23 July 2008

International Anime

Just finished listening to the English language commentary to Appleseed Ex Machina, which is in many ways more interesting than the movie itself. There's a great deal of discussion about the traditional approach of anime, the movement towards computer-generated imagery (CGI), and the increasing acceptance of anime in America. Appleseed Ex Machina is the most Americanised anime I've ever seen, so it's no surprise that its creators think that the future of anime lies in the catering for the American market—standard set-pieces, familiar scenarios, psuedo-realism, and high-testosterone action. None of which is to deny that there have always been examples of anime with these qualities: but the speakers on the commentary regard them as being essential to the future of anime. The relative failure of Paprika and Metropolis on the American market is mentioned, and one speaker expresses his regret that they didn't contain the kind of things which the 'average' movie-goer expects, as that undoubtedly contributed to their failure.

Now, I enjoyed Appleseed Ex Machina for what it was—a dumb action movie. And in my opinion, Paprika is not Satoshi Kon's best work, and Metropolis is not the best thing which Katsuhiro Otomo has been involved with. But both are worth a hundred thousand of Appleseed Ex Machina. Why? Because neither are anything like your average Hollywood movie. Saying that either should have included more set-pieces is, frankly, like complaining that Solaris didn't have any gun battles, or Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolf? didn't have enough clowns. That simply isn't what they were trying to do.

So much is obvious enough to anyone who isn't viewing such things from a commercial perspective, but the discussion got me thinking about something else. One of the most important things to realise about anime is, as one speaker suggests, that it isn't a genre: it's a media. That is, it's a way of creating cinematic footage which spans every possible genre—from children's programmes to drama to ultra-porn. And that freedom from the Western prejudice that animation is for kids is one of the reasons that anime is so refreshing, and why movies like Spirited Away work on so many levels—because it isn't a kid's movie with jokes thrown in to keep the adults happy (the sort of thing Dreamworks seems to specialise in). It's a movie. Period.

Oh, and Miyazaki is a genius. There's that too ;-)

The problem is that it's only one of the reasons. It may be true, but if you reduce anime to a media and nothing else then you run the risk of killing everything else that makes anime different. If anime is merely a media, then it can be produced anywhere, by anybody. But anime is also Japanese cinema, and you can no more transplant that than you can French cinema. Sure, you can try and imitate what you think are the characteristics, but you'll never be able to truly create such movies from outside of the tradition itself. And the moment you start catering for a different kind of audience, and trying to second-guess their expectations, you end up with something that is neither great anime (even if it has great animation) nor the blockbuster you're hoping for. It'll be to weird for Joe Sixpack and to bland for the fans.

Just look at my post from a couple of days ago. The German dub feels it necessary for the main characters to declare their love for each other at the end of the movie. The original Japanese has them merely say that they will wait for each other. Why? Because we simple Europeans need closure. We're not capable of reading between the lines. Or take Spirited Away. In the Japanese version, Chihiro spends most of the movie trying to remember where she knows her friend Haku from, because it's buried deep in her memory. She surprises herself when, as she tries to aid a wounded dragon, she calls it Haku. And her final remembrance of their previous meeting it essential to the conclusion. But in the English version she recognises Haku to be a dragon in human form almost from the start. An entire layer of the story is clipped out for no other reason than that it would be too subtle and too difficult for children to understand.

We expect everything to be straightforward, neatly packaged, and satisfactorily explained. We like our male heroes gung-ho, and our gun-toting women to still be feminine. In Appleseed Ex Machina, when Deunan is trying on a new suit of armour, Briareos asks how she likes it—in the Japanese version at least. In English, he comments that he'd be wearing it if it wasn't pink. It might be minor, and it might be nit-picking, but something which wasn't worthy of comment in the original becomes an excuse for macho stereotypes in the dub.

It is necessary, but not sufficient, to realise that anime is not a genre. Anime is many other things besides. And no matter how well-meaning its proponents, if they try to make it adapt to the American market, they risk stripping it of all the characteristics which attracted us foreigners to it in the first place.
I don't think I'm capable, to tell you the truth, of making a commercial record, because it wouldn't be very good. It would fall between two stools. It wouldn't be me and it wouldn't be really commercial. It would be a pile of glutinous crap in the middle.
—Richard Thompson.

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