The evolution of the artform
Anime properties such as “Transformers,” “Speed Racer” and “Avatar” (the latter announced for M. Night Shyamalan to direct) may make for obvious tentpole fodder now, but the medium took decades to gain critical mass among U.S. auds.
First introduced in the 1960s via family-oriented shows such as “Astro Boy” and “Speed Racer,” Japanese anime enjoyed early popularity but limited respect among kid-driven crowds. In the following decades, sci-fi shows like “Gatchaman” and “Transformers” helped keep younger auds interested, while “Akira,” “Ghost in the Shell” and other mature anime featuring violent and sexual elements earned cult standing among adults.
By the late 1990s, anime maestro Hayao Miyazaki (already viewed as the Walt Disney of the format in Japan) began to catch on with U.S. auds. By the time his “Spirited Away” won the animated feature Oscar in 2003, major Hollywood directors were at work on live-action versions of their favorite Asian toons. What follows are the benchmarks from anime’s rise to prominence in the U.S.
“Astro Boy” series starts in Japan, launches in the U.S. later the same year. The original manga was created by Osamu Tezuka, who is considered the father of the format.
“Gigantor” series debuts in the U.S.
Another of Tezuka’s creations, “Kimba the White Lion,” launches.
“Speed Racer” takes off in the U.S. a year after it was first broadcast in Japan, airing off and on over the years. MTV picks up the show in 1993; Cartoon Network adds it to their lineup in 1996.
In the same year, restrictions over violent content limit Americans’ access to Japanese animation, including such shows as “Devilman.”
“Battle of the Planets” (aka Gatchaman) series debuts in the U.S.
“Star Blazers” series starts in the US.
“Voltron” hits U.S. shores, followed by “Transformers.” Both the anime and tie-in toys become popular.
“Robotech” takes off in the U.S.
An animated “Transformers” feature earns more than $5 million at the box office, including a key voice performance by Orson Welles (who died before the film was released).
Anime feature “Akira” opens in December, giving U.S. auds a taste of what the format can accomplish.
Hayao Miyazaki’s “Castle in the Sky” receives a limited released in the U.S.
Troma releases a dubbed version of Miyazaki’s “My Neighbour Totoro” in the U.S. Writing for Variety, critic Leonard Klady says he doesn’t get it.
Many Japanese animations go directly to video, where more mature titles with sex and violence catch on among cult audiences.
Video rental stores start to set up Japanese anime sections.
The word “manga” enters the English language with “pop, erotic, futuristic and artistic” connotations.
“Sailor Moon” airs in the U.S. Since much of the audience are young girls, it helps expand the image of anime from being a male-oriented media to something both sexes can enjoy.
Around this time, the Japanese trend of dressing up as anime characters (or “cosplay”) comes to the U.S.
“Ghost in the Shell” is released on video, landing many fans who will later work in Hollywood (including the Wachowski brothers). Hits No. 1 on Billboard’s video charts.
“Dragonball Z” debuts on TV, with violent scenes edited out.
Cartoon Network airs unedited “Dragonball Z” episodes as part of its Toonami programming block.
The “Pokemon” TV series launches, riding the popularity of the game franchise.
Still largely unknown in the U.S., Miyazaki improves his profile with Miramax’s release of “Princess Mononoke.” Toon’s PG-13 rating and limited release leads to modest box office, but draws strong reviews and attention to its creator. In Japan, it becomes the highest-grossing film of all time.
Disney releases “Spirited Away,” with English-language dubbing personally overseen by Pixar’s John Lasseter. The film goes on to win the animated feature Oscar.
On television, “Yu-Gi-Oh” and “Inuyasha” both launch.
Cartoon Network adds “Naruto” to its Toonami lineup.
Nickelodeon debuts “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” a toon modeled after the style and content of Asian animation (mixing martial arts, mysticism and serial storytelling). Two years later, the show wins a primetime Emmy.
Viz Media dubs manga-based toon “Bleach” for American auds. The show courts older viewers as part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim block.
Michael Bay directs a live-action version of “Transformers,” hiring Peter Cullen (the lead voice on the U.S. animated series) to reprise his role as Optimus Prime.
Paramount announces plans for an “Avatar” feature (not to be confused with James Cameron’s original sci-fi project) to be directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
The Wachowski brothers adapt “Speed Racer” as a live-action film, using cutting-edge fx to reflect (and modernize) the style of the original show.
Check out the original Japanese version of this story at Varietyjapan.