A Global History of Anime Part 4

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Nadia and American Morals

To say that Nadia was groundbreaking is an understatement. If you've never seen any of it, put this down and look someone up who's got them. It's best if you can see all 39 of them as the ending is quite wonderful (yes, it means that you've got to go through The Island episodes to get there), but take the phone off the hook when you get to the last four. If you've got no one near you who has them, get the two "perfect" volumes that are available from Orion/Streamline. While it's only the first eight episodes (so far), you'll get the tiniest idea of how good this show is. Unbelievably, it seems Gainax had trouble getting other people to take this project seriously, and finally turned to NHK (the government broadcasting agency) for help.

To be fair, it must have looked at the time to be a fairly difficult property to sell to many: here is a show with a VERY strong environmental message. It makes few concessions to Mankind's nastier habits (for instance, Nadia herself is a vegetarian). This show was monster huge in 1991 ... at AnimeCon, a convention IN THE US. Drawing impressive numbers of people to Silicon Valley from across the country, AnimeCon had two of the driving forces behind both Gainax Studios and Nadia in particular as guests. Many things happened at this convention past the obvious ones of people who had never met one another face to face ... and one of those things was the fallout from Central Park Media's announcement of Minna Agechau ... and the media's outrage regarding this "scandalous" title. That Minna Agechau ("I Give My All") was a softcore title no one will doubt (still, it is a VERY tame softcore title). What is surprising is when the US media finally discovers anime, it is portrayed as the logical extreme of pornography.

With the LA Times leading the charge, Fox News arrives and proceeds to do an "exposé" on this new assault on American morals. Interviewing attendees at this convention did nothing to dispel the concept that this entire genre was filth. In the weeks leading up to the convention, pressure was put on Central Park Media and on Sony (the original creator of the show) to scrap the idea of this tape in the US market. Because of this, the title was pulled shortly before its release, and Dominion became the first release from this startup company. Of course, this did not spell the end for Central Park Media, who eventually spun off the Anime-18 label specializing in TRULY adult titles like Urotsuki Doji. It changed the way that many view the medium, but it didn't stop AD Vision from entering the marketplace in 1992, and doing so with what could only be described as with an attitude. Their early releases (Devil Hunter Yohko, Sol Bianca) were the same sort of thing that Central Park Media was releasing for some time, but from the beginning it was clear that their product was going to be skirting the edge of accepted behavior very quickly.

It came as little surprise to anyone when they spun off their own division that specialized in some of the nastiest products ever brought to the market. Their Softcel line gained the reputation for releasing nothing but the worst ... and their sales soared. Of the top selling titles at TRSI, fully a quarter of them are Softcel releases. Says a lot about the marketplace, doesn't it?

Anime in the 90's

In many ways, the anime world of 1991 was very different from the world of 1995 ... and in others, it was very much the same. Once again, creativity largely seemed to lag when it came to groundbreaking design and execution. In short, there was a whole lot of nothing going on. For this, there were precious few excuses: the technology of animation had advanced tremendously in four years. Still, anime was largely rudderless as it floundered along; it was buoyed by only occasional huge successes that could almost have been accidental (like Macross Plus and Giant Robo, which were hits in every sense of the word).

Once again, Gainax steps up to the plate and hits one out of the park with Neon Genesis Evangelion. Huge amounts of speculation began when it was announced that Gainax was working on something new, and it intensified when no details of the project were given. The only thing that everyone could agree on was that this thing had the potential to be huge. We're talking Nadia huge. Maybe more. It was, therefore, with great anticipation that television channels were carefully scanned in the weeks leading up to the premiere (itself, quite low key). The art flashed on the screen. The music started. The opening credits ran. Everyone was hooked. Gainax was hitting on all the cylinders. Again. This is the sort of show that anime studios have dreams about ... or nightmares, as the case may be if you're someone other than Gainax. Creatures come down out of the sky. Okay. They're "Angels". Okay. They tell Mankind collectively to stop this Biotechnology stuff. Okay. And, to make things interesting, they start smashing cities. Big cities. Pancake flat ... with no syrup to be found.

Five years later, things get really interesting, and the show turns into something that Gerry Anderson would be proud to put his name on. Movable underground buildings. Last Hope Of Humanity robots ... with extension cords. Ordinary Guy Who Is The Scientist's Son stuff, but this is (surprise) no ordinary boy. If you aren't hooked in the first few minutes, you might want to check your pulse. And, the show just kept getting better ... until the last episode. I have no intention to giving anything huge away, but many found it to be (tongue firmly in cheek) a bit of a disappointment. There is, of course, that old saw about the journey being the important part ...

The US Anime Licensers

The US Anime licensers, naturally, hadn't taken the failure of Minna Agechau to heart, nor had they been sitting on their rear ends during this time. US Renditions, Streamline and The Right Stuf International are quickly joined by Central Park Media, AnimEigo, AD Vision and a handful of others. Over time, the US market became moderately anime-aware as each month the back catalog got noticeably fatter. Slowly, "big" titles are brought over ... that is, slowly at first and then faster as time went on. For years, it looked to some that the Japanese backlog was a bottomless pit where shows could be had for a song if you just had the right approach. Shows that you could release and make a significant return on your investment. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight it's plain that this was not to be the case forever.

While there are still some conspicuous holdout titles on the Japanese side, much of the product worth releasing has already been either released or is scheduled for release. And, what used to be a bargain has now turned expensive. Very expensive. Surely, some of this was due to the US currency as it dropped in value to about half of its 1980 levels, but as the raw supply shrank, bidding for the remaining product went up. Some companies who decided they wanted it all didn't help, either. At the same time, sales for released titles began to drop. It is a case of a saturated market that we're just beginning to feel now. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that the way that US companies work started to be questioned. Some of the US anime innovators are shifting their focus (like AnimEigo, who is now working on Live Action product like the Lone Wolf and Cub series and US Renditions, who is experimenting with licensing anime CD's) in an effort to maintain market share.

Central Park Media is changing their focus in another way: a great deal of effort appears to be going into dubbing most of their back catalog (AnimEigo has been doing this for some time), but for the first time there are titles appearing from them that are being released dubbed only. In fact, Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment have undertaken what might be the next logical step in the marketplace: US-Japanese co-productions. The early results have been quite interesting: CPM's "MD Geist II" has nice character design as well as color design, and Manga Entertainment's "Ghost in the Shell" is selling like crazy all over the US (For the record, it debuted on Billboard's Top Ten, something unheard of for this small a market, good advertising or not!

As of this writing, it's alleged to have actually hit number one, and is certainly closing on the biggest selling anime title thus far: Akira). The US anime industry could turn around easily with a big hit and a new flood of interest ... or it could drop and take all but the biggest anime companies with it. Streamline Pictures, for example, signed a deal with Orion Home Video in 1995. By the middle of 1996, Carl Macek was out of the loop with Orion. There's still a Streamline, but it isn't doing anything new with anime anymore. And, the Castle Cagliostro film has been acquired by Manga Entertainment ... one has to wonder if there are any more films that are going this way. Manga Entertainment itself went through a period early this year where a significantly reduced amount of product shipped (they're back to full strength now). They have, however, announced their intentions of bringing out a subtitled version of Giant Robo shortly, and their release schedule is rapidly filling up. A part of the problem is certainly the implosion of the US comic book market, a problem which has gotten worse recently with Diamond buying Capital City Distribution. Comic shops all over the country closed and continue to close as the back issue market evaporated. While it isn't the end, things could get very bad indeed.

So Is It All Over?

So, is it all over? Some companies are asking themselves that question now, and not liking the lack of answers. Personally, we think that we're in a lull ... the anime market in Japan has seen these in the past. This lull may only be a few months long. The Japanese economy could improve to a point where the budgets start to grow again, and more people get a shot at the brass ring. One of the US-Japan experiments could ignite the whole market, and I'm not saying that Ghost in the Shell won't do it by itself. Currently in Japan, there is a new television show called Vision of Escaflowne (at least, that's what most people call it ... the Japanese title is slightly different), and it has a devoted following like Evangelion did before that last episode. The interest in this show is quite justified: the animation is absolutely beautiful (OVA quality or better) and it's a weekly show. Bidding on this show is, as you might imagine, brisk in the US. We think we'll be seeing this in the US before much longer, and hopefully on US television.

With the Disney distribution deal for Miyazaki's product, we'll get to see Kiki's Delivery Service (this really is quite a film, but it takes place in some alternate universe where EVERYONE is overly nice) released in the US with a real advertising budget as well as Porco Rosso. Laputa should finally show up on tape as well, and this is something that's been missing for a lot of years. Expect many non-fans to look at these, and there will certainly be immediate converts once this happens. Hopefully, this will lead to a resurgence in Totoro sales for Fox (but ... OF COURSE, you're going to buy them through The Right Stuf International). Only one thing is for sure: as long as there is a US anime market (and there will be for some time yet), you'll be able to buy your tape from TRSI.

It seems like the Des Moines office expands every few months or so and another person is added to work the phone bank (there will probably be another person added to our office staff by the time you read this). Halfway through the year, our sales were already approaching those of last year's total sales. In fact, the order volume has grown so fast that a few US startup companies are trying to do what we do, and send out photocopied linelist (or incomplete ... or both) catalogs (or pirate ours) with a less than total commitment to the medium. Don't be fooled, though. At TRSI, we say the same thing we've been saying for years.

We're different. We Care.

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