Japanimation Is Edgy And Cool˜And Shops Love It
Holiday commercials, complete with price promotions, ribbons and bows, often make agency art directors and copywriters cringe. So when faced with the task of producing a holiday spot for Blockbuster Video promoting their gift card, Southfield, Mich.-based W.B. Doner & Co. turned to Japanese-style animation to infuse the season with high-tech joy.
Instead of the traditional portrayal of Santa in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, seen this year in a new UPS spot by Ammirati Puris Lintas, New York, Doner drew on the drama and futuristic themes of Japanimation ("anime") to create a Santa who is more superhero than Saint Nick. The spot, which broke Nov. 23, boasts a buff figure who has traded in a dewy-eyed Prancer for power reindeer and his sleigh for a rocket sled.
This state-of-the-art Yuletide comes courtesy of anime's slick lighting, innovative camera angles, elaborate backgrounds and hand drawings. This labor-intensive work is distinct--and pricey. Doner's Blockbuster spot, which incorporated 30 to 40 layers of highlights and shadows per frame, was had for a cool $350,000, sources say, almost twice the cost of most cel-animated spots.
"Art directors always ask, 'Is there a way to use Japanimation?' This time, it really fit the client," says Dave Michalak, creative director and copywriter at Doner. "This was a way to do a different kind of Santa, a Santa that's as cool as the store and the card. Everybody else is doing the big, fat guy with rosy cheeks. We wanted to take him into the future and show a different view."
In the fast-paced "Santa Japanimation" spot, Santa flies through a harrowing night sky to deliver cards to a snow-covered hamlet nestled in a futuristic city. Receiving a card through the chimney, a teenage boy observes, "Since the Blockbuster GiftCard came along, Santa just seems a little cooler than he used to be."
For the client, the spot is a demographic bonanza: The ad targets the video game- playing, cartoon-watching 18-34-year-old set; for them, Japanese animation is shorthand for insider cool. "We wanted to make it unlike anything people had seen before," says Sheldon Cohn, director of broadcast production at Doner and co-creative director on the project. "Something a bit more edgy and expressionistic. It's not really a cartoon; it has more energy and attitude."
In fact, the popularity of Japanese cartoons has ballooned from a cult favorite among comic book and animation enthusiasts into a booming cultural export.
Last week, Burrell Communications debuted the final episode in its five-part Voltron campaign for Spite during the Billboard Music Awards. The ads, based on the popular '80s TV series Voltron: Defender of the Universe, pit the evil King Zarkon, who is trying to destroy hip-hop, against Voltron, a giant robot made up of five robotic flying lions. Drawing on hip-hop's use of Voltron as a symbol of unity, the spots, which began airing this summer, mix live action and animation and feature such rap artists as Mack 10, the Goodie Mob and Afrika Bambaataa as the flying lions.
"It's all about escapism," says Lamar Johnson, account supervisor at Burrell in Atlanta, of Japanese cartoons' popularity among urban youth.
London's Bartle Bogle Hegarty went straight to the source last year, tapping Japanese animator Mamoru Ooshii, director of the popular film Ghost in the Shell, to create his first commercial, a 60-second spot for Murphy's Irish Stout titled "Last Orders." Offering the depth and 3D complexity of detail found in his film work, the commercial, which aired on television and movie theaters in Ireland, features six samurai warriors on a quest for Murphy's in a futuristic cybercity.
"Agencies enjoy the art direction and the style you get out of Japanese animation, the hard-hitting quality you don't find in traditional animation," says Paul Golden, executive producer of commercials at Wild Brain in San Francisco, the animation studio that produced Burrell's Sprite campaign. "It doesn't come off as generically goofy as American animation does."
Yet animator Peter Chung, creator of MTV's Liquid Television animated spy series Aeon Flux, cringes at the term Japanimation. "Japanese animation simply means animation done in Japan. It's not a healthy thing for people to use general terms. It limits perception of what a medium is capable of," says Chung, who transformed Cindy Crawford into an Aeon Flux-style vixen in a Diet Pepsi commercial for the 1996 Super Bowl. "It's like saying U.S. animation is all funny, talking animals."
American audiences, which were first introduced to Japanimation in '60s TV series such as Astro Boy and Speed Racer, are familiar with two styles of Japanimation: the cute and friendly, and the cold and robotic. The look varies from the gentle characters in the film My Neighbor Tortoro, a tale of two girls who find a magical bear-like creature in the forest, and the TV series Sailor Moon, in which schoolgirls/space princesses defend Earth from alien invaders, to futuristic, often-violent films such as Akira, about telekinetic children in post-apocalyptic Tokyo. Since sci-fi and fantasy anime have the greatest fan base in the U.S., agencies are capitalizing on its popularity--with a proviso.
Japan has long embraced comics and anime as entertainment for all ages. Thus, the depth of storytelling and visual style can run the gamut from G-rated family fare to violent, sexually explicit adult films. The violence often seen in anime can be a deterrent to some agencies and clients.
"A lot of people don't want to necessarily associate [it] with their product or message," notes animation director J.J. Sedelmaier, who produced vintage-style Japanimation for a Volkswagen commercial featuring Speed Racer for Arnold Communications in Boston.
This holiday season, the challenge in animating Santa was giving him an updated look without making him scary. "We started out far over the edge with a hard-core anime look and culled it down," says Gary Gottschalk, senior art director at Doner. "He was initially lanky, his eyes were a bit wilder and the reindeer looked like devil reindeer. We couldn't do that, not with Santa."
"It's awkward because you have two different directions going on here," adds animation director Mike Smith, who designed the Blockbuster commercial, which was produced through Colossal Pictures in San Francisco and animated by Chuck Gammage in Oakville, Ontario.
"We wanted to do something more up-to-date--science fiction with a powerful edge. But if you go over the top, it might be good for some kids; others might not recognize him," Smith muses.
For commercial producers, picking and choosing influential elements from various styles of Japanimation is a balancing act between art and commerce.
"It doesn't have to be the aping of one particular genre," notes Golden, who applauds Burrell's attempt at mixing Akira-like imagery with hip-hop's in the agency's Sprite work. "The interesting thing about [anime] is you can mix and match and make your own."