Let me tell you a story. Once upon a time in a village full of ninjas there lived an orphan named Naruto. When he was born, the chief of the village sealed a powerful and malevolent spirit of a nine-tailed fox inside the child's belly. Whenever Naruto loses control of his emotions, the fox takes over and wreaks havoc.
Naruto knows tragedy intimately. His parents were killed in a war; Sasuke, his best friend, lost his entire clan to a murderous brother and became hell-bent on revenge; Jiraya, Naruto's favorite teacher, was murdered by another student named Pain, whose aim was to destroy the world. Sai, the newest member to join Naruto's ninja team, had to kill his classmates in order to graduate from his ninja class.
Magic, romance and martial arts aside, the story of Naruto would put horror master Stephen King's novels to shame. Yet the Japanese manga (comic book or graphic novel) and anime (Japanese animation) series have become wildly popular all over the world. And in the United States, it is presenting American children with a radically divergent narrative than that of fairytales told to a generation or two ago.
There are no soft landings, no candy-coated protection in many story lines from the Far East. Behind those round, puppy-eyed, cuddly characters, with their perfect western features, lies a set of ancient eastern sensibilities informed by human suffering rarely known in the land of "happily ever after." It is why, now in middle age, as an immigrant from a war torn country, Vietnam, I watch Naruto religiously.
Some years ago in Tokyo, I asked professor Koike Kazuo, the celebrated author of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series, about the difference between Japanese and American comic books. "Japanese mangas tend to deal with complex characters that are both suited for children and adults," he said. Superman and other American superheroes, he said, "are too overwhelming, like the U.S. military forces with their high-tech weapons. You grow up and get bored by them." Not so with Japanese protagonists. "The characters may have some powers, but they are vulnerable. They might be beaten by somebody, and people who read manga sympathize deeply with these characters."
For Japanese adults, good manga is seen on the same level as a contemporary novel. "If Superman and Spiderman have wives and kids and real domestic dramas," Koike said, "they will have adult readers."
Koike, a history professor, can speak with authority. The first issue of the Lone Wolf and Cub U.S. edition sold around 120,000 copies in the late 1970s, making it the best-selling manga in the United States for decades. In Japan, the epic became one of the longest-running TV shows in its history, and was made into a six-film series.
It's the story of a samurai who took his baby boy on a "road to hell" and became an assassin for hire while seeking vengeance against Retsudo, a powerful man who ordered the massacre of his clan. Daigoro grew up watching his samurai-turned-assassin father slash, stab and chop their enemies. In the final confrontation, with his father slain and Retsudo, their arch nemesis, wounded, the little boy picks up his enemy's spear and rushes furiously toward him. Recognizing spiritual kinship in Daigoro's warrior spirit, Retsudo embraces the boy and, as his own spear pierces his heart, cries out: "Grandson of my heart!"
Not exactly kid stuff of the late '70s. But these narratives are now vying for the attention of American kids. The saccharine happily-ever-after ending that has been spoon-fed to children by the church of Disney since the end of World War II is being seriously challenged.
Coined in 1815 by woodblock artist Hokusai, "manga" described his illustrated doodles as "involuntary sketches or unintentional pictures." But manga didn't turn into entertainment for children in Japan until 1952, nearly a century-and-a-half later, when Tezuka Ozamu created Astro Boy, the story of a robot with a human soul, a sort of modern-day Pinocchio.
Since Astro Boy, the sadness, fear, joy, humor and desire, not to mention aesthetic expressions and various sexual appetites of the Japanese people, have found audiences throughout the world.
In the United States, major outlets like Barnes and Noble and Amazon peddle an array of Japanese anime DVDs and manga. On cartoon networks, viewers can watch dozens of anime shows catered to all ages. And thousands of stories -- from robot romances to cooking obsessions, from teenage alienation to various sexual situations, from government corruption to intergalactic noir detectives series -- are available online anytime via sites like YouTube, Vimeo and AniLinkz.
Anime-related merchandise like dolls and action figures peaked at around $5 billion by 2005, and has suffered a downhill trajectory ever since. The main cause? It is, ironically, due to the enthusiasm of fans worldwide. Thanks to an army of devoted admirers' unauthorized scanning, uploading and translating the anime-manga global archive is growing at a breakneck speed and readily available for free. The more popular anime becomes, the less money it makes due to free distributions online.
But even if the industry suffers, there are plenty still to be consumed. In his book Japanamerica, writer Roland Kelts, an American writer of Japanese ancestry, noted, "Anime is producing quality content at a time when quality is becoming endangered by advances in technology, which are outpacing attempts to control and even monitor distribution. And anime greets the American viewer with an enormous back catalog," making it a powerful force in the digital age.
American animation, such as that produced by Pixar and Disney, Kelts wrote, are "like bursts of genius." But the allure of manga, where there's always something more to discover, lasts into adulthood.
Professor Koike never wrote his stories thinking they would be read by non-Japanese. "On the deepest level," he said, "serious mangas are about spiritual drama and love."
Indeed, it is the spiritual drama in many of these stories that most interests me. It is what has drawn me to watch Naruto online. I recognize the Old World's narratives in these Japanese stories. The nine-tailed fox is, after all, a creature in Far Eastern mythology; it's as old as the hydra or the Minotaur in ancient Greek.
And spiritual drama always moved beneath the sad-ending fairy tales I knew growing up in Vietnam during the war. Those unbearably hot afternoons in Saigon, my older siblings and I would often throw a mat on the tile floor in my grandma's room, the coolest in the house, and beg her for a story. Decades and a continent away, I can still hear her storytelling voice, low and sad, lulling her grandchildren toward phantasmagorical and melancholic dreams.
The husband fled after he realized that he had married his long-lost sister by mistake, and one
night both mother and child turned into stone on the sea cliff ... The love sick princess died, her heart turned into a ruby, and the grieving king had it carved into a teacup and whenever he poured tea into it, the image of her paramour, the singing fisherman on his boat, appeared and floated to and fro... In order to let his jealous older brother live happily with his new bride, a younger brother left home to die in the forest and overnight turned into a limestone.
In grandma's stories, noble deeds were rarely rewarded with happily-ever-after endings, broken love was the norm, and those who did good were often punished. Yet, there was a mature wisdom in the stories' resolution: The loyal wife's virtues were reserved forever in stone and in time she became a local goddess known as the Stone Waiting For Her Husband... When the fisherman saw his own image in the ruby teacup, he cried, and his tears fell into it and the cup melted back into blood and disappeared, her love requited at last... The older brother died, wracked with guilt for distrusting his own sibling, and turned into an areca tree. His new bride followed and she turned into a betel vine. "When you combine the betel leaf and areca fruit and a bit of limestone paste and chew, you get a tingling sensation on your tongue," Grandma said as she chewed, then spat and laughed. "See, your spit turns into the color of blood. It's true love, which is always sad and complicated."
Grandmother told fatalistic tales that were thousands of years old, and if they were sad and strange, there was a sound reason for this morbid existentialism. Considering how many generations had seen war and experienced natural disasters, considering how calamities have a way of destroying hope, those stories were concerned with the spiritual growth of the young, and not with convincing them that they live in a benevolent universe. The old fairy tales have evolved over the millennia as a way to prepare the next generation for cataclysm and grief.
Despite the age of digital and high-tech wizardry, manga-anime hasn't changed much in its message, which continues to distill the ancient ethos of the Far East: a shared cultural matrix between Japan and East Asia. They teach that sacrifice for others is more important than individual happiness, that to grow in strength and wisdom one must find something more precious to protect and love than one's self, that there is an inherent beauty in sadness and suffering, and that honor and loyalty and duty sometimes far outweigh romantic love.
Now, as American children watch Naruto struggle to retain his sunny outlook so as not to turn, literally, into a destructive monster, it seems the Far East is not so far from the easternizing West. In a post-9/11 world in which waging wars in the name of peace has become the norm, and as the polar icecaps melt and the sea keeps rising, and ominous storms grow stronger -- if not at our shores then in our collective unconscious -- it may very well be that happily ever after narratives are no longer the right medicine, and that the stories American children are gravitating toward are the alternative fairytales that can help them cope with the shifting tides.
New America Media Editor, Andrew Lam, is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" which won a Pen American Award in 2006 and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres", which was listed as one of top 10 Indies by Shelf Unbound Magazine. His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost" is due out in 2013. He has lectured widely at many universities.
The above essay was adapted from East Eats West.