[GUEST POST] Michaele Jordan on the Savior of American Anime

Michaele Jordan is the author of the period occult thriller Mirror Maze and her stories have appeared in Redstone Science Fiction, Buzzy Mag, The Crimson Pact, Volume 4 and Fantasy and Science Fiction. You can visit her website at www.michaelejordan.com while waiting for the upcoming steampunk adventure Jocasta and the Indians.

IN PRAISE OF GENNDY, THE SAVIOR OF AMERICAN ANIME

For some time now, Japan has been getting all the credit for animation, so much so that the term anime has come to mean Japanese anime — even though in Japan the word simply means animated video — and you have to specify that it’s OE (original English) anime if it was made here. Despite the success of such gems as The Incredibles (Brad Bird, 2004) and WALL-E (Andrew Stanton, 2008), Disney/Pixar studios have always aimed their big guns aggressively at children. I say aggressively, since they have made only token gestures at rendering their offerings palatable to the long suffering parents, and have apparently never even considered attempting to expand the demographic sufficiently to lure teenagers into the theaters.

This left television to make animation for an older audience, a mantle it picked up only reluctantly. Granted that Batman: The Animated Series was significantly cool and wonderfully drawn, it was hardly typical. Apparently, if a superhero was considered interesting enough for video, it was interesting enough for a multi-million dollar live action film.

Strangely, the man who is now restoring American anime (I refuse to call it Americanime) to its prestige was not American born. Genndy Borisovich Tartakovsky (it was originally Gennady or Gennadiy {Геннадий}, but he changed it) was born in Russia and brought here at the age of seven by parents fleeing anti-Semitism. Not long after his arrival he stumbled on an issue of Super Friends, and his fate was sealed. He tried to escape it. To please his parents, he signed up to study advertising. And the school stuck him in an animation class. Next thing you know, he was at CalTech making the student film that eventually morphed into Dexter’s Laboratory, from which he graduated to The Powerpuff Girls. Too childish for most fans, but it was innovative for what it was and attracted considerable attention.

It was Samurai Jack (Cartoon Network, 2001-2004) that made Genndy a star. This glorious fusion of Japanese and American animation features a demon-fighting samurai battling his way through a bizarre SF future made possible by time travel. It won four Emmy’s and deserved four hundred. Devotees still mourn its passing, so much so that the pressure to produce a feature film is still on (with Mr. Tartakovsky not unwilling) despite the loss of lead voice actor Mako who played — oh, so wonderfully! — Aku, the shape shifting Master of Darkness.

Genndy did not rest on his laurels. George Lucas personally selected him to direct Star Wars: Clone Wars. (That’s the 2003-2005 animated series, not to be confused with the ongoing CGI program of the same name, launched in 2008.) I assume I don’t need to tell you what that’s about. Suffice it to say, it’s well drawn.

Moving from triumph to triumph, in 2009 Cartoon Network previewed Genndy’s The Sym-Bionic Titan at the 2009 San Diego Comic-Con International. They commissioned twenty episodes which premiered in 2010 on Upfront. Or maybe not so triumphant. Alas, although Mr. Tartakovsky had hoped to expand, and the fans were begging for more, Cartoon Network declined to renew, because the show “did not have any toys connected to it.”

A regrettable decision. Surely some toys could have been produced. This was a show worth keeping. It presents two aliens (a beautiful princess and her brave body guard) accompanied by their devoted experimental computer, on the run from the treacherous bad guy who usurped her father’s throne and is devastating their kingdom. They hide out in a typical small town high school (which happens to be next door to a major army base) and soon discover that their computer (which/who can also simulate human form) contains a program that triggers their body armor to merge into a giant robot which enables them to fight the monsters that have pursued them. Sounds pretty silly? Well, of course! It spoofs both giant-robot-sensai-team shows and high school melodramas, and there is delight in every frame. You can catch the reruns now on Adult Swim. So please, watch this show! And then write Cartoon Network. The fans really are clamoring, loudly, and there is talk of bringing it back.

In the meanwhile, Tartakovsky joined Sony Pictures Animation in 2011, where he directed his feature film debut, Hotel Transylvania. I should be thrilled for him. Certainly there will be a great deal more money and prestige in the feature film world than there was in television.

But I can’t help worrying. There will also be a great deal more pressure to constrain the content. At this point in time, American feature length animation is still aimed at children, and Hotel Transylvania is no exception — no offense meant to it. It’s fine as far as it goes. But it is not the equal of Samurai Jack or The Sym-Bionic Titan. I do NOT want to see Mr. Tartakovsky’s scope limited.

Perhaps I am worrying needlessly. Sony currently has Genndy directing an animated film based on Popeye, and the possibilities are intriguing. And his contract specifies he be given some room for ‘personal projects’. I can hardly wait.

4 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Michaele Jordan on the Savior of American Anime”

  1. Just give me Samurai Jack on Blu-ray (with full HD DTS 5.1 sound) and nobody gets hurt.

    Seriously — one of the great things about Samurai Jack was the sound design, especially the use of silence, or near-silence.

  2. Joe, I cannot agree more. The sound on Samurai Jack was excellent (as was everything about the show). David, cross my heart, I did NOT make up the term OE anime–I got it from a friend who runs anime conventions.

    The same source gave me the newer term, Americanime, but I found that almost as awful as scientifiction.

    1. David, the Japanese use the term “anime” to refer to all animation — so to them, Walt Disney is described as anime right alongside Japanese works like DragonBall or Princess Mononoke. It’s only in anglophone countries that “anime” is used to specifically refer to Japanese works.

      Another term that sometimes gets used in the states when talking about stuff created in the US or Canada that’s in a Japanese style is “animesque” (see http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Animesque for a discussion and explanation of the term on the website “TV Tropes”), which would cover shows like Samurai Jack, Teen Titans, or Avatar: The Last Airbender. The “OE” term is also commonly used with regards to manga — some manga purists get rather snippy about not wanting to call comics made by Americans as “manga” even if it’s clearly in the Japanese style, so the compromise term is “Original English Manga” or “OE Manga”. One of the best examples of this is the manga series “DramaCon” by Svetlana Chmakova.

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