Anime gives kick in the art

Asian flavors invigorate Western toon traditions

When Hanna-Barbera retreated to “limited” animation after the shuttering of MGM’s cartoon division, it was doing more than revolutionizing the art form in America. It also was inspiring a burgeoning Japanese artist named Osamu Tezuka to usher in a new era of animation in Japan.

“It was a realization that you didn’t need to use Disney theatrical quality animation,” says animation historian Fred Patten. “You could do it with cheaper TV animation.” Thus, “Astroboy” — and anime — were born.

Tezuka also drew from silent films and classic animation. “The big eyes were particularly inspired by Betty Boop cartoons,” Patten says. But the influence flowed both ways.

Anime staked a formidable claim on Western popular culture with television hits like “Speed Racer” and “Gatchaman,” but it wasn’t until a dubbed version of “Akira” opened in 1989 that Americans got their first taste of the radical possibilities of anime.

“Akira” developed a cult following, and yet most animation historians agree there’s yet to be an epochal piece of pure Asian animation to cross over completely. “I don’t think there’s been the anime (equivalent of) ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ yet,” says Frank Gladstone, VP of artistic development at IDT Entertainment. “All of the studios have toyed with the idea, but in my opinion, it really hasn’t happened.”

Even the critically acclaimed work of Hayao Miyazaki (“Spirited Away”) meets with modest box office success Stateside. Gladstone ascribes the limited reception of Miyazaki’s work to the animator’s Eastern storytelling style.

“Western storytelling is very linear — beginning, middle, end — and everything is resolved,” he says. “In anime, the resolution could be spiritual, or it could be left up in the air. But Western society wants a finite happily-ever-after ending where at least we know the villain got it.”

Though anime has only found a cult audience in the West, the genre has certainly invigorated the work of animators like “Powerpuff Girls” creator Craig McCracken. “When we were starting on ‘Powerpuff Girls,’ we were looking at anime to see how they were able to handle things efficiently as far as storytelling and getting action scenes across in a stylized way,” he explains.

Cost-cutting Asian techniques — such as “posing,” in which characters strike and hold dynamic poses to save the animators the trouble of rendering the action in between — now figure prominently in American cartoons.

Even major studio features are embracing Asian style. “We’re looking at the way anime handles action scenes,” says John Stevenson, co-director of DreamWorks Animation’s “Kung Fu Panda,” due out in 2008. “There’s a punch and a snap and a clarity to the way they do it because of clean silhouettes, timing changes and held poses. American animation softens that; it may feel more graceful, but it takes away the impact.”

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