Chinese animated works begin to blossom in Japan

© Light Chaser Animation Studios
An image from “Nata Tensei” (New Gods: Nezha Reborn)

Chinese animated films are in the middle of a popularity boom. “Nata Tensei” (New Gods: Nezha Reborn), an action-fantasy epic directed by Zhao Ji, hit Japanese theaters on Feb 26. The film tells the story of a young male deity named Nezha, who is featured in the Ming-dynasty novel “Investiture of the Gods,” being reincarnated as a young man in contemporary times.

The adventure-fantasy film “Luo Xiaohei Senki” (The Legend of Hei) saw great success with Japanese audiences last year. Its story follows a black cat spirit Xiaohei, who has been forced from his home as a result of deforestation and poses the question of whether humans and nature can really coexist. After gaining popularity on a Chinese video streaming site, the work was then turned into a feature-length film that was released with subtitles in Japan back in October 2019. The film garnered quite a following through word of mouth, leading to the release of a Japanese dubbed version last November, featuring the skills of many famed voice actors including Kana Hanazawa and Mamoru Miyano.

As of the end of January, both the subtitled and dubbed versions of the film were seen by about 375,000 people, reaching a box office revenue of ¥580 million.

Chinese animated films released in Japan are often based on works of classic Chinese literature many Japanese people are familiar with. “Saiyuki: Hero is Back” (Monkey King: Hero is Back), directed by Tian Xiaopeng and released in January 2018, was a new adaptation of the epic “Saiyuki,” also known as “Journey to the West.” Recruiting Goro Miyazaki, a director of Studio Ghibli Inc., as the Japanese dubbed version’s supervisor made the film quite a hot topic.

On the other hand, “Shiki Oriori” (Flavors of Youth), directed by Li Haolin, is a Japanese anime, which is also a joint production of up-and-coming Chinese animation studio Haoliners and CoMix Wave Films Inc., a Japanese company known for producing the films of director Makoto Shinkai.

“Hakuja Engi” (White Snake), codirected by Wong Kahong and Zhao Ji, is a joint production of Chinese production company Light Chaser Animation Studios and the U.S.’ Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. A subtitled version of the film was released in Japan in September 2019, and a Japanese dubbed version is scheduled to be released this summer.

© Beijing HMCH Anime Co., Ltd.
An image from “Luo Xiaohei Senki” (The Legend of Hei)

Originality shines through

The Yomiuri Shimbun sat down with anime journalist Tadashi Sudo and got his take on why Chinese anime is gaining such a following in Japan.

“Domestically produced anime is abundant in Japan, so much so that at one time, foreign animated films didn’t make it big here with the exception of Disney or Pixar films from the United States,” he said. “However, for the last couple years or so, more and more fans are also expressing interest in watching works from abroad, and those from China are creating a movement of sorts.”

Sudo also cites the improvement in the quality of Chinese animated films as a reason.

“The 3-D computer graphics techniques are on par with studios in the West. This is the main draw of films like ‘Monkey King: Hero is Back.’ Not only that, the elaborate hand illustration seen in ‘The Legend of Hei’ created a splash within the Japanese [animation] industry and amazed audiences with just how far Chinese animation has come.”

Another reason for the success, according to Sudo, is that China has been producing more and more creative animated projects based on aspects of its own culture, rather than imitating popular foreign hits.

“Although there are many projects based on classic literature, like ‘New Gods: Nezha Reborn,’ they pursue originality by adding contemporary elements [to the stories],” Sudo said.

“China has long been a country that boasted a high level of skill and technique when it comes to animation. There was a period, however, when development was halted amid the mayhem in the wake of the Cultural Revolution from the 1960s to the 1970s. From around 2010, start-up companies began adopting technology from both the United States and Japan while starting to commercially create animated works. Now those efforts are beginning to bear fruit,” he said.

© Light Chaser Animation Studios
An image from “Hakuja Engi” (White Snake)

Influence from Japanese animation

“New Gods: Nezha Reborn” is an epic action film in which a young male deity named Nezha is reborn in contemporary times as a young man with a penchant for motorbikes. To protect his comrades, he fights fierce battles against enemies with whom he is destined to clash.

This is the sophomore work of director Zhao Ji, who spoke to The Yomiuri Shimbun in an email interview in his native Chinese.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What made you choose Nezha as the subject [of your film]?

Zhao Ji: Nezha is familiar to everyone in China and he was someone I looked up to when I was a child. We [the Chinese] have a deep affection for characters like Nezha. I excitedly worked on the idea of bringing Nezha into contemporary times.

Q: What points were you the most committed to?

Zhao Ji: Out of all the deities in the [Chinese] mythology, Nezha has the strongest punk spirit. He hates to lose and fights as if his life depends on it. I focused on showing him from a new angle while maintaining his original characteristics.

The story is set in a modern fictitious city, in which cultural clashes between the East and the West and between tradition and present-day occur. While conveying things like [the characters’] movements is difficult, the most difficult part was arranging the background.

Q: Chinese anime is also quite popular in Japan.

Zhao Ji: I think there is a sort of common ground when it comes to what the youth of today like, regardless of where they come from. For example, Marvel movies from the U.S. are popular with young people all over the world.

Q: Could you tell us why you think animation techniques in China have improved so much?

Zhao Ji: It’s largely because animation is beginning to gain legitimacy as an industry, bringing a lot of people in as a result. Compared to the United States, the industry here is still in its infancy and lacks many things. Despite our budget being around one-tenth of what you would see there, we are trying to create works of the same quality.

Q: Have you been influenced by Japanese animation?

Zhao Ji: There are many directors I adore. Mr. Osamu Tezuka, during a visit to China, drew a picture of Astro Boy and Sun Wukong [the Monkey King, the main character of “The Journey to the West,” which Tezuka adapted into anime] shaking hands. I hope that these kinds of exchanges will continue and that we’ll be able to deliver works that will be loved far and wide.