Alan Neal reviews John A. Lent's new book, which profiles the animation industries in various Asian and Pacific countries. From real-life applications to aesthetic concerns, the book offers a potpourri of regional information.
As editor John A. Lent notes in his introduction to this important book, the amount of literature on Asian animation is extremely limited, focusing primarily on Japan. Following the global overview in Giannalberto Bendazzi's Cartoons: One Hundred Years of Cinema Animation (also published by John Libbey), this is a laudable and mostly successful attempt to redress the balance. Any animation fan that loves to learn about the medium's different forms and applications round the world will find much to enjoy.
The book looks at animation from a total of fifteen countries, though Lent makes clear at the outset that the coverage is anything but even. For example, the very small animation 'industries' in Thailand and Vietnam get seven and five pages of coverage respectively, while the far more extensive field of Chinese animation gets twenty-six. Nonetheless, common themes and concerns soon crop up; for example, the way both Korean and Thai animators resorted to cannibalising military surplus equipment to make their films. More generally, animators across the region face the same artistic and pragmatic questions. Should they make crowd-pleasers or personal visions? Should their animation explore its home culture, or should it be made with an eye to the world market? Or, indeed, should the animators simply subcontract to transnational giants? These options may not be mutually exclusive, but trying to balance them in a workable manner is an endless conundrum (and of course the local governments have their own ideas).
The book is often best when exploring how animation meets real life. David Ehrlich's chapter on Chinese animation includes riveting accounts of the experiences of animators during the Cultural Revolution, where Marxist thought police denounced animated films for "numbing the consciousness of the public" and sentenced their creators to carry manure and dig septic canals, forbidden even to sketch. Malaysian cartoonist and animator Lat recalls how he struggled to create a culturally authentic animated series, Kampung Boy, often to the bewilderment of his LA-based animators, who wondered why a Muslim husband and wife couldn't kiss on TV or why the boy hero couldn't say, "Cool."
The last two chapters are especially strong in relating animation to the real world, and not just because one is written by AWN's editor in chief. Heather Kenyon's "Animation for Development in South Asia" shows how animation can play a real part against the worst real-life problems, with a fascinating profile of the South Asian cartoon girl, Meena, one of the most subtle and effective campaigners for women's rights in the area. And not just women's rights. It brings the reader up short to read of a cartoon warning against strangers who kidnap children, and to realise this is not fantasy but relates to India's very real criminal trade in body parts. Lent's chapter "Overseas Animation Production in Asia" considers what life is truly like for animators who do sub-contract work for overseas companies; the workers constantly subject to seasonal shifts in production and non-existent job security. While it would have been nice to have more direct quotes from the people who do the drudgework, this chapter lays important foundations, drawing few conclusions but giving plenty of well-sifted data for other researchers to build on.
Anime, Anime, Anime
In contrast, the material on Japanese animation, amounting to fifty pages of the book, is disappointing. Anime fans will find many of the points made by familiar commentators Antonia Levi, Fred Patten and Helen McCarthy a little... well, familiar, in contrast to the exploratory spirit of most of the book. Even on its own terms, this section is sometimes unsatisfactory. Levi writes about 'the everyday hero' in anime, but her arguments that this is something distinctive to Japan, with few counterparts in Western media, are very dubious. McCarthy's chapter, mainly on anime's reception in Britain, is a very uneasy mix of fan and company history, the writer herself conceding the former has no impact on the latter. Anime is a vast industry, and it would have been more interesting to see forays into less-explored areas; for example, a look at the industrial practices and relations of some of the bigger anime studios, or a profile of the oft-neglected independent ('festival') Japanese animators outside the mainstream franchises.
The material on anime in chapters on other countries (plus the editor's vignette about anime in Asia and Latin America) is more interesting. While many Western anime fans see the medium as an underdog, unfairly marginalised by the imperialist, homogenising forces of Disney and other Hollywood animation, many Asian countries see anime in precisely the same threatening terms. Hence the authorities in South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines struggle to keep out Japanese animation and comics, even while anime shows are pirated as supposedly 'local' animation. The chapter on South Korea (co-written by the editor and Kie-Un Yu) claims 90 percent of animation on Korean TV is Japanese, obscuring the efforts of Shin Dong Hun (who directed the first local feature back in 1967) and his successor Park Jaedong, who attempted to 'Koreanise' animation in his feature Odolttogi.
Meanwhile, Thai master animator Payut Ngaokrachang, whose fifty-year career takes in some wonderful-sounding films, rails against "rough, violent" Japanese animation. And yet anime's influence is inescapable. The aforementioned Korean Shin Dung Hong is a devotee of Osamu Tezuka; the Indian religious epic Ramayana was animated in Japan and incorporates the 'manga style;' and Malaysian children's show Sang Wira is heavily influenced by Japan's iconic Doraemon. The relationship between Japanese and other Asian animation, tempestuous though it may be, looks set to continue for a long time.
Of the other chapters, Gigi T. Y. Hu's section on Hong Kong is one of the best, making the reader long to see the animation described, from the delicate puppet feature film Princess Hibiscus (1957), through the Old Master Cute feature trilogy of the '80s (featuring an animated Bruce Lee), to the first local TV series McMug, a family show featuring a benign support character called 'Excreman.' Ehlrich's vignette on the making of the US-Mongolian short Genghis Khan is well worth reading, as is Keith Bradbury's sound account of animation in Australia and New Zealand, where a particularly convoluted debate about art, commerce and their possible reconciliation was exacerbated when film radicals such as Albie Thorns entered the fray.
True, some of the book feels dry in places, presenting facts and figures important for researchers, but less compelling for the casual reader unfamiliar with the films and creators being namechecked. There are occasional confusions and contradictions. For example, on page 23, David Ehrlich writes that Zhong Quan's and Wang Gang's 1990 film Flight of the Wild Geese was "unique for Chinese animation" in having a tragic ending. Yet a few pages earlier, on page 19, he writes that A Da's Butterfly Spring (1983) had a "tragic ending, a first for an animated film in China." There are other irritations in Lent's piece on Taiwan animator James Wang, where the interesting history is hampered by a back-and-forth account, making it unclear what happened when. The most infuriating chapter is Rolando B. Tolenito's overview of Philippine animation, full of barely readable academic-speak obscuring the fascinating account of a medium playing dual roles of propaganda and subversion, and where some of the most irreverent artists were trained at a school sponsored by Imelda Marcos.
Overall though, Animation in Asia and the Pacific is a significant, hopefully pioneering piece of animation scholarship, a healthy reminder that, contra Walt Disney, it's a very large world after all.
Animation in Asia and the Pacific, edited by John A. Lent. Eastleigh, UK: John Libbey Publishing, 2001. 270 pages. ISBN: 1-86462-036-6 (hardback)
Alan Neal resides in the U.K. and is a freelance writer and animation fan.