Boy adventurer set to woo new crowd and cast off 'elitist' image

Tintin gets a little closer to Japan in 3-D movie


Special To The Japan Times

“Everyone knows Tintin!” says a street hawker in the film “The Adventures of Tintin” — but 30 years ago director Steven Spielberg had no idea who or what he was.

The first installment of Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones” franchise, “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” opened in Europe in 1981 to rave reviews; it was in these reviews that the director encountered Tintin’s name for the first time, as the adventurous Indiana was compared to the globe-trotting boy reporter.

Curious to know the identity of Indiana’s rival, Spielberg got his hands on some Tintin comic books (which have been translated into 80 languages and have sold more than 350 million copies worldwide) and was immediately captivated. In 1983, he got on the phone with “Tintin” creator Herge (the singular pen name of Belgian Georges Remi), who at the time was in his 70s. Spielberg broached the subject of a Hollywood adaptation of the story. Herge agreed with alacrity, but unfortunately died before the project reached the launchpad.

In an email statement to the Japanese press, Spielberg says: “Tintin is a very lovable character. Once you meet him in the books, you want to get to know him more. I wanted to work that magic in the movie. When that happens, a movie becomes more than entertainment, but an experience on a higher level.”

Nearly three decades after that phone call to Herge, Tintin has finally been annointed with Spielberg’s royal treatment — fit for a new generation embracing 3-D in slickly animated form, with everything made possible by motion-capture technology. (Spielberg has told reporters in the United States that he personally prefers the term “performance capture.”) James Cameron took the technology to new heights with 2009’s “Avatar” — but U.S. media reports say Spielberg has ventured even higher.

“The Adventures of Tintin” features “Billy Elliot” star Jamie Bell in the title role, with James Bond actor Daniel Craig as Red Rackham and Andy Serkis (who performed Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”) as Captain Haddock. The actors are never seen, but are represented by digital characters that Spielberg and his collaborator/producer Peter Jackson (“King Kong,” “The Lord of the Rings”) spent five years polishing and perfecting. The end result is a richly hued, action-packed reenactment of the world of Tintin that was first created by Herge with a stack of paper and some pens.

During a visit to Tokyo to promote the film, Fanny Rodwell, who was formerly married to Herge, attended a charity screening for 200 children from the northeast Tohoku region of Japan, which recently suffered the Great East Japan Earthquake.

“I respect and love Spielberg’s work and though this is the fourth time I’ve seen the film — and dubbed in Japanese at that — I was so enthralled,” Rodwell tells us. “I think that really attests to the strength of the movie.”

She heaps further praise on the film by insisting that the spirit of the “Tintin” books is still wonderfully intact.

“Overall, I think that 70 percent of the film is an accurate interpretation of the original series,” Rodwell says. “And 30 percent is Spielberg’s own creation.”

On all his fictional travels, Tintin never ventured to Japan, but the Japanese have known and adored the ginger-haired boy in the oversize coat for decades. Herge launched the series in 1929 and a reference to his artwork was mentioned in a popular ’30s children’s art magazine in Japan called “Kodomo no Kuni” (“Nation of Children”). But back then, European illustrated art was considered if not the height then certainly one of the peaks of foreign cultural elitism. The cartoon was banned in the late ’30s and ’40s, but reappeared in the ’60s and made a huge comeback in the ’80s.

Today, the Japanese still approach “Tintin” with a certain restraint and respect.

” ‘Tintin’ exudes a kind of elitist exoticism that the Japanese associate with the days when Europe, to us, meant vintage beauty and a fashion sense supported by centuries of regard for style,” says Atsushi Komai, who teaches art at a Tokyo high school and has long studied Herge’s work. “The Japanese love ‘Tintin,’ but there’s a distance between us. He’s not a mass phenomenon.”

It’s true that, though iconic, Tintin has never enjoyed the all-round popularity of other brand-name imports such as America’s Snoopy or Finland’s Moomins. He has a touch of lofty remoteness about him. (Even at my own high school, the one boy who professed to love the “Tintin” books spoke some French and was smart and unapproachable.)

Jackson has said, however, that growing up in New Zealand “meant pretty much that one grew up with ‘Tintin.’ ” For the Japanese, it’s a different story.

“There are so many illustrated characters in Japan and most people have their own favorite homegrown kyara (characters),” Komai says. “Maybe that’s part of the reason why the Japanese have never gone for Tintin in a huge way.”

Yet the Japanese are in one way perhaps, more aware and attuned to the original “Tintin” than, say, the Americans or the British. To us, the one and only familiar pronunciation of Tintin’s name is the correct Belgian version: a staccato Tantan. His twin detective friends are the Belgian original’s Dupont and Dupont — not Thompson and Thompson from Scotland Yard, as they were renamed in the English translations. From the beginning, Japanese audiences have been treated to nondubbed versions of “Tintin” TV specials, which is a rare occurrence in this country.

Furthermore, the Japanese distributor of the new movie has decided to keep the heritage intact; the subtitles for the film have Belgian pronunciations. It’s a little jarring to the Japanese viewer to read one thing and hear something completely different.

Which brings us to Spielberg and Jackson’s vision of “Tintin,” with its unmistakable Anglo-Saxon tinge. Though set in an indeterminate European city, “Tintin” characters speak with subtle British accents and use the pound as their currency. There’s a wonderfully proper British butler and a manor house surrounded by an English garden. Thompson and Thompson never actually order tea and scones, but there’s such an air of London stuck to their black bowler hats that you know they must be dying to.

“The Adventures of Tintin” is based on the 11th book in the “Tintin” series, titled “The Secret of the Unicorn.” Together with Jackson, Spielberg cuts down on the original comic’s explanatory dialog and smooths out the transition from scene to scene. The ride is so fluid and wonderfully controlled that it feels less like a film and more like a particularly sophisticated theme-park experience fed straight into the brain.

Screenplay writers Steven Moffat, Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish avoided a straightforward adaptation by combining and juggling episodes from other “Tintin” books so that no viewer new to this world could possibly feel alienated. In this film, Tintin meets his best friend, Captain Haddock, for the first time; in the original series, the pair meet in the ninth installment, “The Crab With the Golden Claws,” and travel together to Morocco (a sequence the film also taps). Perhaps apprehensive of the fact that Tintin has no love interest and the stories practically never feature young women (it was said that Herge just couldn’t bring himself to draw one), Spielberg brings in opera diva Bianca Castafiore and engineers a brief encounter between her and Haddock, which — true to the “Tintin” ethos — ends in an instant and leads nowhere.

As it is, Spielberg swings what would seem like a near-impossible task: making the “Tintin” stories accessible, with minimal disturbance or damage to Herge’s carefully constructed environment. He and Jackson are alert to all the delightful details of the tale’s milieu — from the jumbled clutter on Tintin’s apartment desk and the way his coat hem lifts and waves lightly in the breeze, to the twitch of Tintin’s dog Snowy’s tail and the carriage of his head. For fans such as Komai who have spent years scrutinizing Herge’s frames, the film is a treasure trove for the senses.

In the meantime, Japan’s rather formal relationship with “Tintin” continues. There are three “Tintin” specialty shops — in Tokyo, Kyoto and Maebashi, Gunma Prefecture. The owner/licensee is Moulinsart Inc. (it also looks after the Herge estate in Belgium), which is named after the chateau in the books. The products on display at the quaint Omotesando shop in Tokyo are lovingly made, tasteful and a little expensive. Fans who make the pilgrimage to the shop are likely to be art students, people who have lived abroad, and dedicated readers such as high school student Emiko Nozaki, who dropped in to buy a birthday present.

“I love all things retro and to me, Tintin is the ultimate in retro,” she says. “He always gives me a feeling of nostalgia, but it’s hard to say where that feeling comes from.” Will she see the movie? “Definitely. Probably more than once!”

“The Adventures of Tintin” is now showing in cinemas across Japan.