Search form


Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman urges us to look to Asia to find new opportunities and stories from a region well versed and experienced in animation. From festivals to new South Korean productions...he has a plan.

Around the time I sat down to write this month's column, the media was making much of the fact that the six billionth person had been born on this earth. For some reason the honor went to an Eastern European child but in fact this waif had only a one-in-four chance at the most; a more realistic bet would have placed Mr. or Ms. Six Billy on the Asian mainland. With three-quarters of the world's population in hand, a cultural history that makes the Western record look like a seven-minute short, and a long tradition of exquisite art, one would expect that the nations of Asia would be world leaders in the art of animation. As it turns out, this happens to be true; regrettably, nearly all of the recognition goes to Japanese anime. In this month's column, we'll take a look at the history of Asian animation, its present state, and some possibilities for expanding world awareness of animation's exciting potential in the Far East.

With Disney Theme Parks spring up all over the world, it just reinforces the idea that they created animation.© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Disney Is Not The First

One reason that Asian animation is not well known is simply because the art form was a Western invention. After animation became industrialized under the American studio system in the early 1900s, the production of shorts and features was mostly identified with that particular nation. That is not to say that there were no exciting developments going on in other countries; there certainly were. As many of us know there were at least two feature-length animated films produced before Walt Disney trotted out Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. Both films were made in foreign countries and both predated Walt's classic by at least a decade. However, much of the general public still believes that animation originated with Disney and that his studio discovered and perfected almost every aspect of modern cartoons. Beginning in the early 1920s, the export of American films to other countries steadily grew until the United States dwarfed every other nation in this respect. Felix was perhaps the first American and international cartoon star. The Disney films were ubiquitous, even more so after the advent of the Great Mouse; Mickey soon became a global icon and American animation held sway the world over. Other nations such as Great Britain had thriving animation industries, but while Merrie Olde England got its fill of Donald, Goofy, and Pluto no one in America enjoyed -- or had even heard of -- Bonzo Dog, Ginger Nutt, Foofoo, or The Colonel. In fact, so little foreign animation made its way on to American screens that it was almost possible to believe no other nation possessed animators, much less independent studios. It would be nearly four decades before those perceptions began to change. At the same time that American animation was dominating the world, two of the largest nations on the Asian continent began to produce animated shorts, with notable results. China's greatest resource was the talented Wan brothers, a sort of Oriental answer to the Fleischers; in fact, their earliest films were much like Max and Dave's Out of the Inkwell efforts. The Wans made their first film in 1926, two years before the debut of Mickey Mouse. These brothers went on to found China's first animation studio in 1933, and in 1941 two of the trio produced China's first animated feature film. That same year saw the foundation of the Association of Chinese Animation, and after the war the Shanghai Studio (est. 1949) would become the largest producer of animation on the Asian mainland, producing over a hundred films. This record was interrupted by Chairman Mao (or more specifically his wife Chiang Ching, who virtually dictated the content of China's arts). The Cultural Revolution sent most of the Shanghai animators to "re-education camps" (and the Fleischers thought they got a raw deal from Paramount!) but the studio was resurrected in 1972 and truly began to thrive after Maoism took a final header in the mid-seventies. Led by passionate and creative artists such as Xu Jingda (better known as A Da), Chinese animation enjoyed a resurgence of shorts, feature films, and all the animated arts including Jin Shi's inventive stop-motion puppetry. The Shanghai output is rarely (if ever) seen by the American public, but represents some of the finest that Asia has to offer.

Chairman Mao influenced much of the opinion on art in China during his rule.

India was producing animated features as early as 1915, and during the 1930s audiences enjoyed the adventures of Longoor and Jamba the Fox. India's first "studio" was a state-funded operation that opened in 1948. India was already a major producer and exporter of live-action films, and it was only natural that an animation department would follow. This outfit, named the Cartoon Film Unit, was subsumed under the overall umbrella of the "Films Division." Indian animation received a boost from a uniquely American source when the animation department was joined by a fascinating man named Clair Weeks. Weeks father had been a missionary to India for many years. Weeks went to the subcontinent to teach animation during the 1940s, bringing his animation skills and leaving a lasting legacy. It is interesting to note that some of india's most prominent animators are women. Notable among them are Nina Sabnani and Shaila Paralkar.

Many cultural traditions and stereotypes need to be bridged before Asian animation takes a strong foot hold in the U.S.

A Growing Entity

South Korea is today the third largest producer of animation in the world behind the United States and Japan. Many animation fans know that Korea does considerable labor for American and European productions; during the 1980s enormous studios such as Sun Woo Studios and Anitel had clients throughout the globe, and the names of Akom Productions and Rough Draft are well-recognized ones in the 1990s. More fascinating is the fact that South Korea produced its first feature film in 1967 and has an indigenous form of animation, manwha youngwha. Seoul held its first animation festival, SICAF, in 1995, and opened a chapter of ASIFA the following year. Directors such as Yi Hyeon-Se and independent studios such as Daiwon Animation Company are leading the way as South Korea begins to make a wider impact on the international animation community.

South Korea ranks third in the production of animation in the world, yet little is known about its original productions in the States.

No essay on Asian animation could be complete without discussing the contributions of Japan. Unfortunately, space limitations and the fact that this history is well documented in many other sources force me to forego such an examination here. Suffice it to say that the impact of anime on Asian and global animation was perhaps the most important story of the late 1980s and the entire decade of the 1990s; I merely wish to stay with the lesser-known but equally commendable efforts of the Asian mainland for the purposes of this column. As the decade and millennium come to a close, we find Asian animation poised to boom in both the creative and economic arenas. More recent players include Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia, and The Philippines. The Middle East is also starting to bloom; Iran has long invested in animated cinema and has been holding festivals since 1966. Backed by state-run organizations like the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, Iranian animators such as Parviz Naderi and Nooreddin Zarrinkelk were given the advantage of university graduate classes and modern technical resources. Iran opened a chapter of ASIFA in 1987.

New animation is being created in the Middle East every year like this shot from Iranian director Amir M. Dehestani's film, Houd the Prophet. © Hoor Animation Association

So, on which shelf of our video stores can we find Amir Hamzeh, The Spring of Butterflies or Tandava? Where can we view some of the artists and works listed above? The answer at present is? You can't, unless you are a devotee of certain university-sponsored festivals, travel abroad, or have access to Asian-owned specialty stores. Since these works would not bring in nearly as much profit as, say, Disney's videos would, we are not likely to experience the joys of multi-cultural animation anytime soon. Still, things are getting better; ASIFA now has chapters in many Asian countries, and the profitability and popularity of Japanese animation is serving to motivate other studios on the mainland. It may be only a matter of time before other Asian animation catches up with Japan's, but in the meantime here are some suggestions for quickening the pace: 1. Expand the schedule of ASIFA festivals ASIFA sponsors major animation festivals in Annecy, Kiev, Ottawa and Zagreb. There is an ASIFA festival in Hiroshima as well, but how about a festival (or several of them) on the Asian mainland? Now that ASIFA has more chapters among these nations, this would be the logical thing to do. Festivals would not only showcase some of the continent's most exciting new artists, they would lead to greater awareness (and marketing possibilities) for the animation itself. 2. More collaborative international efforts 1997 saw the formation of the International Animation Consortium for Children's Rights in which many nations' animation studios participated in a program that produced 30-second spots for UNICEF. The Cartoon Network provided US$3,000 grants to studios in Iran, Syria, Indonesia and Uzbekistan that went toward production costs in the Cartoons for Children's Rights project. That worthy effort and others like it should be duplicated on a regular basis and involve studios from Asian nations as much as possible. 3. Increased commercial exposure Since anime has achieved lasting popularity in the US and Europe, why can't some savvy entrepreneur start importing other Asian animation as well? To those who might want to take a shot at it, here are some suggestions for a decent start: Red Hawk, Armageddon and Hungry Best 5 are South Korean productions that fans of anime might enjoy as well. If successful, the door would be open for increased exports from other Far Eastern nations, and animation-starved fans in America could feast heartily on a whole new genre. At one time the Cartoon Network presented Canadian animation to American audiences; after Boomerang becomes the new Scooby Doo Preservation Society, perhaps Cartoon Network can find some programming time for Asian animation as well.

With Western influences flooding the East and vice versa, it will be interesting to see what

4. Step up cultural exchange programs

It is always a solid idea to send students and professionals overseas to learn, teach, and exchange perceptions with animators from other cultures. Exchange programs need not always be academic in nature; if some of the animators subcontracting for American studios in Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines could come to the US for advanced training, independent efforts could later be encouraged and original works could be produced and marketed through US outlets. This would be expensive for American producers, but could be a notable investment in the long run. Conversely, US animators should spend time among their Asian counterparts in order to observe and practice the styling and concepts that will appeal to an increasingly multicultural market and audience. Some of this is already being done, and more of it should be. In Singpore there dwells a cartoon star named Mister Kiasu, instantly recognizable to millions of Asians. Few Americans would recognize this comic little figure, but the day may be coming when he takes his place next to Pepper Ann, CatDog, and Dexter. The names of Tekuza and Miyazaki have become as identifiable to many animation fans as the names of Disney and Fleischer, and in the future they may be joined by Ali Murat Erkorkmaz or Ibrahim Mohd Noor. Such developments could only serve to enrich us all. Animation is perhaps the most creative and flexible medium on Earth; while it is impossible to predict even its immediate future, we might do well to turn to the East for the next set of clues. Martin "Dr. Toon" Goodman is a longtime student and fan of animation. He lives in Anderson, Indiana.