These are dark days for hand-drawn animation, that grand old medium that entertained America for decades and brought us everything from the gracefully dancing hippos of the original Fantasia to the furiously humping felines of Fritz the Cat. Disney has virtually abandoned hand-drawn animation in the wake of one massive, humiliating box-office flop after another, and their competitors have fared little better with such costly disappointments as The Road to El Dorado. It has been frequently suggested (by Disney CEO Michael Eisner, among others) that audiences are so bedazzled by the computer-generated delights of pictures such as Shrek and Finding Nemo that the hand-drawn stuff looks sadly antique by comparison. Of course, what this idea doesn't take into consideration is that while Shrek and Finding Nemo were actually entertaining, almost all of the hand-drawn animated features released in the past few years have sucked major ass. I mean, Home on the Range? Jesus, what were you guys thinking?
With laid-off Disney cartoonists currently facing stiff competition for jobs behind the counter at Denny's, it would seem that's pretty much it for hand-drawn feature animation here in America. But fortunately the medium continues to thrive elsewhere around the globe, where for many years animators have been doing interesting things far from the long shadow cast by Uncle Walt. Here in the States, Walt Disney's charming if peculiar house style came to be seen as what animation itself was, while in Japan, they went off on some whole other trip, spicing up their convoluted tales with lots of fighting robots and sci-fi sex fantasies of truly astonishing strangeness. Over here, we take it for granted that an animated picture will feature a plucky heroine who sings cheerful songs to her wisecracking animal pals. Over there, it's more likely the heroine will be a cyborg schoolgirl who has sex with tentacled aliens. I imagine the Japanese must be rather baffled when they learn Americans are still having bitter arguments about the sexual politics of pictures like Cinderella. Once you've seen enough tentacle porn, all that glass-slipper jazz must seem pretty damn tame by comparison.
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I don't mean to suggest that all of anime (that's what the Japanese—and American geekboys—call Japanese animation) is overflowing with the kind of freaky sex stuff a 12-year-old boy would have wet dreams about after he fell asleep reading a particularly lurid issue of Heavy Metal. There is more serious fare, like Satoshi Kon's recent Tokyo Godfathers, a gritty and affecting drama about three homeless people caring for a lost infant in the slums of Tokyo. And while Japanese animation aimed at kids is sometimes shockingly naughty by puritanical American standards, a lot of it is wholesome enough that American distributors need only edit out the occasional booby before they air it on kids' TV here in the U.S.
And lordy, do they ever air this stuff in the U.S. On weekday afternoons, after kids escape at last from school, they scramble home to spend hours at a time flopped out in front of Pokmon and Dragonball Z and other stuff their parents simply cannot understand no matter how much they try. If you're a really pitiful cartoon nut like your humble narrator and watch the Cartoon Network with some regularity, you've no doubt noticed how their schedule has gradually abandoned reruns of the TV cartoons you grew up with (and newer stuff you secretly liked, like the cool-as-hell Batman from the '90s) in favor of shows with names that all sound like the results of Burroughs-ian cut-up experiments, Cowboy Bebopand all that. You may have also noticed how some of anime's less charming conventions are increasingly making their way into the TV animation produced over here. It will be a long time, if ever, before we see an American animated feature as bracingly adult as Tokyo Godfathers, but the over-the-top-and-back-again acting style of Pokmon has already made its way into Teen Titans and a dozen other crappy shows.
Whatever pernicious effects anime may be having on what's left of America's animation, there can be no denying it's fascinating stuff in its own right. Anime Expo 2004, taking place this weekend in Anaheim, will offer a scene somewhere between a Star Trek convention and a fetish ball. In addition to copious screenings, there are also panels, merchandise for sale and costume shows where people actually show up dressed in the exotic costumes of characters from their favorite anime. It promises to be a hoot for fans and neophytes alike, so squeeze into your cyborg schoolgirl costume and get over there. If Bush gets re-elected come November, do you seriously think he's going to let something this fun and kinky continue under his watch? Enjoy your tentacle porn while you still can!
The Anime Expo 2004 takes place at the Anaheim Convention Center, 800 W. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 765-8590; www.anime-expo.org/index2004.html. Thurs., July 1 (pre-registration), 5-10 p.m.; Fri., 8 a.m.-8 p.m.; Sat.-Sun., 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Mon., 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Four-day pass, $50; three-day pass, $45; two-day pass, $40; one-day pass, $25; age 12 and under, $20.