For years serious fans of Japanese animation in the United States were required to possess either a fat wallet or a sleuth-like determination. Aside from the occasional animated series that would slip through on U.S. television, most Japanese animation could only be procured as an exorbitantly priced import videotape or as a technically inferior bootleg item.
But in the past two or three years anime--as Japanese animation is referred to by its most loyal fans--has made a dramatic ascension from the underground to the foreground. Walk into many major video rental stores and you'll find entire sections devoted largely to Japanese animated works with curious titles such as "Bubblegum Crisis," "Vampire Hunter D" and "Ranma 1/2." Most are science-fiction or action-adventure titles that appeal mainly to teenage and young adult males; some are serialized over multiple volumes. Tower Records-Video in Torrance carries more than 100 anime works for sale and rent. Blockbuster Video in San Gabriel stocks nearly 120 titles for rent alone.
"They sell very well," said David Gonzales, the manager at Tower Records-Video in West Covina. "I just took over this position in September, but I know for a fact that they really started to do well at the beginning of the year."
Nine companies distribute Japanese animation in the United States. All but two entered the American market within the last three years. Last year two major home video companies decided to toss their hats into the American anime ring, which until then was dominated by small vendors. Orion Home Entertainment has a deal to distribute Streamline Pictures' 50 animeitles. Simultaneously, England-based PolyGram Video decided to try its hand at selling Japanimation in the United States.
"It's really a niche business now, and we're trying to expand that niche into a category," says Herb Dorfman, president of Orion Home Entertainment. "It's a ramp up, if you will, trying to educate the consumers and the retailers. There's a core consumer base of fans who are zealots. What we're trying to do is to expand the marketplace to serve the general population."
In Japan, where animation has long been a mainstream form of entertainment, everything from comedies and children's shows to serious dramas and historical adventures can be found in animated form.
But so far it has been futuristic science-fiction dramas such as "Akira" and action adventures such as "Mermaid Forest" that have dominated the U.S. anime market. A fast-growing American fandom has also developed around soft-core porn titles.
Some Americans have been troubled by the sometimes graphic violence and sex, as well as the sexist attitudes, found in many imported anime features. In "Wicked City"--which is stickered in the States with a "not for kids" label--horror, violence and eroticism all commingle. Mike Tatsugawa, a Berkeley-based anime fanatic, says the Japanese take a more liberal view of fictional violence and sex than Americans.
"In Japan the assumption is that children are far more mature and can handle whatever they see," said Tatsugawa, whose annual Anime Expo convention attracted more than 2,000 fans to Los Angeles last summer. "The Japanese still have a pretty rigid value system, so they feel they can expose their kids to more things and they won't get screwed up." [do we want to make clear Tatsugawa is an Asian American, which might give him a bit of license to talk so confidently about Japanese attitudes?]
Japanese animation first reached American shores in 1964, when the children's television series "Astro Boy" was televised here. Several other animated series from Japan, such as "Kimba, the White Lion" (which many anime fans believe served as the basis for Disney's "The Lion King") and "Speed Racer," also found young American TV audiences in the late '60s and early '70s.
But it was the animated Japanese space adventure series "Star Blazers" in the late '70s and the similarly intergalactic "Robotech" in the mid-'80s that many fans say established the foundation from which the current anime fandom was built. (The much-admired "Akira," which was released theatrically in the United States in 1989, is also considered a trailblazing work.) More sophisticated than their predecessors, both "Robotech" and "Star Blazers" were syndicated on U.S. television and attracted loyal audiences.
Trish Ledoux, a longtime anime fan who now writes the dubbed English translations for the "Ranma 1/2" series and other videos on the San Francisco-based Viz Communications label, argues that Japanese animators as a group are allowed to be more creative artists than their American counterparts.