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Anime: not just cartoon conflict

Japan's Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Ishii wage a stylistic battle U.S. studios can't understand or ignore.

February 20, 2005|Bruce Wallace | Times Staff Writer

Outside of Miyazaki's movies, which Disney is marketing to a wide audience, anime sales are being damaged by the high number of titles competing for cult buyers in an expensive retail DVD market, says Trulee Karahashi, of the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation in Anaheim.

As a result, while manga (comic book) sales are booming in the U.S., anime has hit a wall in the American market, though Karahashi says establishment directors like Miyazaki and Oshii are the anime equivalents of Spielberg and Lucas.Oshii sees himself as the rebel of the pair, but the rebellion remains mostly in his head. He may have been a leftist radical in the 1970s, "closer to the terrorists than the people chasing them," he says. But then, his current anime hero is a cop in the anti-terrorist squad.

Oshii too balks at making concessions to predictability in his storytelling -- it takes good concentration to keep up with Batou's philosophical tripping.

"I'm very good at creating pictures, but I don't like over-edited films," Oshii says. "There's a belief we have to amuse the audience. But if 'Innocence' is hard to understand, it's because I want the audience to step up and think about certain themes." No wonder his script perplexed Hollywood executives. With Oshii in tow, Production IG head Mitsuhisa Ishikawa made the rounds at Warner, Fox and finally DreamWorks. "Nobody could understand it," Ishikawa says, recalling the story pitches.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday February 21, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
Anime director -- The last name of Japanese anime film director Mamoru Oshii was misspelled as Ishii in a headline in Sunday's Calendar section.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday February 27, 2005 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 0 inches; 21 words Type of Material: Correction
Anime director -- The last name of Japanese anime filmmaker Mamoru Oshii was misspelled as Ishii in a headline last Sunday.

At DreamWorks, Jeffrey Katzenberg didn't like the script either. But he liked the look of a two-minute trailer Oshii had put together and offered to provide a screenwriter while "taking Oshii's suggestions on board," says Ishikawa.

"That was an important moment," the producer says. "They were telling us: 'We know what sells in the U.S.' And I was torn. Should I take Oshii's side? Or take the money?" In the end, Oshii's script remained, and Katzenberg made a deal to distribute the film.

"Look," Ishikawa continues. " 'Innocence' is even difficult for me to understand. But I trust Oshii's talent. And if you dilute it for an American audience, it wouldn't be cyberpunk anymore."

Growing pains

Perhaps the obsession with having neat plots and tidy endings is the West's problem. The Japanese seem far less perturbed by Miyazaki's confusing plots or Oshii's surrealism.

"Western interviewers always ask me: 'What is the ghost?' " Oshii says with a laugh. "Japanese people understand there is a ghost in everything -- in your PC or your car. What Japanese interviewers want to know is why Batou has a dog." This crisis of confidence, then, may be simply the growing pains of an art form that has come out of the East and is not prepared to file down its edges to meet Western expectations. The look may seem internationalized, with Miyazaki's Sophie running through Middle Europe's town squares. But postwar Japan has always imported Western elements and internalized them. Miyazaki and Oshii are making Japanese films, with Japanese themes. And they are drawn primarily for an audience coping with the stresses of 21st century Japan.

"Japan now has no hope in general," Suzuki says. "It's the reason Miyazaki's films are so popular here: His films give the audience the energy to live.

"Miyazaki is saying that no matter what era you live in, beauty exists. And though the audience expects to see some kind of destruction in the film, in the end, they know he will give them hope."

Hisako Ueno of The Times' Tokyo bureau contributed to this story.

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