Amazing Anime

Princess Mononoke and other wildly imaginative films prove that Japanese animation is more than just Pokemon

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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.

Set in medieval Japan, Mononoke imagines a war involving several bands of humans--and a more desperate battle between man and the environment. Ashitaka (given voice in Neil Gaiman's American adaptation by Billy Crudup), the youngest survivor of a vanishing tribe, is gored by a demon boar that is a protector of the great forest. His wound will kill him if he can't solve the mystery of his curse. He meets Eboshi (Minnie Driver), ruler of Iron Town, and her fiercest foe, San (Claire Danes), or Mononoke, which means spirit. They want to use him or escape him, as the forest gods and demons rise for a showdown that everyone is fated to lose.

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