At the Movies... Eventually
We may not be able to go to the movies right now, but at least we can live vicariously through anime history in the latest episode of Crunchyroll's Anime in America podcast. Read on for the full episode 6 transcript!
The Anime in America series is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
EPISODE 6: AT THE MOVIES: EVENTUALLY
Guest: Jerry Beck
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised.
There is one name you HAVE to talk about when it comes to anime. A foundational influence on the entire medium and an enervating force in the animation market. A man without whom we may not even have the anime we know and love today.
It’s not Tezuka, but good guess.
When it comes to the world of animation, and honestly most media, all roads lead back to Walt Disney. The man who all the animators in Japan’s growing post-war industry were trying to emulate. Most prominent among them, the legendary manga author and Japanese national treasure Osamu Tezuka who truly lived up to Walt’s legacy both by popularizing the medium of animation and establishing many regrettable business practices still felt in the modern industry.
Disney’s beloved animated features were the envy of every studio on both sides of the Pacific and the pursuit of that special magic Walt brought to the silver screen was what kicked off the race to bring Japanese animation to America. So, I guess…we can start there.
In the ‘50s Toei Animation was basically the only major animation studio in Japan and had the stated intent of becoming “The Disney of the East.” Toei’s first 3 films, Hakujaden, Shonen Sautobi Sasuke, and Saiyuki were all released near the end of that decade and all stuck very closely to the Disney formula, retelling traditional folktales with colorful animation, plenty of cute animals, and, in the case of Saiyuki, musical interludes.
Back home in the U.S., Disney was deep in a run of blockbuster releases with titles like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and, umm [cough] Song of the South. Just about every major studio was trying to figure out how to steal some of that thunder. Metro-Goldwyn Mayer was one such studio who considered Disney their rivals at the box office. If you wanna know how that turned out for MGM, uh, Disney acquired their parent company Fox in March 2019.
It was never much of a rivalry to begin with. MGM put out a behind the scenes docu series called The MGM Parade aping Disney’s “The Magical World of Disney” series in 1955 and decided to close their animation department in 1957, the heads of which, a Mr. William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, would depart along with most of the staff to form the very successful Hanna-Barbera Productions.
So, what do you do when you want to compete with a company like Disney in animated features but don’t want to go to the trouble of producing any animated features? MGM became the first company to license and release a Japanese anime in the United States, premiering Toei’s Shonen Sarutobi Sasuke, retitled Magic Boy, in theaters in July 8th, 1961, winning a close race against Global Pictures and American International by only two months ahead their releases of Toei’s two other films, Hakujaden, retitled Panda and the Magic Serpent, and Saiyuki, retitled Alakhazam the Great.
They didn’t do too great, which probably explains why between those three movies released in 1961 and Hayao Miyazaki’s debut in American cinemas in 1986, only 3 other anime made it to theaters in the U.S.
Not even Tezuka’s magic could break open the box office for anime in the ‘70s. His production company, Mushi Production, had two films, A Thousand and One Nights and Cleopatra: Queen of Sex that were both released early in the decade and flopped. In the case of the latter, Xanadu Productions’s attempt to sell the erotic historical drama as a porno probably didn’t help.
The rest of the following two decades saw plenty of anime films being released in the West but only for direct to video releases with major Japanese studios leaning hard into this new market. Many U.S. distributors were now exploiting Japanese studios to animate their own cartoons, so many of the same era took on a sort of Western bend. Toei Animation in particular released a number of films during that period that seem pretty focused on replicating that Disney formula even more closely, using Western history and folktales as source material. Some of my favorite examples are The World of Hans Christian Andersen (originally Anderson Monogatari), Les Miserables (originally Jean Valjean Monogatari), 30,000 Miles Under the Sea (yes, miles), Animal Treasure Island, and even Puss n’ Boots (who became Toei’s logo) during the ‘70s.
[Music from “Toei Logo History” plays]
In 1986, Hayao Miyazaki finally appeared in the American scene. If you haven’t heard of him… how the fuck not? How is that possible? I don’t, I don’t understand. Often referred to as the Walt Disney of Japan, Miyazaki is the primary creative force of what would become the internationally renowned Studio Ghibli which we’ll get into a bit later. Their first film Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind was created before the studio even had a name, wowing American audiences with its beautiful art and epic story involving environmentalist themes... kind of. Well not really, actually. Manson International and Showmen Inc. got their hands on the movie and cut it up so bad you couldn’t really call it a Miyazaki work anymore. I mean, they didn’t, they changed everything. They changed the title to Warriors of the Wind, [Clip from 1985 commercial for Warriors of the Wind] renaming Nausicaa to “Princess Zandra” and doing their best to make it an action movie while cutting out any of the environmental themes at the core of the narrative by cutting out a whole 22 minutes of the film. Then they drew up a He-Man ass poster with a whole squad of dudes and a pegasus that were not even in the movie.
Enter Streamline Pictures.
Co-founded by Jerry Beck and Carl Macek. Each already working to spread the good word of anime, the two were disappointed in early dubs and brought a new philosophy to the localization game with Streamline.
Do. Not. Mess. With. It. Don’t do that. For your own good.
Beck: We were quite proud of them, because we had a theory on how to do this, which was to use the original music and effects tracks, not cut anything, uh and to do the dubs as accurately and as correctly as we possibly could, with the best actors we could get. Our model was the Warriors of the Wind, meaning we were going to be everything that movie wasn’t. We were going to be the opposite of Warriors of the Wind.
That was the man, Jerry Beck himself. The formula was simple, arguably a lot less work than completely changing a movie to shoe-horn it into some western film archetype, the two-man company began visiting Japanese studios… or rather their Los Angeles offices since every major Japanese studio had one of those in the 1980’s, and asking for dubbing and distribution rights.
Both passionate anime fans, the two had a ton of knowledge of emerging anime titles and an interest in bringing many of them over which larger studios would have passed up for dumb reasons like “profitability.”
Beck: We literally made a checklist that we got all the films. We wanted Fist of the Northstar, we wanted Wicked City, we wanted Vampire Hunter D, we wanted Castle of Cagliostro, we wanted- you know, we wanted Lensmen, but I’m not sure why, I actually know why at the time, but that’s such an odd film. So, but we ended up getting them all.
After handling the theatrical screenings of the Mangum Dub of Castle in the Sky, Macek secured a deal with Japanese publisher Tokuma Shoten to dub future titles, including My Neighbor Totoro and Kiki’s Delivery Service. After that they went on a tear, where they were basically the only company in the game theatrically releasing anime from 1985 to 1995, averaging almost 2 movies a year in a period where non-Streamline anime films could be counted on one hand with room to spare.
I cannot emphasize enough how much Streamline did for anime in America. They even helped the medium properly break into American television in the early ‘90s alongside Central Park Media by contributing to Syfy’s anime block which aired Dominion Tank Police, Robot Carnival, Project A-Ko, Vampire Hunter D, and another film brought to the U.S. by Streamline which could be considered their greatest achievement.
Akira. Or AH-ki-ra [first syllable stress], if you’re a purist.
Beck: Marvel Comics was printing an adaptation of Akira and we knew about the film [Requiem from Akira plays]. And at that point, that was like, of course like ‘88 or so, you know there were already bootleg VHS copies for sale at comic book conventions and stuff. But we looked at it and went “oh my God, this is like state of the art, you know? This is really a big deal for film.” And I don’t even think we had seen it on the big screen or anything, we just knew we wanted it, if it was gettable. And the good news was that the Akira Committee was kinda desperately wanted it to be shown in America, and they had gone to Paramount, Universal, Fox, everywhere, trying to get somebody to pick up Akira, and nobody would because it was too violent. The idea of that kind of thing being shown in America was, you know, unthinkable. So we were like “we’ll do it!”
Akira was a cultural and technological achievement in animation. It set a new record number of colors used in an animated feature at 327, 50 of which were unique colors created specifically for the movie. You could fill a mega size box of Crayons with colors that only exist thanks to Akira, which is insane. The film consisted of 160,000 frames, clocking in at almost 3 times the average for an animated feature of that same length. It was also the most expensive anime film ever produced at the time with a budget of 1.1 billion Japanese Yen. As Jerry said, it was also intensely violent, considered graphic in Japan and especially in America which still considered animation almost wholly a realm of children’s entertainment. The Akira Committee was desperate to get it in American theaters. And obviously, there were difficulties.
After being collectively shot down by Hollywood, the Akira Committee was approached by the small and unproven Streamline with a unique offer: if the Akira Committee could put up the cost to dub and distribute, Streamline would give them 100% of the profits up to a cap before beginning to collect their own percentage.
And it was not easy. Jerry had to negotiate for months with an agent from the committee who basically watched their operation at work to make sure they knew what they were doing. Then Streamline was given an opportunity to prove themselves by hosting a screening of the film in the Spreckles theater at ComicCon. Only once they pulled that off did the committee ink the deal, but with one demand. They were adamant about getting a quality dub and wanted someone who had, at the very least, been nominated for an Academy Award to manage it. At the very least. Carl Macek had one of his associates search around and eventually they landed on Sheldon Renan, who had previously received recognition from the Motion Pictures Association of America for a documentary short just to fit the bill.
[Akira versus Kaneda, english dub clip]
And it was a hit. Screenings pulled in profits on par with or even exceeding critically acclaimed live action foreign films. Streamline established their reputation in the industry on the success of Akira, and the next step was home video, which turned into another battle for Streamline as one of the principles of the committee, Kodansha, was intent on selling out the rights to a large distributor based on Akira’s success in theaters. Still they were turned down and once again, despite not even being a home video distributor, Streamline made an offer.
Beck: We said to them, you know, we’re gonna get you the reviews, you’re going to get reviews in every town. We got Siskel and Ebert, they reviewed it; we got it on Entertainment Tonight, we got it everywhere. And so we were doing all this stuff, the idea though, the goal, was to get all this coverage and then they would go, they would instead of going to movie studios they would go to the home video people and try to convince them to put it out on home video. No home video distributor wanted it. Nobody. Because there was nowhere, we found out later, there was no place in a video store, then, for them to put it. They couldn’t put it in the kids’ cartoon section, the idea of putting it in science fiction, I don’t know why that didn’t work, that should’ve worked, but they probably had Heavy Metal there, but they for some reason that was not a thing that- they didn’t, there was nowhere to put what we call “anime” in a video store at that time. They did say to us “you gotta have a bunch of them. Five, six, seven, and we’ll create a shelf, we’ll put a shelf in our stores.” This is what Blockbuster said, this is what Suncoast said. So we ended up, we ended up, what we did was we got the vid- they couldn’t sell the video rights, so WE got the video rights, even though we weren’t a video company! And so we ended up putting out Akira on VHS. We couldn’t sell it in video stores. So we ended up- and there was no Ebay or Amazon, that didn’t exist, so we actually went to comic book stores and obviously it was the perfect thing to do, because Akira was a comic book, it was manga, and Marvel was printing it. And we ended up selling them to comic book stores and we- it worked. It was exclusive to comic book stores, it was the only place you could get it. Oh my God, we sold… thousands.
Streamline hung up its hat with the release of Space Adventure Cobra in 1995 but many of their partners who handled the theatrical distribution like Tara Releasing and Fathom Events continued without them. Just as TV anime was headed toward its own watershed moment, the field for anime movies broadened in the second half of the ‘90s. Manga Entertainment brought over Ghost in the Shell with Palm Pictures in 1996. VIZ Media broke into films by capitalizing on Ranma ½’s growing popularity with the release of Ranma ½ the Movie: Big Trouble in Nekonron China alongside CBS theatrical in 1998.
And then the big one came. 4Kids partnered with Kids WB and dropped Pokemon: The First Movie in 1999. And to call it a smash hit for anime movies would be an understatement. [Pokemon: The First Movie, trailer 1 plays] I saw it. Because my dad bought the VHS from one of those dudes that sold bootlegs in the Kroger parking lot. The one he hand recorded himself. You remember those? We had ‘em.
The movie hit $10.1 million in the box office on its opening day, which was a Wednesday, by the way. Over its opening weekend it would climb to $31 million and eventually cap out at $85 million at the box office which has remained the record anime movie in the United States for 20 years. For a moment in time it even claimed the best opening weekend for an animated feature full stop until Toy Story 2 dropped two weeks later. [Pokemon Bumper - 2000] Plastic-faced newscasters began referring to its opening weekend as “Pokeflu,” since so many kids mysteriously called in sick from school the same day.
“Pokemania Comes to America - 1999, ABC News”: Pokemon is now in full mania! And others may follow suit, when a new Pokemon movie hit theaters this fall, spurring even more… Pokemania.
"’Pokémania’: 1999 MSNBC Pokémon News Report”: School officials are finding that Pokemon cards are responsible for fist fights and the constant trading is not only distracting kids from classwork, but turning the playground into a black market.
And ya know what? Given recent events, Pokeflu sounds very racist. But that’s what they called it.
Anime was still a few years off from its Oscar grab and even today hasn’t fully reached acceptance as a respected form of media, but the Pokemon movie proved there was lots and lots of money to be made from anime if you played your cards right. Although it’s difficult to tell if that's what 4Kids and Warner Bros did. Each subsequent Pokemon movie pulled in roughly half what the previous managed. Pokemon: The Movie 2000 scored a total box office of $43 million and Pokemon 3: The Movie grabbed $17 million before the whole thing fell off a cliff. Pokemon 4Ever pulled in only $1.7 million and Pokemon Heroes didn’t even crack $1 million. Mind you, this still gives Pokemon the 1st, 2nd, 6th, and 19th highest box offices of anime films in the U.S., so, you know, what do I know?
Pokemon’s explosive success at the box office inspired other attempts to grab some of that Disney demographic. Fox was the first to jump after the 1999 success of the first Pokemon movie with Digimon: The Movie which I’m definitely gonna talk about in a little bit. 4Kids itself also tried to recapture that Pokemon magic as the franchise was showing diminishing returns with Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light.
Unfortunately the Pokemon movies were also a return to form for crazed American producers with scissors. 4Kids onigiri erasure in Pokemon TV series is notorious on its own, but its former president Norman Grossfeld also feared the Pokemon: The Movie movie would do poorly as written. Casting Mewtwo as a sympathetic antagonist confused and angered the profit-minded execs who produced content for children despite probably never having children of their own. They cut out the prologue describing Mewtwo’s past as the victim of genetic experiments and made edits to portray him as a generic villain and Mew as… like some kinda savior, messiah-type thing?
Fox, in its desperation to compete with the success of Warner Brothers’s Pokemon looked to Digimon, spawning the creation of the cinematic chimera Digimon: The Movie. You see, there wasn’t actually a movie called Digimon: The Movie in Japan, but several short Digimon films titled Digimon Adventure, Digimon Adventure:... um… Children’s War Game?, and Digimon Adventure 02: Digimon Hurricane Landing!!.
The first two had been directed by the acclaimed Mamoru Hosoda and the last by Shigeyasu Yamauchi. I really want to emphasize these were three different movies utilizing different art styles and creative processes with the last one even focusing on an almost entirely different cast of characters. So, like Harmony Gold before them, they took a knife to all three features, leaving more than 40 minutes on the cutting room floor to create a bizarrely paced, three-arc, Digimon feature before slapping on a mostly ska soundtrack and Angela Anaconda short in the beginning [Angela Anaconda part of the Digimon Movie]. The movie premiered in 2000 and was panned by critics but walked away with a $9.6 million box office, making it the 9th most successful anime film in the States, so I’m sure the producers cried all the way to the bank while the rest uh… learned that evil pays.
Yu-Gi-Oh! The Movie: Pyramid of Light came later in 2004 and might be an even more bizarre feature than Digimon, since 4Kids produced the movie rather than just chopping it up after the fact. In fact, it might be the first anime film to be screened in the United States before Japan, releasing in August while Japan didn’t get the theatrical release until November. Somehow the Japanese version was still a full 14 minutes longer than the U.S. release. It’s not really clear whether Studio Gallop made the film whole cloth and 4Kids cut it down, as was their usual practice, or if they added some extra content after the fact that 4Kids didn’t want for the American audience. I guess we’ll never know.
Since it was produced for the U.S., we did get the bonus of having all the cards appear like the actual game complete with english text, even if it sometimes appeared upside-down. Pyramid of Light also had ska music unfortunately. Umm… the 2000s was a, it was a big time for ska. Once again the movie was panned, finding a place in Rotten Tomatoes’s 100 worst reviewed films of the 2000s, but became the 4th most successful anime film in the U.S. ever, with a $19.8 million box office.
But that is enough about box office for now. Now we can talk about home video releases.
If you’ve ever tried to catch an anime film in theaters, you’ve probably noticed that even today they usually have extremely limited showings. At Streamline’s peak, they weren’t the only company localizing anime films, they were just the only ones making a push to put them in theaters. Other publishers were going for the straight to video route, but there was one serious hang-up. Blockbuster just didn’t give a shit.
Streamline’s own Akira release had limited theatrical showings, meaning they were leaning heavily into home video and the movie really beat the odds, finding success in the two markets mom and pop video stores and comic shops. Bootleg fansubs of Akira had been in circulation for months before the film’s official release, so Streamline sweetened the deal by including actual original animation cels with the VHS which seems less an intelligent marketing gimmick and more of a giveaway of cultural artifacts in retrospect. Those people are probably very wealthy, now. It was probably also unnecessary. Akira’s home video success was a moment in anime history in many ways, but it was also an exception.
The direct to video market would never find the same success in comic shops that Akira had. You could find anime in privately owned video stories but even then they were being crowded out by mainstream outlets like Blockbuster who were much less interested in putting anime on their shelves, especially of the famously violent variety like Akira. For anime to get its foot in the door, it would need a new face that was not only child friendly but also insanely popular. I know I just talked about Pokemon’s breakout success, but its home video wouldn’t hit the shelves until 2000. Instead, the man who would help open Blockbusters’s blue and gold doors for other anime in the late ‘90s was one of its creators who most famously hates home video. Hayao Miyazaki.
Miyazaki was already making the rounds in the U.S. via World Pictures and Streamline dubs of a few of his films which was probably fine by him, as he seems to resent the idea of people watching his movies in any setting other than a theater, but Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki had his sights set on dominating the animation industry and Disney just happened to be in the market for international films. Former Head of Disney Home Video International Division and current CEO of Herbalife Nutrition Michael O Johnson inked a deal with Ghibli in 1996 granting global distribution rights to their entire library of films.
This was thanks in large part to the effort of Disney’s Steve Alpert who went so far as to film a mini-documentary in Disney studios to basically show Eisner and his fellow suits that every single person they employed to draw moving pictures was already a diehard fan of Miyazaki’s work. Alpert himself would jump ship to Ghibli to work alongside Suzuki battling his former employer at every turn to make sure they kept their promise about not cutting Ghibli films.
Probably expecting Ghibli’s next film to be another Totoro or Kiki, Disney was shocked to see limbs flying off people's bodies in Princess Mononoke and pushed the distribution under their Miramax label to distance themselves from its morally objectionable content, which I can only assume came from a place of deep ignorance of both their own company’s history and the work of their HR department. Also the notion that um… just producing the same thing under a different wing of your company makes you any less morally objectionable… is also morally objectionable.
Unfortunately the Harvey Weinstein-lead Miramax was dead set on changing everything about Mononoke that it possibly could. And with Ghibli holding onto an iron-clad contract giving them final say, this transformed into all-out warfare with Miramax trying to weasel in every change they could and Alpert flying over the Pacific to nip that shit in the bud, only ending after Weinstein himself was twice humiliated in public. And to that I say: Good. First in a now iconic story wherein Suzuki presents him with a unsharpened prop sword at a meeting full of Disney and Miramax suits while shouting “Mononoke-hime NO CUT,” and then when Miyazaki and crew left in the middle of their own post-premiere party to carefully consider the suggestion Weinstein had been shouting at Alpert to chop 40 minutes off the movies runtime or they’d “never work in this town again.” And then several years later, the entire entertainment industry said “no, YOU’LL never work in this town again!”
Although Streamline had been following our modern era’s best practice of not messing with the source material for about a decade, Ghibli’s “no cuts” policy was one of the first pushes in that direction to come from Japan and doubtless helped to normalize the practice… eventually. As I said before, 4Kids and Fox raked in millions spinning out heavily edited films but Buena Vista bending the knee to Ghibli’s demands, the lasting cultural impact of Ghibli movies, and an increasingly saturated market of TV anime untouched by an editor’s razor eventually pushed the industry in the right direction. After all, no edited anime movies ever have been nominated for Oscars, but more on that later.
Despite being a global hit, Princess Mononoke didn’t really take off in the way Disney had hoped, only pulling in $2.3 million in its first eight weeks. But it recovered in… that’s right, home video releases! Boom. Got ‘em. They also started churning out actual VHS releases for other Ghibli titles like Kiki’s Delivery Service and My Neighbor Totoro and then, when Streamline’s rights expired, Disney produced their own lavish dubs for DVD re-releases featuring a star-studded cast with voices like Dakota Fanning, Kirsten Dunst, Patrick Stewart, and uh, Shia LeBeouf. What?! Blockbuster was finally persuaded to start moving in anime content when Disney’s Buena Vista came knocking and the doors were officially open for more anime content.
Ghibli was way ahead of its time in many ways and rights management was no exception. Or at least Miyazaki’s insistence on the purity of a theater-only movie-viewing experience had some unintended benefits. A mere two years before 4Kids would pull off the heist of the century screwing Shogakukan and Nintendo out of millions in profits in their deal of the explosively popular Pokemon franchise, Ghibli would deny Disney digital rights to their works in their contract. Disney was fine with that, the prevailing belief among executives being that those rights were basically useless. Ha-ha! Imagine that.
Disney wasn’t interested in digital and if Disney, the most powerful media rights holder in the world, wasn’t going to push into that new sphere of distribution, then it was doomed to failure. Which, looking at the titanic size of Netflix who recently acquired streaming rights to the Ghibli Films worldwide minus Japan and the U.S. and is now staring down the barrel of Disney’s own competing streaming service Disney+ and Warner’s HBO Max, is kinda funny in retrospect.
Buena Vista might’ve helped Ghibli in another way though. Let's talk about when anime won an Oscar. No one’s quite sure how it happened, really. Not that Spirited Away didn’t deserve it. It definitely did. It’s a good movie. It’s just, uh, this was the first and only of Miyazaki’s works to have even been nominated. Ever. In fact, no anime films before Spirited Away in 2003 received a nomination for best animated film in the Academy Awards, and only The Tale of Princess Kaguya has been nominated since. Maybe the stars aligned, maybe it’s because Spirited Away’s stiffest competition in the 75th Academy Awards was Lilo & Stitch and Ice Age [Spirited Away Wins Animated Feature: 2003 Oscars], maybe it's because Spirited Away carried extra credibility by being released in the U.S. under the auspices of Disney. Whatever the cause, anime, via Ghibli, had grabbed a piece of critical acclaim in the American entertainment industry that seemed otherwise determined to ignore it.
Not that Hollywood hadn’t noticed anime long ago. Two of America’s most celebrated directors, Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky, have both committed what can charitably be described as borrowing from a certain Japanese director by the name of Satoshi Kon to build their respective, uh repertoires. Aranofsky heavily borrowed story, themes, and imagery from Kon’s Perfect Blue in his film Black Swan and even recreated the bath scene from Perfect Blue in his Requiem for a Dream. Guess which two of those three movies were nominated for Oscars? Nolan’s Inception collected four Oscars in 2010 which contained several scenes that anime fans got a sneak preview of 3 years before in the limited screening of Kon’s 2007 Paprika. And also in that one uh, Donald Duck comic strip.
Uh, look, I’m not trying to roast anybody or anything like that. Maybe Aronofsky. But you just can’t talk about Spirited Away grabbing an Oscar without giving mention to not just anime films, but foreign films in general which Hollywood seems to find value in but only when filtered through one of its own creators. So what does this get us? It gets us Scarlett Johansenn playing a woman named Motoko Kusanagi and an Oldboy remake that completely misses the point.
Trust me when I say the only good adaptations by Hollywood are Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow and the Wachowski sisters’s Speed Racer. You heard it here. If you want a new Ghost in the Shell movie just open your wallet, call Mamoru Oshii, and ask him to make another one. Stop with this weird shit.
Although many films were in uncertain licensing situations until GKIDs started recollecting them, the works of visionary directors like Mamoru Hosoda, Satoshi Kon, and Isao Takahata have managed to find their way to American theaters over the years without edits and a minimal delay that recently has been reduced down to less than a year. Not quite simulcasting, but given none of them have had a real breakout hit, it’s long strides to think that fans have had consistent opportunities to watch their movies in theaters over the years and purchase them in home video.
Since Miyazaki’s most recent retirement, Ghibli underwent a sort of identity crisis on what to make of their studio or even if they would continue making films at all. During this period many of their creators left to join other studios, some of them even forming their own Studio Ponoc itself dedicated to continuing Ghibli’s traditions of movie making. Ghibli itself was just kinda there until very recently, when the aforementioned GKIDs secured the rights to Ghibli within the U.S. and entered into a deal to stream the entire Ghibli library on HBO Max. Ghibli also recently announced that it's nearing the release of TWO new films, Miyazaki’s own How Do You Live? and the studio’s first entirely CG feature film Earwig and the Witch, by Miyazaki’s son, Goro.
And I know what you’re thinking. I thought the same thing until I saw the images and I will just say I’m definitely gonna go see it.
And y’know what? That’s great for Disney, but Ghibli’s downtime created an existential dread within the anime industry and fandom, because there wasn’t any other big name director to replace Miyazaki in the collective consciousness of America as “THE anime director,” or as Mother’s Basement on YouTube would say “the new Miyazaki,” until only recently...
Makoto Shinkai has been directing anime movies, arguably the SAME anime movie, since 1998 and has been a well known quantity in the fandom since his 2002 film Voices of a Distant Star. But something changed in 2016. His movies are almost always about young people in love separated by time, space, circumstance, or supernatural circumstance, but each iteration has refined his technique until one finally reached critical mass. Your Name became the most successful Japanese film of any kind in multiple countries, including China, and Japan’s second most successful anime film domestically behind Spirited Away. Didn’t even crack the top 10 in the U.S., though.
And no Oscar.
That said, Your Name was a resounding success in the United States, now surpassed by Shinkai’s newest film Weathering with You last year. Each pulling in $5 million in the box office is no small feat for anime films. Appearing more frequently in mainstream outlets may be slowly growing Shinkai into a household name which, matched with his own formula for successful films, could be the beginning of another single director legacy that will pull the industry up with it.
Now although we’ve seen less explosive releases since the children-focused anime movies around the turn of the millenia, it’s hard to describe our past decade of the 2010s as anything but a stateside renaissance for anime film. While the collective box office brought in by anime in the U.S. during the 2000s completely dwarfs that of the ‘90s, there weren’t all that many more films making it over. The real difference in the marketing and theater availability after Pokemon provided a proof of concept. Although there’s been roughly 50% more anime films coming out per year in Japan in the 2010s than the 2000s, the yearly average with theatrical releases in the states more than doubled between the decades.
And while TV anime are slowly being consolidated into a few select streaming services, more distribution companies have entered the industry to put anime films in theaters. Nowadays GKIDs, Fathom Events, and Eleven Arts have an almost monthly churn of screenings that actually top the daily box offices… on their Wednesday showings. Wednesday. Still, given the movies are airing in limited theaters and showings, the numbers are very good. Just last year Dragon Ball Super: Broly had the 3rd most successful box office for an anime film in the U.S. at $30 million.
Sounds like we’re in a pretty good place. Well, it’s all- I mean, it’s all relative. We have doubled the number of movies we license every year since last decade, but American theater-goers still only get the opportunity to watch maybe half of the anime films that come out every year in Japan. Meanwhile, there are an average of over 200 TV anime produced every year and, with rare exceptions, every single one is licensed and distributed in the United States across a number of streaming services. Next up, we’re going to talk about anime on TV and how it's grown into one of the largest, fastest, and most sophisticated localization industries in the world.
Thank you for listening to Anime in America, presented by Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this, please go to Crunchyroll.com/animeinamerica to start your 14-day free trial or just log on for some free, ad-supported anime.
Special thanks to Jerry Beck. You can find more of Jerry’s work over on cartoonresearch.com along with the history of Streamline Pictures written by Fred Patten, one of the co-founders.
This episode is hosted by me, Yedoye Travis, and you can find me on Instagram at ProfessorDoye or Twitter @YedoyeOT. This episode is researched and written by Peter Fobian, edited by Chris Lightbody, and produced by me, Braith Miller, Peter Fobian and Jesse Gouldsbury.