China’s animation industry set to overtake Japan’s?

The latest issue of Japanese news weekly AERA (more like a Japanese version of Time magazine than many other weeklies) contains an interesting bit on China’s animation industry that fits in nicely with my last few posts. Full translation follows:

Anime to make a comeback in China, where it started

by Reiko Miyake

China has been “invaded” by Japanese-made animation, but in fact this was the former world power that taught animation to Japan

China as a nation is currently putting its efforts into developing “Donghua.” Donghua is Chinese for animation and comic books. In the past 3 or 4 years, 19 cities nationwide including Shanghai, Changchun, and Hangzhou have been equipped as “Donghua headquarters” or centers for the animation industry. Schools to develop talent and studios are being established in earnest.

According to sources close to the issue, the scale of China’s animation character market amounts to as much as 100 billion yuan (approx. 1.5 trillion yen). Japanese animation such as Pokemon and Case Closed are enormously popular, and up to now a multitude of pirated versions have been distributed. While dominated by Japanee animation and Disney, here and there original Chinese-made animation has started to come out such as “Indigo Cat.”

A longer history than Japan’s

Inspections of imported animated works are strict, in part because of protection of domestic works. The first company to truly attempt to export to China was Mulan Productions. They are very skilled at the business of managing copyrights in China. They have produced many hits, starting with Crayon Shinchan in 2002 and following up with Dragonball and Fruits Basket.

Takashi Mita, chief of the company’s International Business Headquarters, explains: “First of all, the quantity of foreign animation that is shown in China is is restricted as a whole. It is subject to a strict inspection from the perspective of public order and morality, and works that contain many portrayals of sexual activity or violence are taboo. All in all, the condition for export is that the works are healthy for children.”

Looking just at the situation in the past few years, Japan looks like a developed country while China looks like a late bloomer in terms of their respective animation industries. However, it is not very well-known that China’s animation history is actually longer and had a major impact on the developing stages of Japanese animation.

At a Tokyo cinema in 1942, a young Osamu Tezuka watched “Princess Iron Fan,” an animated film based on the Chinese epic Journey into the West that was produced in Shanghai, which was an animation production center at the time. The fact that the intense emotion he felt at that time formed the basis for Tezuka to produce animation is an anecdote known by those in Japan’s animation industry. After becoming a comic book artist, Tezuka met with Princess director Wan Lai-Ming time and again.

After WW2, Wan and others gathered in 1957 to create the Shanghai Art and Film Production Studio, a nationally-run animation studio. These are the roots of Japan’s animation industry as well as China’s.

Decline due to the Cultural Revolution

Subsequently, Japanese animation has developed as both an art and an industry to take a 60% share of the $25 billion animation market. Meanwhile, China’s industry declined due to the Cultural Revolution after peaking in the 60s and 70s.

So, Chinese animation industry is now attempting to revive itself once again. The works that the Shanghai Art and Film Production Studio created from the 60s to the 80s will be shown from December 16 at the Shanghai International Film Festival.

Features gaining the most attention are 4 ink-painted short films. The Tadpole Searches for His Mother, made in the 60s, is a classic in which the movements of frogs and tadpoles are drawn in ink style, which though slightly blurred is very lively. It was shown at the 1964 Cannes Film Festival, where it won Honorable Mention.

Almost 50 years later, focus is once again on ink expression in China’s animation productions as students of a Chinese technician development school produce a 3-D animation using the techniques of ink animation. Director Wan’s long-format “Sun Wukong on the Rampage” will also be shown.

37 thoughts on “China’s animation industry set to overtake Japan’s?”

  1. This article is preposterous. Animation was invented in France, that’s why it is called by a French word. The Japanese had active animation studios dating back to before 1920, many years before the first Chinese animated film was produced.

  2. Japanese Wikipedia on Anime History:アニメの歴史#.E5.B9.B4.E8.A1.A8

    After some early animations, it list’s 芋川椋三玄関番の巻 (The Story of the Concierge Mukuzo Imokawa) as Japan’s first ever Animated (Short?) Film in 1917. It lists Princess Iron Fan (鉄扇公主) as Asia’s first feature length film in 1941 (shown in Japan in 1942) with Japan’s fist feature length Animated Film 桃太郎の海鷲 (Momotarō’s Sea Eagles) being produced in 1943.

    Based on wikipedia as a single source (very dangerous, but quick and convenient), it would appear as though China’s feature length animated film industry does have a history longer then that of Japan by 2 years although animators had been producing short length animated movies for some time before that.

  3. I agree that this article is silly. I’ve read several interviews with Tezuka where he repeats, time after time, that his main inspirations were Disney and Momotaro’s Sea Eagles. It is nice to see China represented as well but does one anecdote about Tezuka really mean that “China founded animation in Japan” or some such thing?

    Other articles that I have seen this year describe China’s film industry (and animation) as still-born because of piracy – projects just cannot get funding because producers see so little of the money that is being snapped up by pirates.

    In any case, does having a long history really matter? China’s animation industry basically has to start from square one again. It has no “brands” that it can market internationally and little in the way of directorial talent. China has a long way to go. This is China’s big problem in many areas of the economy – they have the cheap labor. Now what?

    I can remember 10 years ago when games like Starcraft became huge hits in South Korea and people began to predict that that country would become the video game power to unseat Japan. 10 years later – Korea has produced a few games like Lineage and Ragnarok that were not well recieved abroad and still seems decades away from creating any international gaming “brands” or its own hardware.

  4. Certainly this article reads like some bad Xinhua copy. But I just picked it up for its relevance to the other much more interesting article I translated earlier.

    I’d be happy to see great animation coming out of China, but her article isn’t all that encouraging. She had to dig back 40 years to mention a prize-winning Chinese animated feature. Clearly the biggest hurdle to the animation industry is the lack of a social compact that rewards creativity. If I’m not mistaken, that’s why on the live action side we’re seeing a reliance on big epics that are aimed at the international audience.

    Nevertheless, I am all for this Anime Sphere concept. Wouldn’t it be great if Japan could just skim off the top talent in China by wooing it with full scholarships and the chance to intern at Gainax? We wouldn’t have to wait for China’s protectionism to bear fruit to see what its animation stars can come up with.

  5. Adamu – 100% correct on the direction of the Chinese film industry. I think that the Chinese epics have been largely cinematic garbage – celebration of the Han Chinese tradition, beat downs of white people and “barbarian” people like the Manchu, etc. They look great but I find them rotten to the core, much like the kind of thing that Japan was producing in the early 1940s (see the Judo-ka Vs. boxer in Kurosawa’s Zoku Sugata Sanshiro for an example of Japan-centric tripe).

    I have very little interest in Chinese popular culture. Since there can be no serious criticism or counter-narratives (some exceptions but this is largely the rule) there is really not a lot of point in watching. I got sick of watching beautiful people, shot beautifully floating around on wires a long time ago. Compare with the often violently contested themes and ideas of national identity that you see in Taiwan and China ends up looking pretty lame.

    This, as much as anything, is going to hold back Chinese animation. I see the ideas and themes of Japanese animation being its big draw and I see a whole lot of creativity still in the bank.

    The “Greater East Asia Anime Co-Prosperity Sphere” (sorry) does sound great, although it remains to be seen what form it will take. I’m very excited at the possibility of top animators from China and Korea (and India?) coming to Japan to work on “Japanese” animation and maybe going back to their home countries and making animation that will have a particular meaning in their own cultural environments. While I think that the quality of Japanese animation is fine right now, new blood can only mean new perspectives, etc. which is great for everyone.

  6. M-Bone:
    I agree with Zhang Ziyi on wires.
    ‘no serious criticism or counter-narratives ‘(in Chinese pop culture)
    Ever read the book ‘In the Red’ by Germie Barme? I found his analysis on pop culture under communist regime in China was quite interesting.Although I share the same feeling with Taiwan(and in some HK)movies about teared-apart identities therefore more interesting.
    I was told from lots of North Americans that Chinese movies are a lot more ‘understandable to the western audience’ than Japanese movie.Maybe this has got to do with the Pearl Buckesque tradition of the Chinese representing themselves in the fiction as national sharing the core value eith thewestdespite the differnce of civilization.(I say the tradition has it’s successors in writings of such like Han suyin,Jung Chang,and Iris Chang,all immigrant though).And perhaps easier to get audience abroad than the Japanese who are totally alien culture which are filled with violence and sexual elements.So the Chinese anime might have chance as long as they resembles Disney style animation,not Japanese anime.

  7. I have not read “In the Red” but I know of it. I think that while it is possible to find a bunch of interesting, critical Chinese works, you have to be pretty choosy. Nothing like the discursive variety that exists in Japan where you often find counter-narratives where you expect to see the same ol’ comfy dramas.

    I think that many Chinese films, etc. are successful and perhaps even easier for “Westerners” to understand because of the blatant exoticism (ie. self-Orientalism) and the action. Most “good” Japanese films are highly critical of Japanese society, politics, etc. Just think of anything by Miike Takashi, Imamura films like “Ungai” (The Eel), recent things like “Yawarakai Seikatsu” (A ‘Soft’ Life, the title has a dozen meanings so no translation really cuts it), “Out”, etc. Beat Takeshi’s films also have a similar tone. The types of Chinese movies that become hits (things like “Hero”) are pretty rah, rah good vs. evil fables that look gorgeous but don’t really have a lot to say. I’m pretty glad that Japanese studios are putting out interesting things for Japanese audiences without thinking a lot about the international bottom line – Inugami-ke no Ichizoku, while it did not do that well at the box office, should be a good film, just not something that most American viewers will get into. In any case, since the Japanese box office saw Japanese films outgross Hollywood this year, somebody must be doing something right.

    Zhang Zhi (sp?) on wires gets thumbs up but I don’t really need to see it again. Some of the top Chinese actresses are very beautiful, but some of them, think of Gong Li in Miami Vice, have already proven that they cannot act their way out a paper bag in English.

  8. Should check on ‘Kekexili,the mountain patrol’by Lu Chuan陸川.
    Very interesting film about Tibet made by Han chinese director.
    Probably my best of this year competimg with Korean mega hit ‘The Host’.
    Lu is planning to film ‘Nanjing,Nanjing’ movie about Nanjing massacre in January.
    Oh,well. I’ll go to the theater for his cinematic talent.

    I’m not very happy with the current state of Japanese movie either.Why they are outgrossing Hollywood is mystery,Maybe Dentsu has something to do with this!

  9. I don’t think that it is dentsu, I think that it has to do with –
    A – Recent Hollywood movies sucking.
    B – Good Japanese movies aimed at different age groups – Death Note for young people, Gedo Senki for all, Inugami for elderly, etc. That type of thing really matters as it gets different groups to go to the theatres at different times. Yamada Yoji’s new movie really packed em in as well, I think.

    I think that the big boxoffice Japanese films can often be very dire but there is a LOT of good indie stuff being made.

  10. I have read “In The Red” and it was a very eye opening book in a lot of ways. I had already been thinking about studying Chinese before that, after taking a trip there a few months earlier, but that book really brought it home how much I would never understand of the culture in such a vast country.

    Anyway, I think there is more variety of viewpoints in Chinese film than some people are giving credit for. This system there is very strange in that censorship works in a backwards way. People are free to make whatever they want and then release it, but the government may halt distribution after the first couple of screenings. And the same goes for books. Look at how last year or the year before the “Report on Chinese Peasant Life” or whatever it was called became a nationwide best seller overnight, even before the government had time to censor it. And of course, in China where everything is pirated, even censored works are very, very easy to get-the only difference is that the creators lose money.

    But anyway, Zhang Yimou had made three movies before “Hero” that were censored by the government, but every time he was still allowed to try again to make a film that was acceptable for wide release. And in the end he made “Hero”- a movie that is so jingoistic that the final message is basically propaganda cheerleading for modern Chinese fascism. It was really so over the top it almost felt like parody, especially if you are familiar with his earlier work in which the toughness of common people is such a strong theme. For example, in “To Live” (which is a very good film, based on a good novel) there is a very strong, but very subtle criticism of the Communist system throughout the 20th century. The hero is just an ordinary peasant living an ordinary life, and noone discusses politics, but you can see a lot of small criticisms of the system in the background.

    I personally would love to see good animation come out of China, as well as Japan. I like the medium and there is no reason that it should not be used in more countries than just Japan, America, and just a little bit in France, Korea, UK, etc.

  11. I think that if you take Taiwanese and Hong Kong (a region that has to be considered somewhat different) film, you can say that there is a LOT of great stuff coming out of the Chinese cultural sphere. I would not put China in alone in a top 20 of nations producing interesting, critical films, however. There is a chance that I am underestimating Chinese film but compared to things that have come out of post-commie Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe as well as recent critical film making from the Middle East, I can’t help but think that criticisms in many Chinese films are subtle, not because of directorial choice, but because of directorial fear.

    I thought that Hero was drivel for all of the reasons that you mention. I’m pretty shocked that such things are getting a warm reception abroad (is it just me, or is “Fearless” worse?). If such a film was produced in Japan, people would be talking about the advent of a new Japanese fascism.

    I think that the global oomph of Japanese animation is bad to some degree. Do you notice how many Korean creators (especially) are mirroring the Japanese art style as well as some settings (Neo-Tokyo, etc.)? I’d like to see more people going out there and putting together a totally new animation experience rather than doing something that is “like anime” but for domestic audiences. Ditto for manga. There is a “Warcraft” manga out in the USA (done by a Korean artist in Japanese-style). Decades of pulp fantasy art in the Tolkein and D&D style go out the window and we get a watered down manga instead of something unique or forceful from either the USA or Korea. I fell the same way about Japanese filmmakers trying to make “Hollywood” movies instead of concentrating on other strengths.

  12. Nothing much to add what you guys said above with Chinese cinema.
    My favorite used to be Chen Kaige’s “The Big March”.Shocking resemblence with
    Japanese cinema in the 30’s.Now he is making “The Promise”just another pics in the ling line of chinese epics hanging on the wire.

    Talking about J-box office hit.The summer big hit “Yamato男たちの大和”made me so upsetting and haven’t watch the movie yet.The based book was based on the producers elder sister’s book on the subject,but it is a disgrace compare to Yoshida Mitsuru’s polemic classic book
    “Requiem to the battleship Yamato”.

    ‘If such a film was produced in Japan, people would be talking about the advent of a new Japanese fascism.”
    What do you guys all think of Clint Eastwood’s “Letter from Iwojima” currently on the top of J-box office?I know that could be considered advent of a new Japanese
    fascism if it was made by J-director.I could only hope it won’t make it to the Oscars.

  13. I don’t think that fascism makes room for mournful, introspective war tales. While “Letters” and “Otoko-tachi no Yamato” are part of the victim’s narrative, they are also part of a rich tradition of Japanese film that makes people think that war is bad. The 1953 Senkan Yamato, Himeyuri no To, Hiroshima, Genbaku no Ko, Kike Wadatsumi no Koe, etc. are all very similar. In a way, I think that the praise heaped on Eastwood’s film is kinda silly. It is no different than 50 other Japanese war movies. The writing and shot making are no better (compared to things like Okinawa Kessen they are a lot worse) and there are some scenes that are “cluttered” – let’s throw in a kimono rack here, a hibachi there, some scrolls over there…. I’m just glad that Eastwood didn’t throw a suit of armor in. He should have copied Ozu’s interiors. American critics are quick to put this at or near the top of their best lists despite the fact that it is a foreign language film but no other Japanese language film has gotten similar praise in its year of release. I think that a critic that sees “Letters” as the most praise worthy Japanese-language film ever needs to go back to writing for their high school paper.

    In any case, Letters is very interesting nonetheless. In Japan, people are concerned that it is a rightwing film. In America, people see it is a left-wing, conciliatory, peace and love masterwork. The moral of the story – in the USA, even slight anti-war statements are considered to be revolutionary while in Japan, for some anyway, even slight statements to the effect that the Japanese army was not pure evil are considered to be overly nationalistic. In the end, I see it and the recent Yamato film as works about how war destroys young lives – they fit into the tradition of Japanese postwar pacifism.

  14. ‘In America, people see it is a left-wing, conciliatory, peace and love masterwork. The moral of the story – in the USA, even slight anti-war statements are considered to be revolutionary ‘

    My Ko-hai at work interviewed Eastwood last month.He asked me some advice before the interview and I told him to ask the points exactly you refered.Eastwood kept low profile with the relation between the WW2 epics and current events in the interview,but it is undeniable that the war weariness in America reflects upon the two movies.Especially it was nobody but a longtime republican like Eastwood is directing the film.
    I remember the article on UK Independent,critisizing Japanese for even going to the theater when”Pearl Harbor”was shown in Japan.Typical “Historical amnesia”kind article that was,the main argument was Disney chose to merchandise the pic as tearjerking threesome with SFX with no quote on history and Japanese took it without the tongue in cheek.
    So there should be some criticism with ‘Iwojima’ that it should not simply viewed as
    the Japanese side of ‘the greatest generation’ .

    I’ve been to Iwojima back in ’95 on JSADF ‘s C130 Hercules with ex-PM Kiichi Miyazawa and about 100 students from both Japan and the U.S , to cover the news on Japan-America Student conference.On the island SDF personnels took us on a guided tour to Mt.Suribachi.Where not only the famous picture was shot,but also the intensive build up of trenches and tunnels were made.The place was very quiet but no tree growing even after 50years.In the tunnel,it was so narrow and we could hardly breath.Thinking about the massive bombardment from U.S fleet hitting the surface and flame gun burning everyone in the narrow trench gave us the creeps.

  15. Wow. I’ve been all over Japan but never to Iwojima (duh, pretty hard to get to). I had a similar experience to the one that you describe when I visited the underground naval HQ in Okinawa, however. Creepy. Nothing beats the A-Bomb dome for that feeling, however.

    On the subject of “Otoko-tachi no Yamato”, have you had a chance to see the Yamato Museum in Kure?

  16. Yamato museum:Nope.Don’t intend to go there anyway.

    A-Bomb museum:
    I’ve been to the A-Dome and Hiroshima peace memorial museum in highschool as the course of ‘peace education’.Listening to old radiation victim lady talking about her tales like how she suffered right after the bomb and being discriminated by fellow Hiroshiman after the war was a sad experience.But thinking that she has been talking her tales million times to highschool students coming from all over Japan day by day.,in that hightech equipped auditorium,made me kind of chill about all of the victimhood(Ian Buruma writes a superb essay on this in “The Missionary and the Libertine”.).
    Before we went to Hiroshima our teacher showed us this All Japan Teacher Union sponsored(thought it was,or perhaps ‘recommended’) anime about A-bomb victim prostitute living with deep resentment to Americans and making personal vengeance by having sex with U.S servicemen only to give them herpies.(Talking about killing two bird with one stone!)It was too anti-american and rediculous for I lived in the U.S for 4years,knowing what the other side’s idea about A-bomb.(Actually everyone of this school were so-called returnees coming back from abroad,pretty much focused social group back in the 80’s as the future agent of ‘Internationalisation’.)Then the teacher gave us this Iwanami booklet about Yasukini visit by Nakasone, text book controversy, Ienaga trial and the excess of deffence budget from 1% of GNP.(This was in 1986. MF are you reading this?)
    We had discussions after reading the booklet and one of the student started complaining with teared eyes,of the word from the teacher that the whole defence budget was nothing but the waste of tax and SDF itself is unconstitutional (This guy’s farther was the military attache to Washington.)
    I guess the teacher hated us for not being ordinary obedient class and resisted mouth-to-mouth feeding of post-war Japanese pacifism.
    Going a little more on personal, I learned on that occasion that Kokura,Fukuoka was the originally target in August 9,but changed to Nagasaki due to bad weather on the day of the drop.My mother was born in the center of Kokura in ’43 and Grandpa was working for the Yahata Steel mill in the city.So if there were no cloud over Kokura on that particular day,my whole existence could have been in doubt.

    All of this and that made me think that the facts are more important than the ideology and certain amount of outside views are always useful.

    “Oyoko-tachi no Yamato”
    The megaromaniac film tycoon,Kadokawa Haruki is now producing Chinghis Khan epic which is about to be shown in March ’07 in Japan.Can you believe Sorimachi Takashi to be the the great khan himself?The Russian director Sergei Bodrov is also making Chinghis epic with Asano Tadanobu as the man.Two Japanese for Chinghis in 2007!Mongolians are kind of pissed about this,Even more horrifying
    news is ex-Osakan aikido instructor Steven Seagal is also interested to the role and thinking about filming it .Only Seagal plans to film it in Inner Mongolia,China.
    I just hope some sane person in Hollywood would put this in the file of wrecked project and locked up in the cellar

  17. Aceface: your life is as enviable as it is unique. I would suggest you publish your memoirs, but then we might not get such interesting comments from you anymore.

    But come on, you really don’t want to see Seagal as Genghis Khan??? His films make me want to puke, but only out of affection for the man’s craft. Seagals highly cultivated sense of misplaced arrogance seems perfect.

  18. I can see Asano as GK. He just might have the screen presence to pull it off. I thought that he was great in Gohatto. I’ve been looking to see Neiji-shiki for a while now….

    Seagal…. I’d rather see Chuck Norris play GK, come to think of it. Okay, now we’ve done it – gone from China’s anime industry to Chuck Norris.

    Yamato Museum – I think that it is worth a trip for insight into wartime nostalgia in Japan at present and the intersections between representations of the past in popular culture and more “official” museum space (and they have a bigass model of the ship that is pretty cool).

    Peace Memorial Museum – I’ve gone four times. I find the reactions of visitors to be more interesting than the exhibits (which are still excellent, I almost broke down when I saw a child’s tricycle twisted down to the size of a basket ball). I think that this brand of victimhood (the museum has added some recent stuff about the Nanking massacre, Korean A-bomb victims, forced labor, etc.) is fine as long as it means that Japan does not end up organizing mass acts of violence again…. Contrast with America – had a period of critical reckoning with the Vietnam War and still can’t seem to stop….

    I know some Japanese from Hiroshima whose parents survived because of labor relocation (for their protection and to work on farms that were deserted because of mass conscription) in 1945 but who basically have no extended family. Some kids were taken and some were not. My wife’s grandfather was in Manchuria in 1945 (common conscript) and was repatriated before the Russians came. I don’t even want to think about what a difference of a few days and a trip to Siberia would have meant. My grandfather’s neighbor died in Burma (RAF). If my grandfather was not in an “essential” industry, he could have very well wound up in the same place. War is a strange thing.

  19. ” highly cultivated sense of misplaced arrogance ”
    That is a spot on comment for both Kadokawa and Seagal!

    “War is a strange thing”
    I have no biological relation to Grandmothers.They were both war widow.My grand father of paternal side was mounted imperial royal guard.Maternal side an accountant for the regiment in Manchuria stationed in Mongolian borders,coming back to Kyusyu in 42 and saved from being put into forced labor camps in Siberia or Mongolia.My wife’s biological grandfather on maternal side was killed in action fighting against Japanese Kwantung Army,in the border battle between Soviet-Mongolian and Japanese-Manchukuo forces in ’39 Known in Japan as Nomonkhan incident,Khalhiin Gol war in mongolia,
    I have an apartment in Ulaanbaatar and it was built by the Japanese internees (about 15000 personnels and 1864 of them died there)

    War is definitely a strange thing.

  20. Bahumbug, you people obviouslly know next to thing about the Chinese cinema. 🙁

    Anyways regarding hero, here is another perspective that people may have missed what with all the patting on the back self-congratulation on how witty and intellectual they are in saying hero is a paen to fascism.

    p.s. The Promise was already completed and screened and is universally regarded as crap in China. i.e. waterworld. There are tons of internet parody you can find about it, but it seems like with Chinese filmmakers, there is an inverse relationship between how big the budget is and how good the movie is.

    Robert Y. Eng
    University of Redlands

    Zhang Yimou’s Hero has just been released in the United States again stimulating discussion of whether it is a paean to authoritarianism. Hero has been a commercial success in China and now it is a hit in the United States. The past two weekends it was the top grossing film (selling over $35 million in tickets). Still, Zhang Yimou has been widely condemned particularly in China for endorsing authoritarianism as necessary for peace and stability, and for relinquishing art for commercial profit. Does Nameless’s abandonment of his assassination of the Qin king (who in history would go on to eliminate the six warring states and unify China for the first time) signify Zhang’s acceptance and promotion of the king’s vision of peace under heaven (tianxia) and hence unity under an authoritarian imperial regime, and the necessity of individual sacrifices for the common good?

    Ever since seeing Hero at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January of 2003, I have felt that not only is it not a paean to authoritarianism, it is a sharp rejection of it. One should not accept at face value what the protagonists say in the film as representative of the intentions of the auteur (or for that matter, even Zhang Yimou’s public utterances about Hero). I first saw the Qin army in Hero as a faceless fascist war machine, ruthless in its discipline, its mandated unanimity, and its disregard for human life. The Qin army’s unison cry of “Feng! Feng!” is chillingly similar to the Nazi salute “Sieg Heil!” The aerial assault of arrows at the beginning of the Qin invasion of the kingdom of Zhao is reminiscent of modern bombardments raining death at a distance.

    Contradicting his own claim that his conquests were to end war and bring peace to the Chinese world divided by the Warring States for four and a half centuries, the Qin king Ying Zheng boasts that the six states he sets out to conquer amount to nothing, and that there is a wider world outside for him to conquer. Throughout the film there is not a single concrete indication that Qin unification will bring about peace, justice and benevolent rule. All we have is the word of the Qin king and the hope of the assassin Broken Sword. What we actually see of the Qin state is its relentless war machine and pityless and faceless bureaucrats. Except for the ominously red plumes on the helmets of the soldiers, both warriors and officials are dressed uniformly in black. The drab blackness of the Qin personnel contrasts starkly with vibrant colors of the costumes of the assassins and their individual scenes. At the end of the film the Qin king himself is helpless to make an independent judgment to save the assassin Nameless despite his own personal feelings and supposed supreme power, since the impersonal and relentless Qin bureaucratic-legal machinery demands the execution of Nameless.

    The character of the Qin king is quite different in another film on the First Emperor Ying Zheng, Chen Kaige’s The Emperor & the Assassin (1999). Chen’s film is more fact-based and grounded in realistic imagery than Zhang’s abstract and fantastical Hero: The assassin Jing Ke in Chen’s film was a real historical character whereas all the assassins in Hero are imaginary creations with superhuman powers. While Zhang’s king is swaggering and self-confident in his drive to unification, Chen’s king is conflicted and plagued with self-doubt. Nonetheless, Chen’s king too conceives of unification as the route to ending centuries of warfare among the states, and faces a similar dilemma as Zhang’s king in grappling with the fate of Nameless. When Chen’s king hesitates to put to death his prime minister Lü Buwei (who may be his real-life father), he is reminded by a Qin official of his duties to the Qin ruling house’s centuries-old goal of unifying China. Ying Zheng must kill Lü to affirm his legitimacy to the throne, the official emphasizes. While Ying Zheng agonizes over whether he should recognize his real-life father, Lü relieves the king of his indecisive agony by hanging himself, after which the king proceeds to condemn Lü posthumously and exterminate his clan. (Chen Kaige, who played Lü Buwei, by his own account was atoning for his denunciation of his parents during the Cultural Revolution, an act that was common among youth of that era of Maoist fervor.) Both Chen’s king and Zhang’s king surrender to the relentless logic of imperial consolidation, and thereby diminish their humanity and freedom of individual choice.

    A number of American critics writing reviews of Hero on the occasion of its much delayed August 27 U.S. opening essentially support the perspective that it celebrates authoritarianism. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice says that “its glorification of ruthless leadership and self-sacrifice on the altar of national greatness, not to mention the sense that this might somehow stoke the engine of political regeneration, are all redolent of fascinatin’ fascism.”

    Others, however, have suggested that Hero presents a much more ambiguous perspective. Cindy Fuchs states in Philadelphia City Paper: “Zhang has recently been portrayed as a “sellout” for Hero’s “sympathetic” view of China’s first emperor. But the film is more complicated than this description suggests … Hero displays and deconstructs the very process of making history, insisting on the ways that deception, self-interest and self-delusion influence not only individuals but also national identities. Finding poetry in both mendacity and veracity, it investigates not the means or end, but the limits of honor, the concept at the heart of wuxia, imperialism and nationalism.” In Salon, Charles Taylor comments on whether Zhang Yimou was guilty “of everything from making a movie that kowtows to power to one that embraces fascistic nationalism,” as charged by his critics: “Apart from the offensiveness of charging a filmmaker whose films have been banned by the Chinese government — and who has been prevented from traveling to collect the honors those films have garnered — of suddenly licking the government’s feet, the anti-Hero arguments don’t take into account that the film ends not in a surge of patriotic feeling but on a pronounced mournful note of contingency and skepticism. And they ignore how the movie forces the King to live up to the ideology he so glibly spouts about sacrificing the happiness of the individual for the good of all. In our final glimpse of the King, the man has been dwarfed by the trappings of his power.”

    Jet Li, one of the film’s stars, perceptively observes: “Zhang Yimou wanted to explore what kind of person can become [a] hero within the framework of fighting, politics, romance and jealousy. Is it the conquering king? The assassins? The killer of the assassins?” Perhaps all of them can be considered heroes, if highly misguided. The vision of “all under heaven” (tianxia) is contradicted both by the cinematic representation of the Qin state in Hero and by actual historical events. With our historical perspective, can we say that the Qin machine as portrayed in Hero is one of national regeneration rather than ruthless expansionism? Many Germans saw such regeneration as the central theme of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the 1934 documentary celebrating Nazi organization and the collective spirit of the German people. Of course Germans today view Triumph of the Will in a very different light. In the case of the Qin king who went on to become First Emperor of China, his imperial regime (221-207 B.C.E.) proved no more durable than the Third Reich. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity to the Chinese people, the Qin state caused great human suffering through oppressive tax and labor demands and endless public construction projects and military campaigns against border peoples. The dynasty went down in the flames of rebellions provoked by its cruelty, and the Chinese people did not enjoy any measure of economic security and peace until the first emperors of the succeeding Han Dynasty (206 B.C.E.-220 C.E.) instituted Daoist policies of light taxes, minimal interference with lives of the people, and a foreign policy centered on diplomacy and defense rather than offense. This historical outcome, which in my view is presaged by the film’s grim and relentless imagery of the Qin, contradicts the statement at the close of Hero that the First Emperor is protective of the country and the people.

    The imposition of cultural and ideological uniformity was one of the goals of the Qin. The Qin king in Hero states his intention to unify all the scripts of the warring states. I would submit that perhaps the truest hero in Hero is the master of the Zhao calligraphy school, who urges his students to continue practicing their writing of the Zhao script under the torrential rain of Qin arrows. As the master observes: “Please remember, their arrows might destroy our town and topple our kingdom, but they can never obliterate our culture.” This act of resistance may be one of quixote futility. Yet even after centuries of efforts by successive Chinese regimes to prescribe a uniform culture and ideology, cultural diversity persists in China.

  21. Jing,You should’ve join us a little earlier before we all start patting on the back self-congratulation on how witty and intellectual we are about everything!

    “The Promise was already completed and screened and is universally regarded as crap in China. ”

    Yeah I thought so too.Since I watched it on DVD in Tokyo.
    “Now he(Chen Kaige) makes “The Promise”just another pic in the long line of chinese epics hanging on the wire.”
    Do you think Lu Chuan could keep the same quality of filmmaking as “Kekexili” in”Nanjing,Nanjing” with the so-said the biggest production budget in the history of Chinese cinema?

  22. Jing – Yes, the article that you present is a different reading of the film “Hero”, but the fascist reading of the film is just as valid (and very common among English-speaking critics) and cannot be dismissed easily. It is the most common reading among academics. Eng’s reading of the film is interesting, but do you think that he proved that the film is not fascist? This is not the way that academic criticism works. This is one interpretation among many and I am still convinced that there are fascist undertones in the film. It is especially disturbing to see these trends in Chinese popular culture given the Chinese government’s threats to Taiwan, the recent murder of Tibetan refugees, etc.

    If Chinese cinema is so layered and critical, where are the films about “China’s missing girls” (infanticide and selective abortion), mass starvation in the 1950s, the way that activists in the countryside “vanish”, industrial diseases, the skyrocketing AIDS rate, etc. ? Has there been a Chinese film that offers as raw a look at the country at present as “China Blue” (dir. Micha X. Peled)?

  23. My point was simply to point out an alternative narrative to the standard liturgy regarding hero and fascism. How one ultimately decides is the correct reading of the film is simply a matter of opinion.

    Regarding your second paragraph M-Bone, one gets the impression that you are simply being snippy rather than serious, but I will answer your questions anyway.

    Female infanticide ~ King of Masks

    Great Leap Forward famine + Cultural Revolution ~ Blue Kite

    Industrial disease ~ I’m honestly not sure what you mean here.

    HIV crisis ~ The Blood of Yingzhou District

    A “raw” look ~ Blind Shaft

    The only topic you raised that I can’t think of a Chinese movie that has covered the topic is missing activists. Then again, I can’t think of any noteable activists prominent enough to warrant a movie.

  24. Jing – I thought that your point was to tell us that we don’t know anything about Chinese film because we didn’t agree with your interpretation. If that was not your point, it was certainly what you wrote.

    As for your next points –

    King of Masks is not “about” female infanticide. If it is in the film, it is a fleeting reference that I have forgotten about. There is an abandoned girl in the film but this is not what I was talking about (killing and selective abortion). Also, wasn’t that film set in the 1930s? Hardly the hard hitting commentary on the communist government that I was calling for. In any case, didn’t the director of the film Wu Tianming flee China after the Tienanmen Square massacre (for the USA)? Now that seems like a story worth telling on film.

    Wasn’t the Blue Kite banned by the Chinese government? This type of thing is the exception and hardly anyone in China had a chance to see it. Wasn’t the director banned from making another film for 6 years? In any case, I thought that while depiction of the 1950s famine in the film was quite raw (few images to suggest the starvation of as many as 10-20 million, however), that discussion of government responsibility was muted. Still enough to see a director almost hounded out of his profession, however.

    Industrial diseases would be people developing crippling asthma, mercury poisoning, severe muscle and bone pain as a result of unchecked pollution. You won’t be able to find out much about it if you wait for the film.

    The Blood of Yingzhou district was directed by a Hong Kong born filmmaker who has worked in the United States for most of her career (is she an American citizen?) and was produced and funded in the United States. It was considered an American film in international competition. Please note – I’m not saying that people of Chinese ethnicity (MANY great filmmakers) don’t make critical films – just that there is hardly any opportunity to do it in China.

    Blind Shaft is a hardcore con story. I liked it (didn’t see the beginning part, however). This is a film about scummy human nature and redemption. Very interesting themes but where was that criticism of the government again (director Li Yang himself said that it was NOT POLITICAL)? Blind Shaft is certainly an indication of the massive potential of Chinese film to offer hardhitting public criticism however. But…. a quick IMDB shows that the director hasn’t made a film since. Been 3 years…. Oops, looks like it was banned in China. I also read that it was made on the sly and only distributed abroad. It is a film made by Chinese but without any funding from the country’s industry or even something as basic as state permission to screen it, I think that it would be better described as a radical “stateless” film made by a Chinese maverick. When a director has to basically flee the country to distribute a film, I have trouble considering it a film from that country. In any case, how are we supposed to get the types of mature, critical (of state and society) films that could engender some reconsideration of the Chinese government’s position if directors with potential are nipped in the bud after a debut film like this one?

    As for vanishing activists…. just go over to Amnesty International’s website.

    I’m not discriminating against Chinese filmmakers (ones in Hong Kong and Taiwan and other corners of the Chinese diaspora make GREAT critical films), I’m looking forward to seeing filmmakers in the PRC get the opportunity to make the types of critical films needed to bring about social change and actually have them seen by Chinese audiences. I’m tired of seeing talented Chinese directors being drummed out by the government and having to go apolitical (or jingoistic) to get back in.

  25. I have not one but TWO copied of “Blind Shaft” that I bought in a bootleg DVD market in Shanghai for 8 RMB apiece. What people need to realized is that banning by the government in China does nothing to stop people from getting their hands on the product. This is not to say that it doesn’t hurt the chance of the same artist to make something else, but the audience can still see it. The underground market is totally uncensored and I’m sure is bigger than the official one.

    Blood selling- I’m not aware of any films, but ESWN describes two novels about the practice, at least one of which was published in the PRC and not just Hong Kong/Taiwan:

    “To Live” has good background depictions of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution (we see a child die of malnutrition, for example), and “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is entirely about the Cultural Revolution. Yes, it was a French production, but they filmed in on location in China. No idea about distribution in the PRC though.

    And as for “Hero,” I did say above ‘It was really so over the top it almost felt like parody.’ The essay Jing posted is interesting, but I think it is still clear that the superficial message of the film is pro-fascism. If there is a deeply hidden anti-fascism statement, well that is certainly interesting, but most of the audience won’t get it, and it is of course significant that he had to bury it so deeply to be accepted by the government.

  26. Good points about Blind Shaft. I have not gone DVD shopping in China but I think that it is ironic that these films are forced underground in the land of their birth.

    Also note, I didn’t say anything about novels – in print it seems much easier to sneak one in.

    Also, the cultural revolution was not on my list. It has been well handled in a number of films (Farewell my Concubine comes immediately to mind). This is because the current government has distanced itself from it. In some current Chinese government rhetoric, the cultural revolution was due to student excesses and the moral of the story – crack down on student protests. Filmmakers have been good at using the CR but I’m not sure that it has been effectively used to criticize post-1970s regimes (in historical films, the object of criticism is most often not the society being depicted but the present one, just look at all of those samurai films).

    Have to check out “To Live” again, maybe there is not such a need to be pessimistic in this case. Still don’t like seeing directors bullied into making fascist fables, however.

    I think that the anti-fascist message in “Hero” is buried so deeply that it suffocated. Let’s face it, academics are pretty good at finding buried messages. I’m sure that there is an essay devoted to “queering Hero” or some such thing….

    Anyway, we can all agree that Chinese film has amazing potential, Happy New Year.

  27. Maybe the word “fascism” wasn’t the right word…It is endemic to Japanese ,you know(笑).
    Funny thing is there are some tendency among pundits talk about diversity of Chinese opinions despite the censorship and banning by the government for there are all mighty internet and pirate bootlegs,and rivet our eyes to the bright side of the picture.
    While Japanese are condemned for existence of evil DENTSU,less than 1% adopted nationalist textbooks ,reactionary manga and yakuzas on the black van calling themselves patriots……
    So the Japanese are from Mars and the Chinese are from Venus,MF?

    But seriously, should we be surprised to find “HERO” a movie that in the end make the impression of giving into authoritarianism? After all this movie was not made in a country where freedom is taken for granted .Or perhaps ‘HERO’ could be a ‘bitter and honest’ confession of an auteur living in PRC….
    And as Jing said,it is just a product of inverse relationship between the big budget and the creativity.

    However I’ve read a book called中国10億人の日本映画熱愛史~高倉健、山口百恵、キムタクからアニメまで~ 劉文兵 last month.The author was dissapointed to find out Sato Jyunya was directing “Otokotachi no Yamato”a fascist praising film according to him.Sato who was known in China for Ken Takakura’s tearjerking flick 君よ憤怒の河を渡れand an inside story of bullying and abusing in Imperial army陸軍残酷物語.These works were one of the reasons allowing Sato to be able to work in some Sino-Japanese co-production in late 70’s 未完の対局and 80’s 敦煌.The author wrote that he was kind of betrayed by the Sato’s latest work.
    So reading this, I dare not to say ‘prodigal son syndrome’is the Chinese thing.

  28. Ace – What you said about the pundits is 100% correct. Ditto for people who will defend the Chinese government and go on about that insidious Dentsu (save us!). Nobody on this blog does that (one good reason to keep reading it daily).

    The most funny was that NYT article about Kenkanryu. Japan released an anti-Korea comic! What about those decades of venomous anti-Japanese fluff coming out of Korea (novels gloating about a second atomic bombing becoming bestsellers, epics about teaming up with the North to smash Japan, etc.)? I think that there is a double standard in Japan reporting.

    As for the use of the word “fascism” – it suggests authoritarian rule, nationalist trappings, a complex iconography, appeals to a glorious racial / cultural tradition, militarism or at least aggressive military buildup, etc. I think that both “Hero” and China at present pass the test.

    Do you think that Otokotachi no Yamato shows war to be wasteful? I think that it does (in a way similar to the earlier Yamato film, Zero-sen Moyu, Rengokantai, Gekido no Showashi – Gunbatsu, Taiheiyo no Tsubasa, Zero-sen, Nihon no Ichiban nagai hi, etc.). I think that this is enough to make the film not fascist (?) but not enough to make it “critical” or even “good” (although I liked Nakadai in it). It needed something to balance the stories of Japanese suffering. It is no Ningen no Joken (The Human Condition, a series of three Japanese war films that I highly recommend). Of course, the continued existence of critics who will call films like this one militarist is fascinating in and of itself….

  29. Yamato:
    Like I said I have’nt watched the film yet ,so I can’t comment on that..
    Since Yamato itself was seen as useless piece of metal even at the time(The Great wall,The Pyramids,and our battleship Yamato!)It is natural that the movie shows the war is wasteful. I’ve only took a glance on the book that is based on,and that was no more than a melodrama.

    There is better classification for Yamato and it is a Navy flick,usually more conservative in viewpoint than the Army one which is but a few exception belong to left or radical view.There is a tendency in Japan,especially among veterans , advocating this diehard theory of Navy-goodguys-Army-badguys.And filmmakers prefers Navy flick because a)can film them in studio and don’t have to go to other country for location which could cause some friction b)don’t have to portrait enemy nor victim which could take the narrative into the matter of PC.c)can use crowd pleasing SFX.The movies also brought certain controversy in the last decade , “Lorelei “,”Aegis”and the anime”The Silent Fleet”were all navy flick.

  30. Thankfully, the main wastefulness played up in Otoko-tachi is that of human lives, not the ship. It does borrow a lot from Yoshida’s book. The end theme is similar.

    I think that if you look at the whole scope of Japanese postwar war films, air war movies are the most common (true of manga as well), army movies are second most common (and loved by the left, I’m having trouble thinking of an army-centric Japanese war film that is not ultra-critical apart from Pride. Maybe Dokuritsu Gurentai – Nishi he! or something….) And navy movies are the least common. This has changed lately because of developments in CG, I think. Of course, there is no direct dividing line between navy and air war movies some of the time (but it is hard to consider something with a title like Taiheiyo no Tsubasa to be a navy film).

    I think that the movies that brought the most controversy (if you go back as far as 1995) were the Kike! Wadatsumi no Koe remake and Pride (of course) – both army centered.

    What do you think about the Navy = good, Army = bad, argument? The navy was an authoritarian monster but there was limited direct involvement in atrocities against other peoples.

  31. M-Bone:
    Ito Shyunya of ‘Pride’ is known for directing female exploitaion movie in the ’70’s”women priosner Sasori’series,and an activist during labor struggle in Toho during 70’s.He loves this’stangled individual cursed by the societyVS The system’angle.I do not surprise this angry lefty radical of 70’s infected by’prodigal son syndrome’ and turning ultranationalist in’90s.But in this case there is a lifelong motif of auteur is lying behind,I think.Okamoto Kihachiokuritsu grantai) would never do that for he was a real WW2 veteran.

    Navy flick was some odd fandom in PRC during the cultural revoluition.I was reading ‘文化大革命10年史’by 厳家箕 and The gang of four was watching the
    strictly banned Japanese navy flick ああ海軍and連合艦隊 and loved it so much!

    Navy=good guy theory:
    Navy was considered more ‘democratical’ than Army.In the Navy,everything was more group oriented than the Army,thus more moderate ,captains followed the fate of the ships,while the Army,generals fly away to safety zone abandoning their men.Pearl harbour admiral Yamamoto Isoroku was widely considered as a tragetic figure ,while Tojo was considered as presumptuous military bureaucrat trying to act as equal to Hitler and Mussolini,thus seen disrespectuful to the status of the emperor to public.Yamamoto was killed in action while Tojo survived to see the day of ‘humiliation of captive’ and failed to commit suicide right before the trial, and that too had seen by the public as a folly.So it was a surprise for having Tojo as main character even in a revisionist movie,for there are no sympathy vote from veterans for the General.
    The Navy also recruited bunch of the best and the brightest from ordinary universities to be their officers,while the Army kept pure blood line from the Army academy graduates.The naval,so called ‘Potsdam lieutenants’ started the fraternities all over the counry after the war ,and shared nostalgia for they were the chosen ones for the country.You cannot find that euphorism among the army veterans.One of my college buddy is now captain in the maritime self defence force
    and while he was taking a year course in officer education,He studied in Edajima,Kure which used to be the Imperial Naval Academy and still using some of the building including naval memorial hall .He told me about the three holy relics, hair of the deceased Admiral Nelson given by the Royal Navy during the days of Anglo-Japanese Alliance,and that of Admiral Togo,and Admiral Yamamoto.Can never imagine same thing be done in the ground self defence force, which are doing everything they can to take distance from the imperial army!

  32. correction:
    Okamoto Kihachiokuritsu grantai)=Okamoto Kihachi of Dokuritsu Gurentai

  33. I love the Joshu Sasori movies. In the second one (directed by Ito) there is even a scene where wartime rape in China is described. Of course, Ito argued in a few places (like Bungei Shunju) that Pride is not a nationalist film. I’d like to interview him about it to see where he stands but I don’t think that he is over the top like, say, Tojo’s daughter.

    The navy had some dark spots – cadets routinely had the crap kicked out of them, etc. There was a lot of wasteful kamikaze action late in the war as well (Admiral Ugaki, etc.). They end up smelling like roses compared to the army, however, simply because the army was always in proximity to civilians and POWs….

  34. True.
    The Navy was against the reduction of the vessels and did their best to water down the Washinton treaty which was intended to cool down the arms race.Admiral Yamamoto threat PM Shidehara of toppling the cabinet by withdrawing the naval minister,which was a post for uniformed personnel.
    Some of the officers were also taking part in the series of attempted coup in the 30’s and it’s special combat unit did fight in Shanghai and else where on the ground.Java was basically navy’s occupied territory and problem of forced labor, ‘romusha’,had occured there.And they are the one who bombed the pearl harbour.Ultimately without naval supremacy in East Asia gained by the Imperial Fleet the conquest in the continent could not have been done.
    This is the case of collective memory of veterans and not objective history.
    There are lot of argument came up mostly from ex-army veterans.

  35. I think it is very interesting reading the discussions here, and it is very fair to say that China is still way behind Japan. One of the obvious reasons is that China has not produced any animation that has been a huge international success. for a couple of reasons

    1, the animation there has no real support, although the Government have set up so called Animation Bases to help, these bases must follow very strict content rules. It needs to have strong CHINESE content before it will even be given the ok to start production and once again checked at the final stages to see if it falls within these regulations for it to be broadcast. SO, the content is limited……….and for that reason will have very little interest from out side broadcasters.

    2, most of the work is self funded, with very small bonuses from the government or animation base if you follow the very tight rules. If you fall outside of this and produce a master piece ! you will still need to get final approval or it will not be aloowed to be broadcast…………so your self funding, is a very large risk.

    3, there are no big investers, and most control comes from CCTV. if it appears on cctv, the government are happy but if it appears on smaller cable tv they are not interested and almost see it as a negative route, out side of the proper set route.

    There are many animation studios in China that we have worked with before and produce very high quality work, infact they seem to produce most of the animation for the USA and Europe, companies like Hong Ying Studio, Sandman Animation studio and cuckoos nest are seen as real leaders. Infact, 2 of the recent animation movies I saw credited the animation to Sandman Animation Studio and it was superb, so the quality is there……………maybe not the freedom……yet !

    I see china is growing and changing very quickly and if the free can open more and the investment is there, you will see some very big things from china in the future.


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