Seth Jacobowitz, associate Yale professor of East Asian Languages and Literature, was not expecting much of a turnout for his newest class, EALL 357: Anime and the Posthuman. Class sizes in his department typically range from five to ten students, and anime, traditionally defined as “Japanese animation,” seemed too niche a subject to attract a large audience. But once he held the first class session in William Harkness Hall, Jacobowitz quickly discovered that he had miscalculated.
“Professor Jacobowitz was very surprised at how many people showed up,” recalled Robert Calabresi ’18. “We were originally in a seminar-size classroom, and 50 people were just stuffed in there and pouring out into the hallway, and he’s like, ‘Ok, we’re moving.’”
Calabresi, who is president of the Yale Anime Society, is one of the nearly 50 students taking EALL 357 this spring. He’s in the company of students with interests as diverse as the animations they’re studying: humanities, computer science, music. They are unified only by a shared fascination with anime, which until recently might have been considered “niche” in the West. For Jacobwitz, the popularity of such a class would have been inconceivable in the 90s, when he was an undergraduate at Columbia University.
While anime is a long way from attaining the mainstream exposure of comic-book blockbusters like The Avengers or the cultural prestige of HBO series Game of Thrones, it has grown to unprecedented proportions in the global consciousness. Hollywood has begun producing live-action adaptations of anime classics, including a controversial adaptation of Ghost in the Shell last year starring Scarlett Johansson. Makoto Shinkai’s Your Name, a fantasy romance film, enjoyed a limited theater release worldwide and shattered box office records to become the highest-grossing anime film of all time. YouTube anime bloggers like Digibro and Gigguk have built careers by producing exclusively anime-based videos. Meanwhile, Netflix has begun not only streaming anime in 190 countries, but producing it. The studio has already collaborated with Japanese director Masaaki Yuasa to release an original anime series, Devilman Crybaby, and has bought exclusive streaming rights to Kyoto Animation’s latest release, Violet Evergarden.
Violet Evergarden, a series about a soldier attempting to reintegrate into civilian society, is one of the shows that the Yale Anime Society watches weekly. Similar clubs have sprung up on college and high school campuses across the U.S. Many of YAS’s regulars are enrolled in Jacobowitz’s anime course.
For Calabresi, who has always been “very visually-minded,” anime has deepened his appreciation for film and animation.
“I wrote an essay on Ghost in the Shell for a film course that I was taking last year, and to me it was just like any other film, it just happens to be animated,” said Calabresi. “People seem to separate anime from other mediums when it really shouldn’t be. I find many anime movies to be just as good if not better than live-action films.”
Other fans are attracted to anime’s versatility. It can tell stories about almost anything, from volleyball underdogs to space bounty hunters. Others think anime offers more options for meaningful storytelling than Western cartoons do. Still others enjoy witnessing the evolution of anime as a medium, since the form is young enough that the lineages of its artists are easily traceable.
“It’s a very incestuous production environment,” said Gene Yoon ’17, a former YAS member. “It’s really easy to sort of see where [artists] are drawing their influences, especially since a lot of anime producers are themselves anime fans, especially in this era. It’s a very intimate feeling. It’s like fans producing for other fans.”
It is perhaps fitting that YAS’s members watch Violet Evergarden, a television series based on the winning contest submission of a fellow anime fan. From its conception, anime has been something of a large fan project, in terms of the people who produce it and consume it. That the number of anime fans outside of Japan has grown far greater than those inside it, and that those fans continue to participate in the proliferation, interpretation, and now even production of anime, challenges the very idea of what “anime” can be, and suggests tantalizing possibilities for what it might become.
Anime’s journey to mainstream acceptance has been long and difficult, domestically and globally. Although anime (and manga, the Japanese comics that serve as much of its source material) is a crucial cultural export from Japan, even there it has not existed without controversy.
While many international fans would refer to any Japanese animation as “anime,” some animators in Japan have disputed the term’s applicability to their work. According to Jacobowitz, filmmakers like Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away) and Mamoru Oshii (Ghost in the Shell), the sort of auteurs who aspire to international film awards, dismiss anime as “lowbrow, mass-market garbage” and therefore do not refer to their own animated features as such. The societal stigma from which anime suffers in Japan and elsewhere has not been helped by the “hentai” (anime porn) industry, nor by a popular perception that “otaku” (hardcore fans) are obsessive, reclusive failures who could not complete the transition to adulthood.
Despite these challenges, Jacobowitz said, animation is now “completely integrated into Japan’s information society.” In Japan, animated characters instruct subway riders on proper etiquette, help deliver public service announcements, and decorate convenience store snacks. According to Young Yi, a doctoral student and teaching fellow for Jacobowitz’s course, anime has become a ubiquitous aspect of Japanese popular culture, “from the bank explanation of how to use an ATM to warning posters about sexual abusers.”
“Even if you are not technically a fan of anime, just by going into a convenience store or taking a train, [you’re] automatically brought into the discourses of anime,” Yi told The Politic. “Ubiquity and the mundane become two key vectors of consuming or partaking in anime whether you want to or not.”
Anime in Japan has become so mainstream that in recent years, the Japanese government has sought to leverage anime’s cross-cultural appeal to improve its global reputation, attract international students, and bolster its creative industries. Dubbed “Cool Japan,” this public relations strategy is best understood as the Japanese government’s conscious manipulation of the country’s “soft power” to political and economic ends. But such externally focused efforts are not principally responsible for anime’s remarkable popularity beyond Japan’s borders.
“To understand how anime became a global phenomenon, you have to look beyond the borders of animation production,” said Ian Condry, professor of Japanese cultural studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an interview with The Politic. He noted a “synergy” between manga, anime, toy companies, and fan activities, “from fan convention to fanmade works that are online.”
Anime’s global takeover was grassroots. The most important transmitters of anime were not animation companies or national governments, but something more ordinary: enthusiastic fans eager to share their hobby. The way Condry sees it, “the role of fans and fan activity tends to be underplayed in understanding anime and animation business.”
In Jacobowitz’s undergraduate days, back in the 1990s, fans recorded original Japanese anime broadcasts, added translatory subtitles, and illegally distributed the tapes to other fans. The dawn of the internet only accelerated and amplified the process. Hundreds of “fansubbing” groups digitized Japanese broadcasts, translated them, and shared them online as downloadable torrent files. Additionally, online forums gave fans a space to discuss their idiosyncratic hobby, even if they lived across the world from one another.
The impact of such new technologies was profound: They enabled cross-cultural exchange by fostering a cohesive anime community unhindered by geographic barriers; and they expanded access to anime and thus reached millions of potential new fans. This new anime subculture, however, was built on egregious violations of copyright laws. While some concerns over fan-subbing’s economic impact on domestic and international anime sales might be warranted, Condry finds much of the negative rhetoric on piracy overblown.
“I think piracy is complicated,” Condry said. But I [also] think it’s a mistake to demonize people as pirates without also recognizing some of the positive things that can come out of sharing media online. If it’s me, if the choice is between somebody paying for it or somebody not seeing what I made, I’d much rather have somebody see what I made, even if they didn’t pay for it. I’d rather be paid [but] I think it’s more damaging if no one is ever going to see my work because it’s so expensive.”
Just as piracy built a market for Hollywood films in China, so too has it built a market for anime around the globe. Even with the recent explosion of legal streaming services like Crunchyroll, illegal anime streaming sites receive more global traffic than giants like Hulu and IGN. Piracy’s enduring popularity continues to expand the international market and fandom, into which megacorporations like Netflix are now investing.
The international anime fandom expresses its passion both on- and offline. Fan-run anime conventions have occupied a central place in Western anime subculture since 1991, serving as massive gatherings where anime fans share merchandise, dress as favorite characters, and meet industry insiders. Anime Expo, the largest anime and manga convention in the U.S., attracted over 100,000 attendees last year. Fans also write fanfiction, circulate fan art, and produce abridged parodies of popular series.
The phenomenon of “fans producing for other fans,” to put it in Yoon’s words, reached new levels in 2016, when international anime fans discovered that they could create not just anime-based works but “official” anime itself. American DJ Porter Robinson and French DJ Madeon collaborated with Japanese studio A-1 Pictures to produce an animated music video for their original song “Shelter.” Robinson wrote the story, which centers on a 17-year-old girl named Rin as she navigates life in a futuristic simulation. Shelter’s existence demonstrated that it was not only Japanese anime fans who might one day have a chance to produce “official” anime; overseas fans had a shot as well.
But though massively popular (the original video has amassed more than 28 million views on YouTube), Shelter immediately resurrected the age-old question as to what, exactly, counts as an anime. The moderators of r/anime, one of the largest anime forums online, deleted posts discussing the music video because they believed it did not comport with their definition of anime as “an animated series, produced and aired in Japan, intended for a Japanese audience.” Critics defended Shelter by pointing to its anime aesthetic, production by a Japanese animation studio, and debut in Tokyo. The controversy crystallized an important debate: In an age of globalization, can “anime” retain its Japanese exclusivity?
The question of whether or not anime can remain exclusively Japanese might be fundamentally flawed, Jacobowitz suggests, because it fails to differentiate between “anime” as a product and anime as a production. Anime studios have been outsourcing animation to China and Korea for years, meaning that much of what fans call “anime” is not even produced in Japan and often bears the fingerprints of non-Japanese animators.
More importantly, Japanese animators have long drawn inspiration from non-Japanese sources. Osamu Tezuka, the so-called “god of manga,” was an avid fan of Walt Disney as a child. He eventually pioneered an aesthetic—bold lines, big heads, and large eyes—first developed by Disney, and his comics brim with overt visual references to characters like Mickey Mouse. Tezuka’s influence on the Japanese animation industry meant that his visual style would become synonymous with that of anime and manga, entrenching as essentially Japanese what had begun as American.
“The idea that Japanese animation has always been somehow intrinsically unique is somewhat misleading,” said Jacobowitz. “It does have a distinctive look—at times—but there are all kinds of constant references to American pop culture, whether it be Star Wars, or the Blade Runner, or Miami Vice, or the Terminator. In a certain sense, there has never been a hermetically sealed, essentially Japanese art form that is just unique to Japan.”
Not that the cultural exchange has been a one-way street. The transfer came full circle in 1994, when Disney released The Lion King, which drew heavily on Tezuka’s 1960s animated television series Kimba the White Lion. Meanwhile, the visual and narrative aesthetics of Hayao Miyazaki’s films and other touchstones of Japanese animation heavily influenced popular American shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Samurai Jack.
As cultural and economic globalization erode the national boundaries of the animation production landscape, the international understanding of the term “anime” as singularly Japanese appears destined to undergo fundamental redefinition.
“We can expect to see convergence,” said Jacobowitz. “As people all over the world are consuming the same things, or almost the same things, they also adopt [a] similar degree of homogeneity in their aesthetic…That seems to be where anime is likely to head.”
For a longtime fan like Yoon, anime’s booming global popularity and gradual (but ongoing) transition from niche subculture to global culture is bittersweet. He’s happy to see more people share his passion, and he believes that anime’s international success is economically healthy for an industry that has struggled domestically in recent years. But he also recognizes that Jacobowitz is correct: As anime flows into the cultural mainstream, it is likely to become something else.
“I am actually really happy with how things are currently; it doesn’t really bother me that it’s a niche interest,” said Yoon. “You have those cross-cultural hits that I very much enjoy. But I think I come to anime for what it can offer that other mediums can’t, and to reach a broader audience it would have to become like other types of existing media—and I think we’d be losing something there.”