Does animation transcend cultural differences? Yes. No.

Yesterday I happened to catch the mention over at Toon Zone of this article in the Wall Street Journal about the changes being made to popular American animation before shipping it overseas.

Big round heads and tiny bodies make the Powerpuff Girls instantly identifiable to their fans in America. The preteen karate superheroes star in one of the top-rated shows on cable’s Cartoon Network.

Last year, though, the “Powerpuff Girls” showed up in Japan with a whole new look. On “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z,” the heroines have grown up, sprouted long legs and wear skirts well above their knees. In the original American storyline, the girls were created of sugar, spice and everything nice; their Japanese counterparts are normal girls who acquire superpowers from a chemical reaction initiated by a rice cake.

Once, American entertainment companies exporting characters just dubbed them into other languages. But in recent years, Asia has become the testing ground for character reinvention, a process called “transcreation.”

That Powerpuff Girls is the flagship example of transcreation surprises me, because I’ve always sort of found the animation style very anime-ish and I’m not an anime fan. In fact, I’ve been known to yell at the television “How can you possible fight crime when you don’t even have fingers?! And when your head is bigger than your body??” (I am a joy to watch TV with, let me tell you.) Further down in the article I get more information, though:

When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a “Japanese look.” But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters to boost its appeal in Japan, an idea Mr. McCracken welcomed.

In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students. Since Japanese kids like to dress up like their favorite characters, the girls got more realistic outfits, with miniskirts, matching vests and hip-hugging belts.

While I understand the premise, I suppose, I am disturbed by the fact that part of this reinvention is making the girls older. My understanding of the American version (granted, we don’t watch it all that often) is that the girls are much younger than junior high. Why the age change? Is that cultural, or does making them older allow for racier themes and clothing, and appeal to a, er, wider audience? To whit:

“In Japan, girly love themes are a must,” Ms. Seki [a producer at Toei who helped create the show] says. When “Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z” was launched in Japan a year ago, the executives at Cartoon Network soon realized that the revamped plots and skimpier outfits not only attracted young girls, they also broadened the audience to include animation-obsessed adult men known in Japan as otaku, or geeks, who were also fans of the original.

That last bit sort of creeps me out, quite frankly. Look, I don’t have a problem with grown men who are obsessed with cartoons, and don’t even particularly have an issue with grown men who are obsessed with sexy cartoons, but if it’s all the same to everyone involved, could we not market the same shows to my children as to those guys? Please? Sheesh.

Do go read the entire article; although the discussion of Powerpuff Girls is perhaps the most compelling/controversial, changes made to Big Bird of Sesame Street are also touched on, as well a brief discussion of how Spongebob Squarepants managed to thrive in Japan as is (and against expectations).

So that’s the scoop on transcreation. Learn something new every day, I guess.

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