The History of Anime in the USA: The 2000s

The History of Anime in the USA: The 2000s

-Written by: Lisa Marie Cooper

By the end of the millennium, anime had cemented its place in American pop culture thanks to popular titles on TV like Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon. The internet was expanding fans’ connections to each other and offering newer and better ways to share fanworks on sites like Youtube, FanFiction.net, and LiveJournal. Online databases like Anipike couldn’t keep up with the rapid expansion and Google became the primary method of finding anime content. Retailers like Best Buy and Suncoast had entire sections devoted to anime full of new releases.

While few new major American companies debuted (certainly nothing compared to the ‘90s boom), the companies that already existed greatly expanded their output in the first half of the decade. A number of established entertainment companies also dipped their toes in the anime waters. I’ll cover some of these side ventures in the next section, but so many companies licensed just one or two anime titles alongside the rest of their non-anime library (Dreamworks, for example, licensed Millennium Actress) that it becomes an exercise in minutia to list them all.

With hundreds of releases flooding the shelves, the market expanded so much it caused an anime bubble. Prices for licenses rose to unsustainable levels and expectations for even B- and C-level titles were sky high. This led to a glut and subsequent bust that affected not only American companies but Japanese ones that had been counting on American revenues. (The great recession of ’08 didn’t help matters either.)

New Companies

Synch-Point is something of an anime footnote, but a footnote with interesting connections. Digital Manga founded Synch-Point in 2001 as an anime subdivision by buying up what was left of U.S. Renditions from Books Nippan. Just a year later, though, Digital Manga was split up and the anime division went to Broccoli. (This makes sense if you know that both Broccoli and Digital Manga are Japanese media retailers and friendly competitors.) Then, in 2003, Broccoli itself was bought by toy company Takara. Synch-Point only had a few anime releases during its short life (their last release came out in 2006), but their release of FLCL was an undeniable hit, especially after Cartoon Network started running it in 2003.

Much like Synch-Point, AN Entertainment was a short-lived video spinoff of a retailer, in this case AnimeNation. Founded in 2002, they only released three titles, all working in partnership with other American anime companies for dubbing and distribution. Their last release would be the final volume of Hare+Guu in 2007.

Tokyo Pop is best known for kick-starting the “100% authentic” manga revolution (releasing manga unflipped and unedited), but in 2003 owner Stu Levy decided to get into the anime game as well. Tokyopop’s anime releases were few and poorly received. For instance, Stu Levy’s new music for Initial D raised hackles and the subtitles on Marmalade Boy were criticized for leaving too many Japanese phrases untranslated. Tokyopop never explicitly stopped licensing anime, but soon turned its video focus to projects based on its own properties.

Discotek (aka Eastern Star) slipped quietly into the anime scene in 2005. Most fans didn’t even notice. Their early licenses were live-action films and re-releases of old classics like Puss ‘n’ Boots and Taro: The Dragon Boy. However, Discotek steadily license-rescued an increasing number of old titles. Soon, they had made a name for themselves, especially as they scooped up favorite titles left languishing from the demise of other American companies like Fist of the North Star and the Cardcaptor Sakura movies.


Sony took advantage of its status as a giant media conglomerate to license and release big-name movies in the U.S. both theatrically and on home video, including Satoshi Kon'sTokyo Godfathers (‘04) and Paprika (‘07). TV series were largely an afterthought and left to American anime companies, but Sony did bring over Blood+ and the anime Marvel series (Ironman, X-Men, Wolverine).

Illumitoon was founded by ex-Funimation employees in ’06 and went out of business just a year later in ’07. Their debut releases of Beet the Vandel Buster, B't X, and AM Driver all featured problems ranging from dubtitles to unplayable discs. The company was never able to recover from its initial missteps and is now mostly a cautionary tale told to would-be anime licensors.

ImaginAsian Entertainment, better known for its ImaginAsian TV channel, made a brief foray into anime licensing in 2007. They made a couple of unusual choices: releasing their titles entirely on DVD-Rs and forgoing packaging outside of blank envelopes and a case offered with the first volumes. The experiment, sadly, didn’t work out. The DVD-Rs were delayed due to manufacturing and copy-protection issues, marketing was next to non-existent, and the three debut titles (Cat's Eye, Nobody’s Boy Remi, and Orguss) were not contemporary hits. No additional licenses followed.

Bandai Visual USA (aka Honneamise) was a short-lived offshoot of Japanese company Bandai. Not initially affiliated with Bandai Entertainment USA (the American branch of Bandai), Bandai Visual was intended to bring Japanese-quality releases to America – at Japanese prices. Unfortunately, despite the company being certain they knew what fans wanted, it turned out they really didn’t. The company was absorbed into Bandai Entertainment in 2008. If you had a chance to pick up one of their lavish Patlaborcollector's editions, you can see both the care they put into their releases and their complete misjudging of the American market. The movies were drastically overproduced and eventually ended up in the Right Stuf Bargin Bin.

Section23 Films (aka Sentai Filmworks, Maiden Japan, Happy Carrot, AEsir Holdings) was “founded” in 2009, but Section23 was really only a new company on paper. In reality, it was ADV, minus a few assets and a lot of debt. Section23 kept most of ADV’s staff, production studios, and licenses. Their output was greatly reduced from ADV’s mid-‘00s high for a few years, but thanks to some shrewd licenses and moving to a boxset-only model, the company soon flourished again. The company continues to release a large number of anime titles today. Fun fact: according to industry rumor, “Section23” refers to the legal code under which the new companies were organized.

Obituaries

While few American anime companies both debuted in and survived the ‘00s, several did close or largely cease to license anime titles. You’ll notice a trend that the companies themselves were usually still profitable when they ceased operations, but for various reasons corporate owners decided they weren’t interested in continuing to run the businesses.

Saban Entertainment was broken up and sold in 2001, with the bulk of its assets going to Disney. It was renamed BVS Entertainment, and Disney continued production of Digimon for another two years before the rights reverted. Their titles would find a number of new homes over the years, including at Discotek and New Video.

Streamline called it quits in 2002. It was a sad story; no one at the company wanted to stop licensing anime, but their distribution deal with Orion gave Orion veto rights over title acquisitions. Orion, either not seeing the potential in anime licensing or simply uninterested in the genre, had been vetoing new anime acquisitions and license renewals since 1997. Streamline continually downsized until eventually, there just weren’t enough titles left to justify keeping the lights on. Founder Carl Macek would move on to head English voice-over production at ADV.

Manga Entertainment, owned by Island Records which was itself owned by another series of companies, was sold off in 2004 to IDT (Anchor Bay). Anchor Bay in turn was sold to Starz in 2006. Starz has kept most of the Manga titles in print unless the licenses expire. That’s just the US branch of the company, though. Manga UK is still going strong, often licensing titles from American companies like Funimation and Section23 for distribution.

Geneon (aka Pioneer) suddenly closed its doors in late 2007, much to the industry’s shock. Just that summer Geneon had solicited new titles and announced new distribution deals were in place. An official reason was not given, but it’s worth noting that its parent company, Dentsu, sold the Japanese branch of Geneon to NBC’s Universal Pictures International a year later.

Central Park Media gave up the ghost in 2009, declaring bankruptcy. Unlike Geneon, this closing had been a long time in the making, with no new releases for some years prior. The Musicland bankruptcy in ‘06 had hit them hard, and the recession in 2008 and waves of returns as the anime bubble burst were something of a cherry on top.

A.D. Visiontechnically ceased to be in 2009, but carried on as several new companies. Its “death” was primarily about getting rid of debt and legal troubles. However, ’09 did mark the loss of several marquee titles, particularly those involved in a licensing deal with Japanese company Sojitz.

As a side note, closings such as those listed above don’t just affect the company’s employees but ripple through the industry, affecting licensing deals, distribution channels, and other partnerships. American anime companies, though competitive, have always had a habit of working together. Right Stuf, for instance, has done work of one kind or another for just about every other company in the business, ranging from distribution to DVD authoring.

Many companies have partnered with each other to provide assets or work across the aisle on shared titles. Media Blasters hired AnimEgio to subtitle the second Urusei Yatsura movie, and Manga worked with Pioneer for the LaserDisc release of Ninja Scroll. It’s not a surprise when a familiar face pops up at a new studio with a new business card. It’s simply not a big industry and pretty much everyone knows everyone, so we’re all sad when we get the news of a company closing its doors.

DVD & Blu-ray Make (Almost) Everyone Happy

DVDs were introduced at the end of the ‘90s and anime fans took to the new format like ducks to water. Not only did the quality of video not degrade with each viewing, but (like LaserDiscs before them) DVDs could contain multiple audio tracks, optional subtitles, and other extras. In the 2000s, as production costs came down, DVDs quickly took over as the dominant format for anime releases. As early as ’02, VHS tapes that originally sold for $20-40 apiece could be found in convention bargain bins for just a few dollars. The subs vs dubs wars weren’t fully at an end (“dubtitles” continue to be a lingering issue), but for most part a truce was called that has since endured.

In 2006, Blu-ray arrived. (So did HD-DVD, but even fewer anime titles came out on that format than did on Betamax.) Both fans and producers were slower to adopt Blu-ray compared to DVD’s rapid domination of the market. Cheaply made anime designed for CRT televisions didn’t require high definition to be enjoyed, Blu-ray players were expensive, and (most importantly) Blu-ray didn’t offer a revolutionary new benefit like DVD did.

Because discs are small and easy to manufacture and package compared to tapes, many companies (anime or otherwise) took to offering DVD/Blu-ray combo packs rather than troubling to create two different products per title. It would be well over a decade before Blu-ray was established enough that companies would feel comfortable releasing new titles exclusively on the format, and even now combo packs are still popular.

Companies began experimenting with packaging as soon as anime came on nice, slim discs instead of bulky, boxy tapes. Artboxes became especially popular during the bubble years (approximately ’00-‘06). A common premium marketed to collectors was an artbox to hold the entire series packaged with the first DVD volume (or second, in the case of some ADV releases). Some of these boxes came in quite interesting shapes, such as the Gantz sphere, which was eye-catching and notoriously difficult to fit neatly on shelves. Taking advantage of the extra space provided by the artbox were a wide range of interesting pack-ins, ranging from soundtracks to manga volumes to more esoteric extras, like a “chest-hair wig” (the Hare+Guu starter set).

As collections grew (it’s hard to overstate how abundant anime suddenly felt to older fans, who greedily snapped up all these titles suddenly available to them), shelf space became more and more of a premium. “Thinpaks” became popular around the end of the decade, which shrank the traditional DVD packaging while still providing individual volumes and a chipboard box. They have since gone out of vogue in favor of multi-disc keep cases, which are cheaper to make and take up even less shelf space.

Speaking of taking up less shelf space, an interesting question the industry dealt with during the ‘00s was how many episodes should go on a DVD. A standard VHS tape is limited to 120 minutes, hard stop. DVDs, on the other hand, are limited not by runtime but by data. If you heavily compress the video and don’t have too many extra features, you can fit quite a lot of episodes on one disc. But if you’re only releasing four volumes now where before you would have released eight, you’ve effectively cut your revenue in half.

One of the first, high-profile experiments with more discs per episode was Funimation's release of Fruits Basket in 2002. Each volume contained six or seven episodes at a time when most DVDs had three or four, but was priced like a ‘90s VHS tape: $40 MSRP. It turned out fans did like getting more episodes per disc (though videophiles complained about opening the doors to low video quality), but balked at paying more for… more. This attitude continues today.

There were other issues that came up with the new format. For instance, a problem discs had that tapes didn’t was scratching. It was unlikely for a tape to be ruined by its own packaging. A broken hub, however, could scratch a disc in a case that had never been opened. Authoring was also more difficult than for VHS. Problems included “green squares,” missing subtitles, glitchy audio, and, on one memorable occasion, a copy of His and Her Circumstances accidentally stamped with episodes from Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman.

Still, the downsides of DVDs and Blu-rays were so greatly outweighed by their many advantages that fans opted for them anyway, and today most companies are experienced enough to avoid most common authoring and packaging pitfalls. When problems inevitably still happen, there’s a routine process in place for getting customers replacements as soon as possible (usually facilitated by industry go-between Right Stuf).

Anime on TV

The 2000s was a great decade for watching anime on TV. Anime could regularly be found on Cartoon Network, Kid’s WB, Fox, and Disney XD. The Toonami block was going so strong Cartoon Network debuted Adult Swim in 2001 to air (as the name implies) more adult-targeted cartoons, particularly anime. This included popular titles like Mobile Suit Gundam, Inu Yasha, and Yu Yu Hakusho, not to mention what sometimes felt like endless runs of Cowboy Bebop and FLCL. The Big O was such a success in America that a second season was put into production despite low ratings in Japan; a nearly unheard-of feat.

If you attended an anime convention in the beginning of the decade, ADV’s campaign for The Anime Network was unavoidable. Building on the ratings success of Toonami, the idea was a national TV channel dedicated to running anime. ADV succeeded in launching the channel in 2002, but only as free video-on-demand programming. A few cable packages did offer it as an actual channel from ’04-’08, however. The Funimation Channel launched as a paid channel in 2008, then added VOD options the following year. It is still available today under the name Toku.

One of anime’s biggest moments came in 2003 when Hayao Miyazaki'sSpirited Away won the first Oscar for Best Animated Feature. Fans had been saying all along that anime was a medium with unlimited potential, wonderful stories, and amazing animation. Now they had confirmation from America’s biggest awards show and national attention. At last, Americans associated anime with stylized storytelling instead of violence and pornography.

Anime Genres of 2000s

In the early days of Western anime imports, what was licensed in the U.S. was largely determined by the tastes of company founders or building on what was already popular with anime clubs (or who you were related to in Japan). It happened that these founders and club members were largely white young men with a taste for bloody action and barely dressed women. As more people got into the anime game and companies looked to expand their customer base, available genres increased correspondingly.

Licensed titles suddenly included stories as varied as talking hamsters, child detectives, golf, and circus performers. The first BL (boy’s love) titles were licensed and proved incredibly popular with women – Gravitation was one of Right Stuf’s top sellers for years. Japanese producers also began finding inspiration in new sources. Anime has had roots in manga since Tezuka used his Astro Boy series for scripts, but now light novels were a popular source for new shows.

There was a lot of pressure to find the next big thing and a lot of pressure in Japan to sell every new show as a guaranteed hit. A lot of experimentation happened, and a lot of it frankly went nowhere. (Or more accurately, it went to the Right Stuf Bargin Bin.) But some of the new titles did stick, like Fullmetal Alchemist and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. We’re still seeing their influences (and remakes) today.

About half-way through the ‘00s, hentai stopped being particularly profitable and almost no new titles were licensed. Reasons given have varied. Some employees at American companies refused to work on adult titles, particularly violent, non-consensual ones. Production was also slow in Japan. Perhaps biggest of all, however, porn was now freely available online, depressing sales. Almost all “new” adult releases in America since 2010 have been quiet license rescues.

To Be Continued

So ends our foray into the turn of the century. Anime saw spectacular growth on American shores and a not-nearly-so-spectacular crash. The burst bubble did nothing to quench fans’ appetites, however, and those companies that survived, thrived. Growth would be steadier in the next decade, but that’s a story for Part 3.

-Lisa Marie Cooper


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 PositivleyEditorial.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 ‘00s titles have you seen?

.hack//sign, The Big O, Bleach, Cardcaptor Sakura, Code Geass, Death Note, Eureka Seven, Fruits Basket, Fullmetal Alchemist, Full Metal Panic, Gurren Lagann, Hellsing, Inu Yasha, Love Hina, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, Mobile Suit Gundam Wing, Naruto, One Piece, Ouran High School Host Club, Rurouni Kenshin, Trigun, Yu-Gi-Oh, Yu Yu Hakusho

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