The Animatrix and Anime’s Burgeoning Influence

In my ongoing, eager discussion of Japanese popular culture, I’ve neglected to mention one of the most heartening kudos for an anime film has received in quite a while. In March 2003, Hayao Miyazaki’s groundbreaking film Spirited Away won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Many fans of anime had been fervently hoping for this win, but few thought it would actually happen.

The Academy never has to publicly justify their choices, so it will remain unknown whether the voters preferred the artistry of Spirited Away, or whether they hoped to show that America was as capable of appreciating good cinema as the rest of the world. Spirited Away is the film that won the prestigious Golden Bear at the 2002 Berlin International Film Festival, where the anime work was not ghetto-ized into an “animated film” category, but instead competed against “real” live-action films. After all, the Best Animated Film category was created because Disney’s Beauty and the Beast had been nominated for Best Picture in 1991, and the Academy didn’t like the idea of animation playing with the big boys. Still, it seems as if Spirited Away‘s Oscar win may bode well for the future of Japanese animation outside of its country of origin.

Although anime is becoming increasingly popular as a cinematic medium in its own right, its immediate future may be reflected in forthcoming live-action films. Following the pattern set by the recent release of Gore Verbinski’s The Ring (2002), which was based on Hideo Nakata’s 1998 film of the same name, much of anime’s influence in Hollywood will be in the form of reworking previously existing anime titles for a Western audience. Reportedly, Twentieth Century Fox has acquired the rights to produce a film from the Dragonball series of anime and manga, Warner Brothers will remake Akira, Darren Aronofsky (Pi, Requiem for a Dream) will direct a remake of Lone Wolf and Cub, Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, XXX) will direct a remake of Kite, James Cameron wants to direct a remake of Battle Angel Alita, and a (hopefully non-cringe-inducing) version of Ninja Scroll will be made by the producers of the Mortal Kombat films. However, the news of the summer has to be the announcement of plans for a live-action Neon Genesis Evangelion film, a synergistic collaboration among Gainax (the original creators of the animated series), A.D.V. Films (the producers of the English-language version) and Weta Workshop (the special effects studio co-founded by Peter Jackson and best known for its work of the Lord of the Rings films).

While it is not an uncommon practice for live-action films or television series to be based on anime or manga (comics) in Japan, it is an unusual market for American films. Perhaps the recent spate of native comic book superhero films in the U.S. has something to do with the planned remakes of anime films and series. When it comes to box-office potential, a formula is a formula, and a certain amount of mileage can be wrung from a “comic adaptation”, whether it is originally a native product or not. With an already established fan base for the originals, these adaptations have the potential to generate considerable profits for the studios.

Far more interesting than the remakes, however, are the live-action films that have incorporated the aesthetics of Japanese animation. A recent article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel quotes director John Singleton as saying that anime style was an influence on his film 2 Fast 2 Furious, and other directors interested in anime include Guillermo del Toro and the aforementioned James Cameron. The most notable use of anime in mainstream American cinema comes from the Wachowski brothers and the phenomenal Matrix series of films. Now the Wachowskis are trying to pay homage to their influences through a series of short films, recently released on DVD, called The Animatrix.

From the outset, The Matrix was trying to incorporate elements of Japanese animation into its finished product. Matrix producer Joel Silver says, in one of the many special features on The Animatrix DVD, that the Wachowski brothers showed him Mamoru Oshii’s anime film Ghost in the Shell (1995) and told him they wanted to try to make something like that film using live actors. They succeeded in creating a film that not only broke new visual ground for a live-action film, but also had many of its roots in Japanese animation.

With the release of the two Matrix sequels this year, the Wachowski brothers decided to both expand on the universe of The Matrix and expose Japanese animation to a larger audience. The Animatrix consists of nine short animated films that flesh out the world of The Matrix, providing back story and additional adventures. The directors include Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll, Wicked City), Koji Morimoto (who directed the acclaimed “Magnetic Rose” segment of Memories), Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop, Macross Plus), Peter Chung (Aeon Flux), and Mahiro Maeda (Blue Submarine No. 6).

Curiously absent from The Animatrix is a contribution from Ghost in the Shell director Oshii, whose cyberpunk leanings and artistic sensibilities would have made for an interesting short film in the Matrix universe. It is unknown if the Wachowskis even approached Oshii regarding The Animatrix, and the Japanese director may have seen too many similarities between his film and The Matrix for his own taste. Said Oshii on meeting the Wachowski brothers from an interview by Charles McCarter on, “Of course, I was happy, but it had kind of a creepy feeling to it. I felt strange. I almost think it would have been better if we didn’t meet.”

Although Oshii’s next film, Avalon (2001), was a project he said he had been working on for a while, it feels like it may be his response to the ideas the Wachowskis pose in The Matrix. Avalon focuses on the difference between what is real and what is a dream, a common trope running through Oshii’s films picked up by the Wachowski brothers for their film. While the real and the dream in The Matrix seems to be well defined if one has the ability to perceive it, in Avalon it is not nearly as clear. Given the interest generated by The Matrix in the United States, it would be interesting to see how Avalon would fare over here. (However, the future of the film is in limbo as, while Miramax has secured North American rights, the studio doesn’t have the best reputation regarding its treatment of foreign films. See Erich Kuersten’s previous PopMatters article “Shaolin Soccer, Miramax, and the Question of Subtitles.”)

The Animatrix is interesting because of what it means regarding crossover influences within a national popular culture. To wit, I abhor dubbed films of any sort; I would rather watch a film in its original tongue, or not at all. But how do I watch The Animatrix? Andy and Larry Wachowski wrote four of the nine shorts, so that would mean that their “original” language is English. Then again, since the shorts are directed by Japanese directors, perhaps Japanese is the “original” language. How is one to decide the method of viewing? Such conundrums are indicative of the internationalizing role of popular culture in the world today — in both good and bad ways, pop culture is becoming world culture.

The cooperative nature of The Animatrix is exciting because of what it may mean for animation around the world. With the popularity of The Matrix, more people are probably going to give The Animatrix a try (helped along, I’m sure by large promotional pushes), and may see that animation can be an effective medium for telling an intelligent story. At the same time, in their collaboration with Japanese artists and directors, the Wachowski brothers may have stimulated a new avenue for growth within the anime industry — perhaps further U.S / Japan film co-productions are on their way. While the slogan of anime distributor Central Park Media of “World peace through shared popular culture” is probably overly optimistic, collaborations on films such as The Animatrix are indicative of a maturation of both animation itself and the general public’s perceptions of such a medium.

Be warned, Oscars: animation is going to be shooting for that Best Picture award again, soon.