ANIMATION WORLD MAGAZINE - ISSUE 5.6 - SEPTEMBER 2000
Anime Theatrical Features
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But not all Japanese TV cartoon series have potential for American release. Two notably frustrating examples are Doraemon and Sore Ike! Anpanman, both for young children. Doraemon is about a blue robot cat, a toy from hundreds of years in the future, which is sent via time travel to a comically clumsy 20th century schoolboy. Doraemon began on TV in April 1979; the TV series is up to almost 1,600 episodes to date. There has been a mid-March annual Doraemon theatrical feature since 1980. The American movie/TV industry would love to cash in on these. But many of the stories about Doraemon the robot-cat and his human owner/playmate, Nobita, are gentle teaching experiences framed around Japanese ethnic customs (including communal bathing), Japanese holidays, Japanese folk tales and Japanese historical events, which young American children would not understand. Sore Ike! Anpanman (roughly Go Get 'Em, Anpanman!) is a superhero comedy for young children in which most of the characters are Japanese toys, fairytale characters and anthropomorphized candies and sweets. (Anpan is a sweet pastry.) The weekly TV series began in October 1988; episode #576 aired on August 4, 2000. The annual theatrical features started in 1995; this year's, released on July 29, was Sore Ike! Anpanman: Ningyo Hime no Namida (Go Get 'Em, Anpanman! Tears of the Mermaid Princess). These and others such as Crayon Shin-chan add up to a large quantity of Japanese theatrical animated features that would have little American audience appeal.
Digimon. © 2000 Fox Kids. All Rights Reserved.
There is a similar subclass of children's theatrical features which are blatantly Japanese corporate promotion. Two examples both released in July are the 2000 Nen Natsu Toei Anime Fair (Summer 2000 Toei Animation Fair) and the 2000 Nen Natsu no Kadokawa Manga Taiko Susumeru (Summer 2000 Kadokawa Cartoon Masterpiece Presentation). Toei Animation Co., Ltd. is the largest animation studio in Japan, and one of the largest in the world; both Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon are Toei productions. Kadokawa is a major Japanese publishing company; its children's book division is comparable to Scholastic Inc. or Golden Press in America. Movies of this type are 80- to 90-minute compilations of from two to four new featurettes of the company's currently most popular TV cartoons -- in Toei's case, its own studio's productions; in Kadokawa's case, licensed TV cartoons based upon its juvenile literary properties. These movies give Japanese children the chance to see their favorite TV cartoon characters in adventures of higher animation quality than the TV series. Often these featurettes are closely tied to the current TV story lines, introducing new characters and subplots to the TV series. The Digimon theatrical feature just released in America is actually edited from three Digimon featurettes in Toei's Spring and Summer Animation Fairs of the past couple of years. These are popular in Japan; The Summer 2000 Toei Animation Fair ranked number 7 overall among its week's theatrical releases in Japan. But for obvious reasons, they would be meaningless to children outside of Japan.
More suitable for American importation are the theatrical features for adolescents and adults. Best-known in America are the features created by master animators Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, based upon their original stories through their Studio Ghibli since the mid-1980s; but these are a special case. Movies of this type are usually romances and dramas based upon popular novels, comic books, TV programs for older viewers, especially popular direct-to-video productions, and video games. Akira and Ghost in the Shell, adapted from adult sci-fi novels in comic-art form, are two well-known examples of Japanese popular movies that had limited art-house theatrical releases in America before going to video.
Akira. © Akira Committee.
Jin Roh (The Wolf Men), a taut political thriller about the plotting at high governmental levels for jurisdictional control of a new paramilitary police unit, was designed for the art-theater circuit in the first place. It played at international film festivals in Germany, Canada, the U.S. and other nations for a couple of years before its general release in Japan this February. A similar example is Alexander, an American-Japanese-Korean co-production of a fantasy based upon the 3rd-century B.C. Macedonian king who conquered most of Western civilization, elevating him to mythic stature similar to the demigod Hercules. This production, with character design by American animator Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), has also played at international film festivals. It will be released theatrically in Japan as Alexander Senki (roughly The Military Exploits of Alexander) in October. In 1985 Vampire Hunter D, a low-budget direct-to-video feature based upon the fantasy thriller novels by Hideyuki Kikuchi, proved unexpectedly popular, but dissatisfaction by Kikuchi over changes in his story held up any movie sequels. The movie has also proven popular as an American anime release since 1992 in art theaters and on video and cable TV. The legal problems in Japan were recently resolved, and a new, high-budget remake of Vampire Hunter D is just finishing production, by one of Japan's top anime directors, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, and with lots of CGI enhancement. Any of these would seem to be potential American theatrical releases of at least as much commercial validity as Miramax's release of Princess Mononoke.
Alexander Senki, a U.S.-Japanese-Korean joint anime-styled production. © Alexander Committee.
There are many Japanese popular teen romantic fantasies, roughly comparable to I Dream of Jeannie or Sabrina, the Teenage Witch. These usually begin as comic books and graduate to animated TV cartoon series or direct-to-video productions. (The Japanese created their own English abbreviation for these, OAVs for Original Anime Videos, which the American anime market has adapted.) Especially popular titles spin off theatrical sequels. A current example is Oh! My Goddess: Eternal Ties, in which the ongoing romance between a shy college student and a virginal young goddess is finally resolved -- or is it? Japanese theatrical audiences will find out this autumn. Oh! My Goddess is popular among American anime and comics fans through translations of the comic book soap-opera romances by Kosuke Fujishima and the OAVs. But would this popularity extend to a theatrical release of a sequel for a general American audience that is not already familiar with the relationships among its cast? This is why the many Japanese theatrical features of this nature have gone directly into the same anime video market as the TV episodes and the OAVs.
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