Anime's Deep Roots in the Arab World
By: Omar Mansour / Arab America Contributing Writer
Japanese animation, commonly known as “Anime” is one of Japan’s biggest cultural exports. While popular for decades, today, anime is at the peak of its popularity and is very much a global phenomenon. The Arab world is indeed no stranger to anime today, just as the rest of the world. However, its popularity in the Arab world actually goes back decades. What is the reason for anime’s roots in the Arab world? One of the main reasons for anime’s popularity in the Arab world was that anime, dubbed into Arabic, was often the only form of programming for children growing up in the Middle East in the 1970s and 1980s.
A Slow Introduction
Comics, animation, and other similar types of visual entertainment are no strangers in the Arab world. Comics in particular formally called qiṣṣa muṣawwara (meaning is drawn history) in Arabic, have been in the region in as early as 1870 when a magazine for children called Rawḍat al-Madāris (“The school garden”) was released by Egypt’s ministry of education.
It was not, however, until the 1950s that the genre really took off. During this period Sindbād and Samīr were published in a similar format to the comics and manga that we know of today. The latter was published in ʿāmmiyya (non-formal Arabic), which was a first in the industry and allowed it to be embraced and experienced by a wider audience.
The following decade in the 1960s, Western comics and Japanese manga begin to come on to the scene, with Marvel comics being translated and localized into Arabic. Even though Japanese materials were being spread at this time, manga and anime would not enjoy mainstream popularity until the 80s, when television, with the aid of Arabic localization, became their main cultural vehicle.
No Children’s Television
Television stations began broadcasting in the Arab World from the late 50s, with Iraq paving the way and Lebanon closely following. By the mid-1970s, all Arab states had their own government-owned television stations. They would air state-sponsored news and other light-entertainment shows, along with mostly Egyptian produced series or musalsalat, but there wasn’t an established production base for children’s TV.
The Gulf Cooperation Council Joint Production Institution was set up in 1976 to commission and create content for the Arab member states countries bought cartoons from Japan. Founded in 1985, Al-Zahra Center (VENUS) based in Damascus, Syria was the only company in the Middle East that did Japanese to Arabic localization and dubbing of anime. Popular anime later dubbed by Al-Zahra Center include Detective Conan, Captain Tsubasa, Dragon Ball, Hunter X Hunter, Naruto, Pokemon and One Piece.
The Anime Difference
Disney cartoons were also available for viewing at the time, but they were not the first choice. A major hit, Grendizer, was first shown on Lebanese Tele Liban in the 1980s, and was one of the few fully dubbed cartoons that were available to watch.
Whenever Grendizer was on TV, the streets were practically empty. Lebanese voice actor Jihad Al-Atrash, who provided the voice of Duke Fleed (or Daisuke, as he is known in the original), attributes the success of Grendizer to its high production values, and the geopolitics of the region of the time.
“I believe that the series preceded its time,” he said in an interview with regional Arab newspaper Asharq Alawsat “It was executed with perfection with the limited means available back then compared to the present day. It was a huge production by all means.”
Also important is that Grendizer was first broadcasted during the civil war in Lebanon. For those who grew up in Lebanon during the civil war, such as Racha El-Saadaoui, Grendizer shaped entire childhoods, ”It was such a beautiful escape from a horrible childhood in terms of the insecurity of the war, and all the things that children don’t really understand, but still feel impacted by,” she says.
Speaking to Middle-East Eye, Mohammad Ramadan from Amman, Jordan, also gives his reasons for the choice of anime, “We had Tom and Jerry and Mickey Mouse too, but we preferred to watch anime, because there was a strong lead character, a compelling storyline, and always a noble point to the episode. If we had the choice between Disney and Anime we would always choose the Japanese cartoons as there was always something to learn from the programme.”
“The streets in Jordan would be empty when these programmes were on, as soon as it finished, we’d go out to play and imitate the martial art moves we’d seen in Grendizer or the football moves from Captain Majid… I’d gather with my cousins and siblings in my parents’ living room every weekday from 4 pm to 6 pm…If an episode was aired and we were not at home, we’d call Jordan TV and ask them to put a re-run of the episode, and they would,” Ramadan recalls.
Al-Ghazzi says that waiting and watching for the children’s time slot on TV after school or on the weekend became a ritual for children in the 1980s growing up in the Middle-East.
After the national anthem, and a recitation of Quranic verses, stations aired the ‘children’s segment’ and its Japanese content, he writes in his research paper, Grendizer Leaves for Sweden.
The Gulf Cooperation Council Joint Production Institution was very clear on the fact that its mission was not only to create content for Arab countries and to building the capacities of radio and television. Most important was the reviving of Arabic and Islamic history and heritage, and the emphasizing of Islamic ideals.
These values are on display today with a new Saudi-Japan venture into anime. In 2017, 300 young Saudi Arabians travelled to Japan to learn the art of making anime and manga, a distinctly Japanese art form. This was the first active cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Japan, with the express purpose of jointly producing the pre-Islamic film, “The Journey”.
Inspired by a famous pre-Islamic Arabian tradition, which is also mentioned in the Quran, The Journey is a modern-day re-telling of the Aksumite invasion of Mecca by Abraha, a southern Arabian king, who sought to destroy the Kaaba and replace it with his own temple, helped to that end by his legendary elephant-mounted army.
Standing in their way is ibn Jubair, a potter by trade, whose initial goal of protecting his family suffers from the mission creep characteristic of all epics: stopping the invasion against all odds. Essam Bukhary, the film’s lead producer, and CEO of the Saudi company Manga Productions, has said the film is a way of “exporting Saudi culture and the historical stories the Arabian Peninsula retains”.
According to Kristin Smith Diwan, a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, such endeavours can help Saudi Arabia exert influence abroad.
“Saudi Arabia’s new leadership is very keen to engage youth in all forms of media and arts and to bring them under the national mantle. It is a way to project Saudi identity and influence abroad and also to diversify the economy through new creative fields. Both are top priorities.”
Omar Al-Ghazzi, an assistant professor of media and communications at The London School of Economics (LSE), says popular entertainment is an important front in the exercise of a state’s influence, further developing soft power.
“Usually, when thinking about government influence on the media, people think of news. But Arab entertainment television, whether TV series or indeed cartoons are also part of efforts to extend a state’s soft power,” Al-Ghazzi says.
“It is no surprise that today countries like the UAE and Saudi Arabia are investing in children’s productions as that is seen as an important part of their status as big media players in the region and beyond.”
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