Suraj is a poor boy growing up in Mumbai, under the watchful eye of his sister Shanti and widowed father Shyam. Dad was once a promising cricketer, and is obsessed with turning his son into a world-class player with a harsh training regime. Inexplicably fair-haired rich kid Vikram is an ace batsman from a family of wealth and privilege, who fears the potential of his slumdog rival, and determines to thwart him at every turn as they fight their way through the ranks of Indian cricket, hoping to qualify for the national team.
Suraj the Rising Star is not Japanese, but although it’s made in India for the Colors network, it is based firmly on the classic anime series Star of the Giants. Repurposing the original’s baseball story with wickets and stumps, Suraj allows Japanese investors to capitalise on a tried and tested formula in a new territory, without having to meet any of the standards required of “real” anime.
Story-wise at least, the tropes and scenes in Suraj have been hammered out and refined over several TV serials and many imitators. But Suraj has very little of the dizzying animation techniques of the 1968 original, and often features sequences in which the characters barely move. Backgrounds smudge all too often into impressionistic blurs when Suraj runs jerkily to bowl or catch, and the imagery often drifts perilously close to something someone might have knocked up on Microsoft Paint. But this is precisely the sort of criticism levelled against early anime in Japan, while young fans lapped up the new storytelling medium.
One is swiftly drawn away from the clunky animation to peripheral areas of studied difference – the subcontinental twang of the music, and the casual contrast of glittering modernity with ramshackle slums. Suraj is openly aspirational towards middle-class affluence, signified in repeated product-placement shots of All Nippon Airlines planes soaring above the slums, new-fangled Nissin cup noodles, Daikin aircon units and Maruti Suzuki cars that motor past swish Maruti Suzuki showrooms. Yes, it’s pretty easy to tell who the sponsors are. Suraj is still Japanese where it counts.
When advertisers and sponsors first became involved in the anime business, it was tentative and haphazard. Masaki Tsuji reports phone early calls arriving at TV Asahi from pencil manufacturers and card companies, who wanted to stick some of the earliest 1960s characters on their merchandise. When he picked up the phone, he realised that, quite by accident, the TV channel completely owned the relevant rights in Eightman. By the time of Sailor Moon, interests in tie-ins had ballooned to such an extent that one beleaguered Bandai official complained he had “literally no time to go to the toilet” when the phone was ringing. Literally…?
But how can sponsors get returns on their investment, apart from advertising in the commercial breaks? There is, of course, simple product placement, where cans of soft drink, storefronts and even blatant advertising billboards are placed in-shot. This is mostly harmless, although if you have a fantasy film like Berserk, it’s difficult to have the cast setting aside their roast dolphin for a Happy Meal. In such cases, extra artwork is often generated, such as the Lotteria tie-up campaign, which featured the powerful mercenary Guts and albino general Griffith tucking into a hamburger and a milkshake. The androgynous Griffith was also depicted with a shopping bag over his shoulder, looking like a Lady Who Lunches, in a campaign for a department store.
But some anime go beyond product placement into context integration – imagine a hypothetical anime movie, let’s call it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis Goes to London, where five minutes are set aside for characters to travel on a well-known airline, and then get mixed up trying to locate their hotel, causing them to repeat its name a dozen times. But this has been going on in anime for decades, most notably with the Gundam series, for which a company wanted its toys to be part of the story. Yoshiyuki Sadamoto once called Yoshiyuki Tomino the “pro’s pro”, for being able to take such behind-the-scenes demands and to fashion them into a story that still entertained the viewers. It’s being able to still be creative, amid such immovable limitations, that contributes to the unique look and style of anime.