Anime in America

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2003

Japan's animated movies have risen from cult status to cultural force in the US. Next up for the moviemakers: winning approval from Mom and Dad.

by Debbi Gardiner

LANTERNS LINE VILLAGE WALLS. An abandoned theme park. Temples, lakes and food fit for gods. It's a cartoon, but a beautiful, stunningly realistic one that leaves the audience hushed at this dinky art house theater in South Florida. Most wait until the last credit leaves the screen. The movie is Spirited Away (Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi in Japanese) and it's the latest anime hit in the US. Anime in America is winning more sales and fans than ever before.

The Walt Disney release of the Japanese blockbuster Spirited Away debuted in the States in late September. So far, the anime film, which outsold even Titanic in Japan, is a huge success overseas. Film reviewers from The New York Times, Chicago Sun Times and Miami Herald all praise director Hayao Miyazaki for his attention to detail and craft. And ticket sales are climbing. In its tenth weekend of release, Spirited Away had earned almost $5.1 million and was showing on 58 screens, according to Box Office Charts, a division of Yahoo.

Hard-core anime fans are not surprised by the film's success. They've grown up on TV shows like Voltron and Power Rangers, so the brilliance of Miyazaki and other anime directors is nothing new. "I love the expansive stories, the wonderful animation and multidimensional characters," says Ken Innes, a computer programmer and anime fan who lives near San Francisco.

Japanese anime, a genre once reserved for the TV dens of Star Trek-types and reclusive teenagers, is now super-hip in the States. Ten years ago there were just two anime videos available in the US, and the industry was worth thousands of dollars. But according to the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA), a California nonprofit, by the year 2000, the industry here had grown to $100 million. And that's just money generated by the largest "pure" anime companies like Pioneer, Bandai, ADVision and manga publisher Viz Communications. Anime movies and programs generated by mainstream companies like Walt Disney and the Fox TV Network are worth an additional $2 billion. This might look like chump change compared with profits in Japan, where in 2000, Pokemon by itself generated $4 billion, but the growth in the US, especially in the last three years, has been huge, says Mike Tatsugawa, SPJA's founder and CEO. In the US right now, every facet of anime is a success. Last year filmmaker Miramax released its English version of Princess Mononoke. This year it's Disney with Spirited Away, and next year Tristar unveils Cowboy Bebop. Today swanky theaters like the new Sony Metreon in San Francisco come with an anime theater and toy shop. Appreciation has been so great that this September, Bandai decided to submit its movie Escaflowne as a candidate for the Academy Awards.

While ten years ago there were just a few anime TV shows, today every children's channel is saturated with Japanese cartoons that are rising in popularity among the young. The first three shows posted on, the Fox Network Web site, for instance, are anime: UltraMan, Ultimate Muscle and Fighting Foodons. Go to Cartoon, and many of the shows are Japanese: Dragon Ball, Gundam and Hamtaro, for example. Ken Iyadomi, the executive vice president of Bandai Entertainment, a Japanese toy and anime company, says the company released 75 anime TV shows and movies in the US last year, a bumper crop compared to previous years.

Anime is the fastest growing segment in the video and DVD rental market, according to AD Vision, the largest distributor of anime in the US. AD Vision was the first anime company in the States in 1992. Now there are twenty like it.

The anime toy market is huge as well. San Francisco has three anime toy stores in its central shopping hub. After ten years, Bandai America's "Power Rangers Wild Force" toy line is still a best seller, says Jerry Chu, marketing manager for Bandai Entertainment. Sales growth of the toys goes up an average 120 to 130 percent year on year, the company says.

Magazines about anime are doing a bumper trade too. Animerica, Viz Communications' biggest magazine, has doubled its page count since it launched in 1992. Subscription rates have also doubled since 1999. When the San Francisco publisher, a subsidiary of Shogakukan, first started out, it had just two titles. Now it has over twenty.

"Anime is a big business here," says Tatsugawa of the SPJA. "Not until Pokemon did they know how much they could work with anime."

For American film companies, the attraction to anime is surely the cost. When you consider the cost of making movies in today's high-risk industry, anime is cheap. "Look at Titanic," Tatsugawa says. "It cost $100 million to make. In Japan they never had that problem."

For fans, the appeal is aesthetic. Japanese anime has beautiful artwork. Many argue that anime's visual quality is superior to that found in most American cartoons. The story lines pull people in, too. When video game company owner Jay Minn moved to San Francisco from South Korea as a boy, American cartoons seemed dire compared with the anime he'd watched back home. "Anime is about giant robots destroying stuff or normal people doing super, not normal things. Batman and Aquaman seem lame by comparison; like, come on!" he says.

In the States, it was adults who got fixated on anime first. A lot like the Star Trek fans in the 70s, typical anime fans used to be predominately male, techie types, 70-80 percent college educated and between 25 and 30 years old. Today the US audience is 50:50 teenagers (mostly 14- and 15-year-olds) and adults, according to a recent survey at an SPJA expo in New York. Manga publishers also report an even split between males and females. Adults typically work in white-collar professions, especially in high-tech, own three to six game systems, are Caucasian (or Asian), earn over $100,000 a year and spend three to four hours of leisure time online daily, their survey said.

Innes is your quintessential anime fan. He is 27 and makes his living as a programmer for Working Designs, a company that localizes Japanese video games for the US market. After work, Innes lies on his couch scanning TiVo (a program guide) to find anime shows. Innes hasn't missed an episode of Inuyasha yet, he says. But then he also checks out Dragon Ball, Yu Yu Hakusho, Tokyo Pig, Hamtaro and whatever else gets recorded. "I watch at least one anime TV show a week," he says. Like other anime fans, Innes has his own Web site,, where anime followers post their own bios and profiles. It's for fans to keep track of which character is which, he says.

Recently fans have been getting even younger. Bandai Entertainment's Iyadomi says they are seeing 10-year-olds getting into the craze now.

Anime's success in the US has been gradual. The first turning point, Tatsugawa reckons, was the advent of the Internet. From the mid 1980s, fans could communicate with other fans who had good, clean copies of anime. The whole community was based on tape-swapping. And because a lot of the originals were in Japanese, fans wrote detailed scripts, then posted them online.

Most industry experts agree the next leap was in 1992. US Renditions, a film importer, released the first English subtitled anime videotape that year. Before the release of Gunbuster (about a girl and her interstellar battle for the future of humankind), the only way to buy anime was to buy it from Japan for the rental market price. To save paying $100 plus per tape, fans would drive for miles to the paltry number of stores stocking anime. They'd tape it, duplicate it, then send it back. It was Gunbuster's success that triggered a flurry of releases, Tatsugawa says.

More Americans got excited by anime in 1993, when the Fox Channel Network aired a remake of the Power Rangers, says Innes. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was an instant hit and created an anime frenzy. The appearance of Sailor Moon on TV in 1995 was another pivotal point. Julie Davis, editor in chief of Animerica magazine, says the show didn't do too well in the ratings in its first run, but it picked up a cult following, almost like Star Trek. The show went into reruns, disappeared (fans wailed in Animerica's letters column), then moved over to cable TV, on the Cartoon Network, where new episodes finally began to air, she says.

Most importantly, since Sailor Moon drew in so many girls, US distributors stopped catering exclusively to chiefly male science fiction fans and started bringing in titles that would appeal to females. "Because of Sailor Moon, you can now go to a video store and pick up titles such as Fushigi Yuugi or Revolutionary Girl Utena," Davis says.

The next transformation came in 1998-1999 with Pokemon. Pokemon represented a new anime business model: Release a toy, then a video game, trading cards and a TV show. Children of all ages were targeted. It was Pokemon that prompted American companies to go to Japan and try to get co-production deals or acquire rights.

"It was brilliant," says Minn, the gaming company owner.

Pokemon was key also because it was the first TV show where producers did not disguise the fact that anime was Japanese. Before Pokemon, Americans were often watching anime cartoons without realizing they were from Japan. The quality of the dubbing was that good. "After Pokemon, it became okay that anime was Japanese," says Chu at Bandai Entertainment.

With well-hyped releases like Spirited Away, anime has become a social phenomenon. At the last SPJA annual expo, which was sold out, participants held a four-hour costume competition where fans paraded as their favorite samurai warrior, cave girl, even robot anime character. CNN even ran a segment covering the event. "There are many people discovering anime all the time," says Davis of Animerica.

But anime is not yet mainstream in the US. On a per theater basis, it's not that big. Releases like Princess Mononoke make it to cities like San Francisco, New York, Miami and Los Angeles, but they will probably never go to Des Moines, Iowa, Tatsugawa says. Part of this is that big film companies tend to let anime be marketed by word of mouth, critics say. Princess Mononoke grossed only slightly over $2 million, despite its launch at the New York Film Festival and the use of big-name stars such as Billy Bob Thornton to do the voice-overs.

Another hurdle is demand. For Americans seeking explosive action movies, the nature vs. man themes in anime may not cut it. Imax's new Star War release, Attack of the Clones, was shown in half as many theaters as Spirited Away and made almost $304 million in its first week. When Innes, the anime fan, asked a friend to sit and watch his favorite anime show, Voltron, the friend was bored silly. "He didn't get it. A lot of people just like action, and that's it. Anime is not for those people," Innes says.

This is not stopping big media companies from getting involved in taking anime to the next level, however. To go truly mainstream means gaining the credibility of American parents. "Anime won't be able to make the big money without it," Tatsugawa says.

What might hold all this back is pornography and violence. Compared with American cartoons, the miniskirts, bare bottoms and flirtatiousness on some anime can look a bit smutty. Tatsugawa says that part of this might be different cultural values. While Puritan American mothers might balk at boys pulling off girls' shirts on an anime show, Japanese moms might be shocked by Itchy blowing up Scratchy on The Simpsons.

But the biggest hurdle of all might be the presence of X-rated anime porn. The weird adult anime available in video stores in the US and in Japan is something that companies like Pioneer, Bandai and Viz Communications want nothing to do with. Tatsugawa thinks mainstream companies will react the same way. If you have AOL Time Warner and Disney getting behind anime, the last thing they want is for American mothers to second-guess their anime purchase, Tatsugawa says. "That would crush the industry here." @

Debbi Gardner is a Miami-based freelance writer and a regular contributor to J@pan Inc.

When Japanese manga and anime come to American shores, the content can seem a little raw or risquEto American readers. Viz Communications has tweaked the content of manga it handles to suite American tastes; Jason Thompson, editor of the new English-version of Shonen Jump, offers some examples.

Thompson says most of the changes come in comics aimed for kids or for mass markets unfamiliar with anime. "We published the manga adaptation of one of the Pokemon comics, for instance, in 1998," he writes in an email. "The artist, Toshihiro Ono, typically drew comics for teenage boys. In his comic Dengeki Pikachu, he'd drawn some sexualized pictures of women, which we had to tone down in the American version.

"We removed a two-page sequence where Misty, the lead female character for Pokemon, was bathing in a hot spring. Where the women's clothing was too revealing, we had to make the swimsuits larger and changed the shape of their bodies so they were less provocative (i.e. less chesty).

"In Dragon Ball Z, which Viz has been publishing in English since 1998, one of the characters, Gohan, was naked in a scene.You can see his genitals. It's not sexual, but we thought it was inappropriate so we enlarged his stomach a little to cover what was there. This was just one panel."

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