Thursday, June 14, 2018

When Anime Was a Dirty Word

Today anime or Japanese animation is very much a part of the mainstream in American pop culture. A whole generation has grown up watching such animated TV series as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, and Yu-Gi-Oh!. Not only have anime feature films been nominated for the Oscar for Best Animated Feature several times, but Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away won in 2003. Since the Naughts anime has gained a good deal of acceptance in the United States, so much so that it is hard to picture a time when when it wasn't always accepted. That having been said, there was a time in the mid to late Nineties when anime fans were at times very cautious about admitting their love for the medium to some people.

Astro Boy
Animation has a long history in Japan. The earliest verified examples of Japanese animation go back to 1917, although there is one short animated film ("Katsudō Shashin") that might date back to 1907. In 1945 the first Japanese animated feature, Momotaro's Divine Sea Warriors, was released. Following World War II Japan saw a boom in animation. The well known studio Toei Animation was founded in 1948. With the emergence of television in Japan also came animated TV series, the first of which was Otogi Manga Calendar in 1961. It would be followed by the highly successful TV series Tetsuwan Atomu (known in the United States as Astro Boy). Tetsuwan Atomu would be followed by many more animated TV series.

With the animation industry prospering in Japan following World War II, it would not be long before Japanese animation would find its way to the United States, although it would be literally decades before Americans would start calling it "anime". In 1961 Toei Animation's feature Shōnen Sarutobi Sasuke was released in the United States as Magic Boy, making it the first anime feature to be released in America. It was followed a month later by Hakujaden, retitled Panda and the Magic Serpent in the United States. Saiyu-ki, retitled Alakazam the Great in the United States, was released in America not long after Panda and the Magic Serpent. None of these features did particularly well at the box office, and at the time it might have seemed as if American audiences had no taste for Japanese animation.

While the earliest anime features released in the United States failed at the box office, anime would eventually see a good deal of success on American television. The highly successful animated TV series Tetsuwan Atomu would come to the United States under the title Astro Boy (a literal translation of the show's Japanese title, "Mighty Atom", was not possible because DC Comics already had a character called "The Atom"). Debuting in Japan in January 1963, Astro Boy was first syndicated to American television stations in September 1963. Unlike some of the early feature films, no secret was made regarding the Japanese origins of Astro Boy, which were publicised upon its debut in newspaper articles.

Astro Boy proved highly successful on American television, It often won its time slot in the various markets around the country where it aired. It also spurred the import of yet more anime television shows to the United States. Astro Boy was followed by several other Japanese animated series that would see a good deal of success in the United States, including 8th Man (Eitoman), Gigantor (Tetsujin 28-go), Kimba the White Lion (Janguru Taitei), Prince Planet (Yūsei Shōnen Papī), Marine Boy (Kaitei Shōnen Marin), and Speed Racer (Mahha GōGōGō). Unlike Astro Boy, the American distributors of some of these cartoons went to great pains to hide their Japanese origins (this was particularly true of 8th Man). Regardless, many of these animated series would prove highly successful and would still be seen on American television stations throughout the Seventies and Eighties.

Despite the success of these Japanese anime TV series, the market for anime TV shows dried up in American syndication around 1968. The reasons were threefold. The first was the switch of the American networks and local stations to colour broadcasting in the mid-Sixties. After the switch to colour, even local stations displayed a marked preference for shows shot in colour as opposed to those filmed in black-and-white. This meant that many of the early anime shows, such as Astro Boy (which was shot in black and white), were in less demand as the Sixties progressed. The second was the proliferation of reruns of American Saturday morning cartoons in syndication. Given a choice between reruns of the American Saturday morning cartoon King Leonardo and His Short Subjects and the anime TV series Gigantor, many local TV station managers may have elected to air the former. The third was that following the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, concerns arose over violence on television, including children's programming. Since many of the Japanese cartoons were more violent than their American counterparts, demand for Japanese cartoons decreased as concerns over television violence grew.

While some of the Japanese animated shows of the Sixties would continue to be rerun in the Seventies, then, there would be very little in the way of new anime on television for much of the decade. As to anime features, when they were released in the United States at all it was either to the children's matinee circuit or straight to syndication on American television stations. Despite this, American anime fandom began to emerge in the Seventies. The first American anime fan club, the Cartoon/Fantasy Organisation, was founded in Los Angeles in 1977. It was in 1978 that Carl Grafford, who worked as a colourist for both DC and Marvel Comics, coined the term "Japanimation" to be used of Japanese animation.

It was also in the late Seventies, just as anime fandom was beginning to organise, that anime developed a slightly higher profile in the United States. In 1978 an adaptation of Kagaku Ninjatai Gatchaman entitled Battle of the Planets debuted in syndication on television stations throughout the United States. That same year an English subtitled version of Uchū Kaizoku Kyaputen Hārokku (Space Pirate Captain Harlock) aired on stations in Honolulu, and the following year on stations in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and New York. A dubbed version of the show would have a limited release in the United States in 1981. In 1979 Uchū Senkan Yamato was syndicated in the United States under the title Star Blazers. Particularly in the case of Star Blazers, the Japanese origins of these shows were fairly well known in the United States at the time.

The Eighties would see the import of anime series to the United States become much more common, due in a large part to the growth of cable television. Both Nickelodeon and the Christian Broadcasting Network Cable (which would eventually evolve into Freeform) aired their share of children's anime series. Voltron (which was an adaptation of Hyaku Jūō Goraion in its first season and of Kikō Kantai Dairagā Fifutīn, "XV" in its second season), debuted in American syndication in 1984. It was followed by Robotech in 1985. Robotech combined the TV shows Chōjikū Yōsai Makurosu, Chō Jikū Kidan Sazan Kurosu, and Kikō Sōseiki Mosupīda into one show. In 1989 the feature film Akira (1988) would see a limited release in North America and would ultimately develop a cult following.

It was around 1985 that the Japanese word anime would be borrowed into English for use by fans to refer to Japanese animation. The word anime derived from the Japanese word animēshon, which itself was a borrowing of the English word animation. As to why the term anime would replace the word Japanimation, the primary reason was rather simple. It was far too easy for Japanimation to be pronounced as an ethnic slur, "Jap animation". As to the term anime, in Japanese it is used to refer to animation from any country, so that not only is Speed Racer anime, but so too is Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). It is only outside Japan that anime refers exclusively to Japanese animation. Regardless, the term anime would appear in American newspaper articles as early as 1990, although most people in the press were either using the term Japanimation or simply the phrase "Japanese animation" at the time.  It would not be until 1992 that the term anime would begin to be widely used in the press to refer to Japanese animation.

Unfortunately, it would be in 1993 that an event would occur that would cause many people to totally misinterpret the meaning of the word anime in the English language. Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend originated as a 1987 original video animation series (that is, it was released direct to video) in Japan. It was based on the 1986 manga Chōjin Densetsu Urotsukidōji.  The OVA series was later edited into a feature film, which was then dubbed into English and released in the United States. Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend was shockingly violent and overtly sexual, to the point that it is often regarded as pornography. Indeed, it would be the film that would introduce Americans to the concept of tentacle porn.

Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend would prove successful as a midnight movie in the United States. In 1993 it set house records at one New York City theatre, where it sold out 24 weeks in a row. It was followed by the release of other, similar feature films and OAV anime series in the United States. Later in 1993, the 1987 OAV feature Wicked City was released to American theatres. Unlike Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend, Wicked City was not outright pornography, although it contained images that were no less shocking. Several other anime with often shocking, sometimes violent, and overtly sexual imagery would be released direct to video, such as La Blue Girl and Demon Beast Invasion (which was based on the manga which is believed to have introduced the world to tentacle porn).

Here it must be pointed out that at the time such anime as Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend represented a very small portion of the anime imported to the United States, let alone produced in Japan. In fact, works such as Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend and Demon Beast Invasion were rare even among pornographic anime films and series (referred to as hentai by English speaking fans), which dealt with more mundane fare than naughty tentacles. What is more Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend was not even the first adult anime released in the United States. That was A Thousand and One Nights (1969), which was released in the United States in 1970. Regardless, the press that Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend and Wicked City received in 1993 were enough to convince many that anime was overly violent and overly sexual. They became convinced that anime, a term used by English speaking fans to refer to everything from children's TV series such as Heidi, Girl of the Alps to more adult fare such as Cream Lemon, referred exclusively to violent, pornographic animated films and OAV series.

Indeed, a 1997 article in USA Today, about epileptic seizures induced in a number of Japanese children by an episode of  Pokémon, claimed, "The Cartoon Network does air Japan's Speed Racer, made 30 years ago, and Voltron, about 10 years old, but neither show is in the style of anime." In a 1998 article in Variety  on the American release of Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke (1997), Michael Johnson, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment (Disney's home video division), said of the film, "This is not anime, it's not effects-driven or violence driven." A 1998 article in The New York Times, "At Mickey's House, A Quiet Welcome for Distant Cousins", mistakenly asserted, "These days, anime refers strictly to 'adult' Japanese animation, aimed primarily at young men."

The misconception that anime somehow referred exclusively to violent, often sexual, adult anime was so prevalent in the mid to late Nineties that it would even have an impact on dictionary definitions of anime. The American Heritage Dictionary defines anime as "A style of animation developed in Japan, characterized by stylized colorful art, futuristic settings, violence, and sex."  To say this definition is wildly inaccurate would be an understatement. Of course, it did not help the matter that if one searched for "anime" on Alta Vista or any of the other search engines on the World Wide Web in the mid-Nineties, he or she would come up with results largely composed of porn sites instead of sites devoted to Astro Boy, Voltron, or even Akira.

As might be expected, in the mid to late Nineties anime fans sometimes had problems explaining their interest to others, who might well look askance at them if they came right out and said that they liked "anime". In the late Nineties my best friend told me of an experience he had in explaining anime to a woman. He mentioned that he was a fan of anime. Her reaction was, "You mean those Japanese animated porn movies?" My best friend then explained to her that Speed Racer and Robotech were anime. Her reaction was, "Speed Racer can't be anime!" My best friend ultimately gave up trying to explain anime to her. For a brief period there was an assumption on the part of many that if one was an anime fan, then he must be into violence, pornography, and naughty tentacles.

Of course, the whole attitude that anime referred to adult animation that was often violent and sexual was wrong-headed in the extreme. When it was borrowed into the English language in the mid-Eighties, anime was meant to refer to any Japanese animation, whether it was made for children or adults. What is more, anime fans continued to use the term to refer to everything from Kimba the White Lion to Wicked City even as many in the general public were using it to refer exclusively to material like Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend. What is more, many in the general public were mistakenly thinking that anime was a style rather than a medium. Indeed, The American Heritage Dictionary's definition of anime begins, "a style..." Of course, to a degree this was nothing new. For a time from the Seventies to the early Eighties, many thought Japanimiation (as it was called at the time) was all characters with doe eyes. While this was true of the great Osamu Tezuka's work, it was hardly representative of anime as a whole.

Fortunately the misconception that anime referred to adult, often violent, often sexual animated works would begin to fade as the Nineties progressed. Much of this was due to the continued influx of anime into the Untied States. The Nineties saw the release of Hayao Miyazaki's earlier works, including My Neighbour Tortoro (1988) and Kiki's Delivery Service (1989), in the United States, as well as the release of his new film Princess Mononoke (1997). Several important anime TV series would be imported to the United States in the late Nineties, some of which were highly successful. In 1995 Sailor Moon began airing in syndication on American television stations. It was followed in syndication in the United States in 1996 by Dragon Ball Z. In 1998 Pokémon debuted in the United States. Neither Hayao Miyazaki's movies nor the TV shows Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokémon matched many Americans' preconceived notions about anime. All this time anime fans were continuing to use the term anime to refer to any and all Japanese animation, and not simply the violent, sexual animation that many thought it referred exclusively to. In the end the general public, with a few exceptions, learned that anime was not all violent or pornographic, and embraced a wide array of styles and genres. When Spirited Away was released in the United States in 2002, the press referred to it as anime.

Since the mid to late Nineties, when many thought anime was the same thing as Japanese animated pornography, anime has gained greater acceptance in the United States. Spirited Away (2002) even won the Academy Away for Best Animated Feature in 2003. So many anime TV series aired in the United States throughout the Naughts and the Teens that it would be difficult to list all of them. In 1997 anime fans might be somewhat embarrassed to use the term anime around non-fans. Today there is no embarrassment in using the term at all.

1 comment:

Gary R. Peterson said...

Excellent essay! I was a "early adopter" of Japanese animation, growing up in the 1970s enjoying BATTLE OF THE PLANETS and SPEED RACER as well as lesser-known CYBORG 009 and IKKYUSAN, which aired in the NYC area on a UHF station. I got into the Leiji Matsumoto stuff: GALAXY EXPRESS, CAPTAIN HARLOCK and QUEEN MILLENNIA, which my buddies and I bought as VHS bootlegs at comic cons in the mid-1980s. Back then we all said "Japanimation," and that's what I still say, no slur ever implied, only admiration and awe.

I never got into the "mekka" series like ROBOTECH and VOLTRON. The AKIRA movie was to Japanimation what WATCHMEN and THE DARK KNIGHT were to comic books--game changers. I didn't like the gritty stuff in either medium, so clung to my older shows while my buddies snapped up the new movies and Matsumoto's work began to look quaint. Then Miyazaki came on the scene and brought a degree of artsy respectability.

You stirred up many a good memory and also brought me up to speed on the art form, which I pretty much abandoned by 1990. Thanks for all your research and for your engaging writing.