‘Monster’ malady

Hundreds ill after animated program

TOKYO — TV Tokyo programming director Hironari Mori told a stunned nation on Wednesday that one of Japan’s top-rated animated TV shows may have sent about 700 people into convulsions and landed more than 200 viewers in emergency rooms.

The trouble started about 20 minutes into a Tuesday-night broadcast of “Pocket Monsters.”

Monster “Pikachu” explodes. The screen flashes red, then blue, then red, then blue for five seconds. Then the calls for emergency help flood rescue lines in 30 of Japan’s 48 prefectures, or states, as ambulances start taking victims to hospitals.

The victims, ranging from three to 58, have symptoms such as convulsions, nausea, vomiting and dizziness. Some completely blacked out and as of Wednesday evening one 5-year-old girl was still in serious condition.

The one common thread is that they all viewed the program. According to medical experts, epilepsy specialists and animation producers, the source of the problem is a neurological reaction to the colors and the strobe effects of the flash, combined with the near trance like state of viewing common in younger children.

Some experts said the problem is similar to that of people who become physically ill from playing videogames, while others said the mass sickness could have resulted from an illness as old as television.

Dr. Yukio Fukuyama, an expert on juvenile epilepsy, said in an interview with Reuters that the bright flashes of light and color could trigger a phenomenon known as “television epilepsy.”

He said that doctors have known since even before the dawn of the television era that children are suscep-tible to such seizures.

TV Tokyo said it will not air any more segments of the popular animated series until it finds the cause of the problem. The network has started an investigation with outside experts.

TV Tokyo also issued a warning to people who videotaped the suspect episode, saying viewing that programming can induce illness.

About 10 affiliates are not waiting for the finding from the network’s blue-ribbon panel. They have suspended future broadcasts of “Pocket Monsters.”

The series is based on a computer game made by Nintendo. Nintendo stock fell sharply Wednesday, but the company was able to allay some investors’ fears by saying its game and the cartoon were completely different products.

Nintendo had been planning to take its black-and-white Pocket Monster Gameboy game to the United States and have Pocket Monster Stadium as one of the first titles for the new Nintendo 64 bit disc drive game player that is scheduled for global release next June.

The game allows players to search for monsters on the computer game board, train them for combat and trade them with other players. Despite the “monster” name, most of the game creatures are on the cute and cuddly side.

Parents, network officials and animated programming executives all forecast some fallout from the incident. But they also believe the nation is so addicted to animation that the entertainment industry will probably not suffer any long term effects.

“When an animated show leads to kids ending up in emergency rooms, networks and animation production companies have to reexamine what they are doing,” an industry source said.

He expects Japanese animation companies will develop a set of animation production standards and consider putting warnings on animated shows.

Top rated national broadcaster Fuji Television Network Inc. is not worried about the market for animated programming decreasing because of the “Pocket Monster” incident.

“This is more of a technical problem with the animation process” than a problem with Japanese animation in general, Fuji TV spokesman Seitaro Murao said.

Japanese animation, also called “anime,” is a multibillion-dollar-a-year business. The Japanese anime craze had fed the nation’s entertainment industry for decades, producing countless movies, TV shows and spinoff products. Anime is also one of Japan’s strongest entertainment exports.

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