A couple of weeks ago I went to the theater to see The Secret World of Arrietty, the latest Studio Ghibli film being released in the US by Disney. Unfortunately I saw the movie on President’s Day, so the theater was packed with kids and families who had the day off. But despite this, the kids weren’t as loud as they could have been throughout the movie and it was indeed a very good film. However, it also got me thinking about a very noticeable difference between an anime production like Arrietty, and most other animated films kids here are exposed to nowadays…
This difference was made obvious to me even before the movie started, when trailers for upcoming animated movies were being shown. They showed trailers for Madagascar 3, The Lorax, The Pirates Band of Misfits, and a few others…but the point I’m trying to make is that compared to Japanese animated movies, from Pokemon and Naruto to Studio Ghibli, the thing recent US animated movies are lacking is…silence.
By “silence” I don’t just mean lack of scenes where there’s no background music/noise or no talking. What I mean is that American animated films seem to think that the only thing kids can find enjoyable is characters yelling, being hit with barrages of slapsticks, and spewing pop culture or potty jokes at random. That’s pretty much all I saw in the trailers at the theater that day – a lot of yelling and a lot of cartoon violence, with maybe a hint of story and drama here and there. It’s pretty depressing because I know American kids can learn to appreciate more than just hyperbolics in their entertainment, yet our society rarely tries to challenge their attention span and intelligence with animation they’re meant to take seriously. This is why Pixar is pretty much the only American studio I still have faith in for animated movies – they actually provide films with intelligent premises and genuine drama, while keeping the hyperbolics to a minimum.
But, while American kids movies never seem to “shut up” with the slapstick violence and pop culture jokes, I see little to none of that in kids anime movies. Anyone who’s seen Studio Ghibli’s works knows that they take themselves seriously 100% of the time. When there are moments of humor, it’s not exaggeratedly so and it blends in with the serious tone of the movie. And of course, the films value silence. Long periods of time go by where there’s no background music and characters don’t speak or do anything flashy, letting kids focus on things like tone, setting, and atmosphere. Even the many Pokemon movies I’ve seen are like this. Sure, there are some kiddy scenes where a pokemon does something cutesy or cartoony, but I’d say 90% of the movies are sincerely dramatic and gag-free. Things like cartoonish slapsticks and pop culture jokes that are constantly interrupting an otherwise serious American animated movie are few and far between in anime kids movies. I can only speculate that the reason for this is because Japanese kids are encouraged to find other things like story exposition and character development worthwhile in their entertainment, while American animated movies are only meant to give kids the rawest form of entertainment without challenging them at all. And, while I’m only focusing on movies for the post, I believe that all of this can also be said about American animated kids TV shows versus kids anime TV shows.
So what accounts for this stark difference between American and Japanese animated movies? It all relates back to things I’ve discussed in previous posts. But to summarize, one reason could be that the Japanese find it acceptable to expose their kids to all kinds of disturbing themes in order to better prepare them for the real world (just look at uncut episodes of Naruto and One Piece). On the other hand, Americans believe kids should be sheltered from these things until they’re older and should just experience kid-friendly themes. Another reason could have to do with the wabi sabi ideal that permeates Japanese culture. The characteristics of wabi sabi could easily translate into the beauty of appreciating moments of “silence to contemplate atmosphere” in anime, even in anime aimed for kids. Such an idea doesn’t exist in American society; we’re all about individual gratification, so even if a movie is insulting our kids intelligence, if they like it we’ll let them watch it.
Call me biased, but I have to agree with the Japanese approach. What’s wrong with challenging kids in their animated entertainment, and in doing so, teaching them that it’s okay to be silent for a while and take your time to examine things other than action and slapsticks? We Americans complain that our kids have short attention spans and are prone to violence, but when we give them such easily gratifying entertainment that teaches them that the more yelling the better, people getting hurt is hilarious, and they only need to use their eyes when watching movies and not their brain, what should we expect? That’s why I’m glad that anime movies like Arrietty are still getting US theatrical releases from time to time. Anime movies like Ghibli and even Pokemon present kids with a refreshingly serious story, characters who could be decent role models, and moments of silence for them to appreciate and understand things in the movie that aren’t spoon-fed to them. Like I said early in the post, the 100+ kids watching Arrietty in the theater that day were not as loud as they could have been. While they did explode with pent up laughter at the, like, three funny parts in the movie, they were mostly quiet and I could sometimes hear them discussing the movie amongst themselves. So I’m sure they liked it even if they thought it was boring at times. I know that kids can find whimsical-ness just as entertaining as noise and violence. They can learn to like moments of silence for appreciating atmosphere just as they can learn that they’re supposed to laugh like mad when someone gets “humorously” hurt. Chances are a film like Arrietty will stick in their head for many more years than something like Madagascar. I hope other studios follow Ghibli and Pixar and produce intelligent animated films for kids.