History of Anime in the US Part 1


Into the Pop Culture Mainstream

Many people who are discovering anime now think that there has never been as much mainstream exposure as there is now ... and would be mistaken. Sure, you can go into almost any video store and get the OVA-of-the-week and you couldn't before. You can pick up mainstream gaming and comic magazines and read about the new anime releases and you couldn't do that before, either. There's even the odd release popping up on the Science Fiction channel, too. Otherwise normal people are starting to talk about things like Tenchi Muyo and Akira ... there's even an Anime tape club advertised on television! Still, the influence over pop culture pales when you look back about a little more than 30 years. Surprised? Can you get 10% of the average people you meet (over 40) to hum a current anime theme song?

Astroboy in 1964

When Astro Boy showed up on US television in 1964, nothing like it had ever been seen in the US. This is only fair ... nothing like it had ever been seen in Japan, either. What Osamu Tezuka created was something unique ... and people all over the world knew it immediately.

Of course, we need to thank more than Dr. Tezuka for Astro Boy ... we need to thank an American named Fred Ladd as well. Someone who knew the US syndication market very well in the 1960's, Fred saw Tetsuwan Atomu for what it was and with a little help from NBC turned it into something huge. Before almost all current fans were born, the US was being turned upside down by this little robot boy. His computer mind was powerful and his atomic heart showed none of the horror which had been visited on Hiroshima and Nagasaki a few decades earlier. He was an unstoppable force for good, though he was sorely tested many times through his adventures.

What might also be surprising to many US fans is that even in the 1960's there was a sizable outcry over television shows that made people think and treated cartoon characters like they might be human. Vocal displeasure from some pressure groups increased slowly, and it became apparent that when the (rather dramatic) end of Astroboy appeared in Japan it would never be shown in the US. That's a story in itself though, and one that will have to wait for another time.

Gigantor, Speed, Kimba & Simba

So here we are, the mid Sixties, and we've got this Astro Boy thing. Very shortly afterward, a giant robot show called Gigantor (Tetsujin 28) shows up. Then, a robotic crimefighter called Tobor (The Eighth Man) appears. Then, a show about a boy who is as at home underwater as above (Marine Boy). We're not talking about something that showed in maybe two markets way outside the mainstream here ... we're talking nationwide syndication and people were eating it up. As we came to the end of the sixties, Speed Racer popped up, and little boys went nuts. Here's a show with fast cars and a daring driver, who happens to have a little brother and his pet monkey who frequently stows away in the trunk. While it was tamed for the US market, we've got certainly fatal car crashes and some painful looking stunts going on.

While there was a capable female in the series who isn't spending all of her time in the kitchen cooking for the boys, it didn't have all that much going for the girls. There was, however, a show that did ... it was called Kimba. No, it didn't have sailor suited highschool students battling crime or things like that. It starred a little boy lion, destined to become the leader of the jungle, his female counterpart, and a series of bizarre supporting animal characters. His distinctive black tipped ears and white coat became almost as recognizable as Astro Boy's asymmetrical head, and influenced the way that stories would be told in the future.

Why did girls like this? Simple, here was a powerful character driven storyline that sometimes went over the top but even slow episodes had enough emotional impact to affect almost anyone. For most of these girls who are women now, only isolated images of the show remain ... half forgotten fragments and scenes. The reason? The show is not available on videotape in the original form. This is due primarily to a series of legal problems both in Japan and the US. One day, we desperately hope that these will be resolved to everyone's satisfaction and the show will surface to inspire a whole new generation of people.

There is, of course, a new Jungle Emperor feature film that Tezuka Pro just finished for the Japanese market (which is rumored to tell the last part of the story ... which didn't make it into any of the previous versions), and that'll probably show people a thing or two. If you can't wait, of course, I'd say that you should track down a copy of the manga and find what REALLY happens (it's surprising ... and perfect). Of course, one can't mention Kimba the White Lion anymore without also touching on a certain Disney film from a little while back which "officially" has no similarity to the Osamu Tezuka tale of Africa.

The similarities are striking to say the least, both on the surface and deep in the stories. The Disney lawyers have repeatedly and with emphasis stated that neither their film nor their animators were influenced by Kimba ... a position that is interesting when the Kimba series is viewed and entire scenes are present. Sure, it's possible that it's all one huge coincidence ... it's just about as likely as the Van Allen belt catching fire, buxom furry female aliens landing in Central Park (not that anyone would notice), and Jesse Helms discovering that God really DID speak through Donna Summer records played backwards all in the next five minutes. Maybe slightly less so. In case you're counting, it's 5:04:25 AM EDT.

The Star Blazing 70's

In the 1970's, another wave of anime swept through the US. While it didn't have the same sort of cultural impact that the first one did, it's far closer to most fans. It began with the (primarily East Coast) phenomena of Star Blazers (Yamato), although in some markets the influence of Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman) was even more pronounced. These two series, arriving fairly close together in the US, took two different routes in their Americanization: Star Blazers was frequently dead on accurate when it came to plotlines and dialogue.

For those of you who are wondering, the Japanese equivalent of the Earth saving "Cosmo DNA" was even MORE inane in the Japanese version so we can't blame Westchester Films for that one. There were cuts in the second episode (where the US Navy sinks the Yamato and we see its gallant crew fighting off those evil Grummans and such) and some others, but for the most part the show arrived here intact. Dialogue, of course, was altered to reflect the West's perceived backlash against the entire crew of the Yamato drinking Sake during critical events, and the entire suicide-mission aspect of the story was significantly toned down. Still, the strength of the original shines through in those first two series: they're still a treat to watch today.

Battle of the Planets

Battle of the Planets, on the other hand, was made to conform to the perceived US market much more closely with judicious editing. To be fair, the original probably wouldn't have been able to run on regular US television at the time without those cuts as the show itself is quite violent. There is a lot of punching, kicking and bleeding to death present here, so a few minutes are added to each one to offset the cuts with the addition of 7-Zark-7 (who many take as a personal insult): he's not in the original Japanese program at all! The cities are not evacuated before this-weeks-bug-monster attacks, or are those cities anywhere other than on Earth itself.

Probably the biggest change for the US conversion is the fact that the show DOES have a very definite ending ... one member of the team (who is dying anyway of an incurable illness) stops the doomsday clock seconds before the Earth would have been destroyed. The number of seconds remaining on the face of that doomsday clock is his number in the Gatchaman team. He then dies happy to have saved everything and the rest of the team comes apart. Not only that, but Berg Katse (Zoltar) meets his/her end only minutes before.

The Battle of the Planets adaptation was not as successful as it should have been (only some of that first season was adapted for the US market), and there was another attempt some time later when the show resurfaced as G-Force. While much of the violence was back in it, the dub itself was generally less satisfactory and the show again sank to be seen today on cable only. As with Star Blazers, enough of the original brilliance shows through to give the average US fan a taste of what this was like, and it influenced many people on this side of the ocean ... people who were beginning to discover that they weren't alone when they ran into each other at SF conventions. From the US fan's perspective, the biggest problem the show really had at the time was the lack of printed books covering it. Unlike Yamato, there are only a few difficult to get (even then!) works.

As the years went by, these books became more and more difficult to obtain until today when they're almost impossible to find for less than $75 (and they're not all that nice). The reason for these books not surfacing the way that the Yamato books did was, of course, that Yamato followed Gatchaman and Yamato revolutionized the way that anime was perceived in Japan. Don't believe me? Try to find coverage for Speed Racer (Mach Go-Go-Go!), which also preceded Yamato. Today, even though the golden age of artbooks has past, some of the neatest things that one can find on a series, creator, or movie/OVA is probably a $35 book. Some of these are quite elaborate, and in one extreme example, is more expensive than a laserdisc of the program itself (Macross Movie Laserdisc = 7800 Yen, Macross Movie "Gold" Movie Book = 8800 Yen)! But, I digress.