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Tooning In to Japanimation : Anime or Japanese animation, is attracting a growing following in the States. Some aficionados even insist that the sleek imports are better than--yes-- Disney.

Jon Matsumoto is a frequent contributor to Calendar

For years serious fans of Japanese animation in the United States were required to possess either a fat wallet or a sleuth-like determination. Aside from the occasional animated series that would slip through on U.S. television, most Japanese animation could only be procured as an exorbitantly priced import videotape or as a technically inferior bootleg item.

But in the past two or three years anime--as Japanese animation is referred to by its most loyal fans--has made a dramatic ascension from the underground to the foreground. Walk into many major video rental stores and you’ll find entire sections devoted largely to Japanese animated works with curious titles such as “Bubblegum Crisis,” “Vampire Hunter D” and “Ranma 1/2.” Most are science-fiction or action-adventure titles that appeal mainly to teenage and young adult males; some are serialized over multiple volumes. Tower Records-Video in Torrance carries more than 100 anime works for sale and rent. Blockbuster Video in San Gabriel stocks nearly 120 titles for rent alone.

“They sell very well,” said David Gonzales, the manager at Tower Records-Video in West Covina. “I just took over this position in September, but I know for a fact that they really started to do well at the beginning of the year.”

Nine companies distribute Japanese animation in the United States. All but two entered the American market within the last three years. Last year two major home video companies decided to toss their hats into the American anime ring, which until then was dominated by small vendors. Orion Home Entertainment has a deal to distribute Streamline Pictures’ 50 animeitles. Simultaneously, England-based PolyGram Video decided to try its hand at selling Japanimation in the United States.

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“It’s really a niche business now, and we’re trying to expand that niche into a category,” says Herb Dorfman, president of Orion Home Entertainment. “It’s a ramp up, if you will, trying to educate the consumers and the retailers. There’s a core consumer base of fans who are zealots. What we’re trying to do is to expand the marketplace to serve the general population.”

In Japan, where animation has long been a mainstream form of entertainment, everything from comedies and children’s shows to serious dramas and historical adventures can be found in animated form.

But so far it has been futuristic science-fiction dramas such as “Akira” and action adventures such as “Mermaid Forest” that have dominated the U.S. anime market. A fast-growing American fandom has also developed around soft-core porn titles.

Some Americans have been troubled by the sometimes graphic violence and sex, as well as the sexist attitudes, found in many imported anime features. In “Wicked City"--which is stickered in the States with a “not for kids” label--horror, violence and eroticism all commingle. Mike Tatsugawa, a Berkeley-based anime fanatic, says the Japanese take a more liberal view of fictional violence and sex than Americans.

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“In Japan the assumption is that children are far more mature and can handle whatever they see,” said Tatsugawa, whose annual Anime Expo convention attracted more than 2,000 fans to Los Angeles last summer. “The Japanese still have a pretty rigid value system, so they feel they can expose their kids to more things and they won’t get screwed up.” [do we want to make clear Tatsugawa is an Asian American, which might give him a bit of license to talk so confidently about Japanese attitudes?]

Japanese animation first reached American shores in 1964, when the children’s television series “Astro Boy” was televised here. Several other animated series from Japan, such as “Kimba, the White Lion” (which many anime fans believe served as the basis for Disney’s “The Lion King”) and “Speed Racer,” also found young American TV audiences in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

But it was the animated Japanese space adventure series “Star Blazers” in the late ‘70s and the similarly intergalactic “Robotech” in the mid-'80s that many fans say established the foundation from which the current anime fandom was built. (The much-admired “Akira,” which was released theatrically in the United States in 1989, is also considered a trailblazing work.) More sophisticated than their predecessors, both “Robotech” and “Star Blazers” were syndicated on U.S. television and attracted loyal audiences.

Trish Ledoux, a longtime anime fan who now writes the dubbed English translations for the “Ranma 1/2" series and other videos on the San Francisco-based Viz Communications label, argues that Japanese animators as a group are allowed to be more creative artists than their American counterparts.

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“There are things that are so technically accomplished that comparing it to Disney is almost an insult,” insisted Ledoux, who has written a soon-to-be-released book called “The Complete Anime Guide: Japanese Animation, Video Directory and Resource.” “Disney does this same kind of animation to perfection. It’s very safe. In Japanese animation we’re seeing a lot of risk-taking such as imaginative camera work and cinematic storytelling.”

Carl Macek, the head of Streamline Pictures, agrees to a point.

“About three times more money might be spent making [an American animated work like] ‘Tiny Toon’ as opposed to ‘Ranma 1/2,’ ” says Macek, who created “Robotech” a decade ago by piecing together three different anime TV series. "[The Japanese] had to learn how to make programming at a simple level but make it interesting. As a result you get more interestingly directed films on a smaller budget. . . . But you’re not going to get anybody that does animation better than Disney. It’s incomprehensible. With Japanese animation they’re making the best of their resources.”

A number of anime videos available in the States aren’t specifically directed toward the genre’s dominant 14- to 30-year-old-male audience. There’s absolutely nothing violent or salacious about Hayao Miyazaki’s acclaimed “My Neighbor Totoro.” (Miyazaki is considered one of Japan’s premier filmmakers.) At Tower Records-Video stores, this enchanting film about two children who discover a world inhabited by magical creatures can be found in the family section rather than on the anime shelves. Combining elements of romance, comedy, fantasy and adventure, the “Ranma 1/2" series has proved popular with teenage and preteen girls in Japan and the United States. New York-based Central Park Media also has a line of anime videos based on classic works of Japanese literature.

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There’s been an anime renaissance on American television as well. The kids-oriented series “Sailor Moon,” “Dragon Ball” and “Teknoman” can all be seen on daytime television in the Los Angeles area.

Mike Pascuzzi, director of sales at Central Park Media, believes that American television needs to embrace a wider range of anime programming if the genre is to continue to increase its audience significantly. He also hopes to see more titles released theatrically, which is something Streamline Pictures has been able to accomplish on a limited basis with its anime features.

“You’ve got things like ‘Sailor Moon’ on TV, but we need more programming that’s at a college level,” Pascuzzi says. “That’s just starting to happen with the Sci-Fi Channel. We’re just starting to break the ice. If that [expands], more people will start to tune into them or rent or buy them.”


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