Japanese Animation in the West

published in Filmnews No.117, Sydney, 1995
Marine Boy (1966)

By now, many people have encountered an example of recent Japanese animation. A popular cult image in the west has understandably developed, evoking slimy tentacles, women in kinky machine suits, gross monsters, nuclear explosions, dimensional warps, cute faces, big eyes and crustaceous spaceships. However, such an image is as accurate as saying all western movies are like DIE HARD. Yet there are reasons why such an image of Japanese animation persists.

They germinate in two historical streams: one carrying Japanese animated TV series into America; the other carrying Japanese animation videos into Asian and Caucasian communities in America and Hong Kong. Both streams are important because they have provided the foundation for translating the material for the west.

Since the 60s, many Japanese TV animation series were economically sold to America and packaged as if they were American product. (This uncannily echoes Roger Corman's strategy of buying cheap Russian sci-fi movies in the 50s and re-editing and re-dubbing them with new footage to suggest that they were American.) Many of these original Japanese TV series screened in Australia between c.1965 and c.1973: ASTRO BOY, KIMBA THE WHITE LION, THE AMAZING THREE, THE GOLDEN BAT, 8TH MAN, PRINCE PLANET, MARINE BOY, SPEED RACER and GIGANTOR. However these series - as distinctive as they were and are - were marginalized by the monopolies held on animation production by the likes of Hanna Barbera. Japanese re-dubbed series did not infiltrate America TV again with such force until the 70s explosion of robot action series (which were huge in Japan in both the manga - comic - and anime - animation - industries). Unfortunately, many of these 70s series were radically cut up, rendering them sometimes nearly incomprehensible: BATTLE OF THE PLANETS, G-FORCE, STARVENGERS and STARBLAZERS to name a few.

Still, a large and growing sc-fi fan market in America supported these series which would boom in the 80s with not only more Japanese series sold to American TV (GO-BOTS, CAPTAIN FUTURE, etc.) but also facilitate the fan-oriented translation of bootlegged videos of the many Japanese series which did not sell direct to America. While this subculture was being fostered within the comic book convention circuit across America by the start of the 80s, Japan itself commenced what would become a major boom in animation production. This early 80s period is when not only were animated TV series, TV specials and features being produced (more than any other country in the world), but the OVA explosion virtually redefined the market. OVAs - Original Animation Videos - are titles produced as either one-offs or limited series which are designed solely for sell-through. In other words, they are not sold to TV for broadcast or syndication, nor are they sold for theatrical distribution and exhibition (though they may use these avenues for promotion of the sell-through product).

By the mid-80s, there was more animation being produced in Japan (in all forms) than ever before. Much of this material started to flow into the already-established sci-fi fan networks in America, but also the OVAs were equally relevant and attractive to Asian communities in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and then later New York, Toronto, Houston and Hong Kong. What with east-west multicultural proliferation occurring on the college campuses in all these cities, it was not long before American companies - many involving fans from the convention circuit - sprung up to provide subtitled OVA series for this growing market (companies like AD Vision, US Manga Corps, Animeigo, Streamline, U.S. Renditions, etc.). By the start of the 90s, most of these companies and others were further stabilized by the expanding laser disc market in America, as well as the growing trend in translating Japanese manga for the west (by companies like VIZ, ACADEMY, EPIC, ANTARCTIC PRESS and DARK HORSE).

Interestingly, there is an important technical reason for this Japan-America connection: both countries employ the NTSC system for TV broadcast and video tape recording. Pen pals and fan networks could easily swap video dubs and get other friends to translate the titles for them. It was not until the start of the 90s that the manga and anime explosion hit the UK and its PAL based system with substantial force - largely through MANGA ENTERTAINMENT (a division of ISLAND COMMUNICATIONS) purchasing already-translated material from the afore mentioned American companies. Over the last few years, MANGA has specialized in dubbing (as opposed to the initially-dominant American strategy of subtitling OVAs) as a means of creating a discernibly English take on the material. It is this material (a mix of the English dubbed versions as well as some original American dubbed versions) which is being released with growing success in Australia by MANGA VIDEO, as well as titles by KISEKI (licensed here in Australia directly from the Japanese company of the same name). Also, most major Australian cities have PAL Chinese video stores and libraries in their Chinatown districts catering to Chinese & Caucasian fans of Japanese animation.

This lengthy trailing of how Japanese animated titles get translated into English is of importance because: (a) it explains why only certain types of puerile sci-fi action material became popular within American sci-fi fandom and hence the UK pick-up of such titles; and (b) it provides a view of how audio-visual media from one culture is transferred through the subcultural terrains of another without the validated diplomatic exchanges governed by film festivals and the like. This, of course, is all part of developing cultural ties, and now there is an expanding awareness in the west of the vast range of manga and anime produced in Japan (historical, political, girl-oriented, dramatic, experimental, underground, etc.) which grows from the solid base established by the original fanboy networks. And this is as good a point as any to introduce Osamu Tezuka.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © respective copyright holders.