Guest Blog: Dearest Gaijin Otaku, Please Stop Using the Insulting Phrase "The American Anime Industry"
From time-to-time I'll hear well meaning local otaku use the term "The American Anime Industry" and as a creative professional who's worked on a few television projects this always makes me cringe when I hear this. The reason is that "industry" implies actually making something – and while as an old time anime fanboy I'm grateful that today companies like VIZ and FUNimation are aggressively bringing over series from Japan, in fact that's all that they're doing. At the end of the day they're just importers, they're no different than any other company that imports any other product from abroad - be it sake or giant robot toys.
As far as I'm concerned the only real Anime industry that exists is in Japan. After all, that's where they're doing all the real creative production work on any show (although the grunt work may be shipped overseas). It's in Japan where you'll meet the manga artists who inspire the shows, the writers and storyboard artists who adapt that to the small screen and an army of people who kill themselves doing everything from designing every bit of mecha to recording foley effects for the show.
And sadly many of these folks in the trenches are very poorly paid – so when you use the term "Anime Industry" to describe anybody but those poor little foot soldiers in the army of filmmaking you're in fact insulting the artists. This quote from an Anime News Network article sums up the silent heroes that deserve your praise: "90% of the animators and directors are freelancers, and those who have trouble making ends meet are expected to face increasing hardships as they grow older. In particular, there are veteran creators in their 40s and 50s who are getting by on 3 million yen (about US$30,000) a year."
Also I don't know how many anime fans are aware of it, but making animation is damn hard work. For starters it's much more difficult than live action because there's no room for fudge time in the production process. In a live action film you can do a few takes on a scene to get it just right, but when you're doing animation you never get that luxury due to the cost. You have to create 24 frames per second (or 30 for NTSC video) – the amount of work in creating animation is painful and much more expensive than live-action. By the way that's why you no longer see any American animation on MTV. It's not because Beavis and Butthead went out of style, but because reality TV shows cost a fraction to make and are more profitable even if there are less viewers.
Now does this mean that I don't respect what companies like FUNimation are doing? Hardly! But what they're doing is adapting existing creative work and then doing the sales and distribution. And while that can make or break a show (for example how 4Kids ruined One Piece), it's just not the same game as making a show from scratch. In fact even on a corporate level you have to respect the Japanese companies because they're taking that initial investment risk in producing a show. Frankly, by the time an American company is looking at a show it's already done well in Japan, so there's less risk involved.
To me the closest thing to an "American Anime Industry" is in fact the studios in the United States that produce their own animation. So to me Pixar is a direct peer to Toei because they're really both in the same business. Now when an American company commissions an anime series (like Cartoon Network with the second season of The Big O or FUNimation with Afro Samurai), at that point to me they're in the same business because they're doing that hard work which is filled with risk. At the end of the day it's about putting your money where your mouth is.
For fans it also pays to look at the long term trend for anime through this lens, because as time goes on the old model of American companies slowly repacking anime will give way to simultaneous digital releases of TV shows and mangas. Wanting more creative control over the process you'll see companies like Viz and Bandai become the winners. Speaking of Bandai the real money in Anime isn't in DVD sales – it's in the merchandise! This isn't anything new because ever since Disney in the 1930s, the name of the game has been selling trinkets that tie into popular characters. Often American distribution companies won't be granted these merchandising rights which is a long term financial poison to their interests. And when you look at a company like Bandai Namco, their main business is toys - they're in fact using the anime shows as commercials to sell everything from Gundam model kits to video games.
Lastly anime fans should also realize that anime like any other form of entertainment is driven by the mega hits which carry everything else that's being done. So "the industry" is less about the genre of Japanese animation itself and more about blockbuster titles that open the doors to a new generation of fans. What has always driven anime in the United States has been those breakout titles that come along every few years - from Astroboy in the 60s to Naruto today. There is no proven formula for a hit show, but it always involves someone taking a chance on something fresh. So if you're seeing anime having a hard time right now it's because with a recession people are willing to take less chances and order "more of the same". But as a long time anime otaku I've got faith that it always just a matter of time until the next big thing happens.
Michael Pinto is editor of fanboy.com, publisher of anime.com and creative director Very Memorable Design. His professional client experience includes work for MTV Networks, Sesame Workshop, Scholastic Media, PBS Kids, and Time Inc. His otaku credits include founding the Star Blazers Fan Club in 1981 and helping to organize the first anime video room at Lunacon '83.
Images (c) Yumeta Co. (from Animation Runner Kuromi)
So what do you think? Should I rename the "US Anime Indusry" concept page?