By Mark Schilling
International interest in Japanese animation or "anime" has been growing for more than
two decades, since films like Hayao Miyazaki's "Nausicaa Valley of the Wind" (1984),
Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira" (1988) and Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost In the Shell" (1995)
made the world aware that there was more to animation than Disney -- or "Speed Racer."
Japanese animated films have even cracked the notoriously difficult US theatrical market,
with "Pokemon: The First Movie" grossing $85 million in 1999 (though the box office
fall off was rapid for subsequent Pokemon installments) and Hayao Miyazaki's "Spirited
Away" earning $10 million in 2002, while winning the first animation Oscar.
The Japanese overseas advance, however, has been mostly in the mediums of TV, video
and now DVD. Once a hard sell to Western TV buyers, who considered it too violent,
sexy or bizarre, anime has since become a staple of children's programming in the US
and Europe, while in Asia it is watched by nearly 100 million TV viewers, from
Singapore to Shanghai. (The Korean government, worried that Japanese TV animation
might overwhelm the local product, still restricts its import.)
At the Japanese box office, however, animation is the most successful home-grown
genre. In 2001 Spirited Away grossed $276 million -- an all-time record for both foreign
and domestic films in Japan. Also, though the films of Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli have
been topping box office charts for more than a decade, several other animation studios
have also scored hits with regularity.
In 2003, with a gross of Y4.4 billion ($40 million), "Pocket Monster Advance
Generation" became the latest of six Pokemon installments to end the year among the top
five domestic films at the Japanese box office. That year seven animated features earned
more than Y1.0 billion ($9.1 million), out of a total of 18 domestic films to reach that
Most were installments in long running series. In addition to "Pokemon," they included
"Doraemon" (the fantastic adventures of a nerdy boy and a blue robot cat), Detective
Conan (the cases of a genius teenage detective trapped in a small boy's body) and Crayon
Shinchan (the escapades of a potty-mouthed five-year-old and his frazzled parents). All
are cogs in enormous multimedia machines that generate income from comics, TV shows,
games and merchandising.
These series consistently generate hits. Since its start in 1980 The Doraemon series has
produced 25 entries, all money-makers. It's as if Pixar were to make annual installments
of the Toy Story saga, each one scoring $100 million or better at the US box office.
Mostly targeted at kids on school holidays, series films are usually made as cheaply and
quickly as possible, in a 2-D style similar to that of the TV anime on which they are
based. Despite their box office dominance, the Japanese animation industry is now
following Hollywood in its shift to 3-D digital animation. Leading animation auteurs --
Miyazaki, Otomo and Oshii among them -- may still use a 2-D look, but are incorporating
more 3-D technology into their work. Also, full 3-D films are starting to appear in
theatres, though made for a fraction of the Hollywood competition. The result is a seismic
shift in the animation landscape -- think slow-motion earthquake.
Example one is Oshii's "Innocence," a follow-up to "Ghost In the Shell," that was
released in Japan in March -- and represents a stunning technical advance over the earlier
film. Known for his love of detail, Oshii filled every crevice of his retro-themed world of
2032 with CG-enhanced eye candy, from the cars that looks like winners in a 1950 "car of
the future" contest to the life-sized android "dolls" that dress demurely in kimono -- and
are used as sex toys by their human masters.
"I'm happier if ten thousand people see the film ten times each than if one million people
see it once," Oshii said in an interview. "I'm not making it for the general public, but for
a core group of fans -- I hope it will make a big impression on them." True to his word,
"Innocence" is impossible to take in at one go -- there is simply too much information,
visual and otherwise, up there on the screen. You finally understand the meaning of that
queer word "boggles."
The hero is the cyborg detective Bateau -- a holdover from the previous film -- he of the
thick neck, bottlecap eyes and intimidatingly brilliant mind. Together with his human
partner he investigates strange cases of gainoids -- the film's term for the aforementioned
androids -- turning on their masters and then self destructing. Why are the gainoids going
ape? To answer this question Bateau not only engages in the occasional heroics, including
a battle with a yakuza gang, but interrogates the meaning of the gainoids' existence -- as
well as his own.
There is little in the film that could be called conventionally humanistic -- or even human.
Instead it is mainly an excursion in what might be called Oshii's World of Dolls. Not the
cutsey, huggy ones, but the all-too-real ones that, with their solemn air of knowing
secrets, give small children nightmares. This, unfortunately, was not the stuff of a
multiplex sensation: In Japan "Innocence" earned Y1.0 billion ($9.1 million) -- far more
than "Ghost In the Shell," but hardly enough to put Oshii in the Miyazaki league.
The next animation auteur to release a major film this year, in July, was Otomo with
"Steamboy." In production for nine years and costing Y2.4 billion ($22 million) -- a
record for a Japanese animation -- Steamboy posits a "what if" 19th century England,
with steam technology far in advance of anything that actually drove the period's turbines
or clanked along its tracks. Otomo and his staff integrated 180,000 storyboards -- another
record for a Japanese animated film -- with CG effects to create the film's inticrately
detailed, but visually compelling, world.
Though it references Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and other Victorian era futurists, the film is
less a tribute to their vision than a new twist on the dystopian themes Otomo developed in
"Akira." Also, more than a deep-think film for cultists, "Steamboy" is an all-ages action
entertainment with steam-driven tanks, planes and all-terrain vehicles that clank, soar and
sail with an eye-goggling realism. In Japan, however, the film didn't live up to box office
expectations, earning only Y1.5 billion ($14 million), despite a massive publicity push
from distributor Toho. Otomo's vision was still was still too geeky and one-off for the
mainstream, which preferred animation franchises familiar from TV, manga and games.
Originally scheduled for "Steamboy"'s July slot on Toho's schedule, Miyazaki's new
"Howl's Moving Castle" has been pushed back to a November release. Based on a novel
by Diana Wynne-Jones about a teenage girl who is transformed by a magic spell into an
old woman, "Howl's" is a 2-D film, but one that makes far more extensive use of CG
technology than any of Miyazaki's previous works. The Japanese press has yet to see the
finished film, but few doubt that it will blow away the local competition at the box office,
not to mention anything that Hollywood sends its way.
But the film with the most potential to alter the Japanese animation landscape took only
one year and Y300 million ($2.7 million) to make. Directed by first-timer Shinji Aramaki
and supervised by hitmaker Fumihiro Sori (Ping Pong), "Appleseed" may have a
hackneyed story about human identity under threat in a post-apocalyptic future, but it's
all-3-D look is an industry first, as is its extensive use of motion capture technology,
which gives its action sequences a jaw-dropping speed and dynamism. "I think it's going
to make a big splash in Japan," Studio Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki said. "Once the
industry sees how it can make such a high quality film so quickly and cheaply, it's going
change radically. Even TV animation will very quickly become 3-D."
Suzuki's comment underlines an important fact: For all the attention it is getting abroad,
Japanese animation is an industry in crisis. While demand for its product has spiked with
the rise of new markets on cable, satellite and video, budget pressures remain severe,
forcing producers to out-source work for dozens of shows to lower-wage Asian countries.
Also, with the cost of 3-D technology falling rapidly, even Japanese animators working at
the top end of the industry -- on feature films instead of kiddy cartoons for cable -- may
soon find their jobs under threat. "It's only a matter of time before Doraemon and the
other (feature) series go to 3-D," predicts Suzuki.
Meanwhile, more live-action films are not only based on old comics and TV cartoon
shows, but incorporate an animation look into every frame, with the aid of CG wizardry.
The most extreme expression of this trend is Kazuaki Kiriya's "Casshern." Though
inspired by a 1973 TV anime, the film goes far beyond it in realizing a post-apocalyptic
future world that looks like a cross between a Soviet propaganda poster, circa 1922, and
the nightmares of George Orwell.
Putting robot armies of thousands on the screen might have stretched even the budget of
James Cameron not so ago, but Kiriya and his collaborators found it doable for Y600
million ($5.5 million). "The key was careful planning -- and sacrifice," said Kiriya, a
first-time director previously better known as a fashion photographer and maker of music
video clips. "We were willing to do whatever it took to get what we wanted on the screen.
We knew that it was now or never."
Despite the dicey future of 2-D animation, some Japanese animators are still pushing the
form to new frontiers -- and beyond. One is Masaaki Yuasa, best known for his work on
the "Crayon Shinchan" series, whose new feature "Mind Game" might be described a
hippie head movie for 2004 -- assuming the hippie's drug of choice is speed.
Yuasa and his fellow animators at Studio 4o doubtless had no intention of encouraging
anyone's unhealthy lifestyle. They are, however, quite serious about obliterating
boundaries between dream and what is usually called reality, while commenting on the
persistence of human folly, desire and hope. Their film is by turns silly, frantic and
head-scratchingly strange, but it's also funny, sexy and energizing in a way that sweeps
critical quibbles aside.
Based on a manga by Robin Nishi, the story concerns an ordinary Osaka college boy
named Nishi-kun who chances to meet a long-lost childhood crush named Myon-chan.
Together they go to her sister's yakitori joint for a reunion, where they become involved
in a violent beef with two yakuza.
Poor Nishi is blown to Kingdom Come and meets a terrifyingly mutable God, who
consigns him to oblivion (the entrance to which is a huge red anus). Instead, Nishi runs
like hell in the opposite direction, toward life. Miraculously resurrected, he escapes from
enraged gangsters together with Myon-chan and her sister. A high speed car chase ensues
and ends -- in the belly of a whale.
Just as "Mind Game"'s God changes form the way Madonna changes costumes, the film
uses a blend of animation styles in a way reminiscent of Richard Linklater's "Waking
Life" (2001). The two films are also similar in their wrestlings with ultimate issues,
though the hero in "Waking Life" is more prone to abstract verbalizing; Nishi to concrete
acting out. Both are caught in impossible traps, but only Nishi, the eternal optimist, fights
with every fiber of his being to escape.
At the end "Mind Game" surges into a realm of pure adrenaline and will, in a long, mad
sprint toward the summa bonum, the ultimo paradiso. In other words, dull, prosaic,
present-day Japan, which has rarely looked sweeter.
This sort of uninhibited, unhinged creativity makes discussion of 2-D versus 3-D seem
beside the point. Commercially, "Mind Game" may hardly be competition to "Shrek 2" or
even "Appleseed" -- it opened in July in one Tokyo theater -- but it proves that, even on
old-fashioned cels, Japanese animators still know no limits. "For the first months, until I
settled on a plot, I had my doubts," Yuasa confessed. "But from the very first I knew that
at least it wouldn't be boring. I had a bit of confidence about that -- that even if it weren't
tremendously interesting, it wouldn't be boring." Thank the God of animation, if not
Yuasa's, that he was right about that.