This article was taken from the San Fransico Cronicle, and was first published
in the New York Times. I will be posting my thoughts concerning this article
in the next several days. Please feel free to read the article here, or at its
Story date: Monday, January 21, 2002
All eyes on anime
Japanese animated features emerge as popular entertainment worldwide
It is easy to get the impression that the Japanese cinema disappeared
from the world stage with the passing of its three greatest filmmakers, Kenji
Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa.
Since Kurosawa's death in 1998, a number of gifted directors have emerged
in Japan, including Takeshi Kitano ("Hana Bi") and Shinji Aoyama ("Eureka").
But none of them have been able to fill American and European art houses as
their elders did in the 1950s and '60s, when Japanese film was in its golden
But in fact, Japanese film has probably never been as popular
internationally as it is right now. Its popularity, though, is not grounded in
live action films, but in the animated features and television series that
have come to be known as anime.
It has been estimated by Time magazine that anime (AH-nee-may) now accounts
for 60 percent of Japanese film production. The term itself -- a Japanese
adaptation of the English "animation" -- suggests the roots of the form, in a
blending of the Japanese pictorial tradition represented by silk painting and
woodblock prints with American-style character design and genre stories.
After a decade or two as an underground phenomenon in the United States --
where legions of obsessive fans exchange fuzzy videotapes or, more commonly
now, trade bootlegged movie files over the Internet -- anime is slowly
emerging into the light of day.
Hayao Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke" was released by Miramax in 1999 in a
dubbed version, featuring the voices of Claire Danes, Gillian Anderson and
Minnie Driver; Katsuhiro Otomo's 1988 "Akira" opened theatrically last year in
a digitally restored edition (and is now available on DVD); last summer
Columbia Pictures released "The Spirits Within," an elaborate computer-
animated episode of the long-running "Final Fantasy" series; and opening on
Friday is "Metropolis," a fascinating blend of computer and traditional hand-
drawn animation directed by Rintaro and based on a 1949 comic book written by
Anime is not a genre in itself, but a style that can be applied to a wide
variety of subject matter. The Japanese cartoon has embraced a dizzying number
of genres, from Disney-like childhood adventure -- Miyazaki's specialty -- to
astonishingly violent, graphic pornography -- in series like Raizo Kitazawa
and Kan Fukumoto's "La Blue Girl." In fact, many anime films take pleasure in
mixing and matching various genres and periods, as does the very popular
"Cowboy Bebop" television series with its blend of Westerns, samurai dramas,
"Blade Runner" style retro-futurism and cuddly character interactions that
suggest American sitcoms.
But there are certain constants in the form. Most conspicuously, there is
the look of the characters, which, while allowing for some minor variations
from artist to artist, generally insists on impossibly statuesque bodies
topped by huge, heart-shaped faces, themselves punctuated by gigantic, round
eyes of the depth and limpidity of Beverly Hills swimming pools. Westerners
are often struck by how "un-Japanese" they look, with their curly hair that
comes in shades of blond, red and blue.
Part of the reason for those design choices is surely cultural, and as such
beyond the reach of mere film criticism. But historically, the style began
with the great admiration that Tezuka, the grand old man of Japanese animation,
bore for the work of Walt Disney.
Tezuka's first widely popular character, born in a 1951 comic book, was
Astro Boy, a space-age Pinocchio who substantially predates Steven Spielberg's
"A.I." Astro Boy is a robot created by a scientist whose own child was killed
in a car accident; when the robo-child disappoints his creator by his failure
to grow up, he is sold to a circus with a cruel ringmaster (another "A.I."
parallel), but eventually finds happiness with a kindly professor who teaches
him to fight crime (and who builds him a loving little robot sister).
Tezuka turned his comic strip into an animated TV series in 1963, and the
character immediately became a worldwide success. Astro Boy's simple,
spherical construction suggests both the early Mickey Mouse and Max
Fleischer's Betty Boop, and a '30s Deco elegance clings to the design even
The anime filmmakers who followed Tezuka, in the boom in theatrical and
television animation engendered by the success of "Astro Boy," imitated his
style, establishing what was, in fact, a specific, strictly dated form of
1920s-'30s graphic design as the baseline of the new medium. At times, anime
figures look strikingly like the sexualized children created by the Chicago
outsider artist Henry Darger.
"Metropolis," the anime that opens this week, is a fantasy inspired by a
still photograph from Fritz Lang's German silent film of the same name (Tezuka
claimed never to have seen it). As translated to the screen by Rintaro, an
animator who worked with Tezuka on the original "Astro Boy" series, the film
is a charming blend of Tezuka's old-fashioned cartoon figures and the most up-
to-date computer animation technology, used to generate dizzying perspectives
and richly detailed backgrounds.
Though "Metropolis" emphasizes the contrast between the dated, naive
figures in the foreground and the high-tech design of the background, it isn't
unusual to find a similar, if unarticulated, dissonance in other anime.
Originally designed for the low budgets of television production, anime --
like the American style pioneered by Hanna-Barbera for "Huckleberry Hound" and
"The Flintstones" around the same time -- uses fewer drawings per second than
the vintage Warner Brothers or Disney cartoons, which were made at a time of
lower costs and greater theatrical exposure.
Even so, now that computers have made it possible to create smooth, fluid
animation for a reasonable cost, the Japanese films hang on to the jerky,
discontinuous movements that characterized the earliest work in the field.
This is something that can pose a problem for Western viewers, who risk seeing
the anime style as something inherently inferior to the sleeker Hollywood
But there is much in the work to suggest that this jagged, flip-book
quality is an effect that Japanese viewers find desirable and pleasurable.
Accustomed to manga -- the comic books published in Japan for adults as well
as for children -- the Japanese public does not favor movement over
composition as a principle of expression.
As more than one commentator on manga has pointed out, the most direct
precursor of the form is ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints -- themselves often
erotic or rudely caricatural -- published in 19th century Tokyo. Here, the
artists often strived to convey movement -- crashing waves, raging battles,
swirling geishas, kabuki performers in high dudgeon -- in terms of static line
drawings, in ways that powerfully suggest the contained dynamism of the anime
Perhaps the best way to appreciate anime is as a series of still drawings
with moving details. Even a film like Miyazaki's "Princess Mononoke," with its
clear aspirations to Disneyesque detail and grandeur, animates its characters
with only slightly more grace and fluidity than a low-budget television series
like "Angel Tail."
The figures themselves are as flat as the backgrounds, given only a
suggestion of dimensionality by solid wash shading.
Where Western animators struggle to create a convincing illusion of life,
Japanese animators are more interested in capturing single expressive gestures,
or in evoking a particular mood through the careful use of color. Unlike
Hollywood animation, anime does not aspire to the condition of live-action
cinema: It remains its own stubborn self.
The range of achievement in anime is immense, from instantly disposable
Saturday morning children's fodder -- like "Sailor Moon" or the interminable
"Pokemon" series -- to work that stands with the finest the world cinema has
produced in the last 20 years. But even in its less honorable forms, anime has
proven to be a rich source for cultural anthropologists, who find in it a
vivid illustration of the dissolving identities and collapsing institutions
that characterize life in postmodernist cultures.
Susan J. Napier, a teacher of Japanese literature and culture at the
University of Texas, has published a thoughtful and carefully researched
account of the social and sexual values encoded in the form in her recent book
"Anime from 'Akira' to 'Princess Mononoke.' " For Napier, the heroes of anime
are defined by their indefiniteness -- by their curious tendency to shift back
and forth between male and female bodies (as in the popular "Ranma 1/2"
series) or, thanks to bodies that have been fitted out with all kinds of high-
tech refinements and super-human replacement parts, by their extremely
ambiguous status as human beings.
The protagonist of "Akira," Katsuhiro Otomo's influential 1988 film, is a
disaffected teenager whose massively destructive psychic powers are unleashed
by a series of army experiments. The heroes of the long-running series
"Guyver" and "Neon Genesis Evangelion" are young men who become monsters of
destruction when they strap on high-tech body armor; they are both empowered
and overwhelmed by merging with the electro-mechanical world. (Expressed
already in "Astro Boy," this is perhaps the most deeply embedded theme in the
If this view of technology is open to charges of simplification and
sentimentality -- not to mention obvious Freudian interpretations centered on
adolescent fears of the developing body -- there are other anime that seem
eager to advance to the next stage in human development.
Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell," a 1996 feature based on a manga by
Masamune Shirow, surely ranks with the finest Japanese films of the last two
decades (a beautifully produced DVD is available from Manga Video). Its
protagonist is Kusangi, a female cyber cop assigned to duty in what appears to
be a slightly futuristic Hong Kong: In the course of investigating a criminal
programmer called the Puppet Master, she begins to question her own identity.
Is she human or machine, male or female, alive or dead? The film's delirious
climax finds her merging with the Puppet Master and entering a transcendent
state beyond such narrow categorizations.
Still, for all of its philosophical speculations, what is most impressive
about "Ghost in the Shell" are its purely lyrical moments -- sequences in
which Oshii leaves the narrative in abeyance to offer wordless images of daily
life in this strange city of the future, images rendered with a serene
stillness and a compositional rigor that vividly recall the wordless sequences,
or "pillow shots," that Yasujiro Ozu inserted between his dramatic segments.
Even if these images add nothing to the story, they complement the film's
headlong thematic thrust into the future with an assertion of traditional
Here again is that sense, so powerful in Ozu and Mizoguchi, of "mono no
aware" -- a recognition of the ephemeral nature of human life, an awareness of
the ineffable sadness of things.
Satoshi Kon's "Perfect Blue" (1997) leaves the boy's adventure archetypes
behind; its main influences would seem to be David Lynch and Michelangelo
Antonioni. Like Lynch's recent "Mulholland Drive," the film is a study in
mutable realities and dissolving identities, with an actress as the central
figure: Mima Kirigoe is a moderately successful pop singer who hopes to move
into an adult career as a dramatic performer. But her dreams are dashed when
an alternate Mima appears, who -- wearing the pigtails, pink hair ribbons and
tutu that were Mima's trademarks -- begins brutally murdering the advisers who
are supervising her transition to womanhood.
Mima's evil twin embodies the innocent, super-cute girlishness that the
Japanese call shojo (series like "Sailor Moon," or the products in the Hello
Kitty line of children's toys, illustrate the concept in all its bubble-gum-
pink glory). Within the context of a psychological thriller, Kon explores the
crisis of Japanese women entrapped by the crippling shojo image, which is seen
as spreading its pernicious influence over several generations.
"Perfect Blue," which also contains some brilliantly executed
expressionistic imagery of Tokyo at night, is one of the rare anime to venture
into overt social criticism: In a medium that relies on the shojo image for
much of its male appeal, the gesture is quite radical and courageous, though
the film ultimately retreats into a disappointingly pat thriller.
If anime has one director with a claim to worldwide stature, his name is
Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of "Princess Mononoke" as well as eight other
features and four television series. Miyazaki has often been called "the Walt
Disney of Japan," and the comparison is actually more profound than it may
appear. Like Disney in his early features, Miyazaki deals with the deepest
kind of childhood trauma -- the loss of a parent, the resentment of a sibling,
the difficulty of belonging to a family and the difficulty of separating from
it -- and he does so in terms that, while sometimes superficially sentimental,
also contain solid truths.
From his earliest features -- "The Castle of Cagliostro" (1979), "Nausicaa
of the Valley of the Wind" (1984) and "Castle in the Sky" (1989) -- Miyazaki
has separated himself from the pack of anime artists by his refusal of
technology-driven stories and techniques. Despite an increasing use of
computer animation in his backgrounds, he continues to hand draw his principal
characters. Some of his work is set in a vaguely European past -- "Cagliostro"
revives the turn-of-the-century gentleman thief Arsene Lupin and sets him
loose to save a Ruritanian princess from the clutches of evil counterfeiters --
while other films refer to a much more specifically Japanese world (unusual
for anime), such as the softly rendered early 1950s of "My Neighbor Totoro"
(1988). Miyazaki is no futurist, but a fantasist who reimagines the past.
In "My Neighbor Totoro," two small children, Satsuki and her younger sister
Mai, are uprooted from their urban world and sent to live in a decaying
country house near where their mother is being treated for a serious illness.
Their father does his best to protect the girls from the gravity of the
situation, but it still affects them subconsciously. Mai, wandering through a
neighboring forest, encounters a lumbering creature who looks like a cross
between a kitten and a bright blue walrus. Mai crawls on his stomach, pokes
him awake and asks him his name. The creature replies with a growl that sounds
like "Totoro," and Totoro he becomes.
The implication is clear that Totoro is an imaginative projection of the
children -- a benign, protective spirit who will help the sisters through
their mother's illness. But Miyazaki also suggests that these beings are
descendants of the forest-dwelling gods of the ancient Japanese religions,
that they carry with them the power and magic of nature itself. Psychology and
the supernatural are seen as forming a seamless whole, ultimately
indistinguishable from each other in their aspirations and human values.
"Princess Mononoke" is Miyazaki's finest achievement to date, and perhaps
the one anime that need not shrink from comparison with the great Japanese
live-action films of the 1950s. This complex, ambiguous, thematically dense
epic transcends classification as a children's fantasy; indeed, it has become
the highest-grossing Japanese film ever, as popular and meaningful to adults
as it is to children.
There are no cuddly Totoros here: This is nature red in tooth and claw. The
film, set in the 14th century Muromachi period, centers on a young hunter,
Ashitaka, who finds himself caught up in a war between an ancient world
shrouded in mystery and violence, represented by the forest-dwelling wild
child of the title, and a new world of civilization, militarism and communal
values embodied by a fortified village whose specialty is the manufacture of
firearms. Remarkably, neither world is privileged above the other in
Miyazaki's screenplay. Rather than presenting a simple, sentimental ecological
fable, the film is profoundly engaged with complex, irresolvable issues.
It is also a work of astounding formal beauty, in which elaborate, computer-
generated backgrounds merge seamlessly with the vigorous, hand-drawn animation
of the foreground characters.
Perhaps no Japanese film has found the same sense of scale and sweep since
Akira Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress" in 1958. It is tempting to see in
Miyazaki's work -- if not in anime in general -- the extension of the epic
ambitions that the Japanese cinema, led by Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, once
harbored and once realized.
If the budgets of the 1950s are no longer available -- thanks in no small
part to the near hegemony Hollywood has achieved over the world's popular
entertainment -- anime has allowed Japanese filmmaking to survive and prosper
in a different way, without sacrificing the qualities that once made it so
vital, so significant and so distinctive.