Tooned In To Anime

Fans say there's nothing Mickey Mouse about these Japanese cartoons with their stories of love, sex, death and saving the world

Greenfield finally made his way over to Ledford's store one day. They talked business, about the problems with trying to rent out laser discs. Then the conversation turned to anime, a topic that both could talk on and on about, that already evoked a certain nostalgia for these two longtime fans. Sitting there, in a deep discussion, they realized that anime could take off in a big way in America.

Fifteen days later, they formed A.D. Vision, or ADV Films. The plan: to acquire the rights to anime titles from Japanese companies, translate them into English, repackage and release them in the United States. That was August 1992. By December of that year, they had released their first title, Devil Hunter Yokho.

Today ADV Films has more than a thousand titles, offices in London and Tokyo, and affiliates in Europe and Australia. More than 60 employees work at the headquarters, which takes up nearly a whole block of warehouselike buildings in southwest Houston. They have been dubbed "the Microsoft of anime" and have started to branch out from anime into live action shows.

Getter Robo was instrumental in creating the idea of the transformable robot.
Getter Robo was instrumental in creating the idea of the transformable robot.
Getter Robo was instrumental in creating the idea of the transformable robot.
Getter Robo: Armageddon © 1998 Go Nagai & Ken
Getter Robo was instrumental in creating the idea of the transformable robot.

One reason that ADV has become so successful is that Greenfield, Ledford and executive producer Sharon Papa realized there was more to anime than action stories featuring fighting robots and spaceships. At the time, other companies rushed to release more of the same robot-on-robot violence after shows like Voltron, Star Blazers and Tranzor Z proved popular.

"I think one of the mistakes a lot of people initially had was those shows were all fighting giant robots," Greenfield says. "There's nothing wrong with fighting giant robots, but that's like looking at American TV and saying that's all car crashes. We've got a lot of car crashes, but that's not what it's all about. Anime is not a genre. It's a medium."

Not a single robot appears in Devil Hunter Yokho, which tells the tale of a high school girl who discovers she's part of a long line of female warriors destined to protecthumankind by battlingdemons.

When ADV first approached the Japanese about licensing Devil Hunter Yokho, they said, "You really want to license this thing?" Greenfield recalls. At the time, no anime markets existed outside of Japan. Now, many Japanese companies have American subsidiaries who compete with ADV, such as Bandai and Viz Entertainment, the U.S. arm of a Japanese manga publisher that brought Pokémon to America.

Early fans, like Greenfield, who is now 40, grew up on Astroboy, Speed Racer and Kimba the White Lion (to which The Lion King bears a remarkable resemblance). As a kid, Greenfield was captivated by the artwork.

"Visually they were incredible, and the stories were like something I'd never seen before because they were so complex…It was like wow, this is like a novel being presented as an animated film," he says.

By the time VCRs became affordable in the '80s, Greenfield was watching original tapes in raw Japanese, even though he didn't understand a word of dialogue. Several anime series from the '70s were reworked into American TV shows in the '80s, including Robotech, which aired in 1985 and consisted of three unrelated shows chopped up and spliced together with a new story line. In December 1989, Akira, a story of young delinquents who find themselves accidentally involved with a classified military experiment, played in art-house theaters and earned a cult following.

Anime has gained fans because it is as addictive as soap operas, Greenfield says. A strong linear story arc carries though each episode, requiring the viewer to watch them in order, unlike American TV shows, which are episodic. Only recently have a few American TV shows started carrying narratives from season to season, like Babylon 5 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he says. The different styles of storytelling originate in conversational patterns.

"For a lot of people, Americans are considered direct to the point of being rude, because…when talking about a subject, you go from point A to point B to point C, and that's not how it's done in other parts of the world," Greenfield says. "One of the things that's fascinating about Japanese shows is that they don't give everything away in the first episode. It's an unwinding spiral. Basically you start off slowly and you're encompassing more and more ground, going over the same ground over and over but adding things." Sometimes important elements subtly reveal themselves in the dialogue, which a viewer doesn't notice until seeing the ending, he says. So every time you watch it, you get something new out of it, much like rereading a good book.

A lot of anime also explores futuristic themes, creating complex universes and compelling characters. People die in anime. Main characters die. They don't waddle off, flat as a pancake, from under an anvil, and regain their normal shape. As ADV's own Web site points out, the Japanese make "wonderful, entertaining animated films that didn't all star cats and mice and never insulted the viewers' intelligence."

Take, for example, the postapocalyptic landscape in one of ADV's former titles, Battle Angel. The first episode begins when we find the main character's head in a trash heap. A scientist saves Gally by building a powerful metallic body for her. Gally, sweet and petite, has no memory of her previous life, but becomes a bounty hunter, driven by a dark instinct. She falls in love with a seemingly nice boy who by night steals spines from cyborgs in a twisted attempt to fulfill his dead brother's dream. Another character is killed for her organs and ends up as parts in stacked jars.

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