Anime in America

Gen Fukunaga, Staff Staff, June 1, 2001

With shows like Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z, it is undisputed that anime is hot in America. One question on everyone's mind is, "Is anime a fad or is it here to stay?"

When the more realistically drawn superheroes such as Superman and Batman came out, were they a fad? When "squash and stretch" characters like Looney Toons started, was that a fad? When Nickelodeon's quirky characters came, was that a fad? Is computer generated animation a fad? We believe none of these are fads. They are techniques of telling a good story. Same as anime.

There are many reasons anime will be around to stay. Japan is a populous, developed country that has an incredible talent pool dedicated to producing quality anime. The status of the anime creator is very high due to the nation's obsession with manga (Japanese comics). It provides a great testing ground for good stories and characters and is often the basis for anime series. In addition, there is a broader demographic reach and overall higher ratings in Japan.

Moreover, anime deals with universal emotions such as bravery, friendship, teamwork, family, romance and righting wrongs. These themes are the same across the world and appeal to children in the United States just as much as to children in Japan.

For those who ask "How is another anime going to succeed since there is too much anime in the marketplace?" I would respond with another question: How does an anime series stand out among the most anime-populated environment in the world, namely Japan? The answer: a series stands out based upon the strength of its storyline and characters. That is how shows like Yu Yu Hakusho and Dragon Ball Z were able to stand head-and-shoulders above the myriad of anime series in Japan competing against them.

In the end, good stories and characters drive successful series regardless of the "look" of the animation. Recent analysis shows that series faring below average in Japan (e.g., Monster Rancher, Flint the Time Detective, etc.) have done so here. Shows that received reasonably good ratings in Japan (e.g., Cardcaptors, Tenchi Muyo, etc.) have done so here. Shows that were large rating hits in Japan (e.g., Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon, Digimon ) have done well here.

One caveat to this is how the show is altered by the U.S. producer. If the show is significantly altered, it could be a formula for disaster. On the other hand, we feel a mistake with many anime series today is that the English version is a straight translation of the Japanese scripts, since the hardcore anime fans demand this. To reach the mass audience, however, we feel careful "westernizing" of the series can boost ratings as our research has shown with Dragon Ball Z, though it essentially doubles our production budget.

Since anime is here to stay, the question then becomes how to pick a successful anime series. We have studied hundreds of anime series starting from 1985 (we believe that before 1985 the animation looks too dated). We weed out any show that is so culturally Japanese it would clearly have issues in North America (e.g. Sazea San, Chibi Maruko). Next we seriously reevaluate series that may be popular solely due to "extenuating circumstances" to make sure the popularity is not being caused by the circumstances instead of the content. For example, some series are ingrained in Japanese culture due to being a "first mover" in a genre that has been around for many years, but may not be competitive if launched into today's market (e.g., Doreomon). We also reevaluate series launched by huge companies with mega marketing budgets, or associated with a major Japanese star or sports team.

We especially like shows like Yu Yu Hakusho, which came "out of nowhere" to surprise people with huge ratings. That indicates something is special about the property itself. Incredibly, Yu Yu Hakusho hit ratings of 24.7 in Japan, just a shade below the 25 achieved by Dragon Ball Z. By comparison Newtype Magazine recently noted that in the fourth quarter of last year, ratings in Japan showed Digimon with a 9.9, Transformers (car version) at 4.6, Hunter x Hunter at 10.5, Pokémon at 11.9, Yu-gi-oh at 9.9 and One Piece at 13.7.

Bottom line, we believe the key is story telling and characters that connect to fans in any market. Any genre from anime to computer generated animation is a means to convey the story and present the characters. With the depth of creative talent in Japan, anime will be around for years to come.

Gen Fukunga is President of FUNimation Productions, Ltd., an entertainment production company.

Featured Video