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The kanji for "manga" from the preface to Shiji no yukikai (1798), via Wikimedia Commons

Mitfreude is the joy of sharing joy with friends.

Sometimes you have a friend who’s passionate about a topic—lizards, the Basque language, regency hairstyles—and you sit and ask, “What’s so cool about [topic]?” and a delightful hour later you’ve tasted the topic’s awesome history, examples, taken delight in your friend’s delight, and forever after when that topic comes up you smile, and get the context, and look forward to telling your friend about the cool thing you heard. And (most important!) your friend has not pressured you to get you to buy a pet lizard, learn Basque, or start wearing regency hair to work every day, they’ve just shared the fascinating energy of why find that thing so cool.

This essay is that conversation—sharing the niftiness without the pressure—for anime and manga and how they and Western SF fandom have shaped each other for the last seventy-five years. The aim is mitfreude, to share the niftiness of this media world, and hopefully some vorfreude, the joy of anticipating future joy, for example, looking forward to a party or a holiday, preparing for a convention, savoring the smell of something in the oven, or, in this case, knowing that, forever after reading this, you’ll get more richness out of every time somebody mentions anime and manga, because you’ll smile thinking of your lizard-loving friend.

So …

Once upon a time an atomic-powered robot boy dodged censorship to talk about racism, and fifty years later Japan issued the first legal birth certificate granting citizenship to an AI. Once upon a time in a small Japanese town flourished Earth’s glitteriest, rose-petal-y-est, most gender-bending form of theater, and ninety years later a comics shop owner in Cambridge, Massachusetts, exclaimed to me, “Girls are coming into the store now! There were none before!” And once upon a time kids gathered in the streets of Tokyo to hear a storyteller with hand-drawn illustration cards narrate a battle between a crime boss in a robot suit and a thousand-year-old superhero from Atlantis, and fifty-five years later a Japanese-built surgical robot took life-saving samples of my intestines.

Enjoying anime and manga has a high learning curve: you need to invest time learning their visual vocabulary, and many of the best works depend on knowing earlier tropes and patterns. But anyone can enjoy the history of anime and manga, how these media have shaped science, medicine, genre fiction, gender, and how—as twentieth century English was rising to dominance through music and TV around the globe—anime and manga managed to become the biggest body of modern media that gets translated into English instead of the other way around.

For readers of fantasy and science fiction, this makes anime and manga a precious point of global access: every year hundreds of English SFF works are translated into other languages, but only a trickle gets translated from other languages into English, so we’re stuck in a one-way conversation. Only rare treats like Ken Liu’s 2014 translation of Liu Cixin’s Three-Body Problem let us see what other parts of the world are doing … except Japan, since hundreds of Japanese SFF works have been coming out in English every year; they just happen to be comics or animation. Only a small portion of them are SFF, but any SFF reader can enjoy hearing a summary of some of the innovative things Japanese SFF is doing, especially with its favorite topics: robots/AI, reincarnation, supersoldier/military tech, gender bending/flipping, ESP, and fantasy or horror based on the ethical logics of Shinto, Buddhism, and East-Asian folklore and philosophy.

Anime history is also deeply entangled with science fiction fandom and fan history. While US anime and SFF fandoms have grown very separately, and many of us, for whom a 5,000-person Worldcon is enormous, are overwhelmed by the very idea of a 30,000-person anime con overrun with six-foot foam swords and bubbly catgirls, on Japan’s end the development of anime, from the 1960s through the 1990s, was closely shaped, enabled, and at points even rescued by Japan’s science fiction convention fan community, one long centered around novels, D&D, and familiar SF works like Star Wars. The history of that fan community, and the ways anime-centered fandoms developed because of it but separated from it, shows how fans organizing around works we love can have impacts both more powerful and more unpredictable than we often realize.

So, meeting some fun history and SFF concepts, those are our goals, plus some mitfreude, and the vorfreude of knowing that, forever after reading this, you’ll get more richness out of every time somebody mentions anime or manga. And hopefully this essay will also mean that the next time you know young people who are getting into anime, and their parents say, “I don’t understand this thing! Is it good for my kid? Is it dangerous for my kid?”, you’ll be able to give a useful answer.

Why People Got Excited by Anime/Manga, the Short Version

The cover of Black Jack

The quick answer to “Why are so many people into anime?” (i.e., Japanese animation) is that, in live-action TV, sets and costume costs mean it’s way cheaper to set stories in the here and now than in another century or on another world, incentivizing realist and contemporary shows (hence so many sitcoms set in LA or New York). In animation, setting doesn’t matter: a medieval castle or a New York apartment cost the same to draw. Since, from the 1960s onwards, Japan has produced tons more animated television than any other country (reasons below), Japan was pouring out genre TV (science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction) for decades, while in any other country you were lucky if there were three or four genre shows per year. Additionally, many anime shows had complex, ongoing storylines even in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, years when the writers of shows like The X-Files, Gargoyles, or Star Trek faced desperate uphill struggles to convince networks to even let them have two-part season finales, and genuine long-form shows like Twin Peaks and Babylon 5 were rare treasures. The live-action situation has changed in recent years, since the on-demand model gave us a lot more long-form TV narratives, and cheap special effects plus the giant budgets of media megacorps (Disney, Netflix, Amazon) mean we get a lot more genre TV now. But if you feel like we’ve recently entered a golden age of TV storytelling, that golden age hit Japan more than fifty years ago, and is the reason many people found anime and fell in love with anime.

The quick answer to “Why are so many people into manga?” (i.e., Japanese comic books) is that Japan produces a staggering volume and range of comics (the second-biggest producer on Earth after France), and they target a much wider demographic range than Anglophone comics. Japan produces comics for girls, for moms, for middle-aged men, for retirees, for newlyweds, for young kids—in the Anglophone world such demographics may have a dozen comics aimed at them, but Japan produces hundreds. At its peak, the manga industry accounted for 40 percent of all printed material in Japan (including books, newspapers, and magazines), and it is still above 30 percent. There are manga about everything, and I mean everything. There’s a manga of Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs (Mari Yamazaki, 2013-17), a manga of the BBC Sherlock TV series (Jay, 2012-ongoing), a manga biography of the current Dalai Lama (Tetsu Saiwai, 2010), and a Manga Guide to Microprocessors (Michio Shibuya, Takashi Tonagi, Office Sawa, 2009). There are memoir manga, like the LGBTQ+ memoirs My Brother’s Husband (Gengoroh Tagame, 2014-17) and My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness (Kabi Nagata, 2016), the Hiroshima survivor manga memoirs Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa, 1973-87) and Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms (Fumiyo Kono, 2003-4), and the alcoholism and mental health memoir Disappearance Diary (Hideo Azuma, 2005). There’s Black Jack (Osamu Tezuka, 1973-83), about an unlicensed genius surgeon who bucks the corrupt medical establishment, and the more realistic Say Hello to Black Jack (Shuho Sato, 2002-6) about growing up inspired by Black Jack but having to face real medical corruption without being an impossible genius. There are sex-ed manga, both the “I’m thirteen and my body is changing!” type and the “We’re newlyweds but both virgins, how does ejaculation work?” type. There are enough foodie manga to fill a building, from the competitive wine identification manga Drops of God (Tadashi Agi, 2004-14), to the 100-million-volume-selling Oishinbo (Tetsu Kariya, 1983-2014), about a food reporter whose overbearing gourmand father swears his worthless son will never understand the true spirit of miso soup! I have a whole shelf of manga featuring Cesare Borgia, ranging from the boy’s love romance Cantarella (Yuu Higuri, 2005-10), to the action fantasy Pilgrim Jäger (Toh Ubukata and Mami Itoh, 2002-6), in which, at Savonarola’s execution, he curses two dozen Renaissance celebrities to have superpowers, which they must use to battle the ghost of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola which is possessing the Duke of Urbino to prepare the earth for the resurrection of Demon Lord Cesare. There are a lot of different manga, so, when they started coming out in English, many comics readers found the range of topics revolutionary in a market dominated by boys’ superhero titles.

The manga translation boom was especially revolutionary for female and LGBTQ+ readers, because—while women have always read comics—there are a lot more manga for girls and women than the Anglosphere had been producing. To give a sense of scale, while there are many wonderful Anglophone lesbian manga, Yuri Network News, an ongoing manga review list run by Erica Friedman which only reviews lesbian romance manga aimed at female readers, usually reviews a new title every day. Thus, when the first wave of shōjo (girls’ manga) came out in English c. 2000, it triggered that moment when my comics shop owner exclaimed that girls were suddenly coming into his shop in force. There are also tons of manga with queer and gender-questioning themes (reasons below). Their commercial success in turn caused companies like Marvel and DC to think about women as a major target market for the first time, enabling titles like Squirrel Girl and the new Miss Marvel. So, those who like the strong women and girl power we often get in comics-adjacent media today can thank manga publishers like Tokyopop and VIZ, who took the gamble on introducing the English-speaking world to shōjo.

The answers to “Why did Japan start producing so much comics and animation?” and “Why did they start being translated?” are long and rich, and center on World War II, post-war reconstruction, and post-war censorship. But the roots of manga (and anime) go back through street performance and pre-war graphic media to Japan’s long tradition of ink-drawing, picture scrolls, and especially woodblock prints, like the iconic Hokusai wave. Technology and alphabet also played a big role. The phonetic alphabet dominant in Europe worked well with a Gutenberg-style movable-type printing press, which separates text (lead type, generic and rearrangeable) from image (wood blocks or engravings, each unique), but the thousands of pictograms used in written Japanese worked much better in the older method of carving each page as one big wood block, which makes mixing combination text with image effortless. Pre-Gutenberg European printing had used this method too, producing one-block-per-page works like illustrated sermon books, which gave semi-literate priests ideas for sermons by combining short bible quotes with images of saints or stories familiar from icons and cathedral walls, but post-Gutenberg cheap printing required confining illustrations and words to mutually exclusive spaces on the page, and generally meant that pictures cost a lot more than words. Thus, Europe was the exception in segregating text from image, while in Japan a free mixture of text and image thrived so long that it endured even as industrialization brought in moveable type presses for newspapers and other cheaper media. By the early twentieth century, Japan’s thriving manga industry included flashy fliers, illustrated pages within prose works, stand-alone art prints and books of prints, newspaper-type humor or gag strips, and short serial story comics of many sorts. They also targeted a wide range of readers. For example, pre-war magazines for housewives often included short comic books as a kind of mini-pamphlet inside the magazine issue, designed for a mother to read with her children, with jokes for the kids but also the kinds of jokes and social commentary for adults that one often finds coexisting within the kids’ content of the best cartoons. And then …

The Decade Without “Frivolous Literature”

Cover of the first volume of Showa: A History of Japan

During World War II—which for Japan lasted more than a decade, from 1931-1945—materials grew scarce and information control escalated, so printing and publishing were severely squeezed, climaxing with a war-long ban on “frivolous literature,” which meant anything that was not for the war effort. Children’s literature effectively ceased production, except for war stories celebrating how one’s elder brothers had just bravely died. In addition, Japan’s school system suffered severe cuts and breakdowns, with kids working in factories, teachers going off to war, classrooms bombed, textbooks nonexistent, etc. You can imagine the cultural starvation, a generation growing up without books, without fun characters and worlds of imagination, without shared story time at school. Shigeru Mizuki—a major manga author and collector of ghost stories—describes in his brilliant memoir Showa: A History of Japan how even the games he played in the street with other kids became starved of every theme but playing soldier. The weakened school system also meant kids fell behind in reading level, especially in their memorization of the kanji characters (pictograms) which are essential to written Japanese. The war’s end continued the infrastructural disruption, as the surviving members of extended families moved together into the few houses that weren’t bombed out, and towns and shops struggled to even stock food. And then …

I’ve read the story many times, in the autobiographies of authors, animators, doctors, activists, roboticists, politicians, all kinds of people of that unique generation: the ruined house, the rubble-crowded streets, the lost parents or elder brothers, the walk of many miles to the next town since the train tracks were all gnarled ruins, the shop where neighbors elbowed each other to get bags of rice or shirts, and there upon a low shelf just at child height, and brilliant as a rainbow cutting through the overcast gray sky: a book, with a bright red cover image of a grinning boy, a puppy, a pirate, a rocket ship, an alien, all with a cheery title and the message unmistakable: this is for you. They bought them. Brought them home. They shared them with friends and siblings, every child in the neighborhood gathering to read the bright red books over and over until the spines gave out and the individual pages came apart, and they kept reading them, and rearranging them, and drawing them, copying characters, making their own. In memoir after memoir, I’ve seen people struggle to express the sheer soul-filling joy of finally having stories after years without. Stories for them. And they could read them, even if they’d fallen behind reading level, because comics are incredibly good at catching kids up to reading level. This is because of the pictures which offer clues and context, tools to remind you of vocabulary or help you work out meanings from roots. And this is why so many second language programs recommend practicing by reading comics. Within a few years, those little red adventure manga had kids back up to reading speed, shaping a generation for whom the arrival of adventure fiction manga became a joyous symbol of rebuilding, creativity, peace, and hope for a new and different future beyond fascism, nationalism, and war. For Yoshihiro and Okimasa Tatsumi who walked those long miles to buy manga, for ghost-story loving Shigeru Mizuki who lost an arm in the war and had to re-learn to draw from scratch, for Keiji Nakazawa who saw a painted rainbow on a billboard shining like a colorful beacon through the ruins of Hiroshima, manga, whose pictures transcended the barriers of language and literacy, felt like the medium that could best express their hopes for a new, more cooperative international future.

Cue the post-war manga boom.

Our Key Terms: Manga and Anime

The front cover art for the book Gankutsuou written by Mahiro Maeda

Let’s iron out some vocabulary as we move forward.

The word manga (漫画) is usually literally translated “whimsical pictures” or “impromptu/improvised pictures.” It came into use late in the 1700s, growing in the 1800s. It referred at first to ink drawings, paintings, and prints, especially Japan’s celebrated ukiyo-e prints, which were mass-produced artworks (stand-alone or sets) costing about the same as a restaurant meal, which depicted fun subjects like famous beauties, actors, theatrical scenes, landscapes, anthropomorphized animals, travelers’ views, ghost stories, romantic scenes, or pornography. Hokusai and Hiroshige are the best known ukiyo-e artists internationally, though both come late in the tradition. In time, manga also came to encompass comics generally, both the kind you find in newspapers and the kind you find in comic shops. In English, just as “gelato” has become a loan word meaning Italian-style ice cream, so “manga” has become a loan word meaning Japanese comic books, but in Japanese manga remains the blanket term for all comics. If you ask an American, “What’s your favorite manga?”, they’ll name a Japanese comic like Naruto or Sailor Moon, but if you ask a Japanese person they’re likely to answer Calvin and Hobbes or X-Men.

Anime (phoenetic アニメ, an abbreviated transliteration of animation) is likewise both a Japanese word (derived from English) and a loan word. In English, French, etc. ‘anime’ means Japanese animated TV and film; in Japan it means animation generally, including Bambi, Toy Story, or the animated Moomin, Babar, or Asterix.

Anime and manga are not genres, they are media, just as radio is a medium, television is a medium, opera is a medium, or prose fiction is a medium. As media, they encompass many forms (long, short, episodic, stand-alone) and many genres. Just as some radio plays are fantasy, some live-action TV is fantasy, and some operas are fantasy (Hello, Wagner!), so some anime and manga are fantasy, while other anime or manga might be science fiction, crime fiction, chick lit, cooking competition, all sorts of things.

Anime and manga are closely associated, partly because their audiences, art styles, and creators overlap, but also because many anime are adapted from manga, just as many live-action movies are adaptations of comics. But some anime are original stories, or based on novels, historical events, film or TV, or classic literature, like the many anime versions of the sixteenth-century epic Journey to the West, or the anime Gankutsuou, which is a hybrid of The Count of Monte Cristo with Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination (1952). Just as only a minority of Western books become movies, only a minority of manga become anime, but such adaptations make a lot of money, constituting such a big part of authors’ and publishers’ incomes that the two industries are financially interlinked. Video games are also financially interlinked with anime/manga, as are Japan’s live-action TV industry and light novels—a type of Japanese YA for tweens and teens, averaging 50,000 words and often serialized—so franchises in any of these media (anime, manga, video games, live action, light novels) are often adapted into one or more of the others, just as Star Wars has novels, comics, games, and animation as well as live-action films. Occasionally in Japan (though this is fading out) one encounters the thesis that anime (in its Japanese sense of animation broadly) should be considered a sub-category of manga, because manga means whimsical pictures, and if it can include both Hokusai’s wave and a twenty-six volume comedy about the cutthroat world of international competitive bread-baking, why shouldn’t it also include whimsical pictures that move?

This original etymology—whimsical pictures—came to be vital to censorship battles in the 1960s-70s, but before we get to those we must have robots, gender-bending stage musicals, and a very busy god.

Robot Boys and Princess Princes

The color cover page for the Ambassador Atom

The staggering range of manga today is half a descendent of Japan’s tradition of wide consumption of art prints and whimsical pictures, and half the fruit of a deliberate project in the post-war boom to expand beyond kids’ adventure comics, and to prove that manga as an art form can do anything.

In the decade after 1945, the precious trickle of kids’ adventure manga became a torrent, pouring out in multiple formats, including whole-volume graphic novels and manga magazines. Newspapers and general magazines also ran manga, usually four-panel gag strips, often about office life or kids at play (think Dilbert, Peanuts, or Cathy), which are rarely translated, but, for many, were the quintessential form of manga. Gag strips plus comedy or adventure manga aimed at younger boys dominated at first, with themes including escapist adventure (pirates! detectives! aliens!) and technological utopianism and international collaboration, especially in partnership with the USA, which in the post-war occupation loomed large in Japan’s expected future.

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) is known today as the God of Manga, because of his staggering influence through 700 separate series (150,000 pages of comics). Young Tezuka was shaped by a mother who loved storytelling and glittering musical theater, and by a father who made a point of exposing his kids to foreign films, including live-action and animated works like Princess Iron Fan (1941) and Bambi (1942), which young Tezuka watched eighty times. And he was shaped by the war. Not quite old enough to be a soldier, he worked in a factory, drawing manga on paper scraps and pasting them in the bathroom for peers to see. He witnessed first-hand the firebombing of Osaka. In 1945, he began college and manga publication at the same time, and he was still in medical school as he dazzled a generation with his fat, colorful books: New Treasure Island (1947), Lost World (1948), Metropolis (1949), Nextworld (1951), Kimba the White Lion (1950-54), and his most famous creation Atom aka Astro Boy (Ambassador Atom, 1952). These were fast-paced, funny, with plucky boy heroes, Disney-esque animals, and SF themes. They were more often tragedies than triumphs (the treasure is lost, the robot or alien dies) not what we expect in kids’ books, but that was what the post-war generation needed.

Censorship in Japan was fierce in the wake of the war, overseen both by government and the American occupation. It effectively forbade discussing the war and its causes (racism, fascism, genocide), so much so that it would be decades until Japanese newspapers could print the words “atom bomb.” Kids who were five or ten in 1945 lived in a world of shattered streets, food shortages, and missing families, and no one would talk about the causes. But the government didn’t bother censoring kids’ SF comics. Here Tezuka could draw a mushroom cloud, or soldiers fighting an alien war on a made-up planet. He could draw his hero Atom lobbying for robot civil rights, joining Black activists to help American robots lobby for citizenship, fighting anti-robot hate groups in KKK robes, and thwarting the anti-robot genocidal dictator Hitlini. Piles of burning corpses would be censored in most books for kids today, but for kids who had seen actual corpse-piles burn, this was the tool they needed to process their experience, and start considering the future. Atom—named for the hope that atomic power would be used for peace and not war—was created in an imagined 2003, in a techno-utopian future with flying cars and field trips to the moon, whose global peace is fragile, frequently threatened by fascism or weapons of mass destruction, and maintained through global collaboration led by the scientific community, an image of the future which inspired thousands of young readers to work toward such a world. Memoirs of today’s Japanese peace activists, scientists, environmentalists, medical reformers, civil rights activists, and progressive politicians are packed with references to drawing inspiration from Tezuka, and Astro Boy and similar works are credited with sparking Japan’s dominance in the robotics world, leading to the creation of my surgery robot.

The adventures of Atom and other Tezuka boy heroes were foundational works of shōnen (for boys) manga, but now, enter upon our stage a prince, resplendent in a sequin tuxedo, accompanied by the princessiest princess you can imagine, in a pink hoop skirt and rhinestone tiara, surrounded by glitter roses and backed by a Vegas-worthy chorus line. This is the seed for the gender-bending core of modern shōjo (for girls) manga, which would in turn revolutionize gender expression in comics, SFF, and beyond around the globe.

As a child—in the decades just before the war—Fumiko Tezuka (b. 1909) often brought her young son Osamu to see the Takarazuka Revue (founded 1913), a unique theater company centered in their home town, which performed lavish melodramatic and romantic spectacles with plots adapted from world literature, history, and, later, anime and manga, with all the roles played by women—an inversion of all-male Kabuki and Noh theater. Takarazuka performers specialize in either male or female roles, with those who perform as men (otokoyaku) adopting male dress, language, and pronouns even off-stage. Tragic-romantic historical dramas are the favorite topic, and star otokoyaku Yu Todoroki’s roles include Che Guevara, Cyrano de Bergerac, Abraham Lincoln, Julius Caesar, Jay Gatsby, Oedipus, Yuri Zhivago, Martin Luther King Jr., the Edo-era Emperor Go-Mizunoo, Rhett Butler in Gone with the Wind, and Luigi Lucheni the anarchist assassin of Empress Elisabeth of Austria. Watching the stage explode with sparkle-petals at the kick-line finale of War and Peace is an unforgettable experience. Takarazuka bends gender all over, advancing ideals of hyper-feminine femininity and feminized masculinity, and its exaggerated division of the male and female roles reinforces the same gender binaries the cross-casting subverts. The male-performing otokoyaku are intended to appeal to women as non-threatening masculine ideals (making them common objects of romantic crushes from both straight-identifying and queer-identifying female fans), but all performers are expected to retire young and marry, following the company’s founder’s intent that girls’ time on stage be training to become “good wives and wise mothers.”

Front cover art for the book Metropolis (1979 reprint)

Tezuka’s manga was forever saturated with this gender-bending: Metropolis, focusing on an androgynous robot inspired by the image on the movie poster of the Fritz Lang film; Nextworld, featuring cross-dressing in both directions by androgynous elfin creatures from Australia; Astro Boy, bending gender in robot designs. And, in 1953, Tezuka crystalized the pattern in his first work for girls: Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi) depicts Sapphire, who, due to a mistake in Heaven, is born female-bodied but with both a male and a female kokoro (heart/soul), and raised as a prince in a kingdom where women cannot inherit. Sapphire has romances with girls while in male dress and with boys while in female dress, while wizards and witches try to pressure Sapphire firmly into one gender role or the other. The series forever injected Takarazuka theater, with all its sparkles and gender-weirding, into the DNA of girls’ manga, and to this day recognizably Takarazuka-theater-influenced gender-bending appears to greater or lesser degrees in practically every manga/anime for girls. In later decades, the princess-prince genealogy of shōjo was further strengthened by Riyoko Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles (1972-3), a French revolution romance focused on Oscar, a girl raised as a boy to take on the family’s duty of being Captain of the Royal Guard; and again by Revolutionary Girl Utena (1996-7), a fantasy deconstruction of prince-princess archetypes, both of which, in addition to Princess Knight, were in turn adapted into Takarazuka plays, revitalizing the gender-bending stage which originally inspired them.

The gender-bending themes in girls’ manga, along with shōnen ai (male-male romance stories aimed at female readers, for whom a fantasy gay romance avoids the stresses of family/marriage/career/motherhood pressure), made the arrival of translated girls’ manga in the Anglosphere a revolutionary moment for many LGBTQ+ people (female, male, and non-binary alike) who found in anime/manga the queer conversations they hungered for. Soon, yaoi (sexually explicit shōnen ai) and yuri manga (lesbian romance) were translated too, but even without them, shōjo (girls’ manga) contained so much gender examination that its translation had an explosive impact on the gender expression of the generations which had access to it. In fact, so much specific gender questioning vocabulary developed among Anglophone LGBTQ+ anime/manga fan communities that I have often seen miscommunication between anime-consuming and non-anime-consuming SFF fans when anime-consumers forget that eighteenth century French costume as code for genderqueerness isn’t intuitive outside the anime/manga bubble. Manga which examines realistic LGBTQ+ issues is a tiny trickle amid the torrent of more fantastic stuff, and gay manga aimed at male readers are outnumbered at least 100 to 1 by boys’ love (shōnen ai) intended for female readers; but even the trickle of realistic stuff acknowledges the influence of the girls’ manga tradition on Japan’s gender conversation, as in the acclaimed Wandering Son (2002-13), which looks at a transitioning elementary school student whose process of self-discovery is aided when the class puts on a school play of Rose of Versailles and debates whether to cast a boy or girl as the girl-raised-as-a-boy protagonist. So saturated is the influence that even shōnen (boys’) manga now often has Takarazuka-esque queer characters and gender-bending as a common theme.

Proving Manga Can Do Anything

The cover of the manga Black Blizzard by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, published by Hinomaru Bunko.

By the 1960s, the post-war manga boom faced growing pains, some shaped by that very term: whimsical pictures. As the kids who had read manga in the rubble became adults, the writers too became interested in writing about more adult themes: sexuality, violent crime, prostitution, suicide, etc. The changes were visual as much as topical: while Metropolis and Nextworld had angry mobs and violent deaths, they were bloodless and cartoony, and constantly defused the dramatic moments with humor, returning to the whimsy of whimsical pictures. Not so these new experiments, which aimed to plunge deeper into drama, and into cinematic visual complexity.

Film—especially as theaters spread in the post-war reconstruction—had had a revolutionary influence on manga’s visual style. Tezuka, and other early manga artists like ghost-story loving Shigeru Mizuki, whose father also imported foreign films, had developed what is called the cinematic style. In the old comic strip style, typical in newspaper gag strips, each panel in a sequence showed the figures in the same framing from the same angle (Lucy in the middle of the panel with the football, Charlie Brown approaching from the right, then falling toward the left, etc.), In the cinematic style, each panel was framed differently—a close-up, a dramatic angle from above, a zooming action shot with the background blurred into streaks of motion, the gun reflected in the adversary’s eye—just as a movie did. Pushing this further, artists like Yoshihiro Tatsumi (whose autobiography begins with trekking far to buy Tezuka’s Nextworld) tried writing atmospheric works, like his 1956 Black Blizzard, with multiple wordless pages devoted to struggling through a blizzard, or moving through shadowed space. It was this phase that developed one of the signatures of manga in contrast with most Western comics: their willingness to spend many pages setting the scene and depicting landscape, environment, or mood, paving the way to such experiments as Kengo Hanazawa’s I Am a Hero (2009-17) which devotes ten full pages to two seconds of action as a zombie rushes toward a door, or Kentaro Miura’s Berserk (1989-2021) whose thirty-fourth volume has forty-six straight wordless pages at the climax of a fantasy battle, and works like Jiro Taniguchi’s The Walking Man (1990-91) and Yuichi Yokoyama’s Garden (2011), both of which are nearly-wordless, plotless tours of space.

But as whimsy gave way to atmosphere and drama, many objected that these new works were definitionally not manga anymore, and that they were bad, licentious, violent, and harmful to the youth (paralleling similar fears about comics in the West). Figures like Yoshihiro Tatsumi launched the gekiga movement—dramatic pictures instead of whimsical pictures—advanced in a manifesto of 1959. Popular yet controversial mature manga magazines like Shadow (founded 1956) and Garo (1964-2002), written for direct sale as well as the booming industry of manga rental shops, drove debates over whether manga must be whimsical and/or for children, whether comic books must be funny, or must be for kids. Reporters condemned manga with too few words, and schools or parent groups tried to ban or exclude works without a certain quota of text per page, since a low ratio of words to image was associated with mature and controversial themes.

Cover art of the first manga volume, Phoenix: Dawn, 2009 reprint

Meanwhile, Tezuka himself was still pouring out manga, and had declared it a personal project to prove that manga can do anything. He set out to write manga in every genre he could think of, trying experiments intended to gain international respect, like his 1953 versions of Crime and Punishment and Cyrano, but, despite their ambitious cinematic experiments with panel layout and point-of-view, they were not dramatic or atmospheric, packing many panels per page and many words per panel, and consistently defusing serious moments with jokes or gags, manga’s mandated whimsy. Thus, for a time his comics became the exemplars of what the new movement was not, until he himself launched a mature manga magazine COM (1967-72), which debuted mature works (his and others) including treatments of sexuality, drugs, and revenge, and the beginning of the mature version of his masterwork Phoenix (1967-1989), an effort to rehabilitate the Buddhist axiom that “all life is sacred” in the wake of the genocides of World War II. COM and other gekiga magazines also hosted the debuts of some of the first feminist manga authors, who would go on to be major influences in the 1970s, with works like Rose of Versailles and the gender-fluid alien drama They Were Eleven (Moto Hagio, 1975). By the late 1960s, post-war censorship had also eased up, so the themes of genocide and war crimes which earlier works had touched on delicately via science fiction or allegory could at last be overt, beginning the tradition of powerful anti-war manga masterpieces such as the Shigeru Mizuki’s war memoirs Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (1973) and Showa (1988-9), Tezuka’s analysis of Nazi radicalization Message to Adolf (Tezuka, 1983-5), and horror master Hideshi Hino’s deconstructionist Panorama of Hell (1984).

The battles between censorious critics and experimental artists pushed magazines to define their demographics and maturity levels strictly, facilitating manga crystalizing into its four recognized branches: shōnen manga aimed at boys, shōjo manga aimed at girls, seinen manga aimed at mature men, and jōsei manga aimed at mature women. All four are produced and consumed by all genders, and plenty of adults read the kid titles, but the magazines all market themselves as one of the four categories. Boys’ (shōnen) comics dominate, with their action and adventure, so much so that, while the top girls’ (shōjo) magazine Ciao sells over 250,000 copies a month, the magazine most often purchased by girls is a boys’ one, Weekly Shōnen Jump, which sells 1.5 million per month; at the same time, enough boys read girls’ manga, such that there is a charming manga Otomen (Aya Kanno 2006-2012) about the stresses of boys afraid to admit to peers that they enjoy girl stuff.

Of the fifty-six manga series which have sold over 50 million copies, forty are boys’ (shōnen) titles and eleven men’s (seinen), while two are for younger kids (Doraemon and Sazae-san), and only three are girls’ (shōjo) manga (Boys Over Flowers, Glass Mask, and Nana), while the highest-selling women’s (jōsei) title, the music school romance Nodame Cantabile (2001-9), has 37 million copies in print, less than a tenth of the 490 million copies of boys’ mega-hit One Piece (Eiichiro Oda, 1997-present). These four macro-categories encompass all genres—there are vampire stories, police stories, first contact stories, and Cesare Borgia stories in all four—but the dominance of action-oriented, male-coded comics make them what most people think of first, especially because they dominate the translation market even more than they do the manga market, thanks to manga’s bigger-bucks partner: anime.

Whimsical Pictures That Move

A still from Momotaro

Early twentieth century manga had a fascinating half-sibling, an even more accessible form of entertainment which thrived before the war, and especially during and afterward, in towns whose shattered infrastructure made plays, TV, and radio hard to access. Kamishibai paper theater was performed at small, mobile kiosks in parks and on street corners, much like a Punch and Judy show, but instead of puppets kamishibai used a series of illustrated cards shown within a frame, like a cardboard TV set, sequential still images accompanying a spoken story. Kamishibai mainly targeted kids, and performers made their money selling candy, but kamishibai for adults were also used to disseminate news, especially during the war. Kamishibai image cards were in color and hand painted, purchased by performers from suppliers who commissioned them from artists—often from artists who were also manga creators. Popular kamishibai existed in multiple copies, and the most popular were adapted into manga, like Golden Bat, the tale of an ancient Atlantean superhero whose nemesis piloted the first giant robot suit (which would have so many descendants in Japanese SF). These were a huge medium, viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, though in small groups scattered over many parks and squares across Japan. It was as a kamishibai that ghost-story-collecting Shigeru Mizuki first developed his most beloved series, Kitaro, which collects so much otherwise unrecorded oral tradition that the series itself is celebrated as an archive of Japanese folklore. When a manga publisher agreed to adapt the kamishibai, Mizuki’s art was so rough (he lost his dominant arm in the war) that the editor gave it to a different artist, and it would be years until Mizuki developed the work himself—an indicator of the competitive and cutthroat nature of the post-war manga world.

Between the theatrical roots of ukiyo-e prints, the influence of cinema on manga boom, and the legacy of TV-like kamishibai, manga artists naturally wanted to make their whimsical pictures move. The very first strip dates to before 1912, a three-second fifty-frame strip of a boy in a sailor suit drawing the characters “moving picture.” Professional comic shorts aired as early as 1917, mainly making use of cut-out drawings rather than cell animation. During the war filmmakers created animated propaganda, mostly for children (unlike the USA which produced many war cartoons for adults), and in 1945 made Japan’s first animated feature film Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, sponsored by the Imperial Japanese Navy. At the war’s end, animation saw use in advertisements (its first use in many countries), then televised shorts broadcast in 1960, and the mixed live-action/animated Instant History series in 1961-4. By 1961, three Japanese animated feature films had appeared in American movie theaters, telling stories of great cultural importance in Japan like the sixteenth-century Chinese epic Journey to the West, but whose East-Asian roots were actively disguised in their US localizations. The visual component of animation was crossing national barriers as its makers hoped, but heavy-handed localization meant that the words, tales, and ideas struggled to travel with the images.

Just after this, the permanent shape of Japan’s animation industry was set—for good and ill—by Osamu Tezuka, whose dedication to creating a moving pictures industry made him even more a founder figure for anime than he is for manga. After a (charmingly campy) live-action Astro Boy TV series in 1959-60, Tezuka founded an animation studio, Mushi Productions, and pitched an Astro Boy animated series which ran from 1963-6 on Fuji TV. Determined to advance animation as an art and industry, Tezuka offered the series to the wary network at well below cost, pushing himself and his staff to inhumane hours (accounts describe bleeding fingers and sleeping under desks) and supplementing the loss from his manga income. Astro Boy TV was a hit, launching mass demand for animated television and sparking Japan’s global fame as a mass producer of animation, but it also established the “curse of Tezuka,” that Japanese TV channels expect animation to be impossibly cheap, driving the poverty-level pay and grueling schedules which have haunted and harmed the industry ever since. Japan today pours out stunning animation, but this labor of love is as exploitative of those who love it as academic adjunctification or severely under-funded school systems are of teachers, and premier anime directors constantly lament their inability to break free from the pattern.

Animated Ambassadors

Anime’s big presence in the USA (still the biggest market outside Japan) as well as in Europe and South America is not coincidence, but the result of a deliberate campaign, one which took decades to grow from trickle to torrent. From the first, Tezuka was determined to spread Astro Boy internationally, specifically to America. This was part of the dream of manga (both still and moving) to become a medium of universal communication, and carry the political messages in Tezuka’s work (international collaboration, pacifism, environmentalism, tolerance, and anti-racism) to the powerful victor nation across the sea. Tezuka included English-language signs in the backgrounds of street scenes in the show, both to appeal to Americans and to communicate Astro Boy’s ideal of a collaborative global future (think of the Chinese signs in Bladerunner). Within three months of the show’s Japanese debut, he succeeded in getting NBC to run it in the USA, but they made many edits—removing episodes, censoring serious content, removing all written Japanese, and changing the character names, including giving Atom his English name, Astro. They also refused to let any stories cross multiple episodes, cutting down the more ambitious stories so they could rerun them in any order. Other European-language markets (French, Italian, Spanish) quickly picked up some anime as well, but the political and cultural ambitions of anime/manga makers focused on building bridges with the triumphant West, so Korea did not air Astro Boy until 1970, and China until 1979.

So, in the 1960s and 1970s, a trickle of anime—all marketed at children—began to appear in English and then other European languages (roughly a dozen films and shows per decade), but with the Japanese-ness filed off, so kids who saw Speed Racer (1967-8) or Tezuka’s gender-bending Princess Knight (1972) (under the title Choppy and the Princess) had all hints of Japan intentionally erased.

Then, a miracle occurred.

Mobile Suit Gundam Complete Collection 1: Anime Legends

You’re six years old, you’ve just got home from school, and your parents have let you plop in front of the TV. The antics of a cartoon cat and mouse give way to the antics of animal puppets, and then after a short ad for spiral cookies, dawn breaks over a sparkling space station as a voice-over explains that, in the year since the rebel attack crashed an asteroid into the Eurasian megacontinent, the combat zone has spread past the near-Earth-orbit space colonies and is approaching the lunar colony, whose residents are racing to repair our damaged space warship before they are overwhelmed by the enemies’ superior ability to use the precognitive and telepathic abilities which awaken in humans outside Earth’s gravity well. Mind. Blown. Plot! Conflict! Worldbuilding! Ethics! Tech! Twenty-five rapt minutes later: What was that? How did the TV do that? Will it do it again? The lucky little ones who glimpsed it glue themselves to the TV set after that, struggling to articulate to their parents why cartoon hour is suddenly much more important than it used to be.

In many ways the miracle was laziness. Demand for cartoons went up, Japan had cheap animation, cartoons were for kids (sigh), and networks could cut costs by not bothering to make so many changes, so some localizations were edited less. In Italy, for example, kids’ minds were blown by the space colonization World War II commentary Mobile Suit Gundam (1979-80) and by the gender-bending Rose of Versailles TV (1979-80) which aired under the title Lady Oscar in 1982. In the USA, a close equivalent was Star Blazers (1979-1984), a version of Space Battleship Yamato (WWII in space designed for Star Wars fans), which was the first broadcast anime that got to retain its ongoing storyline. It was hard to catch all episodes, and networks often scrambled the order, but if one human appetite burns hotter than starfire, it’s the desire to find out what happens next in a good story.

As such kids grew up, the memory of those mind-blowing phantom glimpses of complex narrative caught in cartoon hours turned into small but energetic 1970s fan communities sparking in Europe and the Americas (Brazil is huge!) who studied Japanese, imported books and laserdiscs, produced fanzines, and made their own translations, circulating manga by Xerox and fansubs by VHS. They collaborated with SFF fandom, and horror fans who were importing Japanese zombie movies and monster movies. They contacted Tezuka and other authors and directors, and over time energetic fan organizers like Frederik Schodt and Helen McCarthy came to be welcomed as the international partners who would, over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, help the whimsical pictures that could do anything escape the confines of the TV children’s hour. This legacy of fan collaboration remains so strong that when I, as an undergrad, fell in love with Tezuka’s Black Jack and created the first English-language website dedicated to him, TezukaInEnglish.com, Tezuka Productions in Japan reached out to me (a kid!) to share materials and partner to spread his messages to the world.

Cover of the Japanese volume 1 of the manga series Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya, published by Hakusensha on January 19, 1999. Cover by Natsuki Takaya.

The 1980s saw an increase by an order of magnitude in the number of series translated abroad (a hundred, not a dozen), and in the narrative sophistication of what was coming, feeding the growth of anime fandom, parallel to SF fandom, as a community, a market, and a power. College and high school students started hearing the word anime. Frederik Schodt’s defining Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983) introduced the medium, with a history and translated samples of seminal works. With landmark successes like Akira (1988), Ghost in the Shell (1995), and Sailor Moon (1993-7), companies began marketing to Westerners who wanted anime/manga because they were Japanese. Manga translation piggybacked on the new interest in all things Japanese, with VIZ releasing its first English-language manga in 1987, and really starting to make money with the 1995 release of the martial arts comedy Ranma 1/2. When in 2004 Tokyopop released Fruits Basket, the first long-form girls’ (shōjo) manga in English and an instant mega-hit, Western anime fandom—with girls frequenting comics shops and convention centers filled with big foam swords—had solidified.

The newborn international manga market, in the Anglosphere at least, focused on teens, until the 2008 economic crash, when shrinking allowances meant teen titles started selling less reliably, while grown-up serious literary collectors continued to purchase lovely trade paperbacks, redirecting the translation market toward grown-up titles and classics. The twenty-first century also saw a blossoming of serious books in English about anime and manga, mainly written by figures strongly shaped by the fan world, like Paul Gravett, Brigitte Koyoma-Richard, Thomas Lamarre, Jonathan Clements, Fabienne Darling-Wolf, Jason Thompson, Gilles Poitras, Timothy Perper, Martha Cornog, Natsu Onoda Power, Jennifer Prough, and many others who practiced in print the fan-born tradition of thinking critically about works we love.

But as international anime fandom blossomed, on the Japanese side these same decades had their own complex saga of turmoil and rebirth.

Publishing: A Dream Shaped by Money

Animage 1997 cover

Note: Some of us love nerding out about how publication history, economics, and fandom shape each other, but if you are not interested in that, you may want to skip ahead two thousand words to the next big section headed “The Themes of Japanese SF,” where the fun thematic discussion of ESP and ghosts and such resumes. Or you can join us as we look at how art is born of cash and tribulations.

So, anime costs orders of magnitude more to produce than manga. Manga is ink on paper made by a small team, and any given publisher is publishing several magazines, so each publisher has a few eggs in many different baskets. Anime has big materials costs and big teams, so any given studio is only making a couple shows at a time, with all its eggs in few baskets. This means manga experiments a lot more, and endures economic crashes better, while anime’s few-baskets model means every experiment is betting the house.

In the later 1970s, science fiction fan communities were surging globally with the influence of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Trek, and Star Wars, and Japan’s anime fan communities had strong overlap with its SF convention community, since many science fiction stories were being told in manga form. Japan’s movie world could rarely afford to attempt ambitious live-action space opera like Star Wars, but they could make monster movies (tokusatsu films) like Godzilla, marionette shows (think Thunderbirds), and animation. No culture could watch Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) without wanting to reply in kind, and in a nation with fond memories of the cardboard kamishibai shows, many considered animation the natural form for SFF film. Live-action—they argued—could never create visuals as spectacular and fantastic as animation, which could create anything from a battle among a thousand moving ships, to a sunrise over Africa, to a hologram of Versailles being pierced by the shards of a station folding itself inside out to turn into a giant rose blossom of crushed spaceships. And, if you think about it, advances in 3D effects mean that today’s SFF blockbusters actually have more animation on screen than Who Framed Rodger Rabbit, they just make it look real. Enthusiasts centered around magazines like Animage (founded 1978), a general animation magazine, covering works from the US, France, Russia, Brazil, the world. Animage also channeled fan funds into advancing animation, inviting young aspiring directors to publish stories in the magazine intended to imagine ambitious films they might make. Animage launched the careers of fans who would become prominent animators, including Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, and Hayao Miyazaki, director of the Oscar-winning Spirited Away (2001).

SF cons themselves became also a center of anime development, especially DAICON, the Osaka version of Japan’s main science fiction fan convention, which travels like Worldcon, and awards the Seiun Award, Japan’s Hugo. In 1981, and again in 1983, DAICON created (with student directors and fan funds!!) ambitious animated sequences for their opening ceremonies, fanworks featuring (without permission) familiar characters such as Ultraman and Godzilla, but also Star Wars ships, the Enterprise, War of the Worlds Martians, the exo-armor from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), the Death Star, 2001’s Discovery One station, Klingons, and cameos by characters from Conan, Narnia, Tolkien, the Pern books, the works of Michael Moorcock, and Thunderbirds. Momentum inspired ambition, and in 1987 the DAICON animation team transformed into a pro studio, Gainax, and made Japan’s most-ambitious-to-date animated film Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honnêamise (1987), and then the OVA success, Gunbuster (1988-9), which starts with the expected schoolgirls and giant robots but builds into a time dilation story worthy of Astounding magazine. Lavishing money on images of complex ships and robots moving in ways even Star Wars couldn’t match, these films, and other projects like the ambitious Galactic Petrol Lensmen anime (1985), were a reply to George Lucas: you dazzled us with puppets, but look how much more detailed the tech can be in animation! The goal: convince the world that animation should be the global medium of the imagination.

The 1980s also gave us a new term: otaku (おたく, オタク, or ヲタク), which developed within Japanese fandom as a term for an enthusiastic nerd/geek/fan. One can be an otaku of anything (jellyfish, trains, historical clothing, film stars), but the word’s fandom roots mean that otaku by itself makes most Japanese people think “anime otaku,” and many English-speakers have adopted it to mean an anime/manga fan. In Japan, a middle-aged woman who reads a little romance manga, or the buyer of the manga biography of Steve Jobs, would not be considered an otaku; rather stereotypically, otaku is very like the Western stigmatized nerd: male, geeky, lonely, always on his computer with his virtual anime girlfriend, and surrounded by his collection of expensive figurines. This stereotypical otaku will also, shortly, save the day.

1987-91: The Quadrapocalypse:

Four terrible blows hit the anime/manga world in short succession in 1988-1991. The biggest was the 1991 collapse of the bubble economy, which took investment capital with it, resulting in many studio collapses and far fewer shows being made; but this was prefaced by three earlier disasters. In 1989 the God of Manga Osamu Tezuka died unexpectedly of cancer at the age of sixty, ending his investment in experimental animation. The same year an infamous serial killer who, because of his large VHS collection was dubbed the “Otaku Murderer” brought sudden stigma to the identity, and squeezed clubs and conventions. A more complex blow fell in 1988: the release of Akira, one of the most acclaimed SF anime of all time (drawing on themes explored in John Wyndham’s 1959 The Chrysalids/Re-Birth and 1973-9’s UK TV show The Tomorrow People). Despite its brilliance, Akira did not break even in Japan, but was saved by making big bucks internationally, especially in the USA. This was good (go anime ambassadors!), but had the dire side-effect of making studios ferociously eager to guarantee a US deal before they would make any show, and aiming at America where “cartoons are for kids” incentivized making the least innovative kinds of anime.

Thus, just as anime fandoms were growing abroad, anime contracted in Japan itself, with more network executives overseeing the (un)creative process. Toy, game, or merchandise tie-ins also brought in cash (think Pokémon, 1996), but stifled innovation as the creative process was increasingly overseen by a Production Committee, including representatives from the toy company, the game company, the manga publisher, the US licenser, and one or more other funders, all there to guarantee their investment, not to take risks to advance the animation art. Oddly, one place one could still innovate was porn, sold directly on VHS, a fallback funding method to guarantee a certain minimum of sales. This yielded oddities like the 1990 film adaptation of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s acclaimed SF novel A Wind Named Amnesia, in which a serious and ambitious post-apocalyptic SF narrative is trundling along when suddenly the female lead rips her clothes off for a startling sex-scene-out-of-nowhere. Most porn was merely porn, but some was (and is) ambitious and original SF with sex shoved in to break even.

The other fallback ingredient, and our last technical term, is moe (萌え), a word which describes something between an aesthetic (like goth or noire) and a formula. Moe anime/manga feature young-looking characters with tons of male-gaze fan service, and usually a stock palette of archetypes: the bossy girl, the quiet cool girl, the big-breasted klutzy girl, the childish girl, and the sweet neighbor girl (think of the stock types in a boy band), often with a generic brown-haired protagonist boy (a stand-in for the viewer) whom all the girls crush on. Character designs vary (oh, this time it’s the klutzy girl who has the pink hair!) as do settings and stories (alien, cyborg, tennis whizz, etc.) but the types remain. Moe crystalized largely in the early 1990s, and had fiercely dedicated fans, so if one makes a moe show, one is guaranteed a certain minimum of sales, enough to keep the studio afloat. In rough days, the moe otaku became Japan’s most stable domestic funding source for anime. Thus, every time the market takes a big hit (after the 1991 crash, in the 2008 recession, after the 2012 tsunami) studios fall back on making less innovative work and more moe (thanks for saving the day, moe fans!). While most moe is vacuous, but just as porn can be a vehicle for serious SF, sometimes writer teams bend over backward to cram a great story into moe, like the time loop SF horror mystery Higurashi When They Cry (2002-ongoing), or the puzzle-piece SF slice of life The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006, whose true genre *spoiler* is that of Bester’s 1950 “Oddy and Id” and Jerome Bixby’s 1953 “It’s a Good Life”).

The development of moe was part of a bigger change. In the aftermath of the quadruple apocalypse, Japan’s anime fandom started to split from science fiction fandom, as it became less about responding to Asimov and George Lucas than about anime itself. The magazine Animage covered non-Japanese content less and less, and was overtaken by Newtype (founded 1985), a fanzine for Japanese anime fandom specifically. YA themes surged, and by the time Mamoru Oshii—the ambitious young director whose career Animage had nurtured in the 1980s—released his cyberpunk masterpiece Ghost in the Shell (1995), its very grown-up cyborg heroine Major Motoko Kusanagi no longer appealed to the readers of the very magazine which had worked to make such a film possible; even in Ghost in the Shell’s release month, Animage gave the cover story to the slender moe-esque tween bodies of Gainax’s Neon Genesis Evangelion (on this see Carl Gustav Horn’s phenomenal essay in the back of the Dark Horse edition of Seraphim: 266,613,336 Wings). The days when a fan-made anime mega-crossover included not only Ultraman and Godzilla, but Narnia and Pern were gone.

1995-7: Death and Rebirth

So, for five years the anime world struggled, until 1994-6 saw such an explosive outpouring of innovative anime that, if you ask a fan to name a classic favorite, odds are better than 50/50 that it came out in or very close to 1995. What caused the rebirth? Partly, Godzilla had retreated into the sea—the economic crash had recovered a bit, so there was speculative investment capital available again. But there was also artistic desperation. Anime was dying—or so it seemed to ambitious creators nurtured by Tezuka and DAICON, and now strangling in the coils of production companies. Rather than let the dream die, anime makers scrambled, cheated, even lied, and the burst of anime masterpieces around 1995 all shared the characteristics of (a) established directors using clout or trickery to take more artistic liberties than production committees usually allowed, and (b) being funded in weird ways which evaded artistic oversight.

The primary cast of Revolutionary Girl Utena, illustrated by Shinya Hasegawa based on designs by Chiho Saito

When Ikuhara Kunihiko (of Sailor Moon fame) made his gender-questioning masterpiece Revolutionary Girl Utena (1997)—he literally met some rich men in a bar and lied about how anime is funded to get them to write a check (see the interviews in the Rightstuf US release). Neon Genesis Evangelion tapped into toy sales, but as director Hideki Anno (of DAICON origin) pushed the story in innovative directions (examining mental illness, suicide, and theology) he became so evasive about oversight that even the voice actors had to threaten him with physical violence to get him to explain the plot (Utena’s Anno avoided this by locking himself in a room to hide from his own staff). When cash-strapped Evangelion was a hit, Gainax was so desperate to squirrel away every penny that their financial directors were convicted of tax evasion. Escaflowne (1996) tapped manga money in a novel way for its experiment, by running two manga in conjunction with the anime, one in a girls’ magazine from the female lead’s point of view, one in a boys’ magazine from the male lead’s, while the anime alternated, challenging the old shōnen/shōjo divide. The innovative Gundam Wing (1995), which revitalized mecha and also experimented with adding female-targeted content to a male-targeted genre, was enabled by a toy company mandate: make a giant robot that can turn into a plane!; for comparison, imagine if the Jurassic Park film had been green-lit on condition it would advertise the jeeps. The artsy space bounty-hunter series Cowboy Bebop (1997-8, recently remade by Netflix) was enabled by another a toy mandate—make something with a space ship we can sell models of! (imagine 2001: A Space Odyssey being born from such a promise), and the equally innovative Trigun was animated in 1998 by Madhouse thanks to the money they inherited from their mentor Tezuka, manga proceeds intended to continue his dream of making ambitious anime even if it couldn’t fund itself. All these creators and more, stifled by five years of squeeze, found ways to stretch the funding system, and the commercial successes of their experiments got investors trusting anime again.

The 1994-7 rebirth kicked off a wave of anime creativity (strengthened by the coalescence of international anime fandom, and the cost-saving transition from cell animation to computer-colored animation) which thrived until the next challenges (the 2008 economic crash and 2011 tsunami). Then was repeated the patterns (fewer experiments, so much moe), but the first constrained patch after the quadrapocalypse had already made the regenerated anime world of the late ’90s and ’00s very different from that of the 1980s. It was now much more its own world, an internal conversation. Ghost in the Shell which responded so directly to Neuromancer and Bladerunner, Trigun with its mature characters and golden-age-esque SF worldbuilding, these were outliers, as were the wholesome family narratives of Miyazaki’s Ghibli films. Most anime was now in conversation with other anime, and aimed at kids, teens, and otaku—Japanese and international—already steeped in the medium’s internal conversations. More and more of the best of anime’s creative and innovative works were now inward looking, deconstructions of the (now vast!) range of earlier anime works, whose brilliance is hard to understand unless one levels up watching a dozen older titles first.

The Themes of Japanese SF

Tatami Galaxy DVD cover

The gradual split between Japanese SF fandom and anime fandom that happened over the 1980s-90s means the average Worldcon attendee is correct to feel that 95 percent of anime is not the same fandom as Worldcon’s fandom, but concealed within that is the 5 percent born from SFF-convention culture. And on the manga end, because so much Japanese literature is manga (40 percent of all printed material!), that if a Japanese person reads Bester or Le Guin and gets an SF idea, frequently they decide to write it as a manga instead of prose. We are at last getting translations of Japanese SF novels like the Groundhog Day-like Tatami Galaxy, the space opera Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and Project Itoh’s quasi-utopia Harmony, but if our SF fandom truly wants to welcome global voices—from China, Nigeria, Finland, Francophone Canada, etc.—when it comes to Japan, the novels can’t be separated from the large portion of Japan’s SFF that happens to be in anime or manga format. This doesn’t mean all SFF fans should try consuming anime and manga, it simply means that all SF readers can benefit from summaries of what’s been going on in the SFF anime/manga world, a world born from those kids who read of robot heroes in the rubble after WWII, and have spent seventy years trying to send their replies back across the barriers of ocean, culture, language, and medium.

What are the biggest themes in Japanese SF? In brief:

Genderplay is one: princes disguised as princesses disguised as princes disguised as princesses, and a genealogy gender-revolutionary, mostly girls’ (shōjo) fiction sparked by the sparkly princess-princes of Takarazuka theater, which passed via Princess Knight and Rose of Versailles into innumerable stories, notably one of the 1995 masterpieces Revolutionary Girl Utena, which adds supernatural elements to produce a fairytale deconstruction of a kind fascinatingly unlike its Western counterparts. This genderplay also touches boys’ titles, and SF. Tezuka’s Metropolis had an ambiguously-gendered robot at its core. The recent hit Land of the Lustrous (2012-ongoing) focuses on non-binary gem species often compared to Steven Universe. And Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven (1975) contains an alien species which chooses their sex at adulthood, but where younger children are usually required to become female; one member is striving to be accepted into an equivalent of Star Fleet because outstanding achievement is the only path to being allowed to be male.

ESP is another: telekinesis, sixth sense, telepathy, etc. explored as serious non-magical phenomena, which has remained a topic of fascination in Japan up to the present, despite largely fading out of interest in the West. In Japanese media, the ESP concept blended with folklore beliefs about individuals with spiritual powers, so Japanese ESP stories often jump from bending spoons to banishing ghosts without pausing to explain the logical link. Since ESP hasn’t been taken very seriously in Western SF for some time, Japanese ESP fiction has new sciences to mix it with, exploring questions of whether a powerful ESPer can create micro-black-holes, manipulate Earth’s orbit, or edit DNA at levels we didn’t know about when ESP went out of vogue in the West.

Japanese SF also looooooooooooves its robots, has loved robots since the days of Astro Boy and kamishibai cardboard theater. While Western SF also loves robots, the palette of standard questions such stories explore is different, focusing on robot civil rights, robot consciousness, the ethics of robot disposability, sentient weapons, and the first-contact-like barrier between biological and digital life—such themes that are present in Western SF, but not core default questions one always expects in robot tales, which in the West tend to look more at labor. To give a micro-example, Asimov’s laws of robotics focus on preventing robots from harming humans, and early robot fiction often depicts anxiety about labor uprisings or labor replacement, stand-ins for American anxiety about revolts by the poor and working classes (and, historically enslaved workers). When Tezuka heard about the concept of Robot Laws, his first impulse was that they must mean laws protecting robot and AI civil rights. So, “Robot Laws” in Japan means Astro Boy striving against anti-robot racism and battling hate groups, using robots to explore anxiety about racism and genocide instead of about labor. These twin tendencies established patterns which have ricocheted forward to make robots code for different concepts in the histories of Japanese and English SF.

Works drawing on Japan’s folklore tradition and its metaphysics constitute another major element. Shigeru Mizuki is the founding father of this genre. There are stories about folklore creatures like mountain gods, raccoon-like tanuki and their magic shapeshifting testicles, Japanese hairy vampire monsters, and Betobeto-san, the invisible creature which causes that weird feeling when you’re walking along at night and feel you’re being watched (the correct solution is to step aside and say “Betobeto-san, please go on ahead,” and he will, relieving the feeling). There are also great stories about Japan’s spiritualist and exorcist tradition, which, just like Christianity’s exorcist tradition, is both living practice and an object of great historical fascination and fantastic imagination. And there is the grand cosmic universe of Japanese horror.

The cover of the first volume of the manga Requiem of the Rose King by Aya Kanno, published by Akita Shoten.

Another of my personal favorite themes in anime/manga is work set in what one might call Bizarro Europe that is the wealth of Japanese historical fiction (mostly shōjo) about events like the French Revolution, Joan of Arc, ancient Rome, my shelf full of Borgia manga, etc., which tend to transform and make new things out of familiar history in very different ways from what one produces when one had to learn these things in high school. Works like Requiem of the Rose King (2013-2022; what if Richard III was a gorgeous intersex heartthrob?), Versailles of the Dead (2016-20; don’t let them know the queen is a zombie!), and Thermae Romae (2008-13; time travelers teaching Rome how to build a Japanese bathhouse!) transform history in ways we just don’t think of, as you can guess from the fact that there is a glittery Takarazuka musical about MLK. If you ever read Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study In Scarlet or Valley of Fear and got to experience his wildly over-the-top fantasy version of nineteenth-century America, appropriated and transformed as bizarrely as Gilbert and Sullivan’s Mikado transforms Japan, you’ve tasted what it’s like to see your own culture and history turned upside-down by another, and if you found that experience enlightening, manga/anime has a warehouse full of even more fantastical Europes and Americas.

And there is more modern history—seeing the other side of World War II. Just as WWII and the Cold War have an enormous footprint in Western SFF, replayed in space operas, superhero rivalries, the Star Trek galaxy, and Middle Earth, so Japanese SFF replays the same, but from Japan’s perspective, which is very different from the West’s we triumphed over Nazis! The difference can be summarized by a moment when I was discussing the ending theme song of Gundam Seed (2002-3) with Jo Walton, and said, “The lyrics are about young men going off to war and—” and I was interrupted. “Dying?” she tried to finish. “No, committing atrocities and surviving and having to live with it.” The common anime/manga perspective on the war, shaped by God of Manga Osamu Tezuka, ghost-story-loving Shigeru Mizuki, and those kids who hiked through rubble to track down little bright books, is fiercely critical of both sides of Japan’s WWII experience: America for its pretending-it’s-not-an-empire imperialism and use of the atomic bomb, Japan for its hyper-militarism, aggression, lies (faking enemy attacks to justify the invasion of Manchuria and other things), its racism, xenophobia, and complicity in genocide, and its leadership’s willingness to throw away the lives of its men. Played out in fiction, this shapes many war narratives without a right side and a wrong side, in which both/all major sides are guilty of atrocities and war crimes, and both/all sides contain both selfish aggressors and passionate idealists. So many key conflicts are within individual factions (mimicking the process of Japan’s military party seizing power), and the challenge for the heroes is to try to find or forge some faction actually worthy of respect, and work for peace. Manga works also look specifically at the post-war occupation and Cold War, in works like Captain Ken (1960-1) which looks at Japanese Mars colonists surrounded by a larger population of American Mars colonists resisting cultural assimilation, Area 88 (1979-86) which looks at 1970s Middle East proxy wars, Code Geass (2006-8) which imagines a world dominated by three rival superpower empires Britain, China, and the Eurosphere. And some offer us a Japanese analysis of more recent conflicts, as in Gundam Wing (2005-6) which comments on China’s treatment of pacifist Tibet, Gundam Seed and Gundam Seed Destiny (2002-5) which explores America’s response to the 9/11 attacks, and Gundam 00 (2007-8) which looks at the US war in Afghanistan—sequels to the original Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) which commented on World War II.

Also worth a mention is the My (Girl)friend Is a Weapon of Mass Destruction genre, an important crossover between the interests in robots and WWII, or more specifically the bomb. Astro Boy had tragic friendships with robot bombs as early as the 1940s, in one case befriending an alien-made planet-killer bomb, in another trying to help Earth deal with a whole civilization of self-replicating robots who built a happy city on the bottom of the Pacific not realizing every one of them is a nuclear warhead. This is similar to the Robocop or Terminator trauma of coping with being a living weapon, but the focus tends to be a sentience not simply coming to terms with (a) being created in order to destroy, but (b) being created for mass destruction, on the nuclear bomb or planet-killer scale, and often (c) being disposably created to be destroyed in the process of detonation. One occasionally sees this in Western SF—notably the sentient bomb in the 1974 film Dark Star—but the disposable side is far more common in Japanese SF, influenced by many narrative traditions, especially the traumatic disposability of the WWII soldier. In more recent anime, the walking WMD is usually also a magical girlfriend, or occasionally boyfriend, and while any genre has vacuous examples, more serious ones like Saikano or Trigun dive deep into the intersecting ethics of artificial life and mass-destruction tech.

The front cover art for the manga Trigun written by Yasuhiro Nightow.

As we heed recent calls to reexamine the triumphalist and often pro-imperial narratives which saturate early Western SF, those problems (as well as American exceptionalism) become much easier to see and analyze when juxtaposed with Japanese fiction willing to vociferously condemn its own side, as well as to dive deep into the ethics of weapons of mass destruction, and to call out the bad sides of Cold War America and its European allies. There is also pro-militarist manga and anime, including some very troubling stuff in recent decades, influenced by the global nationalist and authoritarian surge which has its manifestation in Japan as it does in the USA, UK, Australia, Hungary, etc.; so Japan’s current political debates about its Self-Defense Force—between those who still favor pacifism and those who want to create a full military—are tellingly visible in military SF. The fact that the same medium that produced Mizuki’s fiercely anti-war Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths (1973, TV adaptation 2007) also produced Strike Witches (2007-ongoing; aliens vs. sexy magic girls with cute animal ears whose flight prosthetics turn them into anthropomorphized WWII fighter planes) synthesizes very well how the range of Japan’s fictional digestions and examinations of WWII is as wide-ranging as the West’s, and offers a valuably different range of narratives.

Conclusion: Mitfreude

So, that’s what anime/manga are, and why people enjoy them. Is it all good? No. Is it all bad? No. Is it all full of hyperactive catgirls? No. Their quality is as wide-ranging as that of film or novels, with teen action series as their financial backbone, a lot of responses to World War II, colonialism, and other travails of the past two centuries, plus lots of gender-bending and some strong veins of SF. Some SF manga/anime is vacuous ridiculousness, like Space Dandy (2004) or All-Purpose Cultural Cat Girl Nuku Nuku (1990-1/2002-3), but some are major contributions, like Fumi Yoshinaga’s Tiptree-award-winning secret history Õoku: The Inner Chambers (2004-2020), or Naoki Urasawa’s profound Pluto (2003-9, a mature reworking of Astro Boy) and his 20th Century Boys (1999-2006) which (like Brian Fies’s Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, 2009) looks at the trauma of growing up on golden age SF which promised that by the year 2000 we would have robot butlers and field trips to the Moon, only to reach the real Y2K still in our very mundane-feeling present. And Japanese SF in general has accorded much greater development than the west to several major themes, including AI civil rights, complicity in genocide, ESP, and environmental custodianship.

Manga and anime are a deep plunge for the unfamiliar, since you need to consume dozens of series to learn the tropes before you can enjoy the best; but their SFF world is part of our SFF world, and hopefully now you can enjoy both the mitfreude of delighting in others’ joy, and the vorfreude of looking forward in future to hearing a friend say, “there’s a cool new SF manga that did X!” and welcoming it as a thread in the tapestry of global fandom.


Editor: Gautam Bhatia.

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.



Ada Palmer’s acclaimed Terra Ignota series (Tor Books) explores a future of borderless nations and globally commixing populations; its fourth and last volume Perhaps the Stars, was published in September 2021, and the entire series has been nominated for the Hugo Award for the Best Series in 2022. She teaches history at the University of Chicago, studying the Renaissance, Enlightenment, and radical freethought, and is currently working on a book on censorship and the impact of information revolutions on censorship methods. She composes music including the Viking mythology cycle Sundown: Whispers of Ragnarok, studies anime/manga, especially Osamu Tezuka, post-WWII manga and feminist manga, consults for anime and manga publishers, and blogs at ExUrbe.com.
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