Anime: the little word that conquered the world

From the breakthrough of Akira through the exquisite films of Miyazaki Hayao to the recent blockbuster success of Your Name, Japanese animation has captivated audiences around the world.

Updated: 14 December 2022

By Nick Bradshaw

Ghost in the Shell (1995)
Sight and Sound
The Summer 2020 anime special issue of Sight and Sound

When Tokyo was last preparing to host the Olympics, in 1964, international recognition of Japanese cinema didn’t reach far beyond Kurosawa Akira’s post-war run of now-classic crossover films. Critics and programmers were still sharpening their claims for the mid-century pearls of the late Ozu Yasujiro and Mizoguchi Kenji, while the Japanese new wave of filmmakers like Oshima Nagisa and Imamura Shohei was just beginning to shake up the arthouse.

Japan also had its fertile yet disregarded vernacular genres like the chanbara (samurai or sword fighting) and kaiju (giant monster) movies – but as far as the country’s animation went, as Jonathan Clements explores in The Seeds of Anime, his history of the build-up to Japan’s anime boom in our Summer 2020 anime special issue, there was little to shout about. Still, 1963 saw the debut of the first Japanese animated series on US television – Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy, a tribute to Disney in its economies of production and ambitions of merchandising as well as its Pinocchio-esque story – even if, after its dubbing, few American TV viewers would have been aware of its provenance. A year earlier again, 1962, marks the first recorded use of the abbreviated term ‘anime’, in the Japanese film journal Eiga hyoron. (Clements also credits it to Tezuka himself.)

Astro Boy (1963-66)

Across the decades that followed, as Helen McCarthy records in TV Trailblazers: Strength in Numbers, her account of the ‘low culture’ of anime series and franchises that colonised the small screen in our special issue, Japanese animation proved one of world culture’s longest loss-leaders, snaking its way to power and prestige via cheap TV dubs and bootleg VHS imports, dedicated fan appeal and an industrial seriousness about supposedly unserious genres and subjects, from robots to schoolgirls. Besides their low prices and the cheap postwar yen, anime producers for the longest time dispensed with the Disney policy of rigidly enforcing their intellectual property or dictating what overseas buyers did with it – perhaps themselves discounting the value of their work – leading to a historical haze of ‘localised’ re-edits and rewrites, and the maze of alternative titles and degrees of availability that you will find in our list of essential features in our Summer 2020 issue.

Yet anime now stands as one of Japan’s major cultural industries, worth some £16 billion in 2018. Six of its top 20 all-time grossing films are native animations, and 87 per cent of the country’s movie studios are anime studios, more than 500 in total. What other country can boast such a density of animation production – or indeed such international devotion for its wares?

Panda and the Magic Serpent (Hakujaden, aka The Tale of the White Serpent aka The White Snake Enchantress, 1963)
BFI National Archive

And what other country has its own term to describe – or market – its animation? True to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, ‘anime’ is not just a descriptor but an active label, a brand, signifying loose constellations of style and flavour (for the more fainthearted of filmgoer, mere juvenilia and pulp sensation) that widen the deeper you look. What becomes clear on approach is that, like any confident artform with its own momentum, anime boasts rich veins of ambition, expression, technique and outlook: as a medium (not a genre), it embraces all manner of experience and experiment. That’s what our special issue is here to explore.

Like any success, the term ‘anime’ also casts a shadow. If it is generally taken to denote industrial, cel-drawn animation then it occludes more diverse and artisanal forms of animation, from puppetry to pattern films, arts in which Japanese cinema is also rich, as Jasper Sharp unfolds in his feature Parallel Lines: Independent Animation in our issue. Equally, if anime is deemed to be a style then, as Alex Dudok de Wit asks in his feature Tick Tick… Boom: Anime Goes Global, what is to stop it becoming an international or uprooted style?

Spirited Away (2001)

Some Japanese animators themselves have recoiled from the term and its baggage. Lecturing in 1988, Miyazaki Hayao averred that the truncated (trivialising?) word “symbolises the current desolation of our industry”; even now, Studio Ghibli marketing materials translate anime as ‘animation’ in its English versions. This stereotype of cheap, disposable anime is, too, the hangover from Tezuka and the Toei studio’s 1960s breakthroughs in industrial animation production and its aesthetic shortcuts, as well as anime’s ongoing debt to its fellow pop art form of manga, Japan’s comic books for all ages. “Animation,” the master Norman McLaren told us, “is not the art of drawings that move but the art of movements that are drawn”; manga may be the art of the key frame but the richest anime finds ways to invest in the in-betweening that conjures movement.

Miyazaki and his colleague Takahata Isao founded Studio Ghibli partly to find a way to guarantee that craftsmanship, along with the freedom to channel their sincerity and imaginations; their success in that is why Ghibli films are now beloved around the world, and have become catalogue treasures for their licensing companies. But it was a long haul for the firm, from the slow-burn domestic success of My Neighbour Totoro (1988) to Disney’s hesitant backing of Princess Mononoke (1997) and the global embrace of Spirited Away (2001), Oscar and all.

Akira (1988)

Before then anime’s international poster movie had been Otomo Katsuhiro’s big-budget sci-fi blockbuster Akira (1988), whose dystopian biker teens stoked the market for cyberpunk anime, to the point where British specialist distributor Manga UK co-funded Oshii Mamoru’s philosophical cyborg story Ghost in the Shell (1995), another slow-burn standout.

Looking forward to our post-Ghibli era, younger directors such as Shinkai Makoto and Hosoda Mamoru have had to define their work in counterpoint to Ghibli’s, often mixing fantasy with stronger elements of contemporary urban realism. And, as with so much of cinema, breakout female directors like Yamada Naoko have had the added weight of finding their voices against a heritage of male artistic primacy, as Serena Scateni explores in this issue’s essay A Show of Hands: Women and Anime in our issue.

A Silent Voice (Eiga Koe no Katachi, 2016)

As the world limbers up for a rescheduled 2021 Tokyo Olympics, and the BFI launches its Japan 2020 celebration of the country’s many signature contributions to the art of the movies, we at Sight & Sound felt there could be no better time to realise a long-held ambition to explore anime’s great accomplishments of the past 60-plus years.

It’s been a learning curve; to help ourselves to a diversity of insight and wisdom – and to build one of our long lists of, in this case, not so much ‘the best’ as a terrain map of 50 key films that encompass the range and depth of achievements in anime, and cuts through the superabundance – we enlisted a team of experts and aficionados from among our regular contributors and beyond, and are deeply grateful for their generous input and advice. We hope this issue and its writing helps to pass on the torch.

Originally published: 26 June 2020