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Saturday, August 08, 2009

An Aside: Anime, Space Operas, and Space Westerns

I was watching the first few episodes of Gundam Wing the other day and I started to think about how prevalent space operas and space westerns are in Japanese animation. I can name half a dozen Anime shows that fit into the space opera or space western categories: Gundam Wing, Crest of the Stars/Banner of the Stars I and II, Outlaw Star, Cowboy Bebop, all the various Gundam series, Robotech, and many more. I am not, by any means, an expert in Japanese animation. I find the film genre impossible to keep up with, and so have only watched a small portion of what must be the most prolific of genres, even compared to America’s animation industry. But that hasn’t prevented me from making this observation. It’s too obvious, and it’s a curious reality.

What exactly is so awe inspiring about space, giant robots, interstellar battles, and cowboys in space to the Japanese? Since the Anime market is not geared towards Americans, I find the Japanese fascination with these things rather strange. But I am not an expert on Japanese culture either, and have only a passing obsession with samurai history.

My best attempt to quantify all this is to look at issues of time. Japan is a relatively new (post)industrial nation. An observation of science fiction in newly industrializing nations seems to point to a cycle of literature themes, with minor deviations to inject local cultural elements. Most industrialized or industrializing nations go through a face of space opera obsession, in the more “traditional” sense. India, for example, is experiencing similar thematic phases as early 1900s America. There are additional deviations in these phases, however, since it is impossible for science fiction to remain uninfluenced by what has come before it. But this is all a guess, and not, in any way, based on statistical data or absolutes.

And since I can’t possibly answer this question on my own, I’m throwing it out to all of you. Why exactly are space opera and space western themes so common in Japanese animation? Are there cultural factors that create these thematic elements?

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  1. Hi,

    You are right, Japanese anime is full with such themes as space operas, I love anime though not exactly a big-time, but I love them, what drew me to anime, and that too in very recent time, is lack of frequent doses of Sci-Fi from Hollywood, while actually Hollywood kind of releases only 2-3 quality Sci-Fi, but I need kinda one in a month, so in search for my doses SciFi I reached Anime, and was stunned by finding such varied themes, in my opinion anime are one of the best place for inspiration regarding the various themes possible....

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  3. Oh, I'm not complaining. I love space opera and space westerns. I'm just curious why they are so prevalent in Anime.

  4. Well, we'll go topic by topic here. We'll start with the easiest, giant robots. The Japanese actually more-or-less invented mecha(which is their word for them) as a reaction to the automation of factory building. At first mecha were monsters, because robots were taking the jobs of factory workers all across the country. However, after a while they realized they were, for lack of a better word, frigging awesome, so they became protagonist as well as antagonist. In addition the culture went from fearing technology to being the most driven technophiles on earth, and thus the anime characters started piloting the mecha. Wouldn't you want an 80' tall war robot for your very own?

    The space opera thing? You pretty much had it. As a culture becomes more normalized and homogenized through the ease of technology driven life, they start to crave the adventure they imagine their parents and grandparents and ancestors had. This either leads to fantasizing about the past (This is where the westerns and samurai influences in anime come in) or the future. At one point, a few brilliant innovaters (Most notably Leiji Matsumoto who created the varying forms of Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999) realized you could unite the two into a space samurai/western and have an even broader appeal, as well as finding new ways to do things that were becoming cliche in flat-out space operas and samurai/westerns.

    Oh, as for why they've adopted our Old West at all... It's because in many ways our old west is analagous or can be made so with their samurai period. Thus "The Seven Samurai" becomes "The Magnificent 7", "Yojimbo" becomes "Last Man Standing" etc.

    Finally there's one other note to make. Though it might seem like it to the casual western observer, 90% of anime aren't really about this stuff. In fact quite a large portion of anime are so-called "slice of life" about regular people going to school and living normal lives. Like "Friends," but animated and in Japanese. It's just that the companies who purchase the rights and translate this stuff into English know that their audiences are more interested in seeing giant gun-slinging robots battling in space than watching the Japanese version of "Blossom."

  5. Ash: Yes, I would want my own 80' tall war robot all to myself. That would be awesome.

    And I do know that the majority of Anime is not space opera, etc. I've spent a good amount of time at an anime convention, and you do see a lot of variety there. But that still doesn't change the fact that there is a heck of a lot of space operas/westerns in Japanese animation, which is not true of anything America makes these days. But, again, maybe that has to do with cycles or phases of some sort.