Astro Bwana

astro boyTezuka Productions is threatening to flog off Astro Boy to a number of emerging markets, not as a cartoon for dubbing, but as an idea to be entirely remade.

According to Variety, Tezuka’s general manager Yoshihiro Shimizu is already in talks with Nigeria’s Channel TV, as the first of several possible markets that might buy Astro Boy the idea, rather than the cartoon itself. So Swahili telly gets a superhero called Nyota Mvulana or something similar, and nobody knows it was Japanese to begin with.

Why are they doing this? This is a concerted effort by Tezuka Pro to get its nose into a Cool Japan trough of arts funding for a minimum amount of effort. Making an all-new cartoon will still cost money. But emailing old scripts to a new business partner will cost nothing, and still counts on some level as a form of cultural production. So let the Nigerians do all the work, and you can collect your 5% licensing fee, and your government grant without having to lift a finger.

But this also offers fantastic chances for true localisation. Just as Suraj the Rising Star threw away the baseball and the Japanese setting to turn Star of the Giants into an Indian rags-to-riches story about cricket, a whole bunch of anime storylines can be rendered entirely local. This helps remove a Japanese identity that, in some countries, would be unwelcome, ungracious or ill-advised.

The Japanese-ness of Japanese animation has been obscured from much of its viewing public for much of its existence. Maybe we’ll look on the period from 1989-2019 as an anomaly, where people actually noticed it. Torajiro, the pre-school tiger who forms the epicentre of a media mix including daycare franchises and language schools, already has a large following in China, but under a Chinese name.

I wonder where this will end up? An Islamic Naruto set in medieval Spain? Ghost in the Shell relocated to a future Argentina? Rose of Versailles repurposed for 19th century Arabia? How about pretending everyone in Science Ninja-team Gatchaman is actually American? Oh, wait…

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #114, 2013.

There You Go, Astro Boy

It’s taken me a while to get to Astro Boy and Anime Come to the Americas, thanks largely to a £30 cover price. But I got there in the end, and my review of it is now up on the Manga UK blog. It’s great to have such solid information from Fred Ladd about the first ten years of the anime localising business, although I can live without the latter half of the book and its vague hand-waving about what happened next. That said, it’s still worth every penny, if only for the 100 pages of golden testimony about the way in which Japanese cartoons were treated in the TV industry of the 1960s and early 1970s.

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.

Lost in Translation

The top ten reasons why anime are “lost in translation”…

10: Lip Sync and Line Length
Lip Synchronisation, known in America as “fitting the flaps”, is a means of ensuring that the sound of the words being spoken matched the lip movements of the onscreen speaker. This can often lead to the addition of words on the spur of the moment in the dubbing studio – in erotic horror like Return of the Overfiend, this usually means the use of the F-word as a bonus adverb, adjective and noun! Subtitles normally suffer from the opposite problem – the deletion of parts of a script in order to make the lines fit a pre-determined length. Subtitlers must take into account not only the meaning of the line, but the reading speed of the average viewer…

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