Most people know that anime television series first arrived in the United States in the Sixties, the first being Astro Boy in 1964. What many do not know is that this was not the first time the United States was exposed to anime. Three years earlier, in 1961, three anime feature films were released in the United States within a few months of each other.
The first of these was Hakujaden, also known as Tale of the White Serpent, originally released in Japan in 1958. The film was an adaptation of "Madame White Snake," a tale from Chinese mythology dating back to the Song Dynasty. It was a product of Toei Animation, a company founded in 1946 as Japan Animated Films. In 1956 it was bought by Tokyo-Yokohama Films, which promptly renamed it Toei Animation Co. Ltd. The goal of Toei was, quite simply, to become the "Disney of the East." Hakujaden was then largely modelled after Disney films. The subject was a fairy tale to which Toei added songs and even an animal sidekick. Indeed, Hakujaden was the first Japanese animated feature film ever released in colour. It was Toei President Hiroshi Okawa who decided they should adapt a Chinese fairy tale, in order to strike a reconciliatory tone with China. Its production would also be the most complex of any anime feature film up to that time.
It was in the late Fifties that American International Pictures began importing foreign films. AIP released sword and sandal films, spy movies, and giallo from Italy, and throughout the Sixties would release the various Godzilla and Gamera movies from Japan. It was perhaps natural that they would set their sights on importing animated feature films from Japan. Hakujaden would be the first. Like many anime features and series later imported to the United States, Hakujaden would be heavily edited and Americanised. The film would be retitled Panda and the Magic Serpent. Oddly enough, among the changes was that the animal companion, Mimi, a small red panda, would be reinterpreted as a cat! Every single Japanese name was also removed from the credits. Despite having received critical acclaim elsewhere in the world, Panda and the Magic Serpent would make an inauspicious debut for anime in the United States on March 15, 1961.The movie bombed at the box office.
The second anime feature film to be released in the United States would be Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke. Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke was the second animated feature film for Toei Animation. Like Hakujaden, Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke was shaped in the Disney mould, complete with songs and adorable animals. Like Hakujaden, it was also shot in colour. What set it apart from Hakujaden was that it was original tale, although one done in the spirit of a folk tale. Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke followed a young peasant boy who becomes a ninja and learns magic to fight an evil witch. It was released in 1959 in Japan. It would be MGM would would bring Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke to the United States. Its American title incorrectly given as The Adventures of the Little Samurai by MGM's publicity department, Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke was renamed Magic Boy (here it must be pointed out that while samurai were known to the American public in the early Sixties, ninja were not). Amazingly, MGM left the vocals in the majority of the songs in their original Japanese rather than redub them with vocals in English. Magic Boy received generally positive reviews upon its release. Unfortunately, it did not do well at the box office.
The third anime feature film to be released in the United States was Saiyuki, literally "journey to the west." Saiyuki was based on the manga Boku no Son Gokū by Osamu Tezuka (creator of Tetsuwan Atomu, known as Astro Boy here in the States). Although named as a director of the film, Osamu Tezuka later stated that his only role on the film was as a script consultant. It would be this adaptation of his manga that would lead to his interest in animation and hence the TV series he created over the year. Boku no Son Gokū was itself based on possibly the most famous Chinese legend of them all and one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature Journey to the West. Like the legend and novel, Saiyuki dealt with the adventures of the Monkey King, known in Chinese as Sun Wukong and in the Japanese feature film Saiyuki as Son-Goku. Despite being based on a manga by Osaku Tezuka and a Chinese legend, Toei once more utilised the Disney treatment on the feature. The Monkey King was portrayed as a cute monkey, in keeping with the Disney tradition of cute animals, while there were plenty of songs.
While American International Pictures had spent little in Americanising Panda and the Magic Serpent, it spared no expense on Saiyuki. The transformation of Saiyuki into Alakazam the Great was given a fairly large budget. Bandleader Lee Baxter wrote an American score for the film. Not only were the names of the characters Americanised, but they were voiced by such names as Arnold Stang, Dodie Stevens, and Jonathan Winters. Peter Fernandez, who would later provide the voice of Speed Racer, provided the speaking voice of Alakazam, while Frankie Avalon provided his singing voice. AIP released Alakazam the Great in the United States on July 26, 1961.
Alakazam the Great received fairly positive reviews upon its initial release. It also received the Parents Magazine Family Medal for September of 1961. Despite the acclaim it received and some well known voice talent, Alakazam the Great, did poorly at the box office. Despite this, of those first three anime released in 1961, each one within months of each other, Alakazam the Great remains the best remembered. Much of this may be due to the well known voice talent who worked on the Americanisation of the film. Even more of it may be due to the fact that it was based on the work of Osamu Tezuka, the legendary Godfather of Anime, as revered by anime fans in the United States as he is in his native Japan. Whatever the reason, its fame is such that there are those who mistakenly believe that it was the first anime feature film ever released in the U.S., even though there were two released before it!
There would only be three more anime feature films released in the Sixties.The Littlest Warrior (Anju to zushio-maru) was released by Signal International in 1962. Little Prince and the Eight-Headed Dragon (Wanpaku ôji no orochi taiji) was released by Columbia Picture in 1964. The Lost World of Sinbad (Dai tozoku) was released by AIP in 1965. All of these films bombed at the box office, just as the first three anime feature films released in the States had. In 1964 the television series Tetsuwan Atomu came to the United States. It was a verified hit and was followed to American shores by other hit anime series, such as Tetsujin 28-go (Gigantor), Jungle Taitei (Kimba the White Lion), Mach Go Go Go (Speed Racer), and Kaitei Shōnen Marin (Marine Boy). Despite this, the fact that the first several anime feature films released in the United States bombed at the box office meant that no others would be see an American theatrical release until the Eighties.
Despite the fact that no anime feature film would be released to American theatres for nearly twenty years, these features would have a lasting impact on American pop culture. Namely, it was the film Saiyuki (Alakazam the Great) which led Osamu Tezuka to become interested in animation. Once his contract with Toei expired, he founded his own studio, Mushi Production, whose first production would be the legendary animated adaptation of Tetsuwan Atomu. It would become a phenomenal success in Japan, to the point that it would be imported to the United States as Astro Boy.This in turn would create a boom in anime television series being imported to the U.S., the first exposure the majority of Americans would have to anime of any kind. It must be pointed out that Alakazam the Great would also give Peter Fernandez his first work in adapting anime to America. He would go onto work on Astro Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, Marine Boy, Star Blazers, and many others. Although these films, beyond Alakazam the Great, are today largely forgotten, they would be the first anime feature films released in the United States and would have a lasting impact.