Toon in Tomorrow Japanimation: Anime can be as cinematic as any Hollywood blockbuster and sells bigger in its native land. The cartoon form is deep, sexy and drawing a bead on the American market.

April 14, 1996|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

If you spent much time watching afternoon TV in the pre-"Ricki Lake" era, odds are you saw a lot of animation. There were classics like "Bugs Bunny," "Tom & Jerry" and the great Max Fleischer "Popeye" cartoons, along with such made-for-TV fare as "The Flintstones," "Rocky & Bullwinkle" and "Scooby-Doo."

But there were also a few titles that seemed totally unlike typical American kid-vid. Made in Japan, and then dubbed and edited for American fans, these cartoons covered a range of topics. There was "Astro Boy," about an adorable, big-eyed robot boy; "Speed Racer," whose cast was regularly upstaged by the high-tech Mach Five race car; "Star Blazers," an outer-space adventure featuring a rebuilt battleship dubbed the Argo; and "Robotech," which boasted Valkyrie fighters that transformed from jet planes to giant combat robots.

You may not have known it, but you were seeing the future of animation. This was the beginning of the anime craze in America.

Anime (pronounced ah-nee-may, which is Japanese for "animation") is Japan's leading cultural export, a multibillion-dollar business that is gaining a steadily growing market in America. Between the syndicated TV series like "Sailor Moon" and "Dragon Ball," theatrical releases like Mamoru Oshii's "Ghost in the Shell" (which opened Friday at the Charles), and easily rentable videos like "Ranma 1/2 ," "Tenchi Muyo!" and "Ninja Scroll," Japanese animation has never been so widely available.

But the significance of the anime boom runs deeper than the novelty of seeing cartoon ninjas and robot warriors on American TV screens. What it ultimately represents is a radical change in the notion of what cartoons can do, from the audience they attract to the sort of stories they tell.

In Japan, anime is not fringe fare, but mainstream entertainment, enjoyed by adults as well as children. In 1994, more than 50 animated series -- ranging from "Sailor Moon" to "Karaoke Fighter Mike-tarou" -- aired on Japanese television, many of them in prime time. Nor was interest in anime restricted to the small screen, as more than half of that year's movie revenues came from animated features. In fact, films by anime director Hayao Miyazaki -- known in this country for "My Neighbor Totoro" -- regularly outdraw all other movies released in Japan, animated or otherwise.

Things aren't quite on that scale in America. "Whenever people say there's a boom, you wonder if it's really fair to call it that," says Trish Ledoux, editor of the anime journal Animerica and author of "The Complete Anime Guide." Although the amount of anime available in America has increased exponentially, Ledoux says that growth has to be seen in perspective. "Compared to, say, the amount of 'Pocahontas' tapes sold just this past year, the whole Japanese animation industry in America is still just a drop in the bucket," she says.

"I don't foresee a 'Forrest Gump' of anime ever coming around," agrees Marvin Gleicher, whose Manga Entertainment co-produced "Ghost in the Shell."

That doesn't mean Gleicher -- or anyone else in the business -- believes the form is without mainstream appeal. "It is becoming much more widely known," says Janice Williams of A.D. Vision, which releases anime videos in America. "People don't look at you like you're speaking Greek when you say 'anime' anymore."

That's largely because anime is no longer the sole domain of the hard-core fan, or "otaku" (oh-tah-koo). "The primary demographic started out to be young males, 14-40, who are computer-oriented, rock-and-roll-oriented, game-oriented, science fiction- or fantasy-oriented people," says Albert Price of AnimEigo, one of the first companies to release anime videos in America. "So you get your hard-core versions of that."

Now, however, sales of anime show that its appeal is much broader-based. " 'Ninja Scroll,' for example, appeals to all sides, even though it's a pure, Japanese-based, ninja-era fantasy story," says Gleicher. "It had mass appeal. We're aware of which films will have the ability to stretch past the anime club and otaku."

What makes it possible for anime to reach that mainstream audience is that the best work actually seems more like a real film than just a cartoon. At its best, anime boasts an entirely different attitude, technique and tone from made-in-America cartoons.

This isn't your Uncle Walt's animation. For one thing, anime is often made for adults. That means many anime include violence, nudity and situations that would put the folks at Nickelodeon into coronary arrest.

Take "Ranma 1/2," for example. This anime series was extremely successful when it aired in Japan, and its blend of action and humor would seem tailor-made for American TV, except for one thing -- its typically Japanese attitude toward nudity means that we occasionally see the characters bathe. There's nothing salacious about these scenes, but even so, they've ensured that "Ranma 1/2" will remain a video-only title.

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