A frustratingly not-terrible action thriller.
Japanese animation, or “anime,” as its fans call it, is an enormous but almost invisible phenomenon in this country. There has never been a wide-platform U.S. release of an animated film from Japan, and even those few titles that have won acceptance (“Akira,” “My Neighbor Totoro,” “The Wings of Honneamise”) have played mostly in art houses--often as midnight shows. Most North Americans have no exposure at all to made-in-Japan animation except on TV cartoon programs--which, although they have their fanatic followings on campuses, don't show the genre at its best.
In Japan, animation is not automatically considered entertainment for children and families. Adult themes, violence and sexuality are often dealt with in animated films, as in the incredibly popular comic books you see half the subway population reading every day. Walt Disney did a great service to animation by popularizing it at feature length, and his disciples continue to find enormous audiences for the art form, but the very success of Disney and its imitators has prevented the development of animation as a fully rounded art form.
So if that's the case, where does anime thrive in North America? On video, mostly. Every video store has a shelf devoted to Japanimation, often under examination by intense young men who hold detailed conversations in what sounds like code. Stores devoted to comic books and trading cards all have shelves of video anime for sale. Almost every campus has an anime club, where even animated daytime kiddie serials are analyzed and deconstructed. Anime films are booked by campus film societies. There are lots of anime fanzines. And the Internet is crawling with hundreds of anime Web pages and thousands of newsgroup messages.
All of this is taking place out of sight of conventional entertainment channels, but occasionally one of the better feature-length films does find a theatrical booking. Two are in current release around the country: “The Ghost in the Shell,” which I'll review soon, and “Roujin-Z,” which is playing as a midnight show at the Music Box.