Authors: Michal Daliot-Bul (University of Haifa) & Nissim Otmazgin (The Hebrew University of Jerusalem)
Publisher: Harvard University Asia Center
Twenty years ago now, in Anime From Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation, Susan J. Napier presented one leading reason for approaching selecting anime as an object of study. “For those interested in Japanese culture, it is a richly fascinating contemporary Japanese art form with a distinctly narrative and visual aesthetic that both harks back to traditional Japanese culture and moves forward to the cutting edge of art and media. Furthermore, anime, with its enormous breadth of subject material, is also a useful mirror on contemporary Japanese society, offering an array of insights into the significant issues, dreams, and nightmares of the day.”
Napier’s book was the first full-length scholarly study of Japanese animation published in English, and most others that have been published since – titles such as Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii (Brian Ruh, 2004), The Anime Paradox: Patterns and Practices through the Lens of Traditional Japanese Theater (Stevie Suan, 2013), and Anime: A Critical Introduction (Rayna Denison, 2015) have largely followed its focus on Japanese animation as something to be examined with the approach and tools of literary and film criticism. But, as Napier herself also argued, “…anime is worth investigating for other reasons as well, perhaps the most important being the fact that it is also a genuinely global phenomenon, both as a commercial and a cultural force.”
Writing in 2000, Napier did have to note that while “to be sure, [anime’s] international commercial impact is still small compared to the global returns on a successful Hollywood blockbuster, but anime and its related products are increasingly drawing attention from marketers around the world.” The “international commercial impact” of Japanese animation has grown exponentially since then. But research that would approach it as a product, rather than an art form, has, until recently, been relatively limited, to the point where just as Anime From Akira to Princess Mononoke was a pioneering and “first of its kind” book, it took until only three years ago for a book to appear that would specifically explore “the various stages of anime’s commercial expansion in the United States and its organizational and cultural impact on the American market.”
Michal Daliot-Bul and Nissim Otmazgin open The Anime Boom in the United States with a clear and coherent statement of purpose. At its simplest, this book “addresses a neglected dimension of contemporary studies of anime” and offers a “complementary top-down perspective” to explorations of the “artistic sensibilities of anime” (presumably such as those I mentioned earlier), as well as of “the role of fans in consuming, interpreting, and adopting anime” (one title that come to mind here is Anime Fan Communities: Transcultural Flows and Frictions, and there are certainly plenty of journal articles and chapters in edited essay collections on the same topic). The specific subjects of this kind of perspective are “the companies and promoters responsible for the production, circulation, regulation, and hybridization of anime, their global expansion strategies, marketing and global distribution infrastructures, and the increasing involvement of the Japanese state as it attempts to capitalize on the anime boom and attain ‘soft power’”. In addition to this statement of purpose, the authors also present a set of specific questions the book intends to answer:
- What caused the rise of the commercial anime market in the United States and what triggered its recent decline?
- What can be learned about anime as a cultural commodity and about the legacy of the anime boom years in the United States?
- What are the social processes and organizational mechanisms that enable the globalization of anime?
- Does the state play a significant role in shaping contemporary transnational cultural flows?
- What does the future hold for the globalization of media products in an age of media digitalization and media.
Along with these questions, they take the time to simply highlight a “reason” for the book’s existence and importance – given that “…the anime boom in the United States has widely influenced American animation and, more broadly, American culture.” But, The Anime Boom is only the first part of this book’s title, and beyond just a discussion of the effect that Japanese animation has had on America, the authors also outline a set of broader areas where this volume adds a useful perspective. These areas are the study of the transfer of cultural commodities in free market economies and the roles and influences of various types of actors and agents on this process, the study of how popular culture in general is consumed on a global scale and in the global economy, and, finally, a specific study of a particular segment of the Japanese economy and its various supporting structures – with the broader implications for the role of the state in general in planning and promoting culture.
Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin have extensive backgrounds in, respectively, cultural and media studies, and political economy, and, in fact, have already previously each published a major journal article on the same general topic – Reframing and reconsidering the cultural innovations of the anime boom on US television (Daliot-Bul) and Anime in the US: The entrepreneurial dimensions of globalized culture (Otmazgin). They build on these backgrounds – and publications – to both set up their overall arguments, and turn to particular research methods, and, as it turns out, this has some fairly significant implications for the book as a whole.
Structurally, The Anime Boom is composed of five main parts. It opens with a broad survey of “the history of anime on American television since Astro Boy in 1963 to today”, leading into a comparison between how the animation industry is actually organized in Japan and the U.S. and how these structural factors have affected the respective global reach of each. The next chapter, probably the heart of the book, is a study of what can be thought of as the U.S. “anime industry”, at least as it developed starting in the mid-1990’s. Chapter 4 covers what the authors refer to as “American anime-inspired cartoons” to examine “cross-cultural flows and adaptations” and the extent to which anime can now be thought of as a “transcultural animation style”. The final main chapter reviews the ways the Japanese government has attempted to direct and harness the potentials of anime. The book’s conclusion seeks to connect its specific examples to questions of media globalization more broadly.
The key argument in Chapter 1, “Reframing the Anime Boom in the United States” (an expansion of the Reframing and reconsidering the cultural innovation of the anime boom on US television article) is that the “history of Japanese-made animation in the United States” can be divided into six stages – distinct, but of course related and overlapping, from Japanese animated feature films exported to the U.S. specifically as foreign cinema, through importation of Japanese animation, use of Japanese studios for animation production, more nuanced “adaptation” of Japanese anime for American consumers (the “Anime Boom”), “reproduction” – “anime-influenced” American television, and finally, “hybridization” – actual American-Japanese co-productions. With these stages outlined the authors ask, essentially – “what were some of the actual factors or forces that drove this process along?”
Chapter 2, “Building Silk Roads: A Comparative Analysis of Television Animation Industries in the United States and Japan” feels, at least to me, like the book the authors really wanted to write. Granted, there are probably other and more comprehensive studies of the animation industry in the U.S. (as opposed to animation in general or specific animators/animation directors), but they present a good introduction and highlight the points they feel are most important, such as that “animation production in the U.S. is bound within larger organizations, which maintain core control over the various stages of production and distribution. Individual creativity and small-scale animation production is possible, albeit rare, and must be tied to larger American media conglomerates that control the market.” The parallel description of the “functional structure of the anime industry” is, I would argue, essential reading – the best short overview of how the product that is called “anime” is actually created, and of the roles of the major participants in this process, such as production committees, advertising agencies, and publishers – notably, not necessarily directors or animators.
The goal of this “comparative analysis” is argue that the structure of the American animation industry gives it a particular “built-in advantage” for distribution in global markets. On the other hand, not only is the Japanese animation industry primarily “domestically oriented”, but the way it is structured makes global distribution challenging. To support this argument, the authors present a number of specific examples, generally drawn from interviews with industry figures, about what they refer to as the Japanese anime industry’s “locally oriented business mentality” and a failure to fully pursue international opportunities. But a valuable point they raise – and one that is currently very much being explored in the “real world” – is the way the Japanese animation industry is changing in response to streaming, especially now that streaming anime has been embraced not only the niche players like Crunchyroll and Funimation, but also by industry leader Netflix.
In Chapter 3, “Entrepreneurs of Anime”, also based on the previously-published article Anime in the US: The Entrepreneurial Dimensions of Globalized Culture, the authors shift their focus from the animation industry as a whole to specific companies and even specific individuals – “the actors…[who] have driven the marketing and localization of anime in the United States.” The goal of this is to emphasize “the role of entrepreneurship as a central feature In the process of transnational penetration, distribution, reproduction, and consumption of cultural and media commodities” – with the term itself defined as “the process of identifying potentially successful anime series and movies or anime-related products, localizing them to suit local tastes and needs, and marketing them to a specific group of potential customers.” The chapter’s key argument is that anime came to the U.S. and became established in the U.S. not by chance, but directly because of the efforts of very particular entrepreneurs, again, whether actual single individuals, or at least small and specialized companies – from Toei Animation, Tatsunoko Productions and Tezuka Productions in Japan in the 1960’s to the likes of Animego, Central Park Media, , A.D. Vision, Funimation, and a “famous entrepreneur responsible for bringing anime and other Japanese media products to the United States” – Haim Saban.
This leads into the argument that the basic nature of the Japanese “corporate culture”, including in the Japanese animation industry, has historically made it challenging for Japan to effectively participate in the global animation market without relying on the work of self-interested entrepreneurs. The chapter concludes with a damning appraisal of the state of Japanese animation at the time of the book’s writing, pointing out “an overwhelming feeling of creative stagnation in the Japanese animation industry” and a checklist of several business models that may be available to the industry – an even greater focus on art-house productions on one end and otaku-friendly works on the other, more of an emphasis on monetization of existing intellectual property assets, other financing sources, among others…all of which the authors are skeptical about. Their conclusion is that as Japanese animation declines in Japan, “entrepreneurship is the only hope for the future of the industry”. But what will “Japanese animation” and the Japanese animation industry look like if it has to change to do anything other than stagnate
Chapter 4, “The Legacy of Anime the United States: Anime-Inspired Cartoons” is, to say the least, odd – a “study of cross-cultural flows and adaptations”. It starts with what could just as well be a Wikipedia-sourced list of “Examples of References to the Japanese Popular Culture Boom in American Satirical Animated Shows for Adults”, and uses that to introduce both a number of characteristics of “Anime-Inspired Cartoons”, and actual examples of these kinds of characteristics. In the authors’ view, this label could be applied to cartoons produced from approximately 1998 (The Powerpuff Girls) to approximately 2013 (RWBY), and the specific characteristics include “emulation of [anime] visual styles and narration themes”, the use of “Japaneseness as a fetish” (as seen in particular in series such as Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi and Kappa Mikey that actively highlighted a connection to Japan), and, finally, what they authors describe as “the transformation of meanings when symbolic forms migrate between cultures” – by which they refer primarily to the questions raised by the use of an “anime style” to animate African American or Black characters in U.S. animation. In any case, this chapter too concludes with a concrete statement that “anime-inspired cartoons” were “an interim stage” in the development of animation in the United States, and one that has long since gone from relevance.
With this, the book launches into its final main chapter, a switch from a study of the animation industry to an analysis of “Japan’s Anime Policy” – that is, how the Japanese government has actually responded to the global prominence of Japanese animation. Here too it immediately becomes clear that this is a chapter where the authors are really in their element, both in the analysis itself, and in their level of access to various Japanese government officials. So, they are able to describe the alphabet soup of “no fewer than thirteen government ministries” that have become involved in various programs to support Japan’s cultural industries, including anime. And, as a counterpoint, they present a typical industry view: “Among the anime industry personnel we interviewed, there was general agreement that government policy is barely felt and has not, as yet, been proven to be significant or constructive to the industry. In particular, there was consensus a wide consensus that (1) the government does not really help, and (2) there is little that the state can actually do.” These same respondents did, however, offer some concrete suggestions for how the Japanese government could actually offer help – less with grand policy pronouncements, and more with the things that government is actually designed to do – fighting intellectual property piracy, offering international legal support, providing access to development grants and funding, and creating favorable regimes for international investment.
“The End of the Anime Boom?” is the question that opens the conclusion of The Anime Boom in the United States. The answer to it is that at least as of the time of the book’s writing, the boom may have been over, but there was still a future open to Japanese animation. The key to this future would be “the industry’s ability to restructure itself as a global player” – a component of a “global animation industry”, but just one of many. The book’s last two sentences are another direct statement.
“To rejuvenate, the anime industry, replete with talent and skill, will, we believe, have to come up with innovative business models and reform industry structures and organizational frameworks. It will, in addition, need the support of a completely new approach to public policies, most urgently regarding the thorny issue of copyright”.
With all of this in mind, reading The Anime Boom in the United States in December of 2020 comes up against a simple fact. This is a book that was published three years ago – but much of the research that it is based on was actually conducted in the first half of the decade. Typical entries in the book’s Notes section are “interview, Los Angeles, April 4, 2011”, “interview, Tokyo, Feb. 17, 2012”, and “interview, Haifa, May 26, 2014”. Crunchyroll is mentioned three times, and the discussion of Netflix is largely presented as one of several “unfolding opportunities” that may become open to the anime industry in the future. Beyond that, it’s also worth paying attention to who are the participants in these interviews. A few names come up time and again, but none of them are the major actual participants in the “anime boom in the United States” – the entrepreneurs themselves? Are the speakers who did agree to share their thoughts with the authors really the best experts, or simply the first ones available or easiest to get comments from? For someone like me, who has been following the development of the Japanese animation industry in the U.S. over the last twenty years, this is at least frustrating, if not infuriating – and can maybe charitably be called a missed opportunity.
Overall, then, The Anime Boom definitely IS several things. Its individual chapters certainly outline some of the business history of Japanese animation as a global product, but it is most certainly not an in-depth business history of the U.S. anime industry. It presents some useful perspectives on how anime’s global reach is perceived within Japan, by both the anime industry and by the Japanese government, but these perspectives are selective and incomplete. And, most importantly – and, really, inevitably, for a book of this kind that tries to handle a topic where major new developments can happen every week – it became obsolete the moment it was published.
Of course, this is not in any way to say that the question this book raises – not just “the anime boom in the United States”, but the future of the Japanese animation industry in general – is not one that is worth asking. And in fact, it is being asked, by scholars like Ryotaro Mihara – a direct participant in many of the Japanese government’s Cool Japan projects in his role as Deputy Director, Creative Industries Division, Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry. The authors actually interviewed Dr. Mihara several times, and specifically thank him in the book’s acknowledgements section. Mihara does not cite to The Anime Boom in his own Introspection: A perspective for understanding Japanese animation’s domestic business in a global context, but it’s entirely possible that he was writing this article, which first appeared in 2018, at the same time as Daliot-Bul and Otmazgin were working on the book, and does interact with it directly in A coming of age in the anthropological study of anime: Introductory thoughts envisioning the business anthropology of Japanese animation. And especially now that we are seeing provocative headlines like “There’s Something Super Weird About Netflix Anime”, the best that can be said about The Anime Boom in the United States: Lessons for Global Creative Industries is that it can serve as a base for a more thorough and targeted exploration of these same themes and topics and one of the building blocks in this particular direction in Japanese animation studies.