Taking Anime To The Next Stage
Can Manga Entertainment translate anime from a domestic Japanese success story into a worldwide phenomenon?
By Mark Segall
Black Magic M-66
© Manga Entertaiment
Manga Entertainment, now the largest distributor of anime in the world outside of Japan, started small. It grew out of the educational video department of Chris Blackwell's UK-based music company, Island Records. Mike Preece, now managing director of Manga, was first hired in the late 80s to launch Island Visual Arts. Typical releases: a life of Walt Whitman, animated tales from Shakespeare, the Rabbit Ears stories for small children. How could he have guessed that less than 10 years later he'd be sending out press kits announcing "bizarre, violent, twisted and uniquely imaginative" offerings which "smash the boundaries of Western animation"? What twist of fate turned this mild-mannered purveyor of kidvid and classics into a specialist in cyborgs and samurai?
It all started in 1991 when Island Visual's Laurence Guiness caught the theatrical premiere of Akira at London's prestigious Institute of Contemporary Arts. Katsuhiro Otomo's tale of street gangs, psychics, and sinister government projects was being billed as an art film, but Guinness immediately sensed a wider appeal. He exhorted his colleagues to buy the film for immediate video release, which they did. The cyberpunk epic's runaway British success took Island by surprise and prompted them to look into the genre more carefully. "We found a whole underground of interested British kids, a cult thing that none of us really knew much about," says Preece.
Right: Mike Preece, Managing Director, Manga Entertainment, Ltd. (UK) / Left: Marvin Gleicher, CEO, Manga Entertainment, Inc. (Worldwide)
Out of the Kiddie Film Ghetto
Thanks to Guiness' proselytizing, a trip to Japan was organized for Island staffers. What they found amazed them: a country which produced 350 to 400 hours of animation a year, and where feature animation had long since broken out of the kiddie film ghetto. Anime dominated Japanese film and television; in popularity and range of subject matter, it was the Japanese equivalent of Hollywood.
Even more surprising, the stories came not from anonymous teams of screenwriters, but were based on long-running stories by widely read comics (manga) artists revered as masters (sensei). The western cultural bias that comics are for children and those too stupid to read "real" books did not exist. On the contrary, manga occupied significant shelf space in every major bookstore and accounted for 27% of all books and magazines sold. One thing that appealed to Island Visual staffers was the auteur aspect of the enterprise. They were struck by the difference between these 600-page epics, usually created by one artist or small dedicated teams and the comic books they were used to--slender booklets on cheap paper produced by an army of hired hands. In Japan, being a comics artist wasn't an anonymous profession, but an avenue for rags to riches success like being a sports star or a rock singer.
While dazzled by these riches of the East, they were not entirely certain how to market them in the West. Serials and features ranged in subject matter from martial arts to mahjong. To break into the British market, sci-fi action adventure seemed like the category to concentrate on, so Island purchased a handful of epics they felt would appeal to the same audience as Akira. While limiting themselves genre-wise, they decided, whenever possible, to seek out the sensei--to try to get distribution rights for the work of manga and anime stars--artists like Masamune Shirow and directors like Mamoru Oshii.
A Music-Industry Strategy
Their first innovation was to use music-industry strategy in the video market. In the past, Island Records had spun off separate labels for soul, blues and R&B. Island Visual decided to do the same thing for Japanese animation. Once again, they were taken by surprise when the offshoot quickly outgrew the tree. In 1993, Manga Entertainment, a separate company devoted solely to anime, was formed, with Guiness as Director of Acquisition and Production.
© Manga Entertaiment
To defray the massive costs of translation and dubbing, Manga went looking for an American partner, but none of the US companies had good distribution. They were essentially mail order businesses serving a small devoted group of dedicated fans. Manga then got the idea of making a distribution arrangement with a major record company. They approached Marvin Gleicher, head of Island's alternative rock subsidiary, Smash Records, in Chicago, and asked him to set up the deal. Would he leave behind 20 years in the music business to take the video plunge?
A year earlier, just by chance, Gleicher had caught Masamune Shirow's Appleseed on the Sci-Fi Channel. This feature about a cop and her cyborg partner in computer-controlled, inhumanly perfect post-World War III society inspired him to go looking for more Japanese animation. He brought home Robotech and the first Giant Robo and soon he was hooked. "My wife would hear these strange sounds emanating from the next room--the original Japanese dialogue--and ask, "What are you listening to?" It took less than a day for Gleicher to take up the offer and open Manga US. Does he miss the music business? Not for a minute. "I worked with good bands, but there were plenty of jerks. There are a lot of scumbags in film," he points out, "but at least they're better dressed."
Manga cut a distribution deal with Polygram. Their game plan: to run the campaign through a major distributor accustomed to selling big hits, yet employ the marketing style of an indie record label ... "We'd simply expose the public to the genre so they'd fall in love with it as we had," Gleicher explained. "We set up 150 university animation society screenings for free or for charity. We licensed stuff to MTV, and also promoted ourselves on the Sci-Fi Channel and [the video music channel] The Box."
Manga Entertainment had the marketing muscle to do things their smaller US predecessors could not--work directly with retailers like Tower Records on in-store promotions, create merchandise (caps, T-shirts, posters) and their own trademark character (Manga Man) to create brand name recognition, sponsor newsletters and fan clubs worldwide. They believe their efforts are expanding the market for everyone. "In keeping with Island International's 30 year tradition," proclaims their presskit, "our philosophy is not to overtly compete but rather to innovate and create new trends which others may imitate." With the UK market nearly saturated, and the US market just starting to grow, Gleicher was promoted to CEO and Manga headquarters shifted to the US.
© Manga Entertaiment
"What we've done," Gleicher explains, "rather than going into mass market magazines, or to mass market broadcasters, is to broaden our marketing niche by niche. The first niche--the one we always keep in mind--is our core audience, the original anime fans. We always make sure to release the original, untouched Japanese version for them. Next come the sectors of the community into comics, not necessarily Japanese comics--skateboarders, Internet-surfers, science fiction fans." In the future, he aims to market to the hip-hop and street community.
UK releases since 1991 now number over 200. Manga US released 37 titles in 1995 and has 40 more scheduled by the end of 1996. The company has captured 3% of UK's $750 million video market, and is shooting for similar success in the US. When it comes to what kind of titles they look to acquire, Gleicher and Preece are of one mind. The releases have to be action-packed. Good story, and good animation are key. Something that expands the genre, using a style or technique not seen before is preferred. The target audience is male, 12-15 years old, though occasionally Manga "goes older," aiming at 18-30 year olds. R-rated titles have appeal, but bizarre, X-rated titles like Revenge Of The Overfiend are out.
Manga's slate of US releases so far includes a handful of features and a number of the long-running serials unique to Japan. Giant Robo, based on the original manga by Gigantor creator Mitsuteru Yokoyama is a drama/suspense yarn with lots of comic touches. (The director claims to have gotten much of his inspiration from the Rocky Horror Picture Show!) It features a boy, his giant robot and a crime-fighting organization known as the Agents of Justice. Dominion Tank Police, Shirow's "heavily armored black comedy" is set in a futuristic city where a crime is committed every 36 seconds. Cops with tanks battle heavily armed criminals, including the scantily clad Puma Sisters, twins who like to strip before they kill. Black Magic M66, with story screenplay and direction by Shirow, tells the story of a female journalist protecting a young girl from two android assassins, part of a top secret military operation gone wrong. There are more robots gone bad in Mamoru Oshii's Patlabor series. Future crimes committed with giant robots called "Labors" and must be policed by Labor-equipped cops.
For those who can figure out its tangled lineage, Macross Plus is a descendant of two earlier Macross series and a cousin of the Robotech series Carl Macek's adapted for US consumption. Pilots "Isamu and Guld push their transforming aircraft to the limit in an all-out test of wills" and also compete for Myung, manager of computer-generated pop star Sharon Apple.
More squarely in the mecha category of stories centered around complex, multifarious machines is Orguss-02, in which opposing armies race to unearth massive, long-buried war-engines known as Decimators. Manga Video has replaced the original soundtrack with an eclectic new score. "We're trying to integrate a lot of cool music into these films," Gleicher notes, "to combine edge music with really well-done edge animation." In another mecha series, The Guyver, a high school kid is taken over by a suit of organic armor. Once encased, he is forced to fight the monstrous Zoanoids.
© Manga Entertaiment
Manga also has two police series: hyperviolent cop Mad Bull fights crime in New York, while Tokyo's Angel Cop battles terrorists, government conspiracies and cyborgs, while being stalked by "psychic hunters." In the supernatural series Devilman, only Akira, a purehearted teenager who has acquired a demon body, can defend humanity against a race of demons.
Rounding out the current collection is Manga's latest feature-length release, Ghost In The Shell, a co-production with Shodansha, the giant publisher, who first serialized Shirow's story in one of their mangas. The Oshii-directed feature is both a high-tech suspense thriller and a contemplation on what it means to be human. Cybernetically augmented agent Motoko Kusanage is on the trail of the Puppet Master, an artificial intelligence created for government use which has escaped into the Net, having developed a mind--and an agenda--of its own. Terminator director James Cameron called the film, "a stunning work of speculative fiction, the first truly adult animation film to reach a level of literary and visual excellence." After playing theatrically in over 30 US markets, it was released on video in mid June.
A Breakthrough Film?
© Manga Entertainment
Manga hopes Ghost will be a breakthrough film, the one that inspires the uninitiated to take the anime plunge. They're marketing it heavily at combo retailers--those big outlets like Suncoast and Wherehouse which were once known as record stores. "As mass as we get," Gleicher explained, "is Musicland and Best Buy. Music stores now get it--it's a no brainer to take a 12 pack of our best rather than pick through 40 or 50 titles puzzling over which to get. Tower has everything." The real stumbling block has been video rental chains like Blockbuster, which only take select titles in small quantities. "Rental stores tend to ignore anything that didn't take in $100 million at the box office. Offer them a surefire Hollywood hit, each branch wants 20 copies. We can only persuade them to take one copy of Ghost. But that copy is always out! Eventually, we'll educate them.
"We have to look for things that will first of all do well in the US, then the UK, and after that continental Europe," says Preece. Spain is closing on the UK and France carries 30 hours a week of Japanese cartoons, making it an extremely promising market for Manga. "We're now looking at the emerging Eastern bloc, at Poland and Russia." Despite the large amount of bootlegging that goes on, Preece still thinks the films will do well.
Manga has the rights for the South American territories, potentially a bigger market than Europe. So far, only two titles have been dubbed into Spanish, but there will be more. "Brazil with the largest Japanese population outside Japan, is extremely promising. Australia and New Zealand have, of course, been Manga-branded for some years."
Future Plans & Hopes
As to the future of anime, Gleicher says that, "for the past two years, the non-Japanese market has doubled annually, but I don't think that can continue. There aren't as many great titles. We'll still out-market and out-perform all the other distributors, but growth will probably slow down." Preece concurs. "We've bought virtually everything that moved, all the really good series and features." While there is still good stuff untapped, in terms of more episodes of the longest running series, he cannot see any US or UK company going back and translating 5 or 10 years worth of TV episodes; they would not be contemporary enough and it just would not be worth the cost. New production, they feel, is the way things are going.
© Manga Entertainment
The company is planning more theatrical co-productions like Ghost, including two or three features or an existing TV series. They may also produce CD-ROMs, though these won't necessarily be based on their own productions. Other films that are very cutting edge but not animation also interest them.
Manga has no intention of competing with Disney. Their eventual aim is to combine Western style scripts with Japanese graphics, to reach the Independence Day-Terminator-Blade Runner audience. Preece sees lots of potential in westernizing this Asian export, breaking it out into the mainstream. "These are still productions aimed at the domestic Japanese audience. They are action-packed, but the storytelling is very Japanese--you've got 17 words where an American script would have 3. Action breaks off for philosophical discussions." He worries that the specter of Hiroshima hovers over an inordinate number of stories. "I think we could give it a more Western style without detracting from the Japanese feel--it wouldn't look like a Hollywood film, but it would move in that way, storywise.
Hollywood movies have worldwide appeal, so why not anime? Manga keeps looking for that breakthrough, experimenting to find the key to Western mass-market appeal for this Eastern import. They have made a good start with titles that should appeal to teenage boys. Can they keep expanding that audience? Preece is confident they can.
"What you see in Ghost in the Shell is almost there. Rest assured that in the next two or three years we're going to team up with even bigger partners than we worked with on Ghost --and a fully Japanese-produced feature film, aimed at world audiences, is going to hit, with parts voiced by big name stars."
Mark Segall has won awards for labor journalism and public service copywriting. He co-authored How To Make Love To Your Money (Delacorte,1982) with his wife, Margaret Tobin. This fall, he will become Editor of ASIFA-East's aNYmator newsletter, which he currently designs and is a regular contributor.