Wednesday, 18 August 2010

The brief history of British anime

In an earlier post I talked about the 2003 film Dominator: The Movie, whose DVD bore the slogan "the new wave of Brit-manga animation is here!". But did this predicted wave get any further?

To answer this, let's start by crossing the Atlantic and looking at the related phenomenon of "American anime". Mainstream American cartoons that make a point out of mimicking anime - such as Teen Titans and Avatar: The Last Airbender - are a common sight nowadays, but are very much a twenty-first century phenomenon. Earlier series such as Transformers also had unmistakable anime influence, but this has less to do with the Americans behind the cartoons consciously deciding to imitate Japanese animation and more to do with east Asian outsourcing. The earliest "American anime", then, were independent efforts made by the anime fan community; an example is No Enemy But Time, a 1994 short film made by Running Ink Animation Productions.

No Enemy But Time, one of the earliest examples of "American anime". This image comes from the short's official webpage.

In 1997 Running Ink's Chad Kime penned an essay entitled "American Anime: Blend or Bastardization?" which focuses mainly on how we should define the word "anime" - something I'm not really interested in discussing in this post - and summarises the interplay between Japanese and American comics, rather than animation. The idea of American animation influenced by anime is discussed, but as a largely hypothetical subject. "American anime", then, existed as an idea some time before it came a reality.

As an aside, it's worth pointing out that prejudice often plays a part in such discussions. "[W]ill Americans ever develop a quality that will rival the Japanese?", asks Kine; his answer is a firm yes, but the fact that anyone asked the question in the first place tells us just how much the very concept of American animators imitating their Japanese counterparts has been treated with suspicion. A similar bias is reflected in a 1999 review of The Iron Giant by the Cornell Japanese Animation Society:
A popular pastime of anime fans is to peg American animation projects as "American anime." This title is generally reserved for anything that isn't by Disney and tries to appeal to someone older than 12. While the applicability of the term is usually questionable, the intent is clear. Anime fans want to see animated films that have good direction, developed characters, and stories that appeal to people past puberty.
The obvious implication being that sophisticated animation for older audiences is somehow the province of Japan, and any animators from outside the country would have to imitate Japanese animation to reach the same level. Two veins of prejudice - one the idea that American animators should never imitate anime because they're not good enough, the other that American animators have to imitate anime because their work is not good enough otherwise - have informed discussions about "American anime".

A letter to Anime UK discussing "British anime". Click to enlarge.

Returning to the old world, a 1995 issue of Anime UK magazine printed a letter which asked why there is no British anime. The letter seems somewhat confused; for one thing the author, unusually, has decided to use the word "anime" the way the Japanese do - as a synonym for animation. He is therefore actually enquiring about British animation as a whole rather than specifically Japanese-influenced work; nevertheless the letter is plainly written from the point of view of someone with a particular interest in Japanese animation and is therefore still relevant.
If 2000 AD were a Japanese product I bet there'd be some back catalogue of JUDGE DREDD OAV material about. I know there's the live action Stallone film coming out this summer, but Dredd has been around now for some years and you'd think someone over here would have had the ol' light bulb over the noggin by now, seeing the interest in in anime, to realise that there would be a market (world-wide) for OAV material on that 2000 AD character alone. Is it something in us British that causes us not to produce anime and manga?
Editor Helen McCarthy provides a lengthy response touching on competition with American imports and social prejudice against animation, with a bleak summery of the options given to British animators:
Animators can either work for children, for commercials, or for the arthouses on scratchy, symbolic shorts; there is little scope and no encouragement for them to produce animation as mainstream mass-market entertainment.
This exchange sheds a lot of light on the thinking behind the concept of British anime. Again, we have the equation of anime with work targeted at older audiences, specifically teenagers and twentysomethings - notice that the letter suggests an animated version of 2000 AD rather than the Beano or Dandy. In addition there is a strong leaning towards mainstream, commercially produced work: Helen McCarthy's overview largely ignores the vast amount of adult British animation in existence at the time, lumping together the films of the Brothers Quay, Alison de Vere, Phil Mulloy, Kayla Parker, Ruth Lingford, Gillian Lacey, Marjut Rimminen and many others as "scratchy, symbolic shorts for the arthouses". The hypothetical British anime was expected to be adult, but also populist.

Tony Johnson's Fallen Angels.

In 1996, the year after this letter was published, BBC2 broadcast an hour-long animated film directed by Tony Johnson entitled Fallen Angels. Telling the story of two men who escape from hell using a magic angel statuette and set off on a quest to enter heaven while fighting against an immortal villain, the film was billed by the BBC as "manga-style". This designation may at first seem bizarre - the film's visual style bears no particular resemblance to any Japanese animation that I can think of, anyway - but in fact the film ticks a lot of the boxes presented by the discussion in Anime UK. Fallen Angels is not particularly cerebral or experimental; it is instead a straight-ahead action adventure yarn which succeeds perfectly well on that level - less arthouse, more Hollywood summer blockbuster. A mainstream success, however, it certainly wasn't, squidged as it was into a midnight slot.

Pete Candeland's spot for the 2002 World Cup, which depicts Gary Lineker as an anime character (not pictured).

A few years later conditions were more favourable for anime-influenced animation, with Pokemon the latest craze and Spirited Away an Oscar-winner. The BBC advertised its coverage of the 2002 World Cup with an anime-style promotional film and CBBC included a piece of anime-influenced work amongst its idents. Anime was seeping into advertising and branding, but what of other areas?

An anime-influenced CBBC ident. See The TV Room for more stills.

As noted before, Dominator: The Movie was released in 2003 - see my post on the film to read about its troubled development, questionable distribution (director Tony Luke didn't actually approve of the "Brit-manga" label) and frosty reception, which resulted in Luke defending the film on an Internet forum. But Dominator at least fared better than an even more troubled example of British anime, Natural Born Kittens.

The cast of the beleaguered Natural Born Kittens.

In 2002 Toonhound reported on the project, a TV series conceived by Larry Bundy Jr. who described it as "the first British Anime/Manga show"; in 2004 it was announced that respected Japanese studio Madhouse had agreed to animate the 26-episode series. Not everyone was thrilled by the news: the proposed series, which by then had its own website showcasing a few comic strips by Bundy, was slammed at the Anime News Network forums. Again, the creator stepped in to stand up for himself and his work (comments sic throughout):
I'm Larry Bundy.

Creator of NBK and I got to say those comments really hurt.

I didn't have all of this delievered to me on a silver platter you know, This has taken years and years of hard work and I've sacrificed pretty much everything for this. I never had any connections, no. When I started on this I dodn't know anyone bar a few UK anime fans and con comittee members.

It wasn't accepted on six strips, no program on earth is accepted on just six strips. NBK isn't a webcomic. Theres hundreds of pages of words and artwork involved on this and the only reason that you havn't seen any of this is because of the site is owned by a company who no longer has the rights to NBK so we can't update it for a few months.

Also the artwork on the site is poor because it's about four years old. Again the same reason above. It was old when the site went up, I was mad at them for using the old stuff as I knew it would get complained about.

Please do not judge NBK on a out of date website thats not that great in the first place and a handful of words. Believe me it's far much better and bigger than all of that. You'll like the final product a lot more!
The final project never reached our screens. But while British commercial animation failed in its attempt to get a slice of the anime pie, the independent sector's efforts were more fruitful.

Alex Hetherington's Glasgowland. Watch the film online here.

Channel 4's Mesh scheme, which I wrote about here, was intended partly for young animators from the field of video games; given the overlap between the Japanese games and animation industries (not to mention their respective fandoms) it seems a given that anime influence would turn up somewhere. And so we have Alex Hetherington's 2003 short film Glasgowland, which echoes the pop art movement's longstanding interest in comics and other forms of 'low' culture. The film doesn't directly mimic mainstream Japanese animation, but rather uses anime-influenced character designs as one aspect of the brightly-coloured pop culture world that its protagonists inhabit: a land of toys, cartoons and sweet wrappers.

Kamiya's Correspondence by Sumito Sakakibara, which is available to watch here.

The following year saw the release of a rather more literal example of British anime in Kamiya's Correspondence, a BAFTA-nominated film from Japanese-born Royal College of Art student Sumito Sakakibara. The film not only uses Japanese-influenced aesthetics but also a Japanese setting and even Japanese dialogue; it seems fair to describe Kamiya's Correspondence as one of the best pieces of Japanese animation never to come out of Japan.

Paul Duffield and Kate Brown's Rolighed, which can be viewed here.

The grand prize of the 2006 International Anime and Manga Festival competition was won by another British student film, titled Rolighed. Directed by Paul Duffield, winner of a Tokyopop competition for manga-influenced comic creators, the film clearly has a foot in the medium of comics: a split-screen effect recalling comic panels is used at several points, and images fade in and out in a manner suggestive of pages being turned. The visual motif of drawing and writing is also prominent, with one scene showing the characters appearing line-by-line as though being drawn onto paper. Although a very different film to Glasgowland, Rolighed similarly treats anime as a motif rather than a mode, taking a step back and lifting inspiration from the surrounding culture: in this case the acts of reading and drawing manga.

Ame-Chan, defender of Amecon. Her film can be seen here.

In 2007 the anime convention Amecon screened a specially-made short from Hel and Scott Ewart. Seven minutes long, the film is an affectionate anime parody starring a magical girl named Ame-Chan who defends the convention from a cackling supervillain bent on wrecking the attendees' enjoyment.

Mark Bender and Garry J. Marshall's Rogue Farm.

Each of these four clocks in at under ten minutes, but in 2004 Mark Bender and Garry J. Marshall's 24-minute Rogue Farm, described by producer Alan Jenkins as "the first ever British anime to be commissioned by a UK broadcaster and film body", managed to straddle the gap between "animated short" and "animated special". In a now-familiar scenario the film was treated with suspicion by parts of the online community, prompting Marshall to defend the film (comments sic throughout):
You're reaction is pretty much what I feared - believe me, myself and the other director, Mark Bender, begged the producer not to run with the "Scottish Anime" tag line! We're more aware than anyone that it's not Anime in any way a fan would recognise, and I was troubled at the time that it would misrepresent what we were doing. The film was commissioned by SMG (not channel 4), who are the Scottish end of ITV, and it was always clear that it had to play to a mainstream audience. In any case, neither of us were interested in copying or otherwise aping the sytle or content of japanese anime - after all, we're not japanese, it's not our background as artists. What we did have though was a story that had certain elements that were unmistakeably anime-esque (it's based on a short story by Charles Stross), and our great love for certain anime classics. And there's no getting away from it - if you're making a short animated sci-fi film for an adult audience, about the only model, both in terms of how to achieve the production, and how to to sell it to an audience, is Anime. So just between you and me, just kinda ignore any anime references on the site. Maybe we can quietly ditch them...

Cinnamon Entertainment's Freefonix.

And finally, in 2008 Cinnamon Entertainment succeeded where the creators of Natural Born Kittens had failed: they made a commercially-produced, anime-influenced TV series. Although a UK/France co-production with animation outsourced to India, Freefonix is the closest to a British anime series that we have seen so far. And yet, when you consider how many titles have contended for the "first British anime" title (or some variation thereof), Freefonix has crept in remarkably quietly.

One factor is that the anime label has served as a convenient bracket for animation targeting older audiences, while Freefonix is squarely a children's series and so already has a bracket for itself. But there could be another factor here: to me, at least, it seems as though "British anime" is simply not relevant anymore; the wave of Brit-manga animation trumpeted by Dominator essentially ends with Freefonix.

British anime, like American anime, was always a fragile concept. It was dreamed up by anime fans - often with little knowledge of non-Japanese animation - to classify something that was originally hypothetical. Even when it became a reality the idea was scarcely any less hazy: the body of work covered in this post is very loose indeed.

That the idea of one country's animation influencing animation from elsewhere could capture people's imagination this way is unusual. After all, few people care that Count Duckula looks a bit like Donald Duck, that the Brothers Quay's films could be mistaken by laypeople for Jan Svankmajer's, or that the British animation made by Lotte Reiniger looks much the same as the animation she made in Germany. Japanese animation has been treated as a special case in this regard simply because it has an attendant fandom willing to do so. But how much longer will that be the case?

Today, the kids who watched Pokémon are in their late teens and twenties, and a number of them have gone on to make animation of their own. And fifteen or so years from today the kids now enjoying Teen Titans, Avatar: The Last Airbender and Ben 10 will have grown up and begun to influence the next generation of animation themselves. Animation students across the country are taking influence from anime just as freely as they take influence from American cartoons. Japanese animation, once a niche beloved by a few close-knit enthusiasts, has been steadily working its way into the anglophone mainstream; conversely, the anglophone mainstream is increasingly influencing anime, with the Japanese animation industry releasing projects based on Batman, The Matrix, Highlander and so forth with an eye on Western markets. It wouldn't surprise me if, eventually, the very concepts of "anime" and "manga" were to lose cultural currency altogether.

And so, while British animation that takes influence from Japanese animation is here to stay, the idea of a "British anime" movement is likely a thing of the past.


  1. I'm glad that someone has addressed this issue so deeply. I am one of the twenty-somethings that grew up on Pokemon, Sailor Moon, DBZ etc and I have to say that I totally agree with your conclusion that anime is losing its cultural origins. I think the quality of american animation is becoming less interesting to watch- all very same-y. I love that it's still a niche in the UK and I dont really want that to change, because the Japanese style will become yet further dilouted

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