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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 September, 2003, 12:44 GMT 13:44 UK
Japan's madness for manga
By Sarah Buckley
BBC News Online

The Japanese cartoon film Spirited Away, now showing in UK cinemas, stars a little girl wrestling with monsters after her parents are turned into pigs.

But it wasn't just children it enchanted in Japan.

It took $230m in box office sales and became the country's biggest grossing film, underlining Japan's obsession with cartoons.

Chihiro (left) driving with her father
Chihiro is transformed from a bored schoolgirl....
The Oscar-winning feature tells the story of a 10-year-old called Chihiro who gets caught up in a surreal, Alice-in-Wonderland style adventure.

She faces being eaten by an array of bizarre creatures, the threats of an evil sorceress, and the worry of what has happened to her parents.

Fantastical as cartoons are, they have been part of mainstream Japanese culture for years.

An incredible 45% of all books and periodicals sold in Japan are cartoon books, known as "manga".

And film cartoons, or "anime" in Japanese, are frequently the country's top grossing movies.

.... into a free spirit

The popularity of cartoons is partly the result of Japan's long love-affair with the pictorial, said Susan Napier, author of Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke.

Manga's early roots lie in 9th century Buddhist scrolls which caricatured the aristocracy as bunnies and frogs.

"It was a way of spoofing the nobility in a subtle, low-key way," said Ms Napier.

Populist art was developed in the 17th and 18th centuries, when woodblock "ukiyo-e" prints stylised pop idols of the time - kabuki actors and geisha. Like contemporary manga, they were ubiquitous and cheap to produce.

Modern manga burgeoned in Japan's post-war years, when television was still not affordable. When TV did become more common, anime provided a cheap alternative to live drama.

Both genres hooked the 1960s baby boom generation and have since become well-established Japanese media.

Relatively low production costs are still part of their attraction.

"One person with a pen and piece of paper can do something on the scale of Star Wars," said Matt Thorn, from Kyoto Seika University's Department of Comic Art.

There's been quite a lot of censorship in Japan... for some reason that never really existed in manga format
Yo Takatsuki, manga junkie

But that freedom of expression is not limited to extraordinary creations. Cartoons allow the exploration of themes which exist at home, but may be uncomfortable to raise in realistic formats.

"There's been quite a lot of censorship in Japan, up to the mid 80s and for some reason that never really existed in manga format," said Yo Takatsuki, a manga junkie based in London.

"Tricky social subjects like sex and violence... are often explored in manga rather than any other media," he said.

Japan believes risqué themes are acceptable in cartoon form because the unrealistic format gives them a certain distance, he said.

Rise of the 'shojo'

Susan Napier said one dominant theme was the "shojo" - the young girl hovering between childhood and adolescence.

This was related to Japan's interest in "cuteness", she said.

One of Japan's national heroes is a pink cartoon cat called "Hello Kitty". It is not uncommon for bank cards to sport a cartoon character.

"There is a certain pleasure in non-threatening, cute things," said Ms Napier.

"It may be about the uncertainty in Japan about where they stand vis-à-vis the world. Cuteness represents a real comfort zone for them."

One of Japan's new Hello Kitty taxis
Cuteness is king in Japan

But she said she had recently noticed a "darkening" of the shojo theme.

In Spirited Away, 10-year-old Chihiro is subjected to a series of frightening tests.

"It's a more eerie movie than [director] Hayao Miyazaki has put up before," said Ms Napier.

Shifting sand

This related, she said, to a crisis of confidence in Japan, where the economy has been sluggish for years and jobs for life are a thing of the past.

"I believe the Japanese are seeing themselves as more vulnerable," she said.

Matt Thorn said what struck him about the movie was its emphasis on individualism.

The heroine is transformed from a typical product of Japanese education, which prizes conformism, to someone who triumphs by making her own way, he said.

"The fact that the movie is so hugely popular shows there's a great deal of sympathy for those themes.

"It used to be the case that if you followed the rules, you did well in life. Now there's a feeling that you don't get a reward for it," he said.

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