Anime is Great…It’s the Fans That Suck (Part 2)The Dark Herald
Anime truly arrived in America in 1989.
I still remember where I first saw the real thing. I was laying in my rack aboard a tub of a ship that was shortly going to scrapped. The air conditioning failed constantly. As did the lights. The plumbing howled in agony when it wasn’t vomiting sewage onto the deck. The skipper had accidentally beached her so many times that the entire crew called him, “Captain Crunch.” We, the Marines aboard her, kept hearing the magic words, “General quarters! General quarters! This is not a drill!” That would be followed by the sound of us being locked inside our berthing area…and then the lights would fail for a few hours.
The lights had just come back on and I heard the cry of, “mail call!” My name got called and I went to find out who loved me that day. It was my sister of course. She had sent me several back issues of Heavy Metal. Laying in my rack, (chosen for its strategic position between the uppermost rack, (too hot) and the lowermost (likely to get splashed by puke in rough seas)), I was flipping through the erotic adventures of Druuna and wondering what the girls in Rota would look like when I saw it.
It was an ad for a mail-order videotape and it only showed the back of a guy in red biker leathers with a huge pill on his back walking towards a futuristic motorcycle that was sitting on a slab of split concrete.
The cover art was stark. There was both an edge to it and a promise implied within it. It looked like Blade Runner without any of the suck. It felt cyberpunk as all hell…also without William Gibson’s highly overrated suck. This was a ticket to a nuclear-powered roller coaster ride. This was not going to be a Saturday morning cartoon. This was not kid-stuff.
The blurb was just a bunch of good reviews from mainstream papers, an address to an outfit called Streamline Pictures, and a price tag for this mail order only VHS tape of…holy shit! Forty-five dollars? Are you fucking nuts? ($76.00 in today money)
An unfortunate truth of human nature is that we value the most what costs us the most. My assumption was…well if they are charging that much, it must be that good. (Yes, I was very young and stupid) But for once I was right.
It was worth the money. Every penny of it.
It’s difficult to explain what life was like in the unplugged world. Today, it’s hard not to be aware of other cultures and that’s not just due to SJW ramrodding them down our throats. Just some mild web surfing will bring you into contact with them. But no web…no contact. It wasn’t there. We were all islands in one way or another.
It is quite impossible to explain how utterly mind-blowing Akira was. It still holds up well today but there was nothing at all like it in the America of 1990. The animation wasn’t cheap. Clearly, a lot of money had gone into this production. The setting was…familiar yet incredibly alien. The violence was surreal and hyper-realistic at the same time. The attention to every aspect of detail was immaculate. Akira wasn’t an entry-level drug. It was a big bolus shot of full power uncut heroin as your first try in the drug scene. You survived or you didn’t. That’s all there was to it.
I loved it.
And yeah I wanted more.
I got my wish. Carl Macek’s late and much lamented Streamline Pictures did more than anyone else to bring Anime to America. Akira made enough money for Streamline to put it into a position to buy up pretty much the best of the best that was available at the time.
And thanks to Japan’s Bubble Economy there was enough development money pouring into Anime combined with a straight-to-video market that was actually profitable at the time and you had a golden age of Anime taking off in Japan at about the same time that it first blew up big in America.
Without Carl Macek, Anime may not have ever come to America. I know it’s hard to believe that now but trust me I’ve seen plenty of cool stuff never take off in this country.
Naturally the professionally butt hurt anime fans revile him for it. This trailer will show you why.
Macek wanted to make money and to in order do that in business before Obama became president you had to turn a profit. There were two possible markets for Steamline’s products. A new mass market of Gen X-ers and a small market of preexisting butthurt connoisseurs. Serving both was out.
The Gen-X market was just fine with an English dub but the connoisseurs wanted the original Japanese dialog with reasonably accurate subtitles.
Today if you want to switch between Japanese w/ Sub or English Dub you make a couple of quick adjustments to your DVD player’s settings with your remote. But in the dim dark days of VHS that was not an option, a tape had to be either one or the other. Akira was a big enough title that there was a point in providing a second release for a smaller market (although at a higher price). But there was no point in doing that for something like Neo-Tokyo.
Good call on Streamline’s part. And it has to be said Macek and company made every effort to get the story and its dramatic impact across. What they couldn’t do was provide a word-for-word translation from Japanese to English because the languages are just too different.
Now there were a few companies that catered to the Subtitle market. Animeigo was probably the most successful, They carried lesser titles like Bubblegum Crisis, AD Police Files, and Ah My Goddess. Of the early adapters, ADV is the one that has done best long term. They started with a little one-hour OAV called Battle Angel. Today they run Anime Network.
Anyway, despite the screams of the outraged vestals of Anime, Streamline continued to dominate the early market.
And then disaster stuck Streamline.
I felt an odd sense of loyalty to Streamline Video. Carl Macek’s company had the air of a Little Guy Who Made Good about it. Streamline dominated discussions about Anime in America. What titles had they bought the rights to? Why weren’t they doing a reissue of Laputa? When would they be releasing Wings of Honneamise (the answer to that last was, never, BTW) That was because Streamline was the biggest frog in a small pond. Until a genuinely big frog moved in.
Manga Entertainment started off in the UK in 1987. They had a number of the same titles as Streamline but could only distribute in the UK.
However, they did have connections in Japan that were comparable to Maceks. When they collected enough titles they moved into the US market hard. Unlike Macek, they had a corporate overlord with deep pockets.
I wasn’t wild about Manga Video at first because there was just a whiff of the corporate raider about them. Silly reaction to be sure but there it was. Manga had an actual distribution system in place and was going to be selling their videos at the standard market price of $19.99. And there was no getting around it. That was a lot cheaper than Streamline could manage. Just a couple of years before they were charging $35.00 for everything (call it $60 dollars in today’s money).
Sure you wanted to buy, a legit copy but realistically you pretty much had to hope your local Blockbuster would carry what you wanted, so you could then rent and pirate it.
Yes, Manga Video had a big price break. But what they really had going for them were the best titles available in the 1990s.
Wings of Honneamise, was their halo-title. It was repeatedly voted the best anime film of all time (by various groups whose opinions really don’t matter but I got to say they had a point here.) It’s probably the best (hard) science fiction film of all time. Its world is a very intricately constructed alternate history built around man’s first space flight. But unlike our world, this was a badly funded backwater of a military program. Its members were few and despised by the members of the real military. Its primary plot concerned its hero’s quest to find a moral center. It still holds up well today.
Macross Plus: This one must have hurt Carl Macek, You know he had to have wanted it. It was a worthy successor to the original Macross series. At least when it was released. In truth, it hasn’t stood the test of time. It was too reliant on 1990s computer graphics. It had a wow factor at the time but now it looks awful.
Ninja Scroll: Probably the most popular of all of their titles. And it has to be said, it’s understandable. It was a first-rate action film with characters who all had pretty decent story arcs. The action scenes were very influential throughout the rest of the nineties and into the early double 0s.
Patlabor: This one had a lot of everything going for it and it also seems to be the one that is completely forgotten about which is a crying shame. I will grant it was a little hard to get into. All of the characters had been introduced and established in an OVA series that was famous in Japan but hadn’t made it to the USA. Consequently, you were thrown in the deep end. Sort of like starting Game of Thrones at season 4. It was the first movie I ever saw where a computer virus was the MacGuffin. Okay, yes, it’s nothing worth noting today but when it was first introduced in 1989 it was a great plot device.
Ghost in the Shell: Also very influential and of all of these titles it seems to be the one with the strongest brand today.
Don’t get me wrong, Manga also carried some serious garbage. Devilman comes irresistibly to mind. But Manga Video was able to do what Streamline couldn’t and brought Anime into the mainstream. To include, briefly, the PX.
Today, Manga is like Streamline before it, a dead nameplate (at least in the US). But for a while it was the king of the hill.
So what killed these former titans? Basically a perfect storm.
Facing genuine market pressure from Manga, Carl Macek signed a distribution deal with Orion Pictures creating Streamline Video Comics. Initially this kept Streamline in the game but the end for Macek’s company was in sight.
A number of Streamline’s title rights came up renewal at about the same time. The Japanese companies, (Pioneer in particular) decided that since the market for Anime in America now existed, the Risk/Reward of establishing a new brand in our market now favored the reward side and they choose not to renew with Streamline and then Manga.
Shortly after that, the Asian Economic Meltdown blew through the Land of the Rising Sun like a Cat5 Typhoon. A lot of the smaller companies Streamline had deals with went into receivership further complicating renewal agreements.
When Orion Pictures filed for Chapter 11, Streamline stopped importing new titles.
In 1998 the rights to Akira reverted to Pioneer.
Finally in 2000 Streamline pictures closed it’s doors.
Today Streamline is simply a fond memory for a few old-timers but when Akira was rereleased in 2012 the producers opted to go with the Streamline’s original Dub as many of the professionally Butthurt Anime Fans had come to view it as vastly superior to Pioneer’s.
The economic meltdown also hit the anime business pretty hard in Japan. Development money for high-end projects vanished. The OVA boom ended. The quality of the animation itself began to backslide. Computer matting kept the herky-jerky from making a comeback but you could tell the creators were using smoke and mirrors to mask a much lower budget.
As for me and anime, we had to part ways for a while. You see I had my own little typhoon blow into my life and when she was three I caught her watching my old VHS copy of Ninja Scroll.
I behaved like any General’s wife and banished my entire collection. It was all on VHS and a couple of years later when my last tape player finally died, I ditched every videocassette in the house anyway.
I stopped watching it all for years afterward but lately, I’ve been getting back into it. Stein’s Gate has proven to be something of a gateway drug.
But it will never be like what it was in the old days. Back when it was new and shocking and amazing.
Okay, I’m done here.