Anime: The Melting Pot's Latest Ingredient

by Janet Crocker

With Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence’s release in the US on September 17, fans are going to have a field day at the movies. The Wachowski brothers freely admit that The Matrix was inspired by Ghost in the Shell. So, consider Innocence to be a reply, delving deeper into the philosophic questioning of the first film. In 2032, the year in which Innocence takes place, humans and computers have melded so closely that it is hard to say where one stops and the other begins. It's a popular topic from cyberpunk literature, the “metal versus meat” issue. How far can you go and still remain human? How human-like can a machine become and still remain merely an object? And then there is the isolation issue relevant in our present day reality: technology separated us from other people, yet it also draws us together. We have friends in far-off cities, and other continents, but we do not know who our neighbors are. This same issue saturated 1995's Ghost in the Shell. Currently, circa 2004, we find it hits frighteningly close to home.

Technology has always been a favored topic in anime, from the early days of atomic jet-powered Astro Boy to the blurred techno-reality of Lain. Japan has centered on developing cutting-edge technology since the close of World War II. After the early days of post-war Japan, the world has purchased these techno-wonders, creating demand for a consumer culture shipped straight from Japan. The ‘80's invasion of Walkmans, VCRs, and CD players; now, it is hard not to point at Japan when you see cell phones. Yeah, I know those folks at Nokia are the main culprits, but the cell phone as a lifestyle, e.g. charms dangling, instant messaging, and cute smilies... that was Japan. At the forefront of technology, they've looked ahead and contemplated what the future world may be like.

Mamoru Oshii just chose to use animation as his medium.

Steamboy is a steam-punk film (think Victorian era with steam power as a harnessed and very advanced power at the core of all technology), described by Katsuhiro Otomo is homage to Osamu Tezuka, famed creator of Astro Boy and Phoenix (among other titles). After $22 million and nearly five years, Steamboy is the most expensive anime film in history. (Akira, Otomo's first film, takes second at $7.5 million.) Otomo's otaku-level attention to detail plus Bandai Visual's cash resources have combined to make Steamboy -- perhaps -- the first solid attempt to create the Hollywood blockbuster equivalent in anime. It will also debut in the upcoming months.

Studio Ghibli's Howl's Moving Castle, wherein a girl hides in a giant castle that moves on legs, promises to live up to the level of excellence which fans expect from Hayao Miyazaki. (Release date: late fall of 2004.)

What makes this round different is that all three films have strong backing by major studios: DreamWorks has dibs on Innocence, Disney is actively promoting Howl's Moving Castle (they own US distribution rights to all of Studio Ghibli productions; I guess Spirited Away winning the Oscar for Best Animated Film in 2003 finally got Disney to wake up and see the missed profits.), and Sony is bringing us Steamboy. All three films are, yes, going to be in regular movie theatres, ready to be seen by, ready for this? Regular people! Not just the anime fanboys and girls -- or the indie film crowd -- though I daresay droves of us will go and see them all, maybe even multiple times.

Sure, we have heard the media for the last few years inform us Japanese animation is the next big thing. It looks like reality is finally catching up with the hype. Japan is set to infuse American culture with a dash of anime spice. Some might even argue that it's already begun, but I quip back that because we are fans, we feel a change in the air before the general public does.

The times have changed since the release of Akira in 1988, the first anime feature film with a US theatrical release. This was before yoga became an exercise class offered at the YMCA, and the devoted otaku was content with second-generation and sometimes tenth-generation VCR tapes (and even tenth-gen wasn't horribly bad). Embracing some aspects of eastern culture into mainstream America and the Internet has helped pave the way for the modern American otaku. We can order, direct from Japan, essentially anything that you could want. We may also buy domestically lots of the most popular series, past and present. We don't even have to go to a store, so you can still get anime even if you live in Podunk, USA. Anime itself has expanded in quantity and quality so much that there is a show for almost everyone. The Anime Network, launched in July, gives cable subscribers anime around the clock. Fansubbers (bless them) give us new episodes to watch within a month of their actual broadcast date. It is truly a great time to be otaku, though said definition may require some fine tuning in the coming years.

Anime and its mother-sister Manga are becoming accepted in the US. When we start seeing anime pop up on network TV in commercials, you know it's there to stay, and you only have to read past and present issues of Patrick's "Life on the Fringe" to know that manga sales have rocketed (and how they have continued to grow). Fox keeps picking up series for Saturday morning and weekday after school broadcasts. Girls are wearing baby tees with anime characters and it's cool. I guess wearing a Love Hina t-shirt doesn't mark you as a freak anymore. Well, maybe it does. Love Hina is still a relatively undiscovered series, prominently displayed only at places of intense fandom.

That's our present situation, but I wish to look towards the future. You see, I like cyberpunk literature. I like how authors try to guess what the future will be like, invariably a darker and harder place, where a solid dividing line exists between the few rich and the poor masses. But beyond that, they often envision a monoculture world, one where everyone eats, breathes and reads the same material. (For an excellent example, pick up Transmetropolitan, by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson; one of my favorite comics.) Sure, money will buy you the rare things in life, but overall, we are exposed to the same environment.

The melting pot of American culture is perhaps the predecessor of monoculture, anime but a tangy spice newly added to the stew. I can already see a world where rotoscope porn is turned to hentai for viewing in the wee hours, and books are replaced for the telephone book-sized and paper quality of manga monthly magazines in Japan. Cheap, and if you want to keep it, buy the e-book. I see anime being used as a way to get around obscenity laws. Sorry if this sounds bleak, but wasn't porn the first real business on the Internet? That's simply human nature at its core: exploit everything to its breaking point. Yes, anime will become as mainstream as reality shows, but also as varying in quality. People who watch anime won't be otaku; they'll be just regular people with the TV on. Probably by that time, computer animation will have advanced along with technology to make Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within your average TV show, where the line between digital acting and real-life actors has been virtually erased. And, no one will care. We will have reached the integration level of metal and meat that Mamoru Oshii presents in Ghost in the Shell, where the majority of people don't think about how entwined with technology they are. In many ways, today's anime and manga predicts tomorrow's reality, where digital reality is the true reality.

This may sound like a dark future, but it's really not. Compared to the doom and gloom predictions of the 70's and 80's (no oil, society over-run, nuclear holocaust, America's gun culture gone mad, economic bust, etc.), the 21st century has been rather cheery, full of promising technology. Yes, monoculture has its problems, but it also has its merits. With wisdom gleamed from the lifestyles of multiple cultures, surely we can fashion a new culture, strong in its roots, ushering in a future beneficial for all.

And then again, I can always be wrong.

If there's one thing we've learned from anime is that the future is always ours to create. So please, continue to support anime and manga; go and see these three movies in the coming months. Shape the world around you through your vote in mainstream media: your movie ticket.

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