10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

We owe so much to Japanese animation and comics. Anime and manga have given us some of the most unforgettable characters and stories in the universe — but also, the visual style of anime has had a huge impact on Western science fiction and fantasy. American movies and television have gotten a much-needed injection of style from Japan, several times over the decades.

Here are 10 key visuals that U.S. science fiction and fantasy lifted from Japanese animation.

For this article, we spoke to Jason Thompson, writer of King of RPGs who's written some articles on manga for io9 in the past. And Peter Hyoguchi, director of the animated series The New Kind.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

10) Insectoid mecha

As with a lot of the items on this list, it's always hard to establish just who did something first — but Masamune Shirow did a lot to popularize the idea of mecha designs that look like creepy insects, in Ghost in the Shell, and especially Appleseed. As Thompson puts it, these insectoid mecha, "with their twitchy arthropod-like joints & multiple eyes, have been really copied in Western sci-fi movies and comics dating back to at least The Matrix." (You'll be hearing about The Matrix a lot on this list, because it was like the checkout counter, where anime imagery got distributed wholesale to American visual cortexes.) Adds Thompson, "Between Shirow's many-legged bugs, and the skeleton-robot unfleshed T1000s in Terminator, you have the majority of modern Western cinematic robot designs, which have out-trended the more simple & streamlined robot designs that preceded them."

9) The Three Point Landing

As TVTropes rightly points out, the "three point landing," where someone lands in a crouch with one hand on the floor, came from anime and then conquered American media. Just check out this supercut, where the two oldest pieces of footage are probably from Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell. The three point landing seems tied up in ninja anime, along with the infamous ninja run, which focuses on absurd ways to keep your weapon from eviscerating you when performing high speed acrobatics.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

8) Cracking the Cement

On a related note... You see this in Iron Man as well as some other recent films. "The famous drop onto and cracking concrete shot that Iron Man is sort of known for is something that almost every mecha anime does," says Hyoguchi. The shot of the hero falling so hard that the cement cracks on impact is "very cliche anime," he adds.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

7) The Power Up

Anime has provided a convenient short hand for powering up. Think of just about any Dragon Ball episode. The hero, often Goku, takes a stance, grits his teeth and starts to grunt. The pebbles rise up off the ground as a sign that serious forces are in play and if in a city the glass starts to shatter. Or if your taste runs darker, similar scenes play out in Doomed Megalopolis. As Thompson says, "In the dramatic buildup before the [psychic] powers are released, gravity weakens and all the little bits of dust tremble, and little pebbles & bits of rubble start to float up in the air." And you've seen different aspects of the "power up" effect in different movies. Chronicle, which borrows heavily from Akira, features a final showdown that reads like a classic anime battle, with a lot of buildings being shattered while the main characters grunt and scream. Havoc's power use in X-Men: First Class also mirrors the classic teeth gritting pose. Even in the stop motion movie Paranorman you know things are about to get dangerously out of control when the pebbles start levitating off the ground.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

6) Psychic Battles That You Can See

As Thompson points out, back in the day, David Cronenberg was relatively subtle in depicting psychic battles. But anime gave us telepathic showdowns that you could see, "with competing 'force fields' of energy surrounding the combatants and pushing against one another." In American cinema, CG effects made it possible to show psychic conbat, using visible energy fields and zones, and American creators borrowed heavily from anime and manga to represent this. As with a lot of items on this list, it goes back to Alex Proyas' Dark City, which borrowed a lot from Akira.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

5) Energy Balls

Instead of just showing laser beams that just fire instantly, recent years have given us "the energy blast that charges up and then releases, with a dramatic buildup and a glowing ball of light in the mouth of the cannon or wherever," says Thompson. This always "feels very anime" in Western cinema, and brings to mind all of "those balls of screentone crisscrossed by lightning that you see in psychic manga like Akira. In general, the tendency of U.S. media to represent a "round, slow-moving ball of plasma crisscrossed by jaggedy electrical shocks," like the glowing energy ball in Spider-Man 2, comes from anime, manga and video games. It's hard to tell where this imagery came from originally, but you can see it in Akira, plus the Kaoi-ken in Dragon Ball Z, says Thompson. "Harmagedon may have been an earlier example, as for many 'psychic' things later used in Akira."

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

4) The Not-Quite-Human Weaponized Woman

Ladies clad in black pvc and trench coats are hot, and also kind of scary with their over the top sexuality. They are even scarier when armed and superhuman. Anime has designed a new female character archetype, the female cyborg. Their powerful physicality is at odds with their existential struggles with humanity and emotion. Major Kusanagi from Ghost in the Shell and Alita from Battle Angel Alita epitomize the character design with their dark skintight body suits and trench coats .Their sexy bodies are put at odds with the styling of their face and hair. They sport no-nonsense hair and the open features of an ingénue free of make-up. The genetically modified lead character of James Cameron's Dark Angel sports a similar look — and this isn't too surprising, since Cameron bought the movie rights to Battle Angel Alita. Kate Beckinsale's vampire in the Underworld franchise also has a nearly identical look, as does Alice from Resident Evil:Retribution. And of course, Trinity in The Matrix follows a similar look to Ghost in the Shell. Finally, Quorra in Tron Legacy has the iconic bob, fresh face and black jumpsuit as well.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

3) Insanely Large-Eared Elves

People who grew up on Dungeons and Dragons and other fantasy representations in the U.S. were probably shocked at their first sight of Deedlit in Record of the Lodoss Wars. You'd scarcely recognize that pointy-eared freak as an elf — but anime seems to be littered with them, notably in the series Those Who Hunt Elves. Meanwhile, with the exception of the indie comic Poison Elves, the ears of Western elves tended to be more horizontal and not look like they would aid in flight. There looked like there was a solid line in the sand between anime elves and the Tolkein-inspired Western elves — but the line got blurrier and blurrier as ideas mingled over in the RPG world until World of Warcraft came along, obliterated the line, and made the flappy-eared elves a common depiction. The large-ear movement is rapidly spreading. Compare the ears from the first Dragon Age video game to Fenris in Dragon Age II.

10 Visual Motifs that American Science Fiction Borrowed from Anime

2) Neo-Noir Cityscapes

When it comes to the noir cyberpunk city — a dark gritty, claustrophobic city punctuated with bright bursts of neon advertising with an Asian flair — it's hard to tell what came from anime and what came from Blade Runner. Ridley Scott's seminal 1982 film definitely had a huge impact on Japanese creators, but then they took the visual and ran with it, adding lots of flourishes along the way. Numerous series and movies like Bubblegum Crisis, Armitage, Ghost in the Shell and Akira explored dystopian cyberpunk landscapes. Anime turned the "dark city" into a genre all its own. Japanese RPGS also expanded on the visuals, with locations like Final Fantasy VII's Midgar. Once again we can point to the Wachowskis for a Ghost in the Shell influence on The Matrix. Alex Proyas says the scene of the buildings restoring themselves at the end of his film Dark City is a direct homage to Akira. And while the city visuals in Tron Legacy makes a direct nod at Blade Runner with the light up umbrellas, the polished glowing visuals also owe a great debt to anime and the video games that piggy backed off the visual style.

1) Bullet Time, Super Speed and Imaginative Ways of Showing Movement

In a 2006 interview, The Matrix visual effects designer John Gaeta partially credited the development of the bullet time to Katsuhiro Otomo, the co-writer of Akira. Joel Silver, the producer of The Matrix, says the Wachowskis showed him Ghost in the Shell and said they wanted to create that type of action in a live action film. The Matrix, in turn, influenced tons of other American films — but beyond the one iconic effect of Neo dodging bullets, the entire way action is visualized in film has been changing more and more to an anime sensibility. Anime fight scenes, from the lauded Ghost in the Shell movie to the children's television fare of Naruto, manipulate time during fight sequences to add static moments during periods of intense action. Traditionally this is done for character reactions, to change the fight perspective, or just to create an eloquent pause of anticipation before the onset of extreme destruction. Says Thompson,

Perhaps imitating anime & manga (and Western comics which imitated anime and manga) is one contributor to the focus on speedup-and-slowdown effects and dramatic (over)emphasis of moment-of-impact shots in Western cinema in the past 25 years, as opposed to the more realistic, documentary, boxing-match style in which fight scenes used to be shot. Ever since The Matrix... this kind of CG-enhanced focus on 'moments' (kind of like panels in a comic?) has been everywhere in Western film, to the point of becoming a cliche.

Source: Choo, K. (2008). "Visual evolution across the pacific: The influence of anime and video games on US film media." Essays in Film and the Humanities, 28(2), 28-37