The Mike Toole Show
Smash Hits of Korean Animation

by Michael Toole,

It seemed like the perfect idea for a convention panel. I mean, everyone has seen bits and pieces of those weird old $1 DVDs, right? You know the ones I'm talking about: they have titles like SPACE THUNDER KIDS and PROTECTORS OF THE UNIVERSE, they sport bizarre, random editing, weird dubbing courtesy of grade-Z filmmaking superstar Joseph Lai, and best of all, they feature character and mecha design ripped off from the finest anime the 1970s had to offer! To a bystander like me, this was what old South Korean animation was all about, man.

But here's the thing: how do you link that bad old animation to the sometimes extremely good Korean animation of today? And where does anime come in? If you're a fan and a serious student of animation, you know that the Korean animation biz serves as the second unit team for half of the damn world, and Japan and the US in particular-- it's easy to focus on the crap, but there's gems in there as well. I came to this realization when I stopped clipping out funny bits from Gold Wing and Mazinger 3 and started asking actual Korean people about the cartoons they watched growing up. What I discovered was an awful lot of weird, hilarious bullshit from the 80s, but underneath that, there's a compelling story of a powerful, well-developed animation industry that rose up from practically nothing. I spoke about the subject at Anime Boston, but the fact is, the story of Korean animation is too big for a panel.

Original South Korean animation was born in 1960, courtesy of the Armed Forces Korean Network and an artist named Shin Dong-heon. Shin was already a proficient commercial animator-- a landscape painter by trade, he became interested in animation after seeing Disney's Peter Pan in 1957, and his commercial for Jinro Soju, the first Korean animation to feature a soundtrack properly synchronized with the animation, had hit the public just months earlier. Shin was therefore happy to accept work from the AFKN, who asked for a public services short film, and received I am Water, a film that Shin created with the help of his friend, producer Chung Yong-Il. The thing is, celluloid film was expensive, and Shin and his tiny company didn't have the money to buy it. But this was okay, because the US Air Force in Korea used large pieces of celluloid for aerial surveillance purposes. At first, Shin would have to collect these pieces after they were discarded, so they could be washed off and re-used. A few years down the road, in 1963, South Korea would see its first full-color animated short, a version of The Grasshopper and the Ant. That production was so short on cels-- they only had 300!-- that the cels would need to be washed, dried, and re-used for every 10 seconds of footage. 

For several years, it seemed like animation for shorts and commercials would have to be enough. Shin Dong-heon would soon be joined in the business by another animator, Nelson Shin (no relation), who worked on shorts and commercials of his own. In later years, Shin would recount that his team would usually get 200,000 won for each commercial, which was only barely enough to cover expenses and pay the staff. This didn't daunt the young artist and his contemporaries, though - they were absolutely hell-bent on being animators, and subsistence work like these early commercials allowed them to learn valuable camera and painting techniques. These early artists were convinced that prosperity would come sooner or later. The first big sign of growth would be South Korea's first full-color animated feature film, Hong Gildong.

Hong Gildong, a fanciful depiction of one of Korea's great folk heroes, dropped in 1967, and it was directed by the aforementioned Shin Dong-heon. That prosperity loomed large-- the movie sold more than 200,000 tickets in its first two weeks, a hilariously huge number in a country that was still struggling to modernize outside of jet-setting Seoul-- but it came at an interesting cost. In John Lent's book Animation in Asia and the Pacific, animator Jung Wook, who worked on the film, recounted that the movie was started in the rainy season, and the air was so humid that it was damaging the cels - so the entire business had to be both rescheduled and sped up. Another member of the team, Jo Min-cheol, talked about how the production team spent nearly 40 days only sleeping a few hours per night, spending all their waking hours working on the movie. The final edit was finished at 4am on release day, and the crew collapsed into bed, unable to enjoy the premiere of their groundbreaking picture.

Despite that success, Korea's domestic animation production sagged for several years-- Shin Dong-heon himself put aside domestic animation, complaining that it was too difficult to make money, and focused on creating animation for overseas TV programs. But it was during this period that the first instance of anime outsourcing to South Korea took place. In 1967, Tele-Cartoon Japan released Golden Bat, an enjoyably weird TV superhero yarn. Backgrounds were painted by a Korean studio called TBC, who took advantage of this relationship to bring the cartoon to Korean airwaves. This was significant not just because it was an early artistic partnership, but because Japanese media was banned in South Korea, thanks to a mixture of protectionism and long-standing resentment over Imperial Japan's actions towards the country before and during World War II. The connection with TBC allowed Golden Bat to beat the ban, and it became a popular mainstay on Korean TVs. 

Golden Bat was the first TV anime to beat the ban, but it wasn't the last. Mazinger Z debuted in South Korea in 1975, slipping the ban on Japanese media by simply omitting original creator credits. Kids across the nation flocked to the super robot hero's adventures, and this galvanized a young animator named Kim Cheong-gi into action. Kim and his compatriots had worked as subcontractors on some of Toei's super robot shows already, and felt like they could create domestic works of similar quality. With the help of producer Yu Hyun-mok, himself an accomplished filmmaker, Kim unleashed Taekwon V on the public in 1976. Now, if you look at this guy, you might notice certain... similarities.

Kim is completely unflinching in his swipe from Go Nagai's original work; the way he sees it, he was tapping into a popular series and using it to create a new hero robot that Korean children could call their own. Two of Taekwon V's distinguishing features are his helmet and his fighting style. If you check out the back of Taekwon V's head, you'll see a swooping, curved edge-- this is meant to evoke the helm of historical Korean hero Yi Sun Shin, who repelled Japan's superior navy in the 16th century. And while Taekwon V does employ some super robot-a-riffic attacks, his signature moves are flying kicks derived from the training of his pilot-- an expert in tae kwon do, Korean's national martial art. 

Taekwon V was a smash hit that would ignite demand for sequel after sequel. Korea's new animation boom was on, led by Taekwon V and the film Taekwon Kids: Maruchi and Arachi, which would turn out to be the third-highest grossing film of any kind in South Korea in 1976. From that point, Korea's domestic feature animation industry exploded in all kinds of hilarious ways. I mean, really:

come on, I mean look at this 

what the hell, guys

wait a second, is that TRON?

Are you kidding me?! Actually, the above image is from a feature film entitled Black Star vs Golden Bat. Yep, that Golden Bat! It's not an official sequel by any means, but Japan's Golden Bat was popular enough that some jerk with money decided that a new chapter would be a good idea. But the original Golden Bat, with his high collar and grinning skull face, looked kinda goofy, so his character design was updated to something more... familiar. Despite that, he still behaves like Golden Bat, which is to say that he laughs diabolically, shoots lasers from his hands, and can fly. That's right folks, Golden Batman can fly! Don't miss the movie's final battles, which feature a showdown with a Dai-Apollon lookalike and a scene where Not-Batman rips the bad guy's arm off. 

It's hard for me to point at productions like these and merely characterize them as ripoffs, though. If the caped crusader looks like Batman, but acts completely differently, is that still Batman? Sure, Captain Cyclops might look like Captain Harlock wearing Captain Future's clothes, but is that really a ripoff? And so what if Gold Wing includes a special guest appearance from Iron Man? He's not even the main character! I think my favorite of these goofy knockoffs would have to be Mazinger X. Sure, Mazinger 3 and Mazinger 7 took bites out of Mazinger Z's style, but Mazinger X, which came out in 1978, was literally Grendizer. Same robot design, same colors, same special attacks. His pilot looked a bit more like the pilot of Gaiking, but the series was literally a case of the Korean studio deciding that they could make a better Grendizer. I don't think they succeeded, but it's certainly an interesting failure!

As the 80s bore down on South Korea, box office revenue from these odd productions sagged. This is because more and more Korean households had nice color TVs, which featured entertaining cartoons from outside the country. To try and stem the lost revenue, the early 80s would offer up robot epics like Phoenix King, which featured the adventures of Inferno from the Transformers. Actually, this movie predated the Transformers cartoons that included Inferno, as well as ripping off everything from Gundam to Yamato. The movie poster even featured a photo of the toy, which children were obviously meant to rush out and buy after the credits rolled. This movie can actually be taken as an answer to 1983's magnificent Space Gundam V, a joint by the aforementioned Kim Cheong-gi himself, which took the famous Gundam name, the mystical background of super robots like Reideen, and combined them to sell a toy. This toy.

No no wait, I mean this toy!

Heh, yeah, wow! At any rate, the films of this era were generally dopey super robot knockoffs, and they proliferated to the point that the South Korean government stepped up and criticized them, even enacting a Children's Protection Act in 1980 that was designed to hamper production of these lousy robot movies. Two things snapped Korea out of its domestic funk: the demand for TV animation, and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. See, by the 1980s, South Korea was an outsourcing powerhouse for both eastern and western cartoon producers; the aforementioned Nelson Shin even directed the awesome, hugely entertaining box office failure that was Transformers: The Movie in 1986. But the people wanted local cartoons on TV, and the government relaxed their standoffish posture on animation by deciding that the world should see plenty of nice, domestically-produced animated stuff on TV when they pulled up for the '88 summer Olympics. Thus, Wandering Khachi debuted in 1987 as South Korea's first animated TV series, and was quickly overshadowed by this little green dude:

Dooly the Little Dinosaur here is a poster child for Korea's version of the ages-old connection between comics and animation; the show was an immediate hit, largely because the Dooly manwha had been running since 1984. Dooly would reappear regularly, eventually getting a new TV series in 2008. Then, the 1990s happened. A lot of stuff happened in the 90s-- South Korea became the largest animation subcontractor nation in the world, scoring contracts for hit shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Animation pioneer Shin Dong-Heon returned to his hitmaker and created a new Hong Gildong film. Feature animation finally started ramping up again, with interesting (albeit weird-looking) fare like Red Hawk and Armageddon debuting both in Korea and internationally. And South Korean TV animation started to resemble, in some ways, anime. I'm not talking about the old, swiped stuff-- I'm talking about local shows that borrowed, with true skill, from anime's aesthetic: fare like 1993's Hamos: The Green Chariot and 1998's Ki Fighter Taerang. See, in the 1980s, you could safely write off this artistic convergence, because it was all knockoffs - but this newer fare was evidence of real emerging talent - talent that didn't hustle to finish jobs with recycled cels and patched-together cameras, but instead was the product of a mature animation industry. The ban on Japanese manga and anime would be eased in 1998 and lifted entirely in 2002, but by this point, Koreans were creating their own stuff with gusto.

As far as the Korean animation biz was concerned, this emergent animation talent would be fully manifested in 2003's Wonderful Days. Directed by Kim Moon-saeng and underwritten by Samsung, the film was heralded by the press and preceded by a set of absolutely gorgeous trailers that hinted at visual and storytelling splendor. Unfortunately, what actually hit theatres wasn't a masterpiece, but a lousy movie that looked great. It flopped at the box office, and international release plans floundered for years - retitled Sky BlueWonderful Days was slated for release in the US by Tartan/Palisades, but the publisher went out of business before this could happen. This entire spectacle annoyed me, because South Korea had released a legitimately great animated film the previous year, with 2002's My Beautiful Girl Mari, directed by Lee Seong-kang - but while that movie garnered critical praise, nobody really seemed to notice it. It's a very un-anime-like film, but I loved its dreamy visuals and nostalgic story. This one did come out on DVD, and it's still pretty easy to find it. Lee wasn't a flash in the pan, either-- his next feature film, 2007's Yobi the Five-Tailed Fox, is also a nice piece of work.

You're probably wondering where the anime angle comes in. Well, in one sense, it crops up in 2004. That was the year that the film Blade of the Phantom Master was produced. This movie's been available on DVD for years-- it's not great, but it's a pretty good little supernatural action flick. It's based on a popular manwha series, but what amuses me is its pedigree-- you might be tempted to assume that, like many co-productions, it was backed by Japanese companies and animated in South Korea, but it's actually the other way around-- an amusing reversal.  Ultimately, I see the study of Korean animation as valuable to anime fans because honestly, all animation is connected. Osamu Tezuka took cues from old Fleischer and Disney cartoons. Daft Punk helped produce Interstalla 5555 because of the Leiji Matsumoto cartoons they grew up on.  American cartoons in the 80s outsourced from Japan, who outsourced from South Korea. Nowadays, Korea produces plenty of domestic animation, not just because of cultural demand, but because the cheapest animation subcontractors in the game are now in places like Vietnam and India, and they need domestic product in the pipeline in case they lose some of their lucrative overseas contracts.

For the most part, this has worked out fine. South Korean TV animation would soon score its first big international hit with Pucca, and just last summer, South Korean cinemas hosted the first Korean-animated box office smash in some time-- director Oh Sung-Yoon's Leafie: A Hen into the Wild. Based on a children's book, Leafie's another movie that is kind of splendidly un-anime-- it doesn't resemble Japanese animation, it doesn't resemble western animation. It does a great job at setting its own artistic style and tone, and is very enjoyable despite being a bit maudlin at times. The movie walks and talks well enough for international release; currently Canada's 108 Media have the rights to it in North America. I spoke to a representative from 108, Nathaniel Warsh, who confirmed the company's plans to dub and release the film, hopefully before 2012 is over and done with.

Nowadays, Korean animation is doing just fine. That old 80s fare is kind of magical in its awfulness, but if you seek out current Korean animation, you're more likely to find something like the wonderful Cloud Bread, an award-winning TV series that looks nothing like any other cartoons running at the moment. Or maybe you'll find the peculiar cross-border Peter Chung/Rin Taro series Reign, or the enjoyably vulgar feature film Aachi and Ssipak, which MTV has acquired with an eye towards packaging for TV. I've always been more of an animation guy than a Japan guy, so taking a close look at the history of Korean animation and how it relates to Japanese animation is valuable. And just think - in other countries, the same struggle is happening. Just a few weeks ago, Cartoon Brew pointed me at this trailer, for Arjun, a new Indian film. The animation isn't quite up to snuff for a feature, but it's real, and full of promise. Enjoy your anime, but don't forget the good stuff, just outside of Japan's borders!

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