The Westernized look of anime is rooted in the post-World War II occupation of Japan by the American armed forces. Inspired by the American adventure-based comic books that appeared during the occupation, an artist named Osamu Tezuka created the first commercially successful manga (the Japanese name for comic books) in 1947. The manga was called New Treasure Island and featured highly Westernized characters with big eyes, small noses, and a variety of hairstyles. It was based upon an English novel, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. After New Treasure Island became a hit, imitators began churning out manga featuring characters inspired by Tezuka, and manga went on to become hugely popular in Japanese culture. Eventually, these comic books were put on film and the medium of anime was born. Like most creators of anime, Miyazaki got his start drawing manga. His first film was based on a successful series of manga that he created.
Spirited Away is the second of Hayao Miyazaki’s anime to win the equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Picture in Japan. While it would be almost unheard of for a comic-book-based movie to achieve this honor in America, the historical significance of manga in Japan makes it possible there. Manga is a medium that crosses both gender and generational boundaries. Manga exist to fit every interest, from politics to pornography to violence, and the Japanese read manga much the same way that American adults read novels. However, manga’s readers do not draw the same distinction between animation and live action that Americans do. In fact, Spirited Away is one of Miyazaki’s few feature-length films intended for children. Most of his other movies, such as Princess Mononoke, which also won Best Picture in Japan, contain violence and adult concepts that could frighten a child.
Animation may be starting to cross generational boundaries in America the same way it does in Japan. The audience for anime in America is growing. As children who cut their anime teeth on Pokémon get older, they can begin to appreciate higher quality anime such as Spirited Away. Some filmmakers already credit anime for influencing their cinematic style, such as the Wachowski brothers with The Matrix. The influence of anime can only increase as today’s young anime fans become tomorrow’s filmmakers.