I’m a big fan of animation. It’s true! Despite the passage of the years, I remain as eager to see the next Disney movie as I was when I was a child. Recently however this love for animation has taken me to the sophisticated and very interesting world of Japanese animation. This is not to say that I wasn’t aware of Japanese animation, in fact my first taste came from a translated version of Sailor Moon seen on Colombian television in 1997. Also on at the time were the first seasons of Dragonball (the old-school one, before Son Goku actually grew up…). However when I came back to Canada, these animation series were nowhere to be found on non-cable television, so I had to redirect my attention to their source material: manga. This appreciation of the combination of manga-anime remains strong to this day.
Several of the more well-known anime movies in North America come from the collaboration between Disney and Studio Ghibli, producing several movies that can be watched in their original Japanese or as a translation. However, unlike that which was usually the case historically with most Disney movies, these translation have been known to use famous actors. Although I tend to listen to the Japanese version – I quite like subtitles and I enjoy hearing the dialogue in its original language- sometimes the casting is quite fascinating.
For example in Howl’s Moving Castle, Christian Bale is cast as the main male lead! Those of you familiar with Mr. Bale’s work know that he is not known for doing very fluffy, feel-good roles. However he does have that superb voice (which probably influenced his casting as the Dark Knight)! Furthermore the majority of the voices cast alongside him in this feature are much more mature actors: Lauren Bacall, Blythe Danner and Billy Crystal. Beyond offering an interesting story, the use of this cast tells its own story!
I would expect that the reason behind these very different casting choices is the range and depth of the stories told with the anime format!
The complex natures of the stories involved in Japanese animated movies and the manga from which they are derived, crossing dozens of genres and aimed at a broad spectrum of audiences, is the subject of Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics (2004) by Paul Gravett. This heavily illustrated, easy to read, chronology of the history of the manga genre in Japan not only gives wonderful ties-ins between the evolution of manga and Japanese culture, it also provides several samples from the different genres covered. These samples give the reader a taste of the subjects, illustrative styles and diversity of Japanese manga, ranging from manga for boys, girls, men, women, older adults with topics such as sports, romance, Japanese history, alternate history and more. If you’re unsure that there is a manga genre for you or you want to read more about its general impact, this book is for you.
Among several translated Japanese anime that offer quite interesting English-language casting are:
In the more historical genre, Castle in the sky (1986) (James Van der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamill) and Steamboy (2004) (Anna Paquin, Patrick Stewart, Afred Molina). Steamboy is unique and satisfying example of steam-punk, creating an entire technology on screen based on steam technology. The Victorian-age location, with a special guest appearance of the London Great Exhibition of 1851, has a younger cast of characters. Castle in the sky is a mix between the subject of mythical and lost cities and almost steam-punk technology. Both these movies take place in a more European-type setting, easily recognizable to the Western viewer.
Spirited Away (2001) and Akira (1988), although belonging to significantly different genres, the first firmly based in Japanese folklore, with humans interacting with mythical creatures; the second based in a dystopian future, both are noticeably and visually Japanese. Furthermore, both these movies must be seen in their original Japanese, as there are no translations. These two classics of Japanese anime are not to be missed. Spirited Away, which received the Oscar for Best Animated Feature, is certainly on the less graphic or gory side than Akira. Then again, when compared to other live-action dystopian movies such as Terminator or Mad Max, it really is a matter of degree!
An important element I’d also like you to take away from this post however is the fact that this multi-audience phenomenon exists more and more in mainstream Western animated features as well. The one I am the most familiar with is one I’ve mentioned in this blog before: the DC animated universe. Some might argue that these stories are simply aimed at comic book fans and that, as they say, is that. However modern comics amateurs are not all male pre-teens and teens. A large proportion of comic book readers are in fact adults (just check out the line up at the next Free Comic Book day or the next Comic Conference in your area if you have any doubts) as well as female, and storylines in these comic books reflect the nature of their audience. Yet the movies derived from these stories often are classified and located along with kids or teen movies.
There are several movies from the DC universe repertoire that I would not show my younger nieces or nephews such as Batman: Under the Red Hood (with Bruce Greenwood, an excellent choice for the voice of Batman and a role he has taken on again for Young Justice), the first season of Justice League: Unlimited, Batman: Gotham Knight (incidentally a project entirely animated using Japanese anime) and Batman: Year One.
I realize as I write this that a trend is emerging from the previous list: Batman movies are indeed grittier than other DC animated movies, but they seem to more easily and successfully translated to the screen.
There are others of course, such as the most famous Shrek and the superhero movie the Incredibles.
And so I close this post by asking movie and story lovers to try some Japanese and Western animated features. You might be surprised and impressed by what an imagination unfettered by the limitations of the green-screen and live-action world can create!