Most of you probably don't know this, but I studied film for a while in college and have been a cinephile since I was a kid. I find it saddening how little people know about cinema's history, about the various movements in film and so forth. It especially discourages me when people refuse to watch foreign films, either because of a sense of patriotism, or more commonly because they are just too lazy to read subtitles. I was hoping that I could pique the interest of some of Giantbomb's user base. So I decided to write some things about different cinema movements, nationalities, genres, figures, and so forth. I racked my brain over a topic that would be of interest to users here and decided that Japanese cinema would be a good place to start. Specifically I thought I would focus this blog on the history of anime. If people enjoy the blog I would be happy to write about other film topics per people's request. Just to make clear, this is a blog about anime cinema, so no TV shows or OVA's will be mentions unless they relate to a movie. And no I don't count Naruto The Movie as an actual important anime release.
So, you may sometimes wonder to yourself, how did anime get its start. The answer lies actually in the works of early American animation. After WWII American soldiers occupied Japan and brought with them many American products. The Japanese game industry actually started this way, when soldiers brought over Atari arcade machines to play in the 70's. Japanese animation has a similar start. Soldiers often watched cartoons as both a form of entertainment and as a form of training. Disney for example made many interesting shorts on basic daily duties of a soldier. The soldiers liked the Disney films and brought over many of Disney's feature length works to pass the time. Soon the Japanese were watching cartoons as well. One of the key inspirations to the Japanese art style was Max Fleischer, an early innovator in animation whose works include Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor. Betty Boop's massive eyes for example were used by Osamu Tezuka in what many consider the first anime of all time, Astro Boy. Not that this is surprising as Fleischer was in charge of designing army training cartoons. After seeing his work on the job, soldiers wanted more entertaining fare and turned to his TV shows from the 20's and 30's. They brought these shows, including Boop with them to Japan, where they were seen by Tezuka. In 1963 the first episode of Astro Boy was released in Japan. Since then the show has gone on to inspire a film movement that has spanned dozens of genres and tens of thousands of films, shows, and video releases.
However, anime was largely restricted to Japan until the mid 90's. In Japan though the movement pushed forward, and revolutionized animation in a very important way. That is, it made it so that cartoons could be for adults as well as kids. In fact, many anime, including the pornographic Hentai are exclusively made with adults in mind.
Like American TV cartoons, anime released on TV in Japan is poorly animated, using such patented Hannah Barbara techniques as reusing frames, having dialogue over still shots, panning over a long still frame to give the illusion of movement, and animating only a single aspect of a picture (A hand for example). Like American animation as well, feature films are given a much better treatment. Probably the first international hit to come out of Japan theatrically was from a small animation studio named Studio Ghibli. Jointly run by directors Hayao Miyazaki, Isao Takahata, and producer Toshio Suzuki, the studio is the most successful non-American animation studio in the world. Ghibli's first film, released in 1984, was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It was one of the first anime films to receive a (terribly butchered) VHS release in the US. Ghibli followed this film with Castle in the Sky in 1986.
1988 was a seminal year for Japanese animation. Three films were released which forever changed the face of animation worldwide. The first was Studio Ghibli's third film Grave of the Fireflies. Crowned by Roger Ebert as one of the greatest films ever made, and acclaimed worldwide, it tells the story of two children orphaned in Japan during WWII. It's content was deemed so devastating that Disney, which distributes all of Ghibli's films in the US, actually passed on it. With the help of Roger Ebert the film was eventually released in the US. Maybe even more important that year was the release of Akira, written and directed by Katsuhiro Otomo. Considered one of the greatest anime ever made, Akira is a post apocalyptic, cyberpunk action film. It is often considered one of the main factors leading to anime's resurgence in America's youth. Finally, Studio Ghibli released My Neighbor Totoro. While not as acclaimed as Grave or Akira, Totoro became a prominent figure in Anime culture, and has even spawned his own environmentalist group.
The early 1990's were largely uneventful on the film front of anime. While many TV shows crossed over to American audiences, and many studios improved their animation techniques the next major film to be released from the anime movement didn't hit theaters until 1995. But what a film it was. Ghost in the Shell hit like a bombshell. It catapulted director/writer, Mamoru Oshii to the forefront of the anime scene and became what many people consider the greatest non-Ghibli anime of all time. Often defying description, Ghost can barely be summarized.
It stars a cyborg, Major Motoko Kusanagi. She is the head of Japan's section 6, a post apocalyptic Japanese anti-terrorism unit which fights cyber crimes. The film deals with such issues as identity, religion, humanity, the nature of life, the mind/body relationship, the ghost in the shell theory and many more major philosophical issues. It is considered by non-artistes as too brainy to be fun, but those with a tolerance for violence and a desire to see films which deal with real world issues, call Ghost the epitome of the adult cartoon. It is often said to be deeper than many Oscar winners, but many say that it lacks any real entertainment value. Regardless Ghost in the Shell caused a stir in the anime industry and the film industry worldwide.
Anime finally reached mass market awareness in 1997. The maker was Studio Ghibli, the film was Princess Mononoke. The film stars a boy who must find a way to reverse a curse which has been cast on him. He travels to a forest where he meets a forest princess, the titular character. The film deals with classic Ghibli issues such as environmentalism, social responsibility, growing up, and accountability. The film was seen by Miramax heads Bob and Harvey Weinstein. The two, along with Pixar head John Lasseter, convinced Disney to buy the rights to release Mononoke worldwide. Soon after Disney signed an exclusive global distribution deal with Studio Ghibli. With Disney marketing them, Ghibli films reached the eyes of viewers around the globe. Anime had finally entered the vocabulary of the mainstream.
In 2001 Studio Ghibli received it's greatest award yet. Spirited Away may not have been the greatest anime film, but with Disney's help it sure as hell found the widest audience of any. Released in theaters in the US Spirited Away was ripe to win an award never before possible for an anime: an Oscar. And sure enough it did, becoming the only non-american film to ever win the animated feature film category and giving it recognition to millions of viewers previously unaware of anime's existence. Meanwhile Satoshi Kon released his second film, Millennium Actress, and a new director Makoto Shinkai released what many people consider the greatest anime love story of all time, Voices of a Distant Star. Finally the animated version of Metropolis, written by Otomo, was completed.
Since 2001 many great anime films have been released, including the second Ghost in the Shell, Miyazaki's Howl's Moving Castle, Satoshi Kon's Tokyo Godfather and Paprika, Makoto Shinkai's The Place Promised in our Early Days and 5 Centimeters Per Second, and Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy. And many films are still to come. The anime industry is in great shape today. All of the directors and writers mentioned here are still active and making films. Although anime is now more popular than ever, there is still a ways to go. Hopefully one day the movement will be as watched as Disney.
Obviously this history is very abridged. There are many more great anime films that have been released over the years, but I thought it important to focus on the most seminal.
I wrote about anime first because many of Giantbomb’s users are interested in it but I hope to make this an ongoing project for me. I would also like to write about French cinema, Japanese live action cinema, Italian cinema, German expressionism, and certain directors and writers from those nations, among others. I would be happy to hear feedback about this piece, and I would be interested in knowing what genre or nationality