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Still Underground

Despite a growing American fan base, anime remains a moviegoing niche

Princess Mononoke

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 2/3/2010

Saturday Night Anime

Towson Univeristy Van Bokkelen Hall, Room 204. 7:30 p.m., Feb.6, March 6, April 3, and May 8.

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When Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo, the latest anime from the director of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away, opened in Baltimore last August, it ran at the Harbor East Landmark Theater, a theater whose programming normally includes safe art-house fair and high-end Hollywood hits. Despite glowing reviews and the fact that Miyazaki is perhaps the only anime director who is a household name in the United States, the movie failed to attract much attention, either in Baltimore or nationally. By the end of October, the movie had only made $15 million in this country, or just over a fifth of what Up made on its opening weekend.

Ponyo's reception, in Baltimore and nationally, typifies the problems anime has had since it first arrived here in the 1980s. American anime fans are legion, but their enthusiasm for the form has not spread to a broader public, or even to the broader moviegoing public. But this spring, the Towson University Anime Club is teaming up with the university's Electronic Media and Film department to offer four animes that reveal the spectrum of anime art for a broader audience.

"We usually show television series in our club meetings, and occasionally we have a film," says Mykeal Spivey, a senior art major at Towson and president of the Anime Club. "Someone brought up to me that we could have films like we did in the past. I got in contact with Greg Faller, who is in charge of the EMF department, and he left it to us to pick our own films."

Starting this Saturday, Towson screens animes as part of its spring semester programming, starting with Steamboy, inspired by the steampunk science-fiction genre. The series continues with Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke March 6, Tokyo Godfather April 3, and Tekkon Kinkreet May 8.

"The main thing I wanted to strive for was variety," Spivey says. "When it comes to anime films, people have a few things in mind. Miyazaki is very popular, but there's a wide variety of story styles."

The 2004 Steamboy, which opens the series, was directed by Katsuhiro A"tomo, whose 1988 debut Akira helped kindle anime interest in the United States. Based on steampunk science-fiction novels, a sub-genre of science fiction known for its Victorian settings and fantasy technologies, Steamboy tells the story of James Ray Steam, an inventor who works at a textile mill in Manchester, England, who accidentally acquires a very powerful "steam ball" that could be used to power weapons. The anime took A"tomo 10 years to make, and while it received mixed reviews on its U.S. release, technically the movie is unequaled.

Miyazaki's 1997 Princess Mononoke is set in the past, but its staunch environmental themes makes Avatar look like a jingoistic Michael Bay movie. Mononoke has been one of the more successful animes in this country, in part because its American distributor, Miramax, ensured that it would run in art-house theaters.

While both Steamboy and Mononoke take place in an idealized past, the 2003 melodrama Tokyo Godfathers directed by Satoshi Kon, takes place in the grim present. In the movie, three unlikely characters--an alcoholic, a transvestite, and a young girl--come across an abandoned baby and try to find the parents. Over the course of the movie, which is modeled after John Ford's 1948 Three Godfathers, the characters reveal stories about their own pasts.

The series closes with 2006's Tekkon Kinkreet, directed by Michael Arias, who was born in Los Angeles but has lived in Japan for the past 18 years. While the movie has had some American detractors because Arias is not a Japanese native, the anime's distinctive visual style has won over many fans. Spivey said he picked this film, and the three others, because he believes they represent the thematic, narrative, and artistic diversity of anime. "I just think they're great movies," Spivey says. "Tekkon is about orphans fighting yakuza gangsters in a fantasy treasure town, and I can't write a premise better than that."

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