Buried Garbage - Chinamation

by Justin Sevakis, Oct 25th 2007

Once upon a time, when anime video was at its peak and DVD's couldn't be released fast enough, a toy company with ties in China saw the hot commodity the market was peddling. And they thought, "Wow, we can sell cartoons from Asia too!"

Yeah. I can't imagine anyone isn't rolling their eyes at that one.

CHINAMATION: It's Sweeping the Nation!

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In 2003, Playhut was a small but growing toy company headquartered in California. They specialized in the sort of bulbous molded plastic toys very young children play with, but had been successful and had gotten retail placement in most of the major toy and department store chains. This was all well and good, but in order to get into the "big leagues" of toy companies, one must make licensed products. After all, blobby young children toys are bought sparingly by parents judging educational and developmental value. Licensed toys are the ones kids demand be purchased.

However, licenses to proven or well-marketed franchises are expensive. Rather than spending a ton of cash or starting entirely from scratch, company president Brian Yu Zheng looked to China, where he not only had some ties but often visited to supervise manufacturing work. China, quickly gaining steam as an economic superpower, had been creating animated series for their own market for quite some time. Many of these series took place in olden China, much like their countless kung-fu and wuxia movies and drama series, and were big on action. Clearly they had been modeled after Japanese anime.

Now, China has had a strange history of producing interesting animation, but that history is not exactly a glorious one. The Cultural Revolution of the late 60's and 70's resulted in much of the country's artistic talent being forced to do farm work in the countryside, accept re-education, or even be thrown in jail. After a brief recovery in the 80's, China's new economic open-ness with Japan and America meant that their market was flooded with those countries' respective top-quality productions, and the unprofessional backwater of the Chinese industry, having lost all of the talent that knew what they were doing, just couldn't compete. Even fill-in work for Japanese and American producers often came back late and shoddy. Young new artists, increasingly influenced by anime, found funding from the government, who started new initiatives to try to get their industry back on track.

But neither the technical knowledge nor the storytelling background was there. Chinese animators were essentially starting over. They've made a lot of progress, and workmanship has slowly been getting better over the last decade. In the last few years, a few projects from China have been surprisingly good.

This was not yet true in 2003. Most of the productions were hastily produced TV series, produced digitally by people who clearly had no business animating a walk cycle, let alone a full TV series. Nonsense plots, incomprehensible action, and cringe-worthy slapstick was the order of the day. Playhut, not really knowing any better, bought the US rights to five different shows, and thinking they could sell to the burgeoning anime market, proceeded to make a splash.

So, in the summer of 2004 a few members of the anime and animation press, along with those in the licensing business (myself included) got screeners for this new line of "anime" DVD's that would soon be coming to a store near us. The packet I got included their five shows, along with a brochure and a small press kit (boasting that "Chinamation" was, in fact, "sweeping the nation"). They had commissioned dubbed versions (featuring well-known anime voice actors, it was claimed) and produced DVD's. They had even secured some limited distribution to retail stores.

Intrigued, I popped these discs into the DVD player. And the shows began. And I was treated to some of the most miserable pieces of animation that, to date, I have ever seen. I started laughing. Hard.

Let's start with the "most anime-like" title, a sci-fi show called Bird Island. It stars a young man named Tin who is just confronting his grandfather with the knowledge that he's not human. What is he, exactly? "The strangest person on Bird Island!" he shouts! Bird Island is the idyllic island on which Tin lives. He's an anti-social mopey teenager, and gets picked on by the island evil rich kid named Kid. Kid has a weird head, a purple suit, and minions. Bird Island is also inhabited by anthropomorphic animals for no apparent reason.

The production practically screams "cheap shortcuts" at every opportunity. Most of the time characters stand around flapping their mouths way too slowly to actually be talking, making any attempt at matching lip-flap a failure at launch. In an effort to make the (digital) production look more animated, the photographer seems addicted to zooms. Very fast zooms that zoom in on nothing. Someone will talk, and the screen will zoom in on his ear. As all of the art is drawn in too low a resolution, we see digital jaggies everywhere. Cuts break every rule of screen blocking (crossing the "invisible line" on almost every cut), creating the most awkward visual pacing I've ever seen. Physics make no sense: someone rolling in a chair hits a distant wall while in the middle of the room and ricochets nonsensically in every direction before coming to a dead stop.

And all this for a very, very cliché sci-fi story. Long story short, aliens invade and only Tin has the powers to stop them. That was easy, wasn't it? Apparently not. There's 52 episodes of this crap.

Remember those "famous anime voice actors" we heard about earlier? That may or may not be true. I have no idea; as there are no credits whatsoever (in any language -- where credits and an ending sequence would be, there is simply nothing), I have no chance at guessing who did what. (According to the one review I could find, some prominent LA-area voice talent is used, but I'll be damned if I can recognize anybody.) The dub is horrible, though, featuring acting that would be more at home in a hentai dub than a show for mainstream, featuring stilted, completely undirected voices reading dialogue almost verbatim from the subtitle script (likely for the first time). No studio currently working in anime dubbing circles is capable of making a dub this bad.

Next, we have Way of the Warriors, which has a fairly nice looking box and character art that looks very CLAMP-ish. It looks nothing like the actual animation, which is an incomprehensible classical war story between the feuding Sui and Tang dynasties. It features a huge cast of indistinct characters (featuring the valiant son of a regional governor, a woman plotting the overthrow of the emperor who is trying to have said son killed, and a bunch of seemingly-unimportant minor characters). Of course, in grand Wuxia tradition, all the characters can fly and are basically superhuman. The dialogue is patently ridiculous in English; every other line is either a compliment or an apology (even in the middle of a battle!). Again the animation is flat and clumsy, and features the same drunken zoom.

Less offensive is DeCheng, the adventures of a young orphan who grows up to fulfill a prophecy to become his country's hero. The epic scope and slightly improved animation make this show almost watchable, despite its limitations. Far less tolerable is the kids in the Chinese countryside action romp "Mighty Bunch" (featuring kids taking down dumb government officials as if they were robbers in Home Alone) and "The Little Monk", the slow-paced musings of a kid living in a monestary that looks like a cross between Ziggy and R.F. Outcault's Yellow Kid. One episode features the highly moving story of it raining and becoming less hot outside.

So what became of Playhut Entertainment and the "Chinamation" line of DVD's? Well, not a whole lot. For two years the gigantic Playhut booth was at every kids' licensing trade show and even made an appearance at San Diego Comic Con. I saw their booth at Licensing Show in New York, and felt a little sorry for them -- despite a sizable crowd at the show, their booth seemed to be actively repelling people. After failing to secure TV broadcast (or any other licensing deal) and only selling a small handful of DVD's, Playhut pulled the plug. They continue on today as a toy manufacturer.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it: It appears that only the first two volumes of Bird Island and DeCheng actually made it out on store shelves. While long since deleted from most stores inventory, a few online shops like Anime Castle and Tower have copies in stock as of this writing. The discs themselves may or may not be DVD-R's with inkjet labels and cut-out color laser printer inserts; the "live product" that I got sure is. Mastered on analog videotape, all of the DVD's are grainy and generally look terrible. As they're all PAL transfers, some odd motion mistakes appear here and there. Any ending credit sequence that may have existed at one time is gone, though opening sequences are present. It's amusing to note that both series' packaging for volume 1 and volume 2 feature the exact same character artwork on both volumes' front AND back, slightly rearranged. There may be a few copies of Way of the Warriors in circulation, but far fewer than the other two.

I actually saw a VCD box of Way of the Warriors in a Chinese mall in Flushing, NY once, though that likely won't have any English on it. As for the other titles... Well, I don't think any of the other shows ever saw the light of day, other than the few screeners that were distributed at the time. These screeners are dubbed only, and are missing the opening sequences as well.

Note: The name "Chinamation" should not be confused with ChinAmation Corp., the Beijing artist group that actually produces new animation.

Images © Playhut Entertainment.

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