News from SDCC. io9 has previews up of the first two of four new anime series that are joint ventures between Marvel Comics and Madhouse, the anime studio that brought you (among many other things) movies such as Paprika and series such as Boogiepop Phantom.
The two series we have previews for are Iron Man and Wolverine.
Prediction: They won’t work.
Well, they will and they won’t. A lot of the casual anime fans in America will love it. Cartoon Network is, I’m sure, already salivating over the ratings when this series takes its inevitable place in the Adult Swim lineup. It’ll sell a lot of DVDs/Blu-rays/iTunes downloads.
But it’s unlikely to really click artistically.
The thing is, the gap between cultures really is bigger than we give it credit for in our internet-connected, globalized world. Because of this gap, when someone from one culture tries to imitate another culture’s art, they rarely get it right. They just can’t capture the soul or the spirit of it.
Sometimes such attempts result in the creation of something new and different that has value of its own. In the mid-1950s, for example, poor southern whites started singing the music of poor southern blacks. It wasn’t the same, but it created something new, and the sound was so exciting they gave it the name “rock and roll”. Ten years later, working class English kids started singing their own imitation of the southern whites’ imitation of the music of southern blacks. It doesn’t sound like it’d work real well when you think of it that way, but of course, it did work.
That said, the Beatles weren’t Leadbelly. The Rolling Stones weren’t Robert Johnson. They couldn’t be. Their music had soul – they had soul – but not the same kind of soul.
I’m reminded of an anime series from a couple of years ago called Red Garden. It was a vaguely Buffy-ish story of four high school girls taking on monsters in their off hours. But, unusual for an anime series, it was set entirely outside of Japan (New York City, to be specific), and had no Japanese major characters in it.
And it got America all wrong.
Almost all wrong, I should say. It’s obvious that the art director for the series had bought a plane ticket to New York, and had spent a couple of weeks carefully taking pictures and doing drawings. The backgrounds used in the anime were accurate recreations of New York street scenes that someone had obviously put a lot of work into.
But the situations were all wrong. The relationships were all wrong. The characters were all wrong.
Let us for a moment look past the fact that they depicted a New York City high school that had absolutely zero people of color in it. Let us also look past the fact that all the students in that high school dressed impossibly fashionably – in the style, specifically, of Harajuku hipsters. It went beyond surface things like that. The characters had Japanese personality types. They reacted to the things that happened to them the way a Japanese would. Their relationships followed Japanese patterns. They had a Japanese sense of humor.
In other words, the Japanese artists and writers who created that series could faithfully recreate American streets and buildings, but they couldn’t recreate American personalities. Writing American personalities – living in those souls, as writers must in order to write in their characters’ voices – was just not something they could do.
Of course, that goes both ways. I’ve seen plenty of American attempts to do manga, and they all have exactly the same fault that Red Garden did, just in reverse. They could recreate the character designs, the set pieces, the street scenes… but they couldn’t recreate Japanese personalities. They just couldn’t find a way to live in that skin.
That’s not necessarily an insult to them as artists or writers. But it is by way of pointing out that what they set out to do is so difficult as to be nearly impossible. I think that too many people – even very experienced and creative writers – don’t really appreciate just how much of a barrier it truly is.
But you know, these series could get all that stuff wrong and still be fun anyway. I’ll admit that I actually enjoyed Red Garden once I accepted it for what it was and took it on its own terms. Maybe these series will charm me the same way.
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