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Andrew Osmond on Japan’s chances at this year’s Academy Awards

There are two anime among this year’s Oscar nominees: Hayao Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises, competing for Best Animated Feature, and Shuhei Morita’s Possessions, vying for Best Animated Short. To date, there has been only one Japanese winner in each category. Miyazaki’s Spirited Away was the winning feature in 2002; Kunio Kato’s La Maison en Petits Cubes won Best Animated Short Film in 2008. What are the new films’ chances?

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If you were going by plaudits, The Wind Rises would look like the feature favourite. It’s won a slew of critics’ awards, from the New York Film Critics Circle, The National Board of Review, The Boston Society of Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics Society, The Chicago Film Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society and the Toronto Film Critics Association! But when it came to the biggest critics’ prize, the Golden Globes, The Wind Rises wasn’t nominated for Best Animation. Instead it was entered in the Best Foreign Language Film category, losing to Italy’s live-action La grande bellezza. Despite not winning, you could see the nomination as high praise. Miyazaki’s film wasn’t treated as a cartoon, but as a “real” movie, just as Spirited Away was at the Berlin Film Festival in 2002.

But it’s up against very stiff Oscar competition. Frozen, Disney’s computer-animated musical loosely inspired by “The Snow Queen,” has been a huge critical and commercial hit in Britain and America. Given that it’s up against Miyazaki, it’s notable that Frozen was praised for its female leads (and criticised for their outsized eyes!). Frozen’s heart is the love between two sisters, one a social outcast; her chart-topping song “Let It Go,” begs to be queered as a lesbian anthem.

It’s oddly fitting for Miyazaki to be up against an adaptation of “The Snow Queen.” One film which inspired him as a youngster was a Russian cartoon version of the same story. In Starting Point, Miyazaki writes, “Had I not seen Snow Queen during a film screening hosted by the (Toei) labour union, I doubt that I would have continued working as an animator.” Snow Queen is even echoed in Spirited Away, in the idea of Chihiro’s memories being magically stolen, as the children’s memories are in the original story (Frozen cleverly reworks the idea). Ghibli now distributes the Russian film on Japanese DVD.

Frozen belongs to the cartoon tradition that American and British people know – fairy-tale, musical, comedy, adventure – while doing new and interesting things with it. In contrast, The Wind Rises is unorthodox by any standards, Japanese or American. It’s a quasi-historical drama about an airplane engineer, two hours long. It’s the kind of experiment that critics like, though if you look at the Rotten Tomatoes page, you’ll see several reviewers weren’t convinced it worked as a movie.

And then there’s the controversy. The Wind Rises is about a man who designed warplanes and contributed to Japan’s war effort. It’s been argued that Miyazaki refuses to engage with the consequences of that war effort, the atrocities Japan committed in Asia before and during World War II. According to Village Voice critic Inkoo Kang, the film acknowledges the terribleness of war, but not Japan’s role in that terribleness. Kang is the film’s most vocal critic in America, condemning the film to the Boston Society of Film Critics (though they gave it their prize) and laying out her views in an article.

The Wind Rises isn’t the first animated film to run into political hot water (Disney’s Aladdin caused a storm in America two decades ago). It’s possible the controversy might even burnish The Wind Rises as a picture with “serious” credentials. But Academy voters may conclude that Frozen is the more diplomatic vote. Another pragmatic factor: Miyazaki has already won one Oscar. Remarkably, in the decade since the Best Feature Animation prize began in 2001, it’s never been won by an in-house Disney film; which is embarrassing for the brand that was once the world’s animation house. Quite honestly, the voters may consider it’s time the Mouse won!

For some pundits, all the above is irrelevant. What matters is which film gets the biggest “For Your Consideration” ads and promotions, and Disney, which distributes both Frozen and The Wind Rises, will be the arbiter. True, Spirited Away beat two in-house Disneys in 2002 – Treasure Planet and Lilo and Stitch – but Frozen is a far bigger blockbuster. And as Helen McCarthy wrote in our previous piece on the Oscars last year, “the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science is an American body with an American worldview… Promoting American movies is its reason for existence.” We’ll probably see Idina Menzel sing “Let it Go” during the Oscar ceremony. We definitely won’t see anyone cover “HikokiGumo,” which plays over The Wind Rises’ end credits.

If campaigns don’t wholly determine the Oscars, it’s possible that a film other than Frozen or Wind Rises could triumph. The most plausible dark horse is one which Miyazaki might like. Ernest and Celestine is a traditionally-made Franco-Belgian cartoon about a bear and mouse, with a perfect 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it looks terribly under-exposed. The Tomatoes rating is based on thirteen reviews, suggesting few people in America have actually seen it. In previous years, out-of-Hollywood cartoons were often Oscar-nominated: Persepolis, Chico and Rita, Belleville Rendez-vous, The Secret of Kells. They never won.

On to the Best Animated Short. The Japanese Possessions is a 14-minute film directed by Shuhei Morita, who helmed the lavish OVA space adventure Freedom. Like that show, Possessions has links to Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo; it’s part of his anthology project called Short Peace. Morita’s film takes place in the 18th century; a man gets lost in the mountains and finds a shrine, before things go weird. The trailer below is for the anthology; Posessions can be glimpsed sixteen seconds in.

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Again, Posessions’ biggest rival is probably a Disney film. “Get a Horse” has a huge international profile for a simple reason; cinemas showed it before Frozen! It also plays to cartoon fans. A meta-Mickey cartoon, it imitates a 1920s silent invaded by modern technology. Osamu Tezuka did similar things in his later cartoon shorts, like 1985’s Broken Down Film.

If the above sounds negative, remember Japan has its own Academy Awards in March. Indeed, they should arguably mean more to anime fans. The Best Animated Feature nominees, confined to Japanese films, include last year’s CG Captain Harlock; a crossover between Detective Conan and Lupin the Third; and the movie sequel to Puella Magi Madoka Magica. Most juicily, the last two nominees are both new Ghiblis, Miyazaki’s Wind Rises and Isao Takahata’s The Tale of Princess Kaguya. With many reviewers judging Kaguya the best, and with Ghibli unlikely to favour either founding father, the match looks genuinely open!

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