The Moviehunter

Pulp Culture
Pokémon is
not all there
is to anime


December 2, 1999
By Franklin Harris

Over a year ago, I predicted in this column an invasion of Japanese animation, or anime. Well, the invasion is under way, and at a faster pace than even I suspected.

I needn't go into the Pokémon phenomenon. By now everyone knows all about Pikachu, Charizard and Jiggly Puff. The Pokémon cartoon (shown locally on WZDX Fox 54) dispatches its broadcast competition as easily as Ash Ketchem hurls his pokéball. Nintendo will rake in over $5 billion in worldwide Pokémon sales this year.

San (voiced by Claire Danes) and the wolf spirit Moro (Gillian Anderson) fight a war against encroaching civilization in ''Princess Mononoke.''
Courtesy Photo
San (voiced by Claire Danes) and the wolf spirit Moro (Gillian Anderson) fight a war against encroaching civilization in "Princess Mononoke."
Actually, Pokémon is probably on its last legs. Pokémon was the Nov. 22 cover story in Time magazine, and Time never recognizes a trend until it has all but run its course. (To its credit, Time included a good sidebar story on anime in general -- the first such mainstream story to get all its facts straight. USA Today blew it when it tried.)

Wired magazine, which does a better job of staying on top of pop-culture trends, has a lengthy piece this month on the Japanese obsession with all things cute, or kawaii, that has helped spawn all the other cute, animated creatures just now finding their way to our shores.

It is worth injecting that American anime fans tend to adopt Japanese words and incorporate them into their vocabulary, hence the use of "anime" and "kawaii." The once-common term "Japanimation" is anathema to most anime fans, although, ironically, it is catching on in Japan itself.

In Japan, an otaku is an obsessed anime fan, something akin to your worst nightmare of a rabid Trekkie. Here, American fans adopt the term otaku as a badge of honor.

If Pokémon weren't obsessing the media, you might be hearing more about the numerous other anime movies and TV programs slowly building American followings.

Animator Hayao Miyazaki's epic classic, "Princess Mononoke," is currently enjoying a limited release in American theaters.

"Princess Mononoke" is the second-highest-grossing film in Japan's history. Here it has earned mostly rave reviews, with the only negative ones coming from people expecting it to be like the tame Disney musicals to which they are accustomed.

Instead, the PG-13-rated film is a medieval fantasy of man's relationship with nature.

The nearest showings of "Princess Mononoke" are at the Regal Green Hills 16 in Nashville. Call (615) 269-5772 for show times.

Another anime film in (extremely) limited release is "Perfect Blue," a thriller some have compared to Roman Polanski's "Repulsion."

Still, in terms of popularity, if not artistry, the movies are small fry when compared to the anime TV shows popping up everywhere.

There are two Pokémon clones so far: "Digimon" and "Monster Rancher." And the Sci-Fi Channel shows some anime (the same movies over and over, actually) on Saturday mornings. But bigger still is Cartoon Network's "Toonami," an anime-heavy programming block that has helped make Cartoon Network the second-most-watched cable channel. "Toonami," which features the programs "Ronin Warriors," "DragonBall Z" and "Sailor Moon," is so successful that Cartoon Network is rumored to be considering launching a "Toonami"-only channel.

In the past, "Toonami" has included the popular '80s anime, "Robotech," which is actually an Americanized amalgamation of three separate cartoons: "Macross," "Southern Cross" and "Mospeada."

In March, Cartoon Network will add "Gundam Wing," part of Japan's biggest anime franchise, to the "Toonami" lineup. And "Tenchi Universe," a popular anime already available in America on home video, is also scheduled to join "Toonami" sometime in 2000.

(A heads-up to parents: "Gundam Wing" comes complete with a huge line of toys and models, and your children will want some. Young boys especially are suckers for giant robots.)

If all this anime stuff has put you into culture shock, not to worry. There are several books that can bring you up to speed:

  • "The Anime Companion" by Gilles Poitras (Stone Bridge Press, $16.95) is an excellent reference to all the Japanese terms you'll need to know to truly appreciate anime, especially that available on video. (Most anime on video has been translated, but not Americanized.)

  • Helen McCarthy's "Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation" (Stone Bridge Press, $18.95) is an insightful and concise exploration of the works of Japan's greatest animator.

    In an if-you-can't-beat-them-join-them move, Disney has purchased the distribution rights to most of Miyazaki's films. In addition to "Princess Mononoke," released by Disney's Miramax arm, Disney has released "Kiki's Delivery Service," now available on video.

  • "The Complete Anime Guide" by Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney (Tiger Mountain Press, $19.95) is the best introduction to anime (including what is available on home video) you are likely to find.
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