Editor’s Note: I’ve just spent the weekend in Denver Colorado at the Summit on Anime In North America where a group of selected professionals held several lectures and discussions centering around the question: “Why is Anime popular in North America”. Anime historian Fred Patten recalls, in the post below, his recollection of how anime fandom started. Fred should know, he was there and he explains what made it happen. – Jerry Beck
In April 1993, UCLA’s Animation Workshop hosted a birthday party for animation veteran Walter Lantz, then 94 years old. (I think that it was at this party that Lantz announced that he had recently found his birth certificate, and was shocked to learn that he was a year older than he had always thought. He was born in 1899, not 1900 as his parents had told him.) Lantz was wheelchair-bound and very weak, but his mind was still sharp. He died the next March, just before the Animation Workshop could hold a 1994 birthday party for him.
Someone at that party asked Lantz, who worked on his first cartoon in 1915 and directed his first cartoon in 1924, what he thought had been the greatest technological development in the history of animation. The addition of sound to silent cartoons? The multiplane camera? The replacement of hand cel coloring by computer coloring? Lantz surprised everyone by insisting that it was the introduction of home VCRs in 1975.
I don’t know if he was recorded, but he said approximately:
“In 1975 animation was a dying art! All the theatrical animation studios were closed except Disney, and by 1975 even Disney was moribund. Animation for TV was all toy and cereal commercials, and was so bland that nobody but little children watched it. The very few festivals of animation were glorifications of the past, attended mostly by animation veterans and cinematic scholars, not the public. Then in 1975 the first home video cassette recorders came out. They took about a decade to become widespread, but suddenly the public was asking TV stations to show more classic cartoons so they could record them to watch whenever they wanted. Movie studios and whoever owned the rights to old cartoons found that there was big money in putting them out on video. The first video releases of old prints were later upgraded to remastered prints with original title cards. Today new animation features are being made because the studios know that they can make as much or more from video sales as from theatrical screenings. Animation that hasn’t been seen in decades is available again, and permanently for whenever anyone wants to see it, not just when its studio re-releases it theatrically or on TV. The animation industry was just short of dying when the first VCRs came out; now it’s bigger than ever!”
Before the Christmas season of 1975, about the only VCR available was Sony’s U-matic, and that was only introduced in 1971. It was bought by members of the movie industry more than by the general public. I became friends with a Hollywood TV animator in the early 1970s, Wendell Washer, who had bought his own U-matic and was recording a collection of one episode of every TV cartoon. Then at Christmastime 1975, the first “buy for your own home” Japanese VCRs were advertised to the public, in three incompatible formats; JVC’s VHS, Sony’s Betamax, and Sanyo’s V-Cord. A mutual friend of Washer and myself, Mark Merlino who is an enthusiastic technophile, immediately bought one. (Unfortunately, he picked the V-Cord, the first of the three to be quickly discontinued.)
Merlino and I were both members of Los Angeles’ weekly s-f fan club, The Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society. Merlino started to record s-f programs off of TV and bring them on his V-Cord to LASFS meetings and s-f parties. Some of his most popular programs were the Japanese giant-robot half-hour TV cartoons, which fortuitously had just begun on L.A.’s Japanese community TV channel in February 1976. After a few months (this was also during the peak popularity of Marvel Comics’ superheroes), a small subgroup developed within the LASFS who encouraged Merlino to emphasize the giant-robot cartoons and forget the other stuff. It was my suggestion to turn the irregular giant-robot cartoon screenings into a separate club with regular, publicized meetings. The Cartoon/Fantasy Organization first met in May 1977 with Merlino providing the programming on his V-Cord and myself as the secretary, bulletin publisher, and everything else. Cartoon fans in other metropolises like New York and San Francisco started clubs to record Japanese cartoons off their Japanese-community TV channels. So the creation of anime fandom in the U.S. & Canada can be traced directly to the VCR.
The 1980s were the decade of the war for supremacy between Japan Victor Corporation’s Video Home System (VHS) and Sony’s Betamax formats. Everyone agreed that the Betamax was slightly superior, but the VHS slowly won out because its cassettes could record 120 minutes, allowing families to record complete movies off TV, while the Betamax cassettes only recorded 60 minutes, too short for the average 60+-minute feature film. It seems incredible today considering the flood of Disney releases to video, but Disney was originally a leader with Universal Studios in the battle to have VCRs and the home copying off TV declared illegal. (Sony Corp. of America vs. Universal City Studios, 1976.) The case was argued up to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1984 in favor of Sony and the Betamax. Disney, which had already entered the video market in 1980 for rental cassettes and non-copyable video discs, promptly started selling the Walt Disney Cartoon Classics videos. Remember the steadily-diminishing list of “Disney classic features that will never be released on home video”? Today every Disney film, animated or live-action, is available on VCRs or their successor DVDs. (Except Song of the South, of course.)
Anime fans had long become accustomed to Japanese cartoons made especially for video release. They were called OAVs or OVAs, for Original Animation Videos or Original Video Animation. (The Japanese are great at coining their own English-language abbreviations.) Fans clamored for the American animation studios to begin making OAVs, since they were so successful in Japan. They finally got the first with Warner Home Video’s Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation in March 1992, except that WB did not call it an OAV. It was a Direct-To-Video release. The OAV/OVA abbreviation has never caught on in America, but there are too many direct-to-video animation productions to list. The Land Before Time XIII: The Wisdom of Friends, anybody?
Streamline Pictures, the anime licensor where I worked from 1991 to 2002, got caught up in anime fandom’s dubbing-vs.-subbing video wars. Which was better, an anime dubbed into English, or in the original Japanese language with subtitles in English? Most American anime licensors promoted the purity of the original sound track, subtitled, which not incidentally was a lot cheaper to produce than a fully dubbed audio track. Carl Macek at Streamline Pictures was the only producer who insisted on dubbing everything. He got death threats from Japanese-language purists, but he insisted that he made anime videos for the general public rather than for the elite fans; and sales proved that the public would rather listen to an English-language sound track than read subtitles. The wars continued until the DVD replaced the video cassette in 1995 and it became possible to include both an English dubbed sound track and the original Japanese with English subtitles on the same DVD.
Today, multilingual animation DVDs are common. I recently watched an Indian DVD of the Yash Raj Films-Disney release animated feature Roadside Romeo, in Hindi with subtitles in English and in Malayalam available. It seems like all American animation is available now on DVD, although new releases of “lost” and “forgotten” animation are still being announced. Walter Lantz was right: the VCR and its DVD successor have been godsends that have saved the animation industry.