Eastern style meets Western story-telling in emerging neo-anime genre

Although the mania that anime wrought in the Western world during the late '90s may have subsided somewhat, the impact of Japan's most significant cultural export of the last decade is still wending its way through the non-Asian kids entertainment industry. In particular, Western prodcos, enamored with the genre (and doubtless sensing the currency it still holds with North American and European kidcasters), have begun incorporating the anime aesthetic into their new productions.
January 3, 2002

Although the mania that anime wrought in the Western world during the late ’90s may have subsided somewhat, the impact of Japan’s most significant cultural export of the last decade is still wending its way through the non-Asian kids entertainment industry. In particular, Western prodcos, enamored with the genre (and doubtless sensing the currency it still holds with North American and European kidcasters), have begun incorporating the anime aesthetic into their new productions.

To be sure, this is not a new phenomenon. Troll the dial now and you’re likely to come across shows featuring some of anime’s visual hallmarks–for example, the exaggerated doe-shaped eyes of The Powerpuff Girls or the frenzied fight sequences in Batman Beyond. The difference in 2002 is that the number of non-Asian prodcos that are currently shopping neo-anime projects appears to be increasing, as has the degree to which these companies are melding Japanese animation with traditional Western narrative. And since creatives are loathe to cop to an emerging trend, it begs the following question: Is the influx of Westernized anime properties (many of which will be getting their tires kicked this month at NATPE) the result of legitimate demand among broadcasters, or is it based on the hunch, however well-informed, that Western audiences are primed for Asian-style animation that’s a little more, well…Western?

Ken Olshansky, VP of programming at TV-Loonland’s New York subsidiary Sunbow Entertainment, believes the latter scenario is currently at play. ‘I’ve long felt that the mixture of Japanese visual and production techniques and Western storytelling could make for some creative properties,’ he says. While recognizing that some anime properties (Pokémon, Gundam Wing, Dragon Ball Z) have achieved huge crossover success in the U.S., Olshansky points out that the genre’s narrative approach has prevented many other anime shows from finding Western audiences.

‘Japanese storytelling is radically different from Western storytelling. There’s a ton of exposition, and the action will stop so a character can tell his whole back story: ‘As a child, I was abandoned by my mother in the Arctic…,”says Olshansky, temporarily shifting into dramatic voice-over mode. ‘You’ll be sitting there for three minutes looking at a talking head, which would never happen in Western animation.’

Still, Olshansky believes that using the look of anime–which kids have already responded favorably to–within the context of Western episodic television can, theoretically, make for a winning formula. He insists, though, that this was not the genesis for Kappa Mikey, a new series Sunbow is co-producing with New York-based Flash house Rumpus. Described by Rumpus as a raw-fish-out-of-water comedy, Mikey serves up an equal opportunity spoofing of anime and Western animation. The premise centers around a third-rate U.S. actor, famous for his action hero roles (and inexplicably popular in Japan), who is flown in by a Japanese TV producer to help rescue one of its ratings-challenged shows.

Much of the series’ humor flows from the culture shock the titular star experiences while he’s filming the fictional anime program and off the air, where his oversized American ego routinely alienates the other Japanese actors. ‘He’s kind of like Johnny Bravo, but with a conscience,’ says Olshansky. To accent the West-meets-East dichotomy, Rumpus has used Flash to render all of the Japanese characters in anime style and produced Mikey as a bulkier figure, typical of U.S. cartoon superheroes.

Rumpus and Loonland, which will distribute the show, both feel that Mikey’s main audience will be kids ages 10 to 14. ‘We pitch it two ways: to older kids as a sophisticated look at an anime-show-within-a-show à la Larry Sanders; and to younger kids ages seven to nine, who we think will want to tune in for the anime action and characters,’ says Rick Mischel, CEO of Rumpus. Sunbow and Rumpus, which is producing Kappa Mikey for US$185,000 per half hour, are currently trying to secure a caster commitment to 13 or 26 half-hour episodes.

Separately, Sunbow is also developing an anime-flavored pilot entitled Skeleton Key for Nickelodeon. Based on Brit comic artist Andi Watson’s comic book series of the same name, the 2-D show is more reminiscent of Japanese art, says Olshansky, but its aesthetic is close enough to anime that most people will interpret it as such.The show follows a highschooler who uses a magic skeleton key to travel to other dimensions with her shape-shifting fox spirit friend. Olshansky believes both shows will have broad appeal, and expects to secure distribution for each in the U.S. and Europe within the next year. However, he has no illusions about cracking the Asian market. ‘If you want to take a show that has Japanese production style, inject Western story lines into it and then bring it back to Asia, it better look and feel like an Asian cartoon or it will be rejected by the market,’ says Olshansky.

Though Savin Yeatman-Eiffel hasn’t ruled out Asia as a possible destination for his company’s neo-anime series Molly Star Racer, he, too, is more concerned with shoring up a TV deal in his domestic market first. The CEO of Paris-based SAV! The World Productions began floating the concept for Molly back in ’98, but met with indifference from French broadcasters, which he says were concerned about the ultra-violent rep anime was garnering at the time. Following the success of Pokémon, SAV! decided to dust Molly off for last year’s Cartoon Forum and MIPCOM, drawing rave reviews at both markets.

‘Broadcasters are hungry for product that has the energy of anime, but is not just a straight copy of it,’ says Yeatman-Eiffel. While Molly has an overall anime feel–achieved largely through the show’s frantic action scenes and a relentlessly pounding techno score–Yeatman-Eiffel says that visually it incorporates elements from the works of U.S. comic book artist Mike Mignola (Hellboy) and St. Exupery’s Le Pétit Prince, and conceptually from Hanna-Barbera’s Wacky Races cartoon.

The series follows the adventures of Molly, an Earthling girl who travels to the planet Oban to compete against a variety of alien species in a spaceship racing tourney that offers as its grand prize the chance to have one wish–anything she wants–granted. Molly’s look is distinctly anime-esque, but with a Western twist. SAV! produced the show in 3-D CGI, but it retains a 2-D look–an appearance the company accomplished chiefly by applying a thick black outline to its 3-D characters and ships. SAV! used the key frame method to give the characters more fluid movement. It opted for this production technique to distinguish the show’s look from other CGI shows, which tend to date as soon as new 3-D software hits the market, says Yeatman-Eiffel. But getting that look came at a high price. Each half-hour episode of Molly is budgeted at US$300,000, which is considerably higher than the US$150,000 to US$225,000 that Japanese prodcos pay to produce a half hour of anime.

‘Now that we’re competing with Japanese anime more frequently, as Western producers, I feel that we have to aim really high in terms of our production values,’ says Yeatman-Eiffel. The company has held preliminary discussions with co-pro partners in Europe and North America to help foot some of the production costs, says Yeatman-Eiffel, who is confident Molly’s unique look will win over broadcasters on both continents by the time he anticipates the show’s first 26 half-hour eps will be completed in early 2004.

For other prodcos working in the currently cash-strapped kids TV market, experimenting with a high-end anime hybrid in the hopes that it will wow potential broadcast partners is not a viable option. Because it’s generally cheaper to produce than Western animation, anime is proving to be an attractive alternative for cost-conscious prodcos. A traditional anime show uses fewer frames and more camera movement to animate its characters and action, as opposed to Western animation, which is a non-stop cavalcade of cash-sucking movement, says Sunbow’s Olshansky. It’s one reason why L.A.-based animation house Wild Brain is thinking about producing its new show Virus Hunters using anime-type production techniques.

‘As networks have less money to spend and there’s more pressure on budgets, it becomes a question of the level of fluidity that you can afford,’ says Jeff Ulin, CEO of Wild Brain. The studio is currently scouting for co-pro partners to help finance the series–which centers on a teen hacker battling evil computer viruses come to life–but has yet to decide what format it will produce the show in. Ulin insists, though, that the company’s decision to go with the anime look for VH was an aesthetic, rather than economic choice. However, for broadcasters sizing up Westernized anime shows, cost is a determining factor.

‘I don’t see many U.S. broadcasters buying Western shows if they’re just knock-offs of Japanese animation, because they can buy the best animation that Japan has to offer at half the cost of animation produced here,’ says independent animator Micah Wright, who has developed a pilot for Nick for his anime-esque show Constant Payne, about a 1930s-style pulp hero who fights crime with the help of his plucky teenage daughter.

That said, provided they have the money behind them, non-Asian anime that offers a distinctly Western interpretation can find an audience, he says. ‘Visually, a program like X-Men Evolution is an anime show, but it’s a very Westernized anime. Kids are responding to the cool Japanese-style designs, mixed with intelligible American story lines,’ says Wright.

Roberto Mitrani, director of international business at Barcelona-based Neptuno, agrees that prodcos that simply apply an anime gloss to their projects will not win over broadcasters or kids. While he readily acknowledges that one of Neptuno’s new shows, 2020, could be seen as having an anime look, that’s where the commonalities with the genre end. Set in 2020, the show is an animated comedy that stars a dysfunctional everyfamily and aims to satirize our current society’s fixation with materialism. Neptuno is currently looking for a distributor to help fund the show, which it hopes to produce as a 26 x 26-minute TV series, and also as separate Flash eps and games for the web.

‘The distributors we talk to about 2020 like its look, but that’s not what they’re concerned about. They’re concerned about the script,’ says Mitrani. ‘The key issue for them, and for us, is content. Look at Pokémon–that was a great show, but what made it popular with kids wasn’t its aesthetic, it was the story.’

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