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Don't Call Them Cartoons

Susan NapierFor Tufts professor Susan Napier, the Japanese art forms of anime and manga are important cultural vehicles that address themes relevant to today's complex world.


As a child, Susan Napier was perfectly content to stay at home reading comic books and science fiction novels. She admits having no interest in culture, at least "not the kind my parents would like."

A family meal at a Chinese restaurant in her native Cambridge, Mass., changed all of that. Napier expressed interest in what she recalls as "a generic Chinese scroll of pagoda and cherry blossoms" on the wall. Soon, Napier's mother, an art historian at Harvard, was escorting her through the East Asian art collection at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts.

What followed—falling in love with Asian art and haiku, learning Japanese, spending her senior year of high school teaching English in Japan and getting degrees in Japanese literature and culture from Harvard—has evolved into an academic career mainly focused on the study of the Japanese art forms of manga (printed comics) and anime (animated films).

"Some of them are genuinely adult works that are very thought-provoking, very challenging, very disturbing in the way a good work of art should be."

— Susan Napier

Contrary to what some might think, anime and manga are much more than simple cartoons. They "span the world of human emotions and experiences," says Napier, who came to Tufts last year as a professor of Japanese language and literature.

Napier, a renowned scholar of these art forms, says they explore themes such as war, isolation, romance and technology, drawing heavily from the Japanese traditions of introspective writing, visual storytelling, nature, folklore and even horror.

"Some of them are genuinely adult works that are very thought-provoking, very challenging, very disturbing in the way a good work of art should be," she says

It was this thought-provoking quality that initially drew Napier to the study of anime and manga several years ago. She hadn't examined them too closely until a student gave her a copy of a manga from the "Akira" series, a dystopian depiction of 21st century post-apocalyptic Tokyo.

"There was this one image of this blackened, enormous burned-out crater with this wizened mutant standing next to it, and I thought, 'This is just really interesting,'" she recalls. "I thought this was worth spending a little time on. I hadn't intended to make it my life's work."

Psychological Depth

In Japan, anime and manga are just as likely to be enjoyed by business executives and homemakers as by schoolchildren. While they are not yet ubiquitous in Western culture, they have become increasingly pervasive in recent years—not just in the devoted fan subcultures that have emerged around the art form, but also as competition to mainstream entertainment. Films by the critically acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki such as "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Princess Mononoke" have seen Western success, as have the animated series "Naruto" and "Dragon Ball Z."

"It was a fairly grass-roots phenomenon," Napier says of the initial popularity of these art forms in Western culture. "It's not like a bunch of Japanese conglomerates got together and started flooding the world. It's very much word of mouth. People just really liked it."

Susan Napier

Movie poster for "Akira."

Part of the growing appeal of manga and anime is the psychological depth with which stories are told, delving deep into character's emotions and motivations. Also, in Japan, manga and anime are often run in series that allow for substantial character and plot development.

"The characters are really thinking and feeling," she explains. "There's an awareness of ambiguity, a privileging of the thoughtfulness and reflection of introspection that I think is quite unusual."

A Unique Alternative

Another key factor, says Napier, is the change of pace that the themes and artistic style of anime and manga provide from Hollywood. Such happily-ever-after storylines are, she says, becoming increasingly "stale" to many people. The engaging storytelling of manga and anime, combined with different and provocative artwork, make for an enticing alternative.

"People have found that anime gives them something that Western pop entertainment does not, which is a willingness to see life in a wider range than simply black and white," she says.

"Young people do want to see a more realistic version of the world. They're not satisfied with everything tied up in a bow and walking off into the sunset."

— Susan Napier

In a world riddled with concerns about terrorism, global warming and other grave matters, Napier says that people may be looking for stories that more accurately reflect the complexity of contemporary life, and are finding them in anime and manga.

"I had a Vietnamese student say, 'No American cartoons tell me that life is not all pretty,'" she recalls. "Young people do want to see a more realistic version of the world. They're not satisfied with everything tied up in a bow and walking off into the sunset."

And in contrast to Western print and film media that directly focus on more violent or sexual topics, anime and manga tend to take a more fantastical approach. "I think it's partly a safety valve," she explains. "One of the great things about fantasy is that it allows us to work through traumas and issues with some distance." (continued)

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Profile written by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications

Homepage image by Doug Smith. Photos by Zara Tzanev for Tufts University.

This story originally ran on Apr. 30, 2007.