Andrew and I often criticize shonen for ruining story pacing and suspense. I’ve wrote one article about the problems of anime/manga storytelling. Andrew, recently, wrote critiques of One Piece and Bleach. We often discuss what Bleach and other shows could do to tighten the storytelling and build suspense. The pull-back almost all shonen do, just at the peak of suspense, looks to be a cultural differences between Japan and the United States. Bleach would be better if half or more of the Soul Society captains died. Deaths of heroes and supporting protagonists increases suspense. The hero must have the possibility of failure in order to create tension. If all these important “good guys” die, including this main character, the hero might just fail too.
Gurren Lagann gets suspense right.
Okay, as you can probably tell this post will have spoilers. After all, I am looking at the story structure. So if you want to be surprised, stop reading here.
Still reading? Alright. Let’s look at how Gurren Lagann returns a little of my faith in the ability of anime/manga to have interesting stories.
When Gurren Lagann opens, the first part of the plot makes you think Kamina is the hero. He is the usual strong-willed, impulsive, and overly confident hero shonen tends to love. Simon, his little buddy, is weak, timid, and the complete antithesis of a hero. Simon finds the Core Drill, an artifact that taps into his inner energy (called Spiral Power), but that is the only hint of his role in the story. Kamina leads the show. Together, he and Simon each find mechs that they can combine to form Gurren Lagann. Together they seek to free humanity from its cramped underground cities. In the process they challenge the beastmen that live on Earth’s surface and seek to keep humanity underground.
Along comes episode 8. The hero Kamina dies.
His death creates shockwaves across Team Dai-Gurren, the posse Kamina puts together to challenge the beastmen. Team Dai-Gurren elects Simon to carry Kamina’s battle on. Only Simon is not initially up to the task.
Gurren Lagann‘s set up of Kamina and his death is interesting. The impulsive shonen blowhard is killed in favor of the timid, weak-minded Simon. The rest of the series focuses on Simon developing to face the challenges Kamina sparked. For much of the series, Simon remains in Kamina’s shadow, emulating him and trying to image what Kamina would do in a given situation. The daughter of the King of the beastmen, Nia, becomes Simon’s partner and helpmate. She essentially becomes Simon whereas Simon develops into Kamina. Kamina’s death leaves a deep scar that serves as motivation for Team Dai-Gurren. They become stronger because of his death.
Killing a character like this has interesting impacts on the survivors. Imagine Bleach’s Ichigo watching Rukia die. Or Orihime. Or Chad. Or all of them! What would his failure to protect those closest do to him? It would certainly increase the threat of the villain that does the act.
In Gurren Lagann’s grand finale, Team Dai-Gurren is killed one member at a time. Each member goes out in a spectacular fashion, spitting into the eye of fate and laughing at death. Each member dies to protect the mission, Simon, and the youngest members of the Team. However, each death also creates a greater sense of hopelessness. The audience begins to wonder if the story would end in a tragedy or a Pyrrhic victory for the heroes. Each death tightens the suspense. As the more likeable and developed members of the Team die, perceptions of how dangerous the villain is increases.
As Andrew pointed out in his critique of Bleach, Aizen would become a terrifying villain if he dueled with the Head Captain, the supposedly most powerful being, and completely wipe the floor with him. Instead, he has to use underhanded tactics. While this is interesting, it breaks with the point Bleach makes about ever escalating strength.
Gurran Lagann stuck out as something different. The art style is certainly odd, and the series doesn’t completely shed all of its shonen roots. There is a lot of yelling and bluster. But, hey, it is a mecha. Some of the fights get a little extreme, such as at the end when they were literally throwing galaxies at each other. Gurran Lagann certainly isn’t subtle, but it does tell a different story. It breaks away from some of the plot problems and tension breaking habits anime has. It ratchets mecha tropes to the point of being satirical.
It is unfortunate well put together series like Moribito are not popular here in the States. It is nice to occasionally see a show like Gurren Lagann that isn’t entire predictable. It is nice to see a show that also doesn’t fall into back story or flashbacks or filler just as the peak confrontation starts. Unlike many anime, Gurren Lagann isn’t afraid to kill characters for the sake of the story. I was surprised by Naruto when the series also offs characters to advance the story. Anime’s key strength is its ability to create unique characters that appear only once. They are not actors you will see in another movie. When a character dies, this uniqueness makes the death final. That character will not appear in another anime. Gurren Lagann leverages this to up the ante. Now if only other anime would do this. It is hard to part with a character. As an author, I know. But if handled well, character deaths make them memorable.
It is common to refer to ships as female. Now what would happen if warships and submarines were equipped with sentient artificial intelligence?
Arpeggio of Blue Steel is one of the more unique anime I’ve watched. The Fog is a fleet of sentient warships and submarines equipped with technology that is centuries ahead of anything nations can muster. The Fog quickly cut all undersea cables, destroy communication satellites, and trounce every navy in the world. Countries are now isolated and unable to trade over the seas. Now, imagine a world where there was zero trade between countries. No more Toshiba computers or Nintendo systems. No bananas. No coffee or chocolate. Unfortunately, the anime fails to convey this point well. The impact of the Fog is profound. On top of that, many nations have lost all communications. The United States is cut off from all other nations. The Japanese government is uncertain if the US still exists until a single communiqué managed to be pushed through the Fog’s blockade.
I am a sucker for stories that involve characters becoming human. Data and Seven of Nine from Star Trek are favorites. Eureka from Eureka Seven is another. Arpeggio of Blue Steel has several of the Fog’s mental models, as they are called, learn what it means to be human. These girls (ships are female after all) learn what it means to be something beyond a weapon over the course of the anime. Iona, the mental model of the I-401 is one of the stars of this development.
The production values of the anime are high. Action sequences are interesting and gripping. The technology used by the Fog is interesting as well. The tech is based on nanomaterials and energy fields. The nanomaterials allow the mental models to regenerate their ship bodies and create decoys. As long as the nanomaterials are in supply, anyway. In labs, there are self-healing materials based on nanotech, so this isn’t too far fetched. Although the anime takes this technology into the realm of fantasy when entire ships bind to each other.
A mental model is an interesting idea. Instead of interfacing with a console, you can simply tell the mental model what you want done. She provides feedback in real time. However, it would be difficult to see a girl wince in pain as her hull takes damage from attacks. The anime plays around with this idea. Mental models can exist without her ship body, but her capabilities are reduced. She can generate Klein Fields, as the force fields are called, and use limited nanomaterials. However, the models are useful when they interface with other machines or with each other. One of the main limitations is processing power. Each ship class has different processing abilities.
Arpeggio of Blue Steel is refreshing, It has a unique idea and a realistic portrayal of a world without sea trade and communication. The mental models learning to be human is also a nice touch. The action is well done, and the animation quality is high. It’s not a mecha or high school anime: more points in its favor. Check it out.
Fate/Zero has a completely different angle on the old quest for the Holy Grail. Every so often mages of talent are selected by the Holy Grail to battle for the right to use it. Each mage is granted a Servant: a hero from history. Each hero has a class much like in a video game. You have the archer, swordsman, berserker, caster, lancer, rider, and assassin. The classical idea of the Holy Grail felt odd with the video game-style ideas.
Fate/Zero has some cool things going for it, but it fails to focus on some of the more interesting storylines. It is an action anime at its core. So I guess that explains why it drops the ball here and there with story. Some of the heroes were strange as well. Alexander the Great has the most screen time of all the heroes. His happy-go-lucky attitude doesn’t strike me as Alexandrian, but he has an insatiable desire to know about the modern world he found himself in. This is within the character of the actual historical figure. Alexander was taught by Aristotle, after all.
King Arthur is the most interesting and tormented hero. She (yes she) has a surprisingly low amount of screen time compared to Alexander. Her master, the tormented protagonist, doesn’t make much in the way of appearances until a flashback about his childhood. Well, I guess his lack of screen time makes sense because the guy is a mage assassin. Assassins are not exactly the type to be seen. The series makes a fuss about how Arturia is a poor match as a servant, but at their cores both her master and Arturia are similar. Arturia is tormented by her failure as a king. We all know the story: Camelot falls apart because of Lancelot and Guinevere’s love affair. Only King Arthur married Guinevere to keep her male disguise from being discovered. This makes the tragedy all the more tragic. Unfortunately, Fate/Zero does not develop Arthur as much as I would have liked. Alexander was likable, but Arthur’s history and conflict resonated with me more. It also fit the feel the anime established.
What I liked most about this series was the maturity. This is not a high school anime. It did feel uneven at times. One of the characters, Caster, is a nut that liked to crucify children. Yep, it got that dark. But whiplash that with Alexander wanting to play video games. The comedy feels a little over extended considering the dark themes the anime plays around with. It would be better if the comedy was dropped.
One irritation I had was the whole chivalry idea. It was overdone, to the point where the enemy heroes all sat down with each other and enjoyed wine together. They were civilized, which makes sense to a certain degree, but it become too much of a focus. Alexander, for example, was a military mind. He wasn’t one to fight duels or want to fight people at their full strength. He worked to take out the enemy at the least risk to his troops. In other words, attack when the enemy is weak and disadvantaged. Now, he did have a battle lust the anime captured well. Generally, the shonen style fights felt odd with the exception of Arturia and the knights like Lancer. In that regard, it made sense.
But it is an anime.
The animation stays consistent throughout. Battles are well done. There is some CG that stands out against the rest of the show, but that is pretty normal. I found the music forgettable.
Fate/Zero is not bad. It is also not great. It isn’t a high school anime, which is a plus in my book. High school is a tired trope. I enjoyed the show enough to watch all 25 episodes. If you enjoy interesting fights and dark themes gives this one a try. It is an different take on historical and legendary figures.
Ghost in the Shell is a popular cyberpunk anime that consistently ranks among the best anime in the history of the genre. The series consists of two separate anime–Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex and Ghost in the Shell Standalone Complex 2nd Gig — and two movie–Ghost in the Shell and Ghost in the Shell: Innocence. Set in the near future, where humans and machines are one and people the world over are linked via brain implants directly to the Net, the movies and the anime series follow the exploits of Public Security Section 9, an elite cyberwarfare unit headed by Motoko Kusanagi, better known as the Major, as they unravel various intricate criminal and political plots.
Any discussion of the most influential anime of all time would certainly be incomplete without mentioning GiTS. Not to mention, it is one of my personal favorite anime, with its blending of sci-fi, police procedural, film noir, and philosophy. An intricate and complex show, with characters who feel human even though most of their bodies aren’t, it is an anime that always reveals something new on subsequent viewings.
However, for this series I decided to limit my attention to the original Ghost in the Shell movie from 1995. There are two reasons for this decision. The first is that it would be a monumental task to GiTS as a whole, one that would have to sprawl over several blog posts to do the show justice, and the second is that I decided to change things up a bit and look not at how GiTS has influenced anime, although it no doubt has, but how it influenced Hollywood.
But now I’m getting ahead of myself. First, lets do a quick review of the film itself. Our first introduction to the GiTS universe features what would become typical of the show–an intricate plot based around high technology, slow build up punctuated by bursts of explosive action, and lots of philosophical musings and political shenanigans. The movie centers around the hunt for the mysterious hacker known as the Puppet Master, a quest that takes the team from back allies to the highest echelons of near-future Japan’s security apparatus, testing them to their limit while simultaneously making them ask themselves what it means to be human. It’s seriously a great show, and I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t seen it.
Besides, the plot itself is not important to today’s discussion. It is the overall feel, themes, and stylistic elements that have had a lasting impact on Hollywood. This is most notable in the 1999 film “The Matrix.” The story goes that the Wachowski brothers, when pitching their idea form The Matrix to producers, handed them a copy of Ghost in the Shell and said “We want to do that for real.”
The thematic and stylistic parallels between the Matrix and Ghost in the Shell are then obvious, in retrospect. Both feature a world where technology dominates the lives of humans. Humans jacking into a large network–the Net or the Matrix–via ports in the back of their necks is also a strong feature in both films. This network dominates the plot of both movies, causing the protagonists to question their humanity, although the two films go in different directions with how they treat the theme. In Ghost in the Shell, the Major wonders if she is still human, if there is a ghost in the cybernetic shell of her body, and ultimately seems to conclude that she is something different, something more, part of a larger whole. While in the Matrix, Neo escapes the Matrix after taking the famous red pill and reasserts his humanity by fighting against the technological tyranny that has driven humans to the center of the Earth in exile.
Another way that the Matrix paralleled Ghost in the Shell was in its juxtaposing thoughtful scenes and deep, philosophical themes with bursts of hyperviolence. In fact, the action sequences in the Matrix–most notably “bullet time,” where the action slowed to show that the characters could perceive bullets flying at them and be able to dodge in time–changed how fight scenes were shot in Hollywood movies. So, if you’re sick of seeing bullet time in Hollywood flicks, you can indirectly thank Ghost in the Shell for that.
The Wachowski brothers were not the only Hollywood filmmakers impressed and influenced by Ghost in the Shell. James Cameron said of the film: “a stunning work of speculative fiction . . . the first to reach a level of literary excellence”. The biggest move of the last decade, Avatar, was clearly influenced by Ghost in the Shell. While the story does not focus on an all encompassing network, a key to the plot involves the paralyzed Jake Sully projecting himself into one of the titular avatars, a sort of biological machine made to resemble the local native species–the Na’vi. While not a cybernetic organism, the avatars echo the sense of alienation from their bodies that those who underwent cybernetic enhancement in GiTS felt. Mostly an action flick, Avatar still asks the question, although it isn’t explicit, “what does it mean to be human?” Jake Sully in fact seems to become more human when he becomes one of the Na’vi than when he was in his normal human body.
Steven Spielberg as well was influenced by GiTS. His movie A.I.: Artificial Intelligence more closely mimics the philosophical themes of GiTS. More of a brooding meditation than an action flick, the movie questions the implications of human’s relationship to technology. In Minority Report, Spielberg explored what happens when we give our moral reasoning up to a a huge technical apparatus, a sort of Net, something that, while not explicitly explored in GiTS, is certainly in line with the movie’s overall philosophy.
It is clear then that Ghost in the Shell has had a huge influence on pop culture outside of Japan. It influenced two of the biggest action movies of the last twenty years, and from there indirectly changed how American movies are shot.
Technical aspects aside, the thematic and philosophical elements the movie explored were far ahead of their time, and are even more relevant today with the rapid expansion of the internet and smart technology. Perhaps one way to view this is that Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix are two sides of the same coin, or perhaps two alternative paths humanity could travel. Technology could enslave us, as in the Matrix, or we could integrate our humanity with our technology and become part of something greater than ourselves, as in Ghost in the Shell. For as dark and brooding a show as Ghost in the Shell can be, both the movie and the series, there’s an underlying optimism to it that seems to be lacking in Hollywood’s portrayal of future technology. In GiTS, humans adapt to their technology but are not destroyed by it, and can even use it to transcend to something more. Perhaps as Hollywood filmmakers are continually influenced by Ghost in the Shell, this aspect of the movie’s theme will come to the surface, leading to a new, perhaps less fearful portrayal of technology and humanity’s future than what we see today.
Dragon Ball Z is a show that needs little introduction among anime fans. To say that Dragon Ball Z (DBZ) is influential is a gross understatement–had Dragon Ball Z never been published, modern anime–specifically Shonen–would look nothing like it does now.
While most readers here are probably familiar with DBZ’s storyline, for those who aren’t I will briefly outline it here (needless to say, spoiler alert.) DBZ has its roots in the manga (and subsequent anime) Dragon Ball, began by Akira Toriyama in 1988, which followed a young boy with mysterious origins named Son Goku and his adventures to find the mystical Dragon Balls, objects that when collected could grant whatever wish the user desired. Goku met various friends and fought various foes (many who later became friends, a common theme throughout the series) on his travels.
DBZ picks up five years after Dragon Ball, when Goku is a full grown man and father to a boy named Gohan. The series begins with the arrival on Earth of Raditz, a member of the elite Saiyan race, conquerors who depopulate worlds and then sell them to the highest bidders. Goku discovers that he is Raditz’s brother, and he was sent to Earth to destroy it as an infant, a mission he forgot when he suffered a bad head injury. Raditz tries to enlist Goku to the Saiyan cause, kidnapping Gohan. Goku teams up with his former enemy, Piccolo, and the two manage to defeat Raditz at the cost of Goku’s life. Goku’s friends learn that two far more powerful Saiyans–Prince Vegeta and his retainer, Nappa–are on their way to Earth to steal the Dragon Balls. For a year, the heroes of Earth train to defeat the threat. Goku himself trains in the afterlife with King Kai, a god-like being who teaches Goku various techniques to use while facing the Saiyan threat.
The Saiyans arrive sooner than expected, and most of Goku’s friends die or are defeated trying to take them on. Goku arrives and defeats Nappa, and then engages Vegeta in battle. With help from Gohan and Krillin, he manages to defeat the Saiyan prince, but in a characteristic bout of mercy he forbids Krillin from killing Vegeta, who manages to escape.
I just outlined the first of four arcs that comprised the entire DBZ series (and the only one I have personally seen most of the way through, on DBZ Kai currently playing on Toonami.) I confess that my original perception of DBZ was not favorable, but I have since changed my mind about the series. I did not grow up with it as some of you did, but rather I came to it later after seeing the shows it influenced like Bleach, Naruto, and Inuyasha. Watching the shows “backwards” like that makes it easy to see in retrospect the huge impact DBZ has had on anime as a genre.
DBZ opens the floodgates
To truly understand DBZ’s impact on anime, we have to return to my personal favorite decade: the 90s. At that time, anime was still relatively obscure, the domain of kids shows such as Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Voltron. While more mature anime like Akira were being produced, they were not widely seen outside of Otaku circles.
The first huge inroad of anime into American and European popular culture was Pokemon. With its triple threat of a popular cartoon, a wildly popular video game, and merchandise, Pokemon was able to make a big splash in America in the late 90s. However, this was still operating within the paradigm that anime was either for kids (according to the American norm that cartoons are “kid stuff”) or they were hyper violent, adult movies. So far, nothing quite bridged the gaps between the two extremes.
Anime fans began to make inroads into the popular culture when Cartoon Network began to place a show called “Toonami” in its 4-6pm time slot on weekday afternoons. The slot mostly consisted of Japanese anime, much of it never seen within the US outside of Otaku circles. One of these shows was DBZ, which was initially a ratings flop, but quickly rebounded to become the most popular show on the network.
Saturated as we are today with DBZ influenced Shonen, it is difficult now to comprehend how revolutionary the show was at the beginning of the 21st century. The series was a middle ground between the two extremes mentioned above. It featured epic battles that were fraught with peril, themes about friendship and honor, a diverse cast and a complex, multifaceted world. There was something in DBZ for everyone. The show struck a nerve among viewers, who could not get enough. It spawned toy lines, video games, and other related merchandise, growing into a massive global phenomenon that persuaded artists and executives alike that there was a huge demand for anime among diverse groups all around the world.
Influence on Shonen
The original manga on which Dragon Ball and DBZ were based were originally published in Shonen Jump magazine. Manga similar in content and structure–such as One Piece, Naruto, Bleach, and Inuyasha–made the jump from manga to anime in the wake of DBZ’s success.
In order to understand the staggering influence DBZ has had on Shonen, I have put together features of the series that seem integral to Toriyama’s style that have been imitated in other series. These include: prolonged fights, complex plots, a large cast, deaths of main characters (mentioned because this was not a feature of American cartoons before DBZ), enemies becoming friends, heroes with unique powers who nevertheless are underdogs and have to work incredibly hard to master their abilities, a mix of humor and suspense, and changing art styles to emphasize character development. The series I will examine in this section are Bleach and Naruto, because those are the Shonen I am most familiar with.
The first four features (prolonged fights, complex plots, a large cast, and the deaths of main characters) are patently obvious to anyone who has watched Bleach or Naruto. The numbers of characters in both shows are dizzying, and the respective plots take multiple flow charts and spreadsheets to to hope to understand all their intricacies. Bleach breaks the mold a bit by being reluctant to kill good guys, something Naruto is not reluctant to do, but all in all both shows fit these basic themes. Since these features might be expected of any fantasy type story, not only anime, nothing further needs to be said about them.
The fifth feature (enemies becoming friends) is where the similarities of both series to DBZ become apparent. In Bleach, Ichigo Kurosaki faces many foes during his adventures as a substitute Soul Reaper. One of his first rivals is Renji Abarai, the Liutentant of Squad Six. When Ichigo and his friends attack the Soul Society to try and free Rukia Kuchici, Renji opposes them. He and Ichigo face off in a climactic battle, where Ichigo bests Renji and earns his respect. The process repeats again when Ichigo beats Kenpachi Zaraki and, the ultimate antagonist of the first arc, Beyoqua Kuchiki, Rukia’s own brother. All of these characters become Ichigo’s allies as the series’ true antagonist reveals himself. A similar arc can be see in Naruto Shippuden with Sai, the mysterious Shinobi who accompanies Naruto and his team on a mission to . Sai originally set out to assassinate (insert name), but had a change of heart when confronted with Naruto’s kindness. The rivals, then, became friends.
Both Bleach and Naruto feature protagonists who have unique abilities but must train hard to unlock them. Ichigo can see spirits, but feels powerless to do anything to protect his friends from them. When he is given the power of a substitute Soul Reaper, he gains powers but faces ever stronger enemies that force him to dig deeper and deeper within himself to dredge up his inner potential.
For his part, Naruto had the spirit of a nine-tailed fox sealed within him as an infant. This gave him a huge amount of chakra (analogous to chi in DBZ, the force that fuels the many energy attacks used by characters in the series. Bleach calls the force spiritual pressure. Inuyasha calls it demonic energy. Another obvious influence.) Naruto has difficulties controlling this chakra, and he does not perform on par with his peers, a fact that he makes up for with tireless effort and abundant cheer.
Both Naruto and Bleach put their characters in mortal danger, but also tend to feature a lot of humor to try and break the tension. DBZ strikes the balance well, as much of the humor was based on puns and word play, being less disruptive than some of the comedic sketches in Naruto and Bleach. Bleach especially has comedic arcs and characters who are grating to a degree that it detracts from the overall quality of the show.
Finally, the art style of both Naruto and Bleach change to reflect the changes in the characters. Between Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z, the character design changed from rounded, chibi like characters to more muscular characters with angular faces, to emphasize the more adult nature of DBZ. In Bleach, Ichigo becomes physically more imposing and undergoes various costume changes as the series progresses. The other characters gradually take on harder lines and a more mature look as well. In Naruto, there is a fundamental shift in style from Naruto to Naruto Shippoden. Naruto looks far older in Shippoden, despite only two and a half years passing between the respective series.
Bad habits picked up from DBZ
As well loved as it is, DBZ is by no means perfect. While many works inspired by DBZ have used its formula well, there are aspects of DBZ that have translated into the wider world of Shonen that could easily be described as bad habits. Some of these bad habits have been documented here on JapanPowered before, but it would be good to briefly reiterate how many of them originated with DBZ. For this particular analysis, I will look at One Piece, the anime that I believe is the worst offender in all categories.
Probably the worst offense DBZ is responsible for perpetrating on anime watchers were its filler arcs and padding. The show has become infamous for the amount of padding and filler, to the point that in 2009, the show was remade as DBZ Kai (literally “revisited”), a take on the DBZ story that cut it down to its essentials, removing interminable filler arcs that made the original difficult for some (including myself) to swallow. One Piece is probably the worst offender in this category, with its tendency for arcs to last for ages, and an almost compulsive commitment to explaining the minutaie of a character’s back story in the middle of what should be an action sequence (I’m thinking of the end of the Ennis Lobby arc, where Luffy and his crew jumped down onto the sea train after a flash back for about six episodes.) Naruto tended to get bogged down in filler arcs (I quite watching the original series before that happened) and Bleach’s bount arc is roundly despised among fans.
Some of the filler problem has to do with the transition from Manga to Anime, and the fact that the source material cannot always keep up with the anime. Ongoing Shonen tend to be the worst offenders simply due to their open ended nature. Still, it is a definite black eye on the genre and a possible barrier for it to spread to even wider audiences. Filler and padding are bad story telling, simply put.
The Lasting Appeal of DBZ
Despite its problems, DBZ is still going strong. Fans both new and old continue to crave more adventures from Goku and his gang. Why does the series have such lasting appeal? Aside from the over the top action and entertaining storylines, DBZ has an emotional appeal. At its core, it is about a man who works hard to do the right thing and to protect his friends. Goku is, put short, a really good guy. He’s the kind of guy that most of us would like to be ourselves. Indeed, he served as a role model of sorts for people who felt as if they were on the outside looking in. His ethics of hard work, kindness, fairness, and courage are qualities all of us would do well to emulate.
While the original DBZ series is long since ended, DBZ Kai has still yet to be completed. Work was stopped temporarily due to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan, but plans to complete the fourth and final arc featuring Maijin Buu as the adversary continue. More recently, in 2014, DBZ Battle of the Gods was released in American theaters, the first IMAX release of a Japanese film in America.
Akira is important for anime both in the West and in Japan. It seems odd, but Akira’s predecessor isn’t another anime. Rather, Akira is the child of Godzilla. So what does the teen angst of Akira have to do with the giant city smashing Godzilla?
Both Akira and Godzilla show the influence of World War II, the nuclear age, and the US Occupation. Akira, being from 1988, is further removed from all of this compared to Godzilla, but the anime is set in a world where Tokyo is nuked and World War III starts. Both movies look at what nuclear war can mean (Cholodenko, 2014).
I will spare you the usual summary of Akira. There are plenty of summaries floating around the net. The film remains popular because it plays on the fears of a future outside our control (like that of Godzilla), and the film is the timeless story of an alienated teen searching for identity. It is full of stubborn adolescent resistance to what should be (Napier, 2001). Who doesn’t like a story about someone who is able to go their own way? Especially when the person wins against a rotten society. While Akira takes a (then) fresh look at these ideas, the film changed anime in several ways that are more important than why Akira resonated with so many people.
Let’s take at look at why Akira is important beyond the themes of the film.
What did Akira Change?
Godzilla was the first Japanese film to make it into the Western entertainment market. The second? Akira (Cholodenko, 2014). Now, the US was already familiar with anime. Speed Racer came out in 1967, after all. However, Akira was something different. Something adult and violent.
Akira’s animation style contrasted to that of Warner Bros. and Disney. Akira’s hyper-realistic, hyper-violent, dark style had more in common with live action than what Westerners considered animation. Akira even makes fun of the idea that animation must always be cute. The film laid the groundwork for later dark, adult films like Ghost in the Shell.
Akira changed the way anime was made. Anime was long thought to be a primitive style of animation. Well, it was for those in the West who knew about it. Americans were used to the stilted animation of Speed Racer and Voltron. Both were kids shows too. Then Akira burst onto the scene with a ¥1.1 billion budget (Hennum, 2013). In US dollars today, that is about $19,087,958. Land Before Time (which came out the same year) had a budget of $12.3 million – $24.6 million today (The Land Before Time, n.d.). The budget was on par with the American animation leaders of the time.
Akira also laid the foundation for how anime is products today (Hennum, 2013).
First, the film raised the standards of anime. It used 160,000 animation cels. Gone were the still frames with speed lines and other shortcuts.
Next, it was the first anime to prerecord its dialog. Before Akira, animation was done first, then dialog was recorded. This was cheap and often led to odd slips in dialog and animation. I’m sure you’ve seen anime where the lip animation didn’t match what was being said. Akira put quality ahead of cost and set the standard for most anime produced from then on.
The film explored cinematography in ways not handled in most animation. The camera zooms and pans like a live-action camera would. While we take this for granted today, the camera work of Akira made it feel closer to live-action than animation. The camera moved smoothly with the action rather than mostly stay stationary.
Most importantly, Akira opened the door for adult targeted animation. Anime like Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell.
The Influence of the Manga
Akira came out before the manga that inspired it was finished. Katsuhiro Otomo’s style influenced Neon Genesis Evangelion’s character designer Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Before Otomo, only the Osamu Tezuka school of Japanese cartooning was taken seriously (Hennum, 2013). Otomo, along with Shotaro Ishinomori (Cyborg 009) and Akira Toryiama (Dragonball) laid the foundation for manga storytelling post Tezuka.
Tezuka favored simple backgrounds and character designs. Otomo, on the other hand, drew detailed environments and more detailed characters. Otoma’s work influenced many American comic artists such a Paul Pope and Jim Lee. (Hennum, 2013).
Akira continued to be enjoyed because of its exploration of dystopian society. It is also just a good story that is full of action. Akira changed the face of anime in the West, and showed us how animation is not just for children. The film laid some of the standards anime viewers take for granted today, such as animation quality and cinematography. The filme, and Otomo’s work on the manga showed us how manga and anime are story telling mediums on par and often surpassing live action.
Cholodenko, A (2014). Apocalyptic Animation: In the Wake of Hiroshima, Nagaski, Godzilla, and Baudrillard. International Journal of Baudrillard Studies. 11.
Hennum, S. (2013). Started from AKIRA Now We are Here: Katsuhiro Otomo Affect on Comics and Film. This is Infamous. http://thisisinfamous.com/started-akira-now-katsuhiro-otomos-affect-comics-film/
Napier, S. (2001). Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experience Contemporary Japanese Animation. Urban Media Comics.