Interview Q&A

To my surprise, I have actually gotten quite a number of interview requests as a result of my Anime/Manga pages. Some of it may be useful to readers out there, so I am putting up a sampling of (edited and expanded) questions and the answers I wrote. Thanks to those who sent in the questions and gave me permission to post them. Warning: I am not a trained professional. Much of the below are my opinions and best guesses.

What is your background?

I grew up in a Japanese household in the US (with occasional brief stints in Japan). I attended Japanese language school while in the US, and started reading manga in the mid-1970s. My introduction to Japanese TV was even earlier; I remember watching the dubbed "Speed Racer" on American TV as a 3-year-old.

Since about 1995, I have been writing on the WWW about manga and anime, using my understanding of both Japanese and American culture to help analyze manga and anime for a Western audience. Lately I find myself working to correct severe misunderstandings and stereotypes of manga and anime.

I was invited to present a paper at the 1997 Conference on Japanese Popular Culture at the University of Victoria. The paper I presented was on Romanticism in manga and anime, which was later published.

I also attended the 2001 Schoolgirls & Mobilesuits Workshop at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. Given 9/11 as an impetus, I spoke on the topic of emotional depth in anime and the social responsibility of being an artist who works on anime/manga.

I still have to admit my Japanese isn't perfect, and I do make some translation errors.

What are anime and manga?

I consider anime to be Japanese animation, though it technically is a Japanese term referring to animation in general.

Similarly, I consider manga to be Japanese comics, though it technically refers to comics in general.

What do you think are some major differences between Japanese animation and American animation?

There are two major differences, in my opinion:

First, art style. Japanese animation has a distinct art style, and uses sophisticated camera movement and effects, for example. Many people know the "big hair, big eyes" stereotype. Lately there is also the (misguided) stereotype of "lots of mecha/robots and violence and sex." And of course anime is made to look visually stunning.

Second, story content and style. Japanese animation is generally more philosophical and character-oriented. Even in humorous Japanese animation films, the character's struggles and lessons learned often form the core of the story. Also, characters in Japanese animation are generally more realistic, more interesting, and more three dimensional.

The Japanese are generally a romantic, sentimental people (in a very private way); they also have a strong (again private) sense of idealism. These tendencies come out in the stories. Japanese stories very often stress things that many American stories forget, such as self-sacrifice, the search for meaning, the power of helping others, and the idea of redemption for the fallen.

When do you think Americans started taking note of anime?

This is just a guess, but I think the first real notice of anime occurred in the 70's, during the "Speed Racer" era. Since then, I would guess that there had been a gradual linear increase in awareness --- until a sudden exponential rise in awareness linked to (my hypothesis) the Internet's success.

Why do you think college students are so into this type of animation?

College students, in my thinking, tend to be seeking new experiences as well as "the meaning of life." Japanese animation is not only novel, flashy, and often beautiful, but in many cases, it also quietly addresses the more profound questions about life.

What impression do you think outsiders (non-animation lovers) have of anime? What are the stereotypes?

Funny you should mention that; I just recently wrote an essay about stereotypes. Outsiders (and many insiders) perceive Japanese anime as merely high-tech, violent, and full of sex. There is indeed some tendency to high-tech, a tendency to have violence in male-oriented anime, and certainly more openness about sexuality. HOWEVER, many many anime and manga have nothing to do with technology, violence, or sex. Manga genres in Japan, for example, cover nearly as many fiction genres as the novel market in the US --- from romance novels on to innocent children's stories --- not including non-fiction manga. In fact, one could argue that what we see in America is a skewed sample of what is available in Japan --- and then we have to say "Is this perhaps a reflection of the demand in the US, and not in Japan, for these things?"

And many anime and manga contain complex moral/ethical messages and profound observations about society, without the Pollyanna-ish, simplistic naivete of so many American stories.

What about the violence, nudity, mystisism involved in Japanese animation?

As I said, violence is not as common in Japanese animation as one might think; it is much less common if you sampled Japanese animation in Japan. (Besides, what about the violence in American movies these days?) Nudity is a controversial thing even in the US, so I think the US needs to analyze itself carefully before it can judge. And mysticism? Japan is not afraid to put its spiritual beliefs into its media. Many of its beliefs are, in my opinion, highly valuable and worthy of being promoted. The idea that we become stronger than evil when we selflessly love and care for others is, for example, repeated over and over in Japanese stories. It is a spiritual belief. I am frankly glad that it is there, and think that the power of that message more than counterbalances many minor faults.

Why do you love it?

The storytelling and characterization, combined with the strength and depth of content; the intellectual and philosophical and spiritual aspects; and yes, because the stories are entertaining and fun to read/watch.

Why are some people so obsessed with it?

I think they find in anime or manga something their own lives lack, whether it is social interaction or doing something that "really matters." Daily life for many people can be terribly dreary and unpleasant. Until one can find meaning and purpose in one's existence in reality (aside from a purpose related to being a fan of a certain form of media), I think anime worlds will continue to provide outlets for people who have something to contribute ... yet who can't YET find any way in which to do so.

Why do all the characters look the same? ie big eyes, big hair, etc... (Related question: Why are so many characters Caucasian-looking?)

First of all, they don't all look the same. Each artist has a distinct style. Also, manga and anime themselves are descended from general Asian art, which is known for having simple, graceful lines; this heritage is still visible today. (Recently I saw literal "manga" drawn by famous artist Hokusai (1760-1849), which bore a striking resemblance to modern manga. Hokusai is the creator of the perhaps most internationally famous of Japanese prints, with the giant curling wave rearing over a small boat.)

As for big eyes, etc.: Not all anime characters have huge eyes (though they do tend to be larger than normal). I think part of it is cultural, and part biological. Human beings naturally prefer a larger eye-to-face ratio, for example. However, other things, such as being clean-shaven vs. having a beard, are societal preferences. Finally, larger eyes may allow the audience to see expressions more clearly, as one's eyes tend to convey subtle expression; and the eyes also serve as artistic symbols of innocence or intent (bigger eyes often imply innocence or sincerity). I think these things explain much about anime.

(On another note, I have recently heard again that Western comics' large eyes (e.g., Mickey Mouse) influenced the large eyes of modern Japanese manga.)

Re: Caucasian: See above about the biological preferences for big, round eyes. Hair color, though, I think is partly aesthetic, partly historic/cultural. Variation in hair color is visually more interesting than just having black hair -- and notice how some characters have impossible hair colors like green, blue, or purple. As for other distinctly Caucasian features, this may stem in large part from Japan's historic love/hate, envy/friendship relationship with the West. If you look into research on Japanese history, over the centuries you can see interesting changes in their self-perception compared to their perception of Westerners. Also, current world-wide media standards for beauty are largely saturated with Caucasian features.

What themes prevail in anime/manga?

Philosophically, anime and manga are (generally) very much into the theme of good vs. evil --- but in a non-shallow way. "Good" is a suffering good. Heroes must fight against not just opponents, but against their own weaknesses and failings. Their path is narrow and difficult. "Evil" is often a fallen good. Villains are often those who were just too weak to rise above injustice or injury --- though there are of course villains who are truly evil because they have learned to enjoy cruelty and destruction.

There is another major theme in manga/anime, especially in those that that don't have battles or violence or sex: self-discovery and personal growth. With so many manga/anime directed at young adults, it's not surprising that they often contain the theme of finding a role for oneself ... of overcoming misconceptions, and of rising above pettiness and selfishness.

Granted, there are many anime and manga that have no purpose other than to gratify sensual desires. I don't dispute that they exist. But to lump all manga and anime into that category is a great mistake. There is much that we in the West could learn from manga and anime.

Why do you think Japanese animations are so popular in Canada?

I am not sure why they are so popular in Canada, as I have been largely concentrating on the US. However, given the similarities between the two countries, my guess is that Canadians see material in Japanese animation that catches their interest. And my guess as to what these things are include:

1. Flashy effects and beautiful artwork. This includes the stereotypical violence and nudity of many science-fiction animations, but more importantly also includes the general aesthetics of Japanese animation too: Vibrant, complex landscapes, distinctive characters, sophisticated cinematography effects, camera work, etc..

2. The fact that Japanese animation tends to stimulate both thought and emotion. Japanese animation stories traditionally contain philosophical and spiritual elements, ranging from in-depth character growth, to philosophical arguments between heroes and villains. These stories are also not afraid to put the characters in moral quandaries, or to subject them to heart-wrenching loss. To follow the stories, one typically (though not always) needs to engage both brain and "heart."

As a note, one person who wrote me suggested it is in part due to the large number of Hong Kong immigrants in Canada; since manga is apparently quite popular within the Hong Kong community, the demand would correspondingly become higher for anime as well.

How is anime made?

If you mean the actual production sequence, I can't help you.

If you mean the generals of when an animation is made, I have some sketchy knowledge. Generally, animation starts off as a comic series that is published periodically in a magazine. If the comic series becomes sufficiently popular, it is turned into animation. Whether the animation becomes broadcast on TV, or is merely churned out in video form, is a process that I don't know much about.

What do you know about Japanese culture's influence on Japanese animation?

Japanese animation is absolutely saturated with Japanese culture --- but the same could be said for American films, too. The fact that each side can understand the other speaks more for the similarity and/or universality of human understanding.

However, many things remain strongly Japanese. If you listen to the original Japanese, you will probably notice differences in how characters address each other, based on social rank and gender and societal role. If you pay attention to the philosophy and spirituality, as well as the supposed "world background" of the story, you will notice that much of it is based on Japanese beliefs, hopes, and fears (though a lot is also based on the author's personal viewpoints). The characters, the world, the actions, the heroes' roles, the villains' roles, the dialogue, the voice acting, the music, the moral of the story, the jokes --- all these are touched by Japanese culture.

Do you think that anime should be more accessible (on TV)?

(Sorry, I can only comment on the US. Some of this may apply to Canada; some might not.)

I think the US needs to first get its priorities straight about TV. Does the US want to churn out mindlessly violent or silly TV shows? Or does it want to put on TV shows of quality, which make people think? It has already put up sterilized, dumbed-down and edited Japanese animated series.

Yet, even edited Japanese animation appears to have had a profound effect on many young Americans. If the US can be convinced to select quality stories, then I am all for more accessibility.

However, I would like to point out that the US stereotype of Japanese animation as being purely high-tech and violent is a result of whatever selection process brought the animation to the US. Since I am pretty sure that it's a skewed sample (having seen the far greater variety of material in Japan), I'm worried that good Japanese animation that isn't centered on violence (etc.) won't make it to the US.

Do you think that Japanese animations that are introduced to Canada/America, should be edited for unsuitable scenes such as those containing nudity?

My opinion is that any editing should be done very carefully, if at all. Some editing may be useful, but I have seen such total overboard editing that entire storylines are mangled and altered. Who decides what is unsuitable? Someone in the US once decided a death scene in a certain animation was unsuitable, and I could not disagree more strongly with the dumbed-down result. US TV shows for children often depict violence with no consequences. Japanese animation may depict violence, but it also often depicts the consequences. People get hurt when there's violence. Even one's own friends may die! (No kidding!) What better way to help teach about the effects of violence --- not to mention the preciousness of being alive --- than to show that good guys can get hurt and die? Yet this was censored.

On the other hand, I know that some Japanese animations contain unnecessary nudity that American children aren't brought up to be able to handle well. It may be adequate to apply the same editing standards as are applied to Prime Time TV in the US.

Which Japanese animations do you think are better subtitled or dubbed?

Which animated shows? I have no comments on that, other than to say that I can see the need for dubbing in the case of animation meant for young children who can't read well. However, I think many of those who dub Japanese animation need to seriously improve the quality of their work. A lot of dubbing utterly fails to convey character/personality, situational mood, emotion, and, ultimately, believability.

Generally, I much prefer subtitled animation --- but then again, since I can keep up with a lot of Japanese, I may be slightly biased. I have seen some subtitling that is just plain wrong in places --- even on commercial video releases.

Do you consider anime an art form? Why?

It is definitely art. Not just "art" in the traditional "it's a drawing" sense, but because anime involves storytelling, personal interpretation, art and story flow, and most importantly, the imparting of something meaningful to the viewer. The viewer often comes away with something, whether it is a sense of profoundness, a lighter heart, or a new philosophy to think about (and maybe reject). Just as there is trashy art, there is also trashy anime.

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