A Capsule History of Anime

Introduction

It’s truly amazing how many people into Anime today seem to think that it all started about a year before they got involved in the hobby. Many will, however, tell almost identical stories about dim childhood memories of (depending on how old they are) Astro Boy, Speed Racer, Marine Boy, Gigantor, Robotech, or Star Blazers. Others wandered into a comic shop and discovered to their utter amazement that there was an Akira MOVIE to go along with their comics. Still others fell in love with Ken Ichi Sonoda’s manga (Japanese for comics) style, and had their eyes pulled out of their sockets by the animated Bubblegum Crisis. There are even people now who discovered the medium when someone they knew told them about the Ranma f dubs, or accidentally tuned in the Science Fiction Channel one Saturday morning … something that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

The real history of the medium is frequently chaotic and bizarre (as is the medium itself), and to cover it in depth would take hundreds of pages (I’ve been threatening for years to write such a book), but that’s not the function of this primer. My goal is merely to give you, the reader, an idea of what happened and when. Significant events have been left out of this (I’m not even going to think about documenting the politics of early US fandom or the recent Evangelion debacle), and portions of the text presented here are based on rumor and conjecture. The event sequence is bunched up around the middle, and there are times when so many things are happening at once that it became difficult to limit the narrative to a half dozen threads or so. I feel that this does, however, give a reasonable account of the tumultuous history of this medium.

The Very Beginning (Osamu Tezuka)

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Osamu Tezuka

The world has changed a lot in the last 33 years. When Osamu Tezuka was stunning Japan with his Tetsuwan Atomu in 1963, Japan was generally considered a place that copied American goods and produced cheap toys. The economic miracle still hadn’t taken hold. On the whole, the country had not forgiven itself for events of the 1930’s and 1940’s. The destruction caused by the Second World War was not far removed from everyday life, and the atomic destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima were very fresh memories indeed. It was therefore a bold move as Tezuka, an established manga artist, told a story of the little robot boy with an atomic heart. This robot, disowned by his creator for the unpardonable sin of being a failure (he never grew), is rescued by people who care. Nurturing and accepting him, this “heartless” creature becomes the staunch advocate of the very race who shunned him and all his kind. Robots are second class citizens in the 21st century … useful at times, but not imbibed with the same rights as people. In their gradual acceptance of Mighty Atom, perhaps, they all become a bit more human. This show did something else pretty amazing too: Producer Fred Ladd took a look at it and decided that it might actually sell over in America … but the Japanese would have to make it look a little better.

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Astro Boy

Cels were added as American money entered the project, and Astro Boy was born. NBC had the rights, yet they themselves never aired it. With national syndication, Astro Boy became a hit, and inspired many of the First Wave anime fans (like your author). Then, as now, the US broadcasters complained (quietly at first) about the violence in the shows, and that characters might actually die during the course of a story. This, as Uncle Walt had taught us, was a medium for children, and children could not be trusted with an advanced concept such as death. That the Japanese were exposed to these stories and more was not relevant, and American audiences never saw the last episode.

Perhaps most surprising to many American fans, Tetsuwan Atomu is not considered to be Tezuka’s greatest work … that singular honor goes not even to Jungle Emperor (more on that in a moment), but on his “lifework” Hi No Tori (Bird of Fire). This huge story (12 collected manga volumes at last count) runs from the distant past to the distant future, and sadly was not completed before his untimely death (There was, however, a theatrical version). You can get a suggestion of how good this story sequence was in video only with the Phoenix 2772: Love’s Cosmo Zone movie and the Japanese (not yet available in the US) series Hi No Tori 1-3 (there was also a Japanese only 1979 feature called Hi No Tori, which featured some live-action sequences).

Hi No Tori

While 2772’s story does not take place in the manga series per se, there are segments which touch on many of the same elements. Even so, Dr. Tezuka is best remembered for his little robot boy and his sister (interestingly, Atomu and Uran … atom and uranium), some of his more experimental films like Jumping, Broken Down Film, Legend of the Forest, and his epic series about a little white lion with black ears … a series which shares many elements with a Disney film from a few years ago. The lion in the US version of the series was called Kimba … although his original name was Simba. We’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions, but Disney steadfastly denies that anyone based their story on the Tezuka classic. Some in the industry find this not to be a defensible position.

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Kimba the White Lion

Shortly after the firestorm descended on Disney, the company took the position that it was largely unaware of Japanese Animation in general, and Tezuka in particular. Their animators, it was categorically stated, were not influenced at all during the production of their own King-of-the-Jungle lion film. That entire scenes were lifted from Tezuka “splash” panels were merely coincidence. It was therefore a bit of a reversal when shortly afterward Disney and Studio Ghibli announced that Miyazaki’s back catalog of films would be distributed by Disney … a company that was officially “unaware” of the medium. Strange, to say the least, eh?

The First Shows Hit US TV

Even before Osamu Tezuka died, other powerful influences were making their marks with manga and television series. Eight Man (TOBOR, the Eighth Man), Kaitei Shonen Marin (Marine Boy), and Tetsujin 28 (Gigantor) all found their way to American TV in the 1960’s and very early 1970’s. Filling Tezuka’s shoes was probably impossible, but the Starving Seven (an artist hothouse project started by Tezuka) were each destined to make their own way in this fledgling industry. Members of this core group are still active today, but one of the first to break out and take the world by the horns was Liegi Matsumoto. His Space Cruiser Yamato (Star Blazers) triggered the Second Wave of fandom almost by itself in the US, and many of us think that it’s only a matter of time before his presence is felt again in the animation industry. “The Cockpit” (not currently available in the US) gives very interesting insight about just how cool this guy’s stuff can be … and we’re all just waiting for an announcement about some of his older stuff being revived as everything old is new again.

TOBOR, the Eighth Man

Kaitei Shonen Marin

Tetsujin 28

Other Early Shows

Also a significant force in early Anime was Ippei Kurei. Many animation fans don’t know that name, but almost all of the older ones (and many becoming fans right now thanks to the Cartoon Channel) would be able to finish the line “Here he comes, here comes …” (after all, he IS a demon on wheels, and he’s often flying as he guns his car around the track). There is now such an intense interest in this 1967 television show that a recent Volkswagen TV commercial features Speed (Racer, that is), Trixie and the rest of the gang along with a Golf GTI. After this success, he went on to create what Tatsunoko Studio is perhaps best known for: Science Ninja Team Gatchaman (responsible for the rest of the Second Wave fans). This property had three different television series over the years, and more recently, an OVA series (if you don’t know what that is, read on) of its own.

Speed Racer

Although it was butchered when it was adapted for the US market, enough of the original strength of this show comes through even now. Sadly, the US audiences have only seen the first series (and not very much of that … there is a significant and protracted death as the show winds itself up) as of this writing … but that’s about to change. Word has it that the second series (the Gelsadora series) is coming this fall under the name “Eagle Rider”. At any rate, most fans of Ranma 1/2 feel that Ranma is the first character to change from male to female … forgetting that Berg Katse (Zoltar) did the same thing during the first season of Gatchaman (not mentioned in the US adaptations, but it does explain the lipstick, eh? ) … and wasn’t too happy about it either. It didn’t happen with a bucket of water, but over time, and it was as inexorable as the tides. Destined to be born twins, Sosai X (the thing in the flames … actually, the bird image is only what it wants to look like) fused them into a single being with a superhuman intelligence and a schizoid personality. While you won’t see a changing chest, if you watch the series for any time, you’ll see the he sometimes develops … hips.

Sosai X

Androgynous Characters

Androgynous characters are hardly unique to Berg Katse, although the bulk of them are confined to Shojo (girl’s) shows. Only over the last two years or so have many of these other shows made it to America (Tezuka’s “Princess Knight”, of course, being the early notable exception), and many feel that the jury is still out on whether the US audiences are accepting them.

Photograph provided by the Asian Art Museum; used with permission

Princess Knight

Perhaps 15% of the Japanese market are shows aimed squarely at little girls and the one that most domestic fans will know today is Sailor Moon. Yes: Sailor Moon is aimed at little girls. Don’t get too weirded out about it though: in Japan between Dirty Pair’s Kei and Yuri, Yuri is the popular one. Several of the US companies are experimenting with this genre (including The Right Stuf International) for several reasons (more on this later), but we feel that there will be at least some more of this type of programming as the year wears on.

Intended Audience Ages

In Japan, in fact, there are shows for just about everyone. There are tons of product just like the stuff that has been coming to the US for years now (primarily aimed at high school and college aged boys). There are also shows aimed at small children like Doraemon (the merchandising for which makes the merchandising for Independence Day look anemic). There is also a substantial amount of product that is aimed at adults, and some of this can only be described as spooge. In the early days, these were quite tame (perhaps a shower scene or two). As time went on, they got a lot worse (one person I know describes these perfectly as “girls getting raped by Jello”). Where the line is drawn is sometimes difficult: even Urusei Yatsura had topless women in it from time to time (only a flash, but topless nonetheless). Ranma f has more mammary jokes than anything else in recent memory, and this showed on regular television in primetime. That truly adult titles are coming to the US market along with everything else has caused us at TRSI some concern about the comfort level of our customers.

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Doraemon

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Urusei Yatsura

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Ranma

 

To this end, we’ve added a warning tag to those titles that we feel merit adult status. We realize that some people will buy these just because they ARE tagged as adult, and that’s fine if that’s what you’re looking for. We’re not out to practice censorship, but if you’re ordering this sort of tape, we do ask for a signature certifying that you’re of an appropriate age to receive them. Ranma isn’t tagged as such, even though there are some pretty blue scenes. Things like Angel of Darkness or Twin Angels are because they are VERY adult titles. If you should have a question about a particular title, by all means give us a call about it first.

Anime At The End Of The 70’s

As the 1970’s drew to a close, several things were happening at once. Television animation was cranking out new stuff at an incredible rate. The Matsumoto TV shows like Captain Harlock: Space Pirate, Space Cruiser Yamato and Galaxy Express suffused drama and high adventure like nothing before them could. And, a robot show popped up that flipped the industry over and it hasn’t been the same since. It was called Mobile Suit Gundam, and more than a giant robot show (we’ve had them before this: witness Go Nagai’s Mazinger, and even Tetsujin 28! ), Gundam dealt with character development like a Matsumoto show and brought with it the word Newtype. These Newtypes were the most precious resource known to Man … more valuable than gold, diamonds, oil, or uranium, Newtypes just did things a little better than normal humans. In the case of Amuro Rei, it was reflexes. He defeats his initial opponents with the power of the Gundam easily … until he encounters Red Comet, flown by Cha Aznable. Thus is born one of the greatest stories ever told in anime, a story finished almost ten years later in the “Cha’s Counterattack” movie.

Captain Harlock

Galaxy Express 999

Galaxy Express

Gundam

Many have asked about this series, specifically why it hasn’t made it to America yet. There are probably about five or ten huge shows that have not come over yet: in some cases, it’s the Japanese who don’t want to relinquish the rights, in others its a case of outlandish amounts of money being asked, and in still others the question of who actually owns a product is the issue.

Gundam wasn’t the only thing that happened as the 70’s ended: a movie featuring a popular character was given to an up and coming director who also happened to have a budget to work with. What emerged from the mix was one of the greatest films ever made from one of the greatest Japanese directors in the business: Lupin III: Cagliostro Castle from Hayao Miyazaki. This film is very near perfect in its execution; there is action, there is great music, there is one hell of a story, and all the little things are there. It captures the essence of Lupin (a fantastically capable thief) and his almost equally capable pursuer (Inspector Zenigata) while treating the audience to a genuine roller coaster. There are spots only marginally long enough for the audience to catch their breath, and then it takes off again. There has never been a Lupin film like it before or since: in fact Mystery of Mamo (an excellent film in its own right) pales when compared to this. Many have commented on just how good this film really is, and it has become the yardstick on which other films are measured … as it should be.

The 80’s: The “Golden Years” Of Anime

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Queen Millennia

The 1980’s are generally considered to be the golden years of Japanese Animation … this may come as a surprise to the people who refuse to look at anything made before 1989 or so. The greatest diversity of product was being made during this period, having ramped up from the chaotic 70’s. Now, a great deal of money was flowing into the industry, and the world began taking serious looks at the things that were being created on a regular basis here. The last of the Matsumoto influence was being felt with films like the Queen Millennia movie and the TV series by the same name. It was also the last we got to see of Captain Harlock (for now, anyway) … the second television series “Endless Road SSX” was created to re-establish the Matsumoto industry dominance. That it didn’t was less a failure by Matsumoto than a wild success by a female manga artist named Rumiko Takahashi. Her Urusei Yatsura (which premiered in 1981) smashed the competition, and made her a millionaire many times over (as she largely owned the rights to her creation).

Maison Ikkoku

When the Urusei television series came to an end (sort of an ambiguous end, but somehow perfect just the same), her Maison Ikkoku (now being released in the US by VIZ) appeared in the same time slot the following week (in fact, the last episode of Urusei Yatsura had the hook for the first Maison Ikkoku where next week’s Urusei hook would normally have been … the transition was perfect). Maison Ikkoku, a show about as different as you can get from Urusei Yatsura, did surprisingly well on its own. Less of a schizophrenic comedy, Maison Ikkoku comes off almost as a soap opera, although a pretty strange one. Borrowing a page from the Matsumoto stories of the 1970’s, Maison Ikkoku has to be watched in sequence. The main story follows two people as their entire outlook shifts around, and culminates in a remarkably poignant event. When it went off the air after 90-some episodes, it had run a story from the beginning to a logical ending.

Some time elapsed before Ranma f which, true to form, was totally different from both Urusei Yatsura and Maison Ikkoku. Many people were quite annoyed at an event in Japanese politics that happened at about the same time as Ranma: fans who had contacts taping the show in Japan now have a great deal of coverage of Emperor Hirohito’s funeral proceedings. Ranma has been off the air for some time now, and many of us here find themselves wondering what’s going to be next. Whatever it winds up being, we’re sure that it’ll be a surprise. Surprisingly, there aren’t a lot of Takahashi imitators; it seems likely that no one else can get the mix just right. The next big thing, in fact, wasn’t even a comedy.

Macross Hits The US

Capitalizing on the time tested idea of merchandising the hell out of whatever you’ve got, the crew at Big West launched a show whose echoes are still heard today. If Urusei Yatsura wasn’t enough to kill SSX once and for all, then Super Dimensional Fortress Macross surely was. Macross is a surprisingly standard story that’s raised several notches higher with its character design and most importantly, its mechanical design. When this thing came out, everyone and I mean everyone wanted a Valkyrie toy for their very own.

Super Dimensional Fortress Macross

Companies like Bandai and Takutoku were more than happy to grind these things out (as a side note, Takutoku went bankrupt just before the huge toy boom hit. Fittingly, one of their last items was a super armor kit for a stock Valkyrie … now VERY scarce and demanding top dollar from anyone trying to find one). As Macross’ popularity soared, out comes the Macross Movie in 1984 (aka Do You Remember Love? ), and the fans went through the roof. With a huge budget and stunning animation, this film took Japanese fandom by storm. Interestingly, this was one of the first films where lip movements were even considered when writing the dialogue … something that US animation fans take for granted but is seldom if ever considered by the Japanese. With the Macross Movie, you actually had lip sync in Japanese. The Macross series, being about the hottest thing in Japan at the time, was then licensed for distribution in the US. With an eye toward getting it on television but faced with the fact that US stations wouldn’t run a series with only 36 episodes, the decision was made to cut Macross and two unrelated television series together.

One man’s vision was responsible for Harmony Gold’s project: Carl Macek. He was able to get his project syndicated on television all over the US (like Fred Ladd with Astro Boy before him), and his Robotech became responsible for many of today’s most ardent (Third Wave) fans. Macross didn’t stop there, though. The Macross II series of OVA’s followed, and they in turn were followed by an OVA series which was as stunning to newer fans as the Macross Movie was to 1984’s fans: Macross Plus. One of the most expensive OVA series produced to date, this new series is a barnburner, and even that isn’t the end. The new television series Macross 7 has recently concluded on Japanese TV, but we don’t expect it to be brought over to the US anytime soon. The good guys fight their wars with music and musical instruments. While this is an interesting concept (and in keeping with the original Macross storyline), it is not the most effective imagery for the US mass market.

One other thing about Macross while we’re on the subject, and that is the name. Think about this for a second. Macross (Macintosh). Macross II (Macintosh II). Macross Plus (Macintosh Plus). Macross 7 (System 7). What’s next … Power Macross? Macross Quadra? ?

The Huge Films of the Mid-80’s

As the market entered the mid 1980’s, huge film followed huge film with no end in sight. Miyazaki stunned the world again with his Nausicaä in the Valley of the Wind, and then again with Laputa: Castle in the Sky. The first two Urusei Yatsura movies (Only You and Beautiful Dreamer) carved out a sizable chunks of money for themselves, Matsumoto tried three times with My Youth In Arcadia, the Queen Millennia movie (with a score by Kitaro … probably his single best work) and the second “final” Yamato film where the Yamato is blown apart once and for all (at least, until the new series). Still, all was not well. Films were getting more and more expensive, and the voices that were saying that no film was ever going to be made for this much money again were being taken seriously. To be fair, the revenues were not being generated in proportion to the expenditures … a situation that any business person will tell you will lead to disaster is something isn’t done about it. That something was a new medium.

Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind

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Laputa: Castle in the Sky

The Home Video Revolution

In the late 70’s and early 1980’s, you either had TV shows, TV Movies, or Theatrical Movies. Sony, however was to change all of that. The first home video cassette recorders were large, heavy, expensive, and generally pretty clunky machines. The blank tape was expensive. The machines were not simple to set up or operate, and if something in them broke, you were in for no end of trouble. Still, here was something that you could have in your house and … now, get this … RECORD something and PLAY IT BACK LATER … AGAIN AND AGAIN! Even better, if you didn’t mind the loss, you could call one of your rich friends and MAKE A COPY of the tape! This was a revolution when the machines first showed up, and by the time people were questioning the money being spent on new shows, these machines were heavily entrenched … even LaserVision machines were no longer an oddity (although there was quite a bit of doubt over whether LaserVision or the RCA CED disc would be the one to survive. Funny now, eh? ).

Megazone 23

With a budget that was still pretty significant, and a running time that was consistent with films of the day, Megazone 23 was released direct to videotape (for a trivia question, name the first OVA … it’s not Megazone 23, but a little known series called Dallos). Called an “OVA”: Original Video Animation (or an OAV: Original Animation Video … depends on which you prefer), Artmic’s decision was justified and the film went on to spawn (really three) sequels. This was big news in the industry: for a fraction of the money it took to create a feature length film, they could create a direct to tape release and make about the same amount of money. Megazone 23 didn’t stay the big OVA for very long: it was followed up by the first Bubblegum Crisis and the first Iczer 1 very quickly. Both of these had a running time closer to 40 minutes as opposed to Megazone 23’s 90. The public, however, didn’t care (due more to the work of Hirano Toshihiro and Ken Ichi Sonoda than anything else), eagerly buying up the tapes. The studios were saved and all was right with the world.

The End of the Golden Years

As you might expect, this period of prosperity wasn’t going to last forever. In fact, Sonoda didn’t even finish his own Bubblegum Crisis series (rumor has it that his Artland contract was a real killer, and he wasn’t interested in working for the company once that contract was up). Nevertheless, no one knew that at the time, and new OVA startup companies were literally everywhere. For a while, it looked like the CD-Rom companies in the US do now: you couldn’t swing your arms without hitting at least a few of them. For a while (a long while, actually), most of them did fairly well in the marketplace, but for many the writing was on the wall. The market was becoming saturated, and the Japanese economy (in decline for some time) was getting worse.. Company after company switched from the anime market into producing computer games. This isn’t to say that there weren’t any big movies being made at the time. Miyazaki scored twice with Totoro of the Neighborhood and then Kiki’s Delivery Service. At last, however, there was about to be a huge movie influence that had nothing to do with Miyazaki.

Bubblegum Crisis series

My Neighbor Totoro

Kiki’s Delivery Service

The Release of Akira

Katsuhiro Otomo was already quite famous by the time the money came in to produce a movie from his most famous manga creation. His segment (An Order to Cease Construction) in 1987’s Meikyo Monogatari (aka Neo Tokyo) boded quite well for a full length film version of his work. There was huge anticipation as each new manga volume arrived on the shelves in Japan. When the movie was announced, the market shuddered a bit in anticipation of what was coming, but many had been disappointed by huge buildups before. The film that emerged was anything but a disappointment. It was Akira.

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Neo Tokyo

Art: Tyler Stout

Akira

The Disputed Last Gasp for Anime

There are those who argue that 1988 was the last real gasp for anime movies … it’s the year that both Akira and Totoro hit the screens to tumultuous responses. It didn’t disguise the fact, though, that the entire market was showing signs of collapse. The OVA tapes that once wouldn’t stay on the shelves were now doing so with annoying frequency, and suddenly everyone knew the party was over. When the biggest thing on television is Saint Seiya (an utterly forgettable quasi-shojo series with some interesting character design and a better than average color design), it becomes apparent that things are not good. Clearly it would take something quite extreme for the television industry at least to turn around. Fortunately, there was a company who could, and would, do just that.

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Saint Seiya

Gainax – A Different Approach to Production and Marketing

Gainax had long been treated by the Japanese anime industry at large with a bit of contempt … popular opinion held that they were a bunch of bohemian artists who had no business sense. Interestingly, this opinion is not far off: Gainax has succeeded the old fashioned way (no John Houseman, please): they created some of the most memorable shows ever made with frequently staggering technical skill. Rumor has it, though, that they made only a fraction of what they should have with the final products. Their “Gunbuster” is a parody of the Giant Robot genre, wonderfully paced and featuring a genuinely satisfying ending (It also features “Smith Toren” … Dark Horse’s Toren Smith, anyone? ). Their semi-autobiographical “Otaku no Video” (which has an almost invisible cameo of Lea Hernandez in it … more or less) stands as a film that probably could not be made in today’s bottom-line marketplace as it is almost decidedly anti-commercial, but is so entertaining that it’s probably illegal in several small Southern regions. Their “Wings of Honneamis” is a colossal film … one of the single greatest ever made, period. What do these guys do? They go to where the budgets are small, the work is hard, and the deadlines are impossible. They turn back to television. In the summer of 1990, as the Fourth Wave American fans were discovering anime through comic books and pirate (and even a few legitimate) videotapes, the Japanese market was being told a story about the late 1800’s. This new show would change everything. This new show was called Nadia.

Gainax

Nadia

Nadia and American Morals

Nadia

To say that Nadia was groundbreaking is an understatement. If you’ve never seen any of it, put this down and look someone up who’s got them. It’s best if you can see all 39 of them as the ending is quite wonderful (yes, it means that you’ve got to go through The Island episodes to get there), but take the phone off the hook when you get to the last four. If you’ve got no one near you who has them, get the two “perfect” volumes that are available from Orion/Streamline. While it’s only the first eight episodes (so far), you’ll get the tiniest idea of how good this show is. Unbelievably, it seems Gainax had trouble getting other people to take this project seriously, and finally turned to NHK (the government broadcasting agency) for help.

To be fair, it must have looked at the time to be a fairly difficult property to sell to many: here is a show with a VERY strong environmental message. It makes few concessions to Mankind’s nastier habits (for instance, Nadia herself is a vegetarian). This show was monster huge in 1991 … at AnimeCon, a convention IN THE US. Drawing impressive numbers of people to Silicon Valley from across the country, AnimeCon had two of the driving forces behind both Gainax Studios and Nadia in particular as guests. Many things happened at this convention past the obvious ones of people who had never met one another face to face … and one of those things was the fallout from Central Park Media’s announcement of Minna Agechau … and the media’s outrage regarding this “scandalous” title. That Minna Agechau (“I Give My All”) was a softcore title no one will doubt (still, it is a VERY tame softcore title). What is surprising is when the US media finally discovers anime, it is portrayed as the logical extreme of pornography.

With the LA Times leading the charge, Fox News arrives and proceeds to do an “exposé” on this new assault on American morals. Interviewing attendees at this convention did nothing to dispel the concept that this entire genre was filth. In the weeks leading up to the convention, pressure was put on Central Park Media and on Sony (the original creator of the show) to scrap the idea of this tape in the US market. Because of this, the title was pulled shortly before its release, and Dominion became the first release from this startup company. Of course, this did not spell the end for Central Park Media, who eventually spun off the Anime-18 label specializing in TRULY adult titles like Urotsuki Doji. It changed the way that many view the medium, but it didn’t stop AD Vision from entering the marketplace in 1992, and doing so with what could only be described as with an attitude. Their early releases (Devil Hunter Yohko, Sol Bianca) were the same sort of thing that Central Park Media was releasing for some time, but from the beginning it was clear that their product was going to be skirting the edge of accepted behavior very quickly.

It came as little surprise to anyone when they spun off their own division that specialized in some of the nastiest products ever brought to the market. Their Softcel line gained the reputation for releasing nothing but the worst … and their sales soared. Of the top selling titles at TRSI, fully a quarter of them are Softcel releases. Says a lot about the marketplace, doesn’t it?

Anime in the 90’s

In many ways, the anime world of 1991 was very different from the world of 1995 … and in others, it was very much the same. Once again, creativity largely seemed to lag when it came to groundbreaking design and execution. In short, there was a whole lot of nothing going on. For this, there were precious few excuses: the technology of animation had advanced tremendously in four years. Still, anime was largely rudderless as it floundered along; it was buoyed by only occasional huge successes that could almost have been accidental (like Macross Plus and Giant Robo, which were hits in every sense of the word).

Macross Plus

Giant Robo

Giant Robo

Once again, Gainax steps up to the plate and hits one out of the park with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Huge amounts of speculation began when it was announced that Gainax was working on something new, and it intensified when no details of the project were given. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that this thing had the potential to be huge. We’re talking Nadia huge. Maybe more. It was, therefore, with great anticipation that television channels were carefully scanned in the weeks leading up to the premiere (itself, quite low key). The art flashed on the screen. The music started. The opening credits ran. Everyone was hooked. Gainax was hitting on all the cylinders. Again. This is the sort of show that anime studios have dreams about … or nightmares, as the case may be if you’re someone other than Gainax. Creatures come down out of the sky. Okay. They’re “Angels”. Okay. They tell Mankind collectively to stop this Biotechnology stuff. Okay. And, to make things interesting, they start smashing cities. Big cities. Pancake flat … with no syrup to be found.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Five years later, things get really interesting, and the show turns into something that Gerry Anderson would be proud to put his name on. Movable underground buildings. Last Hope Of Humanity robots … with extension cords. Ordinary Guy Who Is The Scientist’s Son stuff, but this is (surprise) no ordinary boy. If you aren’t hooked in the first few minutes, you might want to check your pulse. And, the show just kept getting better … until the last episode. I have no intention to giving anything huge away, but many found it to be (tongue firmly in cheek) a bit of a disappointment. There is, of course, that old saw about the journey being the important part …

The US Anime Licensers

The US Anime licensers, naturally, hadn’t taken the failure of Minna Agechau to heart, nor had they been sitting on their rear ends during this time. US Renditions, Streamline and The Right Stuf International are quickly joined by Central Park Media, AnimEigo, AD Vision and a handful of others. Over time, the US market became moderately anime-aware as each month the back catalog got noticeably fatter. Slowly, “big” titles are brought over … that is, slowly at first and then faster as time went on. For years, it looked to some that the Japanese backlog was a bottomless pit where shows could be had for a song if you just had the right approach. Shows that you could release and make a significant return on your investment. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it’s plain that this was not to be the case forever.

21

Minna Agechau

While there are still some conspicuous holdout titles on the Japanese side, much of the product worth releasing has already been either released or is scheduled for release. And, what used to be a bargain has now turned expensive. Very expensive. Surely, some of this was due to the US currency as it dropped in value to about half of its 1980 levels, but as the raw supply shrank, bidding for the remaining product went up. Some companies who decided they wanted it all didn’t help, either. At the same time, sales for released titles began to drop. It is a case of a saturated market that we’re just beginning to feel now. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the way that US companies work started to be questioned. Some of the US anime innovators are shifting their focus (like AnimEigo, who is now working on Live Action product like the Lone Wolf and Cub series and US Renditions, who is experimenting with licensing anime CD’s) in an effort to maintain market share.

Central Park Media is changing their focus in another way: a great deal of effort appears to be going into dubbing most of their back catalog (AnimEigo has been doing this for some time), but for the first time there are titles appearing from them that are being released dubbed only. In fact, Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment have undertaken what might be the next logical step in the marketplace: US-Japanese co-productions. The early results have been quite interesting: CPM’s “MD Geist II” has nice character design as well as color design, and Manga Entertainment’s “Ghost in the Shell” is selling like crazy all over the US (For the record, it debuted on Billboard’s Top Ten, something unheard of for this small a market, good advertising or not!

MD Geist DVD.jpg

MD Geist

GITS1

Ghost in the Shell

As of this writing, it’s alleged to have actually hit number one, and is certainly closing on the biggest selling anime title thus far: Akira). The US anime industry could turn around easily with a big hit and a new flood of interest … or it could drop and take all but the biggest anime companies with it. Streamline Pictures, for example, signed a deal with Orion Home Video in 1995. By the middle of 1996, Carl Macek was out of the loop with Orion. There’s still a Streamline, but it isn’t doing anything new with anime anymore. And, the Castle Cagliostro film has been acquired by Manga Entertainment … one has to wonder if there are any more films that are going this way. Manga Entertainment itself went through a period early this year where a significantly reduced amount of product shipped (they’re back to full strength now). They have, however, announced their intentions of bringing out a subtitled version of Giant Robo shortly, and their release schedule is rapidly filling up. A part of the problem is certainly the implosion of the US comic book market, a problem which has gotten worse recently with Diamond buying Capital City Distribution. Comic shops all over the country closed and continue to close as the back issue market evaporated. While it isn’t the end, things could get very bad indeed.

So Is It All Over?

So, is it all over? Some companies are asking themselves that question now, and not liking the lack of answers. Personally, we think that we’re in a lull … the anime market in Japan has seen these in the past. This lull may only be a few months long. The Japanese economy could improve to a point where the budgets start to grow again, and more people get a shot at the brass ring. One of the US-Japan experiments could ignite the whole market, and I’m not saying that Ghost in the Shell won’t do it by itself. Currently in Japan, there is a new television show called Vision of Escaflowne (at least, that’s what most people call it … the Japanese title is slightly different), and it has a devoted following like Evangelion did before that last episode. The interest in this show is quite justified: the animation is absolutely beautiful (OVA quality or better) and it’s a weekly show. Bidding on this show is, as you might imagine, brisk in the US. We think we’ll be seeing this in the US before much longer, and hopefully on US television.

Vision of Escaflowne

With the Disney distribution deal for Miyazaki’s product, we’ll get to see Kiki’s Delivery Service (this really is quite a film, but it takes place in some alternate universe where EVERYONE is overly nice) released in the US with a real advertising budget as well as Porco Rosso. Laputa should finally show up on tape as well, and this is something that’s been missing for a lot of years. Expect many non-fans to look at these, and there will certainly be immediate converts once this happens. Hopefully, this will lead to a resurgence in Totoro sales for Fox (but … OF COURSE, you’re going to buy them through The Right Stuf International). Only one thing is for sure: as long as there is a US anime market (and there will be for some time yet), you’ll be able to buy your tape from TRSI.

It seems like the Des Moines office expands every few months or so and another person is added to work the phone bank (there will probably be another person added to our office staff by the time you read this). Halfway through the year, our sales were already approaching those of last year’s total sales. In fact, the order volume has grown so fast that a few US startup companies are trying to do what we do, and send out photocopied linelist (or incomplete … or both) catalogs (or pirate ours) with a less than total commitment to the medium. Don’t be fooled, though. At TRSI, we say the same thing we’ve been saying for years.

We’re different. We Care.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. vimitsu
    Feb 09, 2014 @ 16:09:57

    Interesting stuff. I’ve noticed that there are many things in the past that have had had a huge effect on the anime world – or the world in general, but we have forgotten. Thank you for reminding us about them.

    Like

    Reply

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