[FoRK] giants of anime

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Tue Aug 31 07:40:16 PDT 2004


The Giants of Anime are Coming 
The three titans of Japanese animation are all about to unleash monster new
films. Watch your back, Shrek.
By Charles C. MannPage 1 of 4 next »

The story has become Hollywood legend: In the mid-1990s, veteran producer
Joel Silver met with two brothers. A little-known writer-director team, they
were pitching an idea that Silver just couldn't wrap his head around. Finally
they showed him Ghost in the Shell, a 1995 full-length Japanese cartoon by
Mamoru Oshii. "We want to make a live-action version of this," they said.
Ghost was like no cartoon Silver had ever seen. Rather than the
family-friendly fare conjured up by the word animation, it was a violent tale
about a futuristic world where people are so entangled with computers that
nobody knows who is human and what is real. Quickly grasping its appeal,
Silver gave the brothers the thumbs-up to produce a movie about a futuristic
world where people are so entangled with computers that nobody knows who is
human and what is real. The brothers were named Wachowski; their movie was
called The Matrix.

Silver wasn't the only American to be riveted by Oshii's darkly complex
vision. Released on video in 1996, Ghost in the Shell reached number one on
the Billboard chart, selling a quarter-million copies - the kind of
performance usually associated with $100 million Hollywood pictures about
blowing things up, not with animated Japanese movies, known as anime, whose
budgets are barely big enough to cover Robert Downey Jr.'s rehab bills.

Eight years later, Oshii is poised to release Ghost in the Shell 2:
Innocence. Much like its predecessor, Innocence features hyper-literate
cyborgs, robot sex murders, and an elliptical narrative that twists on itself
like an Escher drawing. But the landscape around it has changed.

Today, anime is everywhere. Filmmakers from James Cameron to Quentin
Tarantino acknowledge the influence of its rococo plots and stylized visuals.
American teenagers download fansub OVAs (anime videos subtitled by fans) by
the thousands, and female twentysomethings publish scarily well-made amateur
manga (Japanese-style comic books) that imagine the romantic exploits of
anime heroes. Every major video store has an expanding anime section, and
anime has become a cable staple, featured on Fox, the International Channel,
G4techTV, the WB, and especially the Cartoon Network. In July, Anime Network
launched the first 24/7 cable network devoted to the genre.

In coming months, anime's three most prominent directors will release major
films in the US. Oshii's Innocence will hit theaters in September. Soon
afterward, Katsuhiro Otomo will debut Steamboy, an Indiana Jones-style
adventure that takes place in an alternative Victorian age where turbo
unicycles and pressure-powered jetpacks battle for supremacy. Then Hayao
Miyazaki will deliver Howl's Moving Castle, about a teenage girl who flees a
curse by hiding in a gigantic mechanical castle that prowls about on
insectlike legs. In addition, Disney will issue three older Miyazaki films on
DVD early next year, two of which have never before been released in the US.

The confluence of these films could finally put anime at center stage in a
venue where success so far has been elusive: the box office. Even though
Miyazaki's Spirited Away won the Oscar for best animated film in 2003, it
didn't pack theaters. But unlike most previous US anime releases, these films
have the backing of major studios. DreamWorks is distributing Innocence, Sony
is handling Steamboy, and Disney is in line for Howl's Moving Castle. Anime
enthusiasts have argued for years that the genre's fractured visions
represent the most important cinematic movement since sex, lies, and
videotape ushered in a new era of American independent film in 1986. Now
multiplexers will have a chance to see what these fans have been talking

But Innocence, Steamboy, and Howl's Moving Castle are more than just the
latest products of Japan's dream factory. Anime is the leading edge of a
multifaceted assault on US culture industry that includes everything from
fine art to runway fashion to kids' trading cards. To their own surprise,
Oshii, Otomo, and Miyazaki have become part of a tsunami that is propelling
Japan's reemergence - this time not as an economic superpower but a cultural

"It used to surprise me when foreigners were interested in what we were
doing," Oshii says. "But I stopped being surprised a long time ago."

Anime is both radically new and the latest variant on an ancient tradition.
Japanese hobbyists made animated shorts as far back as 1917, and the industry
grew steadily from there. For the most part, its films were warmed-over
Disney, based on homegrown folk tales. By the 1960s, the studio Toei
Animation was producing feature films for an increasingly receptive domestic

But after decades of imitating American models, anime suddenly made a sharp
turn in the late 1960s and embraced a totally different influence: manga,
Japan's wildly imaginative comic books. "The soul of anime is manga," Otomo
has said, and it is an old soul indeed. Unlike US comics, which took off from
the rakish spirit of vaudeville and minstrel shows, manga stem from the
ancient practice of lavishly illustrating woodblock-printed books. Freely
dealing with any theme that falls within the purview of literature, manga
often look like a window on Japan's national id: CEOs battle takeover
attempts by alien businessmen! A pacifist gunslinger wanders an Old West
planet stalked by insurance agents named after Meryl Streep and Emma
Thompson! An army of giant girls leads Japan to victory in World War II,
mowing down enemies by squatting and firing turds!

Manga had emerged during the 1950s, when a prolific illustrator named Osamu
Tezuka began publishing stories in comic-book form. His books weren't just
for kids; his manga masterpiece, the 12-volume Phoenix, is nothing less than
a history of humanity from the beginning to millions of years in the future.
But his most popular works - especially Astro Boy - appealed to children.
Astro Boy became enormously successful as a television series in 1963,
establishing cartoons as a staple of the Japanese airwaves.

Although Tezuka opened anime to adventure, fantasy, and contemporary themes,
it was Hayao Miyazaki who raised it to an art form that could match manga in
all its peculiar glory. Born in 1941, Miyazaki is anime's graybeard, a
towering figure frequently likened to Walt Disney. His family moved
repeatedly in the tumult of postwar Japan, and his mother - the inspiration
for the many fierce, smart, volatile women in his films - spent nine years in
the hospital with spinal tuberculosis. With their mother incapacitated and
their father away at work, Miyazaki and his three brothers had to fend for
themselves, a situation he revisited in My Neighbor Totoro (1988), his most
autobiographical film.

At 17, Miyazaki saw The Legend of the White Serpent, the first color animated
feature from Japan. "Maybe I was depressed because of university entrance
exams, or maybe it was my underdeveloped adolescence, or maybe it was
susceptibility to cheap melodrama," he later confessed, but "I fell in love
with the heroine of a cartoon." He had always adored drawing tanks, ships,
and airplanes but had never considered art as a career because he felt he
couldn't render people. His new awareness of animation's power to stir the
heart rekindled his interest in drawing.

Still, it took Miyazaki 16 years in the bowels of the industry to maneuver
into position to make his first solo film, Lupin III: The Castle of
Cagliostro, released in 1979. It bowled over Steven Spielberg and convinced a
publishing company, Tokuma Shoten, to take a flyer on a second film, Nausicaä
of the Valley of the Winds, an apocalyptic environmental drama about the fate
of humankind after toxic fungi and giant insects have engulfed most of the
earth. Hailed by critics as a masterwork, Nausicaä led Tokuma to create
Studio Ghibli to showcase Miyazaki's productions.

Like many of the anime industry's 430 boutique studios, Ghibli is nestled in
Tokyo's western suburbs, an area that might be called Anime Alley. With 100
employees, it's larger than most - the industry average is 30. Otherwise,
though, it's typical. Ghibli's staff is utterly devoted to making, licensing,
and merchandising the movies of its two directors. Thus, Miyazaki exercises
more creative control than all but the most celebrated US filmmakers. "The
lunatics are in charge of the asylum," jokes Ghibli president Toshio Suzuki.
But having an industry largely made up of individual voices is a major reason
for anime's amazing vitality.

In a large communal space inside Ghibli's main building, dozens of artists
are rendering Howl's Moving Castle to the exacting specifications of its
irascible director. Although his power is not absolute - film is a
collaborative medium even for obsessive auteurs - it is sufficient to force
Suzuki to accept production methods he describes as "crazy" and
"intolerable." Studios like Pixar and Disney take years to work out detailed
scenarios that are then handed off to teams of animators. Miyazaki can't
finish the story until he sees enough of the beginning to be sure of the
movie's look and feel. He sets the animators to work after he has completed
only the first 15 or 20 minutes of the script.

Even when he does have the story locked down, he personally inspects tens of
thousands of frames, retouching many himself. Not knowing how long the
finished film will be and unable to estimate how many frames Miyazaki will
redraw, Ghibli can't plan budgets or schedules. As a result, the release date
of Howl's Moving Castle has been pushed back again and again: late 2003,
mid-2004, now late fall. "Nobody sane would put up with this," Suzuki

"Miyazaki wants total freedom to do what he wants," says Oshii, a friend and
rival. "And he wants above all to become a tyrant" - ruler of a world drawn
by his hand alone.

In the immediate aftermath of Astro Boy, anime was considered pabulum for
kids. But something changed in the early 1970s. Like every nation in the
developed world, Japan brought forth an impatient new generation of artists.
Unlike other countries, though, Japan's music, theater, and film industries
didn't welcome boat-rocking young people. Meanwhile, manga publishers were
abandoning their previous self-censoring code of content. Suddenly, what had
been subliterature began looking like an opportunity for creative newcomers.

"There was tremendous energy in Japan bubbling up then," says Masuzo
Furukawa, founder of Mandarake, Japan's largest manga store. "In your
country, someone like Martin Scorsese got to make Mean Streets. In our
country, somebody like Otomo went into manga."

Born in 1954 in a coastal farming and fishing area 200 miles northeast of
Tokyo, Katsuhiro Otomo was a classic otaku (obsessive enthusiast) as a child.
Shy, reclusive, and bespectacled, he often took the train to Tokyo to see
nose-thumbing American movies like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, and Five
Easy Pieces. After graduating from high school in the early 1970s, he raced
to Tokyo to join the ascendant manga industry.

Otomo's first major success, Domu (1982), a creepy tale of a senile codger
using psychic powers to terrorize a run-down housing development, was the
first ever manga to win the science fiction Grand Prix, Japan's equivalent of
the Nebula. Emboldened by the recognition, Otomo began work on Akira in 1982.
Eleven years and 2,200 pages later, he laid down his pen.

In scope, Akira is akin to the longest, most grandiose cyberpunk novel ever
written, a baroque tale of psychotic teens with telekinetic powers running
amok in postapocalyptic Tokyo. Beneath the violent action, though, is a scary
meditation on whether our increasingly powerful technology is driving us
insane. Told through Otomo's elegantly detailed black-and-white drawings,
Akira is arguably the most influential manga ever written.

Nonetheless, the artist became increasingly frustrated by the medium. In
manga, the story's depth comes from the contrast and tension between pictures
and text and between one panel and the next. Rather than creating the
illusion of movement through contrast, Otomo wanted to make images that
actually moved. In 1988, he began to shift from the printed page to the

His first film, an adaptation of Akira, was a resounding hit. Otomo's
obsessive attention to detail and insistence on using high-definition
70-millimeter film rather than the industry-standard 35-millimeter drove the
project so far over budget that it became, at $7.5 million, the costliest
anime to date. Although he made a live-action film, wrote several
screenplays, and worked as a producer, he didn't make another full-length
anime for more than a decade.

When he returned, he decided on a light, fun movie that was the antithesis of
Akira. He wanted to make an homage to Tezuka, but whereas Astro Boy was
powered by atomic energy, Steamboy's protagonist Ray would live in a world
driven by steam - "a movie for the future set in the past," as Otomo puts it.
But his perfectionism held sway, and for the second time he found himself
making the most expensive anime in history. It took almost five years to
begin producing usable footage, and the finished product cost $22 million.

The result is eye candy of amazing richness. As in Akira, the director
lovingly, compulsively detailed every piece of equipment (his favorite is the
steam-driven dog-walking machine), every item of clothing, every bit of
decor, every gush and gout of steam. "He was absolutely clear what he wanted,
and it never changed," says Steamboy producer Shinji Komori.

Komori works for Bandai Visual, a branch of the giant Bandai toy company,
which is perhaps most famous for its Gundam line of robot paraphernalia.
Bandai is vastly bigger than most anime studios and acts like it. Normally,
Komori says, the company forces directors to stay within their budgets. But
Steamboy was different. As Otomo struggled with software, Bandai Visual began
to think of anime as something with international appeal. Although the script
didn't change, the movie evolved into nothing less than the studio's attempt
to beat Hollywood at its own blockbuster game.

"We decided to see if we could leave the anime ghetto," Komori says. "We
didn't want Americans to think they were watching this funny stuff from
Japan. This is just entertainment. Like Star Wars."

Although the Wachowski brothers wanted to make a live-action version of an
anime film, the best anime directors are driven by concerns deeper, wilder,
and altogether more idiosyncratic than those taken up in The Matrix.

The ideas of Innocence director Mamoru Oshii can be especially head-spinning.
The Ghost in the Shell sequel may look like your basic
sex-and-violence-soaked cartoon cyberpunk noir, but underneath the gaudy
splatter lies a somber meditation on what it means to be human at a time when
machines are assuming more and more of the characteristics once thought to be
exclusive property of Homo sapiens. And it all began, Mitsuhisa Ishikawa
says, with a conversation in which he innocently asked, "What do you want to
do next?"

Ishikawa is president, cofounder, and the I of Production I.G., a studio that
might be described as the Miramax of anime: passionate, with a reputation for
success with challenging films. He has worked with Oshii for years, but even
he was startled by the director's response.

"I want to be a dog," Oshii said.

This was not some odd sexual request, Ishikawa knew. He meant that he wanted
to make a movie about being a dog.

"Well," Ishikawa said diplomatically, "maybe we could add a few more

Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence evolved from that conversation. Indeed, where
audiences see an intricate thriller about murder and artificial intelligence,
Oshii sees a story about a man - actually, a cyborg - whose dog is, for all
practical purposes, his true body.

"A few years ago," the director explains, "I had a shock when my cat Nene
died. There was a hole in my heart, a hole that could not be filled, even
though a new cat, Mina, came along. I started to wonder why. Why can't one
cat replace another? And I started to think that the 'I' is not just one
person, but the sum of everything you love - your dog, your wife, your child,
your computer, your doll. This led me to the conclusion that the self is
empty. What is essential is this network of connections."

Oshii was born in 1951. As a teenager, he was fascinated by the Bible - not
in a religious sense but as a window into an ancient mode of thought. He also
enjoyed military history and eventually amassed a big collection of guns - an
unusual hobby in Japan. Like many creative young people in the late 1960s and
1970s, he gravitated toward manga and anime. He worked his way up, writing or
directing more than a dozen films and television series. Along the way, he
developed a style distinctly his own, a mix of explosive violence and moody
intellectual provocation.

In the 2032 of Innocence, people have used genetic engineering and embedded
computers to enhance themselves to the point of losing track of where they
end and the hardware begins. In a wry joke, two police detectives fire
literary allusions at each other until both realize that their memory
implants have turned them into walking versions of Bartlett's Familiar
Quotations. How far can people travel from their original bodies and still be
considered human? How advanced must a machine be before it deserves our
sympathy? In a world where electronics are increasingly conscious, are the
relationships of a man with his family, a cyborg with his dog, and a child
with her doll equally worthy?

Such speculations may seem hopelessly abstract, but Oshii makes them resonate
emotionally through the profound loneliness that afflicts his cyborgs,
robots, and mechanical dolls. They live at a time when neural implants
provide the most direct means for communicating with others - an alienation
distinctly of our time.

In the final third of Otomo's Steamboy, the protagonist's scientist father,
scarred and maddened by a research accident, finally reveals his invention: a
huge flying island that lurches through the smoky London skies. Designed to
enchant and terrify, the great machine is bedecked with carnival rides and
bristling with weapons. Meanwhile, the teenage hero Ray, darting about in his
jetpack, tries to bring the immense endeavor to the ground.

Otomo intended Steamboy as grade-A fun. But it's not such a stretch to view
the clumsy and ultimately fragile behemoth in the sky as the US culture
industry and jetpack-propelled young Ray as a personification of Japan.
Fast-moving, improvisational, at home with the future, and ready to try
almost anything, Japanese popular culture is riding high.

Americans and Europeans come to anime initially because they're delighted by
its magic, but they stick around to be introduced to other aspects of
Japanese culture. Sometimes the introductions are quite literal: DVDs for the
anime series Supergals! feature instruction in Japanese slang and manners,
teaching newbies how to be kakkoii (cool, more or less) in the Tokyo district
of Shibuya. Other times, these experiences simply lead the audience to an
awareness that a faraway place called Tokyo positively hums with interest - a
place that, in the not-too-distant past, might have been New York, Los
Angeles, or San Francisco.

Sushi bars in São Paulo, Yu-Gi-Oh cards in school backpacks in Chicago,
videogames across the globe - Japan has already become an alternative source
of coolness. Japan dominates even areas of entertainment rarely associated
with that country. With anime leading the way, the Japanese culture industry
is poised to do to its US counterpart what Japanese carmakers did to Detroit
in the 1980s.

Ultimately, Otomo's hero manages to bring the island down to earth. The
triumphant Ray returns home to his laboratory, where he plans to keep
inventing and usher in a new age. His father had initially wanted to do the
same thing. But this time Ray will be in charge, and he'll do it right.
Contributing writer Charles C. Mann (www.charlesmann.org) wrote about
deep-ocean fish farming in Wired 12.05.

Eugen* Leitl <a href="http://leitl.org">leitl</a>
ICBM: 48.07078, 11.61144            http://www.leitl.org
8B29F6BE: 099D 78BA 2FD3 B014 B08A  7779 75B0 2443 8B29 F6BE
http://moleculardevices.org         http://nanomachines.net
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