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A History of Anime, Part 4

By Janet Houck     October 04, 2006


SAILOR MOON: THE MOVIE.
© Geneon
(Look here for a recap of anime in the US during the 90s, as covered in last week's column.)

The year 2000 marked the beginning of a new century for anime, as well as the rest of the world. Technology ultimately created the boom of anime now prevalent in the US.

Throughout the 80s and 90s, and perhaps during the 70s as well, the subtitle versus dubbed dialogue (sub/dub) argument burned on and on, on which English format was "better". VHS distributors took advantage of this by releasing separate subtitled and dubbed versions, with the subtitle version retailing at a higher price. The poor quality of many of the dubs during this time didn't help to sell this version, or anime as a whole. Then the clouds parted and technology provided an answer: DVD. Anime had been released on laserdisc and video discs before this time, but only a few titles and these formats quickly went the way of the 8-track. DVDs allowed for distributors to release anime with both subtitles and dubbed dialogue, which could be switched off and on at the whim of the viewer. There were additional benefits to more dedicated fans as well. Although US DVDs were encoded to Region 1, fans could import DVDs from Japan (Region 2) and play them on a modded Region 1 player, a Japanese player, or use computer programs to unlock the DVD and play it on their computer's DVD drive. For the import market, the DVD format created demand from a mostly untapped US and world market.

For those knowledgeable about the Internet, Usenet and IRC had long been an easy method for downloading fansubbed anime and scanslations (fansubbed manga). However, this kept US anime fandom rather inclusive, as you had to be a fan (or more specifically, a fan with a good Internet connection and a little computer know-how) in order to know where to find these files. Peer-to-peer programs and cheap online storage, along with faster and cheaper Internet service would open anime to the less computer-literate.

As with more mainstream music and movies, P2P programs such as Direct Connect and Kazaa allowed people to download anime quickly, or in the case of Direct Connect, download an entire series easily. I'll save the whole illegal-or-not debate for another day, but peer-to-peer programs did give access to rather hard-to-find media, or in the case of hentai, rather embarrassing-to-buy.

Another aspect that made P2P file sharing so attractive and easy were more compact media file formats. Episodes could be divided into tiny Realplayer files, with a subtitle file tacked on, and easily shared online in the world of dial-up Internet. Later, DivX enabled DVD quality video and audio while being versatile as various media players incorporated the file format. A person in Canada could download the same file as someone in Germany, and it would play exactly the same, unlike video tapes. Oh, and it was free. Hence the popularity of anime file sharing among college students on high-speed networks.

Without a doubt, the inheritor program of the online fansub community has been Bittorrent. Never before has anime and manga been so easy to find, as whole website communities have sprung up around Bittorrent directories. Finding security in the lack of a central server, webmasters are more than happy to direct fans to their series of choice, as well as host discussion groups on shows that will likely never air outside of Japan.

Free, or low cost online storage also enabled file sharing. Programs such as Streamload and Yahoo Briefcase gave users space and bandwidth to trade anime and manga files, back when a free online personal mailbox greater than 2 megs was laughable. Webforums solely for listing anime wants and offering episodes sprung up around anime fan sites. Today, this type of file sharing has declined to a trickle, as storage providers became more aware of the blatant abuse of their services and webmasters aware of the illegal nature of these discussions.

However, before file swapping were the fansites and personal webpages. Originally, these were merely expressions of bubbly happiness of favorite shows, with animated gifs, screencaps, embedded tinkling midi music, and whatever net toy that the creator had discovered this week, along with information about the show. However, as fans discovered each other online, they found power in numbers. Movements such as Save Our Sailors arose to support certain shows (in this case, SAILOR MOON), as well as anime in general. In more recent news, online support has grown in the POKEMON fandom for recent changes in the English dub's voice acting cast through SOVA. Fan demands have been heard before, resulting in better dubs and subs, better DVD extras, more episodes per DVD disc (3-4 episodes, as opposed to 2 episode Japanese releases), and in the best conditions, for a series to be picked up for US distribution. Additionally, boxsets are being released of anime classics, such as ASTROBOY and VOLTRON. Feeding on nostalgic memories of childhood for the twenty-almost-thirty year old otaku, perhaps, but it's a positive sign that distributors are listening to the demands of their audience.

Although technology made anime more accessible, far more factors play into its popularity among US culture. Miramax's release of PRINCESS MONONOKE in 1999, with well-known Hollywood actors involved in the English dub, brought Miyazaki and anime onto mainstream cinema and TV. Miyazaki's next work, SPIRITED AWAY shared the top prize at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival, and went on to win in 2003 the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, a stunning blow in a category that usually switches between Dreamworks and Disney works. Feature-length animated films are now considered equals to their living body counterparts, with GHOST IN THE SHELL: INNOCENCE featured at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and FINAL FANTASY VII: ADVENT CHILDREN was featured at the Venice Film Festival in 2004 and 2005, first as a 25-minute version, then as its completed version.

The rise of anime on American broadcast and cable networks grew from the popularity of DRAGONBALL Z and SAILOR MOON in the late 90s to the Saturday morning line-up of POKEMON, DIGIMON, SONIC X, YU-GI-OH!, SHAMAN KING, ONE PIECE, NARUTO, MEW MEW POWER and MAGICAL DOREMI, just to name the majority of this week's schedule for 4Kids TV. This has lead to re-inventions of older franchises, resulting in GI JOE: SIGMA 6 and TEEN TITANS, which even has an Engrish opening song.

Demand for anime not meant for the under 13 group has led to the creation of anime programming blocks and anime channels, such as The Cartoon Network's Toonami, G4's Anime Unleashed, The Anime Network on satellite and premium broadband cable, and a proposed Canadian station in the works: The Anime Channel.

Over on the manga front, the efforts of companies such as TOKYOPOP and VIZ Media made manga more accessible (as in, not just an item in your local comicbook store). They also made it a lot friendlier on the bookshelf of bookstores, with a smaller size, bright covers and better paper quality. Translations and adaptations became better into the 00s, as publishers began to understand that their customers wanted subtitle-quality text with dubbed accessibility for the average US reader, along with all of the extras (omake) included in the Japanese versions of the volumes. Many readers actually owned copies of the original, and were more than willing to point out differences to English-only readers. Now publishers are expanding into novels, as many Japanese "light novels" (think skinny paperbacks) have anime and manga titles. How popular these will prove to be has yet to be seen.

In the last few years, the OEL (original English language) manga has made strides into the manga marketplace. Once ostracized as being nothing but fan imitations of "real" manga, at best doujinshi, OEL titles account for a small, but rapidly growing piece of the manga bumbleberry pie in the US and abroad. TOKYOPOP's PEACH FUZZ and VAN VON HUNTER are printed weekly in the Sunday edition of several major US newspapers. As "the anime style" has become more accepted in American comics, comic and manga fans have become more open to non-Japanese manga and "anime" comics.

So what can we see from this trend? Technology will push release dates between the Japanese and US markets closer and closer. With Blu-ray and HD DVD technology, it will become possible to compress more and more episodes and extras onto anime releases, turning an entire series collection into a two-disc single release. The US manga market will probably hit a bump soon, as it's going to hit a point of saturation soon, if it hasn't by now. One thing is certain: the American Otaku is here to stay.

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