For those of us who grew up in the golden age of anime television during the '90s, the current state of anime here in the West has become a sorry sight to see. Back in the day, the likes of Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon were the sole reason children from across Europe and the USA would run home from school and park their noses about three inches away from the TV screen, ready to catch up on the latest exploits of their favorite anime characters. The bright colors, unique storylines, detailed backstories, and connected toys, games and cards turned anime from a small cult-like phenomenon into an obsession for an entire generation. Now the anime genre has returned to its relatively niche status in the Western Hemisphere, with only the likes of Attack on Titan and One Punch Man continuing the tradition of pure anime.
The presence Japanese anime once had in the lives of children growing up in the West is now not much more than a nostalgic memory for many twentysomethings like myself.
However, what if the legacy of the '90s golden age is a lot more prominent than might at first be apparent? What if anime's influence hadn't been reduced, just transformed? Notable works from a number of contemporary Western animations have been subtly influenced by the Far East genre. From The Simpsons, South Park, and of course, Adventure Time, all have been heavily influenced by the Japanese style of cartoons. Here's how.
Expanding Dogs, Wingless Unicorns And Sailor Moon
The influence of anime on Adventure Time can be seen in the most obvious, and the subtlest, of places. The biggest Easter Egg might be in the series' frequent use of anime eyes, as pictured above. This unique, overly expressive technique for drawing eyes, with a focus on their large, spherical shape, dotted with a number of smaller whitened circles around the pupil, clearly originated from the anime genre. Also, the fact that Jake and his girlfriend Lady Rainicorn both speak Korean is another nod to the show's oriental influences. In fact, Jake and Lady have come to somewhat symbolize how much the Far East has influenced the series. Being set in a rural area where one of the main characters can expand and shrink in size is clearly inspired by perhaps Studio Ghibli's most famous film, My Neighbor Totoro.
Spirited Away. Despite being a unicorn with the ability to fly, Lady Rainicorn doesn't have wings. This is a reflection of Japanese mythology in which dragons, despite having the ability to fly, never had wings either. Wingless dragons are most famously shown with the fiery character Haku in Spirited Away. However, dragons in Western mythology — for example, in The Hobbit or in the case of Saint George and the Dragon — did have wings. Even many unicorns in the West have wings. So a key difference between Western and Japanese mythology is that flying mythological creatures in the West do traditionally have wings, whereas in Japan they don't. The fact that the creators of Adventure Time specifically chose to draw a Korean-speaking unicorn without wings cannot be an accident.
Another Easter Egg exists in the Adventure Time episode "Fionna and Cake." This is the episode where Jake and Finn are replaced by female versions of themselves. The dress Fionna wears to her prom in this episode is a replica of the famous Sailor Moon dress, as pictured below. Yet another example of how the aesthetic appearance of Adventure Time characters are inspired by a wide variety of anime figures.
Not Just A Pretty Face
Anime's influence on Adventure Time transcends the aesthetic. It's not just inspired by the look and feel of the genre, but also by its content. Many have cited that a lot of the actual stories told in Adventure Time have been heavily influenced by writer/director David Lynch's infamously unnerving and mind-warping works. However, the Adventure Time team weren't the first animators to try introducing a Lynchian quality to their work. Over in Japan, acclaimed writer and director Satoshi Kon released a number of films that were clearly influenced by Lynch's films, such as Perfect Blue, Paprika and Paranoia Agent. While Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward has never explicitly said that he has been influenced by Kon's work, it wouldn't be too far-fetched to assume he is, given the already massive influence Kon has had on Western cinema. Indeed, Kon was the first to at least prove that Lynchian cinema can be utilized in the animated format.
One such anime ace that Adventure Time creators have admitted to being influenced by is director Masaaki Yuasa, who was asked to write and direct the episode "Food Chain." This meant that for at least one episode, Adventure Time not only drew influence from the anime genre, but arguably became an anime in its own right. This decision was also perhaps the clearest indicator of the show's love for anime.
Beyond The Land Of Ooo
As I said earlier, Adventure Time hasn't been the only contemporary cartoon to jump on the anime bandwagon. The Simpsons, perhaps America's most beloved animated series ever, devoted an entire sequence to its creators' love for Studio Ghibli. Even South Park based an episode off the aforementioned My Neighbor Totoro and lesser-known animated works such as Steven Universe, and owes a lot to the anime medium in terms of aesthetic, use of sound effects, soundtrack and lighthearted storylines.
Honesty Is The Best Policy
Perhaps the most famous American novelist of the 20th century, Ernest Hemingway always implicitly linked great art with astute honesty. He once said:
Honesty has also been an underlying theme of Adventure Time. Perhaps the most obvious reflection of this was in the episode "What Was Missing," where the plot rested on the characters discovering the power of honesty in the songs they sing and the art they create. All aspects of the series have always been unapologetically honest. From the stories told, the characters drawn, the songs sung to the artistic inspiration, the only connecting theme in a show that is all about variation is its counterbalance of absolute truth.
Any episode of Adventure Time is filled with a platitude of color, a symphony of sound, and a maze of plot twists and turns. But the undercurrent of truth is always evident. As a result, emotions that are conveyed resonate in a more meaningful way than with any of Adventure Time's contemporaries. This can tell us why, in a time when all Western animations steal from anime of the '90s, Adventure Time's references still stand out. Is it because the show's creators are not just parading the design or look of the Japanese genre, but drawing genuine inspiration from its content?
Rather than anime's influence on Adventure Time coming in the form of a 10-minute sequence, or in an episode or two, anime's influence on Adventure Time is marked in a more permanent form. It can be seen in the series' main characters, its most popular stories and even in the creators themselves. In Adventure Time's pursuit of absolute honesty, it is always willing to go one step further, and as such stands taller than the rest.
Adventure Time is not afraid to look beyond, well beyond the animated genre in drawing inspiration for its style and content. This has been a theme common in almost all recent animated series. With Rick and Morty clearly being influenced by the Back to the Future franchise, Archer parodying pretty much the entire spy/thriller genre, and BoJack Horseman being influenced by, well, everything, Adventure Time also draws from a number of unconventional and unassuming works. And this can perhaps best be seen in its leaning toward the Japanese anime genre. As such, Adventure Time has managed to find new and inventive ways of using the animated forum to tell original, unique and inspired stories that work as well with adults as they do with children. And it is for this reason that I love Adventure Time so much.