History of Anime in the US
Into the Pop Culture Mainstream
Many people who are discovering anime now think that there has never been as much mainstream exposure as there is now ... and would be mistaken. Sure, you can go into almost any video store and get the OVA-of-the-week and you couldn't before. You can pick up mainstream gaming and comic magazines and read about the new anime releases and you couldn't do that before, either. There's even the odd release popping up on the Science Fiction channel, too. Otherwise normal people are starting to talk about things like Tenchi Muyo and Akira ... there's even an Anime tape club advertised on television! Still, the influence over pop culture pales when you look back about a little more than 30 years. Surprised? Can you get 10% of the average people you meet (over 40) to hum a current anime theme song?
Astroboy in 1964
When Astro Boy showed up on US television in 1964, nothing like it had ever been seen in the US. This is only fair ... nothing like it had ever been seen in Japan, either. What Osamu Tezuka created was something unique ... and people all over the world knew it immediately.
Of course, we need to thank more than Dr. Tezuka for Astro Boy ... we need to thank an American named Fred Ladd as well. Someone who knew the US syndication market very well in the 1960's, Fred saw Tetsuwan Atomu for what it was and with a little help from NBC turned it into something huge. Before almost all current fans were born, the US was being turned upside down by this little robot boy. His computer mind was powerful and his atomic heart showed none of the horror which had been visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few decades earlier. He was an unstoppable force for good, though he was sorely tested many times through his adventures.
What might also be surprising to many US fans is that even in the 1960's there was a sizable outcry over television shows that made people think and treated cartoon characters like they might be human. Vocal displeasure from some pressure groups increased slowly, and it became apparent that when the (rather dramatic) end of Astroboy appeared in Japan it would never be shown in the US. That's a story in itself though, and one that will have to wait for another time.
Gigantor, Speed, Kimba & Simba
So here we are, the mid Sixties, and we've got this Astro Boy thing. Very shortly afterward, a giant robot show called Gigantor (Tetsujin 28) shows up. Then, a robotic crimefighter called Tobor (The Eighth Man) appears. Then, a show about a boy who is as at home underwater as above (Marine Boy). We're not talking about something that showed in maybe two markets way outside the mainstream here ... we're talking nationwide syndication and people were eating it up. As we came to the end of the sixties, Speed Racer popped up, and little boys went nuts. Here's a show with fast cars and a daring driver, who happens to have a little brother and his pet monkey who frequently stows away in the trunk. While it was tamed for the US market, we've got certainly fatal car crashes and some painful looking stunts going on.
While there was a capable female in the series who isn't spending all of her time in the kitchen cooking for the boys, it didn't have all that much going for the girls. There was, however, a show that did ... it was called Kimba. No, it didn't have sailor suited highschool students battling crime or things like that. It starred a little boy lion, destined to become the leader of the jungle, his female counterpart, and a series of bizarre supporting animal characters. His distinctive black tipped ears and white coat became almost as recognizable as Astro Boy's asymmetrical head, and influenced the way that stories would be told in the future.
Why did girls like this? Simple, here was a powerful character driven storyline that sometimes went over the top but even slow episodes had enough emotional impact to affect almost anyone. For most of these girls who are women now, only isolated images of the show remain ... half forgotten fragments and scenes. The reason? The show is not available on videotape in the original form. This is due primarily to a series of legal problems both in Japan and the US. One day, we desperately hope that these will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction and the show will surface to inspire a whole new generation of people.
There is, of course, a new Jungle Emperor feature film that Tezuka Pro just finished for the Japanese market (which is rumored to tell the last part of the story ... which didn't make it into any of the previous versions), and that'll probably show people a thing or two. If you can't wait, of course, I'd say that you should track down a copy of the manga and find what REALLY happens (it's surprising ... and perfect). Of course, one can't mention Kimba the White Lion anymore without also touching on a certain Disney film from a little while back which "officially" has no similarity to the Osamu Tezuka tale of Africa.
The similarities are striking to say the least, both on the surface and deep in the stories. The Disney lawyers have repeatedly and with emphasis stated that neither their film nor their animators were influenced by Kimba ... a position that is interesting when the Kimba series is viewed and entire scenes are present. Sure, it's possible that it's all one huge coincidence ... it's just about as likely as the Van Allen belt catching fire, buxom furry female aliens landing in Central Park (not that anyone would notice), and Jesse Helms discovering that God really DID speak through Donna Summer records played backwards all in the next five minutes. Maybe slightly less so. In case you're counting, it's 5:04:25 AM EDT.
The Star Blazing 70's
In the 1970's, another wave of anime swept through the US. While it didn't have the same sort of cultural impact that the first one did, it's far closer to most fans. It began with the (primarily East Coast) phenomena of Star Blazers (Yamato), although in some markets the influence of Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman) was even more pronounced. These two series, arriving fairly close together in the US, took two different routes in their Americanization: Star Blazers was frequently dead on accurate when it came to plotlines and dialogue.
For those of you who are wondering, the Japanese equivalent of the Earth saving "Cosmo DNA" was even MORE inane in the Japanese version so we can't blame Westchester Films for that one. There were cuts in the second episode (where the US Navy sinks the Yamato and we see its gallant crew fighting off those evil Grummans and such) and some others, but for the most part the show arrived here intact. Dialogue, of course, was altered to reflect the West's perceived backlash against the entire crew of the Yamato drinking Sake during critical events, and the entire suicide-mission aspect of the story was significantly toned down. Still, the strength of the original shines through in those first two series: they're still a treat to watch today.
Battle of the Planets
Battle of the Planets, on the other hand, was made to conform to the perceived US market much more closely with judicious editing. To be fair, the original probably wouldn't have been able to run on regular US television at the time without those cuts as the show itself is quite violent. There is a lot of punching, kicking and bleeding to death present here, so a few minutes are added to each one to offset the cuts with the addition of 7-Zark-7 (who many take as a personal insult): he's not in the original Japanese program at all! The cities are not evacuated before this-weeks-bug-monster attacks, or are those cities anywhere other than on Earth itself.
Probably the biggest change for the US conversion is the fact that the show DOES have a very definite ending ... one member of the team (who is dying anyway of an incurable illness) stops the doomsday clock seconds before the Earth would have been destroyed. The number of seconds remaining on the face of that doomsday clock is his number in the Gatchaman team. He then dies happy to have saved everything and the rest of the team comes apart. Not only that, but Berg Katse (Zoltar) meets his/her end only minutes before.
The Battle of the Planets adaptation was not as successful as it should have been (only some of that first season was adapted for the US market), and there was another attempt some time later when the show resurfaced as G-Force. While much of the violence was back in it, the dub itself was generally less satisfactory and the show again sank to be seen today on cable only. As with Star Blazers, enough of the original brilliance shows through to give the average US fan a taste of what this was like, and it influenced many people on this side of the ocean ... people who were beginning to discover that they weren't alone when they ran into each other at SF conventions. From the US fan's perspective, the biggest problem the show really had at the time was the lack of printed books covering it. Unlike Yamato, there are only a few difficult to get (even then!) works.
As the years went by, these books became more and more difficult to obtain until today when they're almost impossible to find for less than $75 (and they're not all that nice). The reason for these books not surfacing the way that the Yamato books did was, of course, that Yamato followed Gatchaman and Yamato revolutionized the way that anime was perceived in Japan. Don't believe me? Try to find coverage for Speed Racer (Mach Go-Go-Go!), which also preceded Yamato. Today, even though the golden age of artbooks has past, some of the neatest things that one can find on a series, creator, or movie/OVA is probably a $35 book. Some of these are quite elaborate, and in one extreme example, is more expensive than a laserdisc of the program itself (Macross Movie Laserdisc = 7800 Yen, Macross Movie "Gold" Movie Book = 8800 Yen)! But, I digress.
U.S. Adaptation and Syndication
The "conversion" of Gatchaman to the US market was something that was more the rule than the exception for a very long time, and to some extent is still being done today. It was postulated (correctly?) that the mass US public would not accept something that was created for the Japanese market in anything other than a humorous way. The Godzilla adaptations in the 1960's and 1970's "proved" this point time and again.
When Family Home Entertainment tested the waters with their Captain Harlock adaptation, the dubbing was only sometimes accurate and the entire production had drained away what made this such a good show in the first place. The second volume of the set is even worse than the first, if that's possible. Mercifully, there is a not third volume. However, this was about the only way people (other than maybe a double handful on either coast of the US) were seeing anime. It is in this context that Robotech was born.
The syndication market in the US in the 1980's had a few rules ... one of the big ones was the minimum number of episodes a series had to contain for it to be considered. With the phenomenal success of Macross TV in Japan, it was inevitable that someone in America would take notice (and that someone was Carl Macek), but the show had one big obstacle in the US: it was only 36 episodes long. With a show the likes of which were not shown in the US, Harmony Gold (actually, Carl) came up with an idea: cut together two other series, and rewrite the hell out of it so that a single series could be made from it. That the final product was very successful in the marketplace is a tribute to how well thought out the concept was. With his reputation secure, Carl struck out on his own, and thus was born Streamline. Carl Macek felt that his adaptation of existing materials into a new product was superior to the Japanese versions. Thus, very unusual combinations like the Captain Harlock/Queen Millennia amalgam were formed.
Early US Anime Availability
For a long time, if you were a fan of those Japanese cartoons, you were probably a member of the Books Nippon Japanese Animation Fan Club ... or you knew someone who was. In this way, you could get at least some information about the movies and shows you were interested in, albeit somewhat slowly. If there was a powerhouse in the 1970's and 1980's, this was it. For those of you who don't believe this, witness the fact that when later editions of the Macross Perfect Memory book arrived in the stores, a card was bound into the spine. This (non postage paid) postcard basically offered this excellent Japanese TV series reference book TRANSLATED into English.
While it was never actually printed, it was originally solicited in 1987 (the same time that The Right Stuf International was formed) ... well before the market was to change in the US. It therefore came as little surprise when the company (the division in question was called US Renditions ... literally, a US version of a Japanese title) announced with a bit of a flourish that they were going to be distributing anime VHS tapes in the US. What DID come as somewhat of a surprise was that there was another company (calling itself AnimEigo) which was beginning to do the same thing. These tapes were different than that which had previously surfaced in the US market ... both companies seemed to be committed to releasing the Japanese product with accurate translations, subtitled, and at a price much lower than the Japanese import versions. Before you laugh at the lower price part, yes: a $40 copy of MADOX-01 was actually significantly cheaper than the Import version.
The Early US Companies
Word has it that AnimEigo approached a venture capital company in Manhattan for help in negotiating their early deals. This company, run by an ex-executive from Sony Video, had significant contacts in Japan and therefore was a natural for this kind of work. The next surprise, however, came when a new division of this company (US Manga Corps) formed and announced that it too was going to enter the US anime market. The fates, however, were not kind to US Manga Corps early on ... a US version of Minna Agechau (I Give My All) was to have been the first release from the company. Debuting this product at AnimeCon 1991, USMC was besieged with news crews all wanting to know about this new wave of "Japanese Pornography".
There were probably more pictures taken of the Minna Agechau box (and the pink Sony paper panties that were included) than of any other aspect of this groundbreaking event. Fox TV news and the LA Times certainly did no one a favor with their coverage: pressure backed up the line and became intolerable to Sony US. In a negotiated deal, all copies of this title were purchased by the original licensor and were presumedly destroyed (Still, it would be interesting if copies of this title were to see the light of day). That it's Shakespeare no one will claim, but it's interesting to see what all the fuss was about. And, no one can doubt that it's tamer than many general circulation titles are now.
US Anime Releases During the 90's
As the Nineties dawned, so too anime in the US began to come into its own. In very short order the first true anime convention took place in America (AnimeCon '91), CPM/USMC was releasing anime, AnimEigo was releasing anime, US Renditions was releasing anime, Streamline was releasing anime (Right Stuf was releasing Astro Boy) ... in short it was almost everything that any fan at the time was looking for. There were only a few problems: first, the dollar dropped about half of its value against the Yen effectively making all the books twice as expensive in a matter of months. Second, while the US companies were gobbling up titles the release schedule was not what many would call expedient. Third, hard information was difficult to come by (outside of the few US magazines and some brave souls who were learning Japanese), much was largely conjecture.
Remember, outside of people at Universities having an Internet account around this time was a rarity. Most of the information being distributed was coming either from a few big BBS's, or from a translator named Sue Shambaugh (sometimes both at the same time ... a situation that was most disturbing to her!). If you didn't own a personal computer and a modem, you spent your $3 and Sue would send you a neatly typed and photocopied script. Most people took these and flipped the pages while watching the program in question (one reason why earlier generation fans prefer subtitles almost to a person), but for some the way was clear. Then, as now, a small group of people owned a particular computer built (and basically disowned) by Commodore Business Machines, and with some relatively inexpensive addons could subtitle on their own. Of course, since even with this hardware and available scripts, it was a bit of work for a finished product so only the person's favorite stuff would be so treated. Even then, there were logistical problems getting a watchable copy of what you wanted (particularly if you didn't live on one of the Coasts). Enter the tape traders.
Fans, Fansubs, and J.A.I.L.E.D.
Even before anime was becoming mainstream in the early 1990's (yes, I know that's a bit of an overstatement), small pockets of fans were beginning to form. As early as the mid 1970's, people were getting together with huge bulky video machines and watching the stuff that was broadcast on Japanese TV. Eventually, chapters of the first California-only organization (The Cartoon Fantasy Organization ... most of us thought it was a terrible name even then) started in other cities in the US (the first real one was started in Philadelphia by Bill Thomas, with another chapter forming shortly afterward in Chicago).
This organization exists today only as a single chapter, largely due to political in-fighting (that's a whole different story ... one that perhaps I'll write one day), and the same is true of the other national clubs. After the dissolution of the club structure, these pockets of fans were on their own. Since tape was something generally pretty difficult to come by, it only made sense to pool resources. When the scripts and the Amiga came along, some people at least were able to watch (sometimes surprisingly professional) "fansubs". These were generally pretty freely distributed within the community, but the problems arose when you lived somewhere that was more than about 50 miles from one of the trading repositories. While there were (and still are) bigger groups who copied stuff and mailed it out, for the most part people were reduced to dealing with some occasionally unsavory people who set up at SF conventions and charged around $15 for a tape.
Many people today felt that these people did nothing to help popularize anime in the US, but those people ignore the facts: many of the second and third wave fans got their first real taste of anime by paying some money and picking up one of these fansub tapes. While there's a lot less reason today to buy such tapes, some still do (mostly on tv series that have not yet been picked up by a US distributor, or on movies/OVAs which are very new). The US companies knew full well that these people existed (some even had quite extensive databases of them), but pretty much turned a blind eye toward them unless they were selling an unlicensed copy of a licensed product. For a long time, all they did was watch ... but that wasn't going to last forever.
Fearing that a significant percentage of sales were being lost everyday to these tape pirates, a consortium of US anime companies (lead by CPM/USMC) created something which struck fear into the hearts of tape traders and fans alike around the country: JAILED. This (J)apanese (A)nimation (I)ndustry (L)egal (E)nforcement (D)ivision consisted of a lawyer on retainer and a tipline with which people could be anonymously reported. Whether this actually impacted tape piracy is today a hotly debated issue, as is the actual amount of sales lost to this practice: there were some people who were contacted (no fans, though) and there was at least one seizure of pirated videotape. VIZ, even though they were a member of JAILED, took tape piracy and fansubbing very personally.
This eventually led to a kind of a backlash against their product by some in the community, but the VIZ position was eventually softened to embrace the less restrictive positions of the other US companies (mostly this applied to conventions who wanted to show both VIZ products and fansubs of other titles). Most US conventions have since enforced De Facto bans on non licensed tapes in their dealers rooms, so largely this issue is pretty much moot anyway. To be fair, with acquisition costs soaring (particularly guaranteed minimums) each of these titles represents a huge investment on a company's part. By the time the US production work is completed most totals reach far into the six figure range ... in fact, there is at least one US property which has gone well into 7 digits. Several titles with similar pricetags exist, but have not been picked up in the US (for very good reason: those numbers almost certainly preclude making any sort of profit). In this light, it's easy to see why some of those "missing" titles have yet to be officially released in this market!
Who Released What and Why?
Each of these new US anime companies (more seem to form every year, despite the dwindling amount of material yet to bereleased) have (with few exceptions) at least one or two things that make them unique ... a property that demonstrates their focus. While most of US Renditions' catalog has gone over to Manga Entertainment, their title would probably be Dangaio ... demonstrating both their interest in multivolume OVAs and the interest in the unusual (and very interesting) from GAINAX. Had they continued to aggressively pursue video releases, the battle over Evangelion would have been quite interesting. They're currently doing very well releasing US pressings of import anime soundtrack CD's. Streamline, of course, has to be Robotech (Carl's true calling) and Akira ... both strong sellers. Streamline Entertainment, over the years, acquired some of the biggest name shows and almost to an SKU released them dubbed only. With their catalog mostly in MGM's hands (and currently, on moratorium) the fate of Nadia and a few other very significant titles are in limbo as of this writing.
Central Park Media
Central Park Media/US Manga Corps had an early misstep with Minna Agechau (discussed above), but with followups like Dominion, Project AKo and Gall Force that problem was quickly erased. Perhaps more than most companies, CPM's various divisions have released some of the biggest and most popular shows yet .. and also some which are not quite up to the same standards. It's expected when you consider the huge volume that they've released thus far ... they're not all going to be like Lodoss Wars. If a single CPM title is to be picked, it would probably be Project AKo ... safe, funny, very good stuff.
Recently, CPM's release of Toshinden has done remarkably well for them. Their Anime-18 division (literally formed for this title) is of course perfectly illustrated with the now infamous Urotsuki Doji series. Urotsuki Doji (and Toshio Maeda's later creations like Adventure Kid and Demon Beast Invasion ... also Anime-18 releases) tend to be quite violent toward women. Software Sculptors, with the exception of a few months, has been a part of CPM (now that the original president has formed another company) and is openly a division of that larger group. They've had two big representative shows: Here is Greenwood and the original Slayers TV series. Their products were (and are) more offbeat than the mainstream CPM product (they weren't afraid to risk a TV series .. something that CPM themselves seemed unwilling to do at the time). Slayers, of course, turned into the big success story for them ... it's said that it was a big surprise for everyone when this got the reception that it did. More on Slayers later on.
Manga Entertainment was already successful in the UK when CPM made a co-prosperity deal with them to assist in acquisitions ... a good idea if ever there was one. It's said that CPM got access to and information on the dubbing process (which it went full tilt into almost immediately afterward) and Manga UK got a crack at some new titles. After a short time, Manga entered the US market on its own. To pick a single title for Manga is easy: Ghost in the Shell. This monstrously expensive project, along with others like Macross Plus, Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamis and Giant Robo, demonstrated for the entire market that these guys are serious when it comes to sales. Aggressively priced and marketed vigorously, Manga titles are everywhere. While they've been quiet lately (releasing the old US Renditions catalog and Street Fighter II TV), we're sure that they've got something big in the works.
Speaking of companies which have been quiet lately, perhaps the most notable is AnimEigo. One of the early adopters of subtitled anime, AnimEigo will forever be linked to two big projects: Bubblegum Crisis/Crash/AD Police and the Urusei Yatsura TV series. While the Bubblegum set ended a while back (yes, there IS a new TV series in the works, but it's anyone's guess who will wind up with it), the Urusei Yatsura series still continues to be released (at a few volumes a year). There was a moratorium on the TV series earlier on this year, but according to sources within the company the license period has been extended so more will be shipping.
AnimEigo is an interesting company, releasing both shows which were immensely popular and others with limited appeal (that doesn't mean they're not great ones, though. Just that most people won't get them). There aren't too many other companies which would take a chance on something like Scramble Wars or Otaku no Video. Perhaps more interesting when it comes to AnimEigo is the fact that they have released NO adult product, unlike many other companies. According to its president, it has a lot to do with the percentage of women who work there. Currently, they're concentrating on their live action series of releases.
In 1992, a small two-man operation began releasing subtitled tapes to a very small (but very hungry) group of fans in the US. In an industry that was at that time mostly dominated by giant fighting robot shows, such as Gigantor, and space operas such as Battle of the Plants and Star Blazers, ADV broke all the rules. Straight out of the gate their first release was the anime horror classic Devil Hunter Yohko. ADV followed Yohko by releasing a string of eclectic titles over the years, such as the raunchy comedy Golden Boy, the charming shoujo sports anime Princess Nine, and the psychological and intellectual thriller Neon Genesis Evangelion, just to name a few.
Since their initial releases the company has grown rapidly with a diverse product line. Reaching beyond anime, the company has expanded into live-action sci-fi titles like Farscape and Gene Roddenberry's Andromeda.
Unlike other companies which create an adult label after they became established, Media Blasters began releasing adult product first (on its Kitty label). Formed by the former head of Software Sculptors, the adult product released by them is for the most part pretty nasty stuff (including such things as Orchid Emblem). They've not been releasing product long enough for them to have a single "typical" release, though.
Pioneer's Animation Division
A company which has been in business for some time, though, is Pioneer. A branch of the monstrous LDCA (LaserDisc Corporation of America), Pioneer's animation division scored huge early on with the almost unknown Tenchi Muyo OVA set. These quickly became standards in the industry, and with Pioneer's willingness to advertise and their commitment to Laserdisc (hardly surprising considering their lineage), this quickly landed this program on most fans "must see" lists. Although they've also released other very interesting stuff like El Hazard, Armitage III, and are now actively releasing (and promoting) Dragonball Z, they seem destined to be remembered for the Tenchi set. There are worse things to be remembered for, though.
VIZ, Shogakukan, & Urban Vision
We now come to a pair of companies which are either managed by or have ties to larger Japanese groups. First is VIZ, with strong links to Shogakukan: the property that they'll forever be remembered for is one that's typical ... Ranma 1/2. This series along with OVA's and movies has been shipping for some time now, and probably will continue for at least the foreseeable future (so far, all the OVA's and movies are out ... but the TV series ran for something like 140 episodes so there are still quite a few to go). Also with a strong Japanese connection is the newcomer Urban Vision ... but one has to get past the idea that they're part of AD Vision (they're not ... any more than Kitty Media is part of the Japanese Kitty Enterprises). Urban Vision, including a former Streamline employee, is functioning at this time largely as a releasing division for Madhouse (a Japanese producer of anime). While they have only a few titles available in the marketplace so far, the quality of their dubs is surprisingly high and they seem committed to releasing product as subs as well. Good things may well come from these guys as time goes on, but they too haven't been around long enough to come up with a single release which is typical.
The Right Stuf
Still, no listing on anime companies would be complete without mentioning ourselves. For many years, Right Stuf, Inc. has been identified with what some categorize as "classic anime" ... things like Astro Boy, Gigantor, Eighth Man. We've done a few interesting things since that, of course, like Tezuka's "Legend of the Forest" and the Inomata "Leda: Fantastic Adventure of Yohko", but most still think of us as the company that releases Astro Boy. That might change, though, as volumes of our "Irresponsible Captain Tylor" start to ship.