Anime-niacs: Lebanon’s Japanese subculture

BEIRUT: For many Lebanese children growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, during the Civil War, the ultimate heroic figure was a giant robot. An animated Japense series – or anime, as it is known in Japan – “Grendizer” was dubbed into classical Arabic and screened across the region, enchanting a generation of children. “I call it the glue that holds the Arab world together,” illustrator and animator Fadi Baki explains, “because there’s very little that we share, except that everyone knew ‘Grendizer.’ Anyone that grew up in the ’70s used to watch it.”

Voiced in Arabic by actor Jihad al-Atrash, “Grendizer” followed the adventures of a giant robot from the planet Veda, as he battled against ruthless aliens seeking to invade planet earth.

“There was fighting outside,” Baki says, recalling the show’s popularity. “We were all kids, and this was pretty much using the same pan-Arab language – fighting off the invaders that were coming – but on TV, the good guys win.”

“Grendizer” and other Japanese series dubbed into Arabic and screened during the ’70s and ’80s, such as “Treasure Island,” transformed a generation of young Arabs into unwitting anime fans. Baki had no idea that “Grendizer” was Japanese, he recalls, he just knew that it was different from Western cartoons aimed at children such as “Tom and Jerry.”

Today, Lebanon has a thriving subculture addicted to anime series and to the comic books that usually precede them, known as manga. Although anime is no longer dubbed into Arabic and screened locally, Lebanese fans can access it online. Series are uploaded hours after their release in Japan with English or French “fansubs” – unofficial subtitling done by fans.

Manga and anime are produced for people of all ages and have a distinctive style, featuring characters with enormous eyes and spiky hair. There are hundreds of genres and thousands of series, Baki explains – something for everyone.

What truly differentiates anime from Western cartoons is the drama, he adds. “Sometimes the plots just sort of get thrown out of the window,” he laughs, “but they do drama like no one else. ... Whether that means more violence or more sexual tension or more action, you’ll find it all across the board. ... You can’t find these emotions in other cartoons.”

An avid fan of manga and anime, Khaled Salloum founded the Social Anime Rejects, a group for otaku – people addicted to the Japanese series – seven years ago. There are now more than 300 members.

Meetings are held weekly for attendees to share and discuss manga and anime. “I have the biggest collection,” Salloum says, “so I distribute to others, and I’m in charge of getting everything new. We talk about manga, Japanese culture and of course we have our events. At least once a year, we have a cosplay event, where we dress up as our favorite characters and ... go and have fun and eat some place.”

Cosplay events usually attract around 100 people, he says. Public reactions are mixed.

“People who are into anime are usually like: ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen that. They’re dressed as them!’ Other people are a bit freaked out,” Salloum laughs. “Especially because usually in anime, if you’re not well-armed with swords or guns or whatever, you’re basically half-naked. ... So we get awkward reactions from some people, but most of all they welcome us. It’s a refreshing sight.”

The group also organizes nights where they play traditional Japanese games, such as batsu. “Batsu basically means punishment,” Salloum explains, “and there’s a game show there where if you laugh, you get punished. So my job is to make these contestants laugh as much as possible so they can be beaten [with a cardboard packing tube] as much as possible. ... We’ve done it twice already, and it was a huge success. Painful but in a good way.”

Because anime series are no longer dubbed into Arabic by local stations, he says, the group watch them with English or French subtitles. “When you watch it in its original language ... it becomes so much more beautiful,” he explains. “Most of us enroll in Japanese classes just to get the hang of it. ... When you log over 1,000 hours of anime, you start picking up on phrases. It becomes second nature for you to learn Japanese.”

Anime is completely different from Western cartoons, even those aimed at adults, he says. “They seem more real. The stories are much more in-depth and developed. Most Western characters have died two or three times. Not in anime. It’s one storyline. If a character dies, there’s no coming back. That’s why when you invest so much emotion in a character and it dies you feel broken. ... No one grows up [and keeps] watching ‘Tom and Jerry’ because you outgrow it. Here, you have people getting to the age of 40 and we’re still diehard fans.”

“Grendizer” may still be a popular among the older crowd, but newer converts have their own favorites.

“Everyone watches the basic trinity of anime,” Salloum says, “which is ‘Naruto,’ ‘One Piece’ and ‘Bleach.’ [Others] everyone watches are ‘Death Note’ and ‘Code Geass’ and ... the Miyazaki movies. Those are masterpieces.”

Medical student Wissam Klink, founder of fan group Lebanese Otaku, says the same titles are popular among his own group, most of whom are students. Founded in December 2012, the group already has close to 400 members.

“We set a minimum age of 15 because some anime may not be suitable for children, so we have members ranging from 15 to around 26,” he says, explaining that his group has attracted a younger crowd. “Members are based all over the country. We have some people living in South Lebanon, others like me who live in North Lebanon and people who live in Beirut, Jounieh, the Bekaa ... anime unites us all.”

Around 20 members of Lebanese Otaku have begun creating original drawings influenced by manga style. “It’s a project of ours to make the first Lebanese manga,” Klink reveals.

Baki, who was one of the founders of the trilingual Lebanese comic magazine, “Samandal,” says that he discovered how popular manga was through their readers.

“We found some really cool manga kids from Tripoli,” he recalls, “veiled girls, kids who started drawing comics. ... They were drawing comics about here, but it was manga through-and-through.”

Ahmad Beyrouthi, an illustrator and animator who hails from Tripoli, says that the anime subculture is thriving but misunderstood.

“[Anime] is well known among our young crowd,” he says, “and especially the old generation but ... our culture unfortunately thinks that this kind of entertainment is for kids. ... They don’t know that there are genres of anime that are only for adults. ... Many talented Lebanese artists are traveling away to [find work]. Unfortunately, there is no place for them here.”

Beyrouthi, who co-founded Spark Animation three years ago, says demand for comics in Lebanon is growing slowly. He is currently working on three children’s books, due to be published soon.

“The current story that I’m working on is about a young girl that went with her friend to a sports camp in summer,” he says. “It is linked to manga a bit, through facial expressions mostly.”

Although manga has had an influence on his work, the young artist says diversity is important.

“Manga was only a portal of understanding and learning a new kind of art and features,” he says. “Inspiration shouldn’t come from [only] one direction. ... I watched lots of cartoons and read lots of French comics. It’s necessary to be open to all kind of art.”

Mohammad Sinno, who owns Gift Mania in Hamra, agrees interest in comics is increasing in the region.

“We sell the art books that go with certain anime,” he explains. “We mostly specialize in figurines from American cinema, and then you have manga and anime characters and comic characters like DC and Marvel. ... Every year for sure it grows more popular. You have new generations growing up and they’re more into Japanese culture.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 20, 2014, on page 2.




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