Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Japanese style

The Japan trilogy comes to an end, with something art-relevant even.

I was a little surprised to start seeing anime and then manga become the powerhouse media they are. When I was young, the anime options open to you were largely either Voltron, Starblazers or Robotech (I chose Starblazers). At that time, these series were pretty hot (especially Voltron and Robotech, I was such the rebel for not watching). But they were something new, by and large. Transformers were Japanese-produced and didn’t feature any overly anime-styled humans. There was the Cliff Hanger video game, which was mainly Miyazaki’s Castle of Cagliostro remixed, and whose ninja sections floored me as a kid. I suspect other bits here and there were farmed out to Japanese studios (like Inspector Gadget). But manga was by and large unknown then.

I hadn’t seen human animation quite like this scene before.

When the anime film industry began getting seriously imported, it was still hard to get a hold of stuff. I recall seeing Akira for the first time in like, 1990, on a bootleg video, in Japanese and thinking where the hell had that come from?! At that moment I began to realize that something big had been happening in Japan while we weren’t paying that much attention, while we were settling for the Little Mermaid.

The visuals still bend my mind.

The 90s then seemed to usher in a golden age of anime in the USA. Stuff known previously on unofficial copies, with sometimes unofficial dubs, was being officially released. The dvd era brought it to the mainstream. Pokemon certainly helped with the young ones.

Throughout this history, whose telling I am only outlining from my own observance and could be chronicled endlessly by serious fans of the genre, something happened: anime became the visual language of the youth, and in this decade has become fully mainstream among the younger generations. If there was a visual language among artists in my generation, when we were young, it revolved around Marvel and DC comics, and probably Star Wars.

These days, from my own young nephews to young (or not-so-young) adults with portfolios in hand, there is an increasing sense that a group of people have grown up so enthralled by anime that it has basically defined what they draw. For some, they’ve never drawn anything else. It’s really weird, especially since I’ve always considered it a uniquely Japanese expression. I appreciate some anime quite a lot, though there is certainly what I would class the “Hanna Barbera” school of really bad anime, too. But those distinctions don’t seem to be made among those who copy anime endlessly. The main thing seems to be the cartoon or manga—if they like it they learn to draw it whether the art is technically good or not. I suppose I can understand this to a point.

I fear for that generation. Who is teaching them to actually draw? Learning the visual language of anime is a pretty specific thing, a pretty narrowly defined visual slang, and usually eschews things like shading/rendering and realistic anatomy. Even comic books have decent, if over-wrought, anatomy.

Oh dear.

Beyond that, if someone had been brought up pretty exclusively on comic books, and thought that they’d try to make their way as a comic book artist, there is certainly a living to be made drawing super heroes even if their art never becomes other than that. But for anime, it’s not like there’s a huge market for American anime artists. Most anime is done by Japanese, and when they aren’t doing it, they are farming it out to South Korea or China or who-knows-where because they can pay someone rin on the yen. So where does that leave our young American anime artist?

Certainly, taking that style and moving on with it, learning some of the stylish design sensibilities and some of the clever figurative poses that they use, and then creating something new can be worthwhile, and there are a number of artists who’ve done just that who are doing well by appealing to anime fans without being all shiny-bug-eyed.

But if you think you’re going to be a clean-up artist on Dragonball Z or something, it’s probably best to think again. You may as well be a German kid who wants to succeed as a Bollywood leading-man or something.

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