Thursday, September 27, 2012

Anime influences and cyclic derivatives

Pardon me while I nerd out in a big way with this article.

Popular speculative fiction site IO9 recently ran a piece on visual motifs used in American cinema that are borrowed from Japanese anime. Among these are concrete surfaces that shatter when landed on by super-powered characters like Neo in The Matrix, or the up-armored Tony Stark in Iron Man . Also included are insectoid mecha (robots),  psychic battles with spectacular side-effects, and weaponized women as sexy cybernetic or supernatural combat platforms.   

In other words, a whole lot of visual badassery and epic atmosphere from land of manga and OVA films.

Not surprisingly, the comments section of the article quickly filled up with some sharp observations about how many of these motifs first appeared in American speculative fiction novels or comic books. This is the internet after all, and no one was going to make these kind of geek culture assertions and walk away unscathed.

This time around, both sides are right. Many of those classic visuals did make their way from anime to Hollywood. Japanese animation has been an enduring influence on a generation of writers and directors who grew up watching brightly-colored characters with big eyes and spiky hair on local television stations or bootlegged VHS tapes. I was most definitely one of them. At the same time, there are plenty making-of-specials in which manga artists and anime writers talk about specific American science fiction influences on their work.  

Not that this interchange of artistic influences is anything new. It's just the most recent manifestation of an ongoing process of  international exchanges. Only now it's accelerated to the point we can practically see discrete packets of influence ricocheting from culture to culture, complete with sparks of controversy and fan-boy admiration.

There have been material exchanges of cultural going on at least since the time of the Silk Roads. Chinese textiles were incorporated into the clothing of the Roman Empire, and Roman glassware was traded in the land of the Han Dynasty. During this past century, however,  the coming of cinema helped to accelerate such cross-border movements into easily traceable lines of dovetailing pop culture influences. My favorite example of such a tightly woven braid is Samurai film master Akira Kurosawa and his American acolytes.     

Kurosawa's high-tension 1950s and 60s samurai showdowns and his often laconic deception of those qued warriors were very much influenced by similarly drawn-out stare-downs and sudden-death six shooter battles in the John Ford films that Kurosawa had admired during the 1930s. Yojimbo in particular is an homage to the influence of Ford and his westerns. At the same time, those samurai movies found a loyal following in Southern California among a new generation of film makers. Future block bluster directors like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola became devoted followers of Kurosawa, and George Lucas openly incorporated several of Kurosawa's film elements into Star Wars. Watch Hidden Fortress if you want to see the original incarnation of R2D2 and C3PO as squabbling sidekick peasants in medieval Japan

The sense of admiration among the American film directors was strong enough that when Kurosawa encountered difficulties raising funds for his films in Japan after a string of box office flops, that Lucas and Coppola used influence and their own money to help produce Kurosawa's Kagemusha. 

There were also other international influences involved in this system of cross-culture exchanges. Kurosawa was a fan of Shakespeare and counted Tolstoy among his influences as a storyteller.

As mentioned earlier, this kind of thing has been going on for a long while in storytelling. Anime and Hollywood exchanges are hardly any more surprising than a pair of epics, The Iliad and The Odyssey, set in a backwater collection of primitive city states, going on to become pillars of the transnational cultural body that would become Western Civilization. Every storyteller has formative heroes whose works shape theirs. Often the come from unlikely sources, including other lands. Only now it's just a bit more obvious whom we derive ourselves from, and that's certainly nothing worth getting angry over on the internet.

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