Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle and its Context in Regards to Comics and Graphic Novels

Academic Freedom, Banned and Challenged Books, Education
Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation” by Susan J. Napier

“Did you see this? A textbook for a class on anime at Kent State was challenged by state reps,” my coworker told me a few weeks ago. I read the entire debacle and I rolled my eyes so hard I think I got a headache. Another ignorant American who doesn’t understand another culture but also wants to enforce American morality upon it, I thought. But I digress – by now we all know the story about Anime From Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle and its challenge. If you would like to know more about anime and how it relates to western comic books/graphic novels, fear not! I, Gina the old millennial otaku, will help you.

I must begin by establishing one important thing – anime is not comics or graphic novels. Manga (MAHN-gah) is the sequential art originating in Japan and produced for a Japanese audience. Anime (AHN-ee-may) is animation originating in Japan and produced for a Japanese audience. Like graphic novels, anime is a format and not a genre. Also like graphic novels, there are multiple genres that compose the majority of anime works. The two categories that are most common are shoujo (“for girls”) and shounen (“for boys”). Shounen is action-packed, shoujo is full of starry-eyed teens in love. These two types comprise the majority of popular titles both in Japan and the West. Japanese culture still seems to be very traditional and on the gender binary hence the stereotypical allure for either genre, but I’m not an expert on Japan so this may have changed recently. For the most part, anime shows begin as popular manga series and switch media. Think of the MCU and the original Marvel comics that inspired them – similar here. In another parallel to wester comic books, I estimate that anime has about the same awareness among society as Marvel and DC has here. Folks know that the billboard over there has a main character from Bishoujo Senshi Sailor Moon or Boku no Hero Academia but the average Japanese person probably hasn’t seen an episode or read a manga chapter in Shounen Jump. Anime is a hobby interest for some Japanese people, same as comic books are here. Fans were called otaku in Japan and in the early US subculture, but the term has since been replaced in the West with weaboo.

For someone with a mildly academic interest in anime and manga, Susan Napier’s challenged book is a fantastic introduction to concepts in Japanese culture explored through anime. Certain genres of anime address different aspects of Japanese culture depending on the topics and the time in which they’re made. For example, Akira is a seminal movie originating from a manga written from 1982-1990. The film depicts a cyberpunk dystopia in 2020 (movie released in 1988) in which psychic children and teens resist a corrupt government, to horrifying ends. Akira was released in the US on tape the next year, kicking off Americans’ fascination with Japanese animation. In Napier’s book, Susan discusses the nature of adolescent rebellion and the outcast in a homogenous society. These themes are reflected strongly in Akira.

I want to specifically address the chapter that has come under fire: Controlling Bodies: The Body in Pornographic Anime. Pornographic material is a distinct sub genre in anime (called hentai) that can be largely avoided if one doesn’t want to view or read it. In the book, Napier explores the subject of bodies in hentai. What are the roles of women, and why are these not always as they seem? Why are men only depicted in certain roles? Why is transformation a theme in hentai and all-ages anime as well? These topics are necessary to understand anime through a cultural lens and to ignore them would be censorship indeed.

If I have piqued your interest, good! I have a couple other suggestions for informative sources on anime and manga:

  1. Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S. by Roland Kelts – published by St. Martin’s Griffin
  2. Miyazakiworld: A Life in Art by Susan Napier – published by Yale University Press
  3. Bennett the Sage’s Youtube Channel – Bennett makes Youtube reviews of anime shows which will help newcomers to understand the most famous and infamous titles. He’ll also explain some cultural relevance to viewers, especially when reviewing well-known series that have been localized heavily (meaning plot or other elements were changed in order to make them more appealing to American TV audiences).  

Now go forth and learn, my students. 頑張って!

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