Mostly Harmless?

Just stopped off for a week in Hawaii finalising materials for my forthcoming book on Admiral Togo, who spent a tense time there during the Hawaiian Revolution, and accidentally inherited an escaped murderer who claimed asylum aboard his battleship. I am sure I will write more about it here next spring.

In the meantime, on to San Francisco, spiritual home of anime and manga in the United States, where I have been staying with Frederik L. Schodt and poking around the alleyways of Chinatown. Friday was the official release date of the Astro Boy movie, so we were unable to resist the temptation to grab tickets and sneak unnoticed among the evening punters.

The audience in downtown San Francisco seemed split evenly between anime fans and families. Many of the children did not seem to have the faintest clue who Astro Boy was, which is the ideal way to approach this modern upgrade. The kids seemed to like it, apart from one little girl who started yelling “MOMMY I’M SCARED!” when Donald Sutherland started acting crazy… this is not an unknown reaction, even among adults.

There were a few tips of the hats to fans — a cameo for Tezuka himself, and occasional walk-ons for some of his other cast members — but the Astro Boy movie was largely and resolutely a reboot, toning down the death of Professor Tenma’s son Toby, but otherwise staying remarkably true to the spirit of the original. It was, in short, exactly what I would have expected a Hollywoodised Astro Boy remake to be, redolent in many places of Wall-E, although considering Tezuka’s influence on the world of cartooning, that might well be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

I sat there counting the number of Japanese names in the crew, and didn’t have to stretch my fingers too far. Astro Boy’s real influence, and its real future success, will not rest on the contribution of Hollywood — the likes of writer/director David Bowers and composer John Ottman already have resumes they can call on. It rests on Hong Kong, and on the many hundreds of Cantonese names that dominate the crew. Astro Boy might have a Japanese origin and an American sheen, but perhaps this film is better regarded as a work of Chinese animation. In American terms, it appears mostly harmless — a kiddie friendly, Saturday afternoon cartoon that is unlikely to make Pixar worry. But in Chinese terms, it could be seen to represent an incredible leap in talent and technique, lifting the capabilities of Chinese animators so high that they could now be positioned to give American cartoons, and indeed anime itself, a serious run for their money. And if money is the key, then this release is sure to be regarded in China as a “local” production, evading import quotas and heading out into the world’s largest market.

Astro Boy famously speaks more than 60 languages, but the only one he may really need is Mandarin.

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