Latest manga, anime hit U.S. like a tsunami

Channels of distribution opening up for products

Forty years after “Astro Boy” hit U.S. airwaves, Japanese manga and animation are more popular than ever Stateside.

“Spirited Away” won the animated feature Oscar earlier this year, cable is studded with anime, Shonen Jump and Raijin Comics mags are being snapped up and Japanese graphic novels outsell American competitors in bookstores. Anime has even made reached into Middle America on the shelves at Wal-Mart.

“Anywhere in America you can walk in and find Japanese animation,” says Jerry Chu of Bandai Entertainment. The market for manga and anime imports is booming as such companies as Central Park Media, Bandai, Pioneer, Tokyopop and Viz fight for properties and customers.

“The channels of distribution are opening up,” says Central Park managing director John O’Donnell. “We’re slowly changing from an underground market to an everyday part of pop culture.”

The most spectacular U.S. success remains “Pokemon,” which imprinted anime on a generation of prepubescents while generating $16 billion in revenues.

“It’s the depth and extent of storytelling that draws (fans) in,” says Al Kahn, chair-CEO of 4-Kids Entertainment, which brought over “Pokemon.” “Everybody’s trying to develop their own equivalents, but unless they develop stories the way they do in Japan, it won’t work.”

A longer-term question, Kahn says, is whether young viewers will carry their enthusiasm into adulthood, as in Japan, and whether Western creators will make grown-up stories for them.

“American artists began to swipe ideas and looks. Now you’ve got a nation of kids who are open to Asian material,” says Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment.

U.S.-created shows such as “Powerpuff Girls” and “Samurai Jack” are explicit visual homages to anime. Observers routinely call “The Matrix” a live-action anime. The debt the Wachowski brothers owe anime was repaid by “The Animatrix,” the “Matrix”-related shorts they created with top anime talents.

Influential U.S. comicbook creator Frank Miller internalized Japanese storytelling, then made “The Dark Knight Returns,” which Tim Burton credited for shaping his two “Batman” movies. “Sandman” creator Neil Gaiman, a big fan of Japanese animation, wrote the English-lingo screenplay for “Princess Mononoke,” another lauded feature by “Spirited Away” creator Hayao Miyazaki (Pixar’s John Lasseter oversaw the translation of “Spirited Away”).

“It’s a love fest between Japanese creators and American creators back and forth and back and forth,” says Tokyopop CEO Stuart Levy.

“The most significant thing that it does is open up the creative boundaries of what audiences are accepting,” says Sander Schwartz, Warner Bros. Animation prexy. “It allows us to sell more kinds and styles of animation. Writers and producers are influenced by what they see out there and what they see is working out there.”

Vidgames, many of which are created in Japan by former manga artists, are a backdoor influence on American tastes, says Jesse Taylor, Namco’s senior VP of research and development. Namco has sold millions of “Tekken” and “Ridge Racer” games with their much-treasured anime looks. Now it is releasing “I-Ninja,” which uses anime’s classic superdeformed body shapes.

“Pokemon” started as a pair of vidgames, and Square’s “Final Fantasy” series is well-known for cinematic cut scenes and archetypal anime characters. Capcom franchises such as “Street Fighter,” “Devil May Cry” and “Megaman” practically jumped off the pages of manga

The Japanese approach is even affecting Marvel, one of American comics’ biggest names. “What the Japanese market has done is open our eyes a little bit,” says Bill Jemas, Marvel’s chief operating officer. “We were all looking for superheroes, but ‘Pokemon’ was just a kid playing with his pets. We’ve really learned a lot. It’ll be a big part of keeping Marvel fresh over the next few years.”

In April, Marvel debuted the “Mangaverse,” combining Japanese artists and American writers. In reaction to that experiment, Marvel decided to retrain its storytellers from their traditional binary good guy-bad guy storylines. Now they will use a more Japanese sensibility, with themes of self-sacrifice for the greater group’s good.

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