When Japan Tries To Appeal To The West
The very very first exposure I had to anime that was meant to appeal to Western audiences was the short story implemented in the very awesome film Kill Bill Volume 1. The Origin of O-ren Ishii chapter. That little segment left a little seed in me that wanted more, I saw Spirited Away soon after that and was blown away. It took a few more years though to get me firmly into the fandom because at that point I was still clueless as to what anime was exactly. I still give a lot of credit to that little short film because had I not seen that I dont think I would have known or distinguished the difference between Western animation and Japanese animation.
Now that I am a firm part of the fandom I have come to realise just how few these types of anime are, is it because Japan does not recognise the west as a potential market, is it because they are simply clueless as to what would sell here or maybe they just dont give a crap? Either way Anime did and still does sell in the west and most of if it started because something special appealed to us but what was/is it exactly? I think the reasons have changed over time plus with the increasing growth in the popularity and access tastes have changed as well but has Japan been clued in on this? I think not and here are my reasons why
Like I have said before, anime in the west became somewhat “mainstream” after Akira was screened at various International Movie Festivals and Arthouse Cinemas. The popularity of Akira was due to a wide range of reasons, the main ones being the excellent animation and adult themed story lines. At this point the West was still not so used to seeing “a cartoon” with such subject matter so it stood out and sparked a lot of attention.Fast forward a little and Battle Angel Alita(1993) and the Ghost in the Shell(1995) movies were big hits abroad as well, the ironic thing is that none of these titles was specifically meant to aim at a worldwide audience. That was understandable because at that point the anime industry was still not as big as it would eventually become for Japan to actually pay attention to it. The success of Ghost in the Shell would not go unnoticed though especially when at the turn of the millenium a love letter was written to it in the form of the smash hit Hollywood Blockbuster The Matrix(1999).
Japan took notice and realised there was a market here, co incedentally right around this time was when shows like Trigun and Cowboy Bebop were being made which became huge huge hits in the West. Not to mention the very succesful home video release of Neon Genesis Evangelion in the United States. Oh and then Spirited Away got the Oscar for best Animated Feature, that was the final push Japan needed to take notice and start making Anime directly targeted at a western audience.
So What did they produce?
Well this is the Anime Industry we are talking about so they needed a budget and sponsors. The Wachowski Brothers funded a series of animated short stories that would be both canon and original ideas based on the Matrix universe. That compilation was called The Animatrix (2003)
This was the first compilation paving the way for a couple more down the line that we will get to. The Animatrix had the best of the best Japanese Staff and Directors behind it, with Yoshiaki Kawajiri and Shinichiro Watanabe just to name a few.
The Animation was good and the stories were unique and fantastic, The DVD’s sold like hotcakes in the west and was very good exposure for fans and soon to be fans alike. It is safe to say the Animatrix was a success because it achieved its primaray goal of exposing anime to a whole new audience. My favourite stories are still the original stories written by the Japanese, the spin they put on the matrix universe was both fantastical and surreal. Themes that I would say were very popular at the time. Both the Animatrix and Kill Bill vol 1 were released around the same time so its safe to say both those films helped push anime into the mainstream, for a little while there Anime was the new cool kid on the block.
So a film funded and partially written by Americans was a success what happens when they try to do it completely by themselves? Ofcourse the only man brave enough to take on that task was the very outspoken Mamoru Oshii , Director of the first Ghost in the Shell movie. The movie he created was a direct sequel called Ghost in the Shell:Innocene.
The movie was fairly succesful worldwide even recieveing a nomination at the Cannes film festival. The film boasted a brilliant soundtrack and magnificent 3D CG rendering that was and probably still is the best of its time. But to be honest that is all it had going for it, the movie had horrendous plot holes and failed to make any sense at all. Its like the pressure to create something that appealed to a wider audience crippled the writers. Its like they had absolutely forgot everything that made the original so dear to its fans. I would not dub the film as a failure but the truth is it didnt reach the heights it was expected to, even though Mr. Oshii still disagrees.
Just a year later another Masamune Shirow manga (the Original creator of Ghost in the Shell) was adapted to become a movie. This one was fully rendered in 3G CG animation and was packed with Mech battles and Adrenaline pumping action. Appleseed had a very decent story line and the setting was very remeniscent of the Cyberpunk/Futuristic genre that were popular at that time. The cell rendered CG was amazing for its time and to be honest still is, the characters still looked like your typical anime characters just 3D. Anime fans and Action fans alike loved the movie and rejoiced when in 2007 a sequel was released. The sequel titled Appleseed:ExMachina was produced by Hong Kong film autor John Woo and was meant to be just as good if not better than the original, It was John Woo for crying out loud it was going to be epic!
ExMachina had more plot holes than a shoddy piece of “Lost” fan fiction. The visuals were great , the same characters were present, it was in the same setting and the action was pretty much doubled but it just seemed like the writers had forgotten what made the original so good. It just seemed like sequels to prior “hits” just didnt work that well, when it came to anime anyway.
Because most of the locally written anime (speciffically targetting the west) was not exactly working, they decided to start adapting already popular Western IP’s. One of the first to recieve this treatment was the American comic book Witchblade. Naturally a few changes had to be made seeing as this title was not a movie but a Tv series. Basically this meant it also had to appeal to local Japanese audiences. some of the changes made were not exactly what you would call popular, they implemented a new lead character which resulted in a huge negative response from the die hard fans. The funny thing is the original lead was of Japanese decent so I assume most fans did not see the purpose of changing the character entirely. Also the series just sucked, this is when GONZO started to build up its bad reputation so you can only expect a sub par production. I personally have not seen this show and do not intend to watch it, everyone tells me its a waste of time.
In 2007 studio MADHOUSE produced the film Highlander: The Search For Veangance. It was directed by Yoshiaki Kawajiri and was very remeniscent of his previous films. Highlander seemed to be a perfect fit for the anime treatment because it had a lot of similar traits. However, the timing of its release was just off. Western fans had moved on from the overly stylistic violence and sex potrayed in most of Kawajiris work. The adaptation was true to the original but it just seemed off for some reason. Fans of the movie or the franchise think otherwise but looking from a neutral perspective Highlander just didnt have the bang it was intended to or would have had. Perphaps its because it lacked that original spin that the Japanese directors give to adaptations when given the freedom to.
In direct comparison Afro Samurai was a much better success, not by a huge margin but still better. The styles of the two movies was fairly similar but Afro Samurai as the name implies was about Samurai. Sure it had music done by the RZA and had american Voice Actors but the central theme of the movie was indeeed very Japanese. The western spin on the culture of the samurai is what drew fans to the movie and I believe is what made it a success.
The second Anime Compilation movie targeted at the West was Batman:Gotham Knight. This series of short stories was meant to hype up the audience for the soon to be released Batman: Dark Knight live action movie. All the stories were written by Americans but directed and animated by Studio 4°C, Production I.G, MADHOUSE and many others. The end result was a total of more than $8 million in DVD sales. The stories were all good and well written, the animation was top notch and the music was also great. The compilation was a success by monetary standards but I still believe it could have been better. Afterall this is the same IP that went on to smash Box office records around the world, maybe I am just being a fanboy but the potential of a Batman movie given the anime treatment is just limitless. Had the Japanese creators been given a little more freedom with thier work Im sure they would have come up with something great…or would they?
The First of Video Game adaptations was the series of short stories called Halo: Legends. Another Compilation but probably the best effort Japan has made to adapt something that actually worked. Again most of the stories were canon and were written by the American creators, these stories were good and provided a deeper insight into the halo universe. but just like the Animatrix its the original stories that were the best of the bunch in this compilation. Mamoru Oshiis’ The Duel has a unique distinct art-style similar to water color paintings. The Duel between the Spartans and the Arbiter was very similar to one you would see in a Samurai movie or anime. The segment “Odd One Out” produced by Toei had the ODST’s fighting a T-rex in typical Dragon Ball Z style. The compilation has also made $8 million and is still selling, so it was a success by monetary standards.
The latest in an attempt to cater to the Western audience ia the Madhouse/Marvel collaboration. A total of four Anime series have been created and just recently started airing in the US. The reception most of the shows have gotten so far is pretty bad. Even with flagship titles like Iron Man, Wolverine and X-Men it seems like the Japanese just cant find the right formula to draw the masses in.
Series like Full Metal Alchemist, Princess Mononke, Death Note and heck even Haruhi Suzumiya are better recieved than most of the titles listed above and yet they dont or atleast the creators didnt intend to appeal to the West. What is it that the Japanese just cant get right when they try to appeal to Western fans, even when they work hand in hand with the original Western creators?