I know that a lot of anime fans fear what Western influence could do to their favourite medium. I hear it a lot. Anime should stay Japanese or something to that extent.
I realize that the sentiment is most likely fuelled by decades of really bad dubs and questionable localization. There certainly is a lot of evidence there to give you pause. But these days, both bad dubs and bad localization aren’t really the problems they use to be. For one, both have gotten exponentially better on the face of it, but more importantly, both are avoidable.
You can find pretty much every anime in subbed version if you don’t like the English voice actors and non-localized versions are easy to find online through legal or at least legal adjacent means. OK, so I may have to learn Japanese to understand them but learning Japanese is bound to be a deeply rewarding experience that would serve me well beyond avoiding a bit of localization. I’m just saying that we have a lot more options now.
And although most fans will point to instances of “censorship” (i.e. localization) or clunky acting to show the negative effects of Western influence, that’s not really what it is. It’s a secondary transformation of the product for European and American consumption. Just like translating it in the first place. That’s a separate issue from direct influence on the anime being made. Influence on that level would be unavoidable no matter how many languages you learn.
And I can see why that sounds really scary. The thing is, I’m not sure what it actually means. What would an American-produced anime look like and how would it be different. We can sort of get an idea from the Crunchyroll produced series. However, the three webtoon adaptations (Tower of God, God of Highschool and Nobless) are sort of hard to compare. They are American-produced adaptations of Korean webtoons. I’m not sure just how different they are from Japanese-produced adaptations of Korean webtoons…you know.
So really the only viable Crunchyroll production for this post is In/Spectre. That is an anime based on a Japanese property and meant to fit into anime standards. And it was fine. I mean it wasn’t the greatest series out there but it wasn’t the worst either. More importantly, if I didn’t know that it was a US-produced anime, I would never have been able to tell just from watching it. In fact, I can’t really find the influence even if I’m specifically looking for it.
Now that doesn’t mean all that much. Or anything really. It’s not a huge sample size! Just because In/Spectre turned no different than most titles doesn’t mean that an American or European cash influx in the industry won’t have a very noticeable effect. Maybe Crunchyroll was particularly hands-off or more respectful of anime traditions. Or it could go the other way and future Western-produced anime are actually Amazing! I have watched a bunch of Netflix original anime and it’s a bit more apparent there. Especially in Dorohedoro. Saiki K. is the same as previous seasons but Beastars and Dorohedoro take some narrative risks and go into more unpleasant imagery and harsh storytelling than most anime I see come out recently. So there is some influence there.
Still, for my thought experiment, I figured I would take some classic titles that a lot of people have at least heard about and that are open about being heavily influenced by Western culture. We don’t have t guess, the authors/creators have directly told us these are Americanized anime.
Let’s start with the most dubious one. Avatar: The Last Air Bender. Now Avatar is definitely American. It was created by two dudes called Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, and made by Nickelodeon Animation Studios. Actually, if anything, it’s not anime at all. The creators said that they were inspired by Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, the story is influenced by Chinese history and Buddhist tales. The actual Japanese influence is mainly in the character designs but the choreography and movements were specifically modelled on American cartoons.
So why am I even mentioning Avatar if it’s just not an anime? Well because a lot of western anime fans, that have watched a lot of anime, still call Avatar one of their favourite anime or the show that got them into anime. For whatever reason, Avatar resonated with viewers in much the same way anime did and most of them enjoyed it a lot! And so it’s not far-fetched to think of it as a prototype for what an “American anime” would be. You can make of that what you will.
But we do also have a number of prevalent Japanese anime that are very influenced by Western culture as well. You can see it in a pretty obvious way in the mega-popular My Hero Academia. Although that’s actually a fusion of a lot of cultures which is a big part of its appeal. However, you can also see it very specifically in the works of Shinichirō Watanabe who openly stated that he wanted to make western-influenced series.
Watanabe went out of his way to inject as much influence as possible in series like Cowboy Bebop and even more so in Samurai Champloo. A bit like Tarantino loved to inject Eastern influence into his early works. And I gotta say, I really love both Cowboy Bebop and Samurai Champloo. I know I have never reviewed them but trust me, I like them!
I understand that I’m an optimist. In all likelihood, having more western influence in anime isn’t going to magically give us a slew of titles of the calibre of Cowboy Bebop or a bunch of cartoons as beloved as Avatar. In fact, it’s probably going to create a bunch of completely forgettable anime and a few really bad ones. Because most anime is a bunch of really forgettable anime and a few really bad ones. But it could give us a couple of titles as great as Cowboy Bebop!
And considering how much the fanbase complains about the anime being made and produced in Japan, why not try a few ones with different productions? Yeah, distribution companies use to not put any resources into dubbing and yeah, sometimes localization is really bad. But you know, sometimes the original casts aren’t that great and the anime wasn’t fun, to begin with. And sometimes Western influence mixed with traditional anime can produce something new and amazing! That’s my rose-coloured take on it.