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First things first: this article will focus mainly on the academic point of view for anime graphic style. This involves middle school to graduate school in the US. We are not going to concentrate on extra curricular classes here.
What is art? The definition can rise difficult debates even among experts, but let’s try to keep it simple: art is any human activity that creates objects (both tangible and intangible) which express their authors’ skills and that can be appreciated by others. In Japan, of course, it is no exception. Its rich story on architecture, sculpture, painting, music, dance, performance, and literature supports its status as a unique nation with ancestral cultural roots. Japan still cherishes and preserves some of its most old works of art. Passing through the minor arts (also called crafts), we finally arrive to the realm of manga and anime, which claim to have their origin on drawings of animals from a Buddhist temple, as well as prints of daily life by Hokusai and other artists. Particularly on the case of Hokusai, it is interesting to see how his humans perform various spontaneous activities (like dancing) in several steps, giving a sensation of movement. Thus, he could be considered a precursor of animation for his country. Considering this, we take a look into how art classes in the US perceive anime art styles.
Anime and its relationship with the West
Japanese artwork changed dramatically after the Second World War, the time where anime started adapting the Western style. A good example are the animations based on the works by Osamu Tezuka, the God of Manga. Let’s just open (or watch) one of his most famous creations: Kimba, The white lion (Jungle Taitei), first published in 1950. Tezuka adopted not only Disney’s aesthetics, but also the flavor of the comical insert scenes with innocent looking animals. Decades later, there was controversy with Disney´s The Lion King, although the official version states that the similarities between both stories were a coincidence. Tezuka also got inspiration from Betty Boop to create his expressive and soft curved female characters.
Anyway, another great example is Machiko Hasegawa’s Sazae-san, which has been an ongoing anime series since 1969. Although the figure of Sazae does not coincide with what we could call “the cute anime look”, the comic format (similar to American classics like The Bungle Family) and the story of a modern and independent woman, give us insight to a progressive cultural mix with potential to appeal the Western market. Thus, Japan eventually recovered its economy aided by its soft power, but a byproduct was the style adopted by Tezuka, which we associate with anime today: those big, shiny, dreamy eyes. If a character is drawn with bigger eyes, it is easier to read its emotions and personality traits. Plus, we grant the character a cuter look. What soul-less individual does not feel attracted to the cute? Thus, the anime like eyes became a friendly world wide known trademark for Japan.
In the 1960´s, Tezuka´s works were the first broadcasted in the public American television, followed by other titles. Frequent cuts and dialogue adaptations were done in order to avoid cultural references that the general public might not have been able to understand. Series considered for the whole family or full of comedy were chosen for broadcasting over the deeply troubled or philosophical ones, because cartoons were considered suitable only for children. This limited the anime options for the average American viewer.
Anime has also been viewed in a negative way by political and religious conservatives, especially since the 80’s, when anime deemed as violent like Dragon Ball showed up. But we wonder what these people agree with anyway? Yet, the anime fandom kept growing and a more diverse variety of animes slowly began to conquer the market in the eighties and nineties, to the point that Disney Pixar officially released several of Studio Ghibli’s movies. Should we also mention that Hayao Miyazaki won an Oscar for Spirited away? And how about the current tendency to make cartoons for adults in America, like The Simpsons or Family Guy? We can see that US is recognizing the Japanese influence on its culture with these signals.
Art classes and pop culture
Therefore, with such a background, we finally arrive to the opposition to the anime style in Western art classes. Right away, we can argue that the general public is already prejudiced against it, but let’s check the art class’ curriculum closely, shall we? It is composed of four main units:
Art production: which deals with the definition of art, classification and techniques to create artwork.
Art history: the study of the great artists and their historical context.
Art criticism: the perception, appreciation, interpretation and evaluation of an artwork.
Aesthetics: the study of beauty and its role in the arts.
While there are schools that choose an open definition of art and favor the creative freedom of artists, institutions are another matter. Let’s take into account that most of them depend on conservative political and economical patrons. Their ability to embrace change is slow. We have to consider that Western art has deep roots in the greco-roman style, which began to be deconstructed only in the early 20th Century, when Impressionism showed up in Europe. Let’s also remember that drawing lessons begin with the correct usage of basic instruments like pencil and carbon, followed by copying from real objects, anatomy… In sum, art starts with the basics. Thus, an art teacher would cringe if they see the anime trademark (those big, shiny eyes) instead of a drawing of a real animal or person.
Unfortunately for later stages in art education, we also have to admit that the style of mainstream anime does not help, as it gives the idea of lack of originality. Mainstream anime has limitations due to budget, deadlines and rules imposed by studios, producers and the staff. There is also a tendency to repeat successful formulas both in the story plot and the style departments, which is precisely the reason why the big eyes have become so inherent to anime. Let’s not forget that mainstream anime exists mainly for commercial reasons.
That’s how we arrive to the harsh truth: anime is still viewed as a niche hobby by most people in the West. It is hard to convince someone (especially an art teacher with a deep admiration towards, say, Rembrandt) that anime is great and can be considered as a work of art at its best. It is hard to get recognition by a museum or art gallery that depends on wealthy patrons who prefer something more widely accepted as art. Besides that, it is hard to make the case for anime as art if the first thing that pops out from a Google search is an ecchi image or the Super Deformed protagonists from Lucky Star. Let’s remember there are certain rules to become a fully recognized work of art which can also be applied to anime, drawn from painting, literature and cinematography. There has to be consistency (and logic) on the plot and the style. How about originality? Tension? Pacing? Plus, a true work of art transcends time and place. So, we can see how most mainstream anime will never be comparable in such terms with the likes of Ghost in the Shell or Ergo Proxy… which also happen to not be known by most teachers who love Rembrandt.
On the other hand, artworks once considered as low quality or essentially anti-art have won recognition through time. For example, pop art was born in Great Britain in the mid 1950’s, but it was widely adopted in America by the 1960’s, due to its strong relationship with advertising and other forms of minor arts. In a similar fashion, there is a worldwide renowned artist called Takashi Murakami, who creates anime like characters in bright colors, life-sized sculptures inspired by anime, and the like. His works have been exposed in art galleries and museums in US, UK, Italy, France and Germany. So, let’s stay positive. At least anime has not been as slow as graffiti, which has been around since the first great civilization’s days and still has a long way to be fully recognized as a work of art.
Some solutions to the problem
It is precisely Murakami who is giving us the clue to slowly turn the machine. In the first place, an educated otaku is the best otaku. If we ourselves watch anime outside the pool of mainstream and learn to evaluate its artistic characteristics objectively, we will be able to convince others in an easier way to give it a chance. We also have to remember that, if we really like to draw and even have thought of it as a future career, we should learn all the techniques and styles we can. Professional artists either are widely versatile or create an unique style of their own, as Murakami did. So, let’s consider that perhaps many teachers are not precisely opposing the anime style, but trying to convey the basic skills to create art instead. Especially on the competitive professional realm, a person who does not learn the basics will hardly succeed.
Another point to consider is the objective of a specific art class. If we try to put anime in everything just for the sake of it, without following the rules for an assignment, we will only be creating more resistance. So, instead of handing over photographs of anime figurines, how about a well planned studio session of Cosplay? Sometimes, it all depends on the objective of the particular assignment. So, if we work together with the teacher, listen first and make suggestions, maybe both sides can arrive to a comfortable midpoint. Plus, the teacher can also learn a thing or two. Art is a journey of discovery, afterall.
There might also be cases where the teacher will not change. My dear otakus, don’t despair. There is some evidence that self-education on visual culture and art techniques is beneficial among teenagers and young adults, especially if the education is groupal. There is also evidence that computer generated art (made through software like Photoshop) and 3D modelling are an effective way of art therapy. What could be better than releasing the bad stress by drawing anime? So, if your art teacher really dislikes the anime style, how about forming an anime art group? 🙂 Besides that, if you really want to study the anime style in the US, there are a few options out there. Some superior educational institutions have courses on anime theory and techniques, including the likes of Harvard and Carnegie Mellon.
All in all, what we are trying to say is: don’t get discouraged if your teacher bans anime from their art class. Just think big, educate yourself, educate others, don’t give up, and keep practicing. True professionals become great after years of continuous effort.
Have you ever experienced the ban of anime in your art class? Do you think the anime style is more Eastern or Western? Don’t forget that we are open to all your questions and comments. See you soon!