It was the animals that started it. My wife and I had finished enjoying Miyazaki’s “Porco Rosso” on DVD last night and were flicking through the TV channels when we came across an ad for Sony Animation’s new flick “Open Season”. It prompted my wife to remark that Japanese animators had more creativity because they stepped boldly into the weirdest realms of their imaginations, as opposed to North American animation story-tellers who tend to stick with comfortable repeats of animal stories.
I’m not so sure about that.
Now, it should be noted that the two of us come from different backgrounds with different animation influences as we grew up. She’s a Hong Kong Chinese who had a lot of Japan’s anime on the TV and movie screens of her childhood, seasoned liberally with Western animated fare brought in by that freeport’s English masters.
Myself, being a Canadian boy brought up in south-western Ontario, I had the expected hefty dose of Disney (the first movie my parents ever took me to see as a little tyke was “Pete’s Dragon”), Looney Toons, and the Walter Lantz fare (“Woody Woodpecker” and “Chilly Willy”). Credit too to various other North American sources like Hanna Barbara (“The Flintstones”, “Yogi Bear”) and Filmation (“Fat Albert”, “He-Man”, “Gilligan’s Planet”) and later on whoever produced “G.I. Joe” and “The Transformers”. And my TV hours were also spiced with a bit of anime in the form of “Starblazers” (the sanitized, Americanized import of “Space Cruiser Yamato”) and “Battle of the Planets” (“Gotchamon” to the Japanese, again, sanitized and Americanized) and later “Robotech” (“Macross”, yadda yadda). There was even some British flavouring here and there in the form of “Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings” (ever seen Mike Myers’ old skit from SNL? This was the inspiration,) or “Dr Snuggles” (the wacky adventures of an English inventor – voiced by Sir Peter Ustinov – and his animal friends). Sadly, with the exception of the excellent "The Secret Railroad", there wasn’t much in the way of homegrown animation. Most of the good Canadian stuff was live action (it took a long time for quality like “The Cat Came Back” to come along).
Since then, through our teens and as adults, we’ve both seen a lot of animation from different sources, and not all of them feature-length productions from major studios.
But I’m still not comfortable with the question of who’s more imaginative, Japanese animators or their North American counterparts. It smacks of apples and oranges. But beyond that, I think there are more similarities than differences, and that puts them all pretty much on a level field on the imagination landscape.
What differences there are in the manifestation of their creativity no doubt arises to some extent from the different realities of modern life and cultural backgrounds. The Japanese are a numerous people crammed into towering cities of glass and steel on a cluster of smallish islands. In the past 150 years they’ve transformed radically from a feudal, mostly agrarian society to a wanton embrace of high tech, and seen their imperialistic world view brought to heel at the hands of foreign powers. Landmarks like “Akira” clearly illustrate artists trying to deal with the crushing weight of urban life and technology run rampant. A culture that demands homogeny has given rise to multiple movies and TV series where a single, freaky-haired, plucky, young fella at the controls of a giant robot (take your pick of any of the giant robot or cool tank serials) can save his city or even the world and get the girl. “Princess Mononoke” is a longing for a pastoral, mythical past where Shintoist connections with the spirits in the land and everything on it were not only relevant, but immediate. Mankind is brought low by seemingly unstoppable alien invaders in “Macross” and has to adapt the aliens’ own technology in creative ways to survive, and in victory join forces with some of those same invaders – not unlike the Japanese loss in World War II and subsequent economic recovery and rise to manufacturing and financial global superpower. Not a lot of animals to make life interesting in the megacities? Just invent a horde of them with special powers – your basic “Pokemon” and its ilk.
North American animators are coming from post-colonial cultures, where the imagination fostered in modern times is rooted in practical concerns of our forefathers who wondered and dreamt and worried about what was lurking in the dark depths of the forest that started at the edge of their farms, and what strange lands unseen by Western man lay beyond. We live in lands that despite our ever-encroaching suburban sprawl, resource exploitation and pollution, still manage to have huge tracts of uninhabited land where it is still common for people to disappear without a trace. Encounters between man and various animals, and opportunities for man to observe the behaviours of the animals, were par for the course in our cultures’ infancies, and are still fairly common. And in the remaining wild animals we see a freedom of behaviour, an innocence, a care-free life that we like to delusionally imagine our ancestors may once have had. Despite the Judeo-Christian foundations of our cultures that dictate that man is far above the other residents of the animal kingdom, it’s still a fairly common instinct to anthropomorphize the animals around us. No wonder the bulk of major animated features are about the misadventures of bears and dogs and cats and other critters, either in the wild, or navigating the perilous world of man. Modern urban life for human beings is turned into the stuff of animated entertainment in the form of Bill Cosby’s “Fat Albert” or “Undergrads” or blurring into fantasy or science fiction (for a much older audience) with MTV’s “The Maxx” or Ralph Bakshi’s “Spicy City”.
Do these differences in culture and style show on the balance some sort of superiority of one over the other? No. Merely that they are different.
And we can see many instances where each culture’s creativity is amplified by interaction with the other. Take the “Animatrix”. Not a single feature, but a collection where animators from both sides of the Pacific came to play in a world created by a pair of American film makers who were clearly inspired by classic science fiction stories from authors around the world. What about features from the 80’s like “The Last Unicorn” (yes, I know, Peter S. Beagle is a Brit, not North American, but it’s still a good example of Japanese adaptation of a product of Western culture) or “Flight of Dragons” where Japanese animators breathed life into stories by Western authors? “Ghost in the Shell” may be a high-water mark in Japanese anime, it may involve a hefty dose of cyberpunk, but it owes its form to classic American film noire – Bogart could be slouching the streets next to those cyborg cops, trying to figure out what was going on as he lit up another cigarette. The new “Martin Mystery” is clearly an updated “Scooby Doo”.
We should also be aware that there are many similarities – instances of parallel evolution: “The Transformers”, while it starred alien robots, was really a superhero show, and a good one at that. On this side of the pond, so was the “Spider Man and his Amazing Friends and the Incredible Hulk Adventure Hour”. Japanese animators have long had a fascination with trains – we see that in “Galaxy Express 999” or “Midnight on Galactic Railway”, but when I was growing up I was extremely fond of the adventures of a boy names Simon and his sidekicks Mr. Passenger and Melanie the cat on “The Secret Railroad”.
Let’s also not forget that both traditions also have left behind great, steaming piles of imagination-and/or-quality-deprived shit on our TV and movie screens. The Japanese really do need to put aside their pride (and weird school girl fetishes) and apologize to the world for the “Sailor Moon” garbage that slammed into the rest of the world during the 90’s. For our part, North America must openly admit that Bakshi’s attempt at “The Lord of the Rings” is one of the greatest abominations in animation history.
And if you’re going to argue repetition, that many North American features are about animals (and let’s face it, it does tend to be a zoo at the cinema), remember that the Japanese also have a tendency to keep banging on the drum once they find a formula that seems to work – especially one with toy marketing potential. Case in point: “Pokemon” which was quickly followed by “Digimon” and a whole host of other ‘mons.
Ultimately, both the Japanese and North American animation traditions have soared to stellar heights in their presentation of this world or the worlds of imagination, in their ability to challenge our intellects and/or tug at our heartstrings, in their ability to tell a good story. And both have committed terrible sins against this art form. Examples of the successes and failures of each are legion, and if I were to be even more long-winded than usual and start detailing my all-time favourites (many of which are not mentioned here), we’d be here for a month. I will be brief in this pronouncement: both are equally creative and are to be applauded for their attempts to sow the seeds of dreams in succeeding generations.