Manga and Anime: The Japanese Invasion

Updated November 29, 2022 | Infoplease Staff

Japanese comics and cartoons, with their bold art and complex plots, have captured the hearts and imaginations of a worldwide audience.

by Jennie Wood

First Anime Feature Film

Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors, the first feature-length anime film, was released in 1945.


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Figure in Manga Style

Figure in Manga style

Image credit: Niabot

Manga and anime were mainstays in Japanese pop culture long before the art form made its way West. Indeed, the term manga dates to the late 18th century in Japan, but this type of comics didn't begin to gain in popularity in the United States until the 1960s, when the popular Japanese anime series Astro Boy was imported to the U.S. By 2007, however, the anime market in the U.S. alone had peaked at a value of approximately $4.35 billion. This number leveled out in 2010 to a more modest 400 million, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.

The Rise of Manga and Anime

Manga is the Japanese term for comics. The word was first used in 1798 to describe the picture book Shiji no yukikai. The term showed up again in 1814 as the title of Aikawa Minwa's Manga Hyakujo and Hokusai Manga, books that contained drawings by the artist Hokusai.

Modern manga developed amid an explosion of artistic creativity during the U.S. occupation of Japan, from 1945–1952. During the occupation, U.S. troops introduced American comics and cartoons, such as Mickey Mouse, Betty Boop, and Bambi to Japan, inspiring Japanese artists to develop their own style of comics. Japanese cartoonist, Osamu Tezuka, known as the God of Manga and Godfather of Anime, invented the distinctive large eyes prominent in both manga and anime. His manga series, Astro Boy, went on to become the first Japanese television series to embody the aesthetic that became known worldwide as anime. The series was first broadcast in Japan in 1963.

Anime, pronounced "ani-may," refers to animation originating in Japan. During the 1960s, Astro Boy became the first anime series to be broadcast outside Japan. In the 1970s and 80s, other adaptations of anime made waves in overseas markets. Two of those series, Robotech and Star Blazers introduced mature themes. Star Blazers, first broadcast in the U.S. in 1979, presciently dealt with many serious issues before they became global concerns, such as radiation poising, acid rain, and global warming. In the show's first season, humans were forced to move underground to avoid radiation. Star Blazers was also the first popular English-dubbed anime series with a storyline that demanded the episodes be shown in order.

Manga's Mass Appeal

In English-speaking countries, manga is a generic term for all graphic novels and comic books originally published in Japan. Manga is read either in serialized comic books, monthly magazines, or graphic novels. All formats are available in English translation, graphic novels, however, are the most common and can be found in both major bookstore chains and local comic shops. The graphic novels are usually presented in "manga-style," meaning a right-to-left format.

While graphic novels are gaining more respect with publishers and more attention in Hollywood, most Americans still think of newspaper strips and superheroes when they hear the word "comics." In addition, in the U.S., creators, writers, artists and readers of comics are still predominately male. By comparison, in Japan, manga is extremely popular with males and females. People of all ages and from all walks of life spend billions of dollars in Japan on manga every year. Part of the reason is manga has something for everyone, with every imaginable genre represented. For example, the popular Pokémon series is kid-friendly. There's manga directed toward each gender or for mature audiences, and there are books with complex plots and emotional depth. There's also variety in terms of length. A series can run from two volumes to 20.

The broad scope of manga also appeals to a range of artists and writers. For example, in 2004, rock musician Courtney Love collaborated with D.J. Milky, Ai Yazawa, and Misaho Kujiradou on the series, Princess Ai. Ai means "love" in Japanese and the series was inspired by Courtney Love's life and her relationship with Kurt Cobain. Manga, which allows characters to show their emotions clearly and without inhibition, was an ideal outlet for the outspoken, controversial Love. Several volumes of Princess Ai have been published.

The Characteristics of Manga

Although it covers a broad range of genres and each artist has his or her own style, manga has a distinct look. An overt display of emotion is just one characteristic. Emotions are often exaggerated for comedic purposes, like a vein popping out of a character's forehead to show stress, or sweat drops to signify worry. Another example is when characters have "X" eyes to show they've been knocked out or have fallen ill.

Manga and anime are drawn in the same artistic style. Drawings are typically done in pen and ink, with an emphasis on clean lines. Most characters have very large, almond-shaped eyes and other out-of-proportion body parts. Both anime and manga are influenced by Japanese calligraphy and painting, where a round ink brush is used to produce thick strokes.

Broadening Our Understanding of Japanese Culture

The popularity of anime and manga has helped westerners gain a broader understanding of Japanese culture. Fans now collect their favorite anime series on DVD. Unlike VHS, the DVD format gives fans the options of watching the original Japanese language show with subtitles or the English-dubbed version. DVDs also offer fans the chance to experience uncut versions. Some editing of cultural references occurred in earlier anime shows like Voltron to appeal to the non-Japanese culture. DVDs give fans a chance to see the original Japanese references.

Anime conventions such as Anime Expo, Otakon, and JACON, started in the early 1990s and are currently held annually in cities across Europe, Asia, and the Americas. Many convention attendees take part in cosplay where they dress up as anime characters. Japanese artists, voice actors, film directors and musicians are invited to the conventions. Colleges, high schools, and community centers have started hosting anime clubs, as a way to share and exhibit anime and manga. As the popularity of manga and anime continues to grow, so does the world's knowledge and understanding of Japanese culture.

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