by Jonathan Cook
This month @anime! took a look at one of the classics by well-renowned Japanese animation director Hayao Miyazaki and their influence on mainstream society. I'll be the first to give credit where credit is due. If it wasn't for Disney and it's financial backing, we'd probably be watching these movies on fourth or fifth generation VHS tapes instead of special-addition DVDs. But that's not to say I wasn't a detractor at first. Before the ink was dry on the deal, I, like many other otaku at the time, was young, arrogant, letting my emotions override my logic and remembering anime's past treatment in regards to U.S. "community standards." DiC's treatment of the first two seasons of Sailor Moon was still fresh on everyone's minds and no one wanted to see the same fate happen to Miyazaki's work. About a year ago, I wrote an opinion piece about Miyazaki's influence on the US anime scene for submission to Newtype which never got published. Granted I've recanted a good portion of what the column was about, there are some excerpts from it that still hold true for me today:
"About four years ago, when it was announced that Disney had acquired the marketing rights to all of Miyazaki's work, I remember a massive backlash within the otaku community against the deal. Disney did give their word to fans that any of the films they choose to dub will not be cut, edited or tampered with in any way, shape or form. All cultural references would be in tact and all Japanese names would be used. The Mouse, believe it or not, kept his word but there was one catch that most people seemed to overlook. Given anime's appeal in reference to both quality animation AND quality storylines, anything Disney produced domestically would run the risk of being looked upon as inferior compared to Miyazaki's work."
Going with this deduction, I followed it up with a personal tirade on The Mouse's "distribution tactics" in regards to Miyazaki's work on the big screen:
"When the Mouse eventually decided to release Princess Mononoke into theaters, they decided go the good old, "limited" release route. By doing this, they technically complied with their contract with Studio Ghibli and lessen the chances of having their own productions being overshadowed. Limited production is great if you were an otaku living in an Atlanta or a Nashville. The rest of us? Hope you brought your gas money.
Even though "big sister" Atlanta got Princess Mononoke, it was ONE reel for a city of over three million! And it was shown in the smallest independent arthouse in Buckhead. Some fans in other parts of the country weren't faring well either. Some drove as long as 4 hours one way to see Mononoke in whatever city they were close too. To this day, I've never fully forgiven the Mouse for that."
While I was later given an education in regards to supply and demand, I was still bull-headed over Chattanooga getting passed over for Mononoke. And for the record, I did make the two-hour drive to Atlanta just to see this movie. And I did it again for "Spirited Away". But of course, that was before the good news. In January of 2003, "Spirited Away" got picked to air for one week as part of the Chattanooga Independent Film Series: A four-month film festival held at the Bijou theatre in Chattanooga's now famous "Aquarium District". The film festival was designed with the mindset of showing movies that would otherwise never play here. I will admit Chattanooga has never been a city to support "independent" films. But in the last two years, more "well-rounded" people have been moving into the city and making their voices heard. At the time, I was still doing my radio show with the "Sushi Bar" anime music block and was milking this opportunity for all it's worth. I promoted this movie by doing everything from radio spots to free pass giveaways. Even with all that going on, the turnout was "beyond" light the week it ran. Now here's the interesting part, the week "Spirited Away" played in Chattanooga, it had won the academy award for best animated film. So naturally, the good folks at Disney did a "massive" back paddle and decided to play the old "We love this movie and support it all the way." Here's what I wrote about that:
While I was rooting for Spirited Away in secret, I wasn't going to get my hopes up. Well, not only did it win but NOW Disney is trying to make up for it by sucking air and covering their a***s for not marketing it sooner (a.k.a. A nation-wide release). As of this writing, I can imagine how every anime publication (both electronic and print) are removing content to run exposé's on Spirited Away. And while I foresee "drum and trumpet" editorials in some of these publications, THIS otaku broadcaster is saying "Don't blow smoke up MY a-- and tell me it's a suppository!" We ALL mess up!!! But don't hand out press statements to us saying how "proud" you are of this movie and how it's an honor to give it a "re-release" when you guys didn't even bother to release it right the first time! I may be a Chattanoogan, but I didn't fall off the turnip truck yesterday either. Off topic, my elected officials to seem to think otherwise.
Yeah, pretty strong stance. I would later be doing some backpaddling myself on the grounds I went to see it twice here and both times there was probably no more than 10 people in the theatre. While I still have those strong feelings about the lackluster turnout, I also realize that "Rome wasn't built in a day."
A year after "Spirited Away" showed here, Chattanooga has gotten not only more anime and manga friendly, but "well-rounded" in general. Our two Books-A-Million in town have a WHOLE section that's dedicated to nothing but manga. Our local Media Play now has a special "anime store" just for anime fans (complete with Japanese snacks and plushies!) We now have more "authentic" international restaurants than ever before. We have both a Mellow Mushroom (pizzeria out of Atlanta) and the only California Pizza Kitchen in Tennessee. Our independent film festival is enjoying another successful run and we now have three successful "alternative" newspapers. Even some of the hot "mainstream" music acts are starting to play here again. And just about all of this has to do with supply and demand. If you support something, it will come (and stay) here.
So my final thought really goes out to every anime fan who feels their city is not big enough to show an anime film on the big screen: No one is going to hear you unless your voices are heard. I grant you a Miyazaki film might not play in a Dunlap, TN or a Rising Fawn, Georgia. But in a mid-sized city like Chattanooga, Huntsville, Roanoke or Valdostia, it might play there. There are more people with influence as I recently discovered who bend over backwards to "try" to bring these things into town only to not have any real support. Overall, it's you the fan who have to support these things. If they bring it in, support it! That way when the next Miyazaki film is scheduled to be released two years from now, mid-city otaku will finally get in on the action.
On a sidenote, I discovered recently that one of my acting mentors, Anne Law, was the main lobbyist behind getting "Spirited Away" to play here in Chattanooga (regardless of any Oscar nomination). Anne has been a staple with the art scene in Chattanooga for close to 14 years and a well-respected anime fan. Anne also runs the Barking Legs Theatre here in Chattanooga where independent choreographers can showcase their performances that might otherwise be considered "too unique" for mainstream audiences. She's also the one who taught me how to dance in my chains. Thanks Anne. You are truly a friend among otaku.