You should spend about 20 minutes on Questions 27-40, which are based on reading Passage 3 below
Toy stories for grown-ups
THE increasingly stunning animation emerging from the United States (in films like “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2”) is, quite literally, child’s play alongside the full-length animated films that have been pouring out of Japan since the early 1980s. Nothing could be farther from the comforting world of Bambi, where formulaic characters and storylines are never allowed to frighten or offend, than Japan’s edgy, provocative, documentary-like “anime”. One is eye-candy for kids; the other a demanding rollercoaster of a ride for people of all ages willing to explore the outer limits of their fears and longings.
Until recently, anime (a Japanese abbreviation of the borrowed English word) had little more than a cult following outside Japan. However, animation epics such as Hayao Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds” (1984), Gisaburo Sugii’s “Night on the Galactic Railroad” (1985), and Katsuhiro Otomo’s “Akira” (1988) have been an inspiration for a younger generation of film makers in the West. Luc Besson, the influential French director of “The Big Blue”, ranks Mr Otomo’s nervy “Akira” alongside the very best live-action films from the legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.
Recently, a wider audience has begun to appreciate the efforts of such groups as Studio Ghibli, Production
I.G. and others within Tokyo’s talented anime community. Much of the credit goes to Disney’s art-film unit, Miramax, for translating Mr Miyazaki’s “Princess Mononoke” and releasing it in a selected number of theatres in America last November. The film—which pits a medieval people with their greed and thoughtlessness against the forces of nature in an epic confrontation that leaves both sides in ruin—is the biggest domestic box-office success of all time in Japan.
In America, “Princess Mononoke” opened to rave reviews but less-than-spectacular receipts. Families, expecting typical Disney fare, may well have been shocked by the film’s mature themes. Of all Mr Miyazaki’s work, this is his darkest and most disturbing film, with a generous share of brutality, death and even sexuality, as well as a conclusion that seemingly resolves nothing. Disney has, to its credit, followed up with another of Mr Miyazaki’s masterpieces. His animated classic, “Laputa, Castle in the Sky” (1986), which is loosely based on a passage from “Gulliver’s Travels”, is expected to go on limited release this spring, though probably not at its original three-hour length.
Half a century ago, it was the rich imagery and psychological insights of Japan’s live-action cinema that astonished and captivated the West. Films such as Mr Kurosawa’s “Rashomon” (1951) and “Seven Samurai” (1954), and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Tokyo Story” (1953) set new standards for film makers everywhere. For the past couple of decades, however, Japan’s mainstream cinema has been in decline, at the same time as the country’s avant-garde animators have been reaching new artistic heights. “It appears that anime is taking centre stage in the Japanese film industry, pushing live-action movies to the wings,” says the author Kenji Sato.
Why should this be so? Cost is certainly part of the answer. Hollywood has raised the ante in live action to a point where no one else can match the sums that go into making films like “Titanic”. Though not cheap, animation offers a way of making stylish films without spending anything like as much.
Another factor is the help that anime has had from its close cousin, manga, the Japanese comic books that have become pervasive since the 1970s. A number of successful full-length animations, including Mr Miyazaki’s “Nausicaa”, have been based on popular manga stories, and many of today’s animators honed their skills in publishing.
But is this enough to account for the Japanese partiality for animation over live action? Why should they feel more comfortable with a reality that is decidedly two-dimensional? Could it be—as Mr Sato wrote in a Japanese magazine, Echo, shortly after “Princess Mononoke” was released—that the Japanese moviegoers’ flight to anime is part of the ethnic abstinence that has suffused Japanese society, particularly since the end of the second world war?
Bent on achieving the twin goals of modernisation and westernisation, Mr Sato claims that “the Japanese have rejected their own history and traditions and sought to become Nihonjin-banare (de-Japanised)—a generally complimentary term implying that one looks and acts more like a westerner than the average.” As Mr Sato points out, an enduring feature of anime as well as manga is the way that the characters, the females especially, are drawn with a blend of Japanese and Caucasian features. “In short,” says Mr Sato, “the characters of anime show the Japanese as they would like to see themselves.”
This may be going too far. What is for sure, however, is that in their haste to catch up with and overtake the West, the Japanese have allowed their delicate framework for dramatic expression to disintegrate. Most people in Japan today find it perfectly normal for western actors to express emotions in a direct and forceful way. But if Japanese actors do the same, the result comes across as corny. Ironically, for many Japanese the thin, insubstantial reality of animated film may well appear more alive—more animated, literally—than the flesh-and-blood reality of their own live-action films.