TV anime was and is made primarily for children and adolescents. Everybody knew this. By the 1990s children and adolescents were also getting increasingly — “addicted” is not too strong a word – to video games, also dominated by Japan. It was only natural that the two would combine. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, American TV cartoon watchers – not anime fans, but “ordinary” American children – were the biggest fans of imported Japanese TV cartoons spawned by the gaming craze.
Anime TV series and OAVs based on Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog and Nintendo’s Super Mario Brothers began in the early 1990s. Animated TV series about the Sonic cast actually began in America, from DIC Entertainment. However, this was seen as just a natural and very derivative merchandising of the video games.
The first TV and theatrical anime production that was seen as semi-independent of the video games that they were based on was Pokémon, coming from Nintendo’s 1996 Pocket Monsters. Pocket Monsters, quickly abbreviated by Japanese children into Pokémon, was an instant mega-hit, and the American 4kids Entertainment licensees decided to market it in America under its Japanese nickname.
It should be remembered that in Japan, “monster” is any fantasy animal, including cute, little ones. The Western concept of a huge, and probably dangerous or evil beast, does not exist.
Pokémon stood out from all previous video game-based scenarios by starting out with 150 characters (”Gotta Catch ‘Em All!”) instead of only one or two. The idea was for players to capture as many as possible of the cute, pocket-sized “monsters” (fantasy forest animals) in the game’s pokeballs. 150 imaginary animals with no lead characters were unsuitable for merchandising that required a story line, so for Pokémon’s animated and comic book adventures, a 10-year-old aspiring Pokémon Master, Satoshi (Ash Ketchum in the American adaptation), named for the game’s creator Satoshi Tajiri, was created, and one of the 150 Pokémon, Pikachu the bright yellow electric mouse, became his personal pet.
Pokémon has been animated by OLM, Inc., a Japanese studio created to animate the Pokémon franchise. The weekly TV anime began airing on April 1, 1997 and is still ongoing today, although technically it is a series of different programs and their sequels: Pocket Monsters, Pocket Monsters: Advanced Generation, Pocket Monsters: Diamond & Pearl, and Pocket Monsters: Best Wishes!
The story line is that, in the world of Pokémon, people compete to capture one each of the 150 (originally; more have been added over the years – there are 718 today) types of little creatures called “pocket monsters” because they are all pocket-sized, and train them to battle each other in League games. The original 150 Pokémon later came to be known as starter Pokémon. Those who capture Pokémon are called Pokémon trainers, and those who capture them all and win in their games are awarded the title of Pokémon Master. Children can leave home on their tenth birthday to roam the world hunting for Pokémon. Ash Ketchum (to use the American names) sets out on his tenth birthday determined to become a Pokémon Master. His first Pokémon is the Pikachu electric mouse. However, unlike the other Pokémon hunters, Ash treats his Pokémon kindly and makes pets of them instead of training them to fight each other. Ash gains regular friends who accompany him, Misty and Brock; and regular enemies who try to sabotage him to advance themselves, Jessie and James of Team Rocket, with their crooked talking Pokémon, Meowth.
American anime fans began watching videotapes of Pokémon from the beginning, even though it was more juvenile than the usual anime-fan fare. The series had not yet come to American television when episode #38, “Denno Senshi Porygon” (“Electric Soldier Porygon”, and one really suspects that the polygonal-sided Porygon was meant to be named Polygon), on December 16, 1997, sent “thousands” (later determined to be 635+) of Japanese children to hospitals with epileptic seizures. This drew headlines around the world, and editorials in American newspapers denouncing dangerous Japanese animation. Mike Lazzo, the vice-president of programming for the Cartoon Network, was quoted in USA Today (December 19) as assuring the American public that dangerous TV cartoons like Pokémon would never be allowed on American animation. One suspects that he was lying. The Pokémon TV series was a mega-hit, never mind the video games, and there was no way that U.S. TV industry would ignore it. Pokémon began regular U.S. broadcasting on September 7, 1998 and it is still ongoing, from 1999 through 2008 on Kids’ WB! and since 2008 on the Cartoon Network.
The Japanese TV anime is also still ongoing, after almost twenty years. It was later determined that the 635+ children hospitalized had been watching TV in darkened rooms, so closely that they almost got noseprints on the screen. The screen and the strobing lights in that episode had filled their fields of vision. Ever since, episodes of all TV anime programming have carried warnings to watch from a reasonable distance, in a well-lighted room.
The first Pokémon anime theatrical feature was Pocket Monsters the Movie: Mewtwo Strikes Back, released in Japan on July 18, 1998; and in America as Pokémon: The First Movie on November 10, 1999. I saw this as an animation-industry pro, not an anime fan; I covered the big premieres of this and the second theatrical feature, titled Pocket Monsters the Movie: Revelation Lugia in Japan and Pokémon: The Movie 2000 in America, at Grauman’s/Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood for Animation Magazine, and wrote articles about them; “Pokémon Graduates to the Big Screen” in Animation Magazine, November 1999, and “Pokémon: Ready for Its Next Success” in Animation Magazine, July/August 2000.
In Japan, a new Pokémon theatrical feature is still an annual summer event. The 16th Pokémon movie, Pocket Monsters Best Wishes! The Movie: ExtremeSpeed Genesect: Mewtwo Awakens (retitled for America: Pokémon The Movie: Genesect and the Legend Awakened), opened on July 13, 2013 and was the #2 grosser in Japan that week (the yen equivalent of $30,906,537). In America, however, the Pokémon movies went downhill fast. Pokémon: The First Movie had a big premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood in November 1999; it was distributed by Warner Bros. in 3,043 theaters nationwide; and was the #1 grosser in America that weekend, earning a final box office of $163+ million, still the record for a Japanese theatrical animated feature in America. Pokémon: The Movie 2000 also had a Hollywood premiere, on July 21, 2000, and was distributed by Warner Bros. It made a respectable $133,949,270, but this was noticeably less than the first movie despite increased advertising. Pokémon 3: The Movie, released April 6, 2001, made only $17,052,128, and was the final nationwide release by Warner Bros. Pokémon 4Ever (2002) was distributed by 4Kids; it had a limited theatrical release but was mostly a home video release. Pokémon Heroes (2003) had an even more limited theatrical release before going to home video, and was the last to be given an American title instead of just translating the Japanese title. Pokémon: Jirachi Wish Maker (2004) was a home video release only, from Buena Vista Home Entertainment. By 2013 the Pokémon movie of the year appeared in America only as a two-hour Cartoon Network movie, under the English equivalent of its Japanese title, on October 19 – not counting its later DVD release, of course.
Success breeds imitation. In Japan, where the Pocket Monsters video games and the TV anime on the TV Tokyo network were mega-hits, this success was not missed by rival game companies and TV networks. However, the only two that tried to create their own similar series were Bandai with Digimon (for Digital Monsters), with its TV anime appearing on Fuji TV; and Tecmo with Monster Farm, with its TV anime appearing on TBS. In America, Monster Farm was renamed Monster Rancher. In both cases, the anime was just merchandise from the more popular video games, but it is all that is covered here.
In Digimon, seven children at summer camp are magically transported to the Digital World where digital creatures called Digimon live. Each of the children befriends a different Digimon, and discovers that he or she can help his Digimon partner evolve into an advanced form that can win battles against other Digimon. The children with their Digimon search for a way to return to Japan, eventually learning that they are “DigiDestined” to save the Digital World from a spreading evil. The Digimon anime actually began with a 20-minute theatrical featurette, on March 6, 1999, a day before the TV series that was its sequel. The TV anime lasted to March 26, 2000, with a second, 40-minute theatrical release on March 4, 2000 to advertise the TV series’ coming end. In America, the two theatrical releases were combined into the 60-minute Digimon: The Movie, released on October 6, 2000. I also covered this for Animation Magazine, and wrote “Is Digimon Movie Destined for Success?” in its October 2000 issue.
In Monster Rancher, in the dim past God sealed monsters into “disc stones”. Today, several of these disc stones have been rediscovered and the monsters released. Some people specialized in finding disc stones, releasing their monsters, and training them to fight each other. In the anime, Monster Rancher is the favorite video game of the boy Genki Sakura, who is transported into the Monster Rancher world. There he meets the girl Holly and the monster Suezo, a sarcastic big yellow eyeball, and soon after four more friendly monsters: Mocchi, a plump pink creature with green-scale “hair” that looks like the Japanese mochi pastry; the giant rocklike Golem; Tiger, the blue wolf; and Hare, the human-sized rabbit who is a martial-arts expert. The six Monster Rancher world natives, whom Genki joins and takes leadership of, are searching for the disc stone that contains the Phoenix. The Phoenix is rumored to be the only monster powerful enough to defeat Moo, an evil dragonlike monster who is turning all other monsters evil. The seven heroes are opposed by Moo and his henchmen, called the Big Bad Four in the American dub. There were no Monster Rancher theatrical releases. This title was unusual in retaining all the Japanese names of its cast instead of substituting American ones.
In America, both Digimon: Digital Monsters and Monster Rancher appeared on Fox Kids; Digimon from August 14, 1999 to July 14, 2003, and Monster Rancher from August 30, 1999 to December 27, 2001. This was promoted by Fox Kids as a part of its “Made in Japan” 4-hour cartoon block, along with Megaman and, later, Flint the Time Detective. On June 30, 2000, the block moved from Sunday morning to Friday afternoon, and was renamed “Anime Invasion”. As the Anime News Network put it, “What makes ‘Made In Japan’ special is that it not only broadcasts anime, but that it makes no attempt to hide the country of origin. In fact, Fox Family embraces the origin of the series in many ways. ‘Made In Japan’ teaches simple Japanese words, and lists the current Top-3 Singles, Movies, and Video Games currently sold in Japan. In addition, they have trivia about anime and Japanese pop culture as bumpers between the anime shows and the commercials.” This was certainly a far cry from twenty years earlier, when anime imported into America had to be marketed as original American productions to get syndicated TV sales.
Pokémon, Digimon, and Monster Rancher were the Big Three anime series based upon video games, but there was another that was based upon a collectible trading card game: Yu-Gi-Oh!
Ironically, Yu-Gi-Oh! (Yugi, the Game King!) began on September 30, 1996 as a manga by Kazuki Takahashi in Weekly Shonen Jump magazine, about Yugi Muto, a boy who was the champion of Duel Monsters, a complex trading card game that every boy in the world was addicted to. The manga was extremely popular, running weekly to June 2004, and merchandisers were quick to create a real Yu-Gi-Oh! Trading Card Game, and a TV anime series. In fact, there were two TV anime series due to the merchandisers’ underestimating how long Yu-Gi-Oh!’s popularity would last; the first by Toei Doga, sponsored by Bandai, 27 episodes on TV Asahi from April 4 to October 10, 1998, and the second, Yu-Gi-Oh! Duel Monsters by Studio Gallop and Nihon Ad Systems, sponsored by Konami, 224 episodes on TV Tokyo from April 18, 2000 to September 29, 2004.
Yugi Muto is a shy high school freshman who is good at games. He solves the mysterious Millennium Puzzle, and is possessed by the spirit of a 5,000-year-old Egyptian pharaoh, known as Dark Yugi, from the puzzle. From then on, whenever a villain threatens Yugi or one of his friends, Yugi becomes Dark Yugi to defeat them at a game of Duel Monsters. The TV anime has several story arcs, involving Yugi vs. ruthless millionaires, or businessmen, or the owners of a rival game shop who try to sabotage Yugi’s grandfather’s game shop.
In America, the TV cartoons ran from September 29, 2001 to June 10, 2006, at first on Kids’ WB and finally on the Cartoon Network. Yu-Gi-Oh! far outstripped Pokémon in creating a gambling mania. Yu-Gi-Oh! tournaments were held, and there were complaints from parent groups about the trading card game encouraging children to gamble away their lunch money, and encouraging gambling and cheating. At its peak of American popularity, its U.S. licensee, 4Kids Entertainment, commissioned the Japanese producers to make a theatrical feature, the 60-minute Yu-Gi-Oh! the Movie: Pyramid of Light, released on August 13, 2004 (November 3 in Japan, ten minutes longer). I covered this for Animation World Magazine, writing “Yu-Gi-Oh! Anime Made In For America” in its August 2004 issue. Its premiere was not only at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, 4Kids Entertainment took over the nearest parking lot and set up a Yu-Gi-Oh! dueling trading card tournament for kids before the movie began.
After about 2006, American children went on to other fads, in TV animation and elsewhere. Pokémon has remained popular, but nothing like it used to be. Digimon, Monster Rancher, and Yu-Gi-Oh! are forgotten.