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Theatrical Anime

by Bamboo Dong,
The status of anime in the United States, and attitudes towards it, has certainly changed drastically since its first introduction, and there's no better way to outwardly assess this than through the realm of theatrical anime. In previous years, the scope of anime in the US was limited largely to art house releases and movies of the Pokémon ilk. While that's nothing to sneeze at, 2003 was definitely a huge step up, proving to be a groundbreaking year for anime movies.

One of the year's biggest achievements was undoubtedly due to a movie named Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi, released in the US as Spirited Away. Hailed as Studio Ghibli's crowning masterpiece, it not only broke Japanese box office records for the highest grossing opening weekend, but also seated itself as Japan's biggest box office earning film. Winning the Japanese Academy Award for Best Picture in 2002, it was later released in a handful of American theaters later that year. The figures were a bit disappointing, but it landed in behind the three Pokémon movies as the number four highest grossing anime movie to be released theatrically in the country. The real surprise was to come during the Oscars. Nominated for Best Animated Feature Film aside hits like Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age, it was the first anime film to ever be nominated for the award. It went on to win the category, and the rest is history.

The year has been phenomenal for Satoshi Kon as well. Director of the popular psychological thriller Perfect Blue, he has two films up for an Academy Award for Best Animated Film. The first is Millennium Actress, a touching story following the life of an actress named Chiyoko Fujiwara through past and present. Despite the acclaim that it received from critics, the movie was only opened in six theaters last September. Licensed and distributed by Go Fish, it broke standards by being the first theatrical anime in the US to be subtitled only. After its short theatrical run, it was immediately released on DVD to further touch viewers with its poignant story. The other Satoshi Kon film to be nominated for Best Animated Film is Tokyo Godfathers. Acquired by Samuel Goldwyn, the movie opened in eight theaters just this January. Already, it is earning more per theater than Millennium Actress. Both films are certainly not alone in their Oscar categories though, as Pokèmon Heroes was also submitted to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Animated Film.

An especially interesting new trend is the outpouring of plans for live action film adaptations of many anime series. Rob Cohen, director of films like XXX and the Fast and the Furious, acquired the rights to make a movie based on the film Kite. James Cameron, known for his work on Titanic, also confirmed that he would be directing a live rendition of Battle Angel Alita. Since then, the movie has been in the pre-production and scripting stage. To lengthen the list even further, the popular series by Akira Toriyama, Dragon Ball Z, is also under plans for four PG-13 movie adaptations. Slated to start with the Saiyan Saga and progress until the Majin Buu Saga, 20th Century Fox had hoped to release the first movie this summer. Due to delays though, filming isn't likely to begin until that time.

Of course, the list of movies is only partially over. Other plans for live action anime movies include Lone Wolf and Cub, to be directed by Darren Aronofsky, responsible for movies like Pi and Requiem for a Dream. To be joined by his partner Eric Watson, Aronofsky has decided to “contemporize” this popular manga series, but no new information has been released since then. Longtime fans of the cult-hit Akira will also have something to look forward, as plans for a movie are also in the works. James Robinson, the scriptwriter for the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, is lined up to do the script, but there is no news as to when the project will be completed. Controversial manga Sky High is going to be receiving star-studded treatment this year as well, planned for either a series or a feature film following up both a Japanese live-action and film.

As the big names keep rolling, it's time for Steven Spielberg to take the stage as well. Near the middle of September, he had considered directing a movie based on the Lupin the Third series by Monkey Punch. No further information has been leaked, but Gerald R. Molen, the producer for Schindler's List, has had the license for a Lupin movie for almost a year now. And of course, more big news came at the end of the year with more details of a planned Neon Genesis Evangelion movie. While they are still looking for a studio to produce the movie, the project is currently a joint venture between Gainax, ADV Films, and effects house Weta Workshop. So far, the movie is still in early pre-production stages, but concept sketches have already been released to an anticipating audience. The movie may take as long as ten years to complete, but with Evangelion being such a huge fan favorite, it will definitely be interesting to see what rolls out.

The stage lights are heating up on the other side of the ocean as well. A live action movie adaptation of Tetsujin 28, also known as Gigantor, hit pre-production last year. The film should be out sometime this year. Famous for his work on the popular series Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno will be at the helm directing a Cutie Honey movie. Filming began in July starring popular Japanese idol Eriko Satoh. Stuffed with character “cosplay” and fanservice, the movie should be a silly and fun adventure for all male fans of the series. A movie will also be released this year based on Robot Hunter Casshan, a series based on a 1970s live action series.

So after quite a busy year, 2003 banged to a close with numerous awards under its belt, a truckload of live action movies in the making, and still more highlights to tide over into 2004. Anime has come a long way since its introduction stateside and nowhere is it more important than the theatrical movie scene. From ever increasing audience awareness to growing excitement about this niche form of entertainment, the last year was certainly a proud year for anime.

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