World laps up Japan's new culture
Like ukiyo-e before, anime's influence is spreading far and wide.
December 30, 1999
By KEN KAWASHIMA
The biggest cultural news of the year involving Japan is arguably the sweeping success of Japanese animation (Japanimation) in America. Pokemon is now a phenomenon, while Hayao Miyazaki's ``Princess Mononoke'' is grabbing audiences older than those for the pocket-size monsters.
"Of Asian (software) content businesses, only Japanese computer games and animation are visibly successful across the world," Yasuki Hamano, an assistant professor specializing in media studies at the University of Tokyo, says in the January issue of Sapio magazine.
"In terms of the degree of influence overseas, Japanimation could be comparable to ukiyo-e during the Edo Period."
The popular paintings of the floating world are known to have had a significant impact on Van Gogh, Degas and other Impressionist painters. So is the influence of contemporary Japanimation already visible?
One of the latest examples is the Wachowsky brothers' "The Matrix," one of the most talked-about movies of 1999. In the making-of-"The Matrix" video, the brothers are shown telling the crew to try to produce Japanimation effects. Actually, they said on various occasions that they have been influenced by Japanimation, including Mamoru Oshii's "Kokaku Kidotai" (Ghost in the Shell).
That 1995 animation-about a cyborg special police squad battling against a conspiracy of information control-topped the U.S. Billboard video chart in August 1996. Then there is Katsuhiro Otomo's "Akira," a 1988 cult animation set in a Tokyo of 2019.
In interviews with prominent foreign filmmakers in a 1997 issue of Brutus magazine, a few of them, including Luc Besson, cited Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell" or "Akira" - along with works by such master filmmakers as Akira Kurosawa or Yasujiro Ozu-as the Japanese films they most respect.
"Evangelion," Hideaki Anno's TV serial animation that swept to popularity among Japanese youth a couple of years ago, has also through video releases won many American fans despite its esoteric plot.
Experts say that the huge success of the Pokemon movie is due to Nintendo's "media-mix" marketing strategy, involving card and computer games, and TV broadcasts-as well as "customization" - changing characters' Japanese names to American ones.
For a deeper cultural impact of Japanimation, we should turn to such animators as Otomo, Oshii and Miyazaki.
An elaborate, complex plot and ambitious themes, as well as the unique, expressive styles of their works are appealing to adult audiences in America and other countries, where domestic animations are targeting only kids, experts say.
In contrast to the high reputation top Japanese animators are now winning overseas, obscure younger animators with generally small Japanese production companies are known to be struggling along on low wages for long working hours. Indeed, both the Republic of Korea (South Korea) and the Philippines, which have provided a subcontracted workforce for Japanese animations, are now emphasizing nurturing would-be animators at home, with an eye on the worldwide growth of the business. On the other hand, the Japan's government, experts say, is slow to act.
"Ukiyo-e became extinct at home, while receiving high evaluation abroad," Hamano says. "Japanese animation could face the same destiny."
Meanwhile, Pokemon fever is likely to continue next year, as the third movie opens here in summer.
The movie "Lord of the `Unknown' Tower" will revolve around the new monsters introduced in the new Pokemon Silver and Gold games released last month.
For fans of "Princess Mononoke" or other works by Miyazaki, he has recently announced he will produce another animation targeting release in summer 2001. This time its heroine will be a 10-year-old girl who tries to have her parents-who have turned into pigs-regain their human forms.
Asahi Shinbun, December 30, 1999
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