Andrew Osmond on the silent giant of anime in English
Warner Brothers’ acquaintance with anime has twin foundations: a yellow rodent and a red pill. From Pokemon and The Matrix at the turn of the century, Warner Brothers and anime built a relationship that’s been more lucrative than any other anime incursion into Hollywood. The historic home of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck has taken in anime versions of Keanu Reeves, Supernatural and Batman, adding Pikachu to the western lexicon. The new Gintama movie has the characters trembling before the pinstriped brothers War and Ner, who declare disgustedly, “We can’t do business in the global marketplace with this vulgar anime!” Sadly for Animaniacs fans, the siblings aren’t as cute as Yakko, Wakko and Dot.
Warner Brothers’ handling of Pokemon and The Animatrix reflect the opposite ways that Western distributors sell anime abroad: either conceal its Japanese origins, or else make them a selling point. Pokemon was marketed as a straight kids show, and did massive business on those terms. Released in America in 1999, Pokemon: The First Movie earned more than $85 million in Stateside cinema. (For comparison, Spirited Away scraped barely $10 million in US cinemas a few years later.) Most of Pokemon’s preteen audience couldn’t care less about its Japanese origins, making the franchise comparable to “hidden imports” and for-hire work; think of Speed Racer, the original ThunderCats and the cartoon Hobbit. It certainly didn’t prompt an interest in anime as such. As Norman J. Grossfeld, the Warner 4Kids president who helped adapt the Pokemon film, said in 1999, “Right now, Pokemon's success has companies rushing to Japan to look for programs like Pokemon. Not for anime in general.”
The Matrix, though, was something else.
In press interviews, the Wachowski Brothers stressed The Matrix’s debts to anime – especially to Akira, Ninja Scroll and the first Ghost in the Shell (Carrie Ann-Moss’ heroine Trinity could have been Kusanagi’s scowly sister.) That was a boost for anime by itself, but the Wachowskis went further by overseeing The Animatrix. This was an animated DVD anthology, mostly animated by Japanese film-makers including Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Ninja Scroll) and Shinichiro Watanabe (Cowboy Bebop). Other talents in the credits including maverick character animator Shinya Ohira, whose impressionistic skateboarding defines the “Kid’s Story” segment, and Mahiro Maeda, who directed Blue Submarine No. 6 and co-directed the new mega-movie Evangelion 3.0.
In Animatrix, Maeda co-directed one of the anthology’s best segments, the two-part “Second Renaissance,” It’s a bravura depiction of The Matrix’s end-of-the-world backstory, showing humans conquered by the machines they abused. The revolt of the robots story is dazzlingly-illustrated pulp, but put on another level by its resolutely doom-laden tone and its fusing of religious-apocalyptic imagery and grim, contemporary references (Vietnam, Tiananmen Square), like the film Children of Men.
The other Animatrix episodes include Watanabe’s “A Detective Story,” a witty SF noir with beautifully-shaded monochrome city backgrounds; and Kawajiri’s samurai story “Program,” a vividly dynamic action piece mixing flat painterly designs (the simplified colours are stunning) with stylised, multi-planed 3D sets. But arguably just as important, the DVD also includes an insightful and balanced 20-minute documentary on what manga and anime are, with contributors ranging from manga historian Frederik L. Schodt to Harry Knowles of Ain’t it Cool, and Ninja Scroll scenes rubbing shoulders with Space Battleship Yamato and Grave of the Fireflies. It was a brilliant anime primer for Matrix fans curious about where Neo and Co came from – and thanks to the Matrix connection, The Animatrix sold in the hundreds of thousands worldwide.
The Animatrix was a true crossover. It was an anthology spun off from an anime-inspired American movie, funded with American money, where the Japanese animators were encouraged to express themselves and not blend in with American media. Another crossover followed a few years later; the anime Supernatural. As telefantasy fans know, Supernatural is a long-running live-action series from Warner Brothers in which brothers Sam and Dean Winchester battle ghosts and demons. It started on the studio’s “WB” television network and continues in its eighth season on the “CW” network co-owned by Warner and CBS. In 2011, the franchise crossed into animation when the anime studio Madhouse adapted it as the 22-part Supernatural The Animation.
Madhouse had already adapted Disney’s Lilo and Stich as an anime (Stitch!), but that was reworking an American cartoon for a Japanese audience. The anime Supernatural was targeted at fans of the live-action show on both sides of the Pacific, reflected in the voice actors. In the English-language version, Jared Padalecki, Sam in the live-action series, reprises the role in the anime. Unfortunately, scheduling problems meant his co-star Jensen Ackles could only voice Dean in the last two parts. Until then, Dean is voiced by the actor/playwright Andrew Farrar, who wrote the geek-pleasing play Killing Jar Jar. However, the American actors turned up in live-action intros to the episodes, like the Beatles cameoing in the flesh in the cartoon Yellow Submarine. Japanese viewers were luckier, getting the Supernatural dub actors for the full anime: Yuya Uchida (Doctor Franken Stein in Soul Eater) as Sam, and Hiroki Touchi (Doctor Easter in Mardock Scramble) as Dean.
About half of the animated episodes were condensed from live-action stories (one reportedly came from a spinoff comic). The main arc follows the first two live-action seasons, though with twists and changes to wrongfoot the fans. It highlights how far Warner went to integrate the series into the Supernatural franchise for cross-marketing benefits, just as the Animatrix was integrated into the Matrix. Arguably, Warner’s approach reflects how anime titles are consumed in Japan; not as a standalone film or series, but as parts of a cross-media network of manga, figurines, music CDs, games, bonus OVA episodes, and more. Yet Warner still promoted Supernatural as a Japanese animation, with original stories featuring Japanese spooks; the water-dwelling kappa and Bimbogami, god of poverty.
Warner Brothers’ other anime crossover projects include Batman: Gotham Knight. Like Animatrix, it’s an anthology, containing six short animated episodes by different anime studios and directors. Officially, it’s set in Christopher Nolan’s Batman universe, between Batman Begins and The Dark Knight. However, Batman is voiced by Kevin Conroy, who reprises the role from several excellent Warner Bros TV cartoons over twenty years, sometimes inspired by anime in turn. Gotham Knight’s Gotham City looks terrific; its early episodes lack a dramatic centre, but the second half improves immensely, presenting Batman’s adventures as a nightmare purgatory. The highlight is a masterfully told story of Bruce Wayne’s training and chastisement in India, extending the globetrotting backstory from Batman Begins.
Warner returned to the anthology format in 2010’s Halo Legends, based on the game super-franchise. Interestingly, next to contributions from Production I.G, Studio 4 Degrees C and Studio Bones, there was a spoof episode animated by Toei and directed by Dragon Ball’s Daisuke Nishio. According to The Numbers website, Halo Legends sold well over half a million copies, which suggests the tie-in format has a long future yet.
Warner Brothers has even extended the crossover approach back into its kids’ cartoons. Three decades ago, back in the 1980s, it licensed the first ThunderCats cartoon, which was animated for hire in Japan. In 2011, Warner licensed the rebooted ThunderCats by Studio 4 Degrees C, with much less disguised anime origins. It was probably encouraged by an anime-influenced American cartoon, Avatar The Last Airbender, which was itself animated in South Korea! Beyond crossovers, Warner has had a quiet hand in many other anime and manga projects. It has production credits on the Gintama film; it also produced the live-action Death Note and Rurouni Kenshin films, plus Summer Wars and Sky Crawlers. At present, it’s reteamed with Studio 4 Degrees C to produce its new Berserk film trilogy.
And now, of course, Warner has taken anime into live-action. It co-produced the Wachowski Brothers’ lavish remake of Speed Racer, a mostly-CGI simulacrum of a Saturday-morning cartoon. This had stylised kitsch images, Pop Art colours to make Wizard of Oz look drab, and pictures overlaid in sliding or zooming collages. The zooming action scenes were redolent of anime, pinball machines, toy racing sets, theme parks (the racing cars spiral through rollercoaster loops and pinwheel round Waltzer-style bends) and videogames. The cross-country landscapes are realised in 3D animated layers which shift and recede like quicksand.
Speed Racer may be seen more as a cartoon than an anime, a la Pokemon, but now Warner is eying two giant anime properties. One is Bleach, with a live-action film announced in February 2012, though we haven’t heard much since then. The other, of course, is Akira, the ultimate anime manga epic, surfacing and submerging as a live-action prospect in recent years. It seems to be dormant as of writing, but don’t write off what Warner Bros can do. Its a century-old brand that can outlast any of the actors, directors and talent linked with Akira so far; it could come to fruition with people we’ve never heard of yet. Perhaps Pokemon and Animatrix were just the warm-up. Warner Brothers’ real impact on anime may still be coming…