Amazing Anime

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The other day I rented a new anime based on a famous manga. The main chara is this CB kami, cuter than Pokemon and as dishy as Can Can Bunny, who's pursued by an evil mecha--a total SD kaiju. I loved the OAV. And so of course, like a real otaku, I had to run out and buy the OST.*

Reader, come back! We promise to use standard English (mostly) from now on. And if the words get too gnarly, relax and look at the pictures: those Frisbee-eyed kids, the guys with their steel-sinewed biceps, the heroines' celluloid bosoms that defy gravity and logic--and all with spiky hair that could really use some mousse.

At first the argot of anime (rhymes with Connie Mae) can sound as inscrutable as, say, Japanese to a guy in Joliet, Ill. But the only two words you need to know are anime, the Japanese animated films that are made for theaters, TV and home video; and manga, the graphic novels (upmarket comic books) on which most anime films are based. Together they dominate Japan's narrative media. Manga account for a third of all books published there, anime for about half the tickets sold to movies.

Finally this worldwide cult is colonizing the U.S. For a decade, animania has sprouted vagrantly in the land of Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera, its true believers convening in comic-book stores, on the Web and at conventions like last month's Anime Weekend Atlanta. But the form needed a blockbuster and a benediction from the critics. Enter Pokemon (nuff said) and Princess Mononoke, a daunting ecological epic by anime god Hayao Miyazaki, now being released by art-house arbiter Miramax Films. All the latter movie did, in 1997, was become the highest-grossing film in Japanese history (later topped only by Titanic).

So what is anime? Easier to ask: What isn't it? An American cartoon is simple to define. It's Disney--the Disney style of romantic realism, questing kids and cute critters. Anime is all kinds of differents. "There isn't a single artistic style in anime," says Helen McCarthy, British author of four books on the subject, including Hayao Miyazaki: Films, Themes, Artistry. "The major difference from Disney-style animation is the limitless possibilities existing in anime." If you can dream it, anime-tors can draw it.

Anime is kids' cartoons: Pokemon, oh, yes, and Sailor Moon, a TV series about intergalactic Spice Girls that airs in a heavily edited version on the Cartoon Network. But it's also post-doomsday teen fantasies (Akira), futuristic fly-boy films (The Wings of Honneamise), schizo-psycho thrill machines (Perfect Blue), sex-and-samurai sagas (Ninja Scroll)--the works. "If you want to see a story told as fast as the most exciting comic book," McCarthy says, "but with amazing movement, music and dialogue, that's what you get from anime."

There are a few generalizations to be made about anime. The characters' faces often have the preposterously chiseled look of Western superheroes, as defined by U.S. pulp illustrators. The animation itself is quite limited: when a mouth moves, the rest of the face stays still, stricken. You won't find, say, the gestural verve of a Tex Avery wolf or the behavioral subtlety--simply put, the great acting--of Daffy Duck under the pencil of Chuck Jones. The form's genius is in the stories' breadth and daring. The glory is in the graphic richness of the landscapes: either idyllically gorgeous or scarred with the nuclear apocalypse that still obsesses Japanese artists. As Miyazaki says, "The background in anime isn't an afterthought. It's an essential element."

In the rest of the world, comics and cartoons have no age barrier, no height bar, no gender gap. It's the same with U.S. anime fans. "Half my customers are female," says Steven Lin, who owns the Anime Pavilion in Falls Church, Va. "And anime targets every age group, from Pokemon for kids to Neon Genesis Evangelion for teens to X-rated hentai [kinky] anime for adults."

The potential adult audience for graphic novels and cartoon films should have the U.S. media giants drooling. Just love those demographics! Think of the cross-marketing! A few players are onto anime already. Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, is a big investor in Manga Entertainment, the premier U.S. arm for anime. Its spectral cyborg parable, Ghost in the Shell, was the only anime to reach No. 1 on Billboard's Top Video Sales chart. Perfect Blue (a kind of All About Evil, in which a pop diva is both the star and her twisted alter ego) has played in 30 U.S. theaters. And there are hints that two Hollywood titans, Francis Coppola and James Cameron, may make separate deals for co-productions with anime companies.

Last year Disney linked with Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli to release video or theatrical versions of nine films, including the anime auteur's delightful My Neighbor Totoro (about two kids who befriend a chubby forest sprite) and Kiki's Delivery Service (a cute teenage witch launches her own broom-propelled FedEx). Disney now has the world's top-three animation studios: its own unit and the computer tooners at Pixar and Ghibli.

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