America, Japan, and Korea: A Cycle of Animation
by Jerry Whitworth
The United States of America was one of the world’s leading developers into creating hand drawn animation, with Walt Disney an early visionary. Characters like Mickey Mouse, Felix the Cat, Betty Boop, and Popeye just a few examples of a new form of media brought to the big screen and later, when it was invented and made available to the public, for television. Some of the action provided viewers would partly be captured in the emerging American comic book market around this same time (developing into its own phenomenon with the release of Action Comics #1 in 1938), using deliberate sequences of juxtaposed images (phrasing coined by author Scott McCloud). Studios caught on and comic books became another medium to sell their cartoon characters to youths. Comics and cartoons would have a longstanding relationship present today and for the foreseeable future. All the while, these early cartoons inspired a young man traveling with his parents through France named Osamu Tezuka. Returning to his native Japan, Tezuka became a writer and artist revered today as the God or Godfather of Comics and Animation in his country. Creating works like Tetsuwan ATOM (Astro Boy), Jungle Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), and Black Jack, borrowing concepts he witnessed from American animation such as large eyes and exaggerated features for his characters but would also include cinematic techniques from French filmography to convey motion and depth. It wasn’t long until his work made the jump to animation, Astro Boy being one of the earliest cartoons to hit Japan’s airwaves.
Unfortunately, while comic books and animation flourished in the East, a draconian enforcement fell on the American industry over fears of developing deviancy in youths which handcuffed and gagged creators in exploring the flexibility of the art form. Mainstream animation was so saccharin only small children could generally stomach it and comics so simple and separate from reality in plot one would think it was written by pre-schoolers. Decades were spent trying to buck this trend, developing many several small victories as time passed but in a very important aspect all advances were crippled: the stigma of being exclusively for children in the eyes of the public (a stigma very much in effect in the present). Despite comic books being the source material for several blockbuster films, its success has little affect in bringing the audience that watches them to read the books they derive from. In Japan, however, comic books (manga) and animation (anime) is as accepted as novels, sitcoms, video games, and sports. While Americans often view animation and comics as a genre, for Japan its a medium with every genre represented. Equal parts men and women read comics and watch cartoons, people of any age are socially accepted to imbibe the content, and as such offers a huge boon to the entertainment community, from those that create content to those who sell it.
During the 1980s, the US experienced an animation explosion. This was the result of several factors coming together, including comic book writers who had spent years trying to lift up their industry continuing to make the transition to animation, injecting fresh blood into the medium (a notable example beings the likes of Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber on Thundarr the Barbarian). As technology improved, there were more things that can be done in film that simply wasn’t possible before such as 1977’s Star Wars and subsequent sequels. Animation was poised to capitalize on this, able to make the impossible a reality for television but at a significantly smaller cost. More so than anything else, however, the growth of the toy industry helped drive the desire to push cartoons onto airwaves. Masters of the Universe, G.I. Joe, Super Powers, and M.A.S.K. are all examples of this activity, but an interesting series that follows our discussion is Transformers.