For American fans, the year 1963 marks an important date in the history of anime (Japanese animation) and manga (Japanese comics). It was in that year that Astro Boy—the English-language version of the anime Tetsuwan Atom—first premiered on American television. In the forty-plus years since Astro's arrival, anime and manga have grown from an underground murmur to a major cultural phenomenon. Even though both are still regarded as a
niche market, it is an indisputable fact that they are here to stay.
Many American fans (or otaku) of the two mediums are drawn to the diversity of genres present in both—science fiction, fantasy, horror, action-adventure, and comedy—but the best anime and manga showcase strong artwork and complex storylines and character studies that often stand head and shoulders above most contemporary American animation and comic books.
Superheroes are present in both anime and manga, but while many creators were influenced by American comics and animation at first (especially during the occupation of Japan following World War II), during the 1960s and into the 1970s they sought to break away from traditional renditions and give their characters more depth and complexity—a trend that has continued to today. During the mid–twentieth century there was also a move to create storylines of equal complexity, with plots that went beyond the typical
good versus evil. There was a greater effort to explore the characters and their motivations. A prominent example is the five-member Gatchaman team from the anime Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. While the team sported costumes that would not look out of place in an American comic, they were also complex characters, with strengths and weaknesses that were fully brought out, not downplayed. There were major story arcs that Gatchaman followed, and not every episode had an
all is well again ending. This was a sharp contrast to the animated superhero adventures shown on American television during the 1970s, and explains why Gatchaman was heavily edited when it arrived in the United States under the title Battle of the Planets.
Anime first arrived in the United States in 1961 with the release of three films: Magic Boy (originally titled Sasuke), Panda and the Magic Serpent (originally titled White Snake Enchantress), and Alakazam the Great. It was not until Fred Ladd produced an English-language version of Osamu Tezuka's Tetsuwan Atom—renamed Astro Boy—in 1963 that anime was first broadcast on American television. Astro Boy was the first full-length animated series made for Japanese television, and many consider it Tezuka's most important work. Tezuka continued his prolific career until his death in 1989, and engaged the growing fandom in the United States. Tezuka himself had been influenced by American films and animation (especially the works of the Fleischer Brothers and Walt Disney), and he single-handedly began the modern era of animation and manga in Japan.
If Astro Boy marked the starting point for anime in the United States, then Speed Racer (1967) was the next key development. Originally Mach Go Go Go in Japan, the series focused on the adventures of a young racecar driver named Speed Racer. From the start, the series—the first animated series in Japan to be produced in color—garnered fans with its blend of action, adventure, fast cars, and offbeat characters. Peter Fernandez, who had previously worked on Astro Boy with Fred Ladd, took on the duties of transforming Mach Go Go Go into Speed Racer. That Speed himself had no superpowers did not matter to fans; it was his youth and humanity that set him apart from popular costumed heroes of the time. He did not need to hide his identity behind a mask. Unlike other animated programs at the time, Speed's adventures are still fondly remembered, and in the ensuing years interest in the character has not waned.
Another hero reached American shores in the late 1960s but he was in full-color live-action—and larger than life. Tsuburaya Productions' Ultraman would set the standard for live-action
superhero versus monster of the week action in Japan, and he would also gain popularity in America among fans of Toho Studios' Godzilla films (and the subsequent live-action monster films spawned by Toho's most popular character, such as Mothra and the Gamera series of films, which were not produced by Toho). Ultraman became the first of a popular franchise that included movies, television shows, comics, and merchandise—in both Japan and America. The live-action hero spawned a new genre—the sentai genre. No less than three attempts have been made to create an Ultraman series in America—one animated, the latter two live-action. Though that particular Ultraman series never came about, one popular example of the sentai genre, Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, was adapted into English with an American cast and achieved major success as Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers.
American and Japanese superheroes are similar in some respects—some operate solo, some in teams; the majority wear costumes. And many choose to have civilian identities, changing into their superhero identities in times of need. In Japan, the phenomenon of henshin (
transformation) was a popular theme in the works of the late Shotaro Ishinomori during the late 1960s and early 1970s; his major works at that time, Cyborg 009 and Jinzo Ningen Kikaider (Artificial Human Kikaider) featured cybernetic or fully robotic heroes that would change from civilian guise into
superpower mode at the push of a button (sometimes together with a particular word or phrase). A key difference is that many of his characters felt ostracized from society because of their powers, and sought ways to regain their lost humanity.
Tatsunoko Productions' Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (1972) shook anime to its core by focusing on the concept of the team. While Cyborg 009 did feature a team of superheroes, Gatchaman introduced elements that would remain a staple of anime for years. The series itself was the first of the popular
Tatsunoko Heroes shows that would bring a new take on anime superheroes in the 1970s. The four series of the
Tatsunoko heroes—Gatchaman, Casshan, Hurricane Polymar, and Space Knight Tekkaman—featured more action and darker themes than superhero adventures in the United States. The storylines were more sophisticated, the characters were more fully fleshed out, and the villains spared no expense in finding new and more destructive ways to end the lives of the heroes. Gatchaman proved to be one of the most influential anime of the 1970s, together with Space Cruiser Yamato (1974) and Mobile Suit Gundam (1979). While the latter two were not superhero dramas—both were science fiction—like Gatchaman, there was a greater focus on the characters.
Americans got their first taste of this new wave of anime superheroes when Gatchaman was released in the United States in October 1978. Retitled (and re-edited) as Battle of the Planets, the series attracted many fans despite editing that removed excessive violence and the insertion of the new character 7-Zark-7, a robotic character resembling Star Wars' R2-D2. More than twenty years later, Battle of the Planets still has a place in the hearts of many.
The first stirrings of organized anime fandom in the United States began to grow in the 1970s with the establishment of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization, and in 1980 Fred Patten's article
TV Animation in Japan was published in the third issue of the now-defunct magazine Fanfare. The article was, at that time, the most thorough overview of the history of television animation in Japan. Patten not only gave a historical overview of anime, but also offered comparisons and contrasts to animation produced in the United States.
Anime continued to be imported and adapted for American audiences throughout the 1980s, but the editing and dubbing left much to be desired. One notable exception was 1985's Robotech, a combination of three unrelated science-fiction anime from Japan. Both lauded and condemned, Robotech gained a fan following that praised the show for its strong storytelling, characters, and uncompromising look at war, love, and the human condition. Since Robotech's premiere, the following anime superheroes have dominated the American marketplace: Dragon Ball (and its major characters like Goku, Vegeta, and Piccolo), Ronin Warriors, and Sailor Moon. Others have appeared, such as Cardcaptors (the English-language version of Card Captor Sakura), but the changes that accompanied its export to the States caused much controversy. Anime superhero programs have steadily made their way to American television, most notably Saint Seiya (retitled Knights of the Zodiac) and Android Kikaider (the English-language version of the 2000–2001 anime Jinzo Ningen Kikaider).
Titles such as Go Nagai's Devilman and Yoshiki Takaya's Bio-Booster Armor Guyver were released uncut on home video in the United States, since their darker themes and violence would have prevented them from being shown on syndicated television.
With anime firmly in place in the hearts of an American audience, the 1980s saw the arrival of translated Japanese manga in the United States. The independent comic-book companies First Publishing, Viz, Eclipse, and Lead Publishing began releasing translated versions of such titles as Lone Wolf and Cub, Mai the Psychic Girl, Dagger of Kamui, and Golgo 13. Marvel Comics produced a translated (and computer-colored) version of Katsuhiro Otomo's groundbreaking manga Akira; the 1988 animated film based on the manga captured the attention of American film critics and received rave reviews. In addition, the publication of Frederik L. Schodt's Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics in 1983 was a seminal event; the book was the first to take Western readers into the world of manga. Well received by critics in the United States and around the world, the book placed Schodt in the position of becoming the leading American expert on Japanese pop culture. Manga! Manga! did not focus on any superheroes per se, but it was a powerful showcase of manga's diversity. Osamu Tezuka penned the foreword to the book.
Since the 1980s, the following manga superhero properties have landed on the American landscape, some with major merchandising programs that helped propel these heroes to star status: Mai, the Psychic Girl, a series whose title character deals with teen angst and a sinister organization; Cobra, an action-packed science-fiction adventure with a hero who is a former space pirate; and Bio-Booster ArmorGuyver, a science-fiction story featuring a teen who gains the power of a unique alien battle armor. Both Guyver and Masaomi Kanzaki's Heavy Metal Warrior Xenon leaned more in the direction of science fiction, and took different approaches with similar themes. Fist of the North Star (created by Buronson and Tetsuo Hara) is primarily a post-apocalyptic story, and its protagonist Kenshiro is master of a literally explosive martial art technique. Likewise, Yoshihisa Tagami's Grey is a science-fiction tale set in a dystopian future, but the title character is a tough soldier who ends the series as a cyborg—and a reluctant savior of humanity. The original manga for Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon debuted in the United States in the 1990s, greeting an audience already familiar with the characters.
The 1990s saw a virtual explosion of anime and manga in the United States. Anime conventions became popular, drawing increasing numbers of attendees. The popularity of videogames and assorted merchandise—for example, games such as the Final Fantasy series and Chrono Trigger, the Playstation and Dreamcast videogame consoles, and videogame consoles from Nintendo and Microsoft—helped increase awareness of the medium. More titles were released than ever before, with a greater effort on behalf of publishing companies to import more popular titles from Japan. The home-video market proved to be extremely successful for anime, because titles could be released unedited, with the choice between a subtitled or English-dubbed version. For the first time, Americans also saw the remaining Tatsunoko heroes—albeit in the remakes of the venerable heroes created by Tatsunoko Productions.
During this decade, the phenomenally popular Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon were broadcast on television in the United States, with controversial editing done to both programs. Such editing, however, was unavoidable; broadcast standards in Japan allowed anime to explore darker, more mature themes—but the perception of animation as a
kids' medium still existed in America. By the end of the 1990s, more companies were releasing anime and manga in the United States than at any time before. These included A.D. Vision, Central Park Media, Animeigo, TOKYOPOP, Urban Vision, and Viz; Pioneer and Bandai created their own distribution companies in the United States as well. Manga also moved from the comic-book shop into major bookstores such as Borders and Barnes & Noble.
The rising popularity of anime and manga in the United States led to an interesting cross-cultural exchange. American comic-book artists were influenced by the artwork and storytelling of both mediums and began to create their own manga-flavored works. Ben Dunn (Ninja High School), Adam Warren (Dirty Pair), Fred Perry (Gold Digger), Tim Eldred (Broid), Lea Hernandez (Clockwork Angels), Colleen Doran (A Distant Soil), and Richard and Wendy Pini (Elfquest) were part of the first wave that began in the 1980s. Frank Miller (The Dark Knight Returns) created the miniseries Ronin (which ran from 1983 to 1984), and championed the English-language version of Kazuya Koike and Goseki Kojima's classic manga Lone Wolf and Cub. In the following decade, these artists—along with Joe Madureira (Battle Chasers), Humberto Ramos (Out There), Pat Lee's (Darkminds), Dreamwave Studios, and others—worked on major American superhero titles, among them X-Men, Gen 13, Spider-Man, and Fantastic Four. In 2002, Marvel Comics introduced the
Marvel Mangaverse, a limited series that reimagined the major characters of the Marvel universe—among them Spider-Man, the Avengers, and the X-Men—through a manga-influenced lens.
In the same year, Top Cow began a twelve-issue Battle of the Planets comic. With art direction by Alex Ross (Kingdom Come), writing by Munier Sharrieff (Battle Chasers), and art by Wilson Tortosa, this new comic introduced the series to a fresh generation of fans while receiving praise from older ones. And while not a superhero in the traditional sense, Neil Gaiman's Sandman became the basis of the best-selling book Sandman: The Dream Hunters (1999), a joint project between Gaiman and artist Yoshitaka Amano. Amano also illustrated the miniseries Elektra and Wolverine: The Redeemer (2001).
In Japan, artists influenced by American superheroes and comic-book artists began their own successful careers. Ryoichi Ikegami (Mai, the Psychic Girl) counted Neil Adams as a major influence, and even drew a manga version of Spider-Man in the early 1970s; Akira Toriyama used elements of Superman in the wildly popular series Dragon Ball (1985–1995). Yukito Kishiro (Battle Angel Alita) was heavily influenced by Frank Miller in his series Ashen Victor (1999). Juzo Tokoro created the manga Shadows of Spawn (1998) under the supervision of Todd McFarlane (Spawn).
The late 1990s saw Japanese artists working on popular American superhero comics. Katsuhiro Otomo created the short comic
The Third Mask for the fourth issue of the Batman: Black and White anthology series (1996). Koichi Ohata co-wrote and penciled the 1995 comic-book adaptation of his popular OVA (Original Video Animation, direct-to-video series) M.D. Geist for Central Park Media Comics. Tsutome Nihei (Blame!) wrote and illustrated a five-issue miniseries for Marvel titled Wolverine: Snikt! (2003). Yet no manga artist has gone farther than Kia Asamiya (Silent Mobius). Asamiya, a fan of the work of Mike Mignola (Hellboy), became the first manga artist to illustrate a major ongoing title when he became the artist on The Uncanny X-Men with writer Chuck Austen in late 2002. While his run on the series was only a few issues, Asamiya had already made inroads; he created the cover art for Fantastic Four #59 (2002) and wrote and illustrated Batman: Child of Dreams for Kodansha (under the supervision of DC Comics) in 2000. Asamiya's rendition of the Dark Knight was brought to the United States in 2002 and received critical acclaim. Max Allan Collins (Road to Perdition) adapted the graphic novel into English—but Collins himself was influenced by Lone Wolf and Cub when he wrote Road to Perdition (1998). And, after nearly fifty years, Tezuka's original Tetsuwan Atom manga saw release in America, albeit under the title more familiar to Americans: Astro Boy.
The ultimate expression of American interest in anime and manga was the 1999 science-fiction blockbuster motion picture The Matrix. Writer/directors Larry and Andy Wachowski combined elements of manga, anime, American comic books, superheroes, science fiction, and Hong Kong cinema and philosophy into a film that stunned audiences with never-before-seen visual effects and storytelling. The film lead to two sequels that were released in 2003; the sequels had a much more prominent anime and manga influence, drawing inspiration from works such as Ghost in the Shell and Akira. There was even The Animatrix, a joint American-Japanese project that showcased a collection of nine animated stories set in the universe of the film. Director Yoshiyuki Tomino (Mobile Suit Gundam) commented of the original Matrix film in the March 2000 issue of Animerica,
It was a movie, but it used anime techniques and methodology. I was pleased to see someone breaking new ground in this respect.
What will the future bring? Will interest in the superheroes of anime and manga (or the mediums themselves, for that matter) fade away? Will the cross-cultural exchange of ideas and techniques continue between Japan and the United States? New superhero titles continue to arrive on American shores; in 2003, they included Sadamitsu the Destroyer, Idol Fighter Su-Chi-Pai, Project Arms, and B'Tx. Two classic titles also arrived: the Saint Seiya anime (retitled Knights of the Zodiac) and Ishinomori's manga Cyborg 009—as well as the 2001 Cyborg 009 anime series. It will take time to see how fans and the general public receive these titles. One fact is clear, however: Anime and manga from Japan have introduced Americans to superheroes and storytelling that are different from, and yet strikingly similar to, the pantheon of superheroes created in the United States.