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Anime Comes to Akron — My Reality:
Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation
by Noell Wolfgram Evans

It’s not as if Akron, Ohio is a bad place, it’s just not a place that people think of to be on the cultural edge. It’s a wonderful city to be a part of but its Mid-West mentality often means that it’s a step behind in embracing, wholeheartedly, new and unique art forms. A current exhibit though at the Akron Art Museum may be signaling a change to all of that. And if this traditionally blue-collar town is stepping to the forefront of art exploration, will the rest of the Mid-West follow?

The show in question is one celebrating anime entitled “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation.” The exhibit, described by Roger Durbin of Leader Publications as: “…at times brilliantly engaging and, at others, unsettling, then wryly hip…”, is a complete sensory tour de force with paintings, sculptures, films, lectures, workshops, books, images, photographs and hands on crafts all coming together to offer the visitor a kind of “crash course” on becoming an otaku (anime fan). This show is not just for the die-hard anime fan though as it deals with ideas, themes and influences that a watcher of any type of animation (and in fact any pop culture junkie) can relate to. Attending this exhibit is like coming into a great television show in the middle of the season: you may not know all of the characters or their quirks but something pulls you in and you immediately become engrossed.

For the uninitiated though, anime (pronounced annie-may) really took hold in the 1960’s. Emanating from Japan it features a stylized look in it’s characters who are often involved in very complex stories and themes. In a way it’s a response by Japanese artists to the post World War II atomic “craze” and the technological boom that followed. Our response to that expression has been both popular (Speed Racer) and cultish (Devil Lady). That may all be changing though, if Akron’s response to this exhibit is any indication. Opening night crowds were overwhelming with long lines being perhaps the true theme of the night. People stood on and wound down the stairs, waiting to get in up until the 11:30 closing. Opening night in any venue often attracts the true fans but there has been a steady stream of diverse visitors to the museum, which can only be attributed to new people exploring new works and ideas.

Heather Rasinski of the Akron Animation Association sees this as the type of show that can “bring people together,” which she says for anime can only be a good thing. “I saw people in their 50's walking around admist the teenagers. The more exposure anime gets in America, the better. It's a way to learn about a different culture and experience something different than what we're used to.”

What’s interesting about the show is that it deals with anime as an art form in and of its self but also as a catalyst for other art. The exhibit features thirty works by seventeen artists including Inka Essenhigh, Mariko Mori, Paul McCarthy, Tom Sachs, Richard Patterson and Takashi Murakami. Many of their works (and the others on display) showcase the perception and influence of anime as much as they showcase the actual art. Take for example Momoyo Torimitsu’s Somehow I Don’t Feel Comfortable. It consists of two 16-foot tall pink bunny balloons. Stationed directly outside of the second floor elevator, they are a jarring but electric sight. While they look like they could be specific anime characters they are not, rather they represent the genre. The bunnies are spaced apart so that you can walk between them; pausing in the middle, you get the feeling that you are in another world and it’s a jarring and exciting moment, as if you had gone through the looking glass. There’s an interesting statement there to be made about being part of and towered over by an anime world.

Another interesting and eye catching piece is Takashi Murakami’s DOB in the Strange Forest. DOB is a character created by Mr. Murakami and this fiberglass piece places it within a brightly colored mushroom shaped forest. The sculpture is easy to look at and fun but as you look closer, you start to see that DOB resembles in many ways Mickey Mouse. Suddenly the piece shifts in your mind from happy eye candy to a smart meditation on influence and reaction, particularly within the world of animation.

I would suggest that to really get into the mindset of the show, you start your visit off in the reading room where there are chairs set up and manga (graphic novels/comic books) all around. Manga, it is said, account for nearly 40 percent of all of the printed material sold in Japan. When you read it, you can understand, as it is moody and inclusive with pictures that often drive a narrative both fantastical and real. Staying in this room is like going through the pressurization chamber on a submarine. It allows you to get completely in the subject and, for the uninitiated, gives you a good basis to start from.

Nearly as important as what is in the exhibit is the exhibit it’s self. Cincinnati CityBeat writer Steve Ramos states the impact this show may have: “An exhibit like My Reality helps to erase the kiddy bias toward animation. By bringing anime into art museum galleries, My Reality aims to prove that anime is more substantial than the Pokémon craze. This exhibition says that anime is ready for its high-art close-up.” And in close up, it looks quite good. James Filbert, President of the Kent State University Anime Society, also believes that this show can have a positive impact on the way that anime is viewed in the community. He states that anime has gotten a bad rap in the past but exhibits like this could change the public’s mind: “…anime and manga are still viewed as a subculture by many. Of course you've got things like Dragonball Z and Pokemon, which both sides shun. Anime fans do not like it because it has been Americanized and is "kiddie" to alot of them, so they don’t want to admit it's still an anime. Conversely, Most adult Americans feel the same way for different reasons. I kind of hope this changes in the future, and it seems to be doing that gradually.”

This show was originally organized by the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa. Since its inception, it has traveled across the country, gathering steam and interest. There is a hope of course that the interest will stay, long after the art pieces have moved on. Credit must be given to the City of Akron and perhaps more importantly to the Akron Art Museum. It would have been easy to bring in an exhibit of some old, dead, master painter but instead they chose to push the boundaries of their patrons. Hopefully the end result will be some wider eyes toward this art form and perhaps a greater understanding that all forms of comics and animation are not necessarily only for a select few. That their joy and art are open and available to all. If this show only brings an awareness to that, it can be considered a success. Perhaps Ms. Rasinski expressed anime’s movement into the mainstream best: “I remember when I first got into anime, you couldn't find it anywhere. Only select stores would carry it, not many people knew about it, and I couldn't find many people who were interested in it. Now, with the advent of things like the Akron Art Museum's exhibit, anime is actually being recognized as an art form and more people are hearing about it!” Now that it’s made it into the city, how long it stays remains to be seen. This is something that will be watch by anime enthusiasts and Akron artists alike.

The Akron Art Museum is located at 70 East Market Street in Akron, Ohio. The program “My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation” originated at the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa and was exhibited at the Akron Art Museum from September 21, 2002 through January 5, 2003.


Noell Wolfgram Evans is a freelance writer who lives in Columbus, Ohio. He has written for the Internet, print and had several plays produced. He enjoys the study of animation and laughs over cartoons with his wife, daughter, and newborn son.

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