Anime: Drawing a Revolution

A look at the new documentary from Starz that explores the ever-deepening connection between Hollywood and the art of Japanese animation.



Anime: Drawing a Revolution


After flying under the radar for decades, the art of Japanese animation has finally joined the mainstream on American shores, conquering the children’s programming ratings war, inspiring Hollywood blockbusters like next year’s Speed Racer live action film, and even, in the case of 2001’s Spirited Away, winning Oscars. But what, pray tell, are those lost souls who can’t tell a Naruto from a "pokey-man" to do?


Watching the new documentary Anime: Drawing a Revolution would be a good start. Premiering December 17th at 9 PM Eastern Time with airings throughout December, January, and February, Anime: Drawing a Revolution is the latest in the Starz Inside series of documentaries for the Starz cable movie channels. Hosted by film critic Richard Roeper and narrated by Mary McGlynn (the voice of Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex), the special aims to summarize the history of the anime medium in America, specifically its increasing influence on Hollywood.


Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer, he's a demon on wheels...Trying to condense over 4 decades of history into less than an hour of television would necessarily require some trimming be done, and luckily Anime: Drawing a Revolution hits most of the highlights. Most information is presented in broad terms, though a few shows and creators rightfully receive their time in the sun. The connection with manga (the Japanese term for comic books, for those unfamiliar with the lexicon) is explored in a brief but informative portion on Osamu Tezuka, the so-called "Walt Disney of Japan." Japan’s greatest filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki (director of the aforementioned Oscar winner Spirited Away) receives the spotlight treatment, as do several anime series that penetrated the US television market, including Speed Racer, Voltron, Transformers, and an especially lengthy look at the late-70s hit Battle of the Planets.


The commentators come from a wide variety of fields, from actors who have worked in English language dubs of anime to Hollywood directors who are heavily influenced by anime to celebrity fans. The quotes from those brought in for "star power" reasons typically don’t offer much depth, but that is more than made up for in particularly insightful commentary by Roland Kelts (author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the US) and Crispin Freeman (a popular anime voice actor best known for his rolls in Ghost in the Shell and Hellsing, among others). The latter portion of the special is by far the most informative, exploring the Japan/Hollywood collaborations that were unimaginable just a few years ago, both in Hollywood adaptations of anime properties (upcoming live action versions of Speed Racer, Astroboy, and Battle of the Planets) and anime projects with Western origins (Animatrix, Afro Samurai, and the new animated adaptation of the American comic series Witchblade).


The phenomenal martial arts epic Ninja Scroll, most definitely not suitable for young viewers.While its understandable some things would fall through the cracks in condensing so much information into so little time, there are two glaring oversights that viewers should take into account when viewing the special. The first is the emphasis on the more adult aspects of anime. It’s impossible to deny that the "animation for adults" angle is not only a major portion of the genre but also one of its main selling points, but I can only imagine the scenes of graphic sex and shocking violence shown in the special’s early portions to start setting off "concerned parent" alarms. This angle reeks of the kind of stereotyping anime suffered from throughout the 1990s and has only recently fought off, and the fact that the shocking violence of Ninja Scroll isn’t counter-pointed by the wholesome fun of Pokemon, Yu-Gi-Oh, or ­Naruto is a pretty glaring fault. Possibly the most obvious example of the special going far too overboard in that direction is in the short portion on hentai (material that goes past the "mature audiences" realm and into full blown pornography), when images of The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, a fanservice-laden but very PG-13 comedy, are juxtaposed with the much more justifiable La Blue Girl as if they were equivalents, when they aren’t. They aren’t even close.


Also, one major genre is completely overlooked: shojo, anime created for a female audience. While it is briefly mentioned that many girls watch anime, no evidence is presented as to why, and with the sex-and-violence-packed images presented, uninformed viewers may be left scratching their head. Showing just a few seconds of Sailor Moon, the mid-1990s TV series that first caused the flood of female viewers to anime, would have done wonders in this regard.


Despite some oversights, however, Anime: Drawing a Revolution is still an insightful look into a medium that far too many Americans view as mysterious and unapproachable. Hopefully it can succeed in changing at least a few viewers’ minds. | Jason Green


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