Nicky, I just crunched the numbers, and if I quit my job now and spent every subsequent waking moment watching anime, I would be able to clear out my backlog sometime before the 22nd century. It's so feasible. I was so ready to pull the trigger and become the true animation aficionado I've always dreamed of becoming. And then I found out there are other countries besides Japan that are also making cartoons? And they're good cartoons? Who allowed this? I'm ruined. It never ends.
Anime's daring approach to the animation medium has earned it plenty of worldwide acclaim, so it's no wonder that there would be imitators and challengers.
However, we've acknowledged that anime is also in a bit of a slump. In our current era, we have more anime than ever, but many series are struggling with poor productions, stale premises, and limited reach. Among my friends and acquaintances, I don't know as many anime fans who actually keep up with current anime.
Yeah, I mean, what's not to love about anime? Besides the industry burning itself out chasing infinite economic growth for the hollow-brained investor class to salivate over.
But to put another spin on it, a door rarely closes without a window opening somewhere else. So if the anime industry as we know it eventually does reach its breaking point, where is the world gonna get its next fix? Well, a likely answer would be an animation industry already on the up and up, and if we're looking at that parameter, China seems best suited to fill that gap. Or at least, that's the opinion of Masao Maruyama, who, given his resume, probably has a pretty good grasp on what he's talking about.
I'm not one to personally wish for the collapse of Japan's cartoon empire, but Maruyama does have a point that anime's current unsustainable conditions could prompt many to look for greener pastures. In previous slumps, anime's overseas success has helped keep it afloat. While there are many cultural points of contention between the two eastern countries, China actually rivals Japan and the U.S. for the biggest number of anime fans. It wasn't even a few years ago that we saw co-pros left and right trying to bank anime's popularity, many of them produced by a studio called Haoliners.
Yeah, I can't say I particularly enjoyed many of those co-pros (or at least, I doubt I enjoyed Bloodivores in the way the creators intended), but they definitely marked a change in the tide.
At the time, I found the co-pros to be an interesting novelty, but I wouldn't recommend most of them. Part of that is bad outsourcing and management on the anime studios' parts, but China's animation pipeline was still finding its footing at the time.
On the film side, though, I ended up really loving the Big Fish and Begonia, which came out around the same time, which is a gorgeous movie produced with the help of the South Korean Studio Mir. I liked it so much I couldn't help but jump to talk about it. It's a labor of love and a better display of the potential of China's burgeoning industry.
I'm still meaning to check out that one! But even in preview form, it looks pretty incredible. And that shouldn't be surprising; China, like any other country, has its own communities of pro and indie animators. Given the right opportunities, there's no reason why they wouldn't be able to shine. And sure enough, we're seeing that in action now. Provided you know where to look, of course.
Big Fish and Begonia actually started as a internet flash animation. I can't understate the role the internet plays in all this; the director even put out a public SOS asking web users to spread the word about the film after being turned down by many investors. The '00s Chinese Interwebs was the perfect place for young animators to experiment with their own shorts on various websites. Later, some of them would also find popularity on Bilibili, a video upload site similar to Niconico or Youtube. Which also happens to be China's largest streaming platform for both anime and domestic Chinese animation, better known as donghua.
Donghua, like anime, literally just means animation, so it's technically a broad term. Nevertheless, like anime, it gets applied abroad in more specific aesthetic terms. I'm admittedly out of my element here; there's a century-long history of Chinese animation that I don't have much context for. However, the kinds of donghua we've seen get localized and promoted here in the West in recent years share a lot of similarities with Japanese anime. Unsurprising, given the aforementioned cross-cultural influences.
I first heard the term "donghua" when my friends started raving about their favorite novels/webcomic/drama series getting adapted into animation, which happened to be part of a larger group of historical fantasy works with a focus on specific beautiful men and their beautiful relationships with each other, all written by author Mo Xiang Tong Xiu. That series in question happened to be Heaven Official's Blessing, which past me was fortunate enough to cover.
While also produced by Haoliners, it's a huge leap from the previously mentioned co-pros and even more accessible now that it's available on Netflix.
Meanwhile, I think my closest encounter with a donghua prior to preparing for this column was this recent Arknights collaboration, lol.
Which, I mean, I'm very happy I now possess a fuller understanding of the latest in sickeningly cute cartoon cat technology via The Legend of Hei.
Oh hey, speaking of flash animation, this is a movie that's a prequel to a series of indie animated flash shorts/webtoon called The Legend of Luo Xiaohei, Something I did not know when I saw the trailer and decided I needed to watch the movie about a very well animated cat, but one I was presently surprised to see realized in English at all.
It really does have some of the slickest action animation I've seen in a feature film. The tempo stood out to me—there are a lot of really quick and intricate cuts, which you'd expect to feel chaotic, yet the direction pieces them together in a way that makes them quite readable. Not to mention how gorgeous the overall aesthetic is.
I actually only intended to watch about 10 minutes, just to get a feel for it, but those 10 minutes charmed me so much I ended up finishing the entire thing. Zero regrets!
It's both a pretty charming and immersive film and an impressive showpiece for that style of web animation, which I'd describe as similar to what some may call sakuga in anime. Most people associate Flash with tweening or puppet-style animation, but the way Hei is drawn makes it feel closer to a traditional feature, despite being natively digital.
It also has the most important feature of any cartoon: big burg.
You can tell it has a cosmopolitan set of influences, too, beyond just anime. There's definitely Western cartoon inspiration both in how Flash is used and in some of the character designs. Which is my excuse to post more good Hei faces.
Though, of course, it's also neat to see how it incorporates Asian art traditions as well.
For sure. Just as I enjoy watching anime to learn about cultural stuff that might be new to me, donghua can be an opportunity to deepen our understanding and appreciation of a different culture; definitely a must with how many are historical fantasies. Although, there are many donghua that focus on modern settings and struggles as well.
Yeah, through its stellar execution, The Legend of Hei succeeds in spite of some rote story beats, which are serviceable but full of well-trodden themes like the balance between man and nature. But what if you're a 21st-century boy, and you can only relate to melodramas about fake esports? Well, my friend, The King's Avatar is for you.
Ah yes, gaming, is obviously a very foreign and alien culture strange and unfamiliar to me.
Though I'll note that this King's Avatar is not to be confused with the 2019 live-action drama. Both are produced by Tencent, a tech conglomerate that also invests in various forms of entertainment, even owning large stakes in many Western and other foreign game dev studios now.
They're only kinda one of the biggest corporations on the planet. And from what I can tell, both the anime and live-action adaptations are fairly popular and well-regarded. Funny enough, I don't follow any esports scenes, so I felt more remote watching this than I did watching The Legend of Hei. But I think the esports angle grounds its video game drama in a way a lot of contemporary anime fail to accomplish, so I respect that.
At least it's not isekai.
Yeah, the esports angle really did feel unfamiliar to me, but the setting of the gaming café is lively and interesting, and most of the story is centered on the offline human drama of watching a guy having to start his career, reputation, relationships, and character from the ground up. Though it's not entirely dissimilar to some isekai since it is based on a web novel.
It also hews aesthetically closer to "anime" than something like Hei, both in its character designs and regarding the presence of a woman who lightly bullies the protagonist.
I also really like his interactions with said Chen Guo; it's really playful. She's his fan from his pro-gaming era, but as the owner of the café, she gives him a hard time so he can grow himself as a person. With her help, he's able to have steady housing and employment by working the night shift.
I can see the appeal, for sure. Though if you're looking for something with more of a sci-fi bend and with more homoeroticism, then you might want to check out Link Click.
Link Click doesn't waste any time getting to the action, but it's a series where two bros run a time-traveling agency through photographs. The ability to travel through time and live events as the person who took the photo, while abstract, actually serves as a great gateway for emotional storytelling. Even the first episode's "drama-of-the-week" short plot felt effective.
The premiere surprised me a lot! It packs more layers into donghua Quantum Leap than I expected, mostly regarding the pathos given to the possessed office lady and her professional and familial conflicts. Seems like a neat way to tell these more down-to-earth character studies, but with a twist of time travel espionage.
It's also really dang pretty. Like Heaven Official's Blessing, the animation isn't perfect, but there's a lot of focus on composition and lighting that give it a lot of depth and sparkle. The character designs are also sleek and stylistic. Link Click prides itself on its modern style down to its dance-like opening.
You know an OP is good when it has its own dance moves.
It's so shocking to me how much Chinese Animation has improved over just a few years. Even though Link Click, Heaven's Official Blessing and many of the previously mentioned floundering co-pros like Spirit Pact are made by the same studio, they feel like totally different animals.
And then we've got other shows that are so uniquely impressive that I don't even have a good reference point to compare them to. Which is my way of complimenting how weird, delightful, and technically masterful Scissor Seven is.
Strangely, I think this is arguably what makes Scissor Seven (or Killer 7 as it's known natively) the most "anime."
Like, what's more anime than a young guy down on his luck but with big dreams of becoming a cool badass despite his current reality of selling stew on the street?
It's by far the most singular and anarchic example of donghua that we're covering in the column. With its rapid-fire cartoon comedy, it's sensory onslaught, but an addicting one.
Like, there's the bird sidekick with sunglasses who is also sorta like an evil Doraemon? And he's one of the less strange parts of the story.
It's very silly, and it has an interesting "rough" animation style to accompany its even cruder sense of humor, but that's also what makes it charming. It feels very authentic in the same way as reading a ONE comic.
Now that you mention it, One-Punch Man (the first season, anyway) is a pretty good comparison as far as high-effort gag series go. Scissor Seven's style is all its own, though.
It's very unique, but I think a lot of people who like anime also like things that have a handle on its own vibes, and Killer 7 fits that bill. It's itself, but what makes it work is the willingness to commit to the bit. It's obviously a lot more low-budget compared to some of the other works we've highlighted today, but it makes up for that with confidence.
It's my top recommendation! And also the easiest recommendation since it's on Netflix. This brings up one of the most important barriers to donghua's potential spread: availability and localization. Literally every show/film I watched for this column was on a different service, and they all had highly variable translation quality. As much as I've ragged on Netflix's subs in the past, Scissor Seven's localization fared best. The Legend of Hei's was good too, but I was limited to the dub version streaming on The Roku Channel. This is also the first time I've ever had to use Roku.
At least we're getting some dubs! Link Click and Heaven Official's Blessing both have a dub and are available on Crunchyroll thanks to their previous Funimation license. Though I still find the sub timings to be quite finicky, and I found the dialogue harder to keep up with because of that. Dubs might be easier for some people, even if they're used to watching anime subbed. Scissor Seven also has an available dub, though I can't confirm how much of the humor translates. It's also worth noting that many of these dubs have Chinese American voice actors involved.
I'm a sub man, though, and even ignoring the timing issues, the subs for Link Click on Crunchyroll and The King's Avatar on WeTV (Tencent's international service) were littered with awkward wording and stiff grammar. Presumably, if donghua becomes a bigger international market, there will then be more resources poured into proper localization. But having these issues doesn't exactly help these series gain traction in the here and now.
That said, I'm very impressed by donghua's growth in spite of such barriers, and I'd even argue that some of the animation quality now rivals or surpasses that of some (but not all) anime. Part of that change has been because of a huge influx of money from companies like Tencent and even a large push from the Chinese government. Chinese animators may even have three times the salary of their Japanese counterparts ones. The promise of better pay has even started luring many good Japanese animators away from anime.
And yet the truth is, in my heart, I really don't want to see it as a competition. Loving anime has helped me learn to love animation of all kinds. Any diversity should be welcome! China is just one example of what it's like to try and enter the animation world, but there are all kinds of stuff out there just waiting for an audience who can fall in love with it. There are no teams when the only thing we're trying to rally is a world where everyone can express themselves through art.
Anime's current path is unsustainable for sure, but I think the industry still has time to correct course if it really wants to. Maruyama's prediction isn't a guarantee. Regardless, however, I'd point people to donghua simply because it's a venue with a bunch of unique voices right now, and there's lots of room for those voices to grow. Give some a try! Don't let the bad bluebird make fun of you!
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