ENTERTAINMENT RE-ORIENTED: A Kung Fu Christmas and the Impact of A-Pop

Just found out that a “Kung Fu Panda Holiday Special” recently aired and will air again this Saturday Nov. 27. Fortunately, it looks like more than a quick cash-in. Dustin Hoffman and Jack Black reprise their roles and, according to the Onion A.V. Club (one of the very few sites whose reviews I almost always agree with) it’s actually pretty good.

It’s probably worth noting that there is no express mention of “Christmas” only a “winter feast,” which is great news for those of us waging a secular war on Christmas. In all seriousness, though, I do think it’s nice for kids who don’t celebrate Christmas to get to watch a holiday special that don’t talk about Christmas directly.

A couple years back, when “Kung Fu Panda” was first released in theaters, I wrote a piece for the Nichi Bei Times about the significance of a mainstream kid’s flick with Asian influences and the history of the rise of J-pop. You can check out that article after the jump

Asian Pop, Brought to You by Verizon and Jack Black

By BEN HAMAMOTO

Nichi Bei Times

Rappers Jay-z (L), born in 1969, and Nas (R), born in 1973 sport the latest fashions from BAPE.

Ladies and gentlemen, Asian pop has arrived. When this happened exactly is kind of hard to pinpoint. There are too many indicators spread over too long a time to know for sure. Any network’s Saturday morning cartoon lineup has a few shows with an “anime inspired” look and just about every mainstream rapper out sports Japanese designed BAPE clothing or some derivative thereof. Even the most iconic American comic book heroes, Batman, Wolverine, etc., have been given Japanese (or faux Japanese) makeovers in special issues or video releases.

“Kung Fu Panda,” which opens this week in theaters everywhere, and TokyoPop’s content on the Verizon V-Cast cell phone media site are just two recent examples of J-pop’s (somewhat)new-found prevalence.

“Kung Fu Panda,” a new CGI-animated family film about a panda learning kung fu, was called the “Kill Bill” of animated kids features, or something similar, by another reviewer. My kneejerk reaction was to disagree with the assessment, and assume the writer made the association because the theme music from “Kill Bill” — which is, incidentally, actually the theme music from a 70s Japanese gangster flick — played in the unfinished press preview version of the film. But the more time passes, the more that description seems accurate, insofar as both films borrow/homage heavily from pan-Asian sources. The key difference, though, is that “Kill Bill” is the work of an admitted otaku auteur with “final cut rights” over his films. “Kung Fu Panda,” on the other hand, is a big studio family flick, the kind in which every frame is approved by a committee of money-minded studio execs; meaning that the borrowing from Asian pop was a financial decision as well as a creative one.

The 'Teen Titans' cartoon has an 'anime inspired' look

Given this, “Kung Fu Panda” is quite good. The fight scenes are better than those of most recent action films aimed at adults (a big exception is “Black Belt,” a Japanese indie martial arts pic that everyone who can absolutely should see), the story and characters are sweet and endearing and the celebrity supporting cast doesn’t distract too much with their celebrity-ness.
There are some interesting questions regarding race that the film inadvertently raises: Would it have gotten made with Asian people, real or cartoon, instead of anthropomorphic animals? What about trotting out (admittedly top notch) non-Asian voice actors for most of the parts — Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Ian Shaye and an underused David Cross — and relegating API voices — Randall Duk Kim, Lucy Liu and James Hong — to more minor roles?

Regardless, the film borrows heavily from Asian cinema, (beyond that, obviously, it’s set in China and it’s about kung fu. The way the action is “shot” is really similar the style of many Japanese animators and the story arc has some Japanese undertones as well — in particular, the characterization of the villain. Like in many Japanese series, the villain, while brutal, is not essentially evil nature, he became that way because of mistakes his father, one of the story’s heroes, made. As such, the fearsome villain is shown to be pitiable in a way; there is even one scene where he turns into a child in his father figure’s mind’s eye, mid-combat, a device that has been used in many Japanese films.

Given this moral complexity, the ending was somewhat disturbing to me (if you don’t want it to be spoiled skip to the next paragraph now). In the early version of the film I saw, the panda protagonist appears to gleefully explode his already subdued opponent.

Like “Kung Fu Panda,” the “Tokyo Pop” content on V-Cast includes, in addition to Japanese anime and even live-action Japanese wrestling, media created by Americans, with heavy Japanese influences.

The clip I viewed that one that seemed best suited for the format was from the Original English-Language Manga “Bizenghast,” presented as an “imanga.” OELM is an American comic, with art and storytelling in the so-called “manga-style” (I have plenty to say about the genre and the terms, but that will be for another column), and it is presented as sort of a flash movie compromise between a comic book and animation. The result is something that resembles a cut scene, used to tell story, in RPG video games.

This approach is highly appropriate for the subject matter. The series, by M. Alice LeGrow, is set in a present day world that looks suspiciously like Victorian England. It centers around Dinah, a girl with supernatural powers who must enter a gothic mausoleum nightly to free the ghosts trapped therein.

Like “Kung Fu Panda,  “Bizenghast” is good for what it is. The imanga format it uses seems to hold a lot of promise, as it has some qualities of film (it moves at its own pace as opposed to the reader’s), but with lower production costs and its own unique storytelling capabilities.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the TokyoPop content isn’t as much what it is, but where it is, or at least where it can be obtained. Verizon, after all, isn’t a small niche-based company. While the on-demand format, the comparatively modest distribution costs, and relatively new nature of these cell phone cinemas does allow for greater experimentation and less risk, it’s still significant how prominent this content is on the site. TokyoPop is right there in the company’s list of “net’s best,” not hidden in some WAP back-alley.

TokyoPop’s presence on V-Cast, is a sign that A-Pop has hit the big time, but it also hints at how A-Pop came to be this big.

There’s been a lot of debate as to how it happened, but one of the best explanations I’ve heard came from Tony Borg, whose Tartan videos were ahead of the curve on importing live-action films from Asia.

In an interview, he told me that he thought video games played a large role in introducing the contemporary Japanese pop culture aesthetic to Americans. Certainly, almost all of the popular video games of the 80s and 90s were produced in Japan, with Japanese artists responsible for their entire look and feel. Game companies were initially convinced that Americans weren’t going to buy into the Japanese look, as evidenced by some ridiculous Americanized box art for titles like “Megaman” and “Street Fighter.” A decade later, their sequels sport box-art that matches the Japanese aesthetic of the games themselves, likely in response to consumer demand.

Vintage (top) and current (bottom) U.S. 'Megaman' Promo Art

The Internet also provided a space for die-hard anime enthusiasts across the world to connect in a way never before possible. Back when people were using mosaic to surf the Web, one of the few things I remember seeing on the Internet, in addition to video game FAQs and “Star Trek” discussion boards, were anime fan groups.

Borg also speculated that the prevalence of text messaging and online chatting is breaking down America’s aversion to subtitles, giving foreign films a box-office potential they never had before.

Regardless of how things got this way, the impact looks like it will be lasting. In recently years, Japanese pop acts, particularly ones associated with anime culture, have been touring the states, doing concerts attended by crowds of American teenagers of all ethnic backgrounds. While this in itself isn’t necessarily a great thing (it kind of smacks of fetishization to me), in the long run, anime, of all things, could redefine how America sees Asians in the coming decades.

About Ben Hamamoto

Ben Hamamoto is a writer born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. He's been published in the Oakland Tribune and has written for New American Media's YO! Youth Outlook and the Nichi Bei Times. He is a research manager for the Health Horizons Program at the Institute for the Future. He also edits Nikkei Heritage, the National Japanese American Historical Society’s official magazine and contributes to Nichi Bei Weekly.

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