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Exploring the comic sensibility of Chicago's Japanimation masters.

By Shelly Ridenour

MARCH 16, 1998:  If I occasionally received calls from a stranger who wanted to know what kind of shoes I was wearing, I would probably do the same thing Frank Moran does the day I phone for him at work.

"Good afternoon, Manga Entertainment," a man answers. Warm. Congenial. Ready to help seekers of the Japanese animation the Chicago-based company distributes.

May I speak to Frank, please? I ask.

Gaping pause. "Who's calling?"

After I identify myself, the man responds, "Oh! OK! Just a minute!" Right back up like a Duncan Imperial. Then he puts me on hold while Moran is "being paged."

Seems like I've made it past the gatekeeper. Here's the thing, though: because I've interviewed him earlier, I realize that the gatekeeper is also the person I asked for. Frank Moran is playing the part of his own receptionist.

"Hiya, this is Frank," he says after a few seconds' pause in his distinctive, flat-as-a-pancake Midwestern accent.

I really shouldn't be surprised by the charade, given that I'm calling to ask Moran about his most unusual encounters with the sometimes-rabid fans of Japanese animation, aka anime. With the million-plus videos the company has sold since its 1991 launch, the fans have made Manga the largest U.S. distributor of anime. But, as with any cultural phenomenon that inspires a cultlike following-think "Star Trek," NASCAR, Tori Amos-anime obsessives underscore the fact that the word fan is short for fanatic. Don't get the wrong idea, though: Manga's not frightened of these people. Not even the shoe fetish guy.

"That's an extreme case," Moran assures. Sure, there are the oddballs-like the guy who sent in his driver's license for no apparent reason, or the kid who calls himself Sailor Planet X. But most of the packages Manga receives are filled with artwork, requests for fictional characters' autographs (which Moran won't fake for them because "It's unethical"), the occasional 8"x10" glossy and cassette (from actors looking for voiceover work), and queries such as, "Who would win a fight between character X and character Y?" Moran takes those match-up queries seriously; it is where his own fanboy knowledge kicks in. First, he assesses the grammar and handwriting to guess the age of the writer, so he doesn't give too complicated a response. Then he measures the fictional characters' supposed attributes: martial-arts skills, bulk, fighting record, general badass-ness, divine genetic intervention. Like some sort of fantasy showdown bookie, he predicts a winner.

I decide to put him to the test.

So in a fight between Mad Bull and Devil Man, who would emerge victorious?

Moran scoffs at my naif's question. "Devil Man would rip him in half. I mean, Mad Bull is a six-foot American man with martial-arts training. But come on, Devil Man is one-half man, one-half devil."

What was I thinking?

Damn it, I don't know what the hell's wrong with this thing," groans Mike Egan, general manager of Manga Entertainment, as he frantically jabs at each and every button on the sleek Toshiba DVD player. Rewind, Fast Forward, Rewind, Eject, Stop, Eject, Play, Stop, Eject, PlayPlayPlayPlayPlay. Nothing's working. The thing is locked up tighter than a freezer of Old Style at 4am, the hauntingly beautiful image of the gender-bending cyborg heroine frozen in a midair drop-kick on the jumbo television monitor. There's no previewing Manga's DVD of its mega-popular "Ghost in the Shell" today.

Don't judge the company by this minor glitch, though: Manga's got its high-tech together. In seven years, it has released nearly 100 films; most are direct-to-video, but some have made it to the big screen. The most popular, "Ghost in the Shell," soared to the top of the Billboard video charts in 1996 and became the highest-grossing theatrical release in Los Angeles its opening weekend. You can find Manga titles in outlets as mainstream as Tower and Blockbuster, and occasionally on MTV and the Sci-Fi Network. Manga films have walked away with Oscars in both the best animated and best live short categories. The crew has also worked on music videos for U2 ("Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me") and KMFDM.

While still growing in popularity in the West, anime is an integrated part of Japanese culture. "Kids in Japan want to be animators like kids in America want to be athletes," says Manga publicist Danielle Opyt. And it all comes from that most everyday accessory of Japanese life, comic books. Very loosely translated, manga is Japanese for "comic book.") As the narrator of a recent video conference on anime suggests, "Like body piercing and snowboarding, Japanese animation is a key touchstone of today's youth culture." But unlike Trix, anime ain't just for kids.

"After the bombing of Hiroshima," Opyt says, "Japanese society had to be rebuilt from the ground up, and so they started to use comic books as a way to illustrate the destruction and how the world ended for them, how they rebuilt to start over as a society."

Its economy left as bare as its landscape after World War II, Japan was incapable of supporting its domestic film industry. Creativity, however, was anything but bankrupt. "All those people who started drawing manga back then no doubt wanted to make their own movies. But that was easier said than done, so they re-created the images in their head with paper and ink," says famed anime director Noboru Ishiguro ("Macross," "Thunderbirds 2086") in "The Complete Guide to Anime." "If circumstances had allowed, the majority of those who became manga artists would probably have become film directors."

Anime started staking its claim on America in the 1960s, with the superhero adventures of the cuter-than-cute AstroBoy (OK, so the big-as-his-fists eyes were a little creepy), followed by the never-ending left turn of Speed Racer in the seventies. Anime videos began filtering into the U.S. with the advent of VCRs, albeit through an underground mail-order network of sci-fi and comic book distributors and fans.

The big breakthrough didn't come until the 1989 release of "Akira," the one anime most anyone who's at least heard of Japanimation can name-check. "Akira"'s successful European release caught the attention of Chris Blackwell, president and founder of Island Records. Blackwell-who had signed the musical likes of U2, Bob Marley and PJ Harvey to his label-jumped on the bandwagon and founded Manga Entertainment Ltd. in London in 1991. Anime continued its ascent westward with the birth of Manga U.S. in 1994.

"I see the world becoming smaller," says Manga president Marvin Gleicher. "And as people are becoming more worldly and accepting of other cultures, they're more interested in the arts of those other cultures. That's what's great about anime: some of it is very Eastern in content, so you can learn from it-but you'll also be entertained."

My expectations of the Manga office environment were of either a super-slick, "Gattaca"-style cyber den, or a modern office version of "Lord of the Flies," with cooler-than-cool Playstation jockeys kicking back to Roni Size. The real place, located in River North, falls somewhere between those two visions. It's an extremely laid-back environment, one where jeans are the uniform and co-worker names are affectionately shortened. Promotional posters and animation cels claim wall space alongside rock-star pin-ups. Interestingly, all but one employee I talked to admitted they weren't anime fans before coming to Manga. They all keep up with it now, in part because they have to-the entire staff gets together and votes on future title acquisitions.

If you've ever been in a comic book store on a Saturday afternoon, it's easy to picture the typical anime fanboy as a 15-year-old skate rat in baggy jeans and a Kangol hat, drooling over a poster of the newest bikini-clad, heat-packing anime babe. Cooler than your stereotypical mouth-breathing Trekkie, but...

"We see a lot of those kids at the conventions around the country," says publicist Georgann Charuhas. "And lots of amazingly trendy, super-hip Japanese-American kids driving maxed-out Hondas." The typical fans-the ones Manga deals with via mail order-are heavily into sci-fi, comic books and video games; between the ages of 15 and 30; and, yes, they're male.

"Japanese animation is an extreme. There is graphic imagery and complex situations and violence. Hollywood makes violent movies, but with animation you can take it as far as you want, as fantastic," Opyt says. "It's shocking to some people, but I think that's why a lot of guys dig it."

Everyone at Manga is aware of the common perception-and criticism-of anime's portrayal of women: often naked, often being graphically violated.

Gleicher believes that, to a point at least, "it's true of the traditional male culture in Japan. I think most anime is both a vision of the animator and a reflection of the culture, but portrayed in a fantasy way."

"The perception problem is a result of what companies have licensed," says national sales director Greg Forston. "Sure, the Japanese create anime for everybody, but you can't license a title for a 60-year-old in America, because they're not going to buy it and neither is anyone else. And a lot of the smaller companies have marketed more of the graphic, violent titles. It's fair to call some of it pornographic. And that's become a stigma. We're not releasing things like that... we're not the next Mother Teresa or anything, but we have our codes of standards and ethics."

"Ghost in the Shell" is not even close to being pornographic. On the surface a "Total Recall"-like sci-fi/action/adventure tale of espionage, secret government plotting and criminal super-hackers, the film also raises intriguing-and timely-ethical dilemmas. In a 2029 world where all human organs except the brain are replaceable by far-superior cybernetic ones-and computers begin to develop a sense of self-there is no easy answer for the question, What constitutes a human?

Such is the dilemma of "Ghost"'s cyborg heroine Motuko, leader of a secret service crime-fighting unit; but not only can her electric brain track down elusive computer criminals, her souped-up artificial body can wreak serious havoc."The women in our films are strong; they're in charge," says Opyt. "And they do kick butt, even if they're naked! I don't know why you would consider that sexist. Roger Ebert said something about that with Ghost in the Shell,' because Motuko's nude. But she's not using her sexuality at all. She's a robot, and she just happens to have a power where she can disappear when she's naked. You can't really explain that. I think I'm a pretty strong feminist, and I'm not offended. It's natural. Sex is not a perverted thing... well, unless you take it that far."

It's pretty safe to say the Western future of anime won't be taken that far. That big daddy of American animation, Disney, and its Miramax subsidiary recently bought the rights to the films of famed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki, including the popular kids' story "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Princess Mononoke," one of the highest-grossing films in Japanese history. Opyt says she wouldn't be surprised to see product tie-ins with McDonald's this summer.

With anime hitting a cultural crest, Manga has begun exploring other genres. "We know that anime is real popular now, but we expect it will kind of have its peak and then trickle off a bit," Opyt explains. "That's why we're branching out a little bit more with international animation and live-action stuff, trying to become a mainstream film company."

One of those efforts, "Mandela," presented by Jonathan Demme, was nominated for a 1997 documentary Oscar; the Oliver Stone-"presented" "Gravesend" garnered media ink (most of it praiseworthy) this past fall; and the Jamaican Cinderella story "Dancehall Queen" already on video, had a few midnight showings at the Music Box. Manga's also focusing on live Japanese action flicks, like the two "Tetsuo" films and different forms of animation, such as the spookily fantastic 3-D animation and pixilation of "The Adventures of Tom Thumb." And the company just launched General Chaos, a touring festival of animated shorts including "Junky" ("a touching story of one parrot's struggle with his cracker addiction"), "Sunny Havens, aka Meat" ("The peace and tranquillity of a trailer park is rudely interrupted by a meat salesperson"), and "Beat The Meatles" ("pitching the greatest masturbatory hits of the greatest pop group of all time"). And in addition to the soon-to-be-released "Ghost in the Shell" DVD, there's also a Sony Playstation version.

"We're looking for quality animation first and foremost; technology as well as content," says Gleicher, who makes regular trips to Japan to scout for new anime. "Then a strong storyline, and the overall feel. And it doesn't necessarily have to be something that was a huge hit in Japan; we're looking for features that have a chance to increase the American market and the audience range. And that can really only happen theatrically."

"It's a huge financial commitment to release a film theatrically, so it has to really be the right one," says Forston. "We're going to continue to release the best of the feature-length anime films theatrically, but, unfortunately, a lot of the best ones are forty-five minutes long. One anime we are releasing, though, is X.' It's based on a huge Japanese manga. We've been getting calls about it for a long time. It will be very big."

And Manga's looking for independent films, both animated and live-action. "Tell them to send in their films," Forston says of local filmmakers. "We get stuff from Los Angeles and New York every day, but we never hear from Chicago people. I don't know if people don't know we're here, or if the scene is just an island unto itself. Everyone's not connected like they are in other cities, where people know each other even if they don't like each other."

Midwest meets Far East? Chicagome? WickerParkimation? Why not? Just don't call Manga and ask what kind of shoes the staffers are wearing.


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