Sunday, January 10, 2010

Japan-o-rama: What is anime and manga?

One of the classes I took during my first semester of library school was Fantasy Literature and Media for Youth, and during this class I found out two things:
1) Anime and manga are rapidly becoming some of the most popular items for young people to check out of libraries.
2) A lot of librarians are totally clueless about anime and manga.
So, in my position as Young and Moderately Cool Librarian-To-Be, I figured that I'd be doing the older generation of librarians a service by writing about these pop culture products from Japan.

See, I grew up in between two Japanese fads: I was slightly too young to be watching Sailor Moon or Dragonball Z in the early 1990s, and I was a little too old by the time Pokemon came around. I didn't really start watching anime and reading manga until late high school and early college. I like to think this gives me a more mature, sophisticated perspective on Japan and all its wacky products, although using the words 'mature' and 'sophisticated' to describe me in any context is pretty laughable.

My occasional forays into the pop culture of the inscrutable Orient will (hopefully) be a semi-regular feature on this blog, and I'd like to start off by answering a question that I've heard more than one librarian ask: what, exactly, is anime and manga?

On one level, that’s a very easy question to answer: anime is Japanese animated television and movies, and manga is Japanese comics. Simple as that.

What makes it complicated is that Japanese animation and comics are, in a lot of ways, nothing at all like their American counterparts. This is the result of a great many factors: economic, historic, aesthetic, and more. I'm not an expert in the topic, and getting into it would take way too long, but I can give a general idea of what the differences are between their animation and comics and ours, and a brief (and hopefully semi-correct) explanation as to why that is. There's three basic ideas I need to emphasize about anime and manga:
1) Anime and manga are each bigger than a genre, but smaller than a medium.
2) Unlike in America, there is no expectation that comics and animation are “kids' stuff.”
3) Even when anime or manga is made for kids, they're made for Japanese kids, and may not necessarily be suitable for American kids.

For starters, the whole genre/medium confusion really bugs me, because it shows up in a lot of places—for example, when talking about American comic books. Superheroes are by far the most well-represented genre in comics, but that doesn't mean that every comic is about superheroes. Comics are a medium, which means that they can have content of any genre, about any idea. The same holds true for anime and manga. There are romance anime, action anime, horror anime, heck, even Western anime. I've read manga with all sorts of plotlines and every kind of character.

However, neither anime nor manga is a medium. Comics are a medium: the medium of telling stories through a combination of words and pictures. Manga is a kind of comics, from a specific culture, with certain cultural expectations and storytelling traditions. Similarly, animation is a medium: moving pictures created using a series of images created without the use of live actors. Anime is animation from a specific culture.

So one of the first things that librarians need to keep in mind is that if a patron says they like anime, that could mean a lot of things: do they like sci-fi? Romance? Do they want action or emotion? Are they in it for cool character designs, or excellent storytelling, or relateable characters, or what?

Now, my second point is closely related to my first: anime and manga are not just for kids. In America, there's been this expectation that if it's animated, or if it's a comic book, then it's suitable for kids. I honestly don't know quite why this is, although if I had to guess, I'd say that it's due to economic circumstances: comics first showed up in newspapers as harmless diversions, and even as they moved into 'book' form, they kept their juvenile sensibilities. The same is true of animation: the early strength of Walt Disney, who had no intention of making films for adults, meant that his vision of what animation could be used for became the dominant vision. Both of these perceptions are changing somewhat—thanks partly to their Japanese counterparts—but that knee-jerk reaction is still the majority view.

Not so in Japan. Again, the reasons for this are rooted in probably centuries of aesthetics and storytelling traditions, but regardless of why, the fact is that there is no assumption that animation or comics are always made for younger audiences. You can find manga made for all ages, genders, and tastes. Just because it looks like it’s for kids doesn’t mean it is.

And just because it is for kids doesn’t mean it’s suitable for American kids. This is a tricky point, and it’s the kind of point I can’t prove without copious examples to back it up, and, well, I don’t have copious examples right now. For now, let's just say that, much like how in Europe you can see shampoo commercials with naked breasts, in Japan—and, specifically, in anime and manga—you'll probably see more nudity than you would in America. (Unless you're watching Cinemax or something.) And just like in Europe, this isn't necessarily a sex thing; it's just an acceptance of casual nudity. Public bathing is still common in Japan—something else that shows up in a lot of anime and manga, incidentally—so kids, from a young age, are more comfortable with the human body.

At least, I think so. Like I said, I'm not an expert, I've never been to Japan; all my information is coming from travelogues and, of course, anime and manga series. Regardless, the point holds: just because it's targeted at Japanese children doesn't necessarily mean it's suitable for American kids. (Results may vary depending on individual parenting styles.)

Anyway, this should do as an introduction to the whole mess. From here on out, I plan to periodically review an anime or manga series and tell you not just what I think of it (because my opinion is ever so important), but also whether I think librarians should get it, and if so, where it should be shelved and what audience it should be marketed to. So stick around! Maybe you'll learn something even halfway interesting.

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