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A Different Animation World : 'Samurai Cyborgs & Outrageous Babes' 'toon fest at UCLA has Japan's stamp.


As the growing number of otaku (American fans of anime) can attest, animation in Japan is very different from what Americans are accustomed to seeing.

In the United States, virtually every feature has followed the upbeat musical comedy model Walt Disney established in 1937 with "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." Nuanced acting and lip-sync dialogue bring the characters to life as individuals. Although they exist in a wholesome never-never land where the hero and heroine invariably marry and everyone sings at the drop of a plot point, Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel and Beast exist as personalities beyond the screen.

Although foreign audiences around the world warmly embrace American animated movies, particularly those of the Walt Disney Co., the Japanese in general view modern U.S. 'toon fare with disdain. Japan, which usually is enthusiastic in the extreme about anything American, is the one market where Disney is routinely disappointed in the performance of its animated features. For the most part, many Japanese simply won't go see them. Interestingly, merchandise based on classic Disney characters sells extremely well.

Japanese films may not offer subtle character animation, but they boast a much wider range of styles and genres. Directors with visions as individual as Kubrick or Altman use state-of-the-art cutting, staging and editing to present stories that may involve motorcycle chases, bloody action sequences, laser battles, robots--and sex. The characters often lack vivid personalities, but the filmmaking is so effective, it sweeps the audience along.

Anyone interested in this hard-edged animated fare should attend the monthlong program of adult films, "Samurai Cyborgs & Outrageous Babes," the second part of the ambitious overview of Japanese animation organized by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, Saturday-June 1. Most of the films have English subtitles or are dubbed.

Robots, Warriors and Perky Teen-Age Girls

As the festival title suggests, most of the films in the eight programs fall into two groups: One involves giant robots, dystopian cities and alienated warriors who follow old samurai values. The second depicts the adventures of perky teenage girls--or robots who look like teenage girls--who run around in skimpy costumes designed to titillate both the male characters and the audience; they sport manes of blond, red, blue or lavender hair that Dolly Parton would envy.

Although "adult" means the films contain nudity, profanity and considerable violence rather than provocative explorations of serious subjects, "Samurai Cyborgs" showcases how differently American and Japanese artists approach animation. The American prejudice that animation is entertainment for children has severely limited the content of the films: Characters rarely do more than share a waltz or a single kiss before their inevitable marriage.

Violence is usually suggested, rather than depicted; nudity and sexual situations are infrequent, brief and sanitized. It's rare for an American animated feature to run longer than 78 minutes.

None of these restrictions exist for Japanese animators and directors, including the limit on length. Many features run for 90 minutes or more--"Mobile Suit Gundam--The Movie" lasts almost 2 1/2 hours. The violence is often extreme, if stylized, with bullets piercing bodies, fists smashing skulls, buildings collapsing and red paint spattering to simulate blood.

Hiroyuki Okiura's striking "Jin-Roh" (Wolf Brigade, 1998, with English subtitles), which opens the series in a special preview screening Saturday at 7:30 p.m., establishes the tone for much of the program. Set in a mythical late '50s Tokyo, its complicated story involves double agents, betrayals, false identities and conflicted loyalties in a special police unit charged with combating urban unrest. The internal and external struggles of Kazuki Fushe, the grimly taciturn central character, are far less interesting than Okiura's noir-influenced vision of murderous chases through a subterranean maze that recalls the sewers in "Les Miserables." This dark, violent film is definitely not for children, but it establishes Okiura as a director with an often stunning visual imagination.

In addition to being more violent, Japanese-animated films are more sex-laden than American ones, and the sex often takes on curious overtones. Katsuhito Nishijima's "Project A-KO" (1986, with English subtitles), a silly, slapstick sci-fi action-adventure, centers on a lesbian triangle. Two girls with unexplained superpowers--cheerful, red-headed A-Ko and rich, nasty B-Ko--duke it out for the affections of the repulsively cute crybaby, C-Ko. During the course of their duel, the pair trashes most of Gravitron City and destroys an invading spaceship. (May 23 at 2 p.m.)

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