I checked in on a couple of the Friday night Cartoon Network action shows last week, after hearing some good things about "Young Justice" - essentially a junior version of "The Justice League" starring various DC Comics superheroes' sidekicks. I took no small amusement from the fact that their version of Superboy is moody and prone to fits of rage, and the team's only female member, Miss Martian, is an eager-to-please sweetheart who wields her sizable powers without a trace of aggression or menace. Any anime fan will instantly recognize them as the brooding seinen hero and the magical girl heroine. There are Western equivalents of these tropes, of course, but I rarely see American cartoon characters so easily identifiable as anime types, and it was hard to ignore them both popping up in the same show. However, there was also a much more typically Western comic-book hero in Robin, who did the Spiderman-style banter and puns, Kid Flash was a cocky little horndog, and apparently there's a more assertive female character on the way to balance out Miss Martian. I haven't forgotten Aqualad - he just didn't feature much in this episode.
It's been about ten years since anime and manga went mainstream in the US, and I've watched anime influences slowly make their way into Western cartoons. You don't really see much of it in the comedies like "Spongebob" or "Chowder," or the ones aimed at very young audiences like most of the Disney Channel cartoons, or the ones aimed at adults like "Futurama" and "The Venture Brothers." But in the action shows, which are the ones I always like best and tend to follow, you can definitely see where anime has made its impact. At first it was only visual styles that were being adopted, like in "Teen Titans," and then you had some that were deliberately patterned after Japanese formulas, like "Super Robot Monkey Team Hyperforce Go!" and "W.I.T.C.H." Then there were shows that tackled Asian subject matter like "Avatar: the Last Airbender" and "Hi Hi Puffy Amiyumi." There were even a few ill-fated co-productions like "Oban Star Racers" and "IGPX: Immortal Grand Prix."
But the thing that always struck me about what many dubbed "American anime" was how unlike typical anime it usually was once you got past the visuals. All right, there's really no such thing as a typical anime, but the ones that are the most popular in America are always the action shows aimed at your average young adult viewer. These are the ones you're the most likely to see on SyFy or Cartoon Network at odd hours, and teenagers jawing about online - "Bleach," "Full Metal Alchemist," "Gurren Lagaan," "Evangelion," etc. Though a lot of them are still aimed at kids, immediately it's apparent that these shows are a lot darker, the themes are more serious, and the characters more intense. There is no Broadcast Standards and Practices department standing over the anime creators' heads, bent on neutering any content that looks the least bit traumatic. It's certainly what drew me into my decade-long relationship with anime in the first place. These were cartoons with some real bite that could appeal to adult audiences. There have been many pretenders, but few serious attempts to replicate this stateside. The only one I can think of that had much visibility was "Afro Samurai." Remember that awkward mess?
Nonetheless, you can clearly see a progression in Western action cartoons towards darker, more sophisticated material and looser content standards. Take "Teen Titans" and "Avatar: The Last Airbender," probably the two most commonly cited examples of American anime. Once you remove the manga-style visuals and the Japanese theme song from "Teen Titans," you've got a pretty standard American superhero show. You could always see the creators holding back for the sake of their younger audiences, but its bigger storylines got pretty dark for its afternoon timeslots. Two years later, "Avatar" pushed itself farther and was much more ambitious, featuring complex characters and themes. It also upped the ante on its action scenes and deliberately drew from Eastern philosophy and culture for its story. Many viewers assumed the Nickelodeon show was dubbed anime. In part this is a reflection of trends in the larger media - the comic book and superhero genres getting grittier, cartoons being driven out of Saturday morning to cable - but anime has certainly played its part, since it was often in direct competition for the same audiences and gave kids different expectations for cartoon content.
I don't think you could have had a show like "Young Justice" or a "Generator Rex" ten years ago, where the young leads are in so much constant peril and getting knocked around like pinballs by the bad guys. Sure, there are always adults around keeping an eye on them, maintaining an illusion of security, but it's a far cry from something like "X-Men: Evolution," where an adult Wolverine or Storm took care of all the real fights, while the teenage characters only had minor tussles among themselves. We're getting to the point where I could see a "Bleach" or an "Inuyasha" coming out of American television - maybe in another ten years or so, when the kids who grew up on anime start running things. This is not to say that I think that anime-style extremes are where American cartoons should be headed. "Avatar" was kid-friendly, and a better show than 90% of the anime I could name. However, for those of us who want to see cartoons taken more seriously and live up to their unrealized potential, pushing at these boundaries never hurts.
"Young Justice" is a fun show, and I think it gets a lot of benefit out of incorporating some of these anime-inspired elements into the mix while retaining the classic western superhero themes. Superboy may act like a "Gundam" pilot, but his character arc should be chock full of good old-fashioned teambuidling and de-angsting. And good banter. Nobody does good banter like the Americans.