A staggering twenty-six movies are being submitted for the Best Animated Feature Film category in this year's Oscars. Three of them are straight from Japan; one other is influenced by Japan; and yet another was produced with the aid of a long-standing institution in Japanese animation without itself being anime. It's nice that they're all in the running, but it means little when they're barely given releases to begin with, or are up against projects with marketing juggernauts that make them all but impossible to be known about in the first place. But the few that are there are all worth some attention whether or not they even get the nod, let alone the statuette.
The full list of 26 movies is something of a sprawl. It includes many entries that are entirely predictable — Disney's Zootopia and Moana, PIXAR's Finding Dory, the usual pile of third-rate Western animation hackwork (Ice Age: Collision Course, The Secret Life of Pets, Sing, Storks, Trolls, etc.), and a slew of projects from out of country that are either in blatant imitation of Hollywood work or constitute subtle breaks from that tradition. With the first three in the running, one might as well just roll a six-sided die and divide by two to get the winner.
And then there are five projects that are either straight from Japan or influenced by it in some way: Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV, Keiichi Hara's Miss Hokusai, and Makoto Shinkai's your name. are all fully Japanese productions. The Red Turtle is actually a French production, but with none other than Studio Ghibli as one of its production companies. And Kubo and the Two Strings comes by way of Laika, who gave us The Boxtrolls and Coraline, and sports a look-and-feel taken from the best parts of Japan and the West.
I have seen Kingsglaive, and at some point I mean to see all the others on that short list as well, so my comments are limited entirely to my outside perceptions. Kingsglaive I liked, but it was created mainly as a marketing project for the video game it precedes, and its most impressive virtues are technical and not dramatic. your name. has me curious, in big part because Makoto Shinkai always seems on the verge of breaking through to greatness without ever quite actually hitting it, and word has circulated that this comes closest to hitting it out of the park of all his films so far. Not that I expect any of that to translate into a win: from what I can see, the story is very identifiably "anime" (young people, high school, etc.) and for that reason may be unfairly written off by people who can't tell their asses from Astro-Boy.
Of the bunch, Miss Hokusai intrigues me the most, as its ingredients and premise push many of my buttons. It's an adaptation of a manga that's off the beaten path, about the daughter of the titular Japanese artist; it's got an artful and thoughtful story that is meant to appeal to older audiences; and it looks sumptuous. But I give it low chances of ever entering the running for all of those reasons. Most people voting in this category have been primed by years of the Disney/PIXAR storytelling model; anything that falls outside of it simply doesn't seem to register with them.
Then we come to two other projects that are likely to be dear to my heart, of which only one might have a fighting chance. The first, The Red Turtle, from the description of it, has great promise: A castaway on an island befriend a giant red turtle, and the two undergo a great many experiences that could be described as mystical and transformative. No dialogue, just images — exactly the kind of "pure" filmmaking I relish whenever I'm lucky enough to encounter an example of it. Sadly, Ghibli was not involved with in the actual animation production; those duties were performed by French outfit Prima Linea Productions. But it still sounds like something I would pick up on my own even if it didn't have Studio Ghibli's name anywhere on it.
Second is the one title on this short list I would give better than four to one odds for being a winner: Laika's Kubo And The Two Strings. Again, I have not yet seen it, and I regret that; from what I can see it uses Japanese culture as an inspiration in a way that is heartening and positive rather than just as a source of tropes. It looks akin to a project like Jim Zub and Steven Cummings's comic Wayward, which also used Japanese mythology and culture in a constructive, cross-pollinative way.
But if Kubo gets any attention at all from the Academy, it most likely won't be for those reasons. It'll be for the same reasons that the Disney and PIXAR movies do: because of the corporate logo affixed to them. Laika's previous original successes — Coraline, ParaNorman, and The Boxtrolls -- were all modest, but solid, moneymakers, and provided the company with mindshare that it could use to promote a project like Kubo. Whether that translates into an actual nomination, let alone a win, is another story.
My standby anecdote for talking about the farcical nature of the Oscars goes something like this. It's the same institution that gave Oliver! best picture over 2001: a space odyssey (and snubbed Citizen Kane for How Green Was My Valley); that ignored Martin Scorsese when he brought them GoodFellas, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, but rewarded him for the manifestly mediocre The Departed; and so on. I don't expect the Academy folks to be forward-looking; I can hardly expect them to even be conscious of what's going on around them right now. That we have the likes of Miss Hokusai coming Stateside at all, or that Kubo can be produced and released as a mainstream production on a mainstream budget, are probably reward enough.