believed animation — and more specifically, pictorial storytelling — was a device for empathy when language fails. Perhaps, for viewers and prospective viewers alike, anime’s spread throughout the world is a happy reminder that we’re engaging in an exercise of cultural exchange, and one which arose from the unparalleled decimation of the early 20th century. Its origins of hope, resilience, and forewarning continue to guide the messaging of hit animes today, reaching millions more than Tezuka could have imagined. Anime is a medium, meant for children and teens and adults alike, and is more than its outward deficiencies and canon. Pick one up and you may find there’s something there for you, too.