Anime is Great…It’s the Fan’s That Suck

There is a belief among civilians that stuff is cheaper in the PX.

This is only marginally true, It really isn’t what it used to be.  Back before I came in, everyone in the Exchange system was in uniform, (from the truck driver who picked up the merch at the warehouse to the guy who ran the cash register). Everything thing got sold to GIs at wholesale. 

However by the time I was in, various greedy business men had managed to get all of that changed.  What was left of the Exchange system was a grossly inefficient government run monopoly.   We got charged MSRP for everything but since we were on a Federal Reservation, there was no local or state sales taxes.  That was it for the savings.

Regardless, I could tell that Anime had gone mainstream when it arrived in the PX.

It was there for all of a week in 1996.  Then it vanished without a trace.I knew exactly what had happened.  A General’s wife had bought Ninja Scroll at the insistent pleading of one of her grandspawn… And then she watched it with them.

Banished without a trace.

And the funny thing is, Ninja Scroll wasn’t even the hard stuff. But back in the 1990s there was still this all pervading belief among the Boomers, Silents and Greats that all cartoons were strictly kid stuff.

And in truth it was kind of understandable that they would view “Japanamation” the same way.

A very brief history of Anime…

…in America.

I’m not going into the actual history of wherever it came from because I’d be trying to find Japanese cave paintings on the internet and fuck that.

I SAID, FUCK THAT!

The first Anime to arrive here was something called Astro Boy.  It featured a doe-eyed prepubescent robot boy and his disturbingly short pants.

Yeah…this could never lead to anything bad

Next came Kimba the White Lion, which Disney banished from existence for some unknown reason.

The early Anime TV shows tended to be very herky-jerky because Osamu Tezuka’s studio couldn’t afford to produce as many animation cells as a typical American cartoon. That practice was universal in Japan for the next thirty years or so.

Astro Boy and Kimba were featured prominently in UHF markets that were never anywhere that lived. So moving right along.

The first Anime series that I did see was Speed Racer.  While it was cheaply made, herky-jerky and incredibly silly, it did break the ground on something it would share with all of the other Japanimation shows that would come after it. If my parents had known what I was watching they would have burned our TV set.

The vehicular carnage was relentless. It started during the credits then continued for the next half hour.     Over the course of three years, Speed would engage with, do battle and triumph over every possible form of evil.  Mostly by running it off the road and then setting it on fire.

I made fun of the Mach 5… I guess I deserved this

Speed was it for while until something very unexpected happened in 1977.  Science Fiction became popular.  When Star Wars blew the doors off so hard that there wasn’t even a door frame left behind, American distrubuters realized that this new generation of kids loved SF in a way that could be very, very profitable.

The market was suddenly ravenous for anything space opera related and Japan as it turned out had plenty in storage.  However these shows came with a few problems attached.

The biggest of which was that these shows weren’t meant for children.  Footnote for my non-American readers. You have to understand that in America at that time ALL televised animation was meant for little kids.  It was unthinkable that there be an adult market for it.

Of course we Gen-Xers weren’t adults yet but these shows tried to get us there fast.

A hilariously mild hint of things to come

Star Blazers was blowy uppie but really no worse than Speed Racer in a lot of ways.  A few scenes with Nova had to be trimmed.  As well as the moment that Knox heroically frags himself to save the day.  In Japan he died but in America, “he got out in time.” (*Little Cataline knew he was being lied to*)  But on the whole these things didn’t really effect the tone or the plot.  Yamato had a fairly grand story.  The design work was good for it’s time and animation was still pretty cheap and terrible.  

The American distribution company that dubbed it was also on the cheap and used the same actors for several different parts.  An effort to make the hero sound different from the bad guy resulted in the most fundamentally fabulous villain in all of 1970s animation.

“I saw you looking at me Wildstar.”

All of the characters names were Americanized and not all of the dialog made the jump to English. But on the whole the American side of the house demonstrated some fundamental respect for the authorial intent of the creators.

Battle of the Planets on the other hand had nothing to do with the original series what so ever.

Heil Star Wars Font!!

In America Battle of the Planets was about a team of superfriends who traveled the galaxy battling the same source of incompetent evil every week and telling each other how great they were.

In the Land of the Rising Sun, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman was a superhero-spy show that took place on Earth.  Yep, there was only one planet and this was it.  The show was pretty serious, the good guys didn’t always win.  Or for that matter get along with each other.

Not that we would ever find out about that. If there was a scene where Jason and Mark were beating the unholy fuckity, fucking fuck out of each other over Swan-Girl-Bridge-Bunny…

Like this.

…we instead got to see this godawful thing as a substitute…

Meet the Jar-Jar of 1970s Anime

…explaining to us that nothing bad had happened.   Little Cataline knew damn good and well that this horrible blinking suppository in a cape did not belong in the show.  

Seven Zark Seven was this shitty little tacked on thing that was supposed to provide exposition on where in “Space” this weeks story was going to take place.  When he wasn’t lying to us about that, he was telling us that nobody had been hurt in the episode we just watched,  no matter how many people had been beaten up, shot up or blown up.

 Seventies Anime was cheap but it was nowhere near as cheap as American Saturday morning cartoons, which this repulsive little turd clearly was a product of.

Starblazers had some fundamental appreciation for the source material.  Battle for the Planets clearly held both the original show and it’s own audience in utter contempt.

These two shows were it for a while because there was one ironclad rule of TV show syndication in those days.  There had to be a minimum of seventy two episodes.  If there was less than that the show didn’t get distributed unless it was currently in production.  Which is why you only got to see Space 1999 for two years but saw the OG Star Trek forever.

Okay stupid rules are still rules.  Space Cruiser Yamato and Science Ninja Team Gatchaman easily qualified. But there were other better shows that couldn’t.

However it turned out that there was a way around this problem.  

One of my commentors made the following (not too bad guess): 

The Dark Shadows solution: spend five minutes recapping/retconning yesterday’s episode, fifteen minutes bickering between family members, five minutes plot advancement to a cliffhanger. Preferably one with a shocked Barnabas, mouth agape.


Shounen solution: give the hero two new powers. First and most important (to series length) is the “Internal Battle Commentator of Time Freeze”. Every slight movement on the villain’s part must be analyzed in detail and interpreted as an unbeatable strategy. All hope is lost! (for bonus points, arbitrarily assign a number as the strategy’s strength) The second power, revealed twenty episodes into the fight, is the Deus Ex Machina that suddenly turns the tide, leading to the hero’s victory (another twenty episodes later).

As I said, not a bad guess but in this case it was wrong.  There was, as it turned out an even simpler solution.

In the alien world of Los Angles you have to present a cover photo if you want to get a job as dental receptionist.  The Industry permeates every facet of life.  It’s impossibly hard to get into the film business, yet it is conversely easy to get sucked in.  Of course it doesn’t make sense, we are talking Hollywood here.  It so happened that a real estate company founded by an Egyptian called Harmony Gold suddenly found itself in the Japanese Cartoon business.  A lot of the movie business depends on personal connections and if you happen to know a buyer, it’s easy to become seller…or at least a middle man.  Frank Agrama got around enough that his connections made selling anime pretty doable.  

And he had a great show that he could sell.  Super Dimension Fortress Macross.  

The original production company had gone to lot of trouble with this one.  The animation was a lot better than earlier anime shows, the storyline was more complex.   The problem as previously mentioned was the seventy two episode rule.  Super Dimension Fortress Macross had only 23 episodes.  With all the padding in the world the series couldn’t be stretched to three times it’s length.  So the guy that Agrama hired to script and record the English dub, Carl Macek, came up with novel solution to the problem.  He bought up two other anime series, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA.  

Using some clever scripting editing, Macek cobbled these all together and created the massive Robotech Saga that spanned three generations.  And the amazing thing is that it actually hung together.  I for one certainly bought into it hook, line and sinker.  I didn’t find out that it was three separate shows until I was stationed in Japan.  I nearly concussed myself with forehead slapping, it was so obvious in retrospect. 

The same trick was used for Voltron…but I never watched that one so I can’t tell you if that one worked as well or not.

Robotech still has a strong brand to this day.  The same, sadly, cannot be said for the man who made it what it is.  Carl Macek pretty much took Anime and introduced America to the grown up art form we know today.  After Robotech Carl Macek started up his own company. Streamline Pictures.

A new company needs eyeballs on it. It needs something to put it on the map. It needs an attention getter. And brother did Macek have one.

Anime truly arrived in America in 1989.

I still remember where I first saw real anime.  I was laying in my rack aboard a tub of ship that was shortly going to scrapped.  The air conditioning failed constantly.  As did the lights.  The plumbing howled in agony, when it wasn’t vomiting sewage on to the deck. The skipper had accidentally beached her so many times that the entire crew called him, “Captain Crunch.”  We, the Marines aboard her, kept hearing the magic words, “General quarters! General quarters! This is not a drill!”  That would be followed by the sound of us being locked inside our berthing area…and then the lights would fail for a few hours.

The lights had just come back on and  I shortly heard the cry of, “mail call!”  My name got called and I went to find out who loved me that day.  It was my sister of course.  She had sent me several back issues of Heavy Metal.  Laying in my rack, (chosen for it’s strategic position between the upper most rack, (too hot) and the lower most (likely to get splashed by puke in rough seas)), I was flipping through the erotic adventures of Druuna and wondering what the girls in Rota would loolike when I saw it.

It was an ad for a mail-order video tape and it only showed the back of a guy in red biker leathers with a huge pill on his back walking towards a futuristic motorcycle that was sitting on a slab of split concrete.

The cover art was stark.  There was both an edge to it and a promise implied within it.  It looked like Blade Runner without any of the suck.  It felt cyber punk as all hell…also without William Gibson’s highly overrated suck. This was a ticket to a nuclear powered roller coaster ride.  This was not going to be a Saturday morning cartoon.  This was not kid stuff.

The blurb was just a bunch of good reviews from mainstream papers, an address to an outfit called Streamline Pictures and a price tag for this mail order only VHS tape of  holy shit! Forty five dollars? Are you fucking nuts?  ($76.00 in today money)

An unfortunate truth of human nature is that we value the most what costs us the most.  My assumption was…well if they are charging that much, it must be that good.  (Yes, I was very young and stupid)  But for once I was right.

It was worth the money. Every penny of it.

It’s hard to explain what life was like in the unplugged world.  Today, it’s hard not to be aware of other cultures and that’s not just due to SJW ramrodding them down our throats.  Just some mild web surfing will bring you into contact with them.  But no web…no contact.  It wasn’t there.  We were all islands in one way or another.

It is quite impossible to explain how utterly mind blowing Akira was. It still holds up well today  but there was nothing at all like it in the America of 1990.  The animation wasn’t cheap. Clearly a lot of money had gone into this production.  The setting was…familiar yet incredibly alien.  The violence was surreal and hyper-realistic at the same time.  The attention to every aspect of detail was immaculate.  Akira wasn’t an entry level drug.  It was a big bolus shot of full power uncut heroin as your first try in the drug scene.  You survived or you didn’t. That’s all there was too it.

Fine.

I loved it.

And yeah I wanted more.

I got my wish.  Carl Macek’s late and much lamented Streamline Pictures did more than anyone else to bring Anime to America. Akira made enough money for Streamline to put it into a position to buy up pretty much the best of the best that was available at the time.

And thanks to the Japan’s Bubble Economy there was enough development money pouring into Anime combined with a straight to video market that was actually profitable at the time and you had a golden age of Anime taking off in Japan at about the same time that it first blew up big in America.

 Without Carl Macek, Anime may not have ever come to America. I know it’s hard to believe that now but trust me I’ve seen plenty of cool stuff never take off in this country.

Naturally the professionally butt hurt anime fans revile him for it. This trailer will show you why.

Macek wanted to make money and to in order do that in business before Obama became president you had to turn a profit.  There were two possible markets for Steamline’s products.  A new mass market of Gen X-ers and a small market of preexisting butthurt connoisseurs.  Serving both was out.  

The Gen-X market was just fine with an English dub but the connoisseurs wanted the original Japanese dialog with reasonably accurate subtitles.

Today if you want to switch between Japanese w/ Sub or English Dub you make a couple of quick adjustments to your DVD player’s settings with your remote.  But in the dim dark days of VHS that was not an option, a tape had to be either one or other.  Akira was a big enough title that there was a point in providing a second release for a smaller market (although at a higher price).  But there was no point in doing that for something like Neo-Tokyo.

Good call on Streamline’s part.  And it has to be said Macek and company made every effort to get the story and it’s dramatic impact across.  What they couldn’t do was provide a word for word translation from Japanese to English because the languages are just too different.

Now there were a few companies that catered to the Subtitle market. Animeigo was probably the most successful, They carried lesser titles like Bubblegum Crisis, AD Police files and Ah My Goddess. Of the early adapters ADV is the one that has done best long term. They started with a little one hour OAV called Battle Angel. Today they run Anime Network.

Anyway, despite the screams of the outraged vestals of Anime, Streamline continued to dominate the early market

And then disaster stuck Streamline.

Oh no! 
Competition!

I felt an odd sense of loyalty to Streamline Video.  Carl Macek’s company had the air of a Little Guy Who Made Good about it.  Streamline dominated discussions about Anime in America.  What titles had they bought the rights to?  Why weren’t they doing a reissue of Laputa?  When would they be releasing Wings of Honneamise (the answer to that last was, never, BTW)  That was because Streamline was the biggest frog in a small pond.  Until a genuinely big frog moved in.

Manga’s entry in Wiki and Infogalctic are both way off.  Manga Entertainmet started off in the UK in 1987. They had a number of the same titles as Streamline but could only distribute in the UK.  

However they did have connections in Japan that were comparable to Maceks. When they collected enough titles they moved into the US market hard.  Unlike Macek they had a corporate overlord with deep pockets.

I wasn’t wild about Manga Video at first because there was just a whiff of the corporate raider about them.  Silly reaction to be sure but there it was.  Manga had an actual distribution system in place and was going to be selling their videoes at the standard market price of $19.99.  And there was no getting around it.  That was a lot cheaper than Streamline could manage.  Just a couple of years before they were charging $35.00 for everything (call it $60 dollars in today money). 

Sure you wanted to buy, a legit copy but realistically you pretty much had to hope your local Blockbuster would carry what you wanted, so you could then rent and pirate it.

Yes, Manga Video had a big price break.  But what they really had going for them were the best titles available in the 1990s.

Wings of Honneamise:  Was their halo-title.  It was repeatedly voted the best anime film of all time (by various groups whose opinions really don’t matter but I got to say they had a point here.)  It’s probably the best (hard) science fiction film of all time.  It’s world is a very intricately constructed alternate history built around man’s first space flight.  But unlike our world, this was a badly funded backwater of a military program.  It’s members were few and dispised by the members of the of the real military.  It’s primary plot concerned it’s hero’s quest to find a moral center.  It still holds up well today.

Macross Plus: This one must of hurt Carl Macek, You know he had to have wanted it.  It was a worthy successor to the original Macross series. At least when it was released.  In truth it hasn’t stood the test of time. It was too reliant on 1990s computer graphics. It had wow factor at the time but now it looks awful.

Ninja Scroll:  Probably the most popular of all of their titles.  And it has to be said, it’s understandable.  It was a first rate action film with characters who all had pretty decent story arcs. The action scenes were very influential through out the rest of the ninties and into the early double 0s.

Patlabor:  This one had a lot of everything going for it and it also seems to be the one that is completely forgotten about which is a crying shame.  I will grant it was a little hard to get into. All of the characters had been introduced and established in an OVA series that was famous in Japan but hadn’t made it to the USA. Consequently, you were thrown in the deep end. Sort of like starting Game of Thrones at season 4. It was first movie I ever saw where a computer virus was the MacGuffin. Okay, yes, it’s nothing worth noting today but when it was first introduced in 1989 it was great plot device. 

Ghost in the Shell:  Also very influential and of all of these titles it seems to be the one with the strongest brand today.

Don’t get me wrong, Manga also carried some serious garbage.   Devilman comes irresistibly to mind.  But Manga Video was able to do what Streamline couldn’t and brought Anime into the mainstream. To include, briefly, the PX.

Today, Manga is like Streamline before it, a dead nameplate (at least in the US).  But for a while it was the king of the hill.

So what killed these former titans? Basically a perfect storm.

Facing genuine market pressure from Manga, Carl Macek signed a distribution deal with Orion Pictures creating Streamline Video Comics. Initially this kept Streamline in the game but the end for Macek’s company was in sight.

A number of Streamline’s title rights came up renewal at about the same time.  The Japanese companies, (Pioneer in particular) decided that since the market for Anime in America now existed, the Risk/Reward of establishing a new brand in the our market now favored the reward side and they choose not to renew with Streamline and then Manga.

Shortly after that, the Asian Economic Meltdown blew threw the Land of the Rising Sun like a Cat5 Typhoon.  A lot of the smaller companies Streamline had deals with went into receivership further complicating renewal agreements.

When Orion Pictures filed for Chapter 11, Streamline stopped importing new titles.

In 1998  the rights to Akira reverted to Pioneer.

Finally in 2000 Streamline pictures closed it’s doors.

Today Streamline is simply a fond memory for a few old timers but when Akira was rereleased in 2012 the producers opted to go with the Streamline’s original Dub as many of the professionally Butthurt Anime Fans had come to view it as vastly superior to Pioneer’s.

The economic meltdown also hit the anime business pretty hard in Japan. Development money for highend projects vanished. The OVA boom ended because people in Japan couldn’t afford to buy them anymore. The quality of the animation itself began to back slide. Computer matting kept the herky-jerky from making a comeback but you could tell the creators were using smoke and mirrors to mask a much lower budget.

As for me and anime, we had to part ways for a while. You see I had my own little typhoon blow into my life and when she was three I caught her watching my old VHS copy of Ninja Scroll.

I behaved like any General’s wife and banished my entire collection. It was all on VHS and a couple of years later when my last tape player finally died, I ditched every video cassette in the house anyway.

I stopped watching it all for years afterward but lately, I’ve been getting back into it. Stein’s Gate has proven to be something of a gateway drug.

But it will never be like what it was in the old days. Back when it was new and shocking and amazing.

4 thoughts on “Anime is Great…It’s the Fan’s That Suck

  1. Good summary.

    My daughter is old enough now to watch more than Miazaki.

    Have you watched Trigun, Death Note, or Case Closed?. My Hero Academia is also terrific.

    And yes to some of the fans. The ones going all baizuo on a show because it doesn’t push their creepy SJW buttons.
    .

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  2. Death Note is awesome, it should have been impossible to make the subject matter interesting, essentially a notebook that can kill anyone. But they managed.

    Also I preferred Americanized Robotech covering 3 generations of the same conflict over the Japanese version of 3 separate series. I know we are supposed to prefer the Jap versions, but sometimes the American adaptation was so much better, Samurai Pizza Cats comes to mind.

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  3. I remember Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion from when I child in the early 1970s. I watched at a neighboring friend’s home. remember liking both, and then when I moved, somehow, I was never able to find them again.

    Later, in my social circle in college in the mid 1980s, we had a friend who VERY into Japanese culture in general and anime in particular. It was definitely before it hit the mainstream. He liked to show us all shows, and would translate and narrate the story line using his rudimentary Japanese. I don’t remember the names, but probably included some you mentioned, and many you didn’t. He was hard core. He had one of those expensive dual VHS-Beta devices so he could trade with his friends and use and convert any format.

    What we all found interesting was that he would explain the large scale…ahem…sexual innuendo in nearly all the shows. It was, mostly, innuendo that was specifically Japanese, and if you weren’t familiar with the culture, you would remain totally unaware. One I remember was that when a character had red tears, that signified arousal.

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  4. I watched Voltron as a kid. If I remember correctly, they pieced it together with another robot anime and tied them together by having two of the characters writing letters back and forth. It wasn’t integrated like they did with Robotech.

    I remember stumbling across Robotech one Saturday morning. If anyone remembers the GI Joe cartoon you know that any plane that go shot down was sure to show a parachute. Well, I was hooked the moment I realized people were actually dying. It wasn’t your typical kid’s cartoon.

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