Why Aren't Tezuka and Ishinomori Anime Popular In The West?

by Justin Sevakis,

Nik asks:

Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori are two of my favorite manga/anime creators. My favorite aspect of their works is the "retro" and "rounded" look of the characters. Properties like Cyborg 009, Kikaider, and Astro Boy are extremely appealing to me in an aesthetic sense. The "look" of those shows/manga are what initially drew me to them. Here in Japan, my Japanese friends seem to agree. From what I can tell, many Japanese anime fans like the "old" look from these creators. Unfortunately, the above named franchises have never had much widespread success outside of Japan. Even the reboots don't gain any traction. Many armchair anime critics say that foreigners just "hate old looking stuff." What do you think are the reason(s) that such revered and "classic" looking works have thrived in Japan but floundered elsewhere?

Those armchair critics are right. While some of Tezuka's better-known works got mainstream traction in the US back in the 60s (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), that was aimed at a general kid's audience, and the "look" of the characters, which hearkened back to Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1920s and 30s, simply registered in people's minds as children's entertainment. It wasn't trying to be cool, and wasn't. And few people knew it was Japanese in origin, so while people enjoyed it and it was a common pop culture memory for people that grew up back then, its appeal was very different than what would come later.

Americans at large didn't get introduced to harder-edged, mature anime for a long time after that. We had the very occasional TV series like Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman), Star Blazers (Yamato) and Robotech (Macross/Southern Cross/Mospeda), the current fan base is still an extension of the 90s boom in anime that happened after Akira was released. For years most fans came to anime looking for edgy, violent, possibly sexy entertainment. Then Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and finally Pokémon came and acted as a gateway drug for kids, while movie buffs and parents discovered Studio Ghibli movies, giving anime cultural cred.

If you step back (way, way back) and try to see how the concept of "anime" is defined to Americans at large, you'll find a wide smattering of opinions: some people still think of pervy stuff from panty shots to hentai, some think Pokémon, and a lot of people think of Ghibli, or giant robot shows from the 80s. But if you look to the younger audiences that drive anime fandom, you'll note a common thread. Teens and tweens look for anime because it doesn't insult their intelligence as much as hyper-sanitized American "kids" fare -- characters die, bleed, cry, and go through rough patches. The characters are cool and attractive and inspiring. Their struggles are familiar, and kids who are starting to mature can relate to their struggles. Naruto didn't just strike a chord because it was (initially) entertaining. Kids wanted to BE Naruto. (Or Sasuke. Or Sakura.) The same can be said about anything from Fairy Tail to Yuri!!! on Ice.

That part of why people become anime fans is extremely important, because it's a large part of what makes for a hit. We don't just watch these characters passively, we self-insert; their adventures become our dreams. And, subconsciously, we reach for the shows that match who we want to be and what we want for ourselves. Younger fans want to get out and explore the world, be stronger, and get respect (and look good doing it). Older fans want to relive their youth. The vast majority of the big hits in the Western anime scene -- from Sword Art Online to Sailor Moon -- are appealing in this way. You can tell a lot about someone's hopes and dreams by what anime they're into. There are other reasons to love anime, of course, and not every show that everybody loves is a self-insertion fantasy, but... well, cosplay was largely popularized by anime fans.

Which brings us back to Tezuka and Ishinomori stuff, with it's throwback characters and old fashioned, slightly more sanitized storylines. They simply aren't cool looking, in an aspirational way. I wouldn't say that newer adaptations ALWAYS bomb in the West; the Black Jack OAVs did fairly well back in the day, and Metropolis did quite well. But without the lure of nostalgia that these properties have in Japan, they're harder to sell and must stand on their own merits. And frankly, many of them have kind of sucked. (009 Re:Cyborg was pretty bleak.) Old stuff can be great, and many of them are classics that really deserve to be revisited by more people, but if they don't offer the very thing that fans are looking for in a show, they're simply never going to give them a shot.

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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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