From Godzilla to Studio Ghibli: A History of Japanese Cultural Trade

When it comes to pop culture, Japan has a long history of influence. Having a unique access to Western markets (granted by the US under occupation to make sure their changes to the Japanese economy survived), set Japan off to the comfortable position of domination in the cultural trade, only to be challenged in recent years by the rise of South Korea and Hallyu.

But how extensive is Japan’s pop culture influence? To explain that, I have to begin with one of the most famous classic monsters in cinema history, Godzilla. Godzilla, also known in the Japanese form (Gojira, ゴジラ), by Ishiro Honda, was initially released in Japan in 1954, made as a message against nuclear bombing and H-bomb testing by the US near Japan). Godzilla in its initial form acts as a metaphor against nuclear testing, being an ancient monster that is awakened from a deep sleep by nuclear radiation. By the end of the Cold War, however, some versions of Godzilla have him portrayed as an antihero, defending humanity against a greater threat, while more modern versions have included natural disasters, environmental degradation, Japanese forgetfulness over its imperial past, and human conflict. While the films have shifted Godzilla’s meaning over time, the lizard monster itself has become a staple in Western pop culture, being recognizable to most, even if they haven’t seen any Godzilla films.

Another easily recognizable figure would have to be Hello Kitty (Haro Kiti, ハロー・キティ), created in 1974 by Sanrio. Hello Kitty is a staple of the “kawaii” segment of Japanese culture, having been created as part of a line for “kawaii merch” by the company. According to creator’s Yuko Shimizu’s backstory, Hello Kitty (or Kitty White) is a perpetual third grader living outside of London, with the target audience being pre-adolescent girls. Now Sanrio has expanded to include a more adult audience, with dozens of characters all contributing to “kawaii culture”. Hello Kitty holds immense popularity in Western markets, but a character released in 2013 by the name of Gudetama (a lazy egg yoke with a butt), seems to have become a cultural phenomenon as well, being seen as particularly relatable among teens and young adults. With the popular release of both the merchandise and the show Aggretsuko by Netflix in 2018, Sanrio’s newest character, a red panda battling discrimination and microaggressions at work, seems to be on the same path of popularity.

Around the same time as Sanrio’s release of Hello Kitty, another influential character arose, although not nearly as remembered in the modern era. This character was Astro Boy (Testuwan Atomu, 鉄腕アトム). The 1963 TV series, written by Yoshiyuki Tomino, was based off of the 1952 manga with the same name (written by Osamu Tezuka, or the “God of Manga”), was the first popular Japanese show that used the style later classified as “anime”. It was the first actual anime to be broadcast outside of Japan, enjoying popularity in both Japan and the West. Astro Boy, taking after many futuristic shows of the 1960’s takes place in the “distant 2000”, he is the most advanced robot ever developed. In 1965, NBC Enterprises released English-dubbed episodes to American audiences, with episodes and names altered to cater to both restrictions placed by the American television networks and to American tastes. Despite Tezuka’s frustration with the restrictions, it gained massive popularity, holding reruns until the early 1970’s. Remakes of the original anime would still follow into the 1980’s and 1990’s, however, revamping the animation style and story to progress with time.

The success of Astro Boy would lead directly to the further development of the “anime” style of animation, and with an ever-growing market, the style flourished throughout the 1980’s and 1990’s in both Eastern and Western markets, with shows like Sailor Moon (Bishojo Senshi Sera Mun 美少女戦士セーラームーン), Pokemon (ポケモン), Gundam (Gandamu, ガンダム)and Neon Genesis: Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion,新世紀エヴァンゲリオン)  influencing an entire generation as English dubbed versions of the shows played on normal daytime television. This influence would lead to the incorportation of the anime style into Western shows, such as the Simpsons “30 Minutes over Tokyo” in 1999, which dedicated an entire episode to referencing different Japanese cultural aspects that Westerners were familiar with, and poking fun as some of the pop culture aspects as well. The influence of these shows throughout the 1990’s would also lead to the development of Avatar the Last Airbender (2006-2008) and its sequel series, both of which were produced by a Western company, but with an anime-esque style, leading to the coining of the new term “American anime”.

Of course, in mentioning the influence of individual shows in the anime style, I simply can’t ignore the influence of an entire company that redefines it. Studio Ghibli (Kabushiki gaisha Sutajio Jiburi, 株式会社スタジオジブリ), founded in 1985 by Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, is perhaps the most influential Japanese animated film company in the Western market, with seven of the fifteen highest-grossing anime films, Spirited Away (2001) clocking in at number two with $290 million globally, and an Oscar nomination for best animated film. Studio Ghibli has provided a wide array of films, focusing around the nuances of human nature, even if they take place in fantastical worlds. With Disney’s English dubbing and releasing of the films in Western markets, Studio Ghibli has gained seemingly legendary status, with films such as Princess Mononoke (1997), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), and Ponyo (2008) having cult status among Western youth. Studio Ghibli is and will remain a permanent figure when one thinks about Japanese pop culture, having one of the largest and most recognizable names of any Japanese animation company. Despite their announced temporary hiatus in 2014, fans of the films still eagerly await for another film to come.

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