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In America, a few eyebrows may still rise at the sight of a major art institution turning its attention to cartoons. But the West’s growing recognition of "anime," Japanese animation, is currently much in evidence at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

For the August edition of their monthly First Saturday event, the Museum on Aug. 4 will screen the 1992 anime gem "Porco Rosso" ("The Crimson Pig") and offer a lecture tour of the newly opened exhibition, "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation."

"Serious and fun," is how Brooklyn Museum curator Charlotta Kotik describes the exhibition, which is making its first stop on a national tour after originating at the Des Moines Arts Center in Iowa. "There are serious issues touched upon, in a guise of playfulness."

The description could just as well apply to anime itself. In Japan, animation is not ghettoized as children’s fare or locked into one or two simplistic formulas. It aims at all ages, crosses many genres and styles, and delves frankly into profound themes, particularly those relating to technology and to gender roles. With the line between popular culture and "high art" increasingly blurred, the exhibition’s 17 Japanese and Western artists find the images of anime a natural way to explore these themes.

Revered animator Hayao Miyazaki’s "Porco Rosso" - about a heroic flying ace cursed with the head of a hog - is a surprising fit with "My Reality." Typical of Miyazaki’s work, it is rather atypical of Japanese animation. The form is best known for futuristic, usually Japanese and often post-apocalyptic, settings, but "Porco" takes place in an idealized post-World War I Italy. And while much of anime is controversial for its use of nihilistic gore and sexual content, "Porco" is warm and humane, even in its treatment of villains - easily appropriate for any child who can read subtitles.

But in subtle ways, "Porco" alternately echoes and critiques the same prototypical anime elements that the exhibition does. Sculptor Kenji Yanobe encapsulates anime’s ambivalent fascination with technology in his "Survival Racing Car, Yellow" an eerie contraption intended for travel in nuclear winter and resembling a hybrid of a go-cart and an old-fashioned diving suit.

It could almost have rolled out of one of Miyazaki’s films, which are full of the neo-quaint machines he loves to design. Most of the elaborate 1920s planes in "Porco" are Miyazaki’s reworked versions of actual craft, portrayed with painstaking detail. In contrast to Yanobe’s sardonic vision, these romanticized war machines hark back to an age before other planes dropped the atom bombs that still haunt anime and, of course, all of Japanese culture.

The specter of the natural world, especially the human body transformed and malformed is a related fear/fascination. Takashi Murakami’s sculpture "DOB in the Strange Forest" features, says curator Kotik, "objects like flowers and mushrooms that are very cute and very beautiful but kind of genetically altered. They are very unreal and in that, they are a little scary."

Miyazaki’s half-animal hero puts a different, pre-nuclear age spin on transformation. Porco’s barnyard affliction seems vaguely magical, rather than technological, and grows out of unspoken inner turmoil. It is mutation as a personal issue, rather than a grand disaster like the genetic or radioactive mutations of science fiction.

Speaking of mutated bodies, the artists also find plenty of food for thought in Japanese animation’s single most recognizable icons, its abundant super-vixens. These (often teenage) characters are highly sexualized, with Lara Croft bodies and absurdly huge, "cute" eyes. They can be powerful action heroines, but on a moment’s notice may find themselves indecently assaulted by tentacled aliens.

Miltos Manetas is one of the artists who addresses these mixed messages, as in her video piece, "Flames 1."

"A video game, actually," says Kotik. "The heroine is very strong and very beautiful and very young, so I could see it as a tribute to the woman warrior and femininity. But then there is a moment where, even after she wins, she kind of says, ’I am sorry.’"

Miyazaki rarely resorts to this type of irony, but subverts the stereotype through his affectionately drawn adolescent tomboys - courageous heroines who are still normal girls. Redheaded Fio in "Porco" is just one example, a gutsy teenager who comes to the hero’s aid with her natural gift for aircraft design.

The super-vixen, in turn, is an offshoot of anime’s general predilection for what Kotik terms, simply, "cuteness." Momoyo Torimitsu critiques the extremes of this tendency, with two huge, brightly colored bunnies that crouch over the visitor in an aggressively adorable display. Even the most saccharine of viewers may agree with the piece’s title, "Somehow I Don’t Feel So Comfortable."

Despite the family-safe warmth characterizing most of his films, Miyazaki himself has expressed discomfort with the cuteness embodied in so much animation. In "Porco Rosso" especially, he carefully balances it with a sober style, a texture of the everyday, and bittersweet emotions that may fly over kids’ heads only to connect with their parents. (One fan calls this the Miyazaki film "that most resonates within my middle-aged, war-torn, lovelorn heart.")

The approach is an implicit rebuke to the eager-to-please sugar high of, oh, say, recent Disney blockbusters. And it’s another clue, among many, that museum visitors have stepped into an alternate reality more complex than they had previously imagined.


Hayao Miyazaki’s "Porco Rosso" (1992) screens at 7 pm on Aug. 4 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art (Eastern Parkway at Washington Avenue). Admission is free from 5 pm to 11 pm on Aug. 4. Curator tour of the exhibition, "My Reality: Contemporary Art and the Culture of Japanese Animation," begins at 7:30 pm. The exhibit runs July 28-Oct. 7. For more information, call (718) 638-5000 or visit on the Web. For more information on Miyazaki’s films, visit

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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