Arts and Entertainment

Not Just for Kids: Anime’s Expansion to the United States

Anime has steadily been increasing in commercial popularity within the U.S., and perhaps one day it will reach a level of mainstream critical acclaim as well.

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By Ivy Jiang

With all the time spent indoors due to quarantine, people were bound to pick up new hobbies. Accordingly, many longtime anime fans began to notice an increased interest in their favorite art form. But anecdotal evidence aside, there is statistical proof. Reports from Parrot Analytics show that popular shonen anime “Attack on Titan” (2013-) even beat out hit shows like “WandaVision” (2021) to be the most in demand show during the week of January 31. This example is just one instance of a long-standing pattern. In the last 10 years, there has been a drastic growth in anime's demand and consumption in the U.S., although its influence was felt long before then.

The term "anime" simply refers to animation that has been created in Japan. It's not a genre on its own, but rather a medium. The title remains true regardless of the subject material or art style. However, there have definitely been distinctive characteristics unique to anime that have influenced animation outside of Japan. Oversized eyes are just one example of a practice that Western animation studios have adapted with open arms. The creators of various modern children’s shows, including “Avatar: The Last Airbender” (2005), also cite anime as an influence.

Anime isn't a new presence within the United States by any means. Dating back to the first airing of “Astro Boy” in 1964, Americans have long been consuming animated shows and movies from Japan. The late ‘90s to early 2000s "golden age of anime" brought classic shows such as “Sailor Moon” (2003) and “Cowboy Bebop” (1998) onto the scene and into the eyes of the American public. Toonami, the anime programming block of Cartoon Network, was perhaps the main reason for this increased popularity. Eventually, shows like “Pokémon” (1997) took off across the world, and many people didn't even realize that what they were watching wasn't a normal American cartoon.

Streaming has completely changed the game, arguably elevating anime from a niche interest to a mainstream one. With streaming, anime is more accessible than ever before, greatly contributing to the rise in popularity seen in the last decade. Fans no longer need to spend copious amounts of time and money to watch series that aren't readily available on TV. Crunchyroll is perhaps the best known anime streaming platform with around 1,000 shows, as well as a wide selection of manga.

Netflix, a longtime global streaming powerhouse, has also played a big role, attaining exclusive licenses for many acclaimed anime that can't be streamed anywhere else, including iconic shows such as “Neon Genesis Evangelion” (1995-1996). Netflix original anime has brought numerous shows to life, including those of long-standing and well-known manga. Other popular platforms such Amazon Prime and Hulu have also been offering an increasingly large selection of anime.

Animated movies from Japan have previously found critical success within the United States, more so than the shows. In 1988, post-apocalyptic action film “Akira” brought a new image of anime to the world and set the stage for anime's growth in the West. Even more recently, animated movies such as “Your Name” (2016) and more have been theatrically released and widely watched in the U.S. Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” (2001) even won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. There's even ample evidence that Satoshi Kon's famous anime works of “Perfect Blue” (1997) and “Paprika” (2006) inspired many aspects of well known movies such as “Black Swan” (2010) and “Inception” (2010).

Shows have not achieved the same kind of success. The United States tends to think of itself as the pop culture center of the world, and this view has long affected the attitudes toward outside media. An occasional movie doing well isn’t uncommon, but for a foreign show to be in the popular cultural consciousness of Americans is another thing. In addition, there exists a level of stigma associated with watching anime. Perhaps the questionable behavior of Western fans is to blame; there has been a concerning fetishization of Japanese culture among them, even though thinking that anime is a realistic portrayal of Japan is akin to thinking that Marvel movies are a realistic portrayal of Americans. It's important to be conscious of the way that we consume media, as to ensure that we don't further contribute to any xenophobic or reductive narratives. Another reason for the lack of mainstream popularity is that cartoons are generally thought of as having a target audience of children. This leads to anime being taken less seriously as both an art form and a viable option for adults to watch.

Despite this stigma, a particular strength of anime lies in its ability to transcend the bounds of reality and capture our imagination. This effect is true for people of all ages and backgrounds. When it comes to alternate universes, magical powers, and futuristic technology, anime is the ideal medium to employ, as it has endless possibilities. No matter how high the production costs or how well trained the actors are, live action fails to portray these otherworldly elements in the same way. Although the animated format provides a sense of escapism, many shows deal with themes that can be reflected in our own lives. The aforementioned “Attack on Titan” may have 40-foot-tall flesh-eating humanoids, but it also discusses relevant, human issues such as oppression, racism, and war.

The future of manga, which most anime is adapted from, remains to be seen. It is no doubt present in the United States, but it has not caught on to the same degree. Whether it is due to the unfamiliar right to left reading format, a lack of promotion, or something else entirely, manga is far less mainstream in the United States. Ironically, it is far more popular than anime in Japan, perhaps due to the country's long-standing traditions of visual storytelling. But with many bestselling manga set to be adapted in 2021, the possibilities are endless.

The versatility of anime—as well as the profits to be made from the already billion dollar industry—will inevitably pave the way for the biggest wave of consumption yet. As viewership continues to grow, anime will become more and more of a mainstream presence in the United States, and this upward trajectory will no doubt remain for years to come.