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.