Jerry Beck recounts his fascination with anime and how his frustration with Hollywood's attitude towards it led him and Carl Macek to do something about it.
July, 1996: The animated feature films of Hayao Miyazaki are to be distributed by the Walt Disney Company; Blockbuster Video devotes an average of two video cases per store to renting and selling Japanese animation; a store called "Anime Crash," totally devoted to selling Japanese animation and related paraphernalia, opens in New York City. These three random observations are clearly part of a new American awareness and recognition of Japanese animation.
Japanese animation (or anime) is a commercial and artistic reality that can no longer be denied by American business, particularly the Hollywood majors. And while those studios have long ignored the qualities of Japanese animation, American artists and animators have been borrowing their tricks for years--and such stylish productions as MTV's Aeon Flux, Warner's Batman: The Animated Series and Disney features such as Hunchback and Lion King have been significantly influenced by Japanese animators.
American creators have long cornered the market for family films and funny animals in cartoons, but during the last 30 years the Japanese have been perfecting the art of action/adventure storytelling in animation; creating sophisticated science fiction stories and graphics to match. These films have won international acclaim and popularity, with only American audiences unable to accept that animation can go in these directions.
Hungering For More
But that perception is changing. As late as 1988, the only way you could see state-of-the-art Japanese animation in the US was through bootleg video dealers, usually found at comic book conventions. A few fan clubs sprung up, mainly on college campuses, screening TV episodes and feature films. Fans of anime, weaned on US. dubbed imports such as Astro Boy, Gigantor, Speed Racer, Robotech, Star Blazers and Battle Of The Planets, had hungered for more.
Akira was released in Japan in 1988 and Marvel Comics began a serialized translation of the original manga. (comics). As a follower of world animation, I'd often wondered why someone hadn't brought over one of these high-tech features for commercial purposes. They certainly were well made and had many exploitable elements--particularly violence and sexual situations unseen in any American cartoon since Fritz The Cat. My own involvement with this genre began as a child, when I noticed the unique style of shows like Astro Boy and Eighth Man--the shows with the characters with "big eyes."
I still remember being shocked by that statement. Hadn't they seen the same film I did? That was the day I learned a hard truth about Hollywood (if not the whole general public)--to them, a cartoon is a cartoon is a cartoon. Today, I can look back at Space Firebird and see the "Saturday morning" cartoon they turned down, but only in light of the sophistication of current Japanese output.
I remember, as a little boy, seeing a Japanese kid I went to summer day camp with reading a Japanese comic book with Astro Boy on the cover--and from that moment on I realized that those "big eyed" characters were Japanese. Later, when I was able to read the credits to Speed Racer, I confirmed that fact. Flash forward about 10 years: Circumstances led me to a meeting with Osamu Tezuka in 1979 at the New York premiere of Space Firebird 2772. I was working for United Artists Classics, a distributor of niche foreign films. I obtained a 3/4" video cassette of the Tezuka film and had the company take a look. While I thought it was both an artistic success and had commercial possibilities, my bosses returned the tape to me with a terse statement about how, "We don't release Saturday Morning cartoons."
An Idea Was Born
In 1986 and 1988, I had the privilege to work on two editions of the Los Angeles International Animation Celebration. I noted that the screenings of Japanese films sold out well in advance; interest in them was second only to the computer animation programs. The American producer of one of the Japanese features, Carl Macek of Robotech: The Movie, was a friend of a few years and while we stood in the back of the packed 2,000 seat auditorium, an idea was born.
I had learned the business of theatrical film distribution during the previous 10 years as a booker and salesman for UA Classics, Orion Classics and Expanded Entertainment. Why not get the rights to one of these films and prove my previous bosses wrong? Carl and I knew there was an audience hungry for Japanese animation and plenty of great product sitting on shelves in Japan. All that was needed were the middlemen, the distributors.
Thus, later that year, Streamline Pictures was born. We were able to get the theatrical rights to a few films (Laputa, Twilight Of The Cockroaches and Lensman) with little trouble and began booking them into specialized theaters across the US. We were doing modestly well, when we had a very lucky break: Akira.
"We Can't Release This to Kids!"
Akira is an adult animated film and superior in every way. I had never seen anything like it, and in a theater, on the big screen with Dolby stereo, it was spectacular! Its producers wanted it released in the US and quickly had the film dubbed (poorly), but were turned down by every studio in Hollywood. One studio, forewarned in advance of the R-rated violence and attempted rape sequence, had the film turned off at the first sight of blood. "We can't release this to kids!" the producers were told. "Kids" were not it's intended audience, but it didn't matter: A cartoon is a cartoon to Hollywood.
In desperation, perhaps, they turned to Streamline Pictures. We wanted the film badly and knew exactly what to do with it. We got plugs for local theaters in the Marvel comic book. We aligned promotions with local comic book stores. We booked it in limited play dates to boost attendance. By the time we opened in New York, we were a hit. Japanese animation had been discovered and legitimized. Art theaters had discovered the audience, movie critics sat up and took notice, and magazines began to promote these as alternative animated features.
With the rights to Akira, Streamline began it's road into video sell through market. Competition from Central Park Media, US. Renditions and others began to spring up. A flood of direct-to-video titles from Japan now invade your local video store's shelves. Hollywood has ignored these films as insignificant. They don't understand that the fan base who were teenagers in the 1970s and 1980s are now adults with purchasing power. They still crave the action and excitement the best anime can provide. Some of those kids are now running their own animation studios (such as Kevin Alteri of Wildstorm Productions [Gen 13] and Joe Pearson of Epoch, Ink [Captain Simian]), some are now the best animators in Hollywood (Peter Chung at Colossal), and some are the best independent filmmakers of our generation (Bill Plympton). These invisible animated films and their filmmakers are at last coming into focus.
Jerry Beck was co-founder of Streamline Pictures, which he left in 1993. He is also an animation historian, who recently produced Betty Boop:The Definitive Collection, an eight-volume home video set that will be released this fall by Republic Pictures.