Friday, July 11, 2008

Will Hollywood gild the Japanese lily?

They flew actor Emile Hirsch in from Paris, directors Larry and Andy Wachowski from Los Angeles and a gigantic, British-made IMAX screen from Canada. The screen and its massive banks of speakers were hoisted into place by no fewer than seven cranes. A parade of Japanese celebrities, including internationally renowned actor Hiroyuki Sanada and the top-heavy Kano sisters, posed before a life-size model of the Mach 5--the groovy, gadget-rigged racing car at the heart of Speed Racer, Japan's latest anime property to undergo a Hollywood makeover.

At the movie's Japan premiere in Tokyo Dome, I was given a vertigo-inducing tour of the IMAX projection tower, which loomed above the floor and the audience. The equipment looked sleek and vaguely sterile, like props from Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, and my chief concern was not falling into the seats and people gathering below.

As I've noted before in this column, last summer's Transformers, based on a Japanese giant robot toy and anime series, was itself a giant at the global box office. Leonardo DiCaprio has signed on to adapt Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira as a live-action film, and Spider-Man Tobey Maguire will do the same to Robotech, another anime originally produced by Tatsunoko Production Co., the company that first created Speed Racer.

Titanic titan James Cameron is making Battle Angel from a manga called Gunnm, Steven Spielberg will remake Mamoru Oshii's anime classic Ghost in the Shell, and even Astro Boy, Osamu Tezuka's seminal kid robot from the 50s, arrives in cinemas worldwide next summer, bolstered by the voices of Hollywood heavies Nicholas Cage, Donald Sutherland and Nathan Lane, among others.

Hollywood's zeal for Japanese stories can be attributed to the protean talents of Japan's artists. But it's also a sign of the American movie industry's lust to crack potentially lucrative rising global markets, such as China and India.

As Americans are wont to say: "There's gold in them there hills."

While I watched Hirsch and costar Christina Ricci swerve and soar through a plethora of high-tech special effects, gold and money were very much on my mind. An estimated 120 million dollars was poured into the making of the movie, and piles more were spent on its supersized debut at the Dome. All that bedazzlement and star power doesn't come cheap.

The irony, of course, is that their source material does.

In Japan, manga and anime were and remain comparatively low-budget entertainment media. Thick manga comic books are still printed in black-and-white on thin and easily thumbable lightweight paper stock. Anime producers maintain low overhead, paying their staff minimum wages to work long hours and offering lean marketing outlays. With few exceptions, the studios themselves are located in suburbs far west of central Tokyo.

What many in the domestic industry wryly call "the curse of Osamu" has outlived the artist: In the '60s, Tezuka sold his work to Japanese TV networks cheap, partly to get it seen, and partly to destroy his competitors. We now call such draconian practices "dumping."

But the low-budget, homemade nature of anime is a key component of its charm and aesthetic appeal. The overstuffed narratives of the original Speed Racer, for example, were an intimate reminder to Western kids like me that storytelling is a messy, wildly original business, an inherently democratic domain. We weren't choosing anime over American shows in the '80s because of soft power or coolness: We watched Speed Racer, Transformers, Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman) and Star Blazers (Space Battleship Yamato) because they made us feel like we were a part of the process.

In short, they were interactive stories.

Hollywood isn't evil, but it is a top-down business. Executives approve, directors and celebrities are contracted, and lots of money gets tossed into the mix.

But what seems to be missing in Hollywood's current Japanophilia is an understanding of love. Like early rock 'n' roll, punk, and hip hop from the Bronx and East L.A., Japanese pop culture appeals to us today because it's honest--and a little quirky. And if you neglect the quirks, you lose everything.

Kelts is a Tokyo University lecturer who divides his time between Tokyo and New York. He is the author of "Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S." (, now available in an updated paperback edition. His column appears twice a month.


Ninjatron said...

I read that too. Kind of interesting comparison. Tezuka never really intended for the anime industry to be completely built like that, he just had it set up that way to get his stuff out there. He would have much rather set up a better production system than that. That's why Miyazaki isn't fond of Tezuka's animation. Personally, I enjoy watching anime to see the tricks and short cuts that the artists use to save time and money. Some of them are not so obvious!

Have you seen Gotham Knight yet? What did you think of it?


felixip said...

I haven't seen Gotham Knight yet, just seen some trailer and review...I like a lot this type of projects, you can really see the "best chemistry" of East meets west, and the cost is not too hight, more artistic and stlelized driven according to different artists. I can't wait to see that.

Ulysses said...

I am really hoping that they don't ruin these great stories in the process of "Americanising" them. I am especially worried about how they'll handle Ghost in the Shell. It would be ideal if they consulted the team that worked on S.A.C, and Oshii himself although if they are adamant about reinterpreting the universe for a Western audience, I wouldn't hold out much hope for it.

These days Hollywood thinks that if you throw in a few hundred special effects, you will have a winning film. Transformers was a perfect example of this. Great effects made it a hit, despite awful editing, pacing and casting. I actually felt sorry for the hard-working FX guys whose efforts were marred by a below-average film.

Anonymous said...

Hello Felix, sorry to be off topic, but could you shed any light on this:

So is Imagi and Mirage working on a live action TMNT movie, will the turtles be cgi?

felixip said...

right, Turtles and splinter will be CG. i think that's the good way to do a new turtle movie. : )

Anonymous said...

Great news Felix! Will Imagi be handling all the CGI work and will they use the same models? How does the budget compare to other CGI/Real movies?

Finally some real news.

felixip said...

there are still lots of uncertainties on different areas... hard to say our those are out of control.

but if we just talk art, we would to modify the CG turtle to match more the live action human world, we did worked out some mock up and designs, we are pretty happy about that.

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