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In Roman times, the word "animare" meant "to give breath to." In the Biblical record, the first act of animation was performed by God, who created Adam by breathing life into a lump of clay. But it wasn't until the 1880s that the word "animation" was first used in reference to moving pictures, and it wasn't until 1908 that Frenchman Emile Cohl released what is considered to be the first animated film. From that point onwards, animation advanced by leaps and bounds: In 1910 artists began to cut out and reuse images for every new frame of film; in 1914, the technique of overlapping transparent layers of celluloid -- or "cels" -- was patented. By the time World War I broke out, the animation industry was off and running, and for much of the next century, its centers of power would be located in America.

Today, however, Japanese companies have moved to the foreground of animated art and technology, and Japanese animation -- or "anime," which is pronounced in such a way as to rhyme with "Fannie Mae" -- is quickly becoming an international phenomenon. In Japan itself, the form is as popular as live-action movies are here in the United States, and in Tokyo, it's not unusual for anime films to take up eight or nine screens at the local multiplex.

While Japanese animation has been around since 1910 or so, it wasn't until the late '50s that the Walt Disney of Japan, an animator named Osamu Tezuka, created a distinctive national style. Having adapted, translated, and drawn Disney's Bambi for Japanese audiences, Tezuka went on to produce and illustrate Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. In doing so, he instilled the idea that cartoons weren't necessarily child's play and could encompass the raunchy humor, violence, and kind of adult themes you'd find in films by Akira Kurosawa or Seijan Suzuki. In Japan, that idea holds true to this day.

When Tezuka opened Japan's first animation studio, in 1961, he avoided Disney's formula of recycling old folk tales and struck out instead for new artistic territories. Along the way, he created anime's futuristic feel and its immediately recognizable visual style. He employed flamboyant visual effects, from tracking shots and unexpected lens flares to striking close-ups and the oddest camera angles imaginable. By the time of Tezuka's death, in 1989, dozens of anime artists stood ready to inherit his mantle and bring the art form to an international audience.

The following year, Akira -- an anime film set in 2019 and designed to appeal to fans of post-industrial thrillers like Blade Runner and The Terminator -- found a small but dedicated audience in the West. By the mid-'90s, dubbed anime videos were appearing in American stores, and cable channels like MTV were beginning to feature anime in their programs. In 2003, an anime feature film, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. And, this spring, Akira's creator, Katsuhiro Otomo, released a new film called Steamboy -- with a budget of over $20 million, it's said to be the most expensive anime film of all time.

As it developed, anime combined elements of the Warner Bros. cartoon with those of the independent art-house film; at its best, it became a smart, fast-paced, thought-provoking, and eerily beautiful genre. By common misperception, anime is often equated with pornography. But while hentai, or animated porn, is indeed a subset of anime, it's hardly the only one. There are also historical anime, sci-fi anime, fantasy anime, horror anime, cyber anime, mecha anime (which is geared towards techies), shoujo anime (which is aimed at girls), shounen anime (which appeals to boys), and sentai anime (in which color-coded warriors battle evil monsters). Anime's comic-book equivalent -- which is called manga -- is considered an art form unto itself and has an equal number of subsets.

"They have kind of a bad reputation," Ed Sherman says, when I ask about American perceptions of the forms. Sherman is the owner of Rising Sun Creations, a Southern California chain that specializes in anime and manga, and a note of exasperation seems to creep into his voice whenever the subject comes up. "In the early days here in the United States, pretty much the only thing that was getting translated into English and brought over was hentai -- which is nasty stuff, triple-X stuff. And it got so that a lot of people, whenever they hear about Japanese animation, all they think is hentai. But it's not that at all. It's just that that was the popular stuff in the early '90s, when it was first starting to hit here."

Sherman, who grew up attending comic swap meets, entered the industry in 1989 and switched from American comics to anime and manga six years later. Even then, he says, the writing on the wall was easy to read.

"The popularity of anime, I think, is based on the fact that it appeals to everyone. The U.S. comic market is aimed primarily at young teenage males. But in Japanese animation and manga, there is subject matter for everybody. You know, there's stuff for little girls, families, all the way to triple-X, and everything in between.

"The subject matter covers so many different aspects of real life. There's a lot of martial arts in it, but that's not all there is. There are teen-angst storylines young readers identify with. There's comedy, and Japanese horror is just incredible. Even in their live-action films, the Japanese are starting to dominate the horror market worldwide. Take the movie we call The Ring; the Japanese original is so much better than the remake, and most Americans don't even know it."

Sherman is a fan of most things Japanese -- his inventory at his stores includes Japanese action figures, anime DVDs and posters, Japanese keychains, plenty of manga comics, stuffed toys of anime characters, Japanese candy and snacks, and (in the case of a store I visited), a two-foot-tall, remote-controlled model of Godzilla, which sells for $700. The store looked more like a toy store than, say, an art gallery.

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