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NYAF2008: Digging into Anime’s American Success with "Japanamerica"

by on September 29, 2008

Roland Kelts, author of Japanamerica, in a rotten photo. Blame the photographer.The “Japanamerica” panel was one of the last of the 2008 New York Anime Festival on Sunday afternoon. The description said that author Roland Kelts would “share the raw experiences that were the basis for his book, Japanamerica,” but the end result stretched well beyond that. When time was up, the small but rapt audience had to be all but thrown out of the room by the Javits Center staff. Kelts was joined on stage by two special guests: Anthony Weintraub, screenwriter and producer for Tekkonkinkreet, and Clyde Adams III, head of NYC-Anime.com and prominent figure in New York City-area anime fandom. By the end of the panel, the audience had been treated into a look at anime’s past in North America and analyzed some ominous changes in anime’s future both in North America and in its native land of Japan.

Kelts began by describing the prominent anti-Japanese sentiment that prevailed in the United States a little more than 20 years ago, when prominent public figures and private citizens would happily smash Japanese cars on the TV news and anxieties ran high over Japan’s rapid economic growth. Today, Japanese culture has infiltrated food, fashion, and entertainment, with sushi next to roasted chickens in supermarkets across the country, Hayao Miyazaki movies in prominent places on parents’ DVD shelves, and, of course, anime in general exploding in popularity among an entire generation of young people. The goal of Japanamerica was to make sense of such a radical change in attitudes, as well as telling stories about Japanese pop culture — how is it made, who makes it, and why is it distinctly Japanese (if, in fact, it is — Kelts relayed that his uncle told him that anime was “not serious Japanese culture”).

Kelts began his discussions with the Pokémon phenomenon, when the game and cartoon exploded on the American consciousness in 1996 (sic — Pokémon debuted in the United States in 1998 — ed.). He also briefly digressed to relay the tale of how 4Kids’ Al Kahn managed to get the Japanese owners of Pokémon to sign over subsidiary rights in return for a paltry $10 million, mostly because Pokémon’s Japanese owners at Shogakukan had no legal team on staff to process the thick contract and didn’t understand what they were signing away. Kelts related that Shogakukan’s Masakazu Kubo told him, “That was our fault. If you do business with another country, you have to learn how that other country does business,” even though this simple mistake ultimately cost them millions of dollars.

In Kelts’ view, Pokémon introduced a American children to a distinct style of animated storytelling that had several easily identifiable characteristics. The first was that illustrations were based on line, rather than shading or depth-perception. Kelts noted that this distinctive sense of space is rooted in old Japanese painting traditions, and that this is not the first time that Japanese art has seized hold of Western imaginations, since “Japonisme” was all the rage in Europe during the 1860’s.

Kelts also stated that Pokémon, like many other Japanese cartoons, was fundamentally not rooted in a biological reality. No matter how exaggerated they may be, Bugs Bunny is recognizably a rabbit and Mickey Mouse is recognizably a mouse, but the pocket monsters of Pokémon and other Japanese cartoons are divorced from reality entirely. This, in turn, enabled Pokémon to engage in a serialized/never-ending saga that is also firmly rooted in much older Japanese art forms, such as the episodic Genji Monogatari (a candidate for the world’s first novel). Ironically, Kelts also noted that this serial storytelling was also part of the reason why anime in America has so many problems with illegal downloading: fans want to have the next episode right away, and simply don’t want to wait for the next DVD.

This first generation of kids raised on Pokémon (and other seminal TV shows such as Dragon Ball Z) got addicted to these things, and this in turn led some to explore Japanese culture in great depth. Kelts pointed out that Japan is unique among modern industrialized nations in that it has retained a striking amount of its traditional culture. To American eyes, the culture can look as unfamiliar as that of Harry Potter’s Hogwarts or Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, but the difference is that manga and anime fans can legitimately study the language and culture and actually visit Japan to see it.

To this, Adams added a number of points about the history of anime fandom, especially the generations that came before Pokémon and laid the groundwork that enabled shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z to really take root in America. Adams pointed out that anime experienced its first real boom during the late 80’s within science fiction fandom, as shows like Battle of the Planets and Star Blazers began airing on television. The foreign interest in anime corresponded wth great changes in the anime industry of Japan. Lupin III debuted in 1971, and Macross and Nausicaa came soon afterwards to theaters; all three were the earliest anime that were primarily aimed at adults. In 1983, Megazone 23 became the first OVA in Japan, and was a hit despite being based on a cancelled TV series. OVAs had a tremendous effect on how much anime could be made and seen, and also happened to presage the DTV movement that seems to be taking root in America now. Members of the Armed Forces stationed in Japan were getting exposed to these works and, increasingly, bringing them back to share with other like-minded fans, leading to anime clubs and conventions. The sharing didn’t all go in one direction, of course; in addition to appropriating some elements from American movies, Adams pointed out that many Japanese anime fans claim that they learned how to be otaku through the early Star Trek fandom.

Kelts and Weintraub also briefly touched on the changes in American animation, with adult-oriented comedy cartoons taking root due to the combination of The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, and South Park. Weintraub described it as saying that the American animation industry still looks down on its audience (which they perceive to be children), while Japanese industry doesn’t.

Japanamerica PanelistsThe panelists also discussed some of the challenges facing the Japanese anime industry, which is really rooted in a huge generation gap within the animation industry of Japan. The anime industry is renowned for long, grueling work schedules, and many younger Japanese artists are opting out of the system, since they now have career options like video games, web design, and other new media that simply weren’t available to the earlier anime artists. This younger generation has no patience to wait until they are 40 to direct their first animation, especially since other industries give them far more freedom far more quickly. Those in Japan use the word “crisis” quite seriously to describe the situation when nobody in the animation studios seems to be under 40 any more.

The responses to this crisis are varied. Kelts pointed to the increasing outsourcing to South Korea, China, India, and Southeast Asia in the anime industry, which may solve the immediate problem but also leads some in the industry to worry that they are training their own competition. Unfortunately, it seems that few in Japan have any sense of what to really do about this. Kelts also seems to think that some American fans are even more worried about it than Japanese ones, leading Weintraub to mention that nobody in Japan really cared that he and Tekkonkinkreet director Michael Arias weren’t Japanese, and that it was only American anime fans that seemed to get upset about it.

That dichotomy between American and Japanese fandom was also explored a bit, with an audience member asking about the flood of shows aimed at specific audiences in Japan to the exclusion of anything else. Weintraub suggested that finding material might require some digging, pointing to the original Tekkonkinkreet manga, which was made by a popular underground manga artist who is almost completely unknown outside of Japan. Kelts also pointed at the growing dichotomy within the Japanese anime industry, such as Studio GONZO’s split into one studio geared for the domestic market and the other aimed internationally.

In response to a question about some of the anti-anime backlash among American cartoon fans (and how they can sound disturbingly similar to the anti-Japanese sentiments of the 1980’s), Kelts pointed out that much of those attitudes are based on ignorance, and that people with that attitude (or any attitude that dismisses an entire nation’s cultural output out of hand) “really aren’t worth spending much time on.”

The last audience question was about the cancellation of Toonami, which was also pivotal in introducing many current otaku to anime. Weintraub stated that the increasing global exchange means that it’s easier to find new material, but much harder to create good material. Kelts and Adams added that the rise of anime in America was a demand-driven event, since the Japanese anime industry was (and, to an extent, still is) apathetic to foreign audiences. Weintraub also linked the rise of Japanese animation in current American pop culture to the earliest generation of anime fans raised on Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets. That generation of children are today’s adults, with Hollywood figures such as the Wachowskis, Steven Spielberg, and Leonardo DiCaprio all exploiting their affection for older anime properties in their current projects.

The panel closed with fans coming up to chat informally with the panelists and Kelts signing copies of his book for audience members.

Return to Toon Zone News’ Coverage of the 2008 New York Anime Festival.

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