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What Happened To The 90s Anime Boom?

by Justin Sevakis,

James asks:

I have heard both you and other staff of ANN say that Japanese animation does not have mainstream popularity, that it is still a niche market in the west, but I distinctly recall that, during the late 1990's and early- to mid-2000's (when I was in high school and college), Japanese animation experience a huge surge in popularity in the United States. What happened after that? Did it lose its new popularity as quickly as it gained it, or am I misremembering what actually happened?

In the late 90s, it sure SEEMED like anime was on the precipice of becoming mainstream. I remember anime getting mainstream press coverage, occasionally dotting the Billboard video sales charts, and getting more and more shelf space at video and media stores. In fact, I remember swelling with pride as I walked past the monster Virgin Megastore in Times Square (may it rest in peace), and noticed a large display dedicated to Cowboy Bebop.

That was such a cool, exciting time to be a fan. It really felt like we were on the verge of something big, some gigantic convergence of two cultures. It seemed like we were one gigantic hit away from breaking through to mainstream. The prospect of being mainstream bothered some fans, who preferred to have a hobby that was out of the purview of "normal people." But I was excited for more people to discover and love what I loved.

There were a few landmark events that seemed to suggest that the tastemakers of American pop culture were catching on. Madonna prominently featured anime footage in her "Drowned World" concert tour (including a bizarre montage that included Perfect Blue, MD Geist II - Death Force and The Humanoid). The popular sitcom Malcom in the Middle used footage from the now-forgotten TV show Nazca for the show opening. Rally's/Checkers hired Peter Chung (creator of Aeon Flux, which was often mistaken for anime) to make a crazy burger commercial in his trademark gross-out style. Cable networks from Sci Fi Channel to Cartoon Network to IFC to HBO were occasionally broadcasting anime.

And then... it all seemed to stop. By the mid-2000s anime was sort of underground again, quickly losing shelf space at video stores and going completely off the radar of mainstream popular culture. Today anime is as popular as ever if you go by the numbers (Crunchyroll just passed ONE MILLION paying subscribers worldwide -- an incredible feat!) but the mainstream "buzz" is mostly gone, save for a few nods in the medium's direction when a new Hollywood adaptation comes out.

So, what happened? A few things.

First, the excitement of those early days was because anime was completely "new" to US audiences. It was a shock to look at, visually: nothing else looked like anime. If a store put Macross Plus or Akira on a TV for display, people would stop and stare. The genre as a whole was described by wide-eyed neophytes as this crazy looking, hyper-kinetic, violent, sexy experience, one that gelled extremely well with the aesthetics of the day: youth culture was all about being edgy.

That reaction is hard to imagine these days, but that's largely because the sort of anime that was getting released in those days is very different than what's popular now. Predominantly one-shot movies and short OVA series (1-6 episodes was the norm), the top sellers were fantasy or sci-fi with a heavy cyberpunk influence. Many were gory, and seeing cartoon sexiness was something incredibly shocking back then -- not because it was inherently bad or anything, but since animation was seen far more as a children's medium back then, it just wasn't done. And since they were short, they were easy for television programmers to play with, and for people to sample when they just wanted to see something "different."

And "different" it was! Japan was a country that seemed much further away before the internet (and automated translation) really knocked down barriers. Most people had no familiarity with seeing Japanese writing, or hearing Japanese spoken. Far from being able to pronounce names like Hideki Matsui, most Americans would look at Japanese words cross-eyed. Sushi was still a strange delicacy in most of the country. Most people's ideas about Japan came from the post-WWII period and were ridiculously outdated. The very idea of watching movies or TV shows from Japan was laughable and unimaginable to everyday folk. Early anime releases went to great pains to cover up the Japanese-ness of the shows, as distributors worried that viewers would freak out and lose interest when presented with something so obviously foreign.

But once those barriers were overcome, anime scratched a weird, unspoken cultural itch in the West: the need for film representations of action-packed comics culture. In their early days, Streamline Pictures branded all of their anime releases as "Video Comics." Manga Video's marketing promised to "breathe a graphic life force into Japanese comic art." Of course, having action comics as filmed entertainment is far more than a niche now: in fact, it's nearly the only thing the Hollywood studios are any good at anymore.

By 2000 or so, American publishers had already released most of the easily-sellable movies and OVAs Japan had made over the previous 15 years, and production of new OVAs started to decline. TV series, which were harder to sample and more expensive to collect became the majority of new releases. More importantly, the really violent, edgy stuff began to fall out of fashion in both countries. In a post-9/11 America, fewer people were looking for an angry, gory visual equivalent of a Nine Inch Nails song. Japan, facing a prolonged recession, started turning its entertainment in directions that America's mainstream wasn't interested in: cute, moe and relaxing.

I also think that the way home video worked back in the 90s made anime seem like a bigger deal than it was. In the VHS era, building a large home movie collection was not something many people did. While big Hollywood blockbusters and terrible impulse-buy videos (like exercise videos and cheap cartoon collections) were priced to sell on the mass market level, most people just rented their movies. Non-blockbuster/mass-market releases were priced at $90-120 each, since it was thought that only video rental shops would buy them. But anime was aimed at consumers from the beginning. So in a world where not that many people bought VHS tapes, a big-selling anime would show up on the mainstream radar far easier than it would a few years later, after DVD made everyone a big movie collector.

Ultimately, anime in the late 90s was a fad. And the thing about fads is that, even if the underlying thing that people are excited by is a really good thing, the excitement of a fad attracts a WHOLE BUNCH of people that aren't really fans. They're there because other people perceive it as cool. They're there because people are talking about it. They might like it a little bit, but they don't love it. They soon lose interest, and get distracted by the next shiny thing that comes along.

It's easy for people to get excited about something new and different, but eventually people get used to it and it fades into the background. It's easy to miss today, but the effect that the 90s anime boom had on American pop culture has been a lasting one. American animation started taking subtle cues from anime -- eyes grew bigger and more detailed, noses became less prominent, bodies became more realistic (or idealistic). Pokémon's explosion towards the end of the VHS era (and other shows like it) made it so that every kid who grew up in the 2000s was extremely intimate with anime-style designs. Today, while anime is great and does a number of things that content from other countries doesn't, it looks and feels far less unique than it once did.

Things are very different now for anime in the West. Most people pretty much know what anime is, and don't need to be convinced that it's not all kids' shows or porn. Hayao Miyazaki's oeuvre might not outsell the big Pixar or DreamWorks movies, but they all sell very well, and very consistently year 'round, and many parents show them to their kids along with Disney classics. And if you're in high school or college, being into anime is no longer the scarlet letter of social leprosy that it once was. The 90s anime boom might just have been a fad, but it was absolutely a fad with lasting effects. The real fans never left (just look at convention attendance numbers), and now new fans are coming into the market in surprising numbers. The relatively under-the-radar successes of today would never be possible if it hadn't happened.

Thank you for reading Answerman!

We are no longer taking question submissions. However, over the years we've answered THOUSANDS of your questions, and probably already answered yours! Check our our complete archives! Below are a few of the most popular ones...

Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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