Today we present a guest post from Exfanding guest post veteran and wedding victim neko-chan.
As Nathaniel stated earlier in the blog, I dragged him out last week to see the new anime movie, The Secret World of Arrietty. This film, produced by Studio Ghibli and renowned Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, beautifully reimagines the characters and setting of Mary Norton’s classic British children’s book series, The Borrowers, from a Japanese perspective. It is a heart-warming tale of friendship, adolescence, and growing up.
In this version of the story, Sho, a sickly boy who is sent to rest at his family’s country estate before his upcoming heart surgery, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Arrietty, a rambunctious 14-year old girl who is the size of a mouse and lives with her family under the floorboards of the house. Over the course of the story, these two children learn important life lessons, both from the adults around them and from each other:
• They learn that their actions have both positive and negative consequences, and that they must bear the mantle of responsibility for the decisions they make.
• They learn that rules are in place for a reason, and to trust in the firm guidance and wisdom of those with more experience; however, they also learn that personal beliefs can colour or transcend logic, and that sometimes rules and values must be re-evaluated as new knowledge is gained.
• They learn to cultivate a sense of self-respect and dignity – to be able to believe in their own value, strength, and abilities, while at the same time being able to accept help and correction with grace and humility.
• Finally, they learn that while sometimes there are hardships, and life won’t always work out the way you hope and expect, you can still take pleasure and comfort in the company of loved ones, and in the good memories that you have shared with others.
Nathaniel and I both enjoyed this movie, and appreciated the way parenting and friendships were handled and portrayed. There was a sense of “realness” and humanity, despite it being a fantastical tale, and I think the movie is as instructive as it is entertaining. Diehard fans of the books may have issue with the literary license Miyazaki takes with the plot, but honestly it was more true to the spirit of the characters than past incarnations in film and television.
Having said all that, I now want to talk a bit about how this film has been marketed, targeted, and received in the USA, and the continuing problem of how anime is conceptualized in America.
Aside from one poster in the back corner of a movie theatre lobby a few months back, and a passing mention by a fellow anime enthusiast on Facebook, I did not hear anything about this film until after it had already been released. The same thing happened a few years back with Ponyo. There always seems to be the dual reaction of “Wait, there’s a new Miyazaki film?!” and “Why didn’t I know?!” which goes to show just how critically under-marketed these films are. If anime fans themselves don’t realize they should be flocking to the theatres for a new release, how are average Americans going to take any interest?
It just strikes me as odd that Disney, who is responsible for releasing these films in the US market, and who is a recognized master of branding, can’t seem to properly promote any of the anime titles it licenses. Even if they didn’t own the merchandising rights, they could have at least released a few previews in the theatres to spark public interest, right? But I don’t remember seeing any kind of advance trailers or sneak-peeks at all.
It all comes down to economics. In this day and age, with so many movies being created and distributed, advertising is necessary to capture the public’s attention and make them spend their $8-$12 on your movie, rather than anyone else’s. Yet, on the main Disney website, Arrietty is just a passing mention on their “Characters” page; all of their efforts are instead devoted to promoting their own upcoming projects, Brave and John Carter. Why? Because the cost to license a film made by someone else is less than the cost to develop and release a film from scratch, so they need a bigger return on their own investments, and only need to break even on the films they have brought over from other countries.
I guess I don’t blame Disney, as they would potentially be shooting themselves in the foot if they got everyone excited for the newest anime release and then had no one come to see John Carter; however, it doesn’t seem fair that this disparity in marketing is partially responsible for the lackluster performance of anime titles in the American box office.
And it’s not just the films released by Disney. When is the last time an anime movie was marketed using the same principles as a regular film? Pokemon: 2000? Films such as Ghost in the Shell in 1995 were quietly marketed to the wrong demographic, and even newly developed films like Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos are only getting a limited theatrical release in the US, with the sole advertising strategy being a few web banners on the distributor’s webpage, and an email announcement to fans on the distributor’s newsletter. There is a prevailing belief that anime fans will either watch these films online or will wait until they come to disc, and that the rest of America is simply not interested, which will continue to be the case until a successful marketing campaign actually informs fans and causes the rest of America to get interested.
The companies that release anime in the United States also seem to be unable to grasp the intended target demographic for these films and series. They wrongly assume that anything animated is made exclusively for children. They market and advertise according to that standard, and are reluctant to pick up titles that may contradict or break from this pattern. In the past, they have even gone so far as to heavily edit the visual content and dialogue of anime shows (removing cigarettes, nudity, violence, homosexual relationships, etc.) in order to make them conform with American norms and values for children’s programming, because that is the only way we can conceptualize cartoons.
However, animation in Japan is merely another way of telling a story, no different from live-action, CG, puppetry, stop-animation, or any other visual film media. Stories run the full gamut of human experience and subject matter, and the choice to portray these stories in an animated format is not made for age reasons, but for budgetary and stylistic reasons. Simply, you can do things in animation that would be difficult to do in the physical realm of live-action, and you can create a unique visual “look” or artistic style with the 2D line that is distinctly different from the visual style of any other media. You cannot lump all anime under the category of “Kids Only” any more than you can lump all live-action movies under the canopy of “Kids Only.” Yet American companies still try their hardest to do exactly that.
Of course, I can give some obvious examples such as Akira and Perfect Blue as being distinctly not made for kids, but let’s take a look at The Secret World of Arrietty as a less-obvious example. Was this based on a children’s book? Yes. Was it intended to be watched, in part, by children? Yes. But is that that the target demographic? No.
The target demographic should have been people in the 25-50 range. These are the people who grew up reading and loving Mary Norton’s books, and who have a special connection to these characters. These are the people who have seen the last four movie and mini-series adaptations of these stories (1973, 1992, 1997, and 2011). These are the people who initially grew up with anime such as Speed Racer and Astro Boy, who have probably seen all of Miyazaki’s other films, and who have maintained a history and a relationship with this media and its story-telling style. These are the people who have children or grandchildren that they are excited to see these films with as a family. These are not the people who were targeted by Disney - the original pioneer of the “animated family movie,” and the one company that should have known better.
Now let’s take a look at how said movie was received by the American public: 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience rating of 87% liking it, yet over the course of the past two weeks it has pulled in only $4.5M in box office sales. It is critically acclaimed, it is loved by fans, yet the public is not rushing out to see it. This, to me, is a tragedy. Compare that to the fact that Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, which received a Tomatometer rating of only 27%, made $16M in the past 3 days. This says that we, as Americans, are willing to pay more to see a bad movie that we can easily understand and classify than we will pay to see a good movie that challenges our conceptions of what animation is and can be in the movie spectrum.
Oh, and speaking of the public reception to this movie, let’s not forget dear old Lou Dobbs, who has repeatedly demonized the movie in our national media, stating that Arrietty is preaching a liberal agenda, anti-1%/pro-Occupy message to our children. He gives no mention to Norton or to when the books were written, and he glosses over the fact that this movie was not made in Hollywood or even in this country, thereby making it unlikely that either the creators or the inspiration of this film had any sort of American political agenda in mind.
Apparently to Dobbs, the way the Borrowers gather natural resources from their environment (the house and garden), and use these resources to manufacture their food and shelter equates to “justifying the right of the poor to steal from the rich,” and is not simply making a direct parallel to how humans gather resources from their own environment in order to manufacture goods and meet the needs of food and shelter.
Likewise, the borrowers’ outright refusal to take the ornate luxury items in the dollhouse is not, as Dobbs thinks, a rejection of wealth and the elite, it is a choice by the borrowers to live with freedom and dignity, instead of like dolls or caged pets. Dobbs’ ethnocentric viewpoints taint a perfectly innocent story by trying to force it into a modern political paradigm it was never intended to fit in.
Overall, I am glad I had the opportunity to see this movie in the theatre. I am glad it is getting wonderful reviews by both fans and movie critics. However, I worry about the fate of anime in the realm of the American theatre due to poor marketing, the misunderstanding of intended demographics, and the misinterpretation of themes as “culturally-threatening” due to blatant misinformation and existing bias.
We need to start showing movie producers that Americans are mature enough and open-minded enough to embrace films of quality, regardless of national origin, with formats that challenge our conception of what movies look and feel like, and that may or may not have anything to do with the messages and themes we are used to hearing.
So I urge you to go see this film. Take a chance on something different. I guarantee that whether you love it or hate it, whether you think it should be seen by everyone or whether you think it should be demonized, you will at least have exfanded your horizons of Japanese film, and of what animation can mean to film as a visual media.