From Sketchpad to Big Screen: Anime’s Influence on Western Film

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On November 12, 2015
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Photo by John Twohig

From art to baseball, and even cars, there’s been an exchange of ideas, goods, and culture between Japan and the Western world. I remember growing up watching anime, going to school in my mom’s Toyota Corolla, and eating cup ramen at lunch time.

I didn’t know these things were exclusively Japanese when I was young. Now that I’m older though, I’ve come to see how many things in the West have been influenced by things uniquely Japanese. In particular, highly conceptual Western films, and their relationship with cerebral animations in the East.

Two films well known for this unlikely artistic match are Ghost in the Shell and The Matrix. The Wachowski Siblings, directors of the latter, have openly admitted to using the anime to help structure their own film. There are even scenes in The Matrix which pay direct homage to the anime. Darren Aronofsky has also said that Satoshi Kon’s Perfect Blue was a huge influence on his Black Swan. Why does this crossover happen? Why are more and more directors finding inspiration in these experimental animations?

Even in the most realistically drawn animes, the rules of reality can be freely bent without distracting the viewer from the essence of the story. That’s because the medium itself is not conducive to realism. What reality is can be entirely up to the film’s creators. This is why in anime’s like Perfect Blue and Millennium Actress, Director Satoshi Kon can effortlessly jump the line between the “real” world and the character’s imagined one. Viewers will take that jump with him because the animation medium allows for such things to occur.

Yet in the film world, jumping from realistic elements to fantastical ones cannot be achieved as easily. If not done correctly it could come off as a cheap CGI affect and not believable. Maybe that’s why filmmakers have been looking more to anime to find a solution to this problem.

Western directors might also be leaning on the anime muse because the medium allows for a more visual description of heady, dreamlike, or imaginative concepts. How could Christopher Nolan illustrate the idea of dream-sharing in Inception if he never watched Paprika? An entire scene was stripped from the anime in which the main character is on an “elevator of dreams”. Interestingly enough, if Nolan didn’t remix this scene for his own film, significant plot points could have been misinterpreted by the audience.

Additionally, Aronofsky probably would have had a bit of trouble in making Black Swan believable if he didn’t borrow and emulate ideas from Perfect Blue. Both characters suffer with increasingly conflicting identities about who they are and what they are becoming. And this blurs their connection with reality throughout the movie. Events are sometimes so similar between the film and animation that any serious critic would question whether or not Black Swan is an adaptation; or is trying really hard to be one.

Wrapping up, no idea is truly original. Even the most unique stories ever written, filmed, or drawn, have had creators who were inspired by previous works. Everything is a remix; building upon the past. Keep that in mind when you head to the theaters to check out the next big blockbuster. It might have a distant connection here in Japan.

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Trekkie trekking through the Nihon quadrant.

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