Smithsonian Manga to Anime Seminar

Event Review by Ed Sizemore

As Johanna’s unofficial field reporter, I went to the “Manga to Anime: Astro Boy to Spirited Away” seminar at Freer Galley of Art in Washington, DC, Saturday, April 21. The seminar is part of the Smithsonian’s Japan WOW! program that is exposing Americans to various aspects of Japanese culture and will host events through June of this year. The event was from 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM with a fee of $45 ($30 for Smithsonian members). There were about 75 people in the audience.

The seminar was divided into three sessions. The morning session ran from 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM and was a Q& A with three Japanese guests. The afternoon session ran from shortly before 2:00 PM until about 3:15 PM and was a presentation by Susan J. Naiper, Ph.D. The final session was more Q&A with all guests, including Dr. Napier, that ran until about 4:30 PM. (Unfortunately, I didn’t arrive until 10:41 AM due to delays with the DC Metro system and so didn’t get the name of the questioner for the Q&A sessions.) Instead of trying to duplicate the Q&A format, let me share of some of the more interesting comments made by the guests. In the interest of full disclosure, the citations below are not exact quotes but paraphrases of what was said.

The first guest was Mitsuhisa Ishikawa. He is the CEO and President of the anime company Production IG, best known in America for their work on the Ghost in the Shell franchise and providing the animated sequence in Kill Bill.

Quentin Tarantino has always loved anime. He saw two of our films, Ghost in the Shell and Blood: The Last Vampire. Quentin came to our studio by himself without any announcement or appointment. This is not easy because our studio is an hour outside of Tokyo. We didn’t know who he was or that he was really ‘the’ Quentin Tarantino. The anime sequence in Kill Bill is very violent. Quentin told us to consider the show like it was from outer space and to make the sequence as violent as possible. So the staff listened to him and the more we listened the more we thought Quentin was from outer space.

When I look at Spiderman I see the anime influence. Sam Raimi said he was influenced by the anime Nausicaa. I like the cross-culture influences and how they stir up creativity.

I try to make anime with a good mix of 2D and 3D animation. Facial expressions are best shown using 2D and motion is best shown using 3D.

The tendency of Japanese companies coming to the US is to expand by building franchises. Production IG doesn’t want to do that. We want to expose the US to Japanese animation; that is the focus of our office in Los Angeles.

When you compare the male audience to the female audience, males fall in love with the world and the details of the world. If it’s a robot anime, males want to know the details of the how the robot works and want to buy the toys. Females fall in love with an individual character and not the whole cast. Take the J-Pop group Smack, women like one singer of the group and not all. You need to focus on the characters if you want to reach a female audience.

The second guest was Monkey Punch. He is most famous for creating the manga that launched the Lupin III franchise. He is also one of the founders and current President of the Digital Manga Association.

Thirty to thirty-five years ago manga was unpopular in the US. I attended the San Diego Comic Convention and was told by the attendees that they didn’t like the art style of manga. I went back to Japan and discussed this with the other creators. In 1980, a group of about 10 artists including myself and Osamu Tezuka went to the San Diego Comic Convention and did publicity for manga. This event helped to make a difference in manga popularity in America. Frederick Schodt’s book Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics also helped in changing the US opinion of manga.

I’m currently teaching university courses on how to write manga. I have about 200 students and they all want to be professional manga writers. But the reality is that only one is good enough to become a professional. I would love all them to make it, but that is impossible. I try to treat each student the same, even if they aren’t going to make it. Because even if they don’t become professional manga writers, they might work in another capacity in the manga business and this knowledge of manga writing will help them. Now that the Japanese government is recognizing the value of manga, my course may help them even if they end up working for the government.

I was influenced by American comics, especially MAD and Mort Drucker. Many manga creators are influenced by the American and European comics. The best creators blend the western styles while staying true to the Japanese spirit of comics.

My generation [Monkey Punch is 70] grew up looking to the US and the high production value of their movies and comics. My generation saw Hollywood as its mentor. Hearing that Americans are copying the Japanese comic style makes me long for the days when they were setting the standard. I wish Americans had more confidence to continue to produce great works of their own.

The fan’s response to my work is very important. I try to listen and respond to what fans are saying about my work. In Japan there is a voting system of popularity in the magazines, so you worry when your work isn’t popular. I try to make the story more interesting or sexualize the women more to keep the popularity up. Since my money is from the fans, I have to ensure that I make them happy.

The third guest was Ryuhei Kitamura. He is the director for such live action films as Versus and Azumi. He is currently working on the movie adaptation of Clive Barker’s Midnight Meat Train.

I went and learned filmmaking in Australia. I wanted to be a manga artist but couldn’t draw. I wanted to be an animator but liked to chase women too much. So I became a live action film director.

In Japan the creators of manga write their stories with the audience in mind. They know the pace of the readers and they know where to put cliffhangers to keep the audience coming back. Anime has had this experience to draw on. Japanese live action didn’t have a similar experience to drawn on, so Japanese live action films are still learning how to pace stories.

The big turning point in making anime and magna popular in the US was how the Matrix used Ghost in the Shell as a model. This opened people’s eyes to anime and manga. Hollywood movies are very important for spreading awareness. When I made a live action film based on the manga Azumi, I did it with a Road Warrior feel, even though the manga was very traditional. This swapping of ideas increases the audience.

I try to make movies for myself and my fans. All my films must connect to the fans. If my movies stop connecting to the fans then I’ll quit. I try to stay in tune with what fans want and pick my films based on what the fans want to see. I believe in the power of the fans.

The final guest was Susan J. Napier, Ph.D. She is the author of the book Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle, Updated Edition: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. She was one of the first, still one of the few, American academics to write seriously about anime and manga. Dr. Napier gave a lecture titled “Japan’s Floating World: Art, Manga, & Anime.” (Floating world is a reference to the 17th and 18th century court culture of Edo (modern day Tokyo). It is said that fashions rose and fell like the tides.) The lecture began with the historical antecedents to modern manga such as the monk scrolls of the 10th and 11th century and the 19th century woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai.

There are three modes of anime. 1) Apocalyptic – This is a theme common in late 20th century American films as well. The Japanese islands are very vulnerable to fire, earthquakes, and tsunamis. This vulnerability is seen in early Japanese literature. Also, the memories of Nagasaki and Hiroshima are still very vivid to the Japanese imagination. There can be hope in apocalyptic literature, since some apocalyptic literature talks of the a renewed or restored world after the great cataclysm. Examples of anime in this mode are: Akira, Nausicaa, Evangelion, and Barefoot Gen. 2) Elegiac – This is a lament for someone or something that has been lost. This has not been a prevalent theme in American art, but we see it more in post 9/11 America. Examples of anime in this mode are: Ghost In the Shell, Grave of the Fireflies, and Totoro. 3) Carnivalesque – A theme we are familiar with in the West. In America, we see this theme in the Mardi Gras celebration, a time to cut loose. People can hide behind masks and do crazy things. It serves as a release valve for society. Example of anime in this mode are: Ranma 1/2, Urusei Yatsura, and scenes of Spirited Away.

What are the qualities of anime that attract American viewers? Differences:

  1. there is no guarantee of a happy ending
  2. a lack of black and white moral dichotomies
  3. the themes of sacrifice, deep emotion and sentimental romance not common in American literature
  4. coolness of the look/design
  5. the use of action, sexuality and imagination

Similarities/Universalities:

  1. the realness of anime – how the stories seem to reflect actual people, events, and problems we encounter in our life
  2. identification fantasy – the way we feel we can relate to the characters and their situations
  3. stories that deal with coming of age, generational problems, adventures, romances, and comedies

I’m interested in the subject of fan power. Japan is promoted by fan power. The global image of Japan is going from a hardware giant to a software giant. I’d also like to know how the otaku culture in Japan effects the anime and manga companies. I’ve heard that companies are making products directly marketed to the otaku instead of the general population.

After the three sessions were over, there was still a half hour left for the audience to personally meet the guests. All four guests were very gracious in talking to their fans and in giving autographs and sketches, and they even posed for pictures.

Overall, I enjoyed the seminar. (I got a sketch and autograph from Monkey Punch!) My only complaint was the ticket price to attend. $45 is very steep for a one-day event. The week previous (Saturday the 14th) the Freer Gallery had an anime marathon as part of the Cherry Blossom festival. The director Satoshi Kon was there in person to present his two films and to answer audience questions. This event was free to the public. The low audience for last Saturday’s seminar is a direct result of the high price tag for the event. Hopefully in the future the Smithsonian will make events of this type more affordable.

5 Comments

  1. [...] for Comics Worth Reading, Ed Sizemore reports from last month’s “Manga to Anime: Astro Boy to Spirited [...]

  2. [...] del Rio re-imagines the DC girls at Comics Worth Reading. Also: Ed Sizemore reports on the Smithsonian’s Manga to Anime [...]

  3. Ed, you’re famous!

    I know we discussed this at the store the Wednesday after the event but it was still a good read. Thanks for the extra effort!

  4. Ed Sizemore

    Tommy, thanks. Now if I can just work my fame into a book deal and some tv cameo, I’ll be set for life.

  5. [...] Monkey Punch speaks [...]

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