A rich tradition fades as local animators make way for Disney

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 February, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 February, 2010, 12:00am

After more than a decade of haggling, Shanghai has finally secured a Disneyland. Prospects of a tourism bonanza and the attendant property boom have set pulses racing - even though the site remains dominated by vegetable fields.

But amid all the excitement and anticipation, almost unnoticed, is the historical irony of a Disneyland in Shanghai.

Almost 70 years after producing Asia's first cartoon film, the city now has to borrow an American animation icon - at staggering cost, reportedly 25 billion yuan (HK$28.4 billion) - to entertain its children and boost its tourist appeal.

And this is happening in a country with a vibrant tradition of cartoons and comics, and a government that favours its indigenous animators with a fervour rarely seen elsewhere.

A recent surge in censorship, an artificial industry boom driven by hunger for government subsidies and rampant piracy have undone most of the mainland animation industry's heritage advantages and preferential government policies.

The sector flourishes in terms of quantity rather than quality and fails to represent China's cultural identity or extend its soft power, something mainland cultural authorities expected it to do.

Chinese animation certainly didn't promise to be in this bizarre, listless state when the legendary Wan brothers, Laiming and Guchan, produced Princess Iron Fan, or Tie Shan Gong Zhu, in Shanghai in 1941. The 80-minute animated feature, the first of its kind in Asia, became a hit in the city, then recognised as the Far East's answer to Hollywood, before making its mark in the worldwide history of animation.

At one stage, even Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, an early classic of the genre by Walt Disney, found itself eclipsed on screens across Asia by the duel between the Monkey King and the vengeful Princess Iron Fan, the main storyline of the movie, borrowed from the ancient Chinese fantasy novel A Journey to the West. Back then, Mickey Mouse was still an obscure name to most of the world.

The Chinese animation business became industrialised and nationalised after the Communists took power in 1949. The new system centred around the state-owned Shanghai Animation Film Studio, which hired the Wan brothers and most other top Chinese cartoon artists. They worked with sufficient state funding and, surprisingly, more freedom than other filmmakers.

Jin Guoping, a former director of the studio, said that while its budget and management personnel were decided by the authorities, the Communist spin doctors did not actually involve themselves in content that much because they thought 'animation was for children'.

Animators drew on Chinese folklore and the country's rich literary heritage for storylines and from traditional painting genres for artistic inspiration, coming up with an astonishing level of creativity.

One of the masterpieces of the era was the two-episode Havoc in Heaven, released in 1961 and 1964. Supervised by the Wan brothers, the story was again derived from A Journey to the West. The characteristically Chinese graphic style and music woven into the work established a unique Chinese identity in the world of animation. Acute animosity between China and the West at the time prevented it from gaining wider recognition, although it did win the outstanding film award at the 1978 International London Film Festival.

A few years after its release, the Cultural Revolution devastated China's animation industry, along with the rest of its arts and entertainment scene. The mayhem also disrupted the development of a new generation of local animators.

Although the Shanghai studio picked up from where it left off after the decade of turmoil, with award-winning works like Nezha Conquers the Dragon King (1979), the inevitable fading out of old maestros, such as the Wan brothers, spelled the industry's decline.

Piracy also took its toll, but a more convenient scapegoat was imports of foreign anime, which flooded the market in the 1980s and 1990s amid a burgeoning mainland television industry.

In 2005, a China Animation Association survey found that domestic production houses accounted for only about 10 per cent of market share in a business worth 18 billion yuan (HK$20.49 billion) a year. The Monkey King and folklore heroes conceded their status as Chinese childhood idols to American Transformers and Japanese Godzilla fighters.

In the name of staving off the invasion, a series of targeted restrictions and incentives were rolled out. Domestic animation companies were given tax breaks and, in some cases, direct subsidies. From 2006, the authorities banned foreign-made cartoons on prime-time TV and laid out minimum air time requirements to broadcasters for indigenous animation content.

Government-sanctioned 'animation and cartoon industry parks' began springing up around the country. There are now more than 40.

With such favouritism, the volume of home-grown animation produced each year soared from around 20,000 minutes in 2004 to more than 100,000 minutes last year. But Ouyang Jian , a deputy culture minister, estimated last year that up to 90 per cent of domestic animation firms are deep in the red.

There are exceptions of recognisable indigenous brand names and icons but, unfortunately, they don't stand up to close scrutiny.

The sequel to Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf, produced by Shanghai Media Group (SMG), hit mainland screens late last month, and is expected to repeat the 70 million yuan in box office takings of the first instalment last year, the biggest by a Chinese animated film.

But the success of the first movie owed much to a namesake TV cartoon series, which benefited directly from the favourable prime-time airing granted to domestic animation. Claims have also surfaced that government-backed SMG collaborated with state-owned chain cinema operators to prolong the movie's screening slot and help boost its balance sheet. Yet even in that environment, it still reaped just half the mainland takings of DreamWorks' Kung Fu Panda (140 million yuan).

So why did overwhelming favouritism fail to translate into Chinese success in the world of animation? Piracy is one reason, though it is now taking on new forms as DVDs give way to viral online downloads and P2P transfers.

But tightening censorship has made the situation even worse. Concern about the cultural invasion by foreign cartoons was accompanied by a tightening of restrictions on what domestic artists could produce. The once light-hearted attitude towards animation gave way to stringent scrutiny of anything that might suggest even the slightest sense of defiance against mainstream ideology.

Of course, this is all carried out in the name of protecting children from excessive violence and sexually suggestive content. In 2007, Rainbow Cat and Blue Rabbit, a popular TV animation series about the adventures of a fictional animal swordsman, was suspended for preaching 'heroism' through violence. It's not hard to figure out the paradox of assembling a jury of middle-aged bureaucrat censors to decide what should and should not be watched by Chinese teenagers.

Before the Disneyland deal came to light, Zhao Lihong, an author and adviser to the Shanghai government, proposed a Monkey King theme park instead.

A good idea, but not before the animation industry fixes its problems.