ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.9 - DECEMBER 1999

Pokemononoke: Anime For The Millennium
(continued from page 1)

Success Is Possible
Dragon Ball may not enjoy the U.S. awareness of Astro-Boy -- in its '60s heyday, more New Yorkers tuned into Osamu Tezuka's creation than the network news. For the '90s, however, it's a major achievement. Toonami also popularized such titles as Sailor Moon and '80s space adventures Voltron and Robotech, the latter amalgamated, as fans well know, from three separate anime. Interestingly, Sailor Moon, made in Japan as a "shojo" (girls') show with superhero elements, had failed badly in syndication and only found its feet with Toonami. "We provided Sailor Moon with the environment, with packaging and similar programming, which gave it the ratings lift it never would have received in syndication," comments Mike Lazzo, senior vice president of programming and production for Cartoon Network. Sailor Moon offers a particularly interesting (if trivial) case of mainstreaming. The anime is name-checked in Barenaked Ladies' motor mouth single "One Week" ("the boom anime babes that make me think the wrong thing"), and fanatics may discern the lyric toward the end of the teen-raunch comedy American Pie.

With Cartoon Network's Toonami series, shows like Sailor Moon have opened up whole new merchandising arenas for anime. © Kid Rhino.

Lazzo plans to repeat Sailor Moon's success with the sci-fi series Gundam Wing and the comedy Tenchi Muyo, both established anime fan-favourites to be screened in the near future. "Toonami will remain committed to anime as an important and essential programming philosophy," he asserts. Indeed, there are even reported plans for a whole new channel based on Toonami, a possibility that has Web sites buzzing. Lazzo believes the "strangeness" of anime which once deterred Americans is less of a problem. "If the story and characters are not compelling to an American audience, the stylization of anime can pose a barrier to general acceptance. (But) that is rapidly changing, as audiences become more familiar with anime, due to its current popularity with shows such as Dragon Ball and Pokemon."

Innate Differences
Nonetheless, the limits of anime's mainstream acceptability are shown by the treatment of even kid-friendly Pikachu. Five Pokemon episodes were deemed "unsuitable" for U.S. children, and others edited to elide the villainous Team Rocket's cross-dressing and similar elements. (The infamous "strobe-light" episode, which caused seizures in hundreds of Japanese children, was one of those excised in America.) This is only a milder form of the treatment given to series like Sailor Moon, whose inclusion of themes like gay sexuality (common enough for girls' shojo in Japan) had to be chopped, along with mild nudity and less mild violence. Predictably, such acts divide admirers of the Japanese shows; some see it as compromise, others as bastardization. The latter stick with uncut video editions where available, or turn to unofficial imports subtitled and copied by fans (fansubs). The extent to which anime is mainstreamed rather depends on one's temperament; to put it more simply, how much of a purist one is.

The issue of uncompromised vision was a headache for Miramax, which distributed a dub of Hayao Miyazaki's Japanese megahit Princess Mononoke to U.S. cinemas at the end of October. A film with little of Pokemon's cuteness (only the "kodama" hommonculi spirits come close, with their clicking heads and benevolent presence), Miramax was further hampered by a contract stipulating no cuts without permission. The rationale for this was an obscure American video called Warriors of the Wind. Warriors was actually an imported version of Miyazaki's 1984 film Nausicaa, cut-down and kiddified without the director's knowledge or permission. Miyazaki was horrified at this mutilation, and determined it would never happen again; artistically laudable, but a problem for Miramax. In a Time article -- an addendum to a Pokemon cover-story -- studio co-chairman Harvey Weinstein wondered, "Could Mononoke be streamlined (i.e. cut)? Yeah, and it could be more accessible as a result of cutting. But Miyazaki is like Kurosawa or Sergio Leone -- one of the greats of international cinema. The very idea of cutting is anathema to a director of this importance." ["Amazing Anime," Richard Corliss, Time, Vol. 154, No. 21, November 22, 1999, p76.]

Ashitaka (voiced by Billy Crudup) and San (voiced by Claire Danes) in a scene from Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke.
© Miramax Films.

Given several bloody scenes and a running time of 133 minutes -- longer than any all-animated U.S. film -- marketing Mononoke was always going to be a challenge. In the event, Miramax opted for a limited approach, initially releasing Mononoke to only eight screens. However, the distributor did much to generate favourable word of mouth, previewing Mononoke at film festivals and running a long programme of other films by the same anime studio (Ghibli) at numerous venues, including New York's Museum of Modern Art. Miramax also arranged a whirlwind press tour for Miyazaki in North America and Canada. The result was considerable press-coverage, much enthusiastic, with Roger Ebert and the New York Times' Janet Maslin delivering much-quoted raves on the film. Yet even favourable critics chafed at the anime facial designs and stilted movement (Speed Racer was a common comparison), predicting the film would look crude to viewers used to Tarzan-level motion on the big screen.

Overall, it was doubted if Mononoke could realistically find a wide U.S. audience. Some questions surrounding "grown-up" animation in America were discussed in my " Cartoon Movies: Acting Their Age?" piece last issue. Given a running time close to twice the Disney average, plus material definitely unsuitable for small children, it's not surprising Miramax's release was so cautious. As I write, Mononoke is in its third week, playing at 47 theatres; current figures are respectable but already falling. Barring miracles, its total earnings will be the tiniest fraction of Pokemon's, a situation many would compare to The Care Bears Movie trouncing Fantasia. The consolatory hope is that Mononoke will help counter the prevalent image of anime as cheap kitsch, perhaps attracting anime newcomers who found Sailor Moon and Pokemon too ethnocentric (or weird).

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