When diplomacy fails, watch cartoons

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When diplomacy fails, watch cartoons


There’s a film festival in Seoul this week that brings together the story of a cute wizard in training, a serious anthology set in a fantasy world, a high school romance, a bizarre comedy about a family of Caucasian marionettes and a children’s drama about a duck that turns into a ballerina. The common thread? All are Japanese cartoons.
In an effort to spur interest in Japanese popular culture and to build personal relationships between Japanese and Koreans, the Japanese Embassy’s Culture Center is sponsoring a festival that pushes Japan’s hottest export these days: cartoons, whether animated or in comic books.
The event began on Monday and continues through Saturday, when three J-pop artists ― Mayumi Iizuka, Lia and The Indigo ― who have recorded songs used in animated features will give a concert at the center. There’s also an exhibit of posters and animation cells on the second floor.
Today the festival screens an anthology film by Shigeru Tamura called “a piece of PHANTASMAGORIA.” Set on a small, faraway planet, the film is a series of short subjects with such strange topics as, “The Snowman’s Journey to the South,” “Confessions of a Planetarium Technician” and “The Day of the Giant Lightbulb’s Radiance.” Definitely a far cry from the bouncy schoolgirls and gunslinging musclemen that are synonymous with animation in some circles.
Tomorrow, the final screening of the festival is just as offbeat: “Princess Tutu” is an allegorical children’s tale about a duck who is turned into a little girl after pining for a boy who wanders into her pond. But there’s a Pirandello-esque twist: She and all her human friends are also playing out roles in the unfinished story of the dead author who engineered her transformation. And occasionally she turns into a ballerina and fights enemies using classical dance.
Among the festival’s sponsors is Sorichu, a Korean club comprising fans of soundtrack musicians and voice actors for Japanese animation. Japanese voice actors can become stars in their own right in Japan; a legion of fans has turned some actors into household names. Lee San-ha, the president of Sorichu, says his group has 4,000 online members, and he expects about 150 to come to the “fan meeting” the club has scheduled with the musicians following the Saturday performance.
The Japanese government has thrown its weight behind the animation industry in the belief that the international prominence of its pop culture can make up for a decade and a half of stagnant economic growth. The Asahi Shimbun reported in 2003 that the annual income from exporting anime and related products to the United States was about four times the U.S. revenue of Japanese steel companies, exceeding $4 billion.
But the problem anime licensers face in Korea is that the widespread illegal downloading of Japanese animation drives down DVD sales significantly. The event at the culture center is one way licensers hope to compensate for those losses, explains Lee Seon-sun, an employee at the Japanese Embassy.
The theater and the exhibition were packed at Monday’s opening, and the survey of attendees on the wall showed dozens of little adhesive dots splattered across all different age groups and both genders. The rift between Japan and Korea might be too large for four episodes of “Princess Tutu to fix,” but there’s something appealing about the thought that art, humor and storytelling can at least begin to heal old wounds.

by Ben Applegate

Screenings and the concert start at 3 p.m. at the center near Anguk station. Admission is free. Korean subtitles provided; no English.
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