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Sunday, May 23, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Foreign markets fail to grasp soul of anime


If, as many people claim, Japanese pop culture is sweeping the globe, then anime is the hand that wields the broom. A number of recent big-budget Japanese animated features, including Mamoru Oishii's "Innocence," currently in competition at Cannes, have attracted funding from Hollywood without the usual Hollywood demands to make stories and characters more acceptable to non-Japanese (read: American) audiences. Disney is happy to distribute Studio Ghibli, because Disney has nothing to fear from Studio Ghibli and everything to gain in terms of multicultural cred.

It's the perfect time to revisit the legacy of the God of Anime, Osamu Tezuka, who started out as a cartoonist. Westerners are familiar with him because of "Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom)," which was broadcast in the United States and Europe back in the '60s.

Tezuka was inspired by Walt Disney, but while his draftsmanship owes much to the adorable big-eyed look that Disney perfected, from the outset the cartoonist was just as interested in enlightenment as he was in entertainment. Astro Boy was the robot that wanted to be a boy. This idea was suggested by "Pinocchio" -- not a Disney creation, but certainly a story many people identified with Disney -- but Tezuka took it to its limits. For most people, this is where Western animation and anime diverge -- not in its visual style, but in its narrative implications.

NHK is now broadcasting a new serialization of Tezuka's "Hi no Tori" (Sunday, 7:30 p.m.), which he started in 1954 as a manga. He referred to it as his "life's work," and he was still working on it at the time of his death in 1989. A sprawling multistory saga that explores the meaning of life and death, it has been animated before and produced as a live-action feature film by Kon Ichikawa.

"Hi no Tori" is about reincarnation. The "firebird" of legend never dies, and throughout these dozen tales, which extend from prehistoric Japan to a thousand years in the future, man's search for immortality provides the narrative thread. Though the stories offer characters who must choose, they are not didactic in the way Western fairy tales or fables are. They explore the meaning of existence, not the conflict between good and evil.

Some Western fans have called "Hi no Tori" a religious work, but while religion does pop up in some of the stories it is a function of the plot, not the basis for it. If any one belief system runs through "Hi no Tori" it is animism. Animals talk and robots feel, and their lives are every bit as precious as human lives. The earth itself is a living thing, and man is literally killing it.

Animism, of course, is also the belief system of animation in general: The two words are etymologically related. As a Looney Tune character once said, "You can do anything in a cartoon," but compared to what you get in anime, Warner Bros.' wisecracking barnyard critters, Disney's dancing tableware and Pixar's self-conscious toys are still limited by what their audiences will presumably accept.

Anime has no limits, either narrative or conceptual, and its audience would seem to be able to accept anything. That is the only explanation for the popularity of "Bobobobo Bobobo." (TV Asahi; Saturday, 7:28 p.m.)

Categorized as a "gag manga," "Bobobo," written by Yoshio Sawai, is a regular feature in the comic book Shonen Jump and last November made the leap to TV, where it quickly became a hit among the 7- to 12-year-old set. There's no accounting for taste, and even less accounting for kids' taste, but by any standard "Bobobo" is the strangest cartoon ever produced for mass-market consumption.

Purposely lacking in narrative coherence and populated by characters that seem to have been made up at gunpoint, "Bobobo" dares you to make sense of it. A viewer who drops in casually may understand that it has something to do with superheroes, but since the hero's main weapons are nose hairs that he brandishes like bullwhips, the term "super powers" is a highly qualified one.

It's animism run amok. Regular characters include a sun-shaped creature called Don Patch, a slab of tokoro-ten (jellied agar), a slacker with a head made of soft ice cream, and a chocolate bar. Bobobo himself sports a huge yellow Afro that is hollow and often contains other characters.

The show's humor is free-associative -- one gag leads to another and then to another without logical development. They're the kind of incomprehensible jokes that very young children make up except that the writers throw in references to current affairs, sex and pop culture that no child could ever dream up, and most probably won't understand.

The appeal of "Bobobo" is kinetic. It moves so fast that you don't have time to process anything, which is why it works better as anime than as manga. After watching the show, reading the comic book feels like a chore. (Admittedly, I may not be reading it correctly, meaning the way most Japanese read comics -- by skimming.)

As mindless and crude as it is, "Bobobo" raises the bar on anime, which means it will be a while before the West is ready for it; if, in fact, it ever is. Apparently, the United States isn't even ready for "Hi no Tori." Though the series is produced in part by New York public TV station WNET, according to one American anime-fan Web site there is no plan to broadcast it there at the moment. Belief systems are harder to export than Pokemon.



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