Does Anime Have a Future in America?

It's a hard life being an artist, living by your passions and dreams. You create and share great art, hoping it will change the world, only to inevitably run into the suits, and the cold reality of the marketplace.

It's a lesson I'm well aware of (in case you haven't noticed, I'm still not a world-famous artist), even though I resist the realist view every step of the way. Perhaps that's why I'm such a fierce champion for these animated works from Japan. They're beautiful. They're moving. They intelligent, wise, thought-provoking. These are some of the great cinematic works of my lifetime. And it's all so painterly; only animation truly fulfills cinema's promise as the dream factory.

But there's still the hard reality of the market. Folks have to be paid. And it's here that the dreams usually die.

What future is there for anime in America? What future is there for the Takahata/Miyazaki canon? Really? It's one thing to be moved by a classic like Anne of Green Gables or Gauche the Cellist, to name a couple examples.

Heck, look at Totoro. Even in the greater American culture, poor Totoro is only barely known. Apart from animation fans and the wisely devoted parents (the ones who do more for their children then schlump them in front of the idiot box and call it a day)...where does it all fit? I'd be greatly interested in looking at some sales numbers.

In a perfect world, the market would be wider and the audiences would be smarter, and there would be good money to be made by all parties involved. But how do you crack this egg? And can this egg be cracked at all?

These are the kind of sobering questions that rumble through my mind after surfing through three years of "Ask John" columns from Anime Nation. His view lacks any romanticism about the commercial state of anime in the States. I'm sure he wishes things could change. But he doesn't seem to believe that will happen.

To succeed with a Heidi or Marco or Anne, to succeed with a Conan or Lupin, you need to break to a wider audience that what's currently available. As of now, that's pretty much teenage boys and parents of small children. Hmm.

I'm trying to think of ways I could have made Animal Treasure Island and Puss in Boots sell better than they have. Maybe the packaging could have used better colors. Maybe they shouldn't have been single-layer discs. Maybe rigorous pursuit of the anime community would have helped. Maybe I'd find out I had a rich uncle buried in the mountains.

I don't know how to change that. I really don't. All I have are my dreams, and this stubborn conviction that there's more to life than what we merely see. There's more than the numbers. If you'd only sit down and watch, and experience for youself, then things would change. Then we'd get the revolution. Maybe.

Then there's this viscious circle involving dubbing. Paying for a dub of an anime series will at least double production costs. But most consumers insist upon American dubs (strangely enough, they like the idea of watching Japanese animation, but don't want to be reminded of anything that's actually from Japan). So you're damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Hmm. Not good, in any case. Any ideas?

Happy New Year! My Wishlist For 2008

Well, technically, it's still 8pm here in frozen Minnesota, but I'm pretty much trapped in the middle of nowhere without any escape, so it's back to workin' on the keyboard for a little while longer.

It's been a terrific year, everyone. I've had a pretty productive 2007, thanks largely to my discovery of vinyl records and the beloved portable turntable. Seriously, kids, that's the best toy I ever had. At least, until next year, when I finally break down and get that HDTV and Blu-Ray player.

Now that it's time for making those promises we never intend to keep, I suppose I should offer up my own wishlist for 2K8. Ugh, how'd it get to 2K8 all of a sudden? Last thing I remember, I was getting drunk and filling up on custom-built pizzas at the Dinkytown Pizza Hut, playing NFL2K1 until dawn. This decade sucks.

Anyway, here are my (barely) blog-related goals for the new year:

Ghibli Podcast: I haven't thought seriously about doing a Conversations on Ghibli podcast for a while, but I've got the bug again. My inspiration largely comes from the fact that I could make a show as short as 20 or 30 minutes. That seems to be the trend in podcasts, away from the monstrously long marathon sessions. I'm not Terence McKenna. I can't do those weekend-long raps.

As always, and help or pointers would be appreciated.

DVD Releases: Perhaps a bit more ambitious, but I want to be involved in seeing the DVD releases for many of these great productions that continue to evade the Americas. Why has there been no serious push for these films and television shows? Horus, Prince of the Sun. Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves. Little Boy and the Magic Serpent. Lupin the Third: Series One. Future Boy Conan. Heidi Marco Anne.

Am I missing something here? Mind Game is still not available on Region 1 DVD. What's wrong with this damn picture? Who the bloody hell knows some investors? Let's bring out the start-up.

Fewer blogging breaks (preferrably none): Okay, I can't promise I'll try. But I'll try to try. Maybe I'll even reach 100 daily visitors. Whee. Now you know why I get so discouraged about these things.

Publish a Book: This is something I've promised for the past year or so, but I haven't been satisfied enough with what I've written to make the final push. I'm still crazy enough to go the route, if only to gain some extra exposure before being picked up by someone respectable. But mostly I just like the idea of being a published author, and Lulu at least allows you to score that all-important ISBN for inclusion to Amazon.

Right now, I'm thinking of publishing the videogames writings, either from or my Videogames of the Damned blog. Probably just call it VotD. There's some good writing there, even if the subject matter is below trivial. I really should be doing something more legit.

Movie Screenings: This is something I've been trying to do 'round these parts for years. It's still a slim hope at best, since there's no real fan support beyond the snobbish anime fan circles. This is where I really wish I was taking film studies classes at the University of Minnesota.

Finish My DVD Collection: Did I even buy anything this year? 2008 is the year where I finally fill in all the cracks, including Japanese DVD's for the Studio Ghibli films, the earlier Toei Doga pictures like Magic Serpent and Ali Baba, and all those extra discs on the Ghibli ga Ippai label.

The anime DVD you most desperately want but don't know? Mind Game. Of course. It's time I traded the fansub for the import.

Widescreen TV and Blu-Ray: I very nearly jumped this Christmas, coming dangerously close to that new LCD/plasma, but I'll continue to wait just a little longer. I'll be happy with a 42" or 46", but larger would be better. Just as long as the picture quality of my standard DVDs looks fine. This is the one major issue that held me back this season.

Standard television looks horrible on an HDTV. Just hideous. HD broadcasts are fantastic, of course, but I was left very worried about how my standard DVDs would look. I don't want to go back to the muddy, blurry days of videotapes. Perhaps a BR player can help with its upscaling, but I don't know how effective that is. Perhaps you readers have some insights?

Despite all the hype, the next-gen format wars appear to be over. Blu-Ray has held a steady 2:1 ratio over HD DVD, and in Japan the contest was dead in the water. My only major holdouts are, predictably, Studio Ghibli and Criterion Collection. Ghibli (and Buena Vista) are firmly in the BR camp, and that just leaves my prized DVDs of Seven Samurai and The Third Man.

And, finally, the most important event of 2008 that we're all looking forward to:

Firing Bush and Cheney! Kick these rotten Republicans to the curb and take this country back. Because, let's face it, the Democrats are never gonna do it. Why do I have to do everything myself?! It's become my mantra.


Iblard Jikan DVD & Blu-Ray

Alright, folks, since I'm bringing all these movies up, I should offer more details to bring everyone up to speed. This is the DVD release for Iblard Jikan, which hit shelves July 2000.

This is one of the latest direct-to-video features from Studio Ghibli, which has been steadily expanding their library beyond the studio's major films (in case you haven't noticed). Documentaries, side projects, and a growing library of foreign movies from the great animation filmmakers that influenced Miyazaki and Takahata.

Anyway, Iblard Jikan is based on the fantasy world of Japanese artist Naohisa Inoue. His first connection to Ghibli was in 1995 with Mimi wo Sumaseba, aka Whisper of the Heart. He priovided the surrealist backgrounds for the fantasy scenes in the movie's second half, including that one scene that was directed by Miyazaki (where Shizuku imagines herself flying with The Baron through the air).

Inoue came to work with Ghibli again this year for the DVD, which is essentially a show-off work for the artists' skills. This is more of an art-lover's film, depicting Inoue's vivid and detailed paintings, with animations from Ghibli's wizards. The running time is only 30 minutes, but the DVD also includes a bonus CD (I didn't think anyone still made those, snicker).

Iblard Jikan is the first Ghibli Blu-Ray disc, and it's probably an excellent show-off for your new player and television. Standard DVD owners should be just has happy, at least until you see how much better the picture quality is on the new format. For me, at least, it's pretty tough to go back. Perhaps you can hold out a little longer before making that jump.

In any case, this is clearly something for the fans and completists. If you're more casual about your Ghibli, then don't feel as though you're missing anything significant. It's not the second coming of Totoro.

Updates - Purchase These DVD's

I've added some more movies to the "Purchase These DVD's" links section. These direct links will allow you to buy these DVDs without any hassle or searching around, which is all too often a pain in the neck. I'm also sticking with YesAsia which is where I've always bought my Ghibli discs, thanks to their swift speed and great prices.

DVD's added to the links include the just-released Kazuo Oga Exhibition (DVD/BR); Oga's directoral debut Tamayamagahara no Yuro (DVD); and Iblard Jikan (DVD/BR), which is Studio Ghibli's collaboration with artist Naohisa Inoue (he provided background art for Whisper of the Heart's fantasy scenes).

Unless specified, these links are for standard DVD's. There are currently only three Ghibli Blu-Ray releases - Kazuo Oga Exhibition, Iblard Jikan, and Michael Ocelot's latest feature, Azur et Asmar (part of Ghibli ga Ippai's growing library of foreign animated films).

Studio Ghibli Blu-Ray: Kazuo Oga Exhibition

Kazuo Oga is one of Studio Ghibli's greatest artists, as the painter who created the wonderful backgrounds for such films as My Neighbor Totoro, Omohide Poro Poro, Porco Rosso, and Princess Mononoke. His artwork is one of the reasons why I treasure my Ghibli Art books so much. There's so much attention to detail, so much love of texture and color. I can't think of another artist who brings the natural world to life.
This summer, Oga was featured in a major gallery exhibition at Japan's Museum for Contemporary Art. Over 600 paintings from his career at Ghibli were displayed, offering art and movie lovers to appreciate the master up close.

Now this is where Studio Ghibli really earns their status as the world's best film studio. This month saw the release of the documentary DVD, Kazuo Oga Exhibition: Ghibli no Eshokunin - The One Who Painted Totoro's Forest. The gallery experience is brought home for the rest of us, including numerous interviews with Oga's colleagues and and peers. Everything, according to the YesAsia page, is subtitled into English.

This DVD is being released in standard DVD and Blu-Ray, Ghibli's third release in the BR format. The package includes discs for both formats, which is a great incentive for us to make that jump to hi-def. This is something that I see happening a lot for Japanese movies, and I wish it would be seriously pursued here in the States.

Both formats include a 72-minute feature on Oga, and a 40-minute feature containing interviews from Isao Takahata, Ghibli art department head Tanaka Naoya, art director Kobayashi Shichiro, and art scholar Tsuji Nobuo.

The standard DVD also includes a 20-minute feature that brings us into Oga's creative realm. This feature is extended to 35 minutes for Blu-Ray, and also shows Oga painting the artwork for the DVD.

But the DVD's best feature - and this is where you're really excited if you're a Blu-Ray owner - is the inclusion of all the paintings from the Oga exhibition. That's over 600 works in all. I'm sure this will look great in standard format, but if you're looking for something to really show off that new widescreen tv, well, folks, this is it.

You can purchase Kazuo Oga Exhibition seperately in each format, but YesAsia is selling both packages together, and since you're paying the same for the BR alone, you might as well grab both. Now at least you'll have something to show off when you finally break down and get that BR player (or whenever the prices come down to reasonable levels). This is what I'm planning to do.
The big question on all our minds, of course, is when Ghibli will begin releasing their feature films on BR. This DVD release will only whet our appetite for more. Disney is pretty heavily committed to Blu-Ray, and the "format wars" are pretty much a non-starter in Japan. So it's really only a matter of time before we get our hi-def Totoro.

Oh, and have I mentioned that Blu-Ray players will play Japanese discs on American players? Yep, both countries are included in the same region - and, yes, the suits are still sticking with those stupid region codes. Like every player on the market won't be hacked.

Update: I've added a direct link to YesAsia among the purchase links. The current price is just under $55. Enjoy.


Tenguri, Boy of the Plains - "Lost" Miyazaki/Otsuka Anime on DVD

Tenguri, Boy of the Plains

This month, just in time for Christmas, we're tipped off about the DVD release of a very obscure work in the Miyazaki canon. The title is "Sougen no Ko Tenguri," or Tenguri, Boy of the Plains. Created in 1977, it was a 22-minute short film that also served as a promotion for Snow Brand Dairy Products. The film was the first effort from Shinei Animation, which was an offshoot of Topcraft (TMS).

This discovery was a surprise to me at first. It's not something I'm familiar with; apparantly, Tenguri has never been seen outside of the company for ages. With a little digging around, however, I immediately recognized one of its images. I've seen a very short clip, unnamed and unknown aside from the fact of Miyazaki's involvement. The video clip runs only 10 or 20 seconds, and looks strikingly similar to Heidi, Girl of the Alps. I had assumed that it came from a similar time, and perhaps was an earlier project that fell through. Now we know the source.

So, anyway, back to Tenguri. The short film has just been released on DVD in Japan. The story is adapted from Osamu Tezuka, and its director is none other than our beloved Yasuo Otsuka. This is striking, since Otsuka famously shunned directing (whatever ambitions he may have once held were burned away during the production of Horus) in favor of animation. I think he did direct one animation project at least, but that was near the end of his famous career, when he retired a quarter century ago to become and equally great teacher at Telecom.

Miyazaki's presence was greatly felt, as always. Also on board were Yoichi Kotabe (his style is apparant in the character designs), Yoshifumi Kondo, and the musical composer Yoshio Mamiya, who scored four Takahata films (Horus, Gauche the Cellist, Yanagawa Waterways, and Grave of the Fireflies).

Tenguri is pretty obviously patterned after Heidi. This should be perfect for all those spot-the-riffs Ghibli drinking games. The character designs alone feel like Heidi outtakes, but there must have been something there, that spark of quality, to win endorsements from Japan's Ministry of Education, the Central Children's Welfare Council, and the Distinguished World's Cinema Introduction.

The story involves a boy who is befriends a cow and is taught how to make dairy products, sparking a confrontation against his villagers who want to hunt the cows for meat. Ahem. Yes, it's really a dairy commercial, though hopefully without the shameless corporate propaganda that winds up in those brutal Simpson's parodies.

So this is clearly one for the completists and the fans, which pretty much describes each and every one of us. The Pioneer DVD includes 35 minutes of bonus material in addition, retailing for 3990 yen.

MOMA This January - My Neighbors the Yamadas

New York's MOMA will be hosting a series of animation screenings this January. Finishing out the month-long series will be My Neighbors the Yamadas. Thankfully, it will be presented in its original language, with English subtitles.

It's oh so rare to be able to watch Studio Ghibli movies on the big screen (I think my last chance was Howl's Moving Castle a couple years ago), the way they were meant to be seen. I think there's an added dimension of awe and wonder that's only possible when sitting in a darkened room with many strangers, staring at an enormous screen. Even with the advent of larger and larger HDTV's, there's a certain magic that your living room can't match.

Who knows? Maybe the theatre experience will finally fade away one day. The lure of the home system, cheap DVD's, and digital downloads may keep you stuck on the couch. But I hope that doesn't happen for a long time.

Be sure to see Yamada-kun at the MOMA. It's a terrific picture. It's Takahata. You know the score. As for me....well, I'll have to throw on the DVD and watch again this weekend, quietly hoping for a bus ticket to New York.

MOMA - Still Moving
"My Neighbors the Yamadas (Tonari no Yamada-kun)"
1999, Studio Ghibli
Written & Directed by Isao Takahata
Japanese with English subtitles
Wednesday, January 30 - 1:30 pm
Thursday, January 31 - 1:30 pm


AniPages Thoughts on Animation Directors

There's an excellent discussion at the AniPages message boards about the role of the auteur director in Japanese anime. It's a terrific discussion that began earlier in the fall, but you owe it to yourself to check in and read everything. You'll be pleasantly surprised by the insights from an actual, real-life animation filmmaker (hint: Tikkon Kinkreet).

Naturally, since the role of director came up, I had to highlight the master himself, Mr. Takahata. Here's my post, in case you're interested. Continue the discussion here, or on your own blogs. I'm looking forward to your insights, as always...

This is an excellent discussion! I feel sorry for having missed out
on so much of it. This is just about the best animation reading I've found
online in some time.

If you're going to talk about the auteur theory and the role of film
director in Japanese animation, it's absolutely crucial to focus on Japan's
greatest animation director of them all - Isao Takahata. His work is
essential viewing not just for anime fans, but for Westerners looking for that
crucial new inspiration in helping our animation styles evolve.

I argue (and I'm pretty sure Ben Ettinger argues this too) pretty
fervently that Horus, Prince of the Sun ushered in the modern anime era, that
moment when Japan's animation made the critical break from the West and became
its own unique entity. All of the hallmarks of the later classics are
there: the literary quality, the depth of characters, the focus on psychology
and the inner mind, the emotional range, and, of course, the battle by the Toei
crew to break fully from the Disney model. And anime's visual language,
it's jazz-like tempo shifts and compositions and movements, is given
birth. It's really a spectacular movie to watch; even with all the battle
scars visible.

For me, modern anime is forged from the old Toei crew - Miyazaki and
Takahata are now world-famous, but their peers are equally brilliant and should
burn in the minds of all animation lovers. Otsuka, Mori, Kotabi, Okuyama,
Ota (heyyy...what exactly did Akemi Ota do on Horus?), yadda yadda.

Takahata is not an animator, and this distinction always stands out for
us on this side of the pond, although he insists this was common practice when
he was coming of age in the 1960's. It's impossible to think of an
American animation film - real animation, not just the Zemekis motion-capture
approach - where the director isn't a craftsman as well. Maybe that's more
due to our style. Bugs Bunny ain't exactly auteur. But Takahata
brought the great directors to animation - Renoir, Bergman, Welles, Ozu - and
challenged live cinema on its own terms.

I remember Roger Ebert commenting on Grave of the Fireflies, noting
that the movie couldn't be possible as a live-action movie. The reality of
the actors would clash too harshly with the archetypes and what they
represent. In a sense, animation succeeds in connecting to us emotionally
because it's more iconic, more abstract. You can do human drama that's
more involving; just in the way expressionist art succeeds where photography
fails. Could Van Gogh succeed as a photographer? Perhaps. But
that inner dimension into the mind wouldn't be there.

I know it's hard for animation and anime fans to point to these three
programs, but I think they sit at the top of the entire Takahata/Miyazaki
canon. These are the three World Masterpiece Theatre series produced in
the '70s - Heidi, Girl of the Alps; 3000 Leagues in Search of Mother; Anne of
Green Gables. I don't brag nearly enough about these three on my Ghibli
blog, but they are absolutely essential viewing for anyone remotely interested
in animation. Goes double if you work in animation.

Oh, and great job in calling out Animal Treasure Island. That's
the craziest, wildest pirate movie I've ever seen. It just blazes. I
like it even more (if only a little) than Puss in Boots, the definitive anime
comedy. Ben Ettinger is right - Miyazaki's pirate battle is required study
for all aspiring animators.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to All

Sorry I haven't been blogging for some time now. Yeah, right. I'm down to what, a handful of viewers now? Yeah, that's okay, I deserve it. The internet is never kind to vacations or blogging breaks. But, hey, my cable internet was down, and my computer died. My brother gave me a new (sorta new) one, but I need a special cable to connect the hard drive to the motherboard. Ugh!

And I really wanna watch some Lupin III episodes.

Anyway, here's to a happy and merry Christmas and Holiday season. Hope Boxing Day went well for everyone. I spent Christmas Day with family, where we laughed ourselves silly to Spongebob Squarepants. It's just about the only really fun cartoon show on the air these days. After that, we threw on My Neighbor Totoro and Laputa: Castle in the Sky while various parties made their escapes. Totoro looks terrific on a 42" widescreen - I really need to get one of those.

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