Where the American Anime Fandom Goes

I’ve been living outside of the United States for the past few years, though funnily enough I’ve spent every 4th of July in the US. This year is an exception, but at the same time I will also be heading back home soon. So at least for the foreseeable future, this is my first and last Independence Day in Europe. What better time then to talk about America? I haven’t done that in a few years either.

Specifically, there are a bunch of thoughts related to Americans and anime fandom that have been whirling around in my head as of late, and I’m using this opportunity to try and organize them into some cohesive ideas. Not sure if I’ll succeed or not but that’s part of the entrepreneurial spirit or somesuch. AMERICA.

Two pieces of news that caught my eye over the past few weeks have been the announcement of a sequel and animated television series for Pacific Rim, and the fact that the recently revived Toonami block on Cartoon Network is doing better and better. In the case of Pacific Rim, one of the biggest talking points concerning the first movie’s release was that it didn’t do well in the United States, but in contrast found some success nternationally, especially in China. The idea permeating Pacific Rim and its “failure” was that it needed to do well domestically for it to have any real hope of continuing, but this news has shown otherwise. Scott Mendelson over at Forbes argues that this is the first movie that has received a sequel despite of its lack of success at the American box office, and may hint at the increasing importance of that overseas market. Various arguments have been made for why Pacific Rim didn’t click with American audiences, from idea that “mecha” isn’t a popular genre in either the US mainstream or among its anime fandom, to the opinion that it was just a bad movie, but there’s something intriguing about the idea the US is not the epicenter of this property’s future.

In contrast, it looks like anime is in a certain sense “rediscovering” its American fandom through Toonami. For a long while anime looked like it was on its way out of the American geek culture, as the presence of Japanese cartoons on Cartoon Network faded from their heyday in the early to mid 2000s. The “Toonami” concept itself, a block dedicated to anime and anime-like cartoons, even went away in 2008. And yet, whether it was because the folks in charge smelled profit in the air from anime once more or there was just some personal desire somewhere to bring anime back to the fore of Cartoon Network, Toonami has returned and is doing quite well.

Historically, anime has not needed its American fanbase. Sure, there have been a lot of viewers, but anime’s domestic market is Japan, and it also finds success around the world, in Europe, South America, and Asia. The US certainly has an online presence when it comes to anime discussion and enthusiasm, but over the years it’s been easy to get the impression that this fandom is a paper tiger, especially when it comes to popular shows among the internet fandom not translating to home video sales. Of course, this also has something to do with how expensive anime was for a long time (and still kind of is relative to other forms of media), but overall it wouldn’t be surprising if people perceived American audiences of anime as just somehow lacking. Now, however, not only are American viewers tuning in to catch Toonami and its latest anime, but the shows people are most interested in are also the ones that have developed large fanbases online as well.

It would be remiss of me to minimize the importance of the actual shows themselves, as I think regardless of anyone’s opinions of these anime, it’s fairly easy to see why series such as Sword Art Online (MMORPG plus swords and sorcery), Attack on Titan (violent post-apocalyptic world with large cast of interesting characters), and Black Lagoon (guns and action) would do well with an American audience even if all three are significantly different from each other. One thing that I find interesting, however, is that at least for the first two their Japanese fanbases are also quite substantial. In this situation, you have the support of a hardcore Japanese fanbase, a mainstream Japanese audience (especially for Attack on Titan), a hardcore international and American fanbase, and a relatively mainstream presence in the US as well. It’s as if the division between fan and casual has been collapsed, and interests that are often viewed as mutually exclusive now overlap.

So on the one hand, you have a property in Pacific Rim where the American audience turns out to not be as important as originally thought, and on the other hand you have in Toonami the rediscovery of an American audience that is, while arguably not significant, still good to have. I feel like there’s some connection or relationship here but I’m not exactly certain of what it is. One thing that might help is that I recently read an academic article from 1998 on Sailor Moon, which was written during the time that Sailor Moon was already a runaway hit in Japan and was beginning to air in the US. Though Mary Grigsby’s “Sailormoon: Manga (Comics) and Anime (Cartoon) Superheroine Meets Barbie: Global Entertainment Commodity Comes to the United States” is more about arguing how the series is influenced by cultural hegemony (essentially the continuous and subconscious reinforcement of how things are in society) yet somehow defies it, what caught my attention is the fact that a note at the end mentions how by the time this article was published Sailor Moon had already been a commercial failure in the US.

Sailor Moon was not the profit machine that the various companies supporting its US distribution had hoped, but in light of a new  Sailor Moon anime in celebration of its 20th anniversary and the clear continued significance it has to American anime fandom, it’s clear that the show has had an impact, and possibly that what was seen as a failure of the show at the time may have been more a failure of marketing. To some extent, this may have had to do with the cultural landscape of the US in the 90s. After all, in contrast to the revising of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune from lesbian lovers to cousins back then, currently more and more people in the US are accepting or at least tolerant of same-sex relationships. However, there’s another important point to consider. In the Pacific Rim article, Mendelson also writes that “The deciding factor separating Pacific Rim 2 from Robocop 2 may be the passionate fan base of the former. It’s easier to talk financial parties into a sequel to a somewhat under-performing original if paying audiences actually liked said original.” Sailor Moon grew a powerful fanbase that the models for success at the time couldn’t properly account for. As the American anime fandom grows once more, now may be the time for both old and new fans to find some common ground.




Hulu Says, “Watch Anime.” I Say, “Uhhh…”

For the first time in a long while I’ve been able to use Hulu, and naturally the first thing I do is go watch some cartoons. While watching anime on Hulu, I got an ad for…anime on Hulu. That’s nice, why not advertise your services? People might not know, and I assume that these ads aren’t just preaching to the choir and appear on other shows.

As I watched the 30-60 second ad (I don’t quite remember how long it was exactly), I came to an odd realization that the ad was not making me want to watch anime. If you haven’t seen it, it basically features various clips from anime titles on Hulu (Naruto, Soul Eater, School Rumble, etc.) to the tune of an instrumental version of the first Soul Eater opening. Something about it doesn’t sit right with me, and I think it has to do with how similar it is in spirit to ADV’s old anime advertisements which emphasize thie idea anime is action, giant robots, magical girls, comedy, straight from Japan, not kids’ stuff, etc. I even like a good amount of the shows used in the ad, but it’s like they took the most spastic and anime-ey scenes they could find and called it a day’s work.

I don’t have a solution to offer myself, for an advertising wizard I am not, but I can easily think of one example that I feel inspires people to watch anime. Back in the early-mid 2000s, Toonami would run ads for their shows, usually grouped together by a theme. They made anime feel grand and special in a way that wasn’t just drawing on kids’ desires to see something different (though obviously that was still a factor).

(It also doesn’t hurt that the narrator is Optimus Prime.)

The above video indeed feels like it’s promoting a lot of the things that the old ADV commercials and the Hulu one do, but so much more weight is given to themes that are explored through anime than to the flesh and spectacle of techno-oriental exoticism. If the Hulu ends up working out for Hulu and they get tons of new viewers, then more power to them, but I still think the ad could be something more substantial.

See You, Space…Man…Robot…Thing

This past Saturday was the final Toonami. I didn’t catch it. I didn’t even know Toonami was ending. My first response was, “Why is it ending in the first place?” Having a specific “block” of shows is, underneath all the layers, simply a marketing scheme, and this marketing scheme was 11 years old and had gone through multiple transformations. Still, I realized that anime fandom in America owes a lot to Toonami.

The effect Toonami had on kids and budding fans was unmistakable. It was on Toonami that kids too young to remember the 80s well got their first exposure to Robotech and Battle of the Planets. It was on Toonami that legions of girls saw Heero Yuy and Duo Maxwell and thought that they would be an excellent couple. It was on Toonami that Dragon Ball Z truly began to take off and cemented itself as one of the most successful anime franchises in the US (not to mention the entire world).

The two biggest changes to Toonami are probably the two extra blocks that resulted from it. The old Toonami timeslot was taken by the new “Miguzi,” which was meant for younger kids. Older kids could still watch their Toonami, with more anime than ever before. Adult Swim is partly the result of those midnight uncut showings of Gundam W, where Cartoon Network began to realize that people were willing to stay up that late to keep up with their favorite show. For better or worse, Toonami defined Cartoon Network just as much if not more than the Cartoon Cartoons which followed and preceded it.

Still, 11 years is a very long time to be around in TV land, and in the end it was a good run.