ULTRAMAN Boycott in China
Variety and other news sources have reported that audiences in China are tuning out the popular superhero ULTRAMAN and other Japanese television series. The boycott follows complaints from Communist Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao that his grandson spends too much time watching Japanese shows rather than domestic TV programming.
The controversy began with comments made by Wen during a visit to the south China studio Jiangtong Animation. “There are times when I watch TV anime with my grandchild,” he said “but all he ever watches are foreign works like ULTRAMAN and the like. He should watch more Chinese cartoons. We should be cultivating a domestic anime industry.” He also told the assembled animators, “Your work is meaningful. You should play a leading role in bringing Chinese culture to the world … let Chinese children watch more of their own history and their own country’s animation.”
Wen’s statements were was released through the country’s official news agency and picked up by the state-run Taiwan newspaper China Times (Zhongguo Shibao), local and Hong Kong newspapers, internet news services, and other Chinese press outlets. The story quickly found support from the Chinese public, particularly online where there has been much finger pointing at the action and violence in the ULTRAMAN shows. “Many parents are worried that their children will develop violent tendencies due to Ultraman’s violent storylines,” one person wrote on an internet message board. “A friend said: ‘Whenever my son acts violently by kicking strangers and claiming that he is Ultraman, I want to smash our TV set’.”
Another noted, “Ultraman is Japanese. All he does is fight. Have all the Chinese who can make anime disappeared?”
Even more succinct was another message: “Kill Japan’s Ultraman!”
Censorship and Regulations
This outcry against ULTRAMAN is just the latest in a series of incidents involving the often contradictory handling of both foreign and domestic entertainment in China. For years, the Chinese government has strictly limited the number of international films and programs that can be shown in their country, and foreign children’s shows such as ULTRAMAN and SPONGEBOB SQUAREPANTS are often broadcast later at night when their target audience would most likely be asleep.
Despite these efforts, foreign programming has tended to be more popular with Chinese audiences. One oft-cited reason for this is the government’s extreme restrictions and censorship of its own entertainment industry, which results in inferior product the public has described as “insipid, tedious, and preachy.” This has had a particularly strong impact on children’s and family entertainment since more than 367 million Chinese citizens are under the age of 15.
In 2008, DreamWorks’ animated film KUNG FU PANDA was a tremendous box office success across China. The movie was also widely praised for its treatment of Chinese culture, mythology, and architecture… which led Chinese artists and filmmakers to publicly question government controls on their own works. Wu Jiang, president of the China National Peking Opera Company, asked “The film’s protagonist is China’s national treasure and all the elements are Chinese, but why didn’t we make such a film?”
Director Lu Chan added, “I cannot help wondering when China will be able to produce a movie of this caliber.” He told China Daily the he had abandoned an animated film he was making for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing because, “I kept receiving directions and orders on how the movie should be like. The fun and joy from doing something interesting left us, together with our imagination and creativity.”
Following these complaints, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress met to discuss how to create better entertainment product and compete in the international marketplace. The Congress determined that filmmakers should be given more freedom to inspire creativity.
But last month, superstar Jackie Chan ignited a small firestorm at the Bao Forum with his remarks about government controls on filmmakers. He said, “I’m not sure if it’s good to have freedom or not. I’m really confused now. If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic. Taiwan is also chaotic… I’m gradually beginning to feel that we Chinese need to be controlled. If we’re not being controlled, we’ll just do what we want.”
Some recent editorials and news reports have speculated that the Chinese government and entertainment industries are collaborating to decrease foreign competition and guarantee greater domestic market shares for Chinese films and programming. Within a day of Premier Wen Jiabao’s remarks about ULTRAMAN, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television (SARFT) announced new regulations banning internet uploads of movies, TV shows, animation, and documentaries without government permission. This immediately shut down kai.com, a long-running and popular site featuring Japanese anime.
The Chinese internet provider Sohu has also announced that they are working with the electronics firm Haier on an online TV station that will make high-definition Chinese programming accessible through Haier brand television sets.
All of this should be a great boon to the country’s anime industry, which has been growing slowly but steadily over the past few years with recent successes like BABO PAN-MILY and PLEASANT GOATS AND BIG BIG WOLF (Xi Yang Yang yu Hui Tai Lang). In April, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences announced that production of Chinese animation had increased by 66% since 2007.
“There is a long way to go before the animation industry prospers,” said SARFT spokesman Wang Jianhua. “We still have a lot of issues to resolve, for example, encouraging creativity … and combining creativity with the market.”
There have also been suggestions that Premier Wen’s comments may be seen as a cultural call-to-arms against Japan. The two nations have a long and sometimes violent history, but recent partnerships may help ease tensions. The Japanese studio Future Planet and the Chinese-owned Beijing Glorious Animation Co. have co-produced an anime adaptation of Luo Guanzhong’s classic 14th Century historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The series will begin airing in both China and Japan in June.
Ultraman in China
While ULTRAMAN has long been a popular series in China, Tsuburaya Productions has had increasing difficulties in getting the shows broadcast there. In 2005, Tsuburaya CEO Hideaki Tsuburaya told Nikkei Net, “Ever since [China’s] entry into the World Trade Organization, the bureaucratic maze has become even more complex. The liberalization demanded by the WTO did not happen as promised.”
“Before joining the WTO, foreign programs could be broadcast with relative ease, but after joining it became mandatory to apply for permits… ULTRAMAN TIGA, which is now being shown in China, was given a permit only after a year of bureaucratic wrangling. The other shows that we’ve applied for last year haven’t even gotten permits.”
To help speed up the permit process, Tsuburaya Productions began using Chinese companies to help create the ULTRAMAN shows. FX technicians from Shanghai traveled to Japan to learn monster suit-making techniques, and later crafted some of the kaiju for various episodes.
In both the mid-1990s and in 2005, Tsuburaya considered co-producing new Ultraman shows in China with a Chinese cast and crew. Of the second attempt, Hideaki Tsuburaya explained, “We have set up a joint-venture company with a Chinese partner for the production and distribution of the new series. By joining hands with the local media titans, this will be advantageous for the promotion of the new series. To let the audience identify with the show, we have decided to let the characters and stage design be infused with Chinese culture.”
“The Chinese government requires that elements of Chinese culture be incorporated into at least two-thirds of the programs. Most of the cast and staff will come from China herself.”
Tsuburaya Pro eventually dropped plans to create a Chinese ULTRAMAN, but another version almost saw the light of day. In May 2005, Guangzhou Ruishi Culture Developing and the Thai company Chaiyo Productions— who had been in a long-running legal battle with Tsuburaya over rights to ULTRAMAN— announced they were partnering on a Thai/Chinese series called PROJECT ULTRAMAN. The project was canceled when both the Beijing courts and The Intellectual Property and International Trade Court ruled that Chaiyo had no rights to make their own ULTRAMAN show.