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Buy, Cell, Hold : With Japanese animation booming in the U.S., collectors are clamoring for their pieces of the action.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Rick Alonzo’s obsession began when he was a child in Japan, watching the popular “Astro Boy” and “Kimba, the White Lion” cartoons that are considered the classics of Japanese animation, or anime.

Alonzo, the owner of Anime Wink, now counts himself among a small but growing group of Southern California companies making money off the anime craze. He markets Japanese anime celluloids, or cells, which are the drawings used to produce an animated film.

“The whole thing behind cell collecting is they can own a piece of that favorite film they grew up with, like buying a piece of their youth,” said the 42-year-old Los Angeles businessman, whose products generally sell for $85 to $150.

While Japanese anime has long had a cult following in the United States, it has now exploded into a $60-million-a-year business. It has been helped along by the popularity of anime titles, such as “Speedfighter” and “Dragon Ball X,” that have been made into popular video games.

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Another boost was the popularity of the anime “Ghost in the Shell,” which made it to the top of the U.S. video sales chart last year. Some popular kid-oriented anime, such as “Speed Racer” and “Sailor Moon,” have aired on daytime television in the United States.

Alonzo said Japanese anime represents an important new market for American comic book dealers who are facing a drastic decline in business because of competition from video games. He has gotten calls from comic book dealers from as far away as Texas and North Dakota.

“They tell me, ‘We don’t know what this Japanese anime stuff is but our customers want it,’ ” he said.

In the United States, it is possible to buy American cells through stores or galleries, where authentic Disney animations sell for thousands of dollars. But in Japan, cells are still bought and sold through an underground network of collectors, said Alonzo, who traveled to Japan 18 times last year.

While the market for these anime cells is relatively new, classics such as “Astro Boy,” “Kimba, the White Lion” and “Speed Racer” already fetch a pretty penny. Alonzo said they start at $300 and climb to thousands of dollars.

Alonzo, who has retail space at 11755 Exposition Blvd. in West Los Angeles, also markets his cells by traveling to animation conventions throughout the country, including the annual Anime Expo. That meeting brought 4,000 people to Los Angeles Airport Hilton and Towers earlier this month.

He is also going to start carrying American animation cells for the Japanese market and plans to start selling his products over the Internet, where a lot of trading of anime products already takes place.

Other Southern California companies are also cashing in on the anime boom. Banzai Anime, at 2961 Sepulveda Blvd. in Palms, is one of the largest stores in Southern California specializing in anime products, including videos, laser discs, magazines, toys and CDs.

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In less than five years, Enrique Galvez, 24, has expanded his business from a small mail-order firm offering 50 video titles to a retail operation with 1,000 new titles for sale and 450 rental videos.

“Southern California is the biggest market for us, but Texas is also a big part of our business as well because people have a hard time getting it in that area,” he said.

Galvez said the majority of his customers are college age, though the fans of “Evangelion,” a popular tale of vengeful angels sent to Earth by an unhappy God, range from young kids to senior citizens. He said anime comes in all flavors, including sci-fi, drama, comedy, adult-oriented, martial arts and children’s shows.

“We even have a gay anime called ‘Kizuna,’ ” he said. “In Japan, animation is a medium used for any kind of story, not like here where cartoons are cartoons.”

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Evelyn Iritani can be reached by fax at (213) 237-7837 or e-mail at evelyn.iritani@latimes.com


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