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The Mike Toole Show
Anime At The Movies

by Michael Toole,

I love going to the movies. The total experience - getting the ticket ripped, the massive bucket of hot popcorn, the unbelievably gigantic screen, the thumpingly loud sound system, the murmurs and whoops from the audience next to you - is something that just can't be approximated any other way. So naturally, when an anime film hits the movie theatres, I'll do anything I can to go out and see it. I've had two opportunities to do so recently. First, there was GANTZ, the big-screen adaptation of Hiroya Oku's manga, which hit theatres in a very novel way back in January. It wasn't a traditional 35mm showing - in fact, the film was beamed to more than 300 theatres digitally. Just a couple of weeks ago I hit the Brattle Theatre in my hometown of Cambridge, MA for a double-feature of the two Rebuild of Evangelion movies - it was the only area screening of the brand-spanking-new second installment, and if I was going to see the second one, why not see the first? That screening was a technical curiosity, too - it was done not via film, but via 1080p blu-ray.

Of course, it's been years since I've seen an anime film in theatres. The last one was Satoshi Kon's wonderfully mesmerizing Paprika, and that was in 2007. Going to the movies to see anime is an occasional treat at best, so at these screenings, I found myself wondering about how the medium has fared in theatres over the years, so this time, I've decided to put it all under the microscope and see what sort of germs I can come up with.

First of all, let's make one point clear: anime was on the big screen for a couple of years before it hit the small screen. That's right, for quite some time before Astroboy wowed kids in NBC in 1963, you could go to the moviehouse and see Japanese animation in color. Many times I've mentioned Alakazam the Great, the Journey to the West spin created by Toei and distributed here by American International Pictures. That one hit theatres in the summer of 1961, along with two other films: Magic Boy, and Panda and the Magic Serpent. In fact, all three of these films are Toei features, and they're all stylistically quite similar. You can thank producer Hiroshi Okawa and director Taiji Yabushita for that - the former steered Toei's animation department for years, and starting in the mid-1950s, he enacted his vision of the company competing directly with Disney, with lavish, fully-animated movies featuring fairy tales, cute animals, and lots of sing-a-long songs. Director Yabushita fulfilled Okawa's demands admirably, creating a series of colorful, fanciful films that still look and sound great today. Panda and the Magic Serpent was technically the first anime released in the United States, getting an exhibition screening on March 15, 1961 (that's right - fifty years ago this month!), but the film, along with Magic Boy and Alakazam, would hit wide release during a merry month that summer. Panda saw release courtesy of a smaller operation called Globe Corporation, but Magic Boy was shipped to cinemas by MGM, and American International put significant muscle behind Alakazam, securing the services of teen idol Frankie Avalon to sing the songs and casting comedians Sterling Holloway, Jonathan Winters, and Arnold Stang, but none of the films were a hit.

That's alright, though, because the wave of Japanese-animated films heading westward would continue the following year. Signal International made the swoop for two more Toei features, The Adventures of Sindbad and The Littlest Warrior, and dumped them into theatres during the summer. Here's where questions start to arise: why were these films always released during the summertime? Well, that's easy - it's because school was out during the summer, and you could really only get movies like these booked during the daytime, at children's matinees. See, outside of major hits like 101 Dalmatians, one could not really get a kids' cartoon film into theatres for prime-time showings - kids and family movies just weren't the unbelievably huge draw that they are now, a time when astonishing dreck like Hotel for Dogs and Chicken Little can command 7:00pm showings for weeks on end. Instead, these films would very often only be seen at 1pm and 2pm showings, and only on weekends. If you start digging through old movie posters, you'll notice this - some local handbills and promotional material will explicitly mention that the showings are "MATINEE ONLY... SATURDAY AND SUNDAY!"

These showings weren't complete humdrum affairs, either - they were carefully programmed to keep kids occupied for the entire afternoon, so a single matinee show might involve a couple of crummy old cartoons, some sort of funny made-for-kids documentary short, one of those Republic serials, and one (or maybe two!) main features. As TV ascended, the demand for these screenings waned, but in their heyday, they were a great way to keep kids busy and theatres filled during otherwise dead time. To an animation nerd like me, they were doubly important, because the demand that fueled them also constantly sought new cartoons, and American studios couldn't always keep up. It's that demand that brought us imports of oddball feature films like France's The Curious Adventures of Mr. Wonderbird and the Belgian Pinocchio in Outer Space. It also brought us 1963's Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon, another Toei stunner based on one of Japan's earliest myths, and 1965's Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon.

I could talk for pages about Gulliver's Travels Beyond the Moon. Not only was it a showcase for animation great Yoshio Kuroda, who would spend the 70s masterminding the World Masterpiece Theatre series, it was an early chance for some grunt animator named Hayao Miyazaki to exert influence over a project - it was his input that drastically changed the character of the film, which alerted his superiors to the fact that they had a pretty talented guy working for them. The movie itself is undeniably and unrepentantly weird, about a destitute kid, his talking dog and talking toy buddies who stumble across Lemuel Gulliver himself hiding out in the woods and working on a spaceship. As the title promises, their travels take them beyond the moon. The movie is rounded out by some of the most non-anime-looking anime visuals I've ever seen, and the dubbed version is enhanced by the stone-cold crazy musical stylings of Gong Show bandleader Milton DeLugg. This is probably my favorite film of Toei's big run of family movies in the 50s and 60s, so naturally this is the only one that's never had some kind of home video release or TV broadcast after its theatrical showcase.

Anime would continue to occasionally rear its head on the big screen throughout the 1970s, with generally decent fare like The World of Hans Christian Andersen, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Winds of Change. But the common thread in this era is that the anime simply wasn't known as anime - it was just kids’ cartoons, and very few people even noticed that they came from Japan. But a few people did notice this. One of them was animation producer and historian Jerry Beck, who connected TV cartoon favorites like Astroboy and Kimba to Japan when he spied an Asian kid at summer camp reading a manga magazine with Astroboy on the cover. In his teen years, Beck started attending comic conventions, which were a very different animal in the 1970s, still very far from the mainstream. This was before VCRs were easily obtainable by the public, so Beck and his friends would simply visit Toho's New York offices and ask for 16mm prints of recent anime hits to show at these conventions - this is how a lot of people got their first taste of anime, packed into a convention ballroom, watching unsubtitled 16mm films of stuff like Reideen. The stuff was popular, yet obscure; Beck notes, "Comic conventions at the time... were things that the real world wasn't looking at." Just a few years later Beck would find himself running the New York chapter of the Cartoon/Fantasy Organization - at one point, he received a phone call from none other than Billie Lou Watt, the voice of Astroboy. It turns out that Watt and her compatriots had dubbed Jack and the Beanstalk, and they'd heard that the C/FO was doing a screening of the film at a campus basement. They never saw the finished film, could they all come and visit? Naturally, Beck agreed!

During this period, a few highly interesting examples of anime in theatres happened to take place. The first of them was noted B-movie maven Roger Corman picking up the rights to Galaxy Express 999, which came to his attention because it was the highest-grossing movie in Japan in 1980. Corman's retooled and mercilessly edited Galaxy Express would hit theatres in the summer of 1981, where it failed to make an impression on an increasingly sophisticated audience. Rankin-Bass would underwrite an adaptation of Peter Beagle's The Last Unicorn in 1982, and while the direction of the film is credited to Rankin and Bass themselves, almost the entirety of the production work was handled by a studio called Topcraft, who would later reform under the banner Studio Ghibli. This film was a modest success, and endures as a favorite on home video today. Fred Wolf would supervise a largely Japanese-animated film of the popular American Rabbit character in 1986, and in that same year, New World Pictures released Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind. Many fans know that they took an awful lot of liberties with the release - the movie itself, retitled Warriors of the Wind, is heavily edited, names are changed, and the film was promoted with a famously inaccurate poster. These changes infuriated Hayao Miyazaki, who would spend years fretting about the dangers of turning over his works for overseas distribution. And then there was the Robotech movie.

The Robotech movie was a curious animal, and one that in many ways reflects its predecessor. Like the Robotech TV series, it's an oddball gestalt of different animation works - in this case, the film is an edited version of Noboru Ishiguro's Megazone 23 OVA, with new animation bumpers designed to connect it to the Robotech continuity and a couple of tunes by rock band America. The entire project was devised in the wake of the TV show's unexpected and sweeping success and underwritten by Cannon Films, the legendary purveyor of enjoyably bad action-movie schlock like Missing in Action and American Ninja. The thing is, the project collapsed, and outside of a couple of test screenings in Dallas, the Robotech movie never made it to theatres. This frustrated producer Carl Macek, who felt that he could at least recoup the costs of making the movie by getting some one-off screenings booked. Fortunately, Carl knew a guy who worked in film distribution named Jerry Beck.

That's right, Beck had moved westward to Los Angeles, where he went to work for Expanded Entertainment, an arm of the Landmark Theatres chain that specialized in repertory and festival screenings. There, he organized a festival called the Animation Celebration, a classy affair that even involved the English-language premiere of Miyazaki's Laputa, a film that would go right back onto the shelves for the time being. Beck knew about Robotech's success and was acquainted with Macek, so he inquired about the Robotech movie and discovered that it was available. Beck's employer at the time was hosting a premiere of Disney's The Brave Little Toaster, but the after-party involved the entire audience of Hollywood animation movers-and-shakers leaving the theatre and heading next door. The boss moaned about how it was a shame to leave the theatre empty during the party, so Beck called Macek, Macek got the Robotech movie cleared, and so it was that the creme de la creme of the Hollywood animation community emerged from their Brave Little Toaster screening to see a massive, massive line of hoi palloi eagerly waiting to have a look at the Robotech movie. Macek wasn't able to secure the rights to the Robotech movie after that point, but the two men were already thinking about what to do next. "I know how to do film distribution," Beck told Macek. "If I had your films... I could get them into theatres."

Macek and Beck's first target was Laputa. Armed with a load of promotional literature, the pair stormed Tokuma Shoten's American offices, where they put things simply: Give us the print of Laputa, and we will make money for you. Tokuma agreed, throwing in a trailer reel and a huge stack of posters to help promote the film. Later that year, the newly-formed Streamline Pictures would go hunting for movies to distribute at the AFI Film Market, where they picked up Twilight of the Cockroaches and Robot Carnival. "We never actually had to go to Japan," Beck gleefully recounts. "Toho, TMS, Tokuma... all of these studios had LA offices. And once we had one film and it made money, we could convince the studios to give us others. That's how we got films like Lensman, which was just sitting on the shelf for years. And thanks to Laputa, Tokuma Shoten hired Carl and I to dub Totoro and Kiki's Delivery Service, which was the first big moneymaking operation that Streamline did."

During that period, a Japanese distributor called Kodansha was desperately flogging their English version of a big-deal Toho movie called Akira. They worked hard to sell it to American studios and distributors, who universally balked at the film because of its violent content. The only party that showed real interest in promoting the film properly was Streamline Pictures, and they ended up shopping it to theatres in 1989. The movie was received well pretty much wherever it went, which is what really started the domino effect of getting anime into theatres as anime, and not just as animated kids' movies. Beck recounts, "We had to work hard to convince theatres to play Japanese cartoons... the stuff was just too new and weird for them. But our grosses were always good, and that would help get bookings at other theatres. Arthouse bookers would tell me, 'Your films draw an audience that never, ever comes to my theatre,' and the entire situation led to this amusing situation where theatres would be very dismissive of us, only to come begging for our films after they'd been successful elsewhere."

Streamline got an impressive string of hits into theatres as repertory showings throughout the 1990s - fare like Golgo 13, Wicked City, and Neo Tokyo. But eventually, the company would turn its focus to home video, and midway through the decade, Beck quit to pursue other interests. "There just wasn't another Akira on the horizon," he comments. "I felt like I'd taken things as far as they were going to go: mission accomplished." Getting the stuff into theatres was really Beck's game, so it isn't surprising that their movies stopped touring when he left the company. Still he recounts the Streamline experience fondly: "We were essentially a mini-movie company," he remembers. "We designed our own posters, Carl and his wife Svea would create the video box art, I'd write the copy, and we'd end up driving the film reels to the shipping center ourselves." Despite moving on, Beck still sees great value in experiencing anime at the movie theatre. "There's really an experience in seeing anime in theatres," he says. "It helps us remember that this stuff is art, and it's quite a spectacle."

But besides Streamline, what else was there in the 1990s? Tara Releasing would eke out a few goodies (a festival screening of Barefoot Gen, which would hit video courtesy of Streamline, a blown-up movie edit of the forgettable Macross II OVAs, and a respectable release of Gainax's Wings of Honneamise), but the game wouldn't really change again until 1996, when Manga Entertainment helped bankroll a multi-million dollar adaptation of Masamune Shirow's Ghost in the Shell. Manga's theatrical campaign, run by their beefy parent company Island Records, got the movie into theatres for week-long runs rather than just one- or two-day repertory showings, and the movie remains extremely popular today. After that point, things would really start to snowball; Disney's blockbuster acquisition of Tokuma Shoten would land the impressive Studio Ghibli library in their hands, and the first fruit of this deal was the 1999 release of Princess Mononoke, which had been explosively popular in Japan. Disney subsidiary Miramax boldly experimented with the film, hiring an expensive Hollywood voice cast and giving it wide release and marketing in some markets, but it failed to stick. Nobody could predict that the most successful anime movie ever would hit theatres just a couple of weeks later: I am, of course, talking about the $85-million-grossing Pokemon: The First Movie.

Yeah, yeah, it's based on a hugely popular line of video games and kids' toys and it came out at the absolute zenith of the franchise's popularity, but the Pokemon movie's success still represents a major milestone - the idea that anime as anime could be an extremely broadly popular thing. Sure, it was still a kids' cartoon that took the toy tie-in to put it over the top, but progress is still progress. None of the four thousand or so sequels were able to match the original movie's success.

Unfortunately, anime at the movies hasn't really equaled that high point - oh sure, we get Ghibli movies every couple of years like clockwork, and most big cities have ended up getting Satoshi Kon's films, as well as other fare like Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, Metropolis, and Tekkonkinkreet. For me, the most important change is that, for many years, a big-deal anime movie would come out, and we'd all look at each other and say "Gee, I wonder if this movie will come out in American theatres?" Now, we can say "When will this movie come out in theatres?" Sadly, most of these screenings are still small affairs, so many, many cities are frozen out of the experience - just comb the net for reaction to Evangelion 2.0 and you'll find a lot of good people lamenting the lack of the movie in their backyards. Part of the reason for this is that booking these films, when it involves heavy, easily-damaged film cans and dodgy shipping companies, can be a logistical nightmare. Garen Daly, a film exhibitor local to my Boston stomping grounds, comments "The anime industry just doesn't seem interested in the domestic film market. They rarely have 35mm prints, and there are other challenges." One exhibition company has a solution for that, and that company is called NCM Fathom.

Fathom specializes in delivering content to theatres digitally - both live events and pre-taped stuff. This means that there's no pesky film reels or shipping issues, and the company has used this service to great effect to deliver events like the New York Metropolitan Opera and the World Cup to theatres around the country, in one-night-only affairs similar to your traditional repertory screening. In 2007, Fathom entered the anime market by digitally distributing the first Naruto film. Since then, they've shown Death Note and its sequels, one of the Bleach films, and a lineup of several favorites called "Anime Bento." The company's PR officer, Michelle Portillo, can't talk about ticket sales, but she comments: "Naruto in particular has been very, very popular for us, as well as the Death Note films." Fathom's most recent joint was the live-action GANTZ film. I wasn't overly impressed with the dubbed version of the movie, but I couldn't find any fault with the presentation - it was quite high resolution, and bookended by live segments featuring Otaku USA gadfly Patrick Macias interviewing the film's two stars.

Another solution to the distribution bugbear is using actual portable media, like DVDs and blu-rays. Now, I object to the former, simply because DVD isn't anywhere near as high-resolution as 35mm film. Seeing Evangelion 2.0 in blu-ray on the big screen was something of a revelation, though. Technologically, it's hard to compare 1080p video to 35mm film, because the latter is analog and therefore can't really be measured in lines of resolution like the former can; it'd be like looking at a Monet painting and trying to figure out how many pixels it contains. What I can tell you is that, for most moviegoers, it's probably going to be pretty hard to perceive the difference between the two, as long as a good screen and projector are used for the digital stuff. What does this mean? Well, between Fathom's digital and blu-ray delivery, it could get a lot easier for anime movies to get booked in theatres.

I'll wrap this adventure up by commenting on my most recent experience, seeing the Evangelion films at the Brattle. One of the things about seeing movies at the movies is that they can affect your perception of the material. I absolutely loved the bonkers, borderline-incoherent Tank Girl movie when I saw it with a sellout crowd of drunk college students in 1995, but seeing it at home the following year just bored me. A subsequent viewing at a packed film festival brought the magic back.  Evangelion 1.11, viewed on the small screen, left me cool - I liked the new animation, but wasn't drawn into the story and felt like too much of the film was treading on familiar ground. But having my senses almost completely filled by the movie on the big screen drew me in a lot more - combine that with the roars of the crowd around me, and I ended up liking the movie a lot more the second time around. Another appealing aspect of seeing these films in theatres is that, quite simply, I felt surrounded by like-minded people. Conversation came easily, and a lot of the crowd chattered back and forth with each other during the intermission between films. Experiencing these great works of animation is valuable, but making them a shared experience by going to the movies just makes it even better.

I think the best thing about seeing this stuff at the movies is the sense of anticipation. Moviegoing turns the act of watching a film into an event, something special that must be planned for and greatly anticipated. I felt that sense of anticipation all around me as the lights darkened for Evangelion 2.0, at the roars of surprise at each twist in the plot, and in the resounding cheer that sounded when the film closed... oh, and of course, in the amused laughter at the post-credits preview for the third film. When is that one coming out, again? Let me get my calendar out...

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