Comment/Response: – Anime in the US: The Entrepreneurial Dimensions of Globalized Culture

In one of my first posts in this blog, I raised the question of why there were essentially no English-language academic articles on the “business” of anime – the history of the U.S. anime industry, the specific practices that American anime companies used to succeed, how some of these companies were able to adjust to changing economic conditions while others went out of business. Among the possible reasons that I presented were that most of the scholars who are interested in anime come from backgrounds in the humanities, and so, they simply do not have the tools to write about business and business management, that because the U.S. anime industry is primarily composed of small private companies, only very limited data is available to potential researchers, and ultimately, that “the business of anime” in the U.S. is just too small to matter or merit academic attention.

In the same post, however, I highlighted a paper that I had just become aware of, in the March 2014 issue of the journal Pacific Affairs, with the intriguing title Anime in the US: The entrepreneurial dimensions of globalized culture – and promised that I would read through it, and share my thoughts and impressions.

Between my experience as a reference librarian and research specialist, and my academic background, I have read hundreds of journal articles, in many different fields. I do not hesitate to say that I have never come across any that is as disappointing as this one. What is even more puzzling to me is that I actually think the basic argument the author presents is correct. It’s just that he fails to support the argument with any kind of convincing or coherent evidence, while also making it very hard to take him seriously.

The argument, for what it’s worth, is straight-forward. When considering how and why anime became popular in the U.S., it is important to pay attention not only to major corporate interests on one side and fans working outside established market structures and pursuing non-commercial interests on the other, but also, to the efforts and projects of individual entrepreneurs, who identified and pursued particular business opportunities – and in the process, essentially created the American anime industry and introduced Japanese animation as such (rather than simply animation that happened to be created by Japanese artists working under contract) to American audiences.

The methodology the author uses is a set of interviews with “nine media specialists, producers and executives at anime companies”. Several of them are then mentioned by name in the body of the article. Drawing on these interviews, he presents a basic “history of anime as a mainstream phenomenon”, from the first animated shorts of the first decades of the 20th century and through the development of the “global” anime industry in the 2000’s. Already, he makes several claims that are awkward at best, such as referring to both Neon Genesis Evangelion and “Hayao Miyazaki’s movies” as examples of “adult-oriented anime” (p. 58), and Pokemon as “the famous animated character” (p. 59).

He then moves on to describe “anime penetration and localization in the U.S.” as a process that has consisted of three distinct phases. He identifies the first one as starting in the early 1960’s with the theatrical release of several Japanese animated films and the television broadcast of Astro Boy – this is the phase that culminated with the emergence of what we think of as the U.S. anime industry of the 1990’s, composed of companies such as Central Park Media, Media Blasters, Animeigo, A.D. Vision, Funimation, Viz, Pioneer, and Bandai (and plenty more) that acquired the rights to Japanese animated television series, translated them, and released these in subtitled and/or dubbed versions, first on VHS, then on DVD and Blu-Ray, to American consumers.

He claims that this phase was followed by a second, of “active localization”, with U.S. companies going beyond merely translating anime series, and rather, “rewriting some of the stories to suit local taste, replacing the background music with new or familiar tunes, rewriting the dialogue to sound better in American-English, and adjusting the length of the episode to meet TV broadcasters’ demands” (p. 61). I certainly acknowledge that there were plenty of instances where all of these activities occurred, in particular with series such as Sailor Moon, Card Captor Sakura, and One Piece, but I do not think it is valid to characterize these kinds of single occurrences as a discreet phase. And the author definitely does not help himself by claiming that “In the 1990s, there were at least 20 major productions which featured American versions of anime series” – and listing Teen Titans, Samurai JackMy Life as a Teenage Robot and Kappa Mikey as examples. All of these titles were originally produced by American companies for American audiences; none are adaptations of existing anime.

The third phase that the author tries to identify is characterized by “attempts to create a hybrid form of American-Japanese anime”, such as Afro Samurai. Beyond the obvious question of whether “anime” as a term that, not unlike champagne or mezcal, can only be applied to products that are not hybrids, he does not present any other examples of anime projects in this phase of the process.

Next, the author moves to asking another simple question: “Why has anime been successful in the US, and why is it declining?” – and answers it based on the interviews that he conducted. Again, some of the claims that he makes are dubious at best; others flat-out go against other evidence that I am familiar with.

For example, he contrasts the “new excitement” of anime with the “same old narratives” of American animation by claiming that “the famous character Pokemon assumed over 600 (!) characters” (p. 63). Here, probably the least I can do is be charitable – English is not the author’s first language.

Perhaps more egregiously, he argues that the success of anime in the U.S. was driven by the popularity of “manga and Japanese-made video games”. From everything I know about the U.S. anime industry, the relationship has actually always worked in reverse – anime has contributed to the popularity of manga. Viz Media senior executive Kevin Hamric presented one example of this in a 2014 interview:

“The new streaming model is out there for people to get their anime; that is having a comparable effect on manga sales as say television and Cartoon Network did a number of years ago…The manga series [Kamisama Kiss] had modest success for us, was meeting expectations, but then Funimation began streaming it online and we noticed the sales increasing slowly, slowly, slowly, and then it really spiked up.”

The author’s claim that “the indirect sales of anime-related products and accessories” were a factor in the success of anime in the U.S. is again unsupported by any concrete empirical evidence; the statement that anime conventions like Anime Expo and Otakon “draw hundreds of thousands of visitors who largely practice ‘cosplay'” (p. 64) is another one that I’d like think is simply an awkward translation of what the author originally had in mind.

In the following section, the author shifts the focus to individual entrepreneurs who worked to ensure the success of anime in the U.S. He identifies several – Saban Capital Group’s Haim Saban, Tokyopop founder Stuart Levy (whose first name he misspells as “Stewart”), Afro Samurai co-producer Eric S. Calderon (again, misidentified as “Erik Calderon”), and producers Glen Murakami and Sam Register, but, with the exception of Saban, does not take any time to discuss specifically how any of them contributed to the development of the U.S. anime industry and market.

Again, the author’s conclusion, that individual entrepreneurs “play a pivotal role as mediators, bridging cultures and markets” (p. 68) is one that I basically agree with. But, given that he reaches this conclusion through errors, outright misrepresentations, and no more solid evidence than what appears to be just a couple of interviews with peripheral figures like Roland Kelts (author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., certainly an astute observer, but not someone with any kind of inside familiarity with the U.S. anime industry) and “self-proclaimed expert in the world of anime and manga” Daryl Surat, it is really difficult not to feel disappointed by the result of his work.

Probably the most complimentary thing I can say about Anime in the U.S. is that another author, someone who is more familiar with the history of American anime companies, especially over the last twenty or so years, could very easily reach a similar conclusion while using vastly more effective sources. And it’s not like those sources are particularly hard to find, either. For example, Forbes Magazine in 2004 and Fortune a year later both profiled A.D. Vision and its founder, John Ledford, the Dallas Business Journal and the Fort Worth Business Press tracked the rise of Funimation Entertainment, and the hometown Tampa Bay Times published a article praising Gene Field, who started with a strip-mall store selling anime and related merchandise and then expanded into a licensing and production company and a Netflix-like DVD rental by mail operation. And there’s really no reason why an author writing on the role that entrepreneurs played in the development of anime in the U.S. could not arrange interviews with any of them!

Note: To the best of my understanding, electronic access to this article is only available via IngentaConnect. If you do not have access, but would like to read it, please contact me, and I can share my personal copy with you.

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