Raised by TV
What do you remember from your first time seeing anime on TV? Find out how all this came to be and more as Crunchyroll's Anime in America podcast takes some time to speak with author and scholar Roland Kelts and Toonami's own Jason DeMarco in the latest episode! Read on for the full episode 7 transcript below.
The Anime in America series is available on crunchyroll.com, animeinamerica.com, and wherever you listen to podcasts.
EPISODE 7: RAISED BY TV
Guests: Jason DeMarco, Roland Kelts
Disclaimer: The following program contains language not suitable for all ages. Discretion advised.
In February 1963, a guy named Fred Ladd got a call from NBC’s Jim Dodd. Somebody from NBC liked Fred’s work on a series created by taking 30- to 50-minute European cartoons that were cut into 5-minute segments and dubbed for release under the title “Cartoon Classics” and recommended Fred to Jim.
The mystery NBC agent had seen a cartoon on TV during a trip to Japan that he thought might play well on American television. After screening an episode, so did Fred. Jim Dodd asked if he’d be interested in dubbing and localizing the cartoon. That cartoon, or anime as we call them today, was an Osamu Tezuka led Mushi Production titled Tetsuan Atom.
NBC recognized the need for new cartoons, as childrens’ entertainment on TV just wasn’t being served. At the time, many networks were airing libraries of animated films that had finished their theatrical runs. TV cartoons were expensive to make, both in raw production costs and because shows required 52 episodes for syndication so networks could continue to air reruns for long periods to recoup the licensing costs without the program becoming stale.
They saw Japanese cartoons as the perfect solution to this problem, predicting a low price tag, even with the added cost of dubbing. If Tetsuan Atom was a hit, they could continue picking up Japanese cartoons at cost to fill out their programming schedules.
There was just one problem though. The cartoons were um… they were Japanese.
NBC had made an executive decision to not hide the fact that the cartoons were of Japanese origin. Meaning that if asked they weren’t going to deny it, but they weren’t going to advertise it either. Lingering post-war sentiments and xenophobia might ostracize exactly the audience they were aiming for. But fortunately Tezuka, influenced by Disney, was a practitioner of what’s known as “mukokuseki,” or “statelessness.” The appearance of his characters and the setting of his works were ambiguous, allowing any viewer to more easily identify with them or, today, allowing an anime avatar on Twitter to argue that anime characters are supposed to be white. [Whistle]
Anyway, the idea worked. Many of the earliest anime fans have similar stories about not even knowing that many of their favorite childhood cartoons were Japanese at all until much later in their lives. Just like in episode two when you didn’t realize that in the Power Rangers suits were just Japanese people fighting other Japanese people in puddy outfits, speaking japanese, then recorded over in english cut with american footage. Or you didn’t know as a kid that Muppet Babies was animated by the same studio that made Dragon Ball Z. Who would’ve thought?
Basically, to them, it was just another cartoon.
But anyway, things get a little rocky with Tetsuan Atom.
To that point NBC had been working with an agent representing Mushi Production named Kazuhiko Fujita, who shocked them by shooting down their initial offer. Just as they were reassessing what to do, one Kiyoshi Fujita (no relation) discovered the situation and got both Mushi Production and Fuji TV onboard with the deal. This might seem a little confusing, but it becomes important later on...
So, Fred dubbed the pilot episode to present to the NBC reps and by summer of ‘63 they were all convinced they had a hit. He would go on to dub the entire 52 episode series using spare studio space with three voice actors at a cost of 1,800 USD total per episode before Tetsuan Atom, now retitled Astro Boy, aired on WNEW-TV channel 5 in New York as a test run before launching on NBC’s own Channel 4 network nationwide to popular acclaim and, according to Fred, launching the anime industry as we know it today.
Overjoyed with the international success of Astroy Boy in the U.S., Tezuka returned to NBC looking to sell them on the upcoming adaptation of his manga Jungle Taitei Leo, submitting his entire plan for the series pre-production to the broadcasting company to make sure it would meet MCAA standards and now I guess we’ve gotta talk about American television in the 60s for a little bit.
The reason Tezuka submitted his plan ahead was because three whole episodes of Tetsuan Atom didn’t make the cut to the Astro Boy series because of their content and, if not for a visit by Fred to Mushi Production, that number might’ve been six. America wasn’t interested so much in the cartoon they were licensing as much as the raw animation and were more than willing to change just about everything in the show to suit American tastes and meet MCAA broadcasting requirements.
Too much violence? Cut it out. Character death? No! They’re just knocked out. Police man have a Japanese name? Let’s just change it to Officer McLaw, because… cops are Irish. At the time… and also now, uh American cartoons were expected to have each episode be a self-contained story. If some clever editing on the U.S. side couldn’t transform a “to be continued” into a “the end,” sometimes they’d have the Japanese studio redo the end. Consequently, that’s how Tetsuan Atom became Astro Boy… also maybe a little guilt over that whole atomic bomb thing.
When it came to Jungle Taitei Leo, NBC had some demands. Cut all the “law of the jungle” violence. Cut Leo growing up and having kids (NBC had sold Astro Boy as a new Pinnochio and were using a Bambi angle for Leo), and also no Leo dying at the end. Tezuka... agreed to change all of it, which basically made the new story nothing like his original work. And the series, slated for 76 episodes, was also cut down to 52 to meet NBC’s broadcasting requirements. Also they changed Leo’s name to Simba to avoid comparisons to the MGM lion, who I’m sure you had no idea was named Leo, and then to Kimba after it was brought up that Simba was just the word for Lion in Swahili and I’m sure you can’t imagine anyone being that uncreative...? Um...
Fred was on the forefront of many of these changes, editing and changing just about every aspect of NBC’s anime pickups in whatever way he thought would appeal to an American audience. But it should also be said that he was basically on the forefront of almost every TV anime Americans laid eyes on through the 90s. If he didn’t work on it personally, he was often instrumental in connecting creators with licensors to make it happen. His contribution to anime in America can not be understated. If it’s any consolation, Fred himself wasn’t a fan of Toei’s Japanese localization of his own original film, “Pinocchio in Outer Space”...
I repeat: Pinocchio in Outer Space.
[Clip from Pinoccio in Outer Space trailer plays]
Older woman: Where’s Pinocchio now, daughter?
Younger woman: Well, he began to grow selfish and inconsiderate.
Jiminy Cricket?: We have to do something! Think you can hypnotize that big lummox?
Other Person: I don’t even know where his eyes are!
Jiminy Cricket?: In his head, genius.
You remember the guy who’s NOT in outer space? Imagine him in outer space. And that’s the, that’s the guy who was in charge of anime.
Anyway, look it up…it’s not anime so it has no place in this podcast.
Then Mushi Productions began to run into trouble. Tezuka had already taken over the industry in the same way a Walmart moves into your small town and destroys all local businesses owned by your friends and family. He set his production costs to a dangerously low $3,000 per episode which, along with his nationwide reputation as a master of his craft, forced other studios to drop to his price point or drop out entirely. Many of them, unable to compete with his raw reputation, chose the latter. This set a precedent that the industry is still feeling the affects nearly 60 years later.
Mushi was already running at the lowest possible cost while increasing their production efforts to put their cartoons up to American standards. Typical American cartoons were comprised of around 6,500 cels while Japanese cartoons clocked in at only 4,000. Mushi was still trying to catch up when Fuji Network and NBC demanded Mushi’s next production be in color… I should probably mention that all anime before this had been in grayscale. The whole world, actually. Color hadn’t been invented yet, so this was a BIG ask.
Tezuka wasn’t sure how to tackle that task, so Mushi’s Kaoru Anami called Fred to ask for help, which led to him arranging a meeting with Disney’s Preston Blair in which he showed them the ropes. The result was Jungle Taitei Leo becoming the first color anime in 1966, Mushi’s production costs reaching a new peak, and maybe just maybe possibly Disney’s first contact with the inspiration for a certain controversial 1994 animated film about an unnamed jungle animal.
Mushi was now relying on American investment in their productions to break even and then… NBC started rejecting Tezuka's projects.
Tezuka’s take on the Chinese classic Journey to the West, “Goku no Daibouken,” was turned away because Goku was too mean. The mideval fantasy featuring a princess pretending to be a prince and getting into sword fights, “Ribon no Kishi,” was rejected due to what can best be described as “sex switching” panic, the modern word for that being transphobia. W3, a story about three aliens disguised as animals exploring the Earth to decide whether or not it was a universal threat was rejected for… no particular reason is clear but it’s about three animals deciding whether or not Earth should be destroyed, so... yeah. And finally Dororo, which just recently got a new adaptation, which I’m gonna guess got rejected because of violence and also “sex switching” panic over Dororo dressing as a boy. So there’s that.
Tezuka was afraid of antagonizing NBC by shopping his product elsewhere. After being forced to produce Goku no Daibouken at a loss, however, Mushi ended up selling Ribon no Kishi and W3 to Joe Oriolo, the co-creator of Casper the Friendly Ghost, of all things.
[Casper the Friendly Ghost theme]
Ultimately it wasn’t enough. Mushi would enter a decline and, with blood in the water, new studios started popping up, many helmed by Mushi’s own former staff, and began looking to the U.S. to sell their works. In 1968 Tezuka would form a new studio, Tezuka Productions, leaving Mushi to its troubles as it circled the drain and finally went bankrupt in 1968.
By the late 60s other studios were shopping out their works to America. Kazuhiko Fujita (if you remember him?) reemerged, having convinced Television Corporation of Japan (or TCJ) and Tatsukono to let him shop out international rights for the next several years. Among them, TCJ’s 8 Man, and Tetsujin 28-go, and Tatsunoko’s Space Ace, and Mach GoGoGo. NBC didn’t bite but ABC picked up 8 Man, pretty reasonably given the current market trends simply retitling it “8th Man.” When NBC and ABC passed on Tetsujin 28-go, Fred himself picked up the license, starting his own Delphi Associates Incorporated to localize it and releasing the series as Gigantor through Trans-Lux which, he claims, eclipsed even Astro Boy in its popularity. Mach GoGoGo ended up getting acquired directly by Trans-Lux and released as Speed Racer, becoming the most successful anime hit in the U.S. for years.
[Speed Racer Opening! (original version)]
At the time, Japanese studios were very focused on selling their works to America. TCJ was unwilling to sell the first 26 episodes of Tetsujin 28-go’s 52 episode series because they didn’t believe it was up to American standards and were even willing to go back and make changes to the ends of the latter 26 to keep with America’s self-contained story requests.
Tatsunoko had offered to go back and add color to the entire black and white Space Ace series for NBC, even coloring one episode as a sample, before they were turned down for another cartoon called “Cool McCool,” which may have been for the best since Fred had planned to change Ace’s name to “Ring-O”... because he threw rings…
Anime fell on hard times in the 70s as public outcry against violence and advertising on children’s programming heated up. ACT, or A-C-T, or “Action for Children’s Television” had started up in ‘68 and had their sights set directly on cartoons, driving several titles like Space Ghost and Fantastic Four off the air before the turn of the decade. By the early 70s they were petitioning the FCC and were breathing down Jimmy Carter’s neck the moment he got into office in ‘77. Their power would diminish in the 80s with Reaganomics pulling back the FCC’s ACT-directed demands on programming, but during the 70s even the edited down violence of Fred Ladd’s localizations were unsafe.
In the span of six years, American capital had vastly changed the landscape of Japanese animation, only for America to suddenly pull away and leave Japanese studios to pick up the pieces. While America was having another conservative moment, Japan’s animation industry headed in the opposite direction, moving into a new era of space-faring science fiction and increasing mature themes.
Even as Astro Boy was still airing on TV, some great minds started to think, “what if, instead of adapting Japanese cartoons, we just hired Japanese studios to cheaply animate OUR ideas instead?” These geniuses worked at Videocraft International and would quickly partner with Toei animation to produce the first ever cartoon produced in America and animated in Japan, the King Kong Show in 1969 [King Kong show intro]. They would go on to animate the 1981 Spider-Man, G.I. Joe, Inspector Gadget, Transformers, My Little Pony, The Jetsons, The Smurfs, and even… yes… even Muppet Babies.
Japanese studio Topcraft was also an early adopter, partnering with American Rankin/Bass in 1971 to produce a number of animated series like “The Jackson 5ive” that’s spelled with the number “5,” instead of an “F.” And several notable animated films from the 80s like Frosty’s Winter Wonderland, The Hobbit, and The Last Unicorn. All these projects were produced, written, and voice acted by Rankin/Bass in the U.S., while the animation was done at least in part but usually entirely by Topcraft.
The relationship lasted until 1985 when Topcraft went bankrupt and got bought by someone you’ll remember from the previous episode, Hayao Miyazaki, who changed its name to the infamously difficult to pronounce “Ghibli” [“gh” pronounced like “geo”], or “Gibli?” [“gh” pronounced like “get”], or… “Ghibli” [“gh” pronounced like “yee”]. Some of its other animators formed Pacific Animation Corporation to continue working with Rankin/Bass on series like ThunderCats and Silverhawks before also retreating to Ghibli three years later when Walt Disney bought out their studio in 1988 to form Walt Disney Animation Japan to churn out all their direct-to-video movie sequels in the 90s…
Tokyo Movie Shinsha, or TMS, was another studio that jumped on this trend. After a 1981 collaboration with French DIC Audiovisuel animating Ulysses 31 before animating a number of series with DIC’s new American arm. Over the next few decades TMS would animate cartoons for ABC, CBS, DIC, Disney, and Warner Brothers. Among their long list credits are cartoons like DuckTales, Tiny Toons, Ghostbusters, Gargoyles, and Batman: The Animated Series. Who would’ve thought? All the arguments we’ve had over Avatar: The Last Airbender, and EVERY American cartoon is up for debate on whether or not it’s anime. All of them.
One of the earliest adopters was famous televangelist and Christian known for hating ALL of his neighbors, Pat Robertson. Between 1981 and 1983, Robertson’s conservative evangelical Christan television network and production company, the Christian Broadcasting Network, or CBN for short, [55 Years of the Christian Broadcasting Network] recently revamped as a cable network, connected with Tatsunoko Production to produce two 52 episode series. First Super Book, which chronicled the events of the Old and New Testament; and it’s companion series Flying House, in which three kids, a professor, and a robot, travel through time to witness… numerous events of the New Testament… I guess being around for some of the Old Testament stuff would’ve been a little too much for the kids, so I understand.
The 1980s of course saw the rise of cable TV. Regulations of cable infrastructure relaxed causing a subscription increase from 16 million to 53 million households over the decade and a concurrent rise in cable programming networks from 28 to 79. Imagine that FEW networks. But at the time, that meant way more channels and way more airtime to fill, dramatically increasing the need for low budget animated content. By 1986, Japanese companies were starting to catch on to their own value, and so was Japanese yen, and those two factors together caused a rate increase of 40% between 1986 and 1988. At which point many U.S. groups did what they do best and found a cheaper option which meant turning straight to Korea.
Anyway, basically, even if you’re not an anime fan, if you like cartoons at all, even a little bit, chances are you’re at least a fan of Japanese animation. Although nowadays, it’s uh, mostly Korean.
Now I’ve already complained about Fred’s modifications to anime to make it unnecessarily family friendly, but for this next part I have to advise that you remove your children from the room or the car or wherever you’re listening to this podcast.
The end of the 70s marked the beginning of a decade long bloodbath, what I call the hackjob era of anime. We’re not just talking localizations anymore but wholesale editing room carnage of Japanese source material to build entirely new stories. If you’re into Slasher cinema feel free to check out the Harmony Gold episode for more of what follows. It all started with one man… listeners be advised.
As stated before, anime was out for most of the 70s with only films, mostly Toei adaptations of Western fairytales like Puss ‘n Boots, making their way to our shores, until a man named Sandy Frank attended the April 1977 Marche International des Programmes de Television in Cannes, excuse me, I do not speak French, where Tatsunoko was showing off one of its latest anime titled Kagaku Ninja-tai Gatchaman, or Science Ninja Team Gatchaman. The following month he sat down for the premiere of Star Wars and kept thinking back to that cartoon that had all the same elements as the movie he was watching in animation form.
Star Wars’s massive success spurred Frank. He secured the license from Tatsunoko’s Yoshida brothers then called your friend and mine, Fred Ladd, to see if he would be interested in working on the localization. New York-based Fred wasn’t crazy about the idea of helping a production that would be based out of California and rejected the offer outright when he heard that the lead would be not a writer, but an animator from Hanna-Barbera.
Now I may have my own issues with some of Fred’s editorial choices when it came to localization, but I have to respect his instincts here because Sandy Frank Entertainment had a unique approach when it came to the source material... And by that I mean none of them knew Japanese and they didn’t bother finding anyone who did. Despite having the scripts, they basically used none of them, instead watching the episodes and basically kinda interpreting what they saw, generally hacking the anime to bits, adding a cute R2-D2-like character to lighten the mood, and slapping the title Battle of the Planets over the finished product before sending it straight to millions of children's eyeballs in 1978.
And it bombed… so badly. It bombed so badly, in fact, that Turner’s Henry Gillespie would end up calling up none other than Fred Ladd to fix it. Imagine having the foresight to say “no” to a project, and then collecting a check to come fix it, and not have to have your name on it. Sounds dope. They relocalized the whole thing from the original source material and gave it the new title G-Force. And here I have to give Fred some credit, along with lighter FCC restrictions under- [sigh] oh f- I don’t wanna give Reagan props. But [sigh] it w- yeah, it was Reagan. It was Reagan. Reagan lightened FCC restrictions. So anyway, G-Force aired in 1986 to mostly negative criticism, failing to even reach the success of Battle of the Planets, but it seems that was mostly due to Battle of the Planets fans complaining that G-Force was too different… from Battle of the Planets, which was too different from the original Japanese source material. Sometimes you just can’t win, I don’t know what to tell you. I’m sorry. Oh, and if you need any other evidence that Frank may not have known what he was doing, his second claim to fame is the raw number of his movies that have appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show where they make fun of movies? Yeah.
[MST3K Sandy Frank song]
Next came Force Five in 1980, from Jim Terry Productions, a chop job of five different Toei robot anime: Divine Demon Dragon Gaiking, Planetary Robot Danguard Ace, Getter Robo G, UFO Robot Grendizer, and Sci-Fi West Saga Starzinger.
Then Voltron in 1983 from World Events Productions, a shmooshing together of Beast King GoLion, Armored Fleet Dairugger XV, and Lightspeed Electroid Albegas.
Then the most infamous of them all, Harmony Gold’s Robotech, a chimera of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber Mospeada in 1985 which I promised myself I would only speak of in the Harmony Gold episode, so we’re gonna move on.
By the 90s, Streamline and AnimEigo had set up shop and moderately successful but critically acclaimed anime films like Akira, Totoro, and Kiki’s Delivery Service were beginning to make their way to theatrical runs and VHS in the U.S. In fact the proliferation of VHS and the rise of video stores and rental shops like Blockbuster and Suncoast were allowing smaller startups to get into the game with smaller dubbing operations that couldn’t afford to tamper too much with the source material before making direct-to-video releases. Anime was a growing subculture in the U.S. before it finally hit the mainstream in the late 90s…
The 90s would also be the beginning of a historic shift in TV anime in the U.S., rather than editing and rebranding anime for American consumption, one network began marketing anime as a distinct medium. It was the beginning of a new era of “not kids stuff” “adult” animation straight from Japan. I’m talking of course about SyFy channel’s global showcase.
In the early 90s SyFy, or as it was known back then… SciFi, began airing anime films, OVA, and TV shows courtesy of Streamline Pictures and Central Park Media. Titles like Dominion Tank Police, Vampire Hunter D, Project A-Ko, and even Akira all showing up on TV in (most of) their violent glory and distinctly getting called out as Japanese products.
This was just the beginning of a rapid acceleration in awareness of anime that would hit critical mass with two titles. The mid 90s saw America’s introduction to the biggest shonen and shoujo franchises to ever hit the continent, both of which came close to stumbling and falling into obscurity right out of the gate: Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon.
America had its first taste of Toriyama’s take on the Chinese epic, Journey to the West, with the late 80s with Harmony Gold’s production of the movies Dragon Ball: Curse of the Blood Rubies and Dragon Ball: Mystical Adventure which renamed Goku and Bulma to Zero and Lena [Mystical Adventure Harmony Gold Dub clip]. They started on the TV series proper but didn’t make it very far since it was... not well received, resulting in what’s known today as the lost dub. But let's not dwell on Harmony Gold too much… because I hate them. They’re bad.
Also, the voice of Zero is also the voice of Naauta in the english dub of Fooly Cooly. So that’s just a fact that I know.
Dragon Ball Z was another story… I should probably specify that Dragon Ball Z is the sequel to Dragon Ball in which Goku grows up physically but not mentally at all, whatsoever, even a little bit. In the early 90s, a bright-eyed Japanese American anime fan by the name of Gen Fukunaga was surprised that one of his favorites, Dragon Ball Z, hadn’t made it over to the states. So, he did what anyone would do in his situation and contacted Toei to see if he could license and distribute the title in the U.S. himself. Seeing as how Gen was just starting up his company and Dragon Ball Z was one of Toei’s most coveted titles, Toei encouraged Gen to pick something else and said no.
With help from Nagafumi Hori was a big name in Toei’s live action arm, they reconsidered the proposal, inked the deal, and in 1994 Funimation was born.
Funimation partnered with Saban Entertainment, a company already involved in localizing Japanese live actions such as Power Rangers, to finance and distribute, and then sold out the home video rights to Pioneer Entertainment who then got a company called Ocean Studios to produce a dub. Saban was very strict about violence so they probably shouldn’t have even been working with DBZ but we ended up getting the first 67 episodes cut down to a 53 episode run in which blood was digitally painted out and mentions of “death” became “the next dimension.” With which I am very familiar.
DBZ entered syndication and found its way to Fox in 1996 but was cancelled two years later in 1998, inconveniently in the middle of the battle against the Ginyu Force right when Goku shows up in an episode titled “Goku… Super Saiyan?” And Americans are left with the biggest cliffhanger in the history of anime. Even bigger than just any episode of Dragon Ball Z, where you think something’s gonna happen and then they spend the next half hour charging up. More on that later.
Sailor Moon had an even rockier start. Having premiered in Japan in 1992 to massive success, its similarity to the hit adapted Super Sentai series known in the U.S. as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and millions in toy sales made it an attractive license in the U.S.
DIC and Toon Makers entered a bidding war for the license which thankfully DIC won, since Toon Makers mostly wanted the rights to adapt their own Saban-esque hybrid production featuring live action actresses who turn into animated magical girls flying spaceships.
So the first 89 episodes were cut down to 82 to remove scenes of violence against children, nudity, and, if you’ll excuse the expression, to “de-gay” the series. These episodes were dubbed over with some name changes, and the series entered syndication on U.S. television on the UPN Network, home of Moesha, September 11th 1995, we were so young, and thrown into the entertainment industry is commonly referred to as a “dead” time slot in the early morning due to a lack of confidence in the IP, creating what in the Greek tragedy industry is commonly known as a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Low viewership put production of future dubs on hold and the first 65 episodes were re-run three times and word got out that DIC [DIC Logo - What Were You Really Thinking?] planned on dropping Sailor Moon from syndication. Chi Ming Hung, a Sailor Moon fan and graduate student in physics at State University of New York at Stony Brook, would not take that news lying down. She launched an online campaign which became known as S.O.S. or “Save Our Sailors”, at www.saveoursailors.org or https://www.saveoursailors.org, which gathered over 30,000 signatures, citing much better ratings in Canada where Sailor Moon was being broadcast in a prime television time slot.
The petition was a success, and in 1997 Sailor Moon moved to USA Network and production began on new dubs. The Save Our Sailors campaign is often cited as an early example of the power of anime fan activism when fans coming together could still create positive change rather than resulting in the DOXXING of helpless victims on Twitter.
At this point both Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon had a strong fanbase but nothing approaching mainstream recognition. Anime remained an obscure curiosity in the massive ecosystem of American media, but all that would change in the year 1998, the most significant year in anime in America since Astro Boy first aired on American television in 1963.
1998 would be anime’s big breakout moment into the American mainstream or, as one man described it, anime’s big bang.
DeMarco: The big bang for anime on TV really was two-fold. It was Kids’ WB getting Pokemon, and then Toonami getting Dragon Ball Z.
That was Jason, or one half of the second coming of Fred Patton in this analogy I’ve been setting up.
DeMarco: I am Jason DeMarco, the co-creator and runner of Toonami. I’ve been working at Turner, now Warner Brothers, for 23 years.
Jason DeMarco and Sean Akins are two individuals most responsible for making anime what it is today as the co-creators of [Toonami intro] Toonami, a television programming block that you’re probably familiar with if you’re old enough to know what cable TV is, and perhaps the most referenced origin point in the anime fandom. All born from the time-honored television tradition of trying to fill broadcast time. A humble staffer at TNT, Jason was brought on by Sean to pitch a block for afternoon and evenings on Cartoon Network that could recycle re-runs from Turner’s large library of old cartoons.
DeMarco: It was like a reel. It was a very focused, three to five minute reel that contained everything we thought we might want in there, [“Timeless” by Goldie starts] that we thought was cool. So it was like, it was a lot of footage of skaters, it was a lot of hip hop and drum and bass, it was anime clips of I remember we- we bootlegged footage, we bootlegged clips of Dragon Ball Z because we had a, at the time Atlanta had a video store that only catered to Japanese folks [music ends]. And so we would go there and rent Dragon Ball Z VHSs that were not subtitled or in any way translated, just to watch them. We would watch the DBZ movies like Bardock and stuff like that, but without knowing what the fuck was going on, just cause we thought they looked amazing. So we bootleg duped one of those and cut in footage of that, and then we had footage of like Thundercats and like, you know older action cartoons, Space Ghost, and then we mixed that with robots and skaters and film rollout and comic books. It was like we were trying to sort of show, we wanted to create a block that wasn’t just an afternoon action cartoon block, but that represented all the things that we thought kids might be into. Or cool kids, anyway. At the time. And so it was this mishmash of stuff, and I remember we cut it to a drum and bass song. Goldie, “Timeless,” I believe. And that was our pitch, and then we called it Toonami, and then we had the logo made and it was like this crazy bubble 90s font, and so that was the pitch and then basically that’s what they saw “oh okay, that looks cool, let’s give them a little bit of money and see what they do.”
So, umm, basically anime wasn’t originally part of the deal, but Jason really wanted it. They started out with adjacent titles like the aforementioned Thundercats and “American” hybrid productions of several anime like Robotech and Voltron but, since anime was still cheap, they eventually got some budget to buy some real anime. Namely, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z.
DeMarco: Well, we wanted it in there from the very beginning, but initially they said “look, we’re not gonna give you any money for programming right away, we’ll give you money to make this packaging stuff to make it into something, but for now, you’re just going to have to re-run what shit we already have lying around.” And so they already had the rights to I think Thundercats and they already had the rights to Herculoids and Space Ghost and Birdman and there was like a couple of other cartoons. And then we started off, and they started coming to us and saying “well what else would you want us to show?” And we said “have you heard of this show ‘Robotech?’” And they got Robotech pretty cheap, and then I think it was Sailor Moon came along, the opportunity to get Sailor Moon, and then we pushed them to get Dragon Ball Z. And they didn’t know what the fuck we were talking about, but they were able to find- it was airing at that time in cable markets, you know, like it wasn’t national, but it was in certain places. And so we were able to get the Ocean dub and so we started airing Dragon Ball Z, and from there it just totally took- like Sailor Moon did really well, and the Dragon Ball did incredibly well, and from there we were allowed to sort of pick and choose, as long as it fit something that could be shown to kids, we could kinda pick and choose the anime for a while.
The block launched its first anime in 1998 and, while many of us recall what an explosive moment it was in retrospect, it took a while before Jason and Sean realized the scope of what they’d created.
DeMarco: The day Toonami launched was probably Gil turning in the tape an hour before they went live, because they fucked around with it until the very last second. And nobody, there was no anticipation anyone was going to give a shit. It was literally just work, like “ah, woo, got that thing turned in.” And really, we were so disorganized and we were just all in our 20’s, you know what I mean, that it was a miracle that we got the tapes turned in every week, let alone that the block kept going. But yeah, there was no, it wasn’t like now where there’s instant feedback and you know 10 minutes later if your thing has been well received. It was like, there was, I mean there- the internet was not what it is, we were barely using email, so you certainly weren’t going on social media sites and getting instantaneous feedback on everything you’re doing. You had to wait a week for the ratings to come in, and then you had to wait months before you actually heard out in the world what people felt about your thing. I mean, the first time I realized people were really into Toonami was, I think, a year or two in, when we went to a con for something and were like “huh, there’s a lot of people here who like Toonami,” you know, or we did a contest called the “Space Ghost Coast to Coast,” where we gave away a bunch of trips to um… Six Flags across the United States. And I remember that like there were so many people that called in that it like broke the phone line, and that was an indicator like “oh, people like our stuff.” But that’s the only way you knew back then.
Even as Jason and Sean were waiting on ratings data, what would grow to become the largest anime fan community in the United States were tuning into Cartoon Network and watching Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon for the first time. That includes myself. Within a few years these titles, which had already played on Network TV but were no more recognizable than any other series that played for brief stints on television, would osmotically rise to a level of ubiquity where even the most media illiterate can recognize a picture of Goku or Usagi-er-Serena, [cough] Serena [Sailor Moon clip of a character saying “Serena”] even if they don’t know the characters’ name.
It was on Toonami that the newly dubbed episodes for both series were finally broadcast, in DBZ’s case finally ending the years-long cliffhanger of the “Goku… Super Saiyan?” episode. He of course wasn’t. Goku didn’t become a Super Saiyan until 42 episodes later in “Transformed at Last.”
Soon the two were joined by titles like Ronin Warriors, Gundam Wing, and the many Tenchi series and eventually other tentpole titles that would pull in a new generation of fans like Cowboy Bebop, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Naruto, and Fullmetal Alchemist. For the next 10 years, all the blockbuster series that fans credit with inspiring their interest in Japanese animation were almost universally delivered to them through Toonami.
The block has even evolved with changes in the industry, existing today as a prestige spot for modern anime, where the most popular simulcast series eventually find their way to network TV.
DeMarco: Steaming, and a lot of shows have streaming-specific deals, I mean it’s changed everything from our deal structures to what we pay to how quickly we need to try to get shows on the air to how fast shows are dubbed. I mean, the speed of access to streaming means that your average anime fan who’s watching Toonami now has already watched whatever we’re showing subbed on Crunchyroll. So they’re watching it a second time, because they wanna see the dub. And so for us, it sort of, it allows us- first of all, we’ll know when shows are hot because they’ll hit places like Crunchyroll and people’ll start talking about them and saying “hey, you guys should check this out!” And second, everything moves faster. Like, we’re showing The Promised Neverland in a couple weeks, and it literally just finished, the sub version just finished its first season and we’re going to have the dub on a couple weeks later, you know? And I think we’re going to see that window get tighter and tighter and tighter until it’s simultaneous premieres for all kinds of shows. So it’s changed everything, and for fans I would argue for the better.
It’s no exaggeration to say Toonami may have been the most significant event in the history of anime localization in North America. Nowadays, if you speak to any anime fan between 25 and 40, they almost universally trace a straight line back to Toonami as their point of discovery for the medium, making its creator Jason DeMarco and Toonami’s robot host TOM two of the most beloved names in the fandom.
Now all this was great for the young adult fandom, but even as Toonami was lifting up the action shonen series of the 90s to mainstream popularity, a company called 4Kids was infiltrating kids programming and toy sales with some titles that would become as notorious for their popularity among children as they were for their parents complete inability to understand them.
DeMarco: I mean, it kinda did what the streaming boom is doing now. It just flooded money into the anime business and so there was a gold rush. It was like Dragon Ball became a massive hit, and then Pokemon became a massive hit and a massive merchandising success; and the success of those two shows and then Naruto behind them just sort of blew the doors open and sort of suddenly everybody was in the anime business.
The Pokemon anime hit America like a runaway Rhyhorn, airing on Kids’ WB on September 8th 1998, followed by Pokemon Red and Blue just 20 days later, then trading card game in December [Kids’ WB Pokemon bumper], almost immediately becoming the most popular childrens’ program in the U.S. with the games selling almost 10 million units, and the cards becoming ubiquitous at the picnic tables of every school recess in the nation.
While DBZ and Sailor Moon were still picking up steam but ultimately still passable as just another “show my teenager is into,” the Pokemon craze was impossible to ignore and the reaction by parents and the media was... I will just say violent and probably more than a little racist. Like, a lot racist.
The panic over Pokemon frequently became the subject of national news as legions of parents, pundits, and “licenses experts” tried breaking down this strange Japanese cartoon show from every angle to reveal its nefarious intent and definitely gave themselves away by calling it an “invasion.” Among the earliest complaints were that the series promoted violence, smoothly skating over American’s proud 50-year legacy of sensibly chuckling at a cat getting crushed, set on fire, or having its skin ripped off in the pursuit of an anthropomorphized mouse. Or also its proud history of… real life violence.
It was also accused of promoting gambling and addictive behavior, with newscasters referring to schoolyards as black markets for Pokemon trading cards ignoring contemporary American products like Magic: The Gathering or “the classics” like… baseball cards. This shit went on for YEARS, and I distinctly remember the Yu-Gi-Oh! card game entering that same conversation which had never really stopped shortly after its release almost half a decade later in March 2002.
If you weren’t around back then you probably got a small taste of what it was like during Niantics recent release of Pokemon GO with national news agencies blaming inattentiveness caused by the game for multiple assaults against players rather than… y’know… our country just not really being that a safe place?
If anime had a mainstream moment, it wasn’t Akira or even Dragon Ball Z, but Pokemon that was the first encounter, at least knowingly, between the majority of Americans and Japanese animation, setting off an arms race among media and toy companies for more of these cheap kids cartoons with merchandise options and launching a thousand articles titled “Watch out parents, BLANK is going to be the NEXT Pokemon!”
Fox Kids led the charge to catch up, broadcasting Digimon: Digital Monsters in August 1999 and partnering with 4Kids for Yu-Gi-Oh! in September 2001.
These franchises were obviously profitable on their own but even more so because media conglomerates found that even after 40 years of dealing with Americans, Japanese license holders were woefully ill-equipped to leverage the valuable IPs they were putting on the international market. And in this, 4Kids was also well ahead of the curve.
Kelts: Japan is still relatively provincial and isolated, so marketers tend to focus exclusively on Japan. And then when it comes to a foreign market, they just get confused or lack confidence and then they often just get a foreign partner. So in the case of Pokemon, which is classic, Pokemon signed away, back in 1996, they signed away all their subsidiary rights to an American company called 4Kids based in New York and they got something like $11 million overnight from 4Kids, and then they got nothing else.
Kelts: So while Pokemon was taking off, TV series, and the feature films, anime feature films, selling out cinemas, the card games, everything, the creators, the five companies that created it here in Japan were getting nothing. They finally went to court back in 2004 and the legal team from Nintendo USA managed to get the rights back, eventually.
Of course, we’ll get into to that later… and that voice, by the way, was Roland Kelts, a Japanese American writer and journalist who literally wrote the book on the pop culture exchange between Japan and the U.S.
Kelts: You know, I ended up writing a book called “Japanimerica,” and that was because the publisher, the American publisher called Palgrave MacMillan came to me. I had written about Miyazaki Hayao, and I’d written about Haruki Murakami, the novelist, and various Japanese artists, so they asked me if I’d consider doing this book about anime and manga in the United States. At first I said no, because I thought it’s not really that popular in the U.S., you know? I didn’t, I didn’t really think anybody would care that much. And then um- because I was already living in Japan so I started, I was back in New York and I started poking around and talking to college kids and you know started realizing that “wow, they know a LOT [laughing] about Japanese pop culture.”
Taking advantage of Japan’s less sophisticated understanding of international rights, 4Kids made fortunes off Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh! with tricks like large upfront payments that didn’t provide any royalties for physical sales or merchandising, making sublicense contracts with other American companies to obfuscate their numbers, and outright cooking their books. They lied.
But seven-digit sums weren’t the only things 4Kids was editing. They were also editing… uh, everything...
Perhaps the greatest irony of the Pokemon panic era was parents crying about the violence in cartoons that were specifically edited for American consumption. It’s almost as if the broadcasters knew that parents' tolerance for violence and sexual content were lower in the U.S. than they were in Japan. And nowadays we look back at the 4Kids onigiri erasure [Pokemon: Jelly donut clip] and Yu-Gi-Oh! replacing guns with characters literally pointing their fingers to look like guns and we sadly shake our heads, but given the fits people were having over the edited down versions, it’s more difficult to criticize that decision.
It’s important to note that 4Kids is probably most notorious for their edits because of bizarre decisions like giving Sanji a brooklyn accent but just about every anime that made it to TV was edited for content in some way.
In addition to some breakout IPs, there was one more component to anime’s exploding popularity at the turn of the millenia that’s more difficult to quantify. Kids who grew up with the internet were entering their teens and the internet itself was developing more sophisticated ways of bringing together communities of like-minded people.
Kelts: The internet suddenly enabled fans to not only access the content, eventually, but also as you put it, to fansub the content and get it out there. And then at the same time, really important part of it was community. Because of the internet, fans could find other fans. So it didn’t matter if you were in Nebraska or New York City, you could like go “hey, man, are you into this? I’m into this, this is- this is awesome!” And that builds up a whole sense of confidence and community and you know, sharing of tips and ideas, and it also eventually communicated to the Japan side that “wow, there’s a lot of people out there who [chuckling] who like this shit,” you know? Like, I think the internet was magic.
Where before you’d have to bust your ass searching through webrings to find a site with some GIFs of your favorite anime, new communities on message boards and IRC made your fandom searchable and interactive, and eventually gave way to Reddit and the apparently maligned Gaia Online…
But no longer did you have kids in the mid-west discovering anime, thinking they were literally the only person in 10 square miles that liked it, and eventually switching back to football so they’d have something to talk with their friends about at school. Now they could log on to a forum dedicated to their favorite shows and give up their social life entirely. The internet had already been a growing force in anime fandom but combined with Toonami and Pokemon, its effect was multiplied.
The supplying force of media companies looking for cheap, timeblock-filling animation and niche fandom or creator-driven localization were giving way to a huge demand specifically for more of that good Japanese stuff...
Kelts: There were certain artists, a limited number of artists and producers, Tezuka was one of them, who wanted their work to have an international audience. And at the time, “international” meant “American,” mostly, back in the 60s and 70s. So Tezuka and the Yoshida brothers, who made Speed Racer and Battle of the Planets- oh, sorry, and Battleship Yamato, but most of it [chuckles] most of that story was driven by demand. Which is to say that in most cases, Japanese artists and Japanese studios did VERY little to really promote their work overseas. And part of that was linguistic problems, part of that was Japan’s relative isolation from the rest of the world, and so when you talk about the explosive growth in the 2000s, you know late 90s, early 2000s, that was really heavily demand driven. I mean, that was a lot of Americans- and other nationals, Europeans, French especially, actually demanding the work from Japan.
And so the early 2000s saw anime as a real mainstream force which would only continue to grow until now 20 years later Michael B. Jordan is doing Naruto fashion collabs and Kardashians are citing TRIGGER anime as the inspiration for their hair color and Porter Robinson is joining forces with A-1 pictures to make his own anime music video and also Megan Thee Stallion is being interviewed by us, Crunchyroll, on Instagram Live during quarantine? But it wasn’t quite so easy…
The rising prominence of Toonami, Pokemon, and some blockbuster movie releases created a firm following for anime in the U.S. after the turn of the millenia, but anime would soon become a victim of its own explosive growth. Big media companies like Warner Brothers, Fox, and Sony were suddenly interested in investing in anime again and they brought their monolithic pocketbooks to the bidding wars which caused the costs of licensing anime to skyrocket.
Japanese companies were also moving into the U.S. market, cutting out the middleman to manage their own properties in the U.S. and further increasing competition. Aniplex opened a division based out of Santa Monica called Aniplex of America and Japan Content Investments, or JCI, was formed by several Japanese interests to essentially act as a lender to help U.S. companies spend more on anime titles.
Even as new titans of the shonen genre in Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece rose to prominence, labeled by the American fandom (and pretty much only the American fandom) as the “Big 3,” many of the companies that had spent the past 20 years building up the anime industry into what it was were beginning to buckle under the pressure. Saban was broken up and sold to Disney in 2001, Streamline’s new owner Orion didn’t want to compete in the anime market and the company slowly withered until its 2002 closure, and the U.S. branch of Manga Entertainment stopped licensing new properties and was reduced down to a skeleton crew in 2004.
Then... the recession hit, the anime bubble burst, and things got WAY worse.
Geneon suddenly closed in 2007 for reasons that are still unclear. Central Park Media had been on a steady decline throughout the decade and finally filed for bankruptcy in 2009.
Alright, I’m about to drop a lotta acronyms and uh, company names, so maybe grab a pen and paper… or a tablet, iPad, whatever. Maybe one of those Toshiba laptops that convert into a tablet? Y’know, it’s the future. I’ll give you a second.
AD Vision, or ADV for short, went through probably the most spectacular closure in 2009. The year before, 30 titles had disappeared from ADV’s website, and Funimation later announced they had been added to their own library as part of a partnership with ARM (part of the aforementioned JCI), which I will from henceforth refer to as ARM [pronounced like the body part], because it makes sense. Unable to pay back its licensing loans to ARM, ADV split its assets, licenses, and debts into multiple companies: Sentai Filmworks, Section23 Films, Valkyrie Media Partners, Seraphim Studios, and AEsir Holdings, with AEsir Holdings acting as the fall guy to absorb the debt and go bankrupt. Section23 was allegedly named after the subsection of Texas Debt law that allows a company to pull this kind of move. Obviously that didn’t go over very well, because three years later they were embroiled in a lawsuit with Funimation to the tune of $9 million dollars for “breach of contract” which I’m sorry to report ended in an undisclosed settlement out of court.
4Kids’s shady dealings would come home to roost when in 2006 Pokemon USA reclaimed the Pokemon anime from them as of season 9 and 2007 and 2008 saw them losing their programming blocks with both Warner Brothers and Fox. Then in 2011 4Kids ended up on the receiving end of a lawsuit with TV Tokyo and Nihon Ad Systems for “underpayments, wrongful deductions, and unmet obligations” for almost $5 million dollars for their handling of Yu-Gi-Oh!, which is probably generous considering it’s estimated 4Kids had made over $150 million dollars thanks to Yugi Muto. 4Kids maintained the rights to Yu-Gi-Oh! but they entered a death spiral, filing for chapter 11 bankruptcy in the midst of the court proceedings. In the following year 4Kids would lose the broadcast rights to Dragon Ball Z Kai to Saban, Yu-Gi-Oh! to Konami, and they would have to pay out another $1 million dollars to The Pokemon Company International. In 2012 they announced they would be reincorporating into 4Licensing Incorporated which itself entered bankruptcy in 2016.
This was a scary time in anime fandom, as the financial backlash of the multiple closures traveled across the Pacific to Japan, rocking the market in an industry that had begun to rely on international investment. Companies that no longer existed couldn’t renew licenses, causing a huge number of anime to fall into limbo, disproportionately affecting the most culturally important anime as licence holders now recognized their value while American publishers have since been unwilling or unable to pony up the cash to secure it.
Maybe the most iconic example of this was Neon Genesis Evangelion, which remained in the wind for a decade after ADV’s collapse and was only recently rescued when Netflix licensed it for what was likely an irresponsible amount of money (yet somehow not enough to cop the rights to Fly Me to the Moon?).
Things were looking bad for the anime industry at the end of the decade. Markets were in a tumultuous state, prices for anime licenses had been driven to unattainable peaks, and a new competitor was emerging...
While the industry floundered, a new generation of tech savvy youth suddenly had an easy alternative to spending $25 at Suncoast for a four episode DVD or waiting for a series to show up on Toonami. Piracy was easier than ever and now had some considerable advantages over legal channels when it came to distribution. Unburdened by negotiating licensing deals, managing physical distribution, or quality checking their product, file sharing services had made pirates the quickest source to watch new anime.
“Piracy is a service problem” is a famous quote by Valve’s Gabe Newell which I personally believe is bullshit, but something had to change to pull anime out of its nosedive.
And, since someone is paying me to talk about this, obviously something did.
Thank you for listening to Anime in America, presented by Crunchyroll. If you enjoyed this, please go to Crunchyroll.com/animeinamerica to watch some of the shows we mentioned in this episode, like Naruto or Fullmetal Alchemist. You can watch free, with ads, or get a 14-day free premium membership because… I like you, and my personal opinion is what matters.
Special thanks to Jason DeMarco and Roland Kelts for taking the time to talk with us.
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.