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The History of Anime in the USA: The 1990s

The History of Anime in the USA: The 1990s

-Written by: Lisa Marie Cooper

Anime has long captured the interests of not just the Japanese but people around the world. In this three-part series, I’ll be focusing on anime’s history in one region in particular: the United States. Anime has been exported to the US since its beginnings in the early 1900s, and the genre has proven commercially successful overseas for just as long. But while Americans have always gone gaga for anime, the trajectory of anime in the US splits from Japan’s in some interesting and unique ways. We’ll start with the decade its popularity truly began to explode: the 1990s.

VHS Opens the Doors

Anime has been broadcast and distributed in the United States since it was first made for TV, going all the way back to NBC’s partnership with Tezuka and MushiPro to air Astro Boy. In the late ‘80s and throughout the ‘90s, however, the number of American anime licensors and distributors greatly increased. There were many reasons for this – not least of which was Japan’s own anime boom – but the biggest one was the newfound ease of distribution via VHS and the proliferation of cable networks.

Prior to VHS, Betamax, and cable TV, distributing a series meant either broadcasting it on one of very few TV network channels or shipping reels to a film house or collector. Furthermore, reels for home use were often cut to fit on just one reel, significantly shortening run times – sometimes to as few as two minutes! The proliferation of VCRs and the ready availability of VHS tapes, however, meant smaller companies could get in the game and many did. (Sorry, Betamax.)

Most American companies distributing anime today have their roots in that expansion of media distribution and access. Almost all “new” American anime companies created since then have been established anime companies reinventing themselves (Sentai Filmworks) or Japanese companies looking to expand their American reach (Aniplex of America, NIS America). Discotek, of course, is the exception that proves the rule.

New Companies, Part 1

If you listen to industry people talk about the founding of these original companies, one thing you’ll notice is that while everyone came into the industry in a different way, they all had one thing in common: a love for anime and a desire to share it with the world. Most also had a profound lack of certainty about what they were doing. It may look strange in hindsight – how could these established companies not have started out with clear game plans? – but that’s how it goes when you’re doing something no one’s done before. Each company was innovating in a different space and connecting with different parts of the industry.

Saban Entertainment was a dominant force in anime on television during the ‘80s and they continued to license titles throughout the ‘90s. Dubbed and edited to suit their audience of American children (and network S&P rules), Saban was involved with the production of shows ranging from Samuari Pizza Cats to Dragonball Z (with Funimation and Pioneer) and Digimon. If you saw an anime title back then and didn’t realize it was from Japan, it was probably a Saban release.

Nearly forgotten today is U.S. Renditions, launched in 1987 as a spin-off of Books Nippan, which was itself the American branch of a Japanese book company. USR is notable for releasing subtitled anime in America at a time when most companies (both Japanese and American) were convinced anime needed an Americanized dub to be commercially viable. In fact, they just beat AnimEigo to putting out the first commercial subtitled American anime release. Gunbuster Volume 1 and Dangaioh volume 1 came out early in 1990 and retailed at a quite-reasonable-for-the-era $34.95. Unfortunately, USR folded the same time Books Nippan did mid-decade. As is the norm for the anime industry, the best assets (both in terms of licenses and employees) would later find homes at other anime companies.

Another early company, I’m proud to say, was The Right Stuf International. Right Stuf was founded in 1987 and released its first Astro Boy tape in 1989. Hopefully you’ve heard of them? The company built on its initial success with more classic anime, then expanded their catalog in the late ‘90s with a (still-ongoing) policy of licensing hidden gems like The Irresponsible Captain Tylor. As was the case with several other American anime companies of the time, it also released adult animation under a separate label, Critical Mass.

Not far behind Right Stuf were AnimEigo and Streamline, both founded in 1988. In fact, because Right Stuf didn’t put out their first Astro Boy tape until ’89, it’s only fair to point out the other two companies released their debut titles first.

AnimEigo, founded by Robert Woodhead in 1988, made a name for itself with faithful translations and extensive liner notes devoted to explaining as much about their titles as possible. The company was less than two months behind USR in the quest to release the first subtitled anime in America, with MADOX-01 in the spring of 1990. Their release of Urusei Yatsura is notable for being the first “long-runner” (195 episodes!) to be licensed and released subtitled in its entirety. (They finally finished in 2006, by then releasing the series on DVD.) AnimEigo is still going today, but now mostly focuses on live-action Japanese movies, including a half-dozen versions of the 47 Samurai.

Streamline, founded by Robotech’s Carl Macek in 1988, initially only distributed anime films to theaters. However, Streamline soon began producing and releasing anime on video as well. Their first anime VHS release in 1990 made a huge splash: Akira, still a staple of the genre today and a masterpiece of animation. Streamline’s dubs were somewhat controversial, not just for their Americanizations but because Streamline generally did not release subtitled versions of their licenses at all. However, their releases sold very well, and it’s worth noting Macek insisted on always using members of the Screen Actor’s Guild instead of cheaper, non-union voice actors.

Central Park Media (aka US Manga Corps, Software Sculptors, Anime 18) was founded in 1990 by John O'Donnell. Many in the industry credit CPM with breaking down retail barriers and taking anime mainstream – or at least, mainstream enough to get a section at Blockbuster. The company would go on to release a little bit of everything: obscure OVAs, hits like The Slayers (‘95) and Revolutionary Girl Utena (‘98), infamous adult titles (Urotsukudoji basically kicked off the “all anime is tentacle porn” perception in ‘93), Studio Ghibli’s tear-inducing Grave of The FireFlies , and even manga, live-action movies, and screensavers. CPM was also the first American anime company to release anime on LaserDisc and, later, DVD and downloadable video.

Manga Entertainment was a British company founded as a branch of music company Island Records in 1991. It was spun off into its own company in 1993 and moved its headquarters to the US. With the backing of Island, Manga was able to do something most American anime companies of the time couldn’t: advertise. They cut initial promotional deals with Tower Records, MTV, and the Sci-Fi channel, then later Suncoast, Best Buy, and Blockbuster. Releases like Fist of the North Star (’91), Ninja Scroll (’95), and Ghost in the Shell (’96) made Manga an action-movie powerhouse.

Incidentally, Manga, an anime company which did not make books, was also notable for confusing customers and service representatives for years, especially as the manga scene blew up in the early ‘00s.

A.D. Vision was founded in 1992 by John Ledford, Matt Greenfield, and David Williams. They were (and technically still are) one of the most successful American anime companies. They had a wide range of titles in their catalog, including the first two seasons of Sailor Moon, but for a long time ADV was best known for its release of Neon Genesis Evangelion – and for gags like including a Jiggle Counter™ as a DVD extra. (The ™ isn’t a joke; they really trademarked it.) Like CPM, ADV would dip its toe in many facets of the industry, including adult releases (under the label SoftCel), manga, magazines, and soundtracks. Fun fact: A.D. Vision never publicly stated what the AD stood for, but industry rumor was that it was simply a pun: “A Division.”

And that’s just until ’92! Let’s take a break from the endless list of ‘90s American anime companies and talk about something that used to be incredibly controversial: subs and dubs.

The Sub vs Dub Wars

The debate has largely died down over the years thanks to the advent of DVDs, but your position on dubs versus subs (that is, anime dubbed into English versus subtitled with Japanese audio) used to be a hill you chose and died on. After all, if you were collecting eight or more tapes per series (VHS was limited to two hours per tape), you sure didn’t want to double that just to have a choice in audio. That’s assuming, of course, a choice was even available.

Some titles were only available dubbed into English, as sales generally favored dubs. This was especially true for theatrically released movies or series shown on TV. Subtitled tapes, much to fans’ indignation, often cost more than the dubbed releases because they sold fewer copies – though some fans would hotly declare that the reason was strictly demand…for the subs. The reasoning, as they had it, was companies knew “true” fans would pay more for subtitled releases and charged accordingly. Take it from an industry insider: as soon as anime companies could still make money while charging less, they did. Speaking of expensive options, you actually could get both English and Japanese in one release at the time – provided you had a LaserDisc player. LaserDiscs were capable of much higher video quality than VHS – some shows released on Blu-ray today are actually remastered from ‘90s LaserDiscs – and they often included extras like multiple audio tracks and bonus videos. But a LaserDisc player was more expensive than a VCR and you couldn’t use it to record media at home. Most fans couldn’t justify the extra cost.

The fans were right about one thing, though: their dedication to anime not only kept the industry going but encouraged more and more companies to get in the game and bring over more and more titles. Their evangelism also increased subtitle acceptance. One remnant of the subs vs dubs war lingers on, however: translations. Specifically, how literal they should be, and whether they should be different for subtitled and dubbed releases.

There are two main schools of thought when it comes to not only anime translations but translating in general: literal versus interpretive. A literal translation, as the name implies, translates the audio as literally as possible. An interpretive translation plays things a little looser. This especially comes up with jokes. A pun that works in Japanese might be substituted with an English one, or a reference to a Japanese politician might be changed to one American viewers would be more familiar with.

Dubbing presents a further challenge: how much effort should be made to match the “lip flaps” (movements of characters’ mouths)? Even if the dialog isn’t made to match the lip flaps exactly, it still needs to fit into the amount of time the character is talking on screen, perhaps with some time allowed for fudging if the speaking character leaves the shot.

Generally, subtitled releases have more literal translations and dubbed translations have more interpretive ones. In a subtitled release, the puns can be heard and understood, and when you’re actively hearing the name of a Japanese politician, it’s odd to read an American name. Dubs, meanwhile, intended for mass audiences and dealing with the lip-flap problem (and, if intended for broadcast on television, censorship), often use what sounds good (literally). But this created yet another controversy: “dubtitles.”

A “dubtitle” is using the script for the dub as the subtitle track instead of creating a separate translation. Fans expecting a literal translation only to get an interpretive one or, worse, a censored one, are not usually happy. Dubtitles can’t even serve as closed captions as they don’t include captions for sound effects, background music, and other bits of audio that don’t need translating but do need to be written out for those who can’t hear. In short, dubtitles are a compromise that pleases no one.

All of these considerations shaped releases, prices, and marketing campaigns throughout the ‘90s. Some have lingered even into the DVD/Blu-ray era, though most established companies are now well-aware of translation pitfalls and fan preferences. What controversies still remain are largely small-scale and will likely be with us for a long time: subtitle color, whether to translate on-screen text, and the use of honorifics. (Maria Watches Over Us was actually released with two tracks, one with honorifics and one without, just to get around the issue and please everyone).

New Companies, Part 2

By the mid-nineties, this anime thing was really catching on. Companies were jumping into the fray left and right; some with industry connections, some without. For the purposes of this article, I have excluded companies which focused exclusively on adult releases. Know, however, that they did exist and make money.

Manga company Viz Communications (now Viz Media) was founded in 1986 and in the early ‘90s launched Viz Video. Their ’93 release of Ranma 1/2 (another long-runner by Rumiko Takahashi) was an unqualified success. In ’95 they followed it up with another anime adaption of her works, Maison Ikkoku. If you attended an American anime club in the mid-‘90s and didn’t watch a Rumiko Takahashi show, you’re frankly a liar. Ranma ½ established a pattern for Viz they continue today of licensing a few but popular long-running hits.

Pioneer Entertainment (aka Geneon) was an American offshoot of Japanese electronics company Pioneer. Among many other technologies the company pioneered (get it?) was the LaserDisc. Wherever possible, Pioneer relied on their tech background to provide jitter-free video (using CAV instead of CLV on their LaserDisc releases) and clear audio. Their first release was Tenchi Muyo: Ryo-Ohki on LaserDisc for the same price as an average anime VHS tape – and it was bilingual! The Tenchi franchise would be an ongoing hit for the company for the next decade.

Pioneer released VHS versions of their titles as well, but the LaserDisc releases were where they really stood out before the advent of DVD. Pioneer would also get into the anime soundtrack business, releasing soundtracks not just for their own titles but most other American anime companies. When Pioneer’s parent company was bought in 2003 and renamed Geneon in Japan, the US company followed suit.

Funimation was founded in 1994 by Gen Fukunaga. The company’s first project, landed thanks to Fukunaga’s uncle at Toei, was so big Funimation needed help from other companies releasing it: Dragon Ball and Dragon Ball Z. The series first hit airwaves in ‘96 with the production assistance of Pioneer, Saban, and Ocean. To say that DBZ was a hit is a huge understatement. It was the most popular show on Cartoon Network for six months straight in ‘98. Dragon Ball and its spinoffs would be Funimation’s bread and butter for some time – their next big hit, Yu Yu Hakusho, wouldn’t be released until 2002.

Urban Vision is now mostly a footnote in the history of anime. It was founded in 1996 by Mataichiro Yamamoto and was best known for Vampire Hunter D and Golgo 13. They would later release live-action films. Unfortunately, it’s always been difficult to get American theaters to screen non-American movies, so their theatrical distribution was largely limited to film festivals.

Disney should need no introduction. While in no way an anime company, Disney is notable for striking a deal in 1996 for the majority of the Studio Ghibli library. (Some titles, like Grave of The FireFlies, were not included as they had already been licensed.) Famously, Hayao Miyazaki, tired of the way his films had been treated by localizers, sent Disney subsidiary Miramax a katana sword and the message “no cuts.” Their first release was Kiki's Delivery Service in 1998.

MediaBlasters (aka Anime Works, Kitty Media, Tokyo Shock), founded in 1997 by John Sirabella, was another “little bit of everything” company. The biggest of their non-adult early offerings were Magic Knights Rayearth (’99) and Rurouni Kenshin (’00). Later ventures would include manga and increasingly lurid international live-action titles. Media Blasters, like CPM, was among the first companies to look seriously into licensing BL (boy’s love) titles and has made a name for itself in the yuri (girl’s love) anime space.

4Kids Entertainment dates back to the ‘70s and never licensed very many anime titles, but to say its first license was huge is to grossly understate the case. Pokémon absolutely exploded on the scene in 1998, and everyone spent years looking for the next big hit like it. (Nothing ever came close, though DBZ tried.) 4Kids would later acquire several other anime titles, most notably Yu-Gi-Oh in 2001. Unlike other American anime companies, 4Kids was primarily focused on TV programming, not video distribution. The company was responsible for several different children’s programming blocks over the years, including CW4Kids/Toonzai and Fox Box.

4Kids was one of the most polarizing American anime companies. Many of their titles were undeniably popular, but heavily localized and edited. Fans led several campaigns against the company, particularly focusing on edits made to fan-favorite title One Piece. Nelvana, another company involved in the production of domestic cartoons with a few anime licenses on the side, faced similar criticisms in response to their editing of CardCaptor Sakura in 2000.

Bandai Entertainment is just barely a ‘90s company, sneaking in in 1999 with Cowboy Bebop. An American subsidiary of the Japanese company, Bandai Entertainment instantly had access to a large number of popular titles, including the entire Gundam franchise. Mobile Suit Gundam Wing (‘00) was a hit on Toonami and Bandai made a point of releasing the unedited version to DVD.

Anime on TV

If you knew where to look – and it did take some looking – there was quite a bit of anime airing on American television during the ‘90s. In 1993, Robot Carnival, Lensman, and Vampire Hunter D aired on the Sci-Fi Channel, the first of a long string of anime titles the channel would air over the decade. Cartoon Network and Network One began broadcasting Streamline titles in 1994. By 1995, Sci-Fi had introduced “Saturday Anime” as a programming block and Sailor Moon was offered by DiC as a syndicated package to interested networks. Dragon Ball Z followed into syndication in 1996.

Toonami debuted in 1997 with Voltron anchoring the block. The following year, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z were added to the afternoon lineup and proved a resounding success. Pokémon began airing on TV in 1998 and moved to the Kid’s WB block in 1999. Together, these shows were responsible for the introduction of a huge number of new fans to the idea of anime. Combined with increased internet accessibility and the ability to share their interest online, American anime fandom exploded.

Anime Genres of 1990s

Generally, Western anime tastes have gravitated towards shows that are different from what fans can get in their home countries. Comedies were very popular and guaranteed crowd-pleasers at anime clubs, especially comedies that were easy to translate across cultures like a boy who turns into a girl upon falling in cold water. Bloody, action-centric titles were also common, again because action was easy to understand regardless of language and because the targeted consumers (college-aged men) had never seen anything like it before in animation. “The gorier the title, the better the sales” was the rule of thumb for some years.

Then there were the movies with gorgeous animation that showed just what the medium is capable of, perfect for introducing new fans or re-watching while waiting anxiously for the next volume of a long-runner. Studio Ghibli titles were the obvious go-to with family members while Akira, Ghost in the Shell, and Ninja Scroll ruled the college clubs.

But there’s one category that truly stood out for better or worse (mostly worse): pornography. When VHS came out, pornographers jumped on the home-video format (emphasis on “home”) immediately. That included Japanese ”hentai” (X-rated) and “ecchi” (raunchy, but not full-on porn) titles. Unfortunately, the prevalence of such titles at local rental shops and a few salacious news reports gave rise to the perception by many Americans that anime was mostly about tentacles assaulting young women. This wasn’t helped by some retailers’ decisions to shelve all anime, regardless of content, in the adult section. By the late ‘90s, however, the smashing success of Pokémon, Dragon Ball Z, and Sailor Moon had begun to offset that perception.

That’s All for Now

And with that, our overview of American anime in the 1990s comes to a close. Business was booming, fandom was exploding, and Japanese companies were taking notice. Join me for Part 2 as we cover the American anime scene at the beginning of the new millennium.

Long-time Right Stuf fans may recognize Lisa as Marie from the Anime Today podcast or as RightStufSpecialsMinion on the Anime News Network and Fandom Post forums. Her non-anime articles can be found at PositivelyEditorial.com, where she offers tips and insights into business writing.

Special thanks Anime News Network and their vast encyclopedia, which was an invaluable resource for double-checking dates, titles, and company names. Even the Right Stuf database can't (quite) compare.

How many of these popular ‘90s titles have you seen?

Akira, Bubblegum Crisis, Castle in the Sky, Dragon Ball Z, Fushigi Yugi, Ghost in the Shell, Kiki's Delivery Service, Kimagure Orange Road Blu-ray, Lupin The Third, Maison Ikkoku, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Ninja Scroll , Oh My Goddess, Perfect Blue, Pokémon, Princess Mononoke, Ranma 1/2, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Sailor Moon, Serial Experiments Lain, The Slayers, Tenchi Muyo: Ryo-Ohki, Urusei Yatsura

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