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A History of Anime, Part 3

By Janet Houck     September 27, 2006


Wings of Honneamise
© Manga
Click here for last week's look at the 80s boom and bust in anime. This week, we'll take a look at the 90s, when anime really began to grow as a hobby on US shores.

The 80s ended on a low note for anime in Japan. With a recession on the horizon and the OVA market saturated with a lot of crappy animation that merely rehashed old plots (to put it nicely), a lot of small companies got out of the anime business. There simply wasn't much profit, if any at all, in animation. However, there was one quirky company of artists more than willing to work long hours on small budgets, and had a taste for experimental anime with unconventional endings. Created in 1981 under the name Daicon Films by a group of students, Gainax first produced animated shorts for Daicon, Japan's national sci-fi convention. Asked to create a feature film, as the group's shorts were popular at the conventions, one of the most expensive anime films to date was released in 1987. THE WINGS OF HONNEAMISE did poorly during its initial theatrical run, but it would find a place in US hearts as a cornerstone of early high quality VHS anime.

The next few Gainax works would also become pivotal in the US market. GUNBUSTER (1988), a six episode OVA parody of robot shows, was ready-made for US audiences, with cute girls and mecha. OTAKU NO VIDEO (1992) became a rally cry for the fledgling US otaku crowd at conventions. Even as mock(ing) documentary, mixing live film with anime storytelling, people loved the OVA. It spoke to every otaku's secret dream of living the life, surrounded by anime and manga.

However, out of Gainax's productions in the late 80s and early 90s, NADIA: THE SECRET OF BLUE WATER (1990) had the greatest effect on US fandom. Soon after broadcasting in Japan, Streamline Pictures bought the rights to NADIA, however, only the first eight episodes were dubbed. (ADV Films picked up the show and the film in 1996.) In the early 90s, most anime in the US was on illegal tapes, either homemade copies or bootlegs, so the lack of official distribution hardly stopped otaku from seeing it. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that fansubbers contributed greatly to the early slow growth of the US fandom purely through making anime more accessible to English speakers.

Ahem. Back to the topic at hand. Despite its very strong environmental/anti-mankind message (Nadia is a vegetarian who constantly criticizes people who eat meat), NADIA was a hit at San Jose's AnimeCon, in 1991. (Yes. There were American conventions even by then.) Looking at American culture at the time, I'm not really surprised, as saving the environment had become an ingrained national duty by the early 90s.

Time to take a short break to look at the darker side of the anime explosion. Alongside the boom of the OVA and home video market, animated pornography (hentai) grew into its niche. CREAM LEMON (1984) wasn't the first H title, but the popular and long-lived series is associated with the establishment of the genre. Because sex sells a lot, hentai tapes are quite popular among US otaku, as well as among their domestic kindred. Everyone knows someone who has one of those "crazy" Japanese cartoon tapes. Essentially all of the US anime distributors at the time were producing hentai tapes, as they required little to no translation and made a lot of money.

Unfortunately, this is how mainstream media discovers anime in 1991... as dirty Japanese cartoons. Exposes are printed in newspapers and broadcasted on TV about this latest threat to the youth of America, and interviews with AnimeCon attendees did nothing to dispel this image of depraved otaku geekboys. Fledgling company Central Park Media acquired MINNA AGECHAU, a very softcore hentai title. However, pressure was put on Central Park Media and Sony to scrap the title just before its release, making DOMINION their first title. But Central Park Media wasn't ready to give up in the adult market yet. Under their Anime 18 label, Central Park Media would release two staple classics of hardcore hentai: UROTSUKIDOJI (1993) and LA BLUE GIRL (1992).

A.D. Vision entered the marketplace in 1992 with the same sassy attitude of Central Park Media, but more so. With the success of DEVIL HUNTER YOHKO and SOL BIANCA, A.D. Vision created their own adult label, Softcel, which soon acquired a reputation for releasing only the nastiest titles out there. However, in 1997, the company would hit the jackpot.

In 1995, Gainax released to Japan their experimental interpretation of the tired old mecha genre -- NEON GENESIS EVANGELION. A.D. Vision (now ADV Films) gained the right to the US distribution in 1997, and it was an amazing success. Combining Kabbalah symbolism, psychology, mythology, mecha and a secret UN organization, EVANGELION rejuvenated the entire anime industry, spawning countless copies and imitations. In the US, the anime found an immediate following, and a name tied to the concept of "anime." It is one of the few shows that all otaku can safely assume as something that everyone in the fandom has seen. For ADV, it launched the company into the big leagues as a top US distributor, enabling them to acquire licenses for anime shows and films that would have never been within their reach before the success of EVANGELION.

Other early US distributors include AnimEigo, founded in 1989. The first company to do commercial subtitles, they are behind classics such as URUSEI YATSURA, BUBBLEGUM CRISIS and KIMAGURE ORANGE ROAD. However, since ADV's sudden turn of good fortune in 1995, AnimEigo has had a hard time acquiring new high quality titles, thus they have turned their attention to releasing classic samurai films, such as ZATOICHI and LONE WOLF AND CUB (there is no SHOGUN ASSASSIN in my world). Some have argued that their downfall is also due to the company's dedication in releasing the entirety of URUSEI YATSURA (50+ DVDs) in the US.

Anime VHS tapes began to appear in video rental stores around the mid 90s, originally placed somewhere between the children's section and the partitioned "adults only" area. The majority of these titles were hentai, or they contained fanservice (gratuitous panty shots, breast jiggles, you get the idea...), such as 3X3 Eyes, FIST OF THE NORTH STAR, DEVILMAN, VAMPIRE PRINCESS MIYU, TENCHI MUYO! and BUBBLEGUM CRISIS. This mainstream, if but limited, exposure to anime only served to expand the US audience.

EVANGELION affected the anime scene in more ways that what is obvious at first. It showed that there was an audience for experimental and intellectual animated entertainment. 1995 saw the release of GHOST IN THE SHELL, the blockbuster cyberpunk film from Manga Entertainment that would spawn a successful franchise years later in the 2000s. In 1998, the space bounty hunter opus COWBOY BEBOP would waltz into the scene, quickly becoming a darling in the US in 2000. The surreal SERIAL EXPERIMENTS LAIN (1998) and BOOGIEPOP PHANTOM (2000) left us plots that are still unclear and debated. One thing that is clear when looking at the titles before and after 1995: EVANGELION changed how people perceived anime as a medium.

What also helped to form this change were two new shows on the Cartoon Network in 1995 and 1996: SAILOR MOON and DRAGONBALL Z, the two banes of anyone of my otaku generation. Lacking in plot at times, nevertheless they were incredibly catchy for their teenage (and younger) viewers. Marking a new trend in broadcasted anime after the hentai scandal of '91, the Cartoon Network actually showed the anime during the prime hours for children: before and after school. This also exposed anime to parents, who saw nothing wrong with these bright Japanese cartoons where the good guys fought the bad guys and always won. Working as a gateway drug, many "Moonies" ( dedicated fans of SAILOR MOON) began to meet on the still-new Internet, sharing tidbits of information, which led to fansubs when the network wasn't airing episodes quickly enough or when editing or a bad translation had occurred. SAILOR MOON is also to blame for the popularity of cosplay, as fans began to show up at conventions dressed as their favorite sailor scouts, and contests were soon held to judge the best costume, the best acting of the character, best group, and the other competitions that are familiar now to many con-goers.

As the 90s drew to a close, the anime scene in the US was starting to burn even hotter. DVDs were still unavailable for many, but they promised to end the dub/sub debate tied to VCR releases, as well as making Japanese imports more accessible and available. The Internet was letting fans rally around their favorite shows, and distributors were starting to hear loudly from otaku what they wanted to see, both old and new shows. Thus began a new century for anime.

COMMENTS AND RESPONSES

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themes 9/27/2006 9:26:04 AM
Evangelion didn't change my perception of anime, I took notice of it long before Gainax ever formed and long before I ever subtituted the term 'anime' from japanese animation as I was used to this. And no, I was never part of a collective of 'fans'. Anyway, a view from a fan but not a fanatic.
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