Saturday, April 26, 2008
NORTH AMERICAN ANIME
I bought the first half of OBAN STAR RACERS this week, and it was very good. OBAN STAR RACERS is a French/Japanese collaboration that appeared on the DISNEY CHANNEL in the States last year, as part of their JETIX lineup.
OBAN STAR RACERS is about a young girl named Eva, who was abandoned by her father at an oppressive boarding school since she was very young, after the death of her mother. Convinced that he was just to important and busy to visit her, she never blames him for his absence, and runs way from the school one day on a whim to find him. Meanwhile, the President of Earth approaches Eva's father, Don Wei, with a proposition to manage a race team which will represent Earth in an intergalactic race in the Oban System... with the fate of the Earth hanging in the balance should they lose to humanity's enemy, the Krog. Meeting her father again for the first time in years, Eva is shocked to find that he doesn't recognize her at all, but rather than accepting this, she instead stows away on the ship and ends up an unwanted member of the race team, taking on the identity of "Molly."
OBAN STAR RACERS is one of those great shows that appeals to children without pandering... it's a real solid, character driven, story with lots of action, adventure, drama, and emotion; exactly like the shows I used to love when I was a kid (which you don't see much of anymore...). The animation and art direction is pretty spectacular, with a level of cell/CG integration that's pretty unprecedented for TV animation. The backgrounds and the color palette are all bright, well lite, and very detailed, creating a lush, vibrant, world that's appealing to both children and adults. There is a lot of action, but no real violence; just a sense that the danger is real and the stakes are high. My only real complaint with the show is the human character designs having no noses. It works for the aliens, as they're all very weird and diverse looking characters, but the humans sort of look like Lego-Men, and it's a little disorienting when they're standing next to equally nose-less aliens, because they look like aliens too. Still, I can see how that style would appeal to the shows target audience... just not my personal aesthetic (though they have grown on me).
The show deals with various themes such as death, vengeance, bigotry, mourning, dealing with different cultures, mistaken identity, and crossing into adulthood. Much like HE-MAN, back in it's day, there is a moral to most episodes, but unlike HE-MAN, they don't telegraph it; it's subtle and comes from the characters growth. I also like that Eva/Molly is shown as being skilled but inexperienced, and has to work hard and train to become a better pilot, dealing with the frustration of not being immediately good at something... something children can relate to, and a valuable lesson about dedication.
I also like the idea that it's about a race... it's a simple, goal oriented, concept that makes for a lot of drama and allows the writers to raise the stakes by setting up various obstacles like time limits, targets, rankings... there's just a sense of "We HAVE to win!" which keeps the tension high, without having any sort of threat of mortal danger.
I wasn't really sure what to expect, really, as I was just going on how good the trailer looked, but the show lived up to my expectations, and exceeded them for the most part.
What really interests me though is the growing co-operation between North America and the Japanese to produce worthwhile projects specifically aimed at a North American audience, and the positive influence Japanese storytelling and art direction has had on such projects... of course this isn't always a success (GI JOE SIGMA SIX anyone? FOR KIDS messed that right up... by all rights it should have been a hit), but for the most part it's produced some of my favorite shows. One thing to note about these shows though is the differences in their productions.
CYBER-SIX is arguably the first such collaboration, but was more of an international effort: Produced by TELETOON, animated by TMS, and based on a Spanish comic by Carlos Meglia. It did fairly well on TELETOON, but bombed huge on FOX KIDS (which is understandable... it wasn't really made for the 9:00 Saturday time slot, and I'm pretty sure Middle America would be pretty intolerant of a cross dressing Spanish super heroine fighting a former Nazi), which is entirely unfortunate, because it was an amazing show.
AFRO SAMURAI isn't really a true North American/Japanese co-production, I suppose, as it was originally concieved in Japan, for a Japanese audience, and only a series of coincidences got SPIKE TV, Samuel L. Jackson, and the RZA involved. Still, it is something with broad international appeal, and did extraordinarily well over here. Personally, I applaud the support it was given by all the people involved... it was a project that really could have gone terribly wrong, but ended up excellent. I hear they're thinking of doing another season... I hope so!
IGPX: IMMORTAL GRAND PRIX was produced by CARTOON NETWORK in cooperation with Studio IG, and specifically Mitsuru Hongo (OUTLAW STAR), and was a pretty fantastic show, with a pretty high profile dub (Michelle Rodriguez and Lance Herrikson were a real surprise, and Mark Hamill is always amazing), but it performed horribly for some reason, and never found an audience, which is truly tragic. While CARTOON NETWORK had little to no input on the creative process beyond "Make a show about robots racing", it was produced with a North American audience in mind, and thus, I find it more accessible than a lot of anime.
AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is also not a true North American/Japanese co-production, as the Japanese have absolutely nothing to do with it... it's entirely concieved and produced by North American's, but animated in Korea, who really bring their A-Game. But there is an obvious and heavy anime influence, and the thing that makes AVATAR the ratings juggernaut that it is, is that it takes the best of both continents strengths to produce and intelligent, fun, and beautiful looking show the likes of which have no been seen in YEARS. AVATAR is not just the best animated show on TV... it's in the running for the best thing on TV PERIOD.
I'm not entirely show as to how successful OBAN STAR RACERS was for JETIX, or how successful it'll be for SHOUT! (especially given that it didn't air in Canada at ALL, so most people will have no idea what it is), but I am glad to see more and more successful cross culture productions with broad appeal and no need for the cultural shorthand that most anime requires. Most of all... I just want to see more things for children that are actually intelligent and most of all FUN to watch. You just don't see that anymore.