China Syndrome

Uproar in Heaven, the “new” 3D film from the Shanghai Animation Studio, has a long pedigree. Based on the same Chinese legends that brought us Monkey, Dragon Ball and One Piece, it recycles Wan Laiming’s famous cartoon adaptation from the 1960s. And as a 3D cartoon, it’s a shot across the bows of the Japanese.

The statistics tell their own story. In 2000, there were only two animation courses being taught in Chinese higher education. By 2003, ninety-three, with 4,000 students. By 2007, 447 courses with 466,000 students. Meanwhile, Ryosuke Takahashi estimates that the entire Japanese staff of the Japanese animation business amounts to no more than 7,000 people.

So, maybe, the Chinese system is generating several anime industries’ worth of talent every year. Except if it is, where are they all? Clearly, not every graduate of the Chinese animation courses is working in animation, as otherwise we’d be up to our necks in Chinese cartoons already, not just a tentpole title like Uproar in Heaven. A good 12,000 of them are working in the ‘Japanese’ business, below-the-line on anime. A few dozen thousand more are working on American, French and other foreign cartoons. But that still leaves tens of thousands of animators, or people with animation ability.

However, what the figures don’t describe is the nature of the training. If it’s pushing a mouse around for a bit, that’s no guarantee that the next Miyazaki is sitting at a computer terminal somewhere in Shanghai. It’s noteworthy that the blockbuster Uproar in Heaven is an upscale of Wan Laiming’s original cartoon, made in 1961 and used here as reference footage for the 3D version. In other words, the artistry in the cartoon is 50 years old. I’m sure that in China this isn’t seen that way – far from it, leaning so heavily on a respected original is seen in a Confucian culture as a mark of great respect, and a marker of traditional values. Su Da’s Uproar in Heaven is a meticulous, superb restoration job that rejuvenates a classic, but elsewhere in the world, Uproar in Heaven risks being regarded as a prolonged exercise in glorified colouring-in. But it shows that those animation graduates are going somewhere… where are they going next and should Japan be worried?

Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #98, 2012.

China Crisis?

To Wuhan in China’s Hubei province, where prime minister Wen Jiabao had some words of complaint for animation students.

Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world,” he told students at Jiangtong Animation. “Let Chinese children watch more of their own history and own country’s animation.” But this was meant less in praise than in criticism. After spending time with a grandson we shall call Wen Junior, the prime minister was shocked to discover that the boy preferred Japanese imports to China’s homegrown animation.

“He always watches Ultraman,” complained Wen. “He should watch more Chinese cartoons.”

Wen says this like it’s the animators’ fault. I fully believe the Culture Ministry’s statement that there are 200,000 animators at work in China today. It’s just that a big chunk of them are working on The Simpsons, or Family Guy, or take your pick. And while that’s great for Chinese industry and keeps people in employment, it doesn’t automatically translate to a rich local creative culture.

The Chinese animation industry, according to its Deputy Culture Minister, produces 41 hours of content a week, a number that appears to even top the output of Japan, which was 35 hours per week at its 2006 height, and is probably more like 20 hours a week today. But statistics are never the whole story. In many cases, those cartoons are being counted twice. When the Japanese broadcast a cartoon (let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis) on TV Tokyo, that’s 25 minutes of animation claimed on the Japanese figures. But if the same show is a Chinese co-production, and broadcast in China as Exemplary Scholar Heroines of Dairy Production Problem-Solving, then those same minutes will also go on the Chinese slate. Meanwhile, Chinese in-betweeners and colourists doing the dogwork on a bunch of Japanese or American serials, will be surely registering that as even more “Chinese” hours. None of that is going to help them make the Greatest Chinese Cartoon of All Time, although one day it might help pay for it.

Moreover, discussion of media in China often suffers from significant vagueness in definitions. There is often an infuriating unwillingness to distinguish between movies and TV shows, or pirates and legal imports, which in turn leads to woolly thinking and bizarre non-facts. Shows are “banned” that are not actually available. Fan-bases develop for titles that haven’t been sold. We can see this at work here, as well. Wen Jiabao’s thoughts are certainly relevant, but Ultraman isn’t a cartoon at all. There was, true enough, an Ultraman anime, but it’s difficult to imagine that Wen Junior is watching a cartoon that’s older than he is. Although if he is, and he still prefers it to homegrown product, then Chinese animation is in even bigger trouble than Wen Jiabao thinks. But if, as I suspect, his complaint was correctly translated but perhaps misinterpreted, and Junior really was watching a recent live-action Ultraman TV show, then Wen is being awfully unfair on China’s creatives by comparing apples and oranges. The cost of live-action TV is an order of magnitude above the cost of animation. He’s asking them to make an impossible leap.

(This article first appeared in NEO 64, 2009)

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.