Entertainment, Society

Drawing comparisons

Controversy over Japanese influence on animated film

City Spirit GO w

A City Spirit Go character

The release of the smartphone game Pokemon Go on July 6 sent Nintendo’s shares skyrocketing $17 billion in a single week – with players across Australia, New Zealand and the United States taking to the streets to hunt down the Japanese creatures.

But Nintendo might be missing a potential windfall from the Chinese market, where downloads of a notably similar game called City Spirit Go have topped the charts on Apple’s Chinese App Store.

The game was released shortly after Pokemon Go’s Japanese soft launch in March. Like Pokemon Go, the Chinese title requires its players to move to locations around their cities, tracking their progress with GPS. The players battle mythical animals with stylistic similarity to the Japanese originals.

Other Chinese animators have been imitating Japanese styles too. On July 7 the 12th annual China International Cartoon and Game Exposition (CCG) convened in Shanghai. Two directors Liang Xuan and Zhang Chun used the occasion to launch Big Fish and Begonia. Hong Kong broadcaster TVB claims the film smashed the box office record for the opening day of a domestic animation film, topping last year’s Monkey King by taking Rmb74.6 million ($11.13 million).

Despite its initial draw, many of the film’s early supporters seem disappointed, especially by the movie’s imitation of Japanese anime.

Specifically, critics have accused Liang and Zhang of spending too much effort trying to emulate the style of Studio Ghibli’s co-founder Miyazakai Hayao and not enough time on producing original content. Apparently, the film was 12 years in the making, although that was mostly because the duo struggled with funding until Enlight Media stepped forward as the producer (see WiC332 for more on this media firm). Big Fish and Begonia is the first release of Enlight’s new animation arm Coloroom Pictures, which has announced plans to release 22 animated features. Enlight says that it doesn’t want to develop a defining house style like the leading American animation producers, and that its features will be made by independent producers, who will be encouraged to experiment with different filmmaking styles and storytelling techniques.

“The 12 years is nothing for us,” co-director Liang said of the long-delayed debut of Big Fish and Begonia at the film’s press launch earlier this year. “After all, we decided to do it at the beginning, so we must do it well. We just felt so guilty that we kept so many people waiting for so long, and I have to apologise to them.”

For years the two directors have been posting clips of the film online to drum up interest and the footage has gained tens of millions of views.

Nonetheless, at a more recent screening in Shenzhen, the directors were questioned about the film’s kinship with Studio Ghibli’s creations. They insisted that their work was a blending of styles, and much more than mimicry. According to the duo, some overlap is inevitable due to the similarities in traditional Chinese and Japanese culture. One of the examples cited in Wenweipo, a Hong Kong newspaper, is that the clothes worn by characters in Big Fish and Begonia share a resemblance to those from Studio Ghibli animations. But the article points out the clothes are, in fact, inspired by the Tang Dynasty style worn in China more than a thousand years ago.

Given the criticism that China has received for ‘lacking innovation’ and manufacturing copycat products, it is interesting that another entirely separate animation – also launched at the cartoon convention in Shanghai – has been heralded as a triumph of domestic “creative intellectual property” by local media.

However, this 52-episode series has ostensible links to Japan too, with Shanghai Daily reporting that the cartoon’s development team includes veteran writers from One Piece and Dragonball Z, two popular Japanese animations.

The show in question is Kimbaland Guardians, which has been produced by the real estate group Shimao Property. It seems to have taken a cue from cartoon giant Disney with the goal to develop Kimbaland Guardians as a brand rather than just another TV series. Indeed, the show has been designed to support the Kimbaland theme park, which Shimao Property opened in Fujian province a month before the series was even launched.

To drum up more publicity for the cartoon, the producers have been sending a Kimbaland-branded tour bus around the four main cities of Fujian, accompanied by characters from the show. But besides piquing the interest of a few newspapers, the promotional activity doesn’t appear to have stirred wider public interest. Kimbaland Guardians has virtually no presence on weibo, and its official WeChat account has garnered little support. Shimao’s new theme park will also face stiff competition from Shanghai Disneyland, which also opened last month (see WiC329).

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