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A genre redraws the lines of traditional animation

The first Los Angeles Anime Festival presents an overview of the Japanese style taking the world by storm.

May 02, 2003|Charles Solomon | Special to The Times

The first Los Angeles Anime Festival, which opens tonight at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with the U.S. premiere of the newest release from Japan's famed Studio Ghibli, marks the growing popularity and importance of Japanese animation in America.

Fifteen years ago, anime was the exclusive domain of a small cadre of hard-core fans. Today, virtually every video store has an anime section: Japanese animated videos reportedly will account for more than $500 million in worldwide sales this year. Anime has become a major presence on American television, airing on more than a dozen networks and cable channels. It's most popular with late teens and twentysomethings, many of whom run the thousands of anime-related home pages, character shrines, art galleries, fan fiction sites and discussion groups.

"Personally, I love anime: I love the graphic styles and the way it covers a much broader range of subjects than mainstream American animation," says Cinematheque programming manager Dennis Bartok. "We've screened a lot of live-action Japanese films over the years and done tributes to Japanese directors, but we hadn't done a separate festival dedicated to anime. So about a year ago, we started planning an annual event to showcase the best new material, including stuff that has never been seen in the U.S., plus sneak previews of things about to come out, some classic films and TV episodes, and gems from the past that have slipped through the cracks."

Director Hiroyuki Morita and producer Nozomu Takahashi will attend the premiere of "The Cat Returns," which brings back Baron, the magical cat from "Whisper of the Heart" (1995), by the late animator Yoshifumi Kondo. Most of the other films and television episodes screening in the two-week festival either have been released on DVD in the U.S. recently or are scheduled for release in the next few months. Several of them -- notably "RahXephon" and "Inu-Yasha" -- are popular in America. Taken together, the screenings offer an overview of the output of the Japanese animation industry over the last few years.

High points of the festival include:

* Miyazaki double feature. Hayao Miyazaki's "Castle in the Sky" (1986) and "Kiki's Delivery Service" (1989) helped to establish the Oscar-winning director's ("Spirited Away") visionary reputation. A fantasy-adventure involving Sheeta, an orphan with links to the legendary sky-kingdom of Laputa, her resolute friend Pazu and a rollicking band of sky pirates, "Castle" offers a fantastic vision of a steam-powered future Jules Verne might have imagined. "Kiki," a coming-of-age story about an adolescent witch, features a hilarious performance by the late Phil Hartman as Gigi, Kiki's sardonic cat. (Next Friday, 9:45 p.m.)

* "RahXephon" (2002). High school student Ayato discovers the Tokyo of 2015 that he knows has been shielded from the war that the outer world is waging against Mu. When the splendid mecha (giant robot) RahXephon hatches from a gargantuan egg and bonds with Ayato, he's drawn into the conflict. (Saturday, 5:15 p.m.)

* "s-CRY-ed" (2001). Twenty-two years after a devastating earthquake, a small percentage of people in Japan have become "alter users" who command the psychic ability to manipulate matter. Hot-tempered user Kazuma defies authority, embroiling himself in a brutal conflict with a special police force. Well paced and well directed, "s-CRY-ed" ranks among the more original anime series of recent years. (Tonight, 9:30.)

* "Speed Racer" (1967). One of the first so-called "Japanimation" series to air in the U.S., "Speed Racer" debuted in syndication in September 1967. Eighteen-year-old Speed Racer, his friends Trixie, Sparky and Chim Chim, and his brothers Spritle and Racer X, have adventures in the Mach 5 super-car. The character designs reflect the look of '60s Hanna-Barbera kid vid, rather than the indigenous style the Japanese animation industry would later develop. Although the program is billed as a children's matinee, it will probably appeal more strongly to Gen-Xers who grew up watching the show. (Saturday, 3 p.m.)

The two festival tributes honor manga (comic book/graphic novel) artists whose work has been adapted to animation: Rumiko Takahashi and Toshio Maede

Reputed to be the richest woman in Japan, Takahashi has sold more than 100 million books worldwide. "Maison Ikkoku" (1986), a romantic soap opera with comic elements, and the gender-bending martial arts comedy "Ranma 1/2" (1989) already enjoy large audiences in America. Her most recent creation, "Inu-Yasha" (2000), has been eagerly awaited here. Takahashi infuses what could be a formula "magical girl" story with vivid characters, striking visuals and unexpected humorous twists. (May 14, 7 p.m.)

The term hentai (perverted) was coined to describe Toshio Maede's dark, violent "Urotsukidoji" ("Legend of the Overfiend") (1985). The multi-part animated version features young women being raped by hideous demons. The three-part adaptation of "Demon Warrior Koji" (1999), which centers on a stunt-man/supernatural crime-fighter, includes similar misogynistic violence. Some fans feel that anime is still struggling to overcome the negative image it acquired from early screenings of "Overfiend." It's definitely not for children -- or faint-hearted adults. (May 15, 9 p.m.)


Anime festival

Where: Egyptian Theater, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood

When: Today-May 15, 7:30 p.m.

Price: $6 to $9

Contact: (323) 466-FILM or

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