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Visual evolution across the Pacific: the influence of anime and video games on US film media.

The past decade has witnessed an explosion of popularity of Japanese animation (henceforth, anime) in the United States. Starting from series such as Sailor Moon (1992) and Pokemon (1997) during the mid-1990s to Yu-Gi-Oh! (1998), Dragon Ball (1986), Full Metal Alchemist (2003) and Naruto (2002) throughout the 2000s, anime has become a part of mainstream media in the US. Scholars in media studies, cultural studies, sociology and anthropology have also recently picked up on the phenomenon, bolstering anime studies in the West. Eri Izawa's study on the fantastic elements in anime and video games, Sharalyn Orbaugh's research on the visual hybridity of the female and male bodies in anime and girls' comic books (shojo manga), and Scott McCloud's in-depth visual comparison of western comic books and Japanese manga structures are good examples of scholarship on manga and anime's visual characteristics. Additionally, Susan Napier's analysis on Hayao Miyazaki's films in relation to Japanese culture and Brian Ruh's examination of Mamoru Oshii as an auteur filmmaker provide insightful literary film analyses. Furthermore, Anne Allison and Sharon Kinsella both investigate the shifting organizational aspects of manga as a subculture and mainstream industry as well as how manga and anime texts are produced and consumed as a global product from an anthropological and sociological perspective.

Although some scholars have pointed out the links between the Wachowski brothers' The Matrix (1999) and Mamoru Oshii's anime, Ghost in the Shell (1995) (Seay & Garrett 22) and American cartoons such as Power Puff Girls (1998) and 'large-eyed' anime (Mirzoeff 11), there is yet to be any substantial comparative research of anime's influence on US media in terms of the increased transnational appropriation of visuality and sensibility. Such a study is not about how much The Matrix "looks like" Ghost in the Shell, but rather, what it "means" for the former to look like the latter. In an era where information technology constantly spawns new forms of media at an exponential rate, it becomes more and more difficult to keep up with the acceleration of intertextuality created among contents such as manga, anime, video games and live-action films. Furthermore, the recent Japanese governmental promotion of their Content Industry, which heavily focuses on the symbiotic "package" nature of anime, video games and manga under the slogan "One-content, multi-use," raises question as to what defines "anime." For the sake of this study, anime, manga and video games produced in Japan will be grouped under the conceptual umbrella of anime.

If one does not keep up with plethora of new narrative strategies and imagery produced in anime and related media, it may become increasingly difficult to appreciate new titles; for example, to fully appreciate Samurai Champloo (2004), one must have seen not only prior anime created by the director Shin'ichiro Watanabe, but also other Samurai anime as well as the underground music scene in Japan during the late 1980s. Similar examples in US media would be the better appreciation for Shrek (2001) after viewing The Matrix. By presenting a few examples of anime's visual and narrative influences on US media, this study attempts to provide a better understanding of how cross-cultural media production and consumption hybridizes and transforms global media, in hopes of broader media literacy on anime to emerge.



What are the visual characteristics of anime, and how do they differ from other Western visual media such as film? First, one must understand the relationship between anime and manga, which takes up to forty percent of the entire publication industry in Japan (Information Media White Papers 2005). Scholars such as Kenji Hatakeyama assert that manga-based anime became a major trend in the early 1990s after the network of Television Tokyo was established (201). However, as evidenced in the case of Toei Animation, the largest anime production company in Japan, most anime have been adapted from manga narratives even since the 1960s. Therefore, to better understand anime one has to look into manga's visual narratives.

In analyzing the visual structures of comic books, Scott McCloud has divided different comic book scenes into panel-to-panel categories: "moment-to-moment," "action-to-action," "subject-to-subject," "scene-to-scene," "aspect-to-aspect," and "non-sequitur" transitions (70). According to McCloud's categories, "moment-to-moment" and "aspect-to-aspect" scenes are important when analyzing manga and anime. McCloud explains that these aspects of drawing have not been utilized, with a few exceptions of experimental work, in the history of Western comic books where most of the panels heavily consisted of "action-to-action," "subject-to-subject," and "scene-to-scene" expressions (74-78). The two missing categories in Western comics are in fact the most important expressions related to the character's psychology. "Moment-to-moment" shows the subtlety of character movements and emotions through its portrayal of a continuous movement through a short period of time. "Aspect-to-aspect" is directly linked to the character's perspective. According to McCloud, the reader gets to see what the character in the story is seeing, thus making the reader vicariously experience and identify with the character's psychology. These two important aspects, which in fact have been utilized throughout the history of filmmaking, were not emphasized in comic book narratives in the West. In fact, until the 1940s, Japanese comics resembled that of the West--being short comic strips that were not necessarily episodic. Only after Osamu Tezuka's aspiration to create comics as powerful as literature and film did Japan develop such visual sophistication in its world of manga (Schodt 233).

As McCloud notes, the utilization of "moment-to-moment" and "aspect-to-aspect" changed the direction of Japanese comics away from that of the West. Character's psychology became a major portion of story development, and it is even more distinct when manga are adapted into animation. While early animation in the West emphasized on exaggerated action of humanized animals, such as Disney cartoons, Warner Brother's Looney Tunes and various Hanna-Barbera series, early Japanese animation insisted on its static style and mostly used human characters. Until today, anime often focuses on the protagonist's emotional struggles (whether fighting an enemy, racing in a car, or trying to save fellow animals in the forest) manifested through large eyes and exaggerated facial expressions and body movements (Raffaelli 131). Tetsuwan Atom (a.k.a. Astro Boy, 1964) is the first Japanese television anime produced by Tezuka's Mushi Production. Each episode portrays Atom, the boy cyborg, who struggles to 'fit into' the human world but in vain. Atom's sadness is portrayed through close-ups of his enormously large eyes and lone walks through the desolate cityscape. In Princess Knight (1967), Tezuka depicts the emotional struggles of princess Sapphire, who was raised to be a "prince" in her kingdom. When she falls in love with a real prince from a neighboring country, the plot revolves around her psychological conflict to fulfill her role as a "prince" while trying to find happiness as a normal female. The subject matter of Tezuka's two series may seem more appropriate for live-action films rather than children's cartoons. According to Schodt, Tezuka developed stories "with increasingly sophisticated themes for an older audience, trying to do with comics what others have done with literature," (236). Considering the fact that the early manga and anime began with such a 'mature' vision of the struggle of human identity, it is no surprise that later Japanese anime developed into such a sophisticated narrative medium for filmmakers to come.


One of the most popular anime in the global market is Mamoru Oshii's Ghost in the Shell (1995). Similar to Tezuka's protagonists, Ghost in the Shell's heroine Kusanagi is a cyborg who struggles with her identity as being a 'ghost with a soul.' The story is set in a dystopian future where technology has reached a point of manipulating human individuals through re-programming one's memory called the "Ghost," which makes Kusanagi ponder her own reality and identity. According to Livia Monnet, Ghost in the Shell was influenced by Blade Runner in both visuals and narrative (231). Reminiscent of not only Blade Runner (1982), but also Total Recall (1990), Ghost in the Shell delves deeper into the simulated world of human psychology and reality than any other anime before 1995. Based oil a comic book series created by Shiro Masamune, Ghost in the Shell introduces a broader, far more serious theme to the realm of science fiction fantasy that also introduces the distinct visual style and dystopian vision of auteur anime filmmaker Oshii. The indigo blue hue that covers both the cityscape and the flesh tones of humans and cyborgs alike indicate the decaying futuristic quality of life and morality. Major Kusanagi's body, wiry muscular and sagging, calls to mind the hollow imagery of Eric Fischl's painting Bad Boy (1981) and the ashen hue of all the characters' skin also adds to the feeling of a "dead" future where human identities are altered through simulated memories.


Additionally, with the green binary data filling the black background in the opening credit scene, the viewer may get the sense of watching the monitor of an old 386 computer. It is a digital gothic universe with infinite darkness--the black background--that leads the viewers to vicariously feel being a part of the computer monitor, or even a part of the data itself. Viewers may simultaneously reflect their own imagination through this binary data, which becomes an allusion to the notion of "constructed reality" in the plot structure. Furthermore, introducing the viewers to a binary data world mentally prepares the viewer's to "digitally" accept, rather than "analogously" accept the film; an amalgam of abstract concepts of space, time, belief, and memories, which in all are not necessarily logical, nor are limited by a sequential perception. This imagery has been attributed to influencing The Matrix (1999), as evidenced by the similar visual images (Fig. 1). In fact, Brian Ruh notes that Ghost in the Shell is an intermediary that "bridges the gap between" Blade Runner and The Matrix (139).

The Matrix deals with a very similar topic to Ghost in the Shell. The story line follows the male protagonist Neo, who comes into contact with a mysterious underground resistance group that claims that the world they are living in is in fact a false reality created by robots. Technology in the future has reached a point where artificial intelligence controls human lives and uses them as "batteries." The film revolves around the quest to awaken Neo's messianic power and enable him to save the human race. The false reality created by the machines is a tool of deception to make humans believe that they "exist" in a world that resembles American society in late 1990s. This encourages viewers to reconsider their own reality while watching the film. However, it is not only that The Matrix shares similar narrative structure with Ghost in the Shell, but it also shares a visual scheme that is a landmark of Oshii's auteur vision. The overall visual tone of The Matrix eerily resembles Ghost in the Shell's dystopian mise-en-scene of ashen skin tones, blue cityscape, and the characters' pitch black hair color.

Another example of the visual influence of Ghost in the Shell on US media appeared in the 2000 Fox television series Dark Angel, created by James Cameron. Not only did Dark Angel have similar tropes to those that appear in most science fiction anime imported to the US--a dystopian universe, questions of identity, and ambiguous emotions towards technology--but also shared similar visual stylistics and narrative setting that is suggestive of not only Ghost in the Shell, but also those of Battle Angel (1993). In the promotional trailer of Dark Angel, there is one particular scene where Max (the female protagonist of Dark Angel) jumps off a skyscraper at night; an imagery nearly identical to Kusanagi's jump scene in the beginning of Ghost in the Shell. In the anime, Kusanagi falls off a building into the nighttime cityscape, where the shots cut between her diving towards the camera, her point-of-view of the reversed skyscrapers, and her jumping summersaults towards the camera again. The rope tied to Kusanagi's body flows along with her fluid movement. In the Fall 2000 series premiere trailer for Dark Angel, Max jumps off a building, also headfirst, into the nighttime city scene with a rope tied to her body. The shot cuts to her falling along the skyscrapers with a camera dolly along her jump. Max's body composition is similar to that of Kusanagi's. In both scenes, the female protagonists contemplatively stare over the dystopian cityscape before they jump; the nighttime cityscapes are again similar in the bluish color scheme. Since the narrative of Dark Angel also focuses around the identity struggle of Max, it is no surprise that such gothic visual imagery would be arranged.


However, the closest similarities to Dark Angel are found in the anime series Gunnm (a.k.a. Battle Angel, 1993). Based on the manga by Yukito Kishiro, Battle Angel is an anime that deals with a young cyborg, Gally, who struggles to find her identity in a world where humans sell body parts to survive and live off of the trash sent down by a utopian city called Zalem that floats above their own dystopian landscape. Gally eventually discovers that she is a specially enhanced 'battle' cyborg. In order to find her creator, she embarks on a journey which results in the discovery of a higher force that manipulates all human destinies. The plot structure of Dark Angel is almost identical to that of Battle Angel. Max is also a genetically enhanced "super soldier" who, on her search for her lost siblings, unravels a higher conspiracy cult that manipulates human genetics.

Noticeably, all three narratives--Ghost in the Shell, Battle Angel, and Dark Angel--share similar plot structures. All three heroines are bi-products of a grim technological future. Having the superior power that comes with being a cyborg may be an advantage, but at the same time it is the force driving the internal struggles of all three protagonists. Even though Max, the heroine of Dark Angel, is not a cyborg in the sense of having mechanical body parts like Kusanagi and Gally, the fact that she is genetically enhanced makes her a cyborg. According to Gray, Mentor, and Figueroa-Sarriera, a person with anything artificially added, or enhanced can be categorized as such:
 There are many actual cyborgs
 among us in society. Anyone with an
 artificial organ, limb or supplement
 (like a pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed
 to resist disease (immunized)
 or drugged to thing/behave/
 feel better (psychopharmacology) is
 technically a cyborg (2).

Thus, Max can be regarded as a cyborg, a common female portrayal in science-fiction anime. Cyborg heroines in anime usually have the traits of super human strength, have emotional struggles for self-discovery, and wear skin-tight outfits that display "exaggerated sexual allure," (Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. 234) (Fig. 2 & 3). The aforementioned examples may provide a glimpse of how shojo (Japanese term for girl), a term that literally means "not-quite-female female" (Robertson 65), is constructed in Japanese sci-fi anime.

The shojo, who is neither a child nor an adult, "neither male nor female," constituting a gender of their own, is often associated with cute (kawaii) culture (Treat 281). Yet, being cute and being pitiful is the same concept in Japan, according to Kinsella (236). Therefore, the shojo's struggle to overcome adversaries in anime may hold both meanings. Thus, the identity struggle that Gally, Max, and even Kusanagi (who is not quite a shojo) experience may appear as pitiful, yet cute at the same time. When Dark Angel shares archetypical qualities of Japanese shojo portrayals, it implies the series' narrative influences that cross cultural borders on top of its overt visual similarities. Interestingly, after the production of Dark Angel in 2000, Cameron purchased the rights to Battle Angel, which has been anticipated to be released into a live-action film in 2009 (Crabtree & Siegel 2005). The emotional struggles of a character in anime started from the early days of Tezuka, yet it has developed into a unique visual stylistics that is crossing over the Pacific. The subtle adoption of shojo femininity in Dark Angel may contribute to a new form of transnational female physicality and sensibility.


As mentioned earlier, emphasizing emotional struggles over action-based plot structures in anime created an impression of being "static." Evoking Yasujiro Ozu's static imagery, early anime also had long takes of close up facial shots. Even in later action-based anime, there was a continuing tendency to emphasize the beauty of the "static" in the midst of extremely fast-paced movements. One could run as fast as a bullet and jump over high objects with ease in Hayao Miyazaki's action scenes. Yet, there would be an elegant slow jump in the middle of a fast run (e.g. Future Boy Conan, 1978) or a still movement flight after a fast-running jump (e.g. Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, 1984). This visual distinctiveness was often related to the emotional strength of the protagonists, showing the resilience of their characters. However, these visual signs began to be utilized in the West without the suggestive emotional attachment to the characters or narratives. They simply became innovative scenes born from new media technology.

The aforementioned static-within-rapid anime movements appeared in US commercials, films and music videos in the late 1990s owing to the advanced digital technologies. Cameras dolly in a fast pace towards subjects with a sudden shift in pacing by switching to slow-motion shots and then again switching back to the fast pace, as in the case of The Matrix and Underworld (2003), and Watchmen (2009) resembled what had been practiced for many years in anime. In fact, The Matrix can be argued to be a shot-by-shot replica of Ghost in the Shell (Fig. 1). Nonetheless, it is not just the overt dystopian imagery that resembles anime (which may even be traced back to Blade Runner), but the visual sensibility shift that we as global audience have come to take for granted.


One of the most important novelties of The Matrix would be, without exaggeration, its visual innovation called the "Matrix effect," which has been credited to Michel Gondry of France's BUF Compagnie. This digital effect of morphing two still photographs (a.k.a. photogrammetry) is what the French called "temps mort" ("dead time") and the makers of The Matrix called "bullet time," (Fordham 2000). Olivier Gilbert, Human Resource director of BUF Compagnie, noted in a personal email to the author (April 17, 2001), that Gondry first applied the "dead time" effect in the Rolling Stone's music video Like a Rolling Stone (1995), which became "a famous hit in the small sfx video world, and evry (sic) body round (sic) the world decided to think how to reproduce this amazing effect." Gilbert added: "BUF and Michel Gondry keeps (sic) the credits, in the professional world, for this technology." The following year, Gondry produced the commercial Smarienberg (1996) for Smirnoff in which a bullet is frozen in space (thus, "bullet time").

However, according to Scott Anderson, the origins of the Matrix effect dates back as far as 1980 when a British art student named Tim Macmillan experimented with photography and cubism (74). In tracking the evolution of Macmillan's "time slice" effects, Anderson jumps to the mid-1990s providing a few examples of experimental photographers, Gondry's music videos, and finally the Gap Khakis Swing advertisement (1998, Fig. 4), another production by BUF Compagnie. The Gap commercial's "freeze frame" effect became representative of innovative visual trends in the US at the end of the 20th century, appearing in a Time Magazine article and being recognized by the Whitney Museum of American Art (Perman 2000). Regardless of its varying names, the innovative digital effect commonly utilized a quarter-circle or a half-circle camera pan on a "still" subject, creating a wholesome three-dimensional sense of space and time on the flat screen. Though Anderson tries to trace the visual origins back to Macmillan's photographic work in 1980, there is no adequate transition provided between Macmillan and Gondry's camera technique in 1995.

The missing link may be provided outside the genealogy of Western visual technology. On this note, it becomes pertinent to examine Japanese video games in relation to Western digital film technology. Previously known for its 2D flat imagery, Japanese video games became popular in the US since the early 1980s as a major entertainment pastime, surpassing the popularity of movies (Desser 197). In fact, it may have been through the vast popularity of video games during the 1980s and '90s that allowed anime to become a part of mainstream US popular culture. One of the earliest, and widely played video game was Street Fighter (1987)--a multi-cast revolutionary arcade fighting game by Capcom that allowed the player to 'choose' a character of their preference. The movements during the fighting sequences were fast-paced, yet at the end of the battle, the character that lost the game would fly into the air in slow motion with the word "K.O." flashing on the screen, similar to the aforementioned static-within-rapid anime movements. Other 2D-fighting games that later appeared in the market include Mortal Kombat (1992) and Virtua Fighter (1993).

However, it was the advent of Virtua Fighter 2 that brought visual changes within the gaming world (henceforth VF2). Released in 1994 by Sega, VF2 was the first multi-fighter game that featured smooth 3D polygon shaped characters (Whittaker 129). The innovative camera movement, which utilized a 360-degree camera pan of the characters from various angles, became a landmark trend in innovative visual media (Herz 23). The visual effects of VF2 were unprecedented within the sphere of entertainment media. Even though VF2 was a simple fighting game, the Sega Saturn CD-ROM contained animation clips which revealed each fighter's personal background, adding not only depth to each character, but also evoking a sense of playing an interactive anime. VF2 had multiple camera angles that would interchange while the players fought each other. Not only was this visually more stimulating, compared to the previous 2D video games, but it was also the first step towards merging digital camera effects in video games and live-action films. If the player chose to do so, s/he could replay the completed battle and view the fight from various vantage points, evoking a sense of watching a rapidly edited movie. Most of the camera movements consisted of elaborate "flying camera" shots, a perspective that resembles that of a bird's eye view, continuously following the fighters in a half circle or full circle pan or a 'spin'. This visual effect created a multi-dimensional movement that induced a heightened sense of "speed" in players. Though similar visuals appeared in anime prior to VF2, such as Hayao Miyazaki's flight scenes where the camera dollied into the characters flying at high-speed, VF2 provided new visual possibilities for both the digital creators to emulate, and the audiences who played and watched the games to feel stimulated and inspired.


Yet, VF2's innovative visual techniques, which have been "recognized by the Smithsonian Institution for contributions in the field of Art and Entertainment," (Alaric S. 2006), have not once been recognized as a possible source of inspiration for films such as The Matrix. Even though the Wachowski brothers admit to being influenced by anime, manga, Hong Kong films, and video games, VF2 is rarely mentioned. Rather, it is Mortal Kombat and Tekken that officially receives the credit (Merrin 124), Interestingly, when interviewed in 2001, a 20-something anime and video game fan from Texas stated that it was VF2 that first came to mind when he first watched the The Matrix. This may have been due to the extensive fighting scenes in the film, which was choreographed by the influential Hong Kong action film director, Yuen Woo-Ping. Obviously, martial arts video games such as VF2 would have strong resemblance to Hong Kong martial arts films as well. However, I would argue that The Matrix displays characteristics more similar to video games than Hong Kong martial arts films owing to the visual framing and camera angles. Most of the fighting scene in The Matrix consists of long shots where both characters are visible in equal sizes--reminiscent of a 2D video game screen--and the frequent usage of over-the-shoulder camera shots (Fig. 5). However, the camera movements closely resemble the 3D-camera pan techniques employed by VF2.


What does it mean for US films and visual media to look like anime? It may indicate that anime culture, including manga, video games, has become an integral part of the US media culture. Not only have more and more anime titles gained popularity on TV, but video games have also grasped hundreds of thousands of Americans' hearts. Given that contemporary Hollywood films are heavily computer graphics-oriented, the integration of anime visuals and technological approaches will only accelerate. However, it is not uncommon for American viewers who are not familiar with Japanese culture to disassociate anime completely from its cultural origin. If the visuals were applied without acknowledgement by American filmmakers, then it would be even more difficult for general viewers to recognize and appreciate the original visual forms and cultural sensibility. The visuals adapted become a rip off rather than an homage.

This study attempted to provide case studies on the multiplicity and complexity of anime culture and its influence on US visual media. Understanding that anime has become an integral part of media globalization whose origin is often lost in translation, this essay hopes to go beyond the notion of US versus Japan and "we" versus "them," and calls for a view of anime as part of the "US," or "us."

Author's Note

This article was written in memory of Dr. James Wiliam Tankard, Jr. at the School of Journalism, University of Texas at Austin.

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Author:Choo, Kukhee
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Date:Jan 1, 2009
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