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Anime is everywhere. The global sales of Japanese animation and character goods, an astonishing 9 trillion yen ($80 billion) has grown to 10 times what it was a decade ago. In his 2003 opening speech to the Japanese Diet, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi praised Spirited Away (the first non-American release to win the Academy Award for best animated feature) and anime more generally as the savior of Japanese culture.

Much of that growth has occurred in North America and Western Europe, where young people have embraced this distinctive style of popular culture, one which extends well beyond the wide-eyed beauties, cute animals, and giant robot battles anime represents for the most casual consumers.

Disney has purchased the American rights to Spirited Away and the other films of its creator Hayao Miyazaki (Princess Mononoke, Kikis Delivery Service), redubbing these films with the voices of American film stars. The Cartoon Network features a wide array of anime series as part of its late night Adult Swim programming. ADV Films, a major importer of anime series for the American market, has launched a 24 hours Anime Network. TOKYOPOP, a Los Angeles-based company, will publish 400 volumes of translated manga (Japanese comics) for U.S. consumption this year. One can find whole shelves of manga in many Barnes and Noble or Borders bookstores, where they frequently outsell American-produced graphic novels.

Japanese anime has won worldwide success in part because Japanese media companies were tolerant of the kinds of grassroots activities that American media companies seem so determined to shut down. Much of the risks of entering Western markets and many of the costs of experimentation and promotion were born by dedicated consumers. A symbiotic relationship existed between fans and producers that warrants closer consideration as we watch American media companies take a scorched earth attitude toward their most dedicated followers.

Two decades ago, the U.S. market was totally shut to these Japanese imports. Today, the sky is the limit, with many of the most successful childrens series, from Pokemon to Yu-Gi-Oh!, coming directly from Japanese production houses. The shift occurred not through some concerted push by Japanese media companies, but rather in response to the pull of American fans who used every technology at their disposal to expand the community that knew and loved this content. Subsequent commercial efforts built on the infrastructure these fans developed over the intervening years. In this essay, I am drawing heavily on a detailed chronicle of the early history of American anime fandom developed by the former President of the MIT Anime Club, Sean Leonard.

Japanese animation was exported into the western market as early as the 1960s, when Astro Boy, Speed Racer, and Gigantor made it onto American television primarily through local syndication. By the late 1960s, however, reform efforts, such as Action for Childrens Television, had used threats of boycott and federal regulation to push back against content they saw as inappropriate for American children. The next wave of Japanese content aimed at adults in its country of origin, often dealt with more mature themes and was a particular target of the backlash. Discouraged Japanese distributors retreated from the U.S. market, dumping their cartoons on Japanese language cable channels in cities with large Asian populations.

The rise of videotape recorders significantly changed this picture. American fans could dub shows off the Japanese language channels and share them with their friends in other regions. Soon, fans were seeking contacts in Japan‑both local youth and American G.I.s with access to newer series. Both Japan and the United States used the same NTSC video format, easing the flow of content across national borders. American fan clubs emerged to support the archiving and circulation of Japanese animation. The clubs, such as the MIT Anime Club, functioned as lending libraries and dubbing centers as well as holding marathon screenings to attract new members.

In most cases, the content was shown without translation. I remember attending some screenings in the late 1970s. Much like attending an opera, someone would stand up and tell us the plot and then we would watch without understanding anything said. We didnt know what we were watching but it was pretty damned interesting any way.

Japanese distributors winked at these screenings. They didnt have permission from their mother companies to charge these fans or provide the material but they were interested to see how much interest the shows attracted.

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