Anime hits sweep kids programming in North America

Peter Chung, character designer for the series Alexander, disapproves of the term 'anime.' The animator who brought an anime stylized look to MTV with Aeon Flux says the term anime is used incorrectly. 'Anime is the Japanese phonetic abbreviation for animation,...
May 1, 1999

Peter Chung, character designer for the series Alexander, disapproves of the term ‘anime.’ The animator who brought an anime stylized look to MTV with Aeon Flux says the term anime is used incorrectly. ‘Anime is the Japanese phonetic abbreviation for animation, and does not denote Japanese style,’ says Chung. His protests are falling on deaf ears.

The word anime has become lingua franca in the broadcast world, referring to the stylized designs innovated by Japanese artists. It has taken much time and effort, but anime is becoming more popular in the North American market. And it’s not just for adults; anime is making its way into programming for kids.

There are two distinct approaches to mainstreaming animation. Disney is introducing ‘the crème de la crème of Japanese animation’ very methodically, says Martin Blythe, director of publicity for Buena Vista Home Entertainment Worldwide. Three feature films by acclaimed Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki are being redubbed in English. Kiki’s Delivery Service, originally released in 1989 in Japan, was given a new score by Sydney Forest, and released by Buena Vista Home Video direct to video last September after screening at festivals. Miramax Films is preparing to release Miyazaki’s hugely popular Princess Mononoke theatrically in July. An older title, Laputa, Castle in the Sky (1986), is being dubbed using the voices of Anna Paquin, James Van Der Beek and Mark Hamill, and is also being considered for both theatrical and video release.

Anime is generally very violent by North American standards. Disney worked hard to make Kiki accessible to U.S. families, who are generally suspicious of anime shows. But whereas Disney deliberately avoids using the term anime as a marketing approach, programmers such as Cartoon Network and Warner Bros. are playing up anime additions in their lineups.

Cartoon Network’s two-hour afternoon block Toonami, airing from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., is laden with anime shows, including Voltron: Defender of the Universe, Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon. ‘It just developed that way,’ says Dea Connick Perez, VP of programming. ‘We wanted action-adventure on the air, so when Toonami was in development, its proposed formula of action-adventure made it one of the more popular in-house ideas.’ Over time, more anime got added into the mix; it makes up 50% of the block today.

Dragon Ball Z, the most popular show in the current lineup, has recently been paired with Batman for the midnight time slot. While Toonami targets kids ages six to 14, there’s been a lot of mail from adults, hence the late-night repeat.

While older anime titles such as Voltron: Defender of the Universe and Robotech are being dusted off and rescheduled, their addition to cable lineups has not deterred producers from tackling remakes. Executive producer World Events Productions hired Netter Digital Entertainment (Babylon 5) and Mike Young Productions to undertake a CGI version of the classic series. World Events bought the original `80s series Go-Lion from Toei in Japan, and then edited and redubbed it for the U.S. market.

The revamped 1998/99 series-Voltron: The Third Dimension, based on Voltron: Defender of the Universe, but using entirely original footage and animation-is even more popular than its predecessor. The CGI version is currently ranked the number-one weekend kids show in syndication in the U.S. Like its predecessor, the new CGI show is heavily influenced by the original Japanese version, says Bill Schultz, producer of Voltron at Mike Young Productions. However, due to the motion capture system, the characters are more realistic. The story line was also simplified. ‘The challenge was to reach a younger six- to 11-year-old audience, so the CGI show just couldn’t pick up where the older series left off,’ says Schultz.

Kids’ WB! is having great luck with anime-stylized series such as Batman Beyond, which launched February 13, and the Japanese phenomenon Pokémon. Pokémon the video game, launched in the U.S. by Nintendo in September 1998, has become one of the most popular games of all time in the U.S.

Pokémon the show, which is produced in Japan by Shogakukan Productions, was sold to 4Kids Entertainment in the U.S. Unlike many other anime shows, the Japanese version needed very little re-editing. ‘Some Japanese colloquialisms were taken out,’ says Janna Silverglade, director of communications for Summit Media, a division of 4Kids Entertainment.

Not only is Pokémon now syndicated in over 100 markets in the U.S., but it’s given Kids’ WB! its first number-one hit show on the Saturday sked. Kids’ WB! started airing the show in its 10 a.m. Saturday morning slot in February, and will strip the show weekday mornings and afternoons starting in September. The instant success of the Pokémon TV series in North America is due to its nonviolent nature and its integration with the game. ‘Kids watch [the show] thinking they will get hints to help them with the game,’ says Silverglade. 4Kids recently purchased another 52 episodes of Pokémon.

Summit says it is not into the anime market, it just picked a show with an enormous audience in another country. ‘It’s a phenomenon that beats out baseball in Japan,’ says Silverglade.

‘There is no long-term future in anime if people buy it solely because it’s Japanese,’ says Jonathan Clements, editor of Manga Max magazine. ‘The Japanese watch it because they enjoy it, and the best possible thing that happens to anime is that U.S. networks pick it up as entertainment,’ he adds.

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