Otaku Culture Has Existed Longer Than You Might Think


Ultraman poster art by Bill Wood.

Asian popular culture has been connected with mainstream American entertainment in one shape or form since the time most of us were born. For the newer generation who grew up with Pokemon, Hello Kitty, and a seemingly inexhaustible selection of anime and manga readily available, this will seem like an obvious statement. We didn’t have it quite that good way back when,  but it was there for us as well.


Some fifty-odd years ago, hastily-dubbed versions of Japanese children's TV shows such as Gigantor, Speed Racer, and Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot began showing up on local UHF stations in the mornings and afternoons, shoehorned somewhere between Popeye cartoons and Gilligan’s Island reruns. If your rabbit-ears TV antenna was in just the right position, you had a pretty good chance of tuning these shows in. As a youngster, I wasn’t acutely aware that these programs were Japanese, I only knew that they were somehow different from your typical televised kiddie fare... and that I loved them. Ultraman in particular was a weekday obsession. In fact, my first drawing I can remember at age four was of the epic-sized kaiju battler himself. Along with these shows, there was almost always either a Godzilla or a kung fu flick showing on Saturday afternoons. As I grew a bit older, my appreciation for these unique forms of cinema began to grow, eventually I realized that they were produced in not one, but two countries that were very, very far away.


Fast-forward to the early 90’s, just before the Pokemon phenomenon. Thanks in part to the widespread popularity of the Internet, a whole new phase of global consumerism is taking place, including unprecedented levels of Western interest in Eastern pop culture and entertainment. As a result, landmark anime titles such as Akira and Fist Of The North Star—which were previously mislabeled by many as "underground cartoons"—are now appearing on local Blockbuster racks next to popular Disney animated films. Film critics are discovering Miyazaki. Mega-selling video games such as Street Fighter II and Mortal Kombat are injecting the arcade and console gaming industries with a much-needed shot in the arm, prompting players to explore the cinematic inspirations behind these two wildly successful series. Even comic books were growing up with their fans, tackling issues such as racial prejudice and social injustice, and promoting Asian superheroes as something more than just one-dimensional stereotypes.


It was in this new era of understanding and communication (and it must be said, well-timed promotional marketing) that I developed a serious craving for all things Japanese. Usually once a month, I’d make the trek into downtown LA to Yaohan Marketplace—now known as Little Tokyo Marketplace—to get my fill of anime and manga. However, this wasn’t your convenient Barnes and Noble-manga-section or Amazon-click-to-own experience, neither of those options existed back then. The anime was usually an undubbed and unsubbed videocassette recorded directly off of Japanese television, the tape’s contents hastily labeled to its spine in the native language. Some of the manga I purchased was imported straight from Japan with zero translations, but at least the line art was pure and unfiltered. I still collect imported manga to this day.


Imported video games were similarly challenging, but it was literally the only way to experience some of the cutting edge entertainment being produced in the Land of the Rising Sun. I awkwardly thumbsticked my way through dozens of direct-from-Japan games, the only real assistance coming from stacks upon stacks of online translation guides I had printed out at work (the reams of copier paper that were consumed in this effort I seriously cannot begin to estimate).  I picked up a few language books and taught myself to read Japanese to the point where I could at least make out the easier hiragana and katakana, but most kanji was lost on me and still is to this day. The strangest part of this is that I wasn't alone, I had plenty of friends who were consuming the same way. One friend went as far as taking a college course to better understand the language.


Is there a plausible explanation for our modern mainstream fascination with Asian pop culture? There have been several books devoted to this topic, including Roland Kelts' excellent Japanamerica, where he observes that the dropping of the atomic bomb actually inspired a bold new wave of Japanese artists who wanted to express themselves in unconventional ways. In a post-WWII world of newfound Japanese freedoms, "lower class" forms of art and entertainment (namely comic books and cartoons) became valid outlets for artistic expression.  Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン, Hadashi no Gen), recounting the tale of the author's own experiences as a Hiroshima survivor, is one prime example. As Kelts notes, "...the idea of an underground art form reacting to deeper societal traumas—as punk rock did in the UK during the '70s—may provide a key to unlocking the appeal to Japanese popular culture in America today."


I was devouring plenty of anime and manga in the '90s, but at the same time I had little appreciation for another Asian import that has been long appreciated by American consumers. It had been years since I'd watched any Chinese kung fu cinema. I knew that Bruce Lee was a legend, that Enter The Dragon was a classic, and that everything else I’d seen up to that point was... well, not so memorable. Then I was introduced to several '70s kung fu gems, many of them produced by the legendary Shaw Bros. Of these films, three stood head-and-shoulders above the rest; The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Five Deadly Venoms and Master of the Flying Guillotine. Suddenly it all made sense. There was undeniable inspiration for everything from video games (the Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat series) to hip-hop culture (Wu-Tang Clan) in these amazing movies. On top of that, they were massively entertaining with tons of imaginative spirit, loads better than anything I’d remembered from my childhood! I discovered the Hong Kong action films of John Woo shortly thereafter, featuring Chow Yun Fat and his “bullet ballet.” And thus the die was cast.


It seemed as though everywhere you looked back then, a previously untapped wealth of Asian creative genius was at your fingertips. After gorging myself on movies, manga, and more than a few bowls of shoyu ramen, I started to turn my attention toward the classics. The films of Akira Kurosawa are essential to every serious student of cinema for a good reason; they just don’t get any better.  There are so many superb jidaigeki (period drama) and chanbara (swordplay) movies in Kurosawa’s catalogue that entire books are devoted to his filmography alone. From there, my curiosity evolved into researching various Eastern studies and practices, including Buddhism, Japanese feudal history, and eventually, training in the martial arts. Looking back on it all, I can seriously say that without the early influence of Asian culture, I'd be a very different person today.


Some of the poster art you’ll see on this website is a testament to just a few of the Asian cultural icons that I found inspirational, a tradition which continues this day. These fascinations are more than a conformity to the cultural zeitgeist or temporary eye-candy diversions, they impacted my perceptions, my outlook on art and on life. A truly wonderful thing happens when you appreciate foreign culture; it broadens one’s awareness, one’s respect, one’s understanding of the world that exists beyond one’s own backyard. Where there is initially passion, there is eventually compassion. And this is something we could all use a bit of, don’t you agree? - BW

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Mothra kaiju poster art by Bill Wood.
Ultraman poster art by Bill Wood.