ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 4.9 - DECEMBER 1999

Pokemononoke: Anime For The Millennium
(continued from page 2)

The same applies to the other Ghibli films featured in Miramax's touring programme. Kiki's Delivery Service, Japan's top film of 1989, was released last year by Buena Vista Home Video, to strong sales. Buena Vista will follow with Castle in the Sky early next year. (Castle was originally released in Japan as Laputa, alluding to Jonathan Swift's flying castle. Unfortunately, "laputa" has another meaning for Spanish speakers.) Ghibli is often regarded as anime's gold-standard, the equivalent of Disney's films in America, and their long-term impact on the West will be interesting to see. Even if Mononoke blips at the box-office, perhaps a future film by Ghibli (or of that calibre) will get a wide American release, especially if it's shorter and more upbeat. Hearteningly, Miyazaki is thinking of a "happy" feature for younger children, though it has yet to enter pre-production.

The benevolent Kodama bring a peaceful feel to the film Princess Mononoke. © Miramax Films.

Cultural Exchange
One Ghibli film, My Neighbor Totoro, was featured on Ebert's That's Not All Folks! TV special earlier this year. In the programme, Ebert compared Miyazaki's picture to Disney's Tarzan, arguing that the saucer-eyed anime look was being borrowed by Disney to increase expressiveness. Certainly, a large number of Disney and Disney-related staff are open Miyazaki fans, among them John Lasseter and Tarzan character designer Glen Keane. Which suggests anime's biggest plausible impact is indirect, influencing projects that combine anime qualities with a U.S. style.

The paradigm cited by many is Warner's Batman: The Animated Series and its futuristic sequel Batman Beyond. For instance, Beyond's biker chases and cityscapes are frequently compared to Akira. However, when Animation World Magazine writer Emru Townsend asked Batman veterans Bruce Timm and Glen Murikami about this, their response was qualified. Timm: "We try to do a lot of the tricks that [Japanese animators] do, but we've a mandate from the corporate headquarters to not do any of that quote-unquote limited animation crap. We've tried to do as much quote-unquote full animation as possible, so a lot of the stuff the Japanese do doesn't apply. On Batman Beyond, a lot of people say it has an anime-inspired look. Yes and no... it's more of a subliminal influence than a direct influence." Murikami agrees: "Most Japanese cartoons have a lot of detail and explosions...and that's very difficult to do on a TV budget and schedule. I think we use Japanese animation techniques, but try to make them look like American drawings. It's not that we don't like Japanese animation, but it's apples and oranges. Some rules don't apply."

Like live-action director Akiru Kurosawa's influence on Westerns in the U.S., anime-style animation is blending its way into American productions like the WB's Batman Beyond. © Warner Bros. All Rights Reserved.

Beyond technique, the rise of "dramatic" U.S. cartoon series in recent years arguably owes to anime. The use of ongoing story-arcs in Gargoyles and (less successfully) Invasion America can be traced to anime's often heavily-plotted sagas. Again, it may well have been anime precedents that helped green-light kid-unfriendly actioners like Spawn and Aeon Flux. Animated film cases are harder to spot, though John Lasseter remarked, "Toy Story owes a huge debt of gratitude to the films of Miyazaki." The most striking case of big-screen anime influence is in the live-action The Matrix. As visual effects supervisor John Gaeta explained to the U.K. magazine Manga Max, "The directors are from comic-book culture and familiar with Japanese animation and its accompanying visual style -- recreated for live actors. Anime breaks action into its components and controls these elements, to build the most dramatic effect from dynamic movement." ["Schismatrix," Jeremy Clarke, Manga Max 8, July, 1999, p24.]

Which throws new light on Matrix's ultra-stylised battles, in which Keanu Reeves and others hang poised in mid-air, like static artwork fighters of many an anime TV show. Beyond such homages, anime is referenced in a wide range of media, from the aforementioned Barenaked Ladies lyric to recent cover-stories in Time, Hollywood Reporter and yes, even Mad. In the specialist magazine Animerica, Rio Yanez picks out other examples: Volkswagen and Sprite ads which nod to Speed Racer and Voltron; a deleted Good Will Hunting scene (now on DVD) where characters watch Ghost in the Shell; and even a Simpsons-in-Japan episode spoofing the "seizure" incident that brought Pokemon to Western attention. ["I Saw It - Right Where I Didn't Expect It," Rio Yanez, Animerica, Vol. 7, No. 10, p65.] (Pokemon was also spoofed in a recent South Park.)

To round up, there are four main anime candidates vying for the U.S. mainstream. There is the already-huge Pokemon, which may however be a passing fad, to be over and forgotten by next spring. There are the products on Toonami, pushing out of anime cultdom while keeping their appeal for all but the most hardcore fans. There is Princess Mononoke, whose immediate impact will probably be small, but may yet have far-reaching resonances. And finally, there is the nebulous but significant influence anime has on both U.S. animators and live-action filmmakers. The live-action rights to several anime properties have been bought by Western directors, including Satoshi Kon's psycho-thriller Perfect Blue. It would probably take only one durable anime hit for one or more of these to be made. Again, Time mentions, "There are hints that two Hollywood titans, Francis Coppola and James Cameron, may make separate deals for co-productions with anime companies."

Anime is not yet part of the U.S. mainstream, at least in any stable sense. For too many people, it remains the weird kitsch import caricatured in Mad, a province of impenetrable plots and herky-jerky animation. But its background presence is significant, and growing. The question -- for those who see any artistic distinction in these things -- is which part of anime will finally prevail in the American consciousness. The Pokemons? The Mononokes? And will we foreigners be able to pronounce either?

Andrew Osmond is a freelance writer specialising in fantasy media and animation.

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