- 15 Nov 2002
Korea-Japan anime duel heating up
In one corner hulks the Japanese classic "Mononoke Hime," considered by many to be one of the greatest animation films ever made. In the other corner stands the great Korean hope "Oseam," a product of the local animation industry increasingly feeling anxious about its future. Industry watchers are closely keeping their eyes on the Korea-Japan animation match-up shaping up in the nation's theatres this May, with the box office result likely to have serious repercussions on the domestic market for the time being. "There has been no model of success in Korean animation," said producer Jeon Byung-jin of Lee Hyun-se Entertainment. "For creative animation to survive in Korea, 'Oseam' has to succeed now." At first glance though, there seems to be no contest. Director Hayao Miyazaki's "Mononoke Hime" is a titanic 133-minute epic with a budget of 24 billion won that attracted over 14 million viewers in Japan upon its release in 1997. It went on to become an international hit and sealed the director's reputation as an animation giant. "Oseam" by director Sung Baek-yup, on the other hand, presents a simple, unadorned storey that clocks in at just under 75 minutes with a budget of 1.5 billion won. Whatever the odds, the David and Goliath battle comes at a time when the local animation industry is being gripped by a sense of urgency to break out of its prolonged slump. Ironically, last year saw a great triumph in Korean animation as director Lee Sung-gang's "My Beautiful Girl, Mari" won the Grand Prix at the 2002 Annecy International Animated Film Festival, one of the most prestigious animation awards in the world.
The unexpected achievement was a much-needed shot in the arm for the local animation industry preparing to stem the anticipated flow of Japanese imports into the domestic market in the wake of government policy reversing the ban on Japanese cultural items.
The optimism soon had to be tempered with sober reality, however, as "My Beautiful Girl, Mari" failed to generate the kind of box office numbers industry watchers had hoped for. The award-winning film limped away from Korean theatres, having reached just 54,000 viewers. In comparison, "Spirited Away," also directed by Miyazaki, racked up an audience of nearly 2 million in Korean theatres last year.
"The failure (of the local animation industry) is partly due to the low level of its products, but proper appreciation failed to materialize even when it was deserved," said animation columnist Seo Chan-hwi.
The contest for the domestic market is not only about economics. For some, it is a battle for hearts and minds.
Miyazaki's philosophical nature and his skillful incorporation of Japanese mythology and national themes make diverse interpretations of his work possible. While his films have often been seen as sending an environmental message, to a small minority, they have a more sinister purpose.
"The essence of 'Mononoke Hime' is a self-serving interpretation of Japan's past war from the perspective of the perpetrator," wrote a viewer on a Web site discussing the film. "It hides history with the sophism of a perpetrator with the message 'We had no choice then' or 'It was not our fault.'"
While such views are limited to a small minority (after all, Miyazaki is a self-professed leftist), they still indicate the unease felt by many in society that within a few years, Korean children will grow up seeing only Japanese animation. "Oseam," in some ways, may be seen as an outcome of this growing trepidation. The film's theme and style are overtly and almost willfully Korean. Set in a Buddhist temple in Mt. Seorak, the story deals with traditional themes such as the importance of mother and sister. Even the visual approach seems to have taken a page out of old elementary school textbooks. In the meantime, local animation fans are gathering to initiate a "Support 'Oseam' Movement." A group calling itself the Korean Animation Force, for example, is organizing Internet promotions and group screenings to help the film succeed." I think it is very important for Korean animation to do well," said Lee Jung-ho, producer of "Oseam." "We watch so many movies in our lives, but the really wonderful animation we saw as children, we never forget as long as we live."
By Kim Jin