Ask John: Why Hasn’t Original Anime Creation Exploded in America?

Ask John:
As a longtime anime fan, I must break the question. Surely, there is Good World Entertainment, the guys behind Voltron, and were the heads behind Avatar and Korra, Rooster Teeth, who are responsible for RWBY, The Boondocks, and even Netflix is aiming for anime production but…. One big question remains in my head. What hasn’t gotten the US, let alone the western world to have a big blowout explosion of manga and anime creators since the anime boom of the 1990s? Surely, such a wave of inspiration would have gotten tons of artists, writers and drawers, to have established its own industry, at least an underground scene, wouldn’t it?

I’m not remotely any sort of graphic artist nor do I even know any animators, so I can propose a theory based only on my limited personal perspective. Anime has certainly now achieved the mainstream American recognition and acceptance that American fans of the 1970s to 90s once dreamed of. And naturally one may expect that the relative popularity of anime would inspire Americans to create their own productions. American efforts to create original manga burgeoned in the underground, independent comics scene in the early and mid 1990s then became a publisher-based effort in the early 2000s. But those efforts have waned while a trend of American created “anime” has never really launched. The reason seems to lay at the feet of two major principles: culture and economics.

Setting aside etymology for a moment, anime has always been an art form that originated in and continues to develop out of Japan. Although every human culture recognizes stylized caricature and art, Japanese society is uniquely receptive to “cuteness” and the distinctive design of anime, typified by human body proportions but disproportionately large eyes and mouths, and vividly bright coloring. In recent years China has been ramping up its co-production development of anime with Japan, outputting shows including Hitori no Shita, Bloodivores, Enmusubi no Youko-chan, Evil or Live, and RoboMasters. But China and its popular contemporary anime-esque productions including Zhen Hun Jie (Rakshasa Street), Quan Zhi Gao Shou (The King’s Avatar), and NanoCore seems to be the only country outside of Japan that is developing its own domestic anime-style industry. In 2003 Korean director Moon-saeng Kim released his expensive anime-inspired flop Wonderful Days. The heavily anime-inspired movie was Korea’s most expensive animated film ever made, with an estimated $9,750,000 budget that approached 11 million with publicity and distribution costs. But during the film’s two-week Korean theatrical release, it earned only 1.9 million. British independent animator Paul “OtaKing” Johnson has spent a number of years creating impressive 80’s style anime-inspired adaptations of Star Wars, Doctor Who, and Street Fighter. His work has brought him plenty of critical acclaim but little advancement into bigger-budget professional animation work. Producer Adi Shankar’s recent Castlevania animated mini-series can easily pass for “anime,” and seems to have been moderately well-received. But it doesn’t appear to have been successful or influential enough to encourage further similar productions.

While anime is more widely distributed, recognized, and understood in America now that it ever has been before, it’s still a very niche product. By a wide margin, American consumers still prefer American-style animation, thus explaining why Disney’s Frozen is tremendously more successful in America than Makoto Shinkai’s Kimi no Na wa, the most successful anime film ever released. Cultural demographics, in part, explain why small, indie-darling animation studio Laika produced the medieval Japanese animated film Kubo and the Two Strings while the powerhouse rival animation studio Pixar creates Coco, a film based on Mexican lore. Culture also influences the development of aspiring animators. American art schools notoriously concentrate their curriculum on “classical” forms and traditional methods of animation. Japan, on the other hand, has colleges and technical schools including Kyoto Seika University, Kyoto Gakuen University, Nihon Kogakuin College, and Tokyo Anime – Seiyuu Senmongakkou that aggressively encourage and teach Japanese style anime production.

When American art students aren’t being encouraged to develop foreign-inspired visual designs and animation styles, and American consumers express limited interest and support for Japanese style animation, there’s obvious reason why so few American creators aggressively venture into fostering their own “anime” productions. Animators need to support themselves. They get employed to work on commercial productions that market to mainstream American tastes. Note that even in Japan, the home of anime, launching an anime career without starting in college is oppressively difficult. Makoto Shinkai famously quit his job and cloistered himself in his apartment for six months to create his award-winning short film Hoshi no Koe, which launched him into eventual stratospheric success. Independent artist Soubi Yamamoto likewise achieved success and acclaim through dogged personal persistence. But over the past ten years, if so few breakout independent animators have established themselves even in Japan, where anime is most viable, achieving similar success in America must be exponentially more difficult. Creating animation requires extensive effort and, moreover, resources. Americans have tried before. RIAP (Running Ink Animation Productions) launched in 1991. White Radish was founded in 1994. But neither studio was able to sustain itself for more than a few years. More recently animator and director LeSean Thomas has found that working with Japanese production studios including Satelight & Yapiko Animation has been more fruitful for developing his vision of original anime than working with American-based studios. Likewise, American musician Porter Robinson turned to Japan’s A-1 Pictures to give his music video “Shelter” the authentic anime design he wanted rather than rely on an American studio. Even the currently popular Voltron: Legendary Defender, inspired by Toei’s 1981 series Hyaku Jyuou Golion, is actually animated by Studio Mir in South Korea.

From a consumer’s perspective, anime is definitely more widely acknowledged in America now than it’s ever been before. But there are far fewer American companies distributing anime in America now than were in the early 2000s. The American public nowadays recognizes what anime is but still doesn’t widely consume or financially support anime. 2D animation is increasingly marginalized in America as consumer tastes gravitate toward 3D CG. No American production studios are currently making and distributing anime-style animation. So one could argue that the market is ripe for amateur artists to pick up the slack and fill the void by aggressively promoting their own community of original American anime art. But the absence of such an underground, burgeoning American anime production industry suggests that there’s just not enough market support or interest to encourage and sustain potential animators. America has finally acknowledged anime, but America now seems content, from both a consumer & viewer perspective and from a commercial development perspective, to leave anime as a Japanese commodity, which explains why Netflix is commissioning dozens of anime productions from Japanese studios instead of investing in more productions like Neo Yokio. When inspiring animators see that there’s no market interest in or support for their original anime-influenced creations, I can sympathize with the reason why American artists aren’t aggressively trying to launch their own anime industry in America.

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