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 Afringe Home / Chasing Otakuism 05/25/2024 
Chasing Otakuism 



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Animefringe Editorial:
Summer of San
By guest columnist John Oppliger

Summer is here, and with it the traditional offering of big budget spectacle movies. Consider how ironic it is that in a summer movie season that began with the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, this summer may actually be the beginning of a positive Japanese invasion. While there may not be any anime films coming to your local multiplex this summer, rest assured that they are on the way, and this summer may be their flag bearer.

Summer is our escape from stress and routine. We travel, relax, earn a reprieve from school, and watch summer movies because they carry us away to realms of fantasy far from the mundane. Anime would seemingly be a natural choice for summer theatrical release. After all, what type of film can better transport viewers to fantasy realms than anime? All anime is fantasy, even the most "realistic," because anime doesn't rely on real locations or even real actors. Everything seen on screen exists only on the screen. But while anime does transport viewers to foreign lands, anime itself is foreign to many viewers. Therein lies the traditional stumbling block to anime in American movie theaters. The films themselves are Asian, and the animation medium is not one normally associated with American mainstream cinema. But both of these traditional barriers may be crumbling, and this summer's movie season may punch an ever widening hole in America's wall of theatrical exclusion which may never again be patched. The unprecedented success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the upcoming Asian influence in this summer's movies may signify the beginning of a new curiosity and sophistication in American moviegoers who are cautiously expanding their horizons to the East.

First consider Sony's theatrical distribution of "Beat" Takeshi's Japanese gangster film Brother, the current theatrical release of Tsui Hark's Time & Tide, the impending release of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and even Disney's Atlantis and the video game inspired Tomb Raider. Then consider the number of anime and Japanese genre productions tentatively scheduled to debut in American movie theaters within the next six months: Mamoru Oshii's brilliant production of Jin-Roh, the long awaited new Vampire Hunter D film, the dark horse action/horror Guilstein, the action spectacle Spriggan, the live-action horror-drama Parasite Eve, and in the not too distant future, the lush Escaflowne movie and Sony's international distribution of Metropolis. This summer is clearly a fertile field ready for the planting of anime seeds.

First and foremost is the Final Fantasy movie. Assuming that viewers will be willing to watch an animated Japanese film made up of computer graphics, can we assume that at least some of these viewers that have never before considered watching a Japanese movie will also be willing to watch an animated Japanese film made up of hand-painted cel art? The Final Fantasy movie is a perfect starting point from which to germinate interest in anime in the minds of people that have never thought of anime before. The same applies to Atlantis. While not Japanese, the style of Atlantis is similar to anime, and support for Atlantis may urge new viewers to seek out more serious animated films, and show studios and theater managers that this type of film does have market potential. The Tomb Raider film isn't exactly related to anime, but does present a competent woman wielding guns and swords in scenes of the same hyperbolic action typical of action anime. People willing to watch the adventures of a character based on an animated woman may well be open to the idea of watching literally animated women in similar adventures. The number of Asian and Asian influenced films this summer, including Final Fantasy, Shrek, Atlantis, Tomb Raider, Brother and Kiss of the Dragon may be the first foothold in a steady climb toward the wholehearted acceptance of anime in America.

In the wake of increasing awareness and interest in Asian film in America, American studios and distributors are taking notice. Twentieth Century Fox has secured the American rights to a Gunnm (Battle Angel) film in the hopes that James Cameron will direct; and Miramax has licensed Mamoru Oshii's critically acclaimed action film Avalon and his not yet produced Ghost in the Shell 2 movie along with Tsui Hark's very anime styled Chinese kung fu fantasy Legend of Zu; and Asian stars Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Ziyi Zhang, and directors John Woo and Ang Lee are all very much in demand now. This sort of importation of Asian cinema bodes well for the future of theatrical anime. The anime films on the foreseeable horizon will all debut in very limited theatrical release, and may possibly never see the major distribution that we'd all like to see them get, but that doesn't mean that all of us will necessarily miss these films in a theater. The only way to see anime in wide theatrical release is to insure that the theatrical screenings will be significantly profitable. That means that people must pay to see these films. Anime fans attending a sold-out show is a positive start, but we'll need much more support than just one theater to see anime in our local multiplex. This summer's theatrical offerings are a perfect opportunity to start a ripple that will swell into a wave of interest in Japanese animation. Like Mei, Satsuki and Totoro, plant a small seed, and with time it may grow into a massive tree. Furthermore, if you want to see anime films in your local theater, films like Vampire Hunter D and Jin-Roh, ask for them. Especially if you have a local art theater or alternative theater, these sort of family or community supported and operated movie theaters thrive on screening foreign and alternative quality cinema that viewers want to see. Especially since these theaters are often run by enlightened movie fans themselves, a polite letter or phone call suggesting a title can result in a local anime theatrical presentation where there would previously have been none. Asking for a local theater to rent a print of a new anime film may not guarantee results, but simply making a theater manager aware of an available title that he or she may not even have been aware of can infinitely increase your chances of seeing a new anime film in a movie theater.

It may seem like quite a long wait to see highly anticipated anime films like Spriggan and Vampire Hunter D in an American theater, and it's tempting to long for a home video release in liu of a theatrical screening. A home video release, naturally, provides a sense of ownership, and also offers the convenience of repeated viewings at your leisure. But in order for anime to expand in the West, theatrical distribution is a vital necessity. Extensive home video distribution generates massive revenue, and television broadcast generates massive recognition, but nothing will confer "legitimacy" on anime the way theatrical distribution will. Home video sales in the West have a connotation of secondary market or second-rate quality. Television broadcasts, with their frequent commercial breaks and the natural attention deficit that television engenders, smack of commercialism and children's programming. For anime to earn respect as legitimate cinema, and gain recognition as more than merely children's cartoons or media for cultish fans, anime will have to headline American movie marques. Although films like Perfect Blue, X, Akira and Princess Mononoke have been commercially unsuccessful in recent theatrical release, their limited screenings have earned the respect and public affirmation by recognized names including Roger Ebert, Neil Gaiman, Roger Corman and even James Cameron. This sort of praise can carry a lot of weight in public opinion, and is generally reserved only for theatrical releases. In essence, theatrical releases simply seem more significant and more "important" than television or home video releases.

Perhaps the limited distribution and short theatrical life of films like Princess Mononoke and Perfect Blue may be attributed to the films being ahead of their time, or not quite perfectly attuned to the state of mainstream America's movie-going whims. These films could be said to have been victims of circumstance. Not only did Perfect Blue and X suffer from under-funded distribution, Princess Mononoke suffered under the distribution of a company not fully convinced of the film's potential, unwilling to campaign for the film and push its theatrical presence. Furthermore, Perfect Blue, X, Princess Mononoke and Akira are all distinctly Japanese films. They deal with Japanese settings and character types and all have endings that conform to the Japanese dramatic conventions of introspection and tragedy, but not the American preference for victory and empowerment. The new batch of theatrical anime on the way are poised to hit American theaters just as American interest in Asian cinema is reaching a peak, and many of the films on the way, including Spriggan and Vampire Hunter D, forgo the Japanese iconography and ideology in favor of more accessible, exhilarating action. These films may find greater acceptance by mainstream viewers because they provide exactly what mainstream viewers expect and desire out of anime. Their straightforward narratives and emphasis on universally appreciated action may earn more positive word-of-mouth regard than the qualified "It's great if you like..." opinions that films like Perfect Blue and Princess Mononoke may have engendered. Capturing the attention of mainstream viewers will undeniably increase the importation of anime into the West. Theatrical distribution will generate the respect for anime as a medium for adults and film lovers outside of merely fans of "cartoons." If American interest in Asian cinema is currently at a peak, anime fans must hope that this peak is just one spire of a taller mountain, and urge viewers to seek out still higher peaks. For mainstream viewers, the top of the mountain is a type of exhilarating cinema they've never realized that they've always wanted to see. For anime fans, the flag we seek to post at the top of the mountain is the ability to experience theatrical anime the way it was meant to be seen- on a massive theatrical screen with dozens of other totally enthralled viewers sharing in the experience.

John Oppliger is the news and answer guy editor of the online shopping site (

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