Pokemononoke: Anime For The Millennium

by Andrew Osmond

"Back in the 1950s, seeing the words, `Made In Japan' on a product meant one thing: it was a cheap piece of garbage! But by the 1970s Japan's computers, cars, stereos and other imports were the highest quality in the world. But there's one area where good ol' American know-how reigns supreme! Cartoon shows! Don't believe us? Maybe you should check out the latest crudely-drawn garbage from our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun! You'd think it was 1950 all over again! They say it's the latest fad! We say it's just a... HOKEYCON!" [Mad 386, October, 1999.]

Thus runs the opening to Mad magazine's spoof of a certain popular anime, in an issue sporting the cover blurb, "How should we kill this Pokemon?" with a luckless Pikachu being variously pureed, flushed, steamrollered and shot at dawn. The spoof itself contains numerous jibes at "herky-jerky animation" and "frozen faces." In a typical exchange, Ass (Ash) breathlessly comments, "I've learned something truly important!," to which Musty (Misty) replies, "That it's possible to animate a cartoon at five frames a second?" Nor does Mad go easier on the show's fans, with the closing couplet, "Will this craze last till Christmas? Maybe! Who cares? It's suckers like you who create millionaires!"

With millions of dollars from his first movie still coming in, a bad review or two shouldn't make Pikachu angry. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.

Anime At Its Worst?
Whatever one may think of such sentiments, Mad encapsulates an attitude to anime that's still common in America -- at best foreign trash, at worst mind-rotting exercises in exploitation. The fact Pokemon was based on a computer game can be seen as all the more insidious. The "Gotta catch 'em all!" tag, meanwhile, suggests commercialism at its worst. After all, Pokemon is a vast franchise, easily comparable to Furbies or yesteryear's Ninja Turtles. There is a whole family of Pokemon video games, along with a mass of spin-off merchandise -- the addictive trading-cards are most notorious -- and several anime theatrical shorts and features. Two of these, Mewtwo Strikes Back, featuring a particularly intractable baddie from the games, and the short Pikachu's Vacation, have now been translated and combined into Pokemon: The First Movie, breaking records at U.S. cinemas. It's easy to see the irony. U.S. distributor Warner Bros, which failed so spectacularly to sell its acclaimed childhood dream The Iron Giant, is reaping riches from the side-product of a computer game.

All of this, of course, paints the worst picture. Pokemon has many avid moral defenders, with Gail Tilden, Vice President of Product Acquisition and Development for Nintendo of America, going so far as to claim on the official Web site that it represents a benign sharing of cultural values. "[Pokemon] encourages teamwork and cooperation among trainers. Nintendo felt American children could appreciate the same qualities that made Pokemon such a tidal wave in Japan." And indeed they did. Pokemon became a U.S. phenomenon, with the original game selling upward of 4 million units and the series a ratings champ. Yet even anime fans sympathetic (or at least tolerant) toward Pokemon worry the series' success has merely shifted anime from one stereotype to another. Anime used to be seen as saucer eyes and pointy chins; then it became weird sex and violence; now it's the medium of the game tie-in franchise. Already Pokemon has two prominent anime TV rivals in America, Digimon and Monster Ranchers, both of which have computer origins. As Norman J. Grossfeld, Warner 4Kids president and co-writer of the English Pokemon movie, commented, "Right now, Pokemon's success has companies rushing to Japan to look for programs like Pokemon. Not for anime in general." ["Pokemon Graduates to the Big Screen," Fred Patten, Animation Magazine, Vol. 13, Issue 11, No. 84, November, 1999, p13.]

Digimon: Fox's answer to the WB's Pokemon. TM &
© 2000 Fox Kids. All Rights Reserved.

All of which frustrates fans of Japanese animation who've campaigned for a wider range and higher calibre of anime to be available, not just on demarcated store shelves but on TV and at cinemas. As far as television goes, the most successful non-Pokemon anime player is Cartoon Network, whose action-oriented "Toonami" segment proved a potent mix of U.S. and Japanese animation. Just how potent? (Haters of statistics should skip this part.) Toonami recently finished its fourth consecutive week as the highest rated programming destination for 9-to-14 year-olds on any cable network. The segment averages a 2.7 rating. Of Toonami's anime programmes, Dragon Ball Z is currently the highest-rated title on Cartoon Network. A "fight" action show which reworks the Eastern "Monkey King" legend, it consistently figures in basic cable's top 50 telecasts.

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