Aspects of Japanese pop culture has levels of sophistication and refinement not evident in most North American. A case in point is in animated television and film series. In North America, animation is generally associated with children’s programming whereas in Asia the distinction is not observed. (A cursory glance at some of the 18+ Japanese animation will quickly dispel that). There are animated series (we will call this “anime”) which both adults and children can appreciate, such as the Mobile Suit Gundam series that I have recently come to appreciate. The MSG is an epic interstellar adventure tale (since spawned off into a franchise) of two rival factions vying for space colonization and focuses on a handful of civilian survivors (including children) who through circumstance wind up as (often unwilling) combatants. During the episodic telling, themes like mortality, injury, war time atrocities, and notions that in war, often there is no clear distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ sides and quite often, the enemy is from within. These things are rarely touched on in Western animation which tends to ‘dumb down’ characters to binaries of good and evil. Moreover, Japanese animation houses sometimes take the trouble to research the science in their science fiction. Add to that, a fallacious notion among Western animation producers that children cannot understand and appreciate or comprehend such details. That is why, as a youth, I valued Japanese animation like Starblazers, Robotech, Gatchaman, over anything Western counterparts like GI Joe or Transformers. Japanamation did not ‘talk down’ to their audience, only North American censors did, though we were lucky when some scenes did manage to make it past the excision knife. I recently reviewed some of the anime I grew up on and saw the deleted scenes such as sexual themes, substance abuse, depression, grief, and other things adults have to deal with. I do not think these scenes would have damaged my childhood, the characters are clearly adult and as such, it made sense they were dealing with adult problems. The kids remained kids though they had to deal with war issues. Though North American kids largely avoided war, other parts of the world face it daily.
The above mentioned anime shows are merely what I saw in childhood, and come to realize there was a lot more going on. In a strange way, the shows have seemed to have matured alongside with me. Lately, I have delved further into anime and have enjoyed shows and films every bit as cleverly scripted as Western masterworks as The Twilight Zone, The Sopranos, House (early seasons), Northern Exposure, and The Wire. Some examples of great Japanese anime are Planetes (done with assistance from NASA), Welcome to the N.H.K., Genshiken, Cowboy Bebop, Sumarai Champloo, Usagi Drop, and pretty much anything Ghost in the Shell related. If you doubt me, simply check some of the IMDB ratings for these humble anime shows.
A spot where I get my fix for Japanamation is Anime Extreme in downtown Toronto (3 bucks, tax in, nets you seven days rental). They also have a great selection of manga which I get on occasion (got all of Genshiken and am working on Bakuman) and gorgeous mobile suit model kits I hope one day to afford. The staff is knowledgeable, they initially made anime selections for me, the place is well laid out and made out into an animation enthusiast’s dream. Even if you are not a fan of this stuff, it is well worth a walk through to look at the amazing figures and art. There are anime/manga selections for children, adults that include both men and women. My tastes are conventional (sci-fi and slice-of-life) but there are weird things there to satisfy the more exotic palettes. The manga is a pretty good value, in contrast to something like DC or Marvel comics. The stories and art are often better, with a balanced marriage between style and substance. Also, a manga book is a thick volume of story with very little in the way of ads. American comics tend to be heavy on ads, expensive, and not much value for your dollar.