-by Ernie Diaz
The Chinese government has taken an involved interest in helping Chinese animation reach the popularity of Japan and America’s. This will work about as well as grandpa taking an involved interest in junior’s keg party. Government meddling works for Olympic medaling (to a point), and nothing else, definitely not for pop culture. Can anyone imagine how reduced Hollywood would be today, had Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles been forced to cooperate with film ministry flacks?
Regardless, a remake of Uproar in Heaven, a Chinese animated film more than fifty years old, is being touted as a taste of what Chinese anime is capable of, given enough high-level support. No one in the press dares reach into the memory hole to recall and report that China’s animated film nadir corresponded to the highest degree of government interference, when apparatchiks determined not only a Chinese illustrator’s content, but the maximum salary he could earn from his work.
So here’s a rundown of some of mainland China’s most well-known animated “classics”. Chinese youngsters worship the Japanese anime pantheon first and foremost. But as long as animators can hold off the higher wisdom of unelected bureaucrats, and make artistic excellence a higher priority than national pride, the genre may well be ready to make great strides in China.
The Magic Brush – 1955
Western Analogue: Simon in the Land of Chalk Drawings
A great example of what wonders result from slipping past the government censors. The Magic Brush won at Warsaw’s 1957 International Film Festival, and the Polish eye for film is like the French for oil painting. The story borrows from an old folktale of Ma Liang, a poor village boy who pursues his love of painting with an empty belly. One day, he acquires a magic brush with which whatever he paints becomes reality.
In China, bolts of lightning follow strokes of luck, and Ma Liang soon finds himself in prison, his brush commandeered by a corrupt official, who has no success turning paint to riches. He commands Ma Liang to paint a gold mountain, which Ma Liang does, only with an ocean around it. A wave of the brush, and the official sinks into the sea with his fleet. Good thing China’s government had far more pressing issues to deal with than subtly subversive cartoons.
Inspector Black Cat – 1984
Western Analogue: Tom & Jerry
Uproar in Heaven came out in 1961, a feature-length clip of the endless adventures of the Monkey King, perhaps the most unsympathetic hero in the Chinese canon. By the mid-60s, even admitting a fondness for cartoons could get you labeled as less than 100% revolutionary, and therefore a sitting duck, unless of course you were referring to politically correct lianhuahua . It would be the early 80s before animated films could begin to recover from all the well-intended big government influence.
It came clawing back with Inspector Black Cat. This series, running from 1984-1987, was for kids, and kids crave violence. Inspector Black Cat delivered with buckets of blood, pushing the slapstick gore of Tom & Jerry a step further with gunplay and gushing wounds. The good inspector, in SS-ready gear, tore around on a motorcycle apprehending bad guys, and always got his mouse. Not that Mr. Black was a stone-cold murderer. Sometimes he’d settle for slicing off a rat’s ear.
The Calabash Brothers – 1987
Western Analogue: Power Rangers
A masterpiece, in terms of combining modern cartoon paradigms (superpowers, cutesy youth) with distinctly Chinese aesthetics. In order to combat a scorpion demon and snake demon, escaped from their mountain prison and ravishing the countryside, an old farmer grows seven gourds which ripen into seven brothers, each a different color, each possessed of a different superpower.
Unlike the Power Rangers, Teletubbies, and other multicolor heroes, the Calabash brothers have weaknesses to balance their strengths. Yellow Brother, for example, is an impulsive little bugger, having fallen from the vine before he was full ripe. Also exquisitely Chinese is the fact that, after defeating the demons, the brothers seal themselves into a mountain, gone with the evil, rather than sticking around and upsetting the Confucian order of things. All the more promising, then, that the Calabash Brothers series has been translated into seven different languages for worldwide distribution.
3000 Whys of Blue Cat – 1999
Western Analogue: Gumby
Never mind the Tom & Jerry resemblance, Blue Cat travels every corner of the world, at different times in its history…to learn about science. That’s why Blue Cat is blue, by the way, because as all Chinese know, blue is the color of dreams. Confusion in a cartoon is no crime, though – lack of imagination is. Despite its obviously cribbed character style, the makers of Blue Cat must be doing something right: besides still being in production, the series has spawned a tie-in empire stretching across Asia from Taiwan to South Korea: hundreds of books and CDs, clothing lines, snacks, video games. Blue Cat even won the honor of an English pilot, before flopping royally. Must have been Shia LaBeouf voicing the main character.
Thru the Moebius Strip – 2005
Western Analogue: Thru the Moebius Strip
The weathervane for where the winds are blowing China’s animated film industry. True, it was made in mainland China, but produced by American studios, with Hong Kong money. It was dubbed into English first and despite the money and time invested in the name of “catching up”, managed to truly impress no one. The animation is competent, not stellar. The story is high-concept sci-fi: an adolescent traveling light years to a realm of giant yet chivalrous aliens to find his father, yet uninspired in the telling. The Chinese elements are added as if in afterthought. Let us remember that too much money involved can be almost as detrimental to art as too many officials.