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.

trust me, this is the better option

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.

I mean what’s with the baseball…pffth!

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.

I should rewatch Avatar

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.

15 thoughts

  1. I don’t know that this is a matter to be either optimistic or pessimistic about – rather, it’s one of those “it is what it is” situations. So maybe Netflix is jumping on board the bandwagon by either producing its own anime or commissioning Japanese studios to do so, and maybe some of those productions have been good, bad, or indifferent – but as you correctly point out, the same is true of Japanese anime by and large. And now that Funimation has bought out both AnimeLab and Crunchyroll (who says the natural impulse of capitalism isn’t toward monopoly?), maybe that, too, will have some impact on the type of anime that are made and (especially) distributed in the West (especially now that Japanese studios are aware of the lucrative markets that are available in the West for anime products). Then again, maybe it won’t. Or maybe it’ll just be another variation on the existing situation. And again, as you also correctly point out, cultural influences flow both ways…so maybe what is happening is the formative stage of some new development in anime, in which a multiplicity of cultural influences are present and create a distinctively new form/aesthetic? And if that is the case, then it, too, will have its good, bad, and indifferent expressions…

  2. I find it odd that people treat western influences in a recent thing when in reality, they have been there since the 60’s at least. Hayao Miyazaki’s films often have a European-style setting and are inspired by a mix of European and Japanese fairy tales and folklore. Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion had art styles heavily inspired by Disney. Mobile Suit Gundam is pretty much Star Wars with mechs. (Of course, Star Wars was heavily influenced by old samurai films, and Disney ripped off Kimba for The Lion King pretty shamelessly, so it goes both ways.)

    My hope is that anime/animation as a whole evolves past these arbitrary distinctions and becomes a global phenomenon. I would love to see more western-inspired anime, but I also want to see Indian-inspired anime, or Brazilian-inspired, or African-inspired. There are many amazing stories from all over the world, that have shaped these cultures for centuries, and I’d love to see them have as much of a platform as something like Superman or DBZ.

  3. If you can understand the difference between the taste of Chinese Dish cooked by your mom/sibling and the one one actually cooked by a chinese cook at a chinese restaurant, you can fairly think about the same with respect to animes adapted/created by american studios vs japanese studios.

    1. It,s a bit more like a chinese dish cooked by your chinese cook mother who works at a chinese restaurant in Dubai, you know. Since american studios will likely employ employees from all over the world with specific experience.

  4. Netflix Original is a marketing stunt. I don’t think Netflix has anything to do with the production of shows like Dorohedoro or Beastars. It’s likely that having a guaranteed international distribution deal with Netflix makes shows possible that wouldn’t otherwise be greenlit as easily. But they’re pretty much Japanese anime (in terms of production). There are actually anime where Netflix is on the production committee: Aico International, Highrise Invasion, and most prominently B the Beginning (which is only produced by Netflix). I don’t recall a single one of them becoming popular. That’s not to say they’re bad. I didn’t watch a single one of those three, but I quite enjoyed 7 Seeds. It’s just… the difference between the international market opening up opportunities vs. the international market directly interfering. I mean take Great Pretender. I have no doubt the Netflix distribution deal helped a lot getting the anime made, but the director previously made the similarly western-themed 91 Days without that sort of input. Or maybe not without that sort of input? I actually don’t know.

    Western influence has been a thing in anime from the beginning. (I seem to recall a story about Astor Boy eyes being influenced by Betty Boop? Not sure. It would make sense, though.) And foreign co-productions aren’t entirely new either. Some of the children’s anime I watched as a kid were German/Japanese co-productions, I think? (The Bee Maya?)

    I mean, I’ll watch what looks interesting. The only thing Japan does better than any other country in animation, I think, is that sort of wistful, uneventful mood. A lot of the best Slice of Life is dominated by that. I’m trying to think of Western Media who get that right, and it’s rare. Jim Jarmush comes to mind. Also, Smoke/Blue in the Face. I can’t think of animation.

    I used to watch animation indiscriminantly as a kid. It’s just that over time CGI started to take over and I started to lose interest. (And now it’s growing more prominent in anime, too. Let’s see where this goes.) It’s not that I don’t enjoy CGI anime (this season’s Shinigami Bocchan is one of my favourites), but that’s just not… going to hold my interest as a genre in animation.

    I’m not bothered by western influence in anime, when it comes to content. I don’t care enough, to be honest, to research who makes what. No country is a metaphorical island, not even if it’s spread across a few literal ones. Generally, I think second guessing what the audience wants is a fool’s game. I remember back in 2012 when Yamakan tried to save anime by appealing to Western audiences and made… Fractale. It all felt very silly back then, and it still feels silly to this day. Creators are influenced by foreign material all the time; they still need to make the show they like.

    Netflix etc. producing their own stuff (the B-the Beginning line) feels like bookkeepers trying to control the domestic market. If they can use anime as a talking point they may not have to share too much revenue. That doesn’t mean that the shows are bad or anything, it’s just… annoying. It’s just… parents who don’t get why their kids flock to that weird new stuff and then suggest the kind of wholesome stuff of old with a few superficial tweaks and thus embarrass their kids in front of their friends. I get those sort of vibes from Netflix and co., and I think that’s what anime fandom’s acting out against. Even I find that attitude mildly annoying. I didn’t last with Aico or B longer than an episode; I didn’t even try High Rise Invasion. But I really enjoyed 7 Seeds. It’s not a good record, but it’s also produced a really fun show. As always it’s about who makes the show, how, and why.

    I think the biggest resistance against Netflix etc. isn’t actually the shows themselves. Once upon a time there was a lively fansub community. Out of it arose Crunchyroll, and anime started to become more widely available legally. Now it’s a business, though, and whereas you once could watch everything or nearly everything on one platform, you then needed more than one subscription. And then the big players with big wallets come in, and the exclusivity game begins, and they start to tamper with productions. Companies buy other companies… Curnchy and Funi have a deal, then they don’t, and now Funi buys Cruchy, and Sony has it all… Once upon a time there was a lively fansub community… those were the days. I mean you get that people want money, but when the marketing deparments fund of big players fund silly anime documentaries that reinforce their marketing vision and thus demonstrate that the passion that started it all counts for nothing… well it’s not a surprise when some people are… disappointed?

    Really, in terms of what shows are produced, things change all the time, and always have. Spring this year was a great season. Summer is okay; looks worse than it is for following after spring. What’s the most Western-feeling show I’m watching this season? Hm, I’d say Fena – Pirate Princess. The mix is awkward at times (like when a western-styled woman does what I think was supposed to look like a sexy walk, but for a while it looks like she’s recovering from hip surgery), but mostly it works. The show’s hardly perfect, but it’s good fun, and good straightforward fun is somewhat underrepresented this season.

    I’m neither worried nor excited about western influence. Business as usual.

    (This is quite a long rambling post even for my standards…)

  5. The interesting thing is, you mentioned harsh storytelling as a Western influence, but when you look back I think that was more of a Japanese thing. You compare Akira, for example to Western toons of the time and its harsher. I know for me one of the things that drew me to Digimon Tamers is it was harsher and darker than other kids shoes at the time, which I put down to it be an anime not a Western cartoon.

    Regardless though, I think there’s no harm in the mix of influences. It’s all part of the evolution of any type of media, so I’m definitely also of the rose tinted variety with it.

    1. I don,t know man, There were some really grim German cartoons all through the 80s. I liked Akira a lot and it does have some edge to it but it’s not like it trumatized me like those european toons did.

      This said, by harsh I mean the characters are not above reproach and the themes explored are less than virtuous. Not the tranditional heros journeys with rebels with a heart of gold characetrs like Akira.

      1. Ah, I get ya. Mostly what we had here were things like TMNT, Thundercats, and so on. At the time, they were pretty standard monster of the week stuff with virtuous heroes. I am completely unfamiliar with German cartoons, so couldn’t really compare.

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