"Anime: Drawing a Revolution" is Garbage
Not too long ago, lots of mainstream news outlets were running articles that had headlines like, “Biff! Bam! Pow! Comic Books Aren’t Just for Kids Any More!” These articles were often poorly researched, superficial fluff pieces that expressed great surprise that modern comic books had four-letter words, graphic violence, and provocative themes. The idea that comics were a valid form of expression on their own and were a medium that had been shackled into a genre and an age group never seemed to occur to most of the writers of these articles.
The documentary film Anime: Drawing a Revolution might as well have been titled, Biff! Bam! Pow! Cartoons Aren’t Just for Kids Any More! It may also be best if you walk into this hour-long documentary, which airs on Starz tonight at 9:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific), knowing that it’s not really about anime at all, but rather about the co-opting of anime into mainstream American culture. It has little interest in the art and artistry of anime, focusing instead on how the American entertainment industry reacts to anime and borrows from it. It doesn’t do a very good job explaining that, either, but knowing this ahead of time will reduce exasperation from otaku or general animation fans, and also temper any mistaken impressions from those who watch this in the hopes of gaining understanding more about anime.
The film gets into trouble almost immediately by presenting the following definition of anime:
There is room for fruitful debate over the question “what is anime?” that stretches beyond the literal definition of “Japanese cartoons,” but this definition offered by Anime: Drawing a Revolution seems hopelessly inadequate. In addition to being so vague as to be virtually meaningless, it also delivers a backhanded insult to animation as a medium, since the implication of the statement above is that the norm for animation is not to have “highly stylized art” or “adult themes.”
It gets worse when the documentary goes from there to cite the live-action Sin City, 300, and Transformers movies as evidence of anime’s success. This leads to another of the film’s weaknesses: an almost willful blindness to the broadest distinctions of media. It can only manage to bring in the cinematic Frank Miller comic-book adaptations by noting that Miller is a fan of manga and appropriates graphic storytelling techniques from Japanese comics. The link between anime and Michael Bay’s live-action Transformers is even more tenuous, since it is through the original Japanese toy line and vague hand-waving about the importance of giant robots in Japanese cartoons. Conflating manga and toys with “anime” is exactly the kind of sloppy thinking that pervades this documentary.
Citing these three movies also reveals the infuriating message sent throughout the film: anime is not worthy of real attention on its own merits, and only achieves TRUE artistic success when it is filtered through American sensibilities and turned into live-action entertainment. An unidentified Hollywood type suggests that Cowboy Bebop would make a terrific (live-action) movie, somehow ignoring the fact that the existing animated movie is already pretty good on its own. It’s worth pointing out at this point that the screener copy we got seems incomplete. About half of the on-camera subjects are not identified, and one hopes this is not true of the final version or else it would make a bad film unforgivably worse.
The fact that this documentary is only interested in examining anime as it can be appropriated by American culture is also revealed by the fact that there are exactly two Japanese speakers in the entire movie, both of whom are given the same amount of screen time as actor Michael Madsen expressing genuine surprise that a cartoon could have real emotional impact (apparently, all those movie-watchers over the years must have been imagining their emotional reactions to animated movies from Bambi to Toy Story 2). To its credit, the movie does acknowledge the tremendous impact of manga and anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, and briefly mentions the success of Hayao Miyazaki (even if the narrator mispronounces Princess Mononoke). However, innovative filmmakers like Satoshi Kon are completely ignored, with far more importance and screen time given to works like the Witchblade and Highlander anime adaptations or Afro Samurai. Regardless of their merits, it seems arrogant in the extreme to completely ignore real artistic innovations in the Japanese animation industry in favor of these works simply because they are the first successful reverse-imports from America to Japan.
Another sore point for me is that every single anime clip in the movie is dubbed rather than subtitled. This would make sense for the earliest efforts to import anime, which transformed Mach Go Go Go into Speed Racer and mangled Gatchaman almost beyond recognition into Battle of the Planets. It is even appropriate for cartoons like Pokémon or Naruto, which are Japanese cartoons in name only to most of their American audiences. However, I can’t imagine that any documentary film would have the gall to try to explain the artistic impact of filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, or Ingmar Bergman by using clips from English dubs of their films.
After all of the above, it almost seems like rubbing salt in the wounds to note that the movie doesn’t have any coherent narrative thread, leaping around in time and subject matter with no discernible rhyme or reason. From the selection of anime titles they use, it would also be all too easy for a less well-informed viewer to conclude that most anime is big, dumb, incredibly violent action, with the remainder being split between perverse sex and Pokémon. Even something as creatively odd as The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya is used only to demonstrate the peculiarity of Japanese sexual mores. Furthermore, interesting historical or cultural points are few and far between, which is even more disappointing because the interview subjects include some notable anime scholars and performers.
“Ridiculous” is about the only printable reaction I have to Anime: Drawing a Revolution, and yet in a sense I can’t help but feel like it is simply a mirror of the current generation of anime fans. This isn’t meant to be as insulting as it may sound, but the reality is that most of the Naruto generation doesn’t seem that interested in the cultural underpinnings of anime or manga. The era when anime was a fringe hobby is over, with easy availability and the Internet giving anime more mass-market success in America than it has ever had before. However, one side-effect of this is that the new generation of otaku don’t seem that interested in examining anime as anything beyond the latest hot, hip show. I don’t believe they have much interest in the seminal works of Tezuka, which is analogous to a self-described cartoon fan not knowing who Walt Disney is or why one would care. Many of them aren’t even that interested in the impact of anything much older than Pokémon, and the only real long-running, cross-generational anime franchises seem to be the assorted Dragon Ball series and maybe Sailor Moon. Any messages about the cultural or artistic impact of an anime that’s more than a few years old just doesn’t seem like it would have much impact or value to the average Bleach cosplayer.
However, the popularity of anime combined with the fact that anime fandom seems to easily cut across divisions of social class, educational background, race, and gender makes it a curiously American art form. Despite whatever xenophobic claptrap may exist at any given moment in history, the defining characteristic of America is to absorb and appropriate foreign cultures and integrate them into the whole. The real success of anime in America is shown by the fact that many of its fans don’t really seem to view it as a Japanese product any more. I don’t believe that many anime fans today are truly aware that Ash and Naruto’s native language is not English. Like many side-effects of globalization, this realization generates fascination and alarm in equal measure.
Not that any of the above was evoked directly by watching Anime: Drawing a Revolution. The movie is nearly worthless garbage, and the only value it holds out is the hope that a viewer emboldened enough to explore anime because of it will eventually realize how terrible this movie truly is.
Anime: Drawing a Revolution will air on the Starz network on Monday, December 17, 2007, at 9:00 PM (Eastern/Pacific)