Why Isn't More Anime Made For Americans?

by Justin Sevakis,

Garry asks:

I know that anime is made first and foremost for the Japanese people, but why hasn't some entrepreneurial Japanese company opened studios here in the U.S. (or abroad in the UK or Australia, etc.), to either acquire failed anime that didn't seem to go over too well with the Japanese fan base yet the American's latched onto with vigor, OR create "American Anime" customized to the native fan base? My friends often discuss just how much we LOVE Ghost in the Shell (all of its incarnations) and how great it would be if it were made into an ongoing weekly animated series. Not just a limited run mind you, but a full blown "multiple-year-until-the-ratings-drop-off-the-map" series. We'd tune in each and every week as I'm certain countless millions of other fans would as well. Wouldn't it make them money? Is it too costly or risky to attempt? Is such an endeavor prohibited by some trade agreement?

Japanese entertainment companies, and basically any entertainment company not in the US, desperately want to make it big in the US. This is a constant thing. It's because America is the world's biggest entertainment market, America makes most of the world's most successful and iconic entertainment, and America basically drives the narrative as to what's relevant cultural material for a huge chunk of the world. Japan has tried for years, almost always unsuccessfully, to break into the American market in any number of ways, and anime has been a part of that failed invasion attempt for longer than there's been a proper anime industry in the US.

Anime has always been made with a world market in mind. Virtually every Toei Douga film from the 1960s got some sort of small American release (often uncut!), as did many early anime series from the 1960s. But making anime SPECIFICALLY FOR Americans has a much less successful history. In the late 70s, Sanrio made a series of very high budget films like the Unico movies and Sea Prince and the Fire Child, but ended up losing their shirts in the end. In the 80s, TMS Entertainment took out huge loans as they founded a US office and attempted to make a big splash in the American market. That attempt gave us things like Little Nemo, Cyber Six and Galaxy High School. None of those were big hits, and that company also ended up eating it financially.

Since then, there have been sporadic attempts to make anime specifically (or mostly) for the American market, either as US/Japan co-productions, or made entirely in Japan. More recent attempts can be seen with IGPX, The Big O Season 2, Heat Guy J, Heroman, and the Trigun movie. None of those projects were considered successful.

Why does this never work? There are a few reasons. The first problem is that making anime is still a creative process. The Japanese creative staff are not American, usually have never been to America, and due to the language barrier, usually don't even know any Americans. When you make something creative for an audience that does not include yourself, you're basically trying to predict the tastes of a country based on preconceived notions and stereotypes. You don't get subtle nuances, you don't get obscure cultural references, and you don't REALLY understand the full baggage of that country's history and how it influences people's thought process. The entire creative endeavor is predicated on the creator trying to put themselves in a mindset of someone they don't know or understand. Very often, the resulting project ends up sort of bland and generic. You end up spending a lot of effort clumsily giving your potential audience what you think they want, which is essentially pandering. Most viewers see right through it.

Another reason is that the American distribution system is ridiculously hard to penetrate for an outside company. Sure, Aniplex might be able to start an American division, hire a Japanese guy who's been in the business for a decade, and make a small dent, but to do the sort of mainstream project you're suggesting, you have to have a major television broadcaster partner, spend millions of dollars in marketing, and put on a gigantic PR blitz. This takes connections, a reputation, and deep pockets -- none of which the anime companies actually have. Most of those media companies are already thoroughly uninterested in anime, and won't even bother looking into it. (This very thing was attempted by both Japanese producers and American anime publishers for years.)

Anime is not mainstream. Anime will likely never be completely mainstream. You can put anime on television, but it's a hugely expensive and difficult endeavor, and even if the show is good it's unlikely to draw a huge audience. What makes for a hit in the anime world barely drives the numbers to qualify as a failure on American television.

Making anything is hard. Making a hit show is even harder, and nobody really has a magic formula for it. What you're basically suggesting is, "why don't Japanese producers make a big hit show for an audience they don't know and hit big in a country where they have no business caché and no know-how?" It's just not a realistic thing to wish for.

But the thing is, it's 2015. We don't need television anymore. We have the internet. We have companies like Crunchyroll and Funimation streaming almost everything under the sun, and making a dub for many of those shows. We have tons of Japanese creatives making hours and hours of content every week for audiences they actually understand, and that we can appreciate. With a broadband connection and a game console or an AppleTV or a Roku, we can watch all of it on our nice TVs already. Year by year the distinctions of whether something is "mainstream" or "made for American audiences" grow more and more meaningless. As anime fans, we are on the front wave of that trend.

The reason most of us like anime in the first place is that it's something different; it's an alternative perspective from what we usually get. It doesn't do the same things American television does, or fit into the same format. Why would you want to try to force it to be something it's not? And besides, by being a fan of it, you are part of a cool little subculture of fellow nerds. What more could you actually want?

Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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