Anime in America has had a checkered history. It seems to make a splash for awhile and then fade away, only to rise once more before returning again to its familiar cult niche. Many anime lovers blame overexposure and “Americanization” to its recent dip in popularity, while others see a renaissance as just around the corner. What will it be – renaissance or redundancy?
No one can predict the future, but if those who have the money to invest in big budget anime films are anything to go by, all anime in America needs is a good storyline that American audiences can relate to. Astroboy’s less than enthusiastic welcome at the box offices in 2009 sent shockwaves through the industry, but was also a wakeup call. Astroboy flopped not because of its dazzling 3-D effects, but because he was too westernized for much of his fan base and too foreign for audiences that were not anime aficionados.
Apparently that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from taking another stab at the genre, though. Word is that after a twenty-three year hiatus, Mad Max is going to make his return to the silver screen as a big budget anime extravaganza. Whether or not it succeeds remains to be seen, but the fact that the project got backing proves that the industry still believes in anime.
One might ask why it matters. Real anime fans take pride in their underground cult status and feel dismay whenever it looks like anime is going to become widely accepted in the West. Other fans snub their noses at any anime that gets a showing on the Cartoon Network. They find a million reasons to dub the offerings on cable television as “not really anime.” So why would a Hollywood filmmaker take another risk with anime? The reason is usually simple: because he loves it!
Another reason why Hollywood would take a chance with anime might be because of spin-off deals. Anime-style video games have been at the top of video game sales ever since video games began. From the big-eyed plumbers, the Mario Brothers to many of the darker hyper violent games, anime has left its stamp on video games. A Mad Max anime-style video game is almost the perfect game in many young gamers’ eyes.
Meanwhile, in Tokyo, the birthplace of anime and its spiritual home, anime is going through a crisis. It reached its zenith in popularity in around 2002. As a result, second-rate producers started cranking out poor quality animes in record numbers. The result has been a marked downturn in Japan’s love for anime. While that has put most of the worst producers out of business, it has also meant that many of Japan’s best illustrators have left the industry and very few have come in to replace them.
That puts anime at a strange crossroads. Its most passionate adherents are either Japanese, who take great national pride in anime, or young Westerner viewers, who snub American productions. With a declining Japanese audience and a declining Japanese creative talent pool, it looks like, in the short term at least, American based and themed anime is the genre’s best chance for a revival both inside and outside of Japan.