E L E C T R O S P H E R E    Issue 1.01 - May 1995

Anime Nations

By Andrew Leonard

In the universe of Japanese science fiction cartoons, Tokyo is so often pulverised by nuclear explosions - and then rebuilt - that the name "Neo-Tokyo" has become a cliché in Japanese animation. In Akira, the most internationally famous of the hypercharged sci-fi flicks, Neo-Tokyo is annihilated not once, but twice. Japan's animated futuristic fantasies carry on a mad love affair with the threats - and possibilities - of technology. They deliver a world in which giant pharaoh-headed robots are run-of-the-mill and every other teenager seems to be able to transform at a moment's notice into a deranged cyborg-demon from another dimension. This is a world populated by humans who crawl and slither like dextrous ants among insanely complex rocket ships and space stations.

That's not all. These lurid visions comprise only one subcategory of the overall genre known in Japan as anime. In Japanese animation, anything goes: a quick glance at the range of anime programmes reveals a 50-part animated serialisation of the novel Anne of Green Gables, a weekly TV series depicting the struggles of a fictional soccer team making its way through the playoffs, and soap operas about high school.

Fanciful, sensually textured and hugely popular, anime is more than just an excessively indulged passion for cartoons. It is also Big Business, at least in Japan. Each month, about 100 new anime productions appear on Japanese TV, video, and film. While video and theatrical sales of anime products total ¥15-25 billion annually (£100-160 million), that's just a fraction of the hundreds of billions of yen in profits generated by a relentless strategy of cross-merchandising toys, comic books, model kits, and, increasingly, video games. In 1994, one animated title alone, Lovely Soldier Sailor Moon, a TV series targeting young girls, grossed more than a hundred billion yen from its merchandise sales.

Now Japanese animators are hoping to export this cultural and economic phenomenon to the West. For an entertainment industry desperate to stuff its insatiable content maw, the dream of exploiting the synergistic potential of Japan's cross-merchandised bonanza is tantalising. Everyone is looking for the next Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers toy or Mortal Kombat video game. "Japanese animation is probably the most exportable part of Japanese culture," notes John O'Donnell, managing director of Central Park Media, a New York-based animation importer.

Despite the increasing popularity of Japanese animation, anime imports aren't exactly greeted with fanfares. One particular film, The Wings of Honneamise - regarded by anime connoisseurs as a classic - barely caused a blip on the pop-culture viewing screen when it was released in US cinemas late in 1994, seven years after its debut in Japan.

In the UK, where independent distribution companies have long ago learnt to tap the sub-cultures for new trends, anime has done rather better. According to Island's Manga Entertainment, top-selling anime videos sell 15,000 copies compared to a market average of 4,500 copies. But the market is still only a fraction of the overall home-video business. Bruce Apar, editor of the US Video Business magazine, estimates that anime accounts for $75 million annual business in a domestic market of $15 billion a year. Helen McCarthy of Anime UK values the British market at £2.5 million, in an overall video retail market of £500 million. But both stress the phenomenal growth of this micro-niche. The worldwide domination of the anime-influenced Power Rangers, and the success of adult features re-packaged for children's television, such as Battle Of The Planets (known in its raunchier, more violent Japanese form as Science Ninja Team Gatchaman) point to the future.

It seems that everyone is waiting for anime to hit the mainstream.

Garage kits

Considered one of the top 10 films of 1987 by Japanese film critics, The Wings of Honneamise is a bittersweet, introspective tale of an incompetent space programme staffed by slacker astronauts who are despised by society at large. It was made by an iconoclastic band of talented twentysomethings who called themselves Gainax - a self-mocking combination of a Japanese word for great with the English word max.

The core members of Gainax were teenage buddies from well-to-do families who joined up in Osaka, Japan's second largest city. They evolved into fanatic animators who slept until noon and never took out the trash. They were leather-jacketed motorcycle punks who listened to industrial bands like German deconstructionists Einstürzende Neubauten. Luckily, they had the wherewithal to indulge their obsessions with comic books and animation. They published their creations in popular fanzines, and saw themselves as creating a lone-wolf company that would stand apart from a country of same-same. Founding members of the group included Hideaki Anno, an animator, Toshio Okada, Gainax's master planner, and Hiroyuki Yamaga, the 26-year-old who directed The Wings Of Honneamise.

Gainax provides a perfect example of the interconnections between anime as an art form and as a merchandising vehicle. Before they started creating their own anime, the Gainax boys laboured long hours manufacturing what are known in Japan as garage kits. In Japan, the English word garage is used to differentiate homemade toy kits from the mass-produced injection-moulded model kits that are one of the big money-makers for the animation business. Created by a cheap "cold-casting" process using polyurethane resin plastic, mainstream kits usually are based on popular animated characters. The Gainax-built kits, however, were anything from life-size replicas of nearly extinct sea creatures to weird imaginary beasts.

At first Gainax found it easy to obtain licences to make garage kits based on established characters. But as Gainax grew more successful, the licences became more expensive and eventually it began making products based on its own characters.

The con circuit

In 1984, Gainax began organising full-scale science fiction conventions that quickly earned a reputation among fans for their offbeat events. At the 1985 DaiCon, an annual science-fiction convention held in Osaka, Gainax called on their connections to convince the Osaka Philharmonic Orchestra to attend the convention and play a medley of TV animation theme tunes. Gainax used subsequent conventions to showcase self-produced animated short films. One of these shorts attracted the attention of Bandai Company Ltd, a major corporate sponsor of Japanese-animated programming. In 1986, the members of Gainax convinced the Bandai board of directors to give them about ¥700 million (£4.5 million) to produce The Wings of Honneamise. It was, says one Gainax associate, "one of the greatest achievements of ballsy fandom in possibly the entire universe."


Until recently, only a subculture of hard-core fans devoured anime outside Japan. Called "otaku" (Japanese slang for "obsessed fans"), they are young and almost always male. If one is to judge by their prolific posting in Usenet newsgroups like rec.arts.anime, a sizable proportion are also computer geeks. No one has a good explanation why otaku and anime subculture thrived on the Internet years before it exploded into mainstream popular consciousness. But there's no question that anime otaku have one of the more computer-networked subcultures around. Anime fans expend countless hours online crafting Web home pages festooned with animated art, uploading painstakingly compiled translated scripts of anime programmes, and engaging in endless flame wars on every aspect of anime trivia.

Such obsessive behaviour is a fundamental part of what it means to be an otaku. It's also part of the reason why anime distribution companies are scrambling to diversify their product line, offering comic books, trading cards, games, and even Japanese-style hand-crafted model kits. Otaku are likely to buy the laser-disc collectors' edition of their favourite animated program, the CD soundtrack, the complete line of toys, and the role-playing computer game spin-off.

The move to a wider audience - needed for Hollywood to justify adopting the Japanese form - has only begun to occur in the US. But in the UK, anime has found a home with a more casual fanbase. Hollywood marketeers could only marvel at Island World Productions Ltd's ability to turn their British distribution licence of Japan's only international monster hit, Akira, into a movement that placed anime in the public eye, and created a market for countless other titles, now available over the counter across the country.

Island World found a ready source of British fans in the large comic-reading audience who were accustomed to imports - until then, generally the American Marvel and DC characters. By riding the wave of media interest in the British comics renaissance - exemplified by Deadline's Tank Girl and 2000AD's Judge Dredd - Island World found a shortcut to respectability. And profits. So lucrative did anime appear, back in the early 1990s, that Island World, now Island International, transformed their video retailing section into a Japanimation-only operation, Manga Entertainment Ltd. Named after the comic book equivalent of anime, this group, with its aggressive expansion into Europe and America, has set the course for anime's move into international markets.

Japan's Spinal Tap

Anime's big break in the US took place in 1991 in San Jose, California, at AnimeCon, the first major North American convention solely devoted to anime and manga. With the help of Toren Smith, a comic book writer and adapter of Japanese comics for American readers, Gainax organised and financed the convention, hoping to establish a foothold in the American collectibles market. The members of Gainax were special heroes to otaku worldwide - these eccentric geniuses were former otaku themselves. In 1991 Gainax released an animated "mockumentary" satirising its own history, entitled Otaku No Video, that gave fans a chance to see how Gainax had started out. Dubbed "the Spinal Tap of Japanese animation" by American fans, Otaku No Video follows a group of megalomaniac otaku whose early activities mirror the real Gainax. Interspersed into the narrative are a series of interviews with real, live otaku. Despite digitally altered voices and faces, they come across as malformed individuals, pasty-faced refugees from normal life.

Toren Smith, who shared a house in Japan in 1988 with several Gainax employees, says the characterisation isn't far from the truth. "Their entire life was animation. They never got up until noon, but then they busted their butts all day. They were incredibly hardworking - a group of maniacs almost completely isolated from the world."

Reign of the robot toys

The mid-1980s amounted to the golden age of animation in Japan. Anime marketeers had learned to skip the stages of theatrical release or television broadcast and aim directly at home-video consumers. Anime creators benefited, especially those who had been working within the tight production schedules imposed by television. A longer production cycle led to improved production values, and bypassing television restrictions on content allowed animators to create scenes of graphic violence or explicit sex.

Even more important, however, was the booming Japanese economy. In an era when Japanese consumers were spending money like never before, corporations such as Bandai sponsored animated programmes as a way of promoting their product lines. For decades, Bandai has been a giant corporate monster towering over the anime industry, specialising in sponsoring robot-oriented animation linked to Bandai toys. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, says Trish Ledoux, the editor of Animerica & Manga Monthly, the pre-eminent anime journal in the United States, Bandai bankrolled so many robot shows and films it single-handedly ushered in "the reign of the robot toys". Today, Bandai America rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars annually as the licensee for Power Rangers. (Power Rangers aren't based on animated characters - but the cross-merchandising is the same.)

The bubble pops

In 1991, the golden age of animation came to an end. Japan's seemingly unstoppable "bubble economy" finally popped and a bruising three-year recession set in. Sales of toys and other anime-related collectibles declined. Corporate advertising support plummeted. Production studios moved offshore. For animators, the choice was stark - starve, or find another job. Even the mighty Gainax has not produced an original work of animation under its own name since 1991.

Ultimately, argues Ken Iyadomi, US vice president at Manga Entertainment, one half of the co-production deal that brought Wings to Britain and the US, Japanese production studios wanting to produce quality animation are forced to look abroad for new sources of finance. "Productions like Wings and Akira are no longer possible if we target only within Japan," says Iyadomi. "Everybody is seeking business opportunities outside Japan with produtions created using Japanese creative personnel."

Like everyone else, Gainax - which at its height in the late '80s had grown to 80 employees - was forced to restructure. But its attempt to sell merchandise outside Japan collapsed - a victim of its own excessive ambition, says Shon Howell, who ran Gainax's US office in 1990 and 1991. Like many other start-up companies trying to maximise a fast-breaking opportunity, Gainax grew too fast. It shed its sideline publishing and merchandising businesses and pulled back from producing original animation. Toshio Okada, formerly Gainax's boss, now lectures on multimedia at Tokyo University. Hiroyuki Yamaga, the director of Wings, is now Gainax's managing director in charge of multimedia business. Today, computer games are Gainax's staple business, as well as the cause of its latest moment of notoriety. In January 1994, a strip-tease quiz game created by Gainax led to a case that set the legal precedent in Japan putting a prohibition on sales of "sexually explicit" computer games to minors. Gainax claims it hasn't abandoned the production of original animation - and recently bought a Silicon Graphics work-station for future creative activities. Star animator Hideaki Anno is currently producing a new giant robot TV series. The emphasis on multimedia shows that the Gainax brain trust has recognised that the profit from a successful multimedia software application - such as a computer game - dwarfs what is possible from an animated programme. And Gainax isn't the only group of animators expanding beyond animation. Katsuhiro Otomo, the director of Akira, has recently sold the licence to a videogame version of Akira to the LA-based company T*HQ Inc. The implications are obvious. The huge pool of Japanese animators could be an antidote to the lack of experienced multimedia developers in the West.

If industry observers like Carl Macek and Ken Iyadomi are correct, the international expansion of the market for Japanese animation could open opportunities for studios such as Gainax. But Gainax, which prides itself on displaying the movie know-how that game products need, may instead take advantage of an equal demand for multimedia talent. An English version of one of Gainax's most popular role-playing-games, Princess Maker, is now ready for release.

New realities

Not everyone is excited about Hollywood's discovery of anime. The occidental otaku are particularly worried. They're suspicious of a distribution deal between Hollywood's Orion Home Video and Carl Macek's Streamline Video to release - among other titles - a Japanese animated version of Orion's star property, Robocop, complete with the whole range of cross-merchandised games, toys, and collectibles. Many otaku are purists who reject any of alteration of the original product beyond subtitling. Even dubs are blasphemy. The Hollywoodisation of anime is seen as cultural imperialism at its most insidious.

But animation as an art form in both East and West has always been a product of cross-fertilisation. The Walt Disney of Japanese animation, Osamu Tezuka, credits the real Walt Disney as his muse. Shoji Kawamori, master of the "mechas", the giant robots so closely identified with anime, speaks of Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds in hushed tones. Japanese animators claim large sections of Disney's The Lion King were lifted straight from a Japanese work. Toren Smith says the traditional Japanese attention to detail, and deeply textured individual frames, informs everything from MTV videos to Disney's recent animated television series, Gargoyles.

The reception of anime in the West is still uncertain. Will it remain a cult or will it create the next Sega? The key members of Gainax are hardly into their 30s. In their own pseudo-history, Otaku No Video, they take over every aspect of the animation business, pushing cross-merchandising to such a degree that they even establish their own animation-business theme park, OtakuLand. Their message is simple: They aren't finished yet.

Ftp to venice.tcp.com and remus.rutgers.edu. Or Web surf at server.berkeley.edu/CAA.

Andrew Leonard (aleonard@well.sf.ca.us) is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, California. He specialises in cyber-Asia.