The Anime Income Gap
While American animation heroes appear above money problems, Japan’s struggle to scrape by in the modern economy. By Charles Solomon.
In Frozen, Anna and Elsa lived in palaces; Gru in Despicable Me commanded an army of Minions; Monsters University didn’t have a financial-aid office; and there was no shortage of kids spending quarters in the arcade where Wreck-It Ralph worked. Since 2006, the United States has been recovering from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, but anyone watching American animation would never know it.
That wasn’t the case in the 1930s. In Max and Dave Fleischer’s A Dream Walking (1934), Popeye and Bluto live in a run-down apartment building with cracked plaster walls. Mickey and Donald were six months behind on the rent in Moving Day (1936), and “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?” from Three Little Pigs (1933) was the unofficial anthem of the Depression. During the 1940s, cartoon characters coped with wartime shortages and rationing, like the audiences who watched their antics.
And it’s not the case in Japan, where today’s animated characters are struggling to find a place in the post-bubble economy. “I think it’s natural to include current events in anime; animation in Japan has included stories of everyday life and reflections on everyday life through fantasy throughout its history,” said a Japanese producer who asked not to be identified. “Creators are not shy about taking current insecurities into the worlds they depict: It’s a common ground they share with the audience. So the main characters escape or fight an uneasiness the audience may have or can relate to.”
Out of Financial
Magic solves Kimimaro Yoga’s money problems in [ C] – The Money of Soul and Possibility Control.
In [C] – The Money of Soul and Possibility Control (2011), university student Kimimaro Yoga works two convenience-store jobs. He doesn’t aspire to fabulous wealth or success, he just wants a secure job that will enable him to support a wife and one child, an increasingly difficult goal for many young Japanese — and Americans.
A mysterious figure transports Kimimaro to the alternate reality of the Financial District, where people fight bizarre battles, wagering their futures against a cash stake they can increase endlessly. But if they lose and go bankrupt, their existence in the real world changes: careers, possessions, even family members may vanish. The stakes are higher than Kimimaro realizes: The collapse of Lehman Brothers caused an entire Caribbean nation to disappear — and no one remembers it.
In the sci-fi adventure series Fractale (2011), nanomachines injected into their bloodstream link humans to a global technological network that supplies everything they need. But the aging Fractale system is crumbling; as its satellites crash, people lose access to it. Initially, teen-age hero Clain is only vaguely aware of the problem. But as his adven- ard Natsu, ice wizard Gray, celestial wizard Lucy and tough-as-press-on nails transformative wizard Erza — have to take risky jobs battling demons and evil sorcerers because they’re perennially broke. Although they invariably come out on top, they run up outrageous food and bar tabs. And, like Wild Tiger, they often wreak havoc on their surroundings — which lands them in trouble with the Council of Elders.
No animated series has confronted the alienation of disenfranchised Japanese youth more directly than Eden of the East (2009), which scored a big hit on both sides of the Pacific. Twenty-something Akira Takizawa wakes up in Washington D.C., stripped of his memories — and his clothes: All he has is a gun and a mobile phone that delivers anything he requests. With the help of vacationing college senior Saki Morimi, Takizawa returns to Japan and tries to recover his memories, which may be linked to the disappearance of 20,000 NEETS (young men with No Employment, Education or Training). He discovers that he is a seleçao, one of 12 agents charged by the mysterious Mr. Outside with saving a faltering, apathetic Japan.
It’s difficult to imagine a mainstream American series or feature that focuses on this kind of social issue or featured characters who are broke. Hiro in Big Hero 6 has cutting-edge equipment at his fingertips, Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon can make whatever he wants in Gobber’s forge, and no one complained about the rates at the Hotel Transylvania.
“Animation in Japan is very often a record of daily life. There are shows about taxes, housework, child-rearing and cooking,” says Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded America. “So it’s no accident that animators in Japan draw and write about economic troubles like running short of cash. Sadly, most animators in Japan are paid very little, so they know that condition intimately.”
Over a year after it began stirring interest at festivals around the world, Ari Folman’s live-action/animation adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s sci-fi tale The Futurological Congress arrives on disc. The ambitious story and technique were enough to earn the best animated film prize at the 2013 European Film Awards. Available on DVD or Blu-ray ($19.97), it makes a worthy addition to your indie film library.
Robin Wright stars as a fictionalized version of herself, who 20 years after rocketing to stardom takes her final job: preserving her digital likeness for a future Hollywood. Brokered by her agent (Harvey Keitel) and the Miramount Studios head (Danny Huston), the deal grants her enough funds to care for her ailing son. Things take a strange turn another 20 years later when the creative vision of the studio’s head animator (Jon Hamm) makes the double a star — and leads to Wright’s invitation to The Congress for her big comeback. [Release date: Dec. 2]
Writer John Derevlany wanted so much to work on a project with LEGO that he created a short animated film of himself as a minifigure asking the company for a job and posted it on YouTube.
While it’s not the strangest way to get a job in the history of animation, it certainly was unique — and successful. The Danish toy giant tapped Derevlany to develop and write the series LEGO: Legends of Chima, a CG action-adventure series now in its third season.
The series’ story of animal tribes battling each other for a power called the Chi is incredibly complex — and Derevlany, whose animation credits include episodes of Wild Grinders, Johnny Test and Kick Buttowski: Surburban Daredevil, has to date written every episode himself.
We caught up with Derevlany to talk about the animated experience of creating the show. Animation Magazine: You landed your job with Legends of Chima by asking for it via an animated clip of yourself as a LEGO minifigure posted on YouTube. How did that come about? John Derevlany: My son was four and all he was doing was playing with LEGO, and I was playing with LEGO with him, and I had seen some of their content, and I really liked it. I heard they were doing — through my agent — that they were doing some other show and I’m like, I really want this, so I’m going to impress them with my enthusiasm ... That got me in the door, and then I had to jump through the usual hoops you have to jump through. Animag: What was involved in developing this show? Derevlany: (At LEGO), they take a bunch of ideas, either in model form or in visual form, and they test them, and the kids will choose whatever their favorite theme is. At the point I entered the process, the kids had decided they already wanted this theme of animals fighting ... and they had this concept of this energy source called Chi that everyone is fighting over. I basically came up with the mythology of why they’re fighting about it, why these tribes are allied and, at this point, I think there are about 400 pages of bible and about a hun- dred pages for each season detailing each tribe, their belief system, their political system, their monetary system. It goes into really a lot of detail, and that was mostly me. Animag: How did you end up writing every episode yourself? Derevlany: I was thinking, ‘I’m going to bring in a writer for one episode and they’re going to have to read 400 page of bible to write a 30-page script?’ So I had some practical concerns about convincing people to do that. And the schedule worked out in a way that I actually was able to do most of the episodes.
The other thing is I go to Denmark every couple months and I work out the stories with two of their main content guys and so the stories were figured out ... I’d come home from Denmark with a single-page outline or summary of each story and going from a one-page outline to a six-page outline and then to a 25page or 30-page script is not that hard. Animag: What does the future hold for the show? Derevlany: There are a couple episodes airing I guess in early 2015 that will conclude this particular storyline ... Beyond that, they told me not to say anything.
Animag: Derevlany: I have a show called Endangered Species with NerdCorps ... This show is about three characters who live in a stump in a park: a squirrel, a seagull and a rabbit ... It’s cool because it’s simple. I’m pitching a thing with David Michel at Cottonwood TV called Squish. It’s kind of like, what if Charlie Brown and Peanuts were single-celled microorganisms? It’s this cool, straight-ahead show that gets weird very quickly. It’s based on series of books that have sold pretty well. And I have this thing called The Fearless Five, about five of the shyest kids you’ll ever meet except they get a superpower, which is they get incredibly bold for five minutes a day. Every cartoon character out there is this assertive sort of loud character — and it works, kids watch it — but I think you can show the other 80 percent of the world that’s not that assertive.