east-asian-cinema

A couple of East Asian Cinema related purchases being shipped to my house:

  • Hardcover copy of Agitator The Cinema of Takashi Miike
  • Strange Circus on DVD
  • Love Exposure on DVD
  • Cold Fish on DVD

For some reason I felt the need to expand my Sono Sion DVD collection. Strange Circus is one of my favorite movies so I look forward to checking out the DVD, as well as writing reviews for all of this stuff. I’ll probably review the book too~

Kool.

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (SPOILER ALERT) - Ending and Credits.

class notes:
Professor Lippit: “This is the sexiest saddest movie I’ve ever seen”
Wong Kar-Wai is an auteur. You get the sense that he is in control of every aspect of the film.
mise-en-scène -the composition of the shots, everything that appears on camera  down to the placement of props, everything down to the smallest detail is meticulously taken care of.
Shots are often framed in tight, narrow spaces and obscured by objects in a way that would otherwise be considered mistakes. The camera peeks out from behind door frames, people’s backs, and narrow hallways, invoking a sense of intimacy and claustrophobia.

Snowpiercer (2013) - Wanna Take a Stroll Through Hell?

How do I put this as politely as possible…Snowpiercer is one hell of a film. Adapted from a French manga, Snowpiercer is the story of the last remaining humans on the face of the planet. Earth has frozen over due to global warming and were not talking a little cold here… We’re talking the extinction of life as we know it cold.

Check out my full review at SifuHallyu.com

Oldboy (Oldeuboi)

Oldboy on IMDb

South Korea, 2003

Directed by: Chan-wook Park
Starring: Min-sik ChoiJi-tae YuHye-jeong Kang

With the Spike Lee remake literally a month away, I thought this was a perfect excuse for me to write a review on perhaps the definitive South Korean film. Chan-wook Park certainly did leave an imprint on modern cinema, not just in his native country, but worldwide. With some already interesting films spawning from this director, like JSA: Joint Security Area and Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, the first installment of his now unofficial trilogy, this was just the icing on the cake, the movie us thrill seekers had been waiting for.

Oldboy began as it meant to go on, leaving us asking all kinds of questions and wondering just what was going to unravel. And with a man clutched to a small dog about to make a horrific suicide attempt, I thought to myself, what have I let myself in for? My expectations were already sky high for this movie, after hearing and reading such good things from virtually everyone who had viewed it, I was already glued to the edge of my seat, fully prepared to enjoy this cinematic roller-coaster.   

We soon learn that the main protagonist, Dae-su Oh has been locked away in a room for 15 years, reasons unknown to all of us, and the first part of the story shows us literally that, the horror and terror of a man going virtually insane. Living alone with nothing but a television set to keep him company. We are then shown the extent of Min-sik Choi’s acting ability, almost immediately, and we feel for his character, we want him to escape, we want him to be free. Once he is let out, he is given a mobile phone and a wad of cash by an unknown and sent on his way, to then receive the phone call he had been waiting for. With just 5 days to find out exactly why he was locked away, he is sent on a mission, filled with violence and vengeance, accompanied by a cute young girl wrapped around his arm.

This movie is filled with bright colours and awesome camera angles, really putting Park’s ability and eye for direction on the map. This film would go on to represent everything South Korean cinema had to offer, and a natural introduction to beginners of the genre. It cannot go un-missed, and to everyone reading this and are yet to see it, please do so, before watching the remake, it truly is one of the greatest films ever made, a challenge I wonder Spike Lee is up for.

By Suzannah Freeman

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Raise The Red Lantern - Meishan Sings (Zhao Jiping composition). Totally worth the listen, and the soundtrack is inseparable from the film.

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All About Lily Chou-Chou - Shunji Iwai
This is a really roughly shot movie. By rough, I mean some scenes are almost indiscernible because the lighting is so poor. Many sequences are also filmed with a jittery handheld camera. Adding to the confusion is an unchronological narrative structure and an internet dimension where the characters interact through aliases. Despite the sometimes annoying visuals and perplexities, what I love about this movie is how it portrays the teenagers’ obsession with a pop star. Throughout the movie, chatroom conversations about the singer, Lily Chou-Chou, are superimposed on the screen as they try to understand their lives through their favorite singer’s music. These kids are so cruelly bullied that the online fan club and Lily’s music are their means of escapism. For anyone who knows what it’s like to be so deeply affected by music that you can narrate your life through a progression of your music tastes, this movie might resonate with you. There’s also a pretty funny scene that I think exemplifies the ridiculousness of fanboy culture.

Have any of my reviews helped you?

Hey ppl, 

I was wondering if there have been any reviews or screen caps that have turned you on to new movies. Let me know via the ask thing if you got turned on to a movie through this blog and if so, which movie. Would love to hear from you!  Looking for general feedback as well; how can I make this blog better? There’s tumblr chat now too, right? Please don’t hesitate if you wanna talk east asian film with me!

HMU!~

EAC

The Anime Invasion


In the past two decades East Asian cinemas have captured the imagination of Western audiences, perhaps most of all the cinema of Japanese anime, which has gained both critical and popular acclaim. The fandom that surrounds this genre is specialised, but present nonetheless; particularly among the cult sectors of ‘fan fiction’ (where entire websites are devoted to stories written about anime characters); ‘cos-play’ (or dressing up as anime characters) and conventions and video games which are both increasing in frequency. It is also worth remembering anime’s origin in the form of manga as they share aesthetic style, and while this is an even more specialised sector of Japanese culture it too is finding a place in the West; as Levi states, ‘San Diego’s Comic-Con[…] began in 1970 with a gathering of 300 fans[…] the turnout for the 2004 Comic-Con[…] was estimated to have been between 75,000 and 87,000’ (2008, p45). Even though Comic-Con is not devoted entirely to anime and manga the growth in 34 years is startling for such a specialised subject. I will attempt to provide a reason for the growing popularity of anime in the West using Hayao Miyazaki’s work as a case study; primarily Princess Mononoke/ Mononoke-hime (1997) and Spirited Away/Sen to Chihiro no kamikakushi (2001). I will examine various writings on anime to gain a better understanding of this popularity, particularly the scholarly works of Rayna Denison and Antonia Levi, and while Susan J. Napier has the tendency to equate Westernisation to Americanisation I believe her work has merit also.

While anime was once almost purely Japanese in terms of identity, this is no longer the case; indeed as Napier says, ‘despite its indisputably Japanese origins, anime increasingly exists as a nexus point in global culture’ (2005, p22). It would be difficult to argue that anime is not transnational in our modern society because Western children now grow up with the same cartoons as Eastern children. Pokémon/Poketto monsutâ the television series first aired in 1997 in Japan and it was not long before it was also being shown in the West. Programmes like this, Yu-Gi-Oh/Yûgiô, and Dragon Ball Z gained such a large following through the collector based merchandise of cards, toys, and video games that it would be difficult to find somebody between the ages of 15 and 30 that has not heard of these titles. It is through the younger generations therefore, that anime has also found a home in the West, but why are these cartoons universally successful among children?

According to Napier, ‘the characters in anime often do not look particularly Japanese, instead they participate in what might be called a nonculturally specific anime style’ (2005, p24) if one considers Chihiro in the opening scene of Spirited Away this becomes quite clear. First and foremost, Chihiro is Caucasian, this does not place her specifically within a particular Western aesthetic, but one could argue that it does place her outside of an Eastern aesthetic, or to use Napier’s term; it places Chihiro in a ‘nonculturally specific’ image. Chihiro’s clothes are perhaps easier to overlook, but they are no less important in identifying this nonculturally specific style: she is wearing a green striped T-shirt, pink shorts and unremarkable shoes; in short Chihiro could be any girl, anywhere. It is perhaps this universal aesthetic that allows all audiences to relate with the characters; providing the possibility in the first place for anime to be popular in the West. This same technique is used within the setting animation as well, Denison draws attention to, ‘mixed Japanese and Western styles of architecture, décor and costuming’ (2007, p310) when talking about Spirited Away. It is not difficult to notice the difference between the fairly generic house that Chihiro is moving into (it is portrayed in long-shot, revealing no particular points of interest)s and the elaborate bathhouse of Yubaba (with its bright colours and Japanese influenced design). It is through this universal aesthetic then that a balance is drawn between an exotic representation of Japan and a familiar one, ensuring that anime in the West is not a completely foreign experience and that it can be accepted by Western audience in the first place.

It is important to realise however, that just because anime may be recognisable in the West due to its integration through the younger generations, this does not by any means indicate that anime is just for children; it is only the means towards an end if you will. If one takes the extreme example of Legend of the Overfiend/Chôjin densetsu Urotsukidôji (Takayama, 1989) with its vivid and frequent depiction of gore and rape it becomes clear that anime can quite easily be targeted at an adult audience as well. Considering this the certification of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away under parental guidance label may, or may not be a shock. Miyazaki, in both of these films, has created a fine line between anime for adults and anime for children; the bright colours, and happy resolution of Spirited Away suggest the latter however, close-ups of Haku after he has been attacked by Zeniba’s magic are particularly disturbing as he vomits blood and flails around in agony. Princess Mononoke is noticeably less ambiguous than Spirited Away so may come as more of a surprise as it is under the same certificate. The resolution of the film, if indeed it can be called that, leaves a sense that nature and technology have not settled their conflict. This can be seen through the fact that San and Ashitaka remain separated. One could argue in fact, that the conclusion has no re-equlibrium and that Miyazaki is implying the self destructive nature of humanity is cyclical. Princess Mononoke is also thematically more adult than Spirited Away, the notion alone of apocalypse is unsettling, but Miyazaki’s portrayals of the forest rotting away and of the Forest Spirit’s death are certainly not targeted at children. One could argue that this could be a reason for Miyazaki’s success in the West; through the misconception that anime is for children Western audiences have a different set of expectations when viewing anime films and as a result are surprised by witnessing the unfamiliar within the familiar.

Along with universal themes and aesthetics, recognisable archetypes are also present in anime; again if one takes for example Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, even if Chihiro and Ashitaka may not be identical to any specific Western characters; they are both marginal within their respective societies: Chihiro is taken away from the familiarity of her old school when her family force her to move, and Ashitaka, after his banishment loses his position as a prince bringing him down to a recognisable level, one should also consider San as marginal to both of her communities; she cannot be accepted as wholly human, or wholly forest god. They are all forced into unfamiliar worlds and because of this they have a strong bond with the audience who are also experiencing the unfamiliar. The marginalising of protagonists is fairly common practice in Western cinema as well, if one considers the western as a genre, how many times does the protagonist ride in from out of town to be confronted with a society’s practices? By creating the ‘everyman’ in this manner filmmakers ensure that audiences can relate with the protagonist. It does not matter therefore, if Ashitaka is faced with the supernatural forces of the forest gods, or indeed if Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs; and it may be unfortunate that Western audiences can overlook Japanese tradition, but again, through all this they can still relate with and understand the protagonist.

Despite examples of universal aesthetics and mixed degrees of adult content, anime is still primarily targeted at a Japanese audience. I have already raised examples of how Spirited Away has both Eastern and Western elements. It is perhaps the Eastern elements which tend to occupy the fantasy aspects of anime (if one thinks of Yubaba’s bathhouse, or the forest gods in Princess Mononoke their Japanese origins are plain to see; if one regards Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985) the similarities between the palaces and Yubaba’s bathhouse in Spirited Away are numerous). Aspects such as these reveal this predominant targeting of anime at a Japanese audience. These films are culturally encoded, quite heavily in some cases, and these culture-codes can be lost on Western audiences; that is to say, because anime is primarily targeted at Japanese audiences there are inevitably going to be observations made specifically about Japanese society. Napier states that ‘Princess Mononoke undermines the myths of traditional Japanese identity while offering a counternarrative in their place’ (2005, p233) so an audience must first understand Japanese tradition and identity before they can understand that it is being undermined and read into the counternarrative. In Princess Mononoke the representation of the samurai and the stereotypical relationship between Japan and nature are both good examples of aspects that are being undermined; Napier draws attention to the myth that Japanese people live in harmony with nature (2005, p231-248) and when considering this within the framework of Princess Mononoke one can see that to fully understand the film one must be familiar with this myth first.

This is a major problem when considering the act of ‘fansubbing’ and the phenomenon of ‘fan fiction’; because of the cultural differences major aspects that are encoded by the filmmakers for a Japanese audience, can be overlooked by the Westerners that resubtitle, or write stories using the films as a basis after having decoded them with their own cultural framework. While this process of ‘encoding and decoding’ (Levi, 2008, p43) allows viewers to get their own meanings from the films (and this could account for some of the popularity in the West) it is certainly a problematic situation in terms of original authorial intention, depending on exactly how ignorant the fan who is writing the story, or resubtitling the film is.

Considering that Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away are culturally encoded one should ask themselves the question: who can truly understand these films, as knowledge of culture, history, tradition and director are all required fields? Does a Japanese man necessarily understand more than an educated Westerner? This is not to say that nobody can understand these films, because universal themes and problems are also present within Miyazaki’s work; themes that all audiences can understand and appreciate. If one takes for example Princess Mononoke’s comments on how for the sake of technology we are forsaking nature, this can be understood by everyone because it is a problem for humanity as a whole. Miyazaki portrays this theme in an incredibly visual manner as well; the sweeping long shots of the forest that begin the film are separated entirely from the walled city of Tatara creating a binary opposition of nature against technology. Miyazaki is not however, as subtle as this throughout the film. In the following scene a boar is thrashing through the forest, the audience will later learn that its grotesque appearance is the result of technology; the boar taints everything it touches with the black sludge like substance that covers its body, and its deep red eyes have connotations of hatred. As the boar rots and dies reaction shots are shown of the villagers disgusted by the smell. Even if subtleties in the narrative are missed by the Western audiences because of mistranslation or a lack of knowledge regarding Japanese society, the overarching themes are clearly visible to all because of Miyazaki’s extremely visual way of portraying his film’s agenda.

One can see this generality, or accessibility in Spirited Away as well; even if the bathhouse is a completely unfamiliar space for an audience, the film’s use of the theme of identity ensures that at least some aspects of the narrative will be familiar to all as identity is an issue with most, if not all human beings. So as with character and setting aesthetic, themes too draw a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar allowing for a Western audience’s escapism without a distancing effect.

This balanced escapism is arguably one of the most influential reasons for why Miyazaki’s films are popular in the West. Hollywood’s preoccupation with making money combined with its dominance has ensured that most cinema audiences are exposed to escapist cinema. If one considers the cinema of World War Two with ‘screw-ball comedies’ such as His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) this notion of going to the cinema to escape the every day is clear to see. While Miyazaki’s films have fantasy aspects throughout, one could argue that to an average Western audience the escapist value of these films is twofold because the Japanese aspects are unfamiliar as well much like the fantasy elements. This could be over simplification however, because if one was to consider a Western audience in the form a British ‘art house’ cinema, perhaps they would be more acquainted with social realism rather than escapism; this is why I must make it clear that when the West as a united audience is mentioned, it is only in the most general sense; it is intended to embody the majority of Western audiences.

It has become apparent that anime may not be as unfamiliar to the West as one might originally have thought. One major way that Hollywood in particular ensures that anime films gain a level of familiarity is through dubbing; a relatively simple and successful process if one compares the comical effects of dubbing live action films; the works of Bruce Lee come to mind. In the American releases of Studio Ghibli films, dubbing is obviously given a high level of importance. Spirited Away made use of well known voice actors, but Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle/Hauru no ugoku shiro (Miyazaki, 2004) use established stars from the Hollywood A-list: Billy Crudup; Claire Danes; Christian Bale; Lauren Bacall and Emily Mortimer all feature in one of the two titles. Along with a familiar animation style that Western children are growing up with, they now have recognisable voices for their characters as well. One should also remember however, that with these voices comes the star and character personas of previous roles adding yet another layer of familiarity.In bringing this familiarity however, there is a possibility that the audience may expect certain character traits which are not present within this particular narrative and this could detract from what the characters are intended to embody.

Similarly one should realise that Ghibli’s films are distributed through Disney in the West, first and fore mostly this provides yet another level of familiarity through the label and prestige of the Disney title, but it also reinforces the misconception that these films are for children; this is yet another possible reason for Western audiences to be perhaps pleasantly shocked that they are being presented with films that do not conform to their usual set of expectations. It is possible however, that the expectations of a Ghibli film released under the Disney title may not be completely subverted. According to Napier, ‘Tezuka himself was a strong admirer of Disney animation, as were many of Japan’s pioneer animators. Even today Japanese animators are strongly aware of American animation’ (2005, p16). Could one not argue therefore, that Western audiences can see aspects of Disney within Japanese animation; an aspect of the familiar within the unfamiliar? If it is true that a kind of crosspollination is occurring between Japan and Hollywood this could drastically reinforce the argument that anime is not as foreign as it seems.

If one regards Spirited Away it is interesting that the further the film moved away from its origin the more emphasis was placed on the dubbed version of the film; to quote Rayna Denison, ‘the further Miyazaki’s film moved West, towards its American release in September 2002, the more negotiation and change took place’ (2007, p310). As with ‘fan-subbing’ the question one needs to ask is; is something lost at the cost of making these films more accessible to the West? If one considers John Lasseter’s thoughts in the commentary for the US release of Spirited Away, ‘We added a few words here and there just to inform someone of what they’re looking at’, but who decides which few words are necessary? How does this affect the flow of the narrative? And perhaps above all, who has the right to add words to somebody else’s film?

Another interesting trend that has appeared as Miyazaki’s films in particular travel west is the relationship between blockbuster and the art house. When talking about Spirited Away’s reception in France Denison states, ‘Le Voyage de Chihiro therefore reveals movement away from the film’s popular ‘blockbuster’ roots towards a conception of it more concerned with the film as a work of art’ (2007, p314). Both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away were successful in Japan (Princess Mononoke being the highest grossing film ever (Napier, 2005, p232)), but if one takes Spirited Away for example, as it travels west it enters film festivals; picking up the Golden Bear at Berlin Film Festival and winning the Audience Award at Cambridge Film Festival. When it reaches America it wins Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, one can see that by the time the film finally reaches the United States it has entirely lost its blockbuster identity. Ironically the artistic nature of Spirited Away was the reason that it was popular in the West in the first place even though the blockbuster image is generally more popular in Hollywood. One should not underestimate the extent to which this artistic success reinvigorated Spirited Away. Winning the Oscar almost cancelled out the effects of the limited cinema release, in fact the Oscar triumph is now addressed on the DVD case and through association other Ghibli films are labelled with statements such as ‘from the creator of Spirited Away’.

Through a combination of familiarity in the themes, characters and aesthetic, and the rebranding of the films through the changing titles and the dubbing, Japanese anime has become a familiar staple in the West. Yet through the Japanese aspects of these films a sense of the ‘other’ is still present for a Western audience, and this allows for a romanticised exotic image of Japan that entices an unfamiliar audience in the same way as James Bond’s exploits abroad do. There is also a sense that because the films are essentially cartoons; people are willing to be more accepting of a thought provoking narrative, where a live action film about the same subject may be more daunting. One wonders if a live action film about consumerism, or pollution and technology would have been received in the same manner as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have been. There is also the issue of misconception and how this can inadvertently lead to a pleasant surprise. While this may explain to a certain extent why Miyazaki’s films have become popular in the West it does not answer the question of why anime in general has become popular because if one considers Ghost in the Shell/Kôkaku kidôtai (Oshii, 1995) or Akira (Ôtomo, 1988) the differences between these apocalyptic science fiction anime films and Miyazaki’s work are vast. Another issue is to what extent Western countries are similar because it is very easy, as Napier has done, to equate the West to America, or even to assume that the West can indeed be grouped. It would perhaps be more accurate to state that I have offered possible reasons for Miyazaki’s success outside of Japan rather than uniting the West under one shared group of pleasures that they find in anime.

Works Cited:

Denison, Rayna (2007) ‘The Global Markets for Anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001)’, In: Philips, Alastair and Stringer, Julian (eds.) Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts London and New York: Routledge, pp. 308-321.

Levi, Antonia (2008) ‘The Americanisation of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture’, In: Brown, Steven T. (ed.) Cinema Anime New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 43-63.

Napier, Susan J. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Filmography:

Akira (Ôtomo, 1988)

Ghost in the Shell (Oshii, 1995)

His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940)

Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004)

Legend of the Overfiend (Takayama, 1989)

Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997)

Ran (Kurosawa, 1985)

Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001)

Haw Yi: A Monster Boy (2013) - Review

Haw Yi: A Monster Boy (2013) – Review

This was a film that was difficult for me wrap my mind around. My initial thoughts after finishing the film we’re simple, “HwaYi is a seriously screwed up film”. After thinking about it for a day I think that’s still true. The film is messed up and left me with a similar feeling to any of Darren Aronofsky’s tragedies called foolishly called movies. I suffered from a emotional drain that I…

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“Air Doll (空気人形 Kūki Ningyō?) is a 2009 Japanese drama film directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. It is based on the manga series Kuuki Ningyo by Yoshiie Gōda, which was serialized in the seinen manga magazine Big Comic Original,and is about an inflatable doll that develops a consciousness and falls in love. The movie debuted in the Un Certain Regard section at the 62nd Cannes Film Festival. It opened in Japanese cinemas on 26 September 2009. Director Koreeda has stated that the film is about the loneliness of urban life and the question of what it means to be human.”

Quick link to my Criterion collection. Mainly to let you know of my recent pick ups: Empire of Passion and Kagemusha. Non Criterion: Infernal Affairs.

I don’t know when but I will definitely review the three films along with the overall dvd package. 

Talk to you soon,

EAC

The Tower (2012) - Review

The Tower (2012) – Review

The Tower (2012)

The Tower is a action packed thrill ride set in a disaster film. You will be on the edge of your seat shaking and biting your nails the film is so intense. The cast is well, excellent, and stars Kim Sing Oh (Jung Jae Hwa) from Inspiring Generation. This is the third disaster flick I’ve checked out from South Korea and I dare say these films are almost as good as their revenge…

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Chinawood, a new film-making centre outside Tianjin, will service co-productions between the US and China.

The US and Chinese film industries took a significant step towards each other with the announcement of the Chinawood Global Services Base, a multi-million-dollar movie-making centre to be constructed in partnership with the Chinese authorities.

Chinese studio boss Bruno Wu, of Seven Stars Entertainment, has secured the help of the government of the Binhai New Area, Tianjin to build Chinawood, which represents a $1.27bn investment for a complex that will ultimately total 8.6m square feet on completion (It will still have some way to go to beat the 35.5m square feet of the world’s largest film studio, Hengdian, also in China.)

Chinawood’s main aim will be to service co-productions between Hollywood and China – a move that will no doubt be popular among US producers, to get around China’s strict quota regulations.

Over a third of the Chinawood investment represents a financing fund to kickstart production, and the centre will also contain post-production facilities and a dedicated 3D conversion centre.

In a statement, Wu said that the East Asian film market was catching up with North America’s, and was “on course to be worth $10bn by 2015”.

“This project is a significant step towards closing that gap by providing expertise and facilities in all areas.”

The first part of the studio is due to open in October 2012.

The Anime Invasion

In the past two decades East Asian cinemas have captured the imagination of Western audiences, perhaps most of all in the form of Japanese anime, which has gained both critical and popular acclaim. The fandom that surrounds this genre is specialised, but present nonetheless; particularly among the cult sectors of ‘fan fiction’, ‘cos-play’, conventions and video games which are all increasing in frequency. It is also worth remembering anime’s origin in the form of manga because it shares aesthetic style with the more recent development of moving images, and while this is an even more specialised sector of Japanese culture it too is finding a place in the West; as Levi states, ‘San Diego’s Comic-Con… began in 1970 with a gathering of 300 fans… the turnout for the 2004 Comic-Con… was estimated to have been between 75,000 and 87,000’ (2008, p45). Even though Comic-Con is not devoted entirely to anime and manga the growth in 34 years is startling for such a specialised subject.

‘Despite its indisputably Japanese origins, anime increasingly exists as a nexus point in global culture’ (2005, p22). It would be difficult to argue that anime is not transnational in our modern society indeed Western children now grow up with the same cartoons as Eastern children. Pokémon the television series first aired in 1997 in Japan and it was not long before it was also being shown in the West. Programmes like this, Yu-Gi-Oh, and Dragon Ball Z gained such a large following through the collector-based merchandise of cards, toys, and video games that it would be difficult to find somebody between the ages of 15 and 30 that has not heard of these titles. It is through the younger generations therefore, that anime has also found a home in the West, but why are these cartoons universally successful among children?

According to Napier, ‘the characters in anime often do not look particularly Japanese, instead they participate in what might be called a nonculturally specific anime style’ (2005, p24) if one considers Chihiro in the opening scene of Spirited Away (Miyazaki, 2001) this becomes quite clear. First and foremost, Chihiro is Caucasian, this does not place her specifically within a particular Western aesthetic, but one could argue that it does place her outside of an Eastern aesthetic, or to use Napier’s term; it places Chihiro in a ‘nonculturally specific’ image. Chihiro’s clothes are perhaps easier to overlook, but they are no less important in identifying this nonculturally specific style: she is wearing a green striped T-shirt, pink shorts and unremarkable shoes; in short Chihiro could be any girl, anywhere. It is perhaps this universal aesthetic that allows all audiences to relate with the characters; providing the possibility in the first place for anime to be popular, not only in the West, but anywhere in the world.

This same technique is used within the setting animation as well, Denison draws attention to, ‘mixed Japanese and Western styles of architecture, décor and costuming’ (2007, p310). It is not difficult to notice the difference between the fairly generic house that Chihiro is moving into (it is portrayed in long-shot, revealing no particular points of interest) and the elaborate bathhouse of Yubaba (with its bright colours and Japanese influenced design). It is through this universal aesthetic then that a balance is drawn between an exotic representation of Japan and a familiar one, ensuring that anime in the West is not a completely foreign experience.

It is important to realise however, that just because anime may be recognisable in the West due to its integration through the younger generations, this does not by any means indicate that anime is just for children; it is only the means towards an end if you will. If one takes the extreme example of Legend of the Overfiend (Takayama, 1989) with its vivid and frequent depiction of gore and rape it becomes clear that anime can quite easily be targeted at an adult audience as well.

Considering this, the certification of Princess Mononoke (Miyazaki, 1997) and Spirited Away under the parental guidance label may, or may not be a shock. Miyazaki, in both of these films, has created a fine line between anime for adults and anime for children; the bright colours, and happy resolution of Spirited Away suggest the latter however, close-ups of Haku after he has been attacked by Zeniba’s magic are particularly disturbing as he vomits blood and flails around in agony. Princess Mononoke is noticeably less ambiguous in its violence than Spirited Away, so may come as more of a surprise as it is under the same certificate. The resolution of the film, if indeed it can be called that, leaves one with the sense that nature and technology have not settled their conflict. This can be seen through the fact that San and Ashitaka remain separated. One could argue in fact, that the conclusion has no re-equlibrium and that Miyazaki is implying that the self destructive nature of humanity is cyclical. Princess Mononoke is also thematically more adult than Spirited Away, the notion alone of apocalypse is unsettling, but Miyazaki’s portrayal of the forest rotting away and of the Forest Spirit’s death are certainly not targeted at children. This could be another reason for Miyazaki’s success in the West; the the frequent misconception that anime is for children means Western audiences have a different set of expectations when viewing anime films and as a result are pleasantly surprised by witnessing the unfamiliar within the familiar; by witnessing maturity within the seemingly juvenile.

Along with universal themes and aesthetics, recognisable archetypes are also present in anime; again if one takes for example Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, even if Chihiro and Ashitaka may not be identical to any specific Western characters; they are both marginal within their respective societies: Chihiro is taken away from the familiarity of her old school when her family force her to move, and Ashitaka, after his banishment loses his position as a prince bringing him down to a recognisable level, one should also consider San as marginal to both of her communities; she cannot be accepted as wholly human, or wholly forest god. They are all forced into unfamiliar worlds and because of this they have a strong bond with the audience who are also experiencing the unfamiliar.

The marginalisation of protagonists is fairly common practice in Western cinema as well, if one considers the western as a genre, how many times does the protagonist ride in from out of town to be confronted with a society’s practices? By creating the ‘everyman’ in this manner filmmakers ensure that audiences can relate with the protagonist. It does not matter therefore, if Ashitaka is faced with the supernatural forces of the forest gods, or indeed if Chihiro’s parents are transformed into pigs; through all this the audience can still relate with and understand the protagonist.

Despite examples of universal aesthetics and mixed degrees of adult content, anime is still primarily targeted at a Japanese audience. I have already raised examples of how Spirited Away has both Eastern and Western elements. It is perhaps the Eastern elements which tend to occupy the fantasy aspects of anime (if one thinks of Yubaba’s bathhouse, or the forest gods in Princess Mononoke their Japanese origins are plain to see). Aspects such as these reveal this predominant targeting of anime at a Japanese audience. These films are culturally encoded, quite heavily in some cases, and these culture-codes can be lost on Western audiences; that is to say, because anime is primarily targeted at Japanese audiences there are inevitably going to be observations made specifically about Japanese society. Napier states that ‘Princess Mononoke undermines the myths of traditional Japanese identity while offering a counternarrative in their place’ (2005, p233) so an audience must first understand Japanese tradition and identity before they can understand that it is being undermined and read into the counternarrative.

This is a major problem when considering the act of ‘fansubbing’ and the phenomenon of ‘fan fiction’; because of the cultural differences major aspects that are encoded by the filmmakers for a Japanese audience, can be overlooked by the Westerners that resubtitle, or write stories using the films as a basis after having decoded them with their own cultural framework. While this process of ‘encoding and decoding’ (Levi, 2008, p43) allows viewers to get their own meanings from the films (and this could account for some of the popularity in the West) it is certainly a problematic situation in terms of original authorial intention, depending on exactly how ignorant the fan who is writing the story, or resubtitling the film is.

Despite this, there is certainly a level of universally accessible aspects that any audience can understand. So as with character and setting aesthetic, themes too draw a balance between the familiar and the unfamiliar allowing for a Western audience’s escapism without a distancing effect (even if there is indeterminate amount of subtance that is overlooked).

This balanced escapism is arguably one of the most influential reasons for why Miyazaki’s films are popular in the West. Hollywood’s preoccupation with making money combined with its dominance has ensured that most cinema audiences are exposed to escapist filmmaking. If one considers the cinema of World War Two with ‘screw-ball comedies’ such as His Girl Friday (Hawks, 1940) this notion of going to the cinema to escape the every day is clear to see. While Miyazaki’s films have fantasy aspects throughout, one could argue that to an average Western audience the escapist value of these films is twofold because the Japanese aspects are also unfamiliar.

It has become apparent that anime may not be as unfamiliar to the West as one might originally have thought. One major way that Hollywood in particular ensures that anime films gain a level of familiarity is through dubbing; a relatively simple and successful process if one compares the comical effects of dubbing live action films (the work of Bruce Lee comes to mind). In the American releases of Studio Ghibli films, dubbing is obviously given a high level of importance. Spirited Away made use of well known voice actors, but Princess Mononoke and Howl’s Moving Castle (Miyazaki, 2004) used established stars from the Hollywood A-list: Billy Crudup; Claire Danes; Christian Bale; Lauren Bacall and Emily Mortimer all feature in one of the two titles. Along with a familiar animation style that Western children are growing up with, they now have recognisable voices for their characters as well. One should also remember, that with these voices comes the star and character personas of the actors’ previous roles, adding yet another layer of familiarity.

Similarly one should realise that Ghibli’s films are distributed through Disney in the West, first and fore mostly this provides yet another level of familiarity through the label and prestige of the Disney title, however, whether positively or negatively, it also reinforces the misconception that these films are for children. It is possible however, that the expectations of a Ghibli film released under the Disney title may not be completely subverted. According to Napier, ‘Tezuka himself was a strong admirer of Disney animation, as were many of Japan’s pioneer animators. Even today Japanese animators are strongly aware of American animation’ (2005, p16). Could one not argue therefore, that Western audiences can see aspects of Disney within Japanese animation; an aspect of the familiar within the unfamiliar? If it is true that a kind of crosspollination is occurring between Japan and Hollywood this could drastically reinforce the argument that anime is not as foreign as it seems.

Interestingly, as Miyazaki’s films travel west, the relationship between the blockbuster and the art house alters considerably. When talking about Spirited Away’s reception in France Denison states, ‘Le Voyage de Chihiro therefore reveals movement away from the film’s popular ‘blockbuster’ roots towards a conception of it more concerned with the film as a work of art’ (2007, p314). Both Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away were successful in Japan (Princess Mononoke being the highest grossing film ever (Napier, 2005, p232)), but if one takes Spirited Away for example, as it travels west it enters film festivals; picking up the Golden Bear at Berlin; winning the Audience Award at Cambridge Film Festival and when it finally reaches America it wins Best Animated Feature at the Oscars, one can see that by the time the film reaches the United States it has entirely lost its blockbuster identity. One should not underestimate the extent to which this artistic success reinvigorated Spirited Away. Winning the Oscar almost cancelled out the effects of the limited cinema release, in fact the Oscar triumph is now addressed on the DVD case and through association other Ghibli films are labelled with statements such as ‘from the creator of Spirited Away’.

Through a combination of familiarity in the themes, characters and aesthetic, and the rebranding of the films through the changing titles and dubbing, Japanese anime has become a familiar staple in the West. Yet through the Japanese aspects of these films a sense of the ‘other’ is still present for a Western audience, and this allows for a romanticised exotic image of Japan that entices an unfamiliar audience in the same way as James Bond’s exploits abroad do.

There is also a sense that because the films are essentially cartoons; people are willing to be more accepting of a thought provoking narrative, where a live action film about the same subject may be more daunting, or at least more preachy. One wonders if live action films about consumerism, or pollution and technology would have been received in the same manner as Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away have been.


Works Cited:


Denison, Rayna (2007) ‘The Global Markets for Anime: Miyazaki Hayao’s Spirited Away (2001)’, In: Philips, Alastair and Stringer, Julian (eds.)

Japanese Cinema: Texts and Contexts London and New York: Routledge, pp. 308-321.
Levi, Antonia (2008) ‘The Americanisation of Anime and Manga: Negotiating Popular Culture’, In: Brown, Steven T. (ed.) Cinema Anime New York: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 43-63.

Napier, Susan J. (2005) Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, New York: Palgrave Macmillan