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ART, ANIME, AND JAPANESE CULTURE
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A NIGHT AT THE ACADEMY - ANIME COMES OF AGE
Written by Mark Vallen and Jeannine Thorpe - November 2001
(Comments by Mark Vallen) Los Angeles has long played an important role in introducing anime to the United States and the rest of the globe. But when Hollywood's famous Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (presenters of the Academy Awards and the much coveted Oscar), sponsored a lecture on the subject of Japanese animation, you can be sure a historic guide post was reached for anime in the West. On November 14th, 2001, I was honored to attend the Academy's seventh Marc Davis Lecture on Animation, an annual event held since 1994 at the Academy's luxurious Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. The series of lectures (named after the renowned Disney artist who created Cinderella, Tinker Bel, and Cruella De Vil), are meant to provide a forum for film animators, producers, and other industry professionals who seek to share experiences and hone their craft.
The audience was impressed by the atomspheric creepyness of Satoshi Kon's murder mystery, PERFECT BLUE
The audience was impressed by the atomspheric creepyness of Satoshi Kon's murder mystery, PERFECT BLUE

Open to the public, past lectures have featured Chuck Jones (creator of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and the Road Runner), John Lasseter (director of Toy Story), and Marc Davis himself. The November 14th. program, Drawing from Japan: Anime and it's Influences, focused entirely on the history of animation in Japan, it's diversity, and how this vibrant art has influenced world culture.

Academy members, actors, special effects technicians, writers, and other professionals in the movie industry were in attendance, as well as local film aficionados. The Academy Governor, June Foray, delivered the opening statement and promised the audience of 500 an evening of enlightenment. The roster of distinguished guest speakers for the event guaranteed that much, but the lectures were also highlighted by rare screenings of clips from fourteen different animated features. The evening's tribute was comprised of a panel of commentators, including some of Japan's most respected animators, artists, and their U.S. counterparts. Author, animation historian, and founder of Streamline Pictures, Jerry Beck, was the moderator for the proceedings, and he began the evening with a short history of anime.
Audience members were thrilled at the technical perfection and artistry of Production IG's, BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE
Audience members were thrilled at the technical perfection and artistry of Production IG's, BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE

Asking the largely professional, over 30 audience to put aside their preconceptions of anime, Beck announced that anime was "much more than just Pokemon." He recounted the accomplishments of master animator Osamu Tezuka (who in 1963 produced Japan's first televised anime, Astro Boy), and mentioned U.S. pioneers like Fred Ladd, who in the early 1960's produced English dubbed versions of Tezuka's Astro Boy and Tetsujin 28 (renamed Gigantor) for American television. The format for the evening's three hour long program alternated between screenings and lively interviews with six different panelists. Mr. Beck interviewed his special guests sitting on the stage in director's chairs and flanked by two gleaming, 12 foot Oscar statues.

Those interviewed included Lisa Atkinson (who worked with DreamWorks, Universal, Disney, Pixar, and Industrial Light & Magic on their digital animated features), Mark Dippe (who worked for Industrial Light & Magic creating ground breaking CGI effects for the original Jurassic Park and Terminator 2 before directing the live-action Spawn movie), Eric Goldberg (a veteran Disney animator who worked on Fantasia 2000 and directed Pocahontas before founding his own Pizazz Pictures), Kunihiko Ikuhara (director of the first two seasons of the Sailormoon TV series and the Sailormoon R Movie, Founder of Be-Papas Studios, and director of the Revolutionary Girl Utena TV series and Adolescence of Utena Movie), Mitsuhisa Ishikawa (Founder of Production IG Studios and producer of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Jin-Roh, Ghost in the Shell, Video Girl Ai, Patlabor the Movie, and BLOOD: The Last Vampire), and Fred Patten (freelance writer for Animation World Magazine, Fangoria, and Starlog).

The audience was stunned by Mamoru Oshii's Science Fiction Fantasy, GHOST IN THE SHELL
The audience was stunned by Mamoru Oshii's Science Fiction Fantasy, GHOST IN THE SHELL

Each panelist had a unique perspective and something noteworthy to say. Ms. Atkinson said she's attracted to anime because of the strong leading female characters found there. She stated that producers of anime invest "more time and devotion" to their craft, filling their works with "spiritual concepts" and explorations of human emotions. Atkinson also noted how some U.S. live-action productions are deeply influenced by anime aesthetics.

Mark Dippe made the same observation when he said the "wild and unbelievably complex transformations" found in anime served as inspiration for his own directorial work on Spawn. He also felt that works from directors David Cronenberg and John Carpenter were inspired by anime (in fact, a scene from Carpenter's remake of The Thing apparently inspired the design of one monster in Yoju Toshi's Wicked City, indicating that the process works both ways).

Dippe also stated that Ridley Scott's, Blade Runner and Roger Donaldson's, Species also owe a tip of the hat to the world of anime. Though he wasn't mentioned, I would add that Steven Spielberg has also been influenced by anime, siting his recent A.I. - Artificial Intelligence as a primary example. In that film, robots are called mecha (short for mechanical), the very word used by the Japanese to describe the robots and mechanical devises so plentiful in anime.

The audience was spellbound by the action, sex, and horrifying monsters of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's, WICKED CITY
The audience was spellbound by the action, sex, and horrifying monsters of Yoshiaki Kawajiri's, WICKED CITY

Of course the true highlight of the evening was the opportunity to see some magnificent anime projected onto a large screen. Each movie clip was around 10 minutes long, and excerpted films screened were Astro Boy, Akira, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Princess Mononoke, Wicked City, Perfect Blue, Ghost in the Shell, Pompoko, Grave of the Fireflies, BLOOD: The Last Vampire, Adolescence of Utena, Metropolis, and Spirited Away. The great majority of the audience had never heard of, let alone seen these outstanding works of animation, and the audience reaction to each piece was always the same, utter amazement and enthusiastic applause. Mark my words, in the near future anime films will be winning Oscars!

The audience was deeply moved by the profound anti-war message of Isao Takahata's, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES
The audience was deeply moved by the profound anti-war message of Isao Takahata's, GRAVE OF THE FIREFLIES

(Comments by Jeannine Thorpe) Jerry Beck opened the evening by saying that like Indian musicals, Chinese martial arts films, or the silent films of 1920's Hollywood, anime is itself a unique form of film-making. The respectful and sweeping approach he gave to the genre in that one statement set the mood for the entire evening. It gave anime the attention and admiration it deserved, and the excerpts of films shown were carefully selected to inspire awe and expand the minds of the audience members.

The program was educational for the uninitiated and delightful for the longtime aficionado. The organizers of the presentation worked hard to bestow certain ideas about anime upon the audience, understanding that audience would be more familiar with Western style animation. One major point made was that unlike with Western Animation, Japan has a history of creating both comics and animation for all ages of viewers and not just children. Another point made was that anime often achieves emotional levels far beyond even the live action films of the West. Several films by Studio Ghibli were screened in order to elaborate these points. After watching just a few moments of the impressive Princess Mononoke, the dramatic Porco Rosso, or the wartime angst of Grave of the Fireflies, the audience was clearly overwhelmed and impressed with the new ideas and aesthetics they were confronted with.

A perfect example of this came when a clip from My Neighbor Totoro was screened. In one fantastic scene, two little girls (the movie's lead characters) encounter magical creatures while waiting for a bus in the rain. What completely overwhelmed the audience, as Eric Goldberg explained, was how the director imbued a feeling of serenity in the moment... and how visually everything on the screen "read" or imparted an exact meaning.

The minimalist character designs combined with highly expressive faces made for a work that could be universally understood. Goldberg further explained that anime in general tends to do "so much with so little", and utilizes a style of storytelling that expects more from the audience because the story is often not clearly laid out for the viewer.

The audience was astounded by the dream-like romanticism and near psychedelic design of, ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA
The audience was astounded by the dream-like romanticism and near psychedelic design of, ADOLESCENCE OF UTENA

Goldberg elaborated by saying that in American films directors are often forced to "lay pipe" and lead the audience along, while anime in general and the films of Hayao Miyazaki in particular tend to be more stream of consciousness. For the audience members who had never seen anime before, there was immediate recognition of the unparalleled quality of film presented to them. Mark Dippe commented that some anime could be quite "deep"... and like with Stanley Kubrick's, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the viewer is left feeling as though the "mind has grown two sizes." Dippe added that anime is often complicated in storyline but unclear with motivation of characters (as opposed to the usual dynamic of "good vs. evil" in American films). He further observed that anime often presents inconclusive endings.

Lisa Atkinson suggested that perhaps as a result of coming from postwar cultures, European and Japanese storylines tend to focus more on the human aspect of characters going through change, brought out through climactic situations. Atkinson mentioned another cultural difference in anime, the depiction of women. Speaking from personal experience, she noted that in Japan "women play a different role in society than men. Women have a different internal power, they can be strong and not be masculine, a quiet strength in femininity." I would add that all one need do is compare America's Wonder Woman to Japan's Sailormoon to see this difference. While Wonder Woman is essentially a clone of Superman, Sailormoon is undeniably and realistically female, and only through the purity and strength of her heart does she wield her power.

The crowd went wild over the trailer from Hayao Miyazaki's, SPIRITED AWAY
The crowd went wild over the trailer from Hayao Miyazaki's, SPIRITED AWAY

Some of the most interesting exchanges of the evening came from the panel "The Next Generation" of anime, with Producer Mitsuhisa Ishikawa and director Kunihiko Ikuhara. After hearing from Hollywood insiders the entire evening, this panel gave the direct Japanese perspective on the artform. When asked to explain the difference between US and Japanese animation, Ishikawa jokingly said through a translator that "There are two kinds of animation, one that is harmless for children and one that is harmful to children." Ishikawa then took a playful jab at his American counterparts when he flatly stated "Most of my staff doesn't like Disney animation, and I can say that because we'll probably never work for them."

Meanwhile Ikuhara, who now resides in Los Angeles, had this to say: "I have learned that in America there are two kinds of movies... New York makes independent films, and Hollywood makes entertainment, makes movies. Hollywood movies are just entertainment.... Hollywood is like a Las Vegas Show. Anime in Japan is more like the New York independent films." At this point Ishikawa expressed a desire to elaborate on his earlier comment about anime being either "harmful or harmless to children". He offered that although many would consider his works to be for teenagers and adults... his young children have seen all of his works, explaining that "maybe now the works would be considered harmful to them, but as they get older and are educated, then they will understand them."

Statements like the above imparted to the audience an understanding of the cultural and artistic differences between Western and Japanese animators. Perhaps even more importantly, it suggests that just as Ishikawa's children have a lot to learn, any audience has to be ready in mind, art, and spirit in order to understand the complexities of the world we live in, and how these complexities may be explored through the art of anime. The Academy Foundation's presentation succeeded overwhelmingly in beginning the gigantic task of teaching people about an entire genre of art from the other side of the globe. I'm certain Academy members and other viewers in the audience will be affected for years to come by what they saw.

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