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Has anime lost its cachet in America?

by Roland Kelts

I had been invited to host a Q&A with renowned “Gundam” creator and sci-fi novelist Yoshiyuki Tomino at The New York Anime Festival. But when my handler and I arrived at the designated room, we found it empty and dark. “Over here,” a staffer called from across the hall. “Too many people.”

The auditorium we entered was cavernous — the largest room in the city’s biggest convention venue, the Jacob K. Javits Center — and its seats were filled from front to back, with a string of fans and photographers lining the perimeter. My handler escorted me backstage to greet Tomino, who was squinting through the curtains as he scanned the room. He turned to me and said: “I am very surprised.”

The standing ovations and thoughtful silences accompanying our onstage conversation seemed to indicate that anime fandom was alive and well in the New York City area. While “Gundam” is a consecrated classic in Japan, it’s hardly the title that brings out the “Pokemon” and “Naruto” legions in the United States. Yet here was a full house for the man who had decades before created one of Japan’s most iconic and beloved giant robots.

That was four years ago. Today, the stand-alone New York Anime Festival (NYAF) is no more. One year after Tomino’s appearance, the event was folded into the now 8-year-old New York Comic Con (NYCC), an umbrella gathering that spans Marvel and DC comics, among others, sci-fi and blockbuster Hollywood movies, television series, novels and artists, game developers, celebrities and cosplayers — with a smidgen of anime and manga on the side.

Last month’s 2013 NYCC drew an estimated 133,000 attendees, up 17,000 over last year, making it by far the largest popular culture event on the U.S. East Coast. During the busiest of the Con’s four days, it was nearly impossible to move through the crowds gathered in the main halls. Escalator travel was uncomfortably intimate, frequently broke down, and often felt close to collapse.

“(We’re) now at the upper limits of what the Javits can hold,” said Peter Tatara, international director of content and marketing for ReedPop, a division of Reed Exhibitions, the producers of NYCC. Reed is looking to expand the Con’s dates and locales, exploring venues in other parts of the city.

But gripes about skimpy anime and manga offerings this year reached me even before I received my press pass. “I’m boycotting (NYCC),” one local Asian-culture journalist and anime and manga aficionado told me. “A lot of us are. They don’t care about anime fans anymore, it’s obvious.”

Statistics bear her out. At this year’s NYCC, a mere 9 percent of the vendor booths, panels and presentations had anything to do with manga or anime, according to Tatara. And the graphic on my press pass was not a doe-eyed “Madoka” schoolgirl or swashbuckling “One Piece” pirate, or even a hard-bodied Marvel “Ironman.” It was furrow-faced Rick, the live-action lead from the U.S. TV megahit, “The Walking Dead.”

“We’ve not done the job we need to do courting (the anime industry),” admitted ReedPop’s global vice president and NYCC show manager, Lance Festerman. Festerman met me in a private office several meters above the Con’s pulsing maze of dealer booths and fans. “I think this year in particular, we’ve had kind of a dearth of anime content. I don’t think we’ve put enough emphasis on developing the relationships that are necessary to land the content that’s going to ‘wow’ things. And that’s a commitment on our part. We need to recommit to that fan base.”

NYAF was launched in the late 2000s, just as the anime industry, and the global economy, were going into a tailspin, Festerman explained. The old model of physical sales was disintegrating, and the new digital-delivery model had not yet been monetized. “(NYAF) just wasn’t working from a business perspective. It was great for the fans, but it wasn’t enough premium content. The show was turning into a raft of (independent) dealers selling cat-ears and swords and kimonos. That’s fine, but that’s not premium. We need screenings, guests, large booths promoting games. Cat-ears are important, but they’re not exclusive content.”

After-hour chatter among anime-industry veterans and journalists in bars adjacent to the Javits bordered on being bitter. “One of the biggest artists in the business offered to come this year,” a prominent editor told me, “but the NYCC staff had no idea who he was and dropped the ball.”

Both Festerman and Tatara are keenly aware of the growing disenchantment among anime fans in the U.S., and both separately assured me that Reed will refocus its efforts on anime and manga fans, producers and publishers for NYCC 2014. But they are also focusing on other markets. Tatara recently traveled to Dubai and Singapore to explore opportunities in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. And Festerman promises a big announcement before the end of this year of a Reed-produced Japanese pop-culture convention in Asia — most likely, China.

“We took our video-game expo, PAX, to Melbourne this July and sold it out three months before the show,” says Festerman. “We’re moving on from the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) economies to the TIME (Turkey, India and the Middle East) economies, but we like the BRICs, too. We’re active in all of those spaces with three buckets — broad-based Comic Cons, Game Cons and Japanese Pop Culture.”

Reed’s strategies for tapping fans beyond the North American market echo much of the talk in and around Tokyo. The rising wealth and consumer passion for Japanese culture has anime producers and manga publishers focusing on fans in New Delhi and Shanghai over New York and San Diego. Officials at METI, the Japanese government ministry overseeing the recently launched, ¥50 billion “Cool Japan” fund, which I’ve mentioned before in this column, told me that they’re now more excited by promotional activities in Singapore than in San Francisco. And Crunchyroll.com, a successful online anime portal that debuted its digital manga site two weeks ago, is fast developing non-English products to expand its reach.

“Anime and manga are a priority for (NYCC) in 2014,” says ReedPop’s Tatara, “and we’re starting conversations on commitment, content and talent before this year’s end.” Perhaps. But like the aging and overstuffed Jacob K. Javits Center, the North American market for Japanese pop culture may have hit its upper limit.

Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.

  • GonzoI

    The “cat ears, swords and kimonos” comment seems poignant. Where I’m from, we don’t even have the kimono venders. Yet we had an anime-dominant convention just this summer that was open to the full spectrum of Comic-Con events. This “exclusivity” he claims was necessary is only ever harmful to customers, and is only beneficial to exploitative venues. He’s taking the Lowest-Common-Denominator, or Wal-Mart approach to selling convention tickets, trying to broaden his customer base while eliminating the niches.

    NYC is big enough to have several anime conventions a year. NYCCC is welcome to try to appeal to the anime customer base, but you have to remember that going to NYCCC for a great anime experience is like going to Wal-Mart for high art.

    • lasolitaria

      Except that anime is not high art.

  • japancritical

    If you are over sixteen and still like anime, you are intellectually stunted, IMO.

    • phu

      If you are over sixteen and still can’t type out “in my opinion,” you are intellectually stunted, in my opinion. See? Your ridiculously arbitrary standards are exactly that, and mine are just as valid.

      • japancritical

        Er, they’re not, and your feeble attempt to equalize them reveals the intellectual level I referred to in my first post. Basically, America and Japan are anti-intellectual. People have become so infantilised that adults reading comics is celebrated. People cannot think deeply or sustainably about issues, which is a big reason why Japan/America are cultural deserts at the moment. But carry on enjoying your sub-adult level of thought. It definitely makes life simpler, I’ll give you that.

      • folktales

        I wonder, is disdaining other peoples hobbies the only thing that makes you feel superior to people? Yours sounds like a depressing existence.

      • hudsonstewart

        Yes, we should all take you as the ideal intellectual: the resident Japan Times troll, expert in “thinking deeply and sustainably about issues” such as why it is wrong for adults to partake in certain forms of media but not others.

      • japancritical

        Adults can partake in whatever forms of media they wish, but if they like reading books with more pictures than words, they’re not developed intellectually, i.e, they cannot coherently visualise complex abstract concepts and connect seemingly disparate elements to any great depth. And, if they can’t do this, they cannot understand how society came into being and how it works. This is blindingly obvious. The fact that people are getting so upset by stating such an obvious fact says a lot.
        As for the troll comment: You just don’t like someone giving alternative viewpoints. Japan has huge social issues and people interested in the country (especially those considering coming here) need to be aware of them. The fact that you have previously insisted that there are lots of good (permanent well paid with good conditions) jobs for prospective English teachers while there are patently NOT, means that you don’t have a problem with misleading people, possibly to their detriment. People need to hear alternatives,.

      • http://www.facebook.com/shamus.mahan Shamus Mahan

        It’s only blindingly obvious in a world of absolutes. You would say someone who enjoyed fine art or classical sculpture is also intellectually stunted because they like visual media? Or that if someone enjoys comic books it means they can’t also enjoy obtuse philosophical treatises? You are painting with a very broad brush indeed, japancritical. You appear to have an agenda or a very limited imagination..

      • japancritical

        You seem to take the view that everything is equally valid: That a pop song by AKB48, for example, is as worthy of attention as a symphony by Beethoven. I think this post-modern argument pretty much nails my point. Manga/anime, is fine for what it is: escapist entertainment for children. However, adults who consume it (beyond occasional escapist fiction, I’ll generously allow) are wasting their lives. Mind you, I feel the same about shopping and watching TV, so perhaps I’m just a grumpy old man. However I make no apologies for this.

      • http://www.facebook.com/shamus.mahan Shamus Mahan

        Grumpy old men do not know who AKB48 is. You are clearly something else. As I said, you seem to have an agenda that involves broad anti-japanese sentiment. Maybe you’re a death march survivor or a Chinese national who was set on building a summer home on the Diaoyu Islands; who can say? It seems to me, however, that if the Japanese invented cold fusion, you’d argue against it.

        What I can say for certain is that art has an inherent subjectivity. I certainly think Beethoven trumps committee-constructed artificial divas shat out to sell products, but there is nothing 100% objective about that. You can say it’s more complex, but when you say it’s better, you open the discussion to the realm of opinion. I have the opinion, for example, that some of this escapist fiction that the Japanese make is among the finest entertainment I have experienced. I am well-read and I like to think I’m fairly intelligent. I’ll go out on a limb and say I’ve probably watched more anime than you have. Some of it is as you say; garbage, mindless “amass-and-destroy” nonsense for children. But some of it is remarkably sophisticated, at least as good as plenty that one would consider “fine literature” in academic circles. I feel the same way about some american comics, too, mind you. I’d rather read Transmetropolitan a thousand times than Atlas Shrugged for a second time. Perhaps your experience is not the same. That’s fine, but I think it limits your vision as a human being to dismiss things that you dislike as worthless. One man’s meat is another man’s poison. Perhaps someone else is able to glean something from it that you are not.

    • aefj

      Lame story, bro.

      • japancritical

        Brilliantly argued. That’s put me in my place.

  • Chiefy707

    I feel it has except for the truly diehard. Growing up in the 80′s I was exposed to anime like Voltron and especially Robotech (which yes I know was a hybrid of 3 different series). Those a gen older than me had Gatchaman, Speed Racer and the like. I feel the difference is that there really is no longer an deep, story driven anime that an open minded American adult would want to watch on mainstream TV.

    • Polyrux

      I feel there are plenty but many people tend to be less open about it because it isn’t ‘like the good old days’ or it’s something ‘they grew out of it’. Is it over saturated with generic garbage? Yes. Does that not mean there are gems specifically worth as much or more so than ‘good old anime’? Doubly so.

      • Chiefy707

        America is still stuck in that line of thinking that animated movies and shows are only for the kids. Or if there is an animated show for adults, it has to be raunchy and full of humor. Beer drinking, COD playing bros would much rather watch Family Guy than something truly special like Attack on Titan.

      • werewolfhero

        Another issue is lack of stations that show or the ones that do have poor hours for shows. Cartoon Network doesn’t show them till around midnight on Saturday. Weekend or no, some people still work the next morning, kids have bedtimes, etc. Very few stations even have saturday morning shows, like were around when I was still in school. USA, Fox, WGN, ABC, CBS, NBC…. most of these have long abandoned the saturday morning format for talk shows or infomercials. I remember watching animes like Sailor moon, Ronin Warriors, Street Fighter, and many others on those stations.

        Yeah there is an anime planet channel, but very few cable networks carry it, which leaves CN and its poor handling of anime. So yeah there is definitely reduced exposure, except for the diehard fans that watch them on Hulu, Netflix, or go with the streams or torrrents.

      • hudsonstewart

        Actually, I think Japan is the same way. Most Japanese people don’t watch anime aside from Sazae-san and the occasional Ghibli movie. The market for anime in Japan is the same as in America: kids and otaku. “Attack on Titan” was broadcast in Japan at around 2:00am, hardly prime time.

      • lasolitaria

        Why is Attack on Titan “truly special” as opposed to Family Guy?

        And why does it puzzle you that adults prefer to watch shows with adult content that addresses adult issues (sex, society, politics, religion) in an adult tone rather than a fantasy adventure clearly intended for young boys (not even Japanese adults watch it)? Has it occurred to you that maybe, just maybe, it is your tastes that are puzzling and not theirs?

  • kregano

    The main problems with anime in the US are that Japan’s way of handling
    anime licenses prevents a lot of mainstream exposure, all the bad
    stereotypes of anime from the early 00s are still in the minds of most
    people, and there isn’t enough anime content that appeals to broader
    audiences. I think it says a lot that there have been only TWO simuldubs
    ever and one of those is premiering in January (Space Dandy). Japan’s
    insistence on ridiculous US dub release delays and license fees that
    prevent licensors from getting high quality voice actors/directors
    encourage piracy and the view that anime is lower tier product than US
    animation.

    That said, the fact that all the hyperbolic criticism
    of anime from the 00s (based on hentai anime with tentacles and lots of
    lolicon) is still in the minds of most people means that anime is going
    to be marginalized by the public unless there’s a sudden surge in
    “serious” anime (like Ghost in the Shell) and a dramatic decrease in
    sexualized content in anime across the board. The former is unlikely
    because of the poor financial structure of the anime industry, which
    makes it hard to produce original works that have little appeal to
    Japanese fans, and latter is unlikely because the anime industry
    survives in Japan by appealing to the tastes of a tiny niche of people.

    This
    partially explains why there isn’t as much content with mainstream
    appeal, but the main issue is that there isn’t enough content aimed at
    adults, with adult characters in it. 75%+ of every anime season is some
    variation of high school students doing something in/around a high
    school, which doesn’t appeal to US viewers because we don’t have
    nostalgia for high school and are expect our action heroes to be adults
    (because of movies and logic). That said, there’s also a severe lack of
    scifi and fantasy action shows, which built a lot of the anime fanbase
    in the late 90s and early 00s. Those genres were fairly mainstream and
    got great time slots on Toonami, but without them, there’s not a lot of
    content that immediately grabs the positive attention of a US audience
    that isn’t already familiar with anime. Without that kind of content on
    US TV, you’re not going to build a fanbase that can be a major
    financial/fan presence at these large cons.

  • http://stephen.zreomusic.com Stephen J. Weber

    This would’ve been my fourth year in a row at NYCC if I weren’t out of the country as it was going on. With that in mind, I can’t vouch for anime content this year, but last year it was truly pathetic, as if it was an afterthought. No cosplay masquerade and I don’t recall any exclusive anime screenings either (I may be wrong about that as it’s really easy to miss what’s going on at NYCC). I think the highlight of last year for me was Danny Choo’s panel. Other than that, it was really a sad year for anime (although Good Smile Company did finally have a booth).

    However, I don’t think I can really fault Reedpop for the poor anime turn out. It was, sadly, the first year without Bandai, who in previous years seemed to bring a ton of anime screening with them. The top floor of the convention center was closed for construction again, which had added a ton of space in 2011 for anime (artist’s alley and a huge stage were up there). Given that NYCC now takes up the entire center, that really put the show at a crunch for space last year. Panel rooms were smaller. Stages were put where ever they could fit. Escalators became stairs by mid-Friday. And Saturday… well, let’s just say good luck getting around. In short, NYCC has some growing pains, and I don’t think that’s any secret.

    With that in mind, I’m not quite ready to say anime has lost it’s cachet in the US. As far as I know, Otakon and AX are still doing very well – and perhaps that’s because they’re dedicated anime conventions. NYCC never was, even if it was NYCC/AF in 2010. I am aware NYAF was previously a seperate event. If you take a look at Kickstarter, I’d say anime is definitely alive and well in the US. Kickheart became the first crowdfunded anime in history (at least that I’m aware of) and collected $50k over its goal. The Time of Eve Blu-ray Kickstarter did extremely well. So did Little Witch Academia 2.

    One thing I have seen a decline in with anime in the US is its presence in retail stores. Best Buy has maybe a shelf or two of it. FYE has a decent amount, but hardly anything recent. Borders was my go-to store. Now it’s RightStuf!, because I can’t find what I want in retail stores. I’d say it’s drastically easier to find anime in stores here in Australia (where I am at the moment) than in the US. Two years ago, I’d call it about equal.

    Long story short, I think anime in the US is still alive and well. It has taken a beating in recent years though, but I don’t see it going out without a fight.

  • James Leung

    The popularity of anime is a difficult metric to measure, and has very little relation to market potential. Do you count actual sales, TV viewership, or con attendance? Even if you could measure it, can you demonstrate that popularity will lead to sales that funnel money back to original creators such as artist, writers, and animators?

    The early American anime market (1990s-2000s) was largely based on the sale of physical media such as DVDs and books. At the time, companies eked out a small profit. Today most people have transitioned to streaming and online digital media which doesn’t generate anywhere near the profit margins of the old physical media. The actual dollar amount per consumer is counted in cents. So, one needs to look into ancillary product markets such as merch (messenger bags, t-shirts, etc).

    The only way to capitalize on the ancillary product market is the development of “killer apps” or big anime properties with mainstream potential (eg Akira, Evengelion, Spirited Away). Every year the industry swings for the fences but usually settles for a walk. Since the industry cannot maintain a regular diet of blockbusters, the ancillary product market is hit-and-miss.

    Some companies believed that online streaming will lead to a wider market and save the anime industry. However, this is hardy the case. The only outcome of online streaming of anime and manga is the true democratization of the all media. In a unified playing field, the companies with the most financial leverage wins. The big boys (Warner Brothers, Disney Parent Company, Sony) will continue to dominate the market.

    Therefore, Anime was tossed into larger pool of media properties such as American comics, Hollywood blockbusters, TV shows, music, and nostalgic properties. Anime doesn’t compete for eyeballs on FYE’s animation DVD rack or a spot on Cartoon Channel; there going head-to-head with every other media company in the streaming cloud entertainment market. So instead of competing with Disney Animation and Fox Kids, they’re facing off with the Iron Man films, Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, Skyrim, and Lady Gaga. Following this trend, I’m not surprised that NYCC and SDCC is also following the broader and bigger media properties to make bank.

    I predict the anime market will retreat into the niche collector’s market similar to print comics. The anime properties will be seen as a farm league for adaption into larger media franchises like Pacific Rim, Transformers, and Inception. It also wouldn’t surprise me if larger media heavy weight start to purchase whole anime companies strictly for their media licenses.

  • Sargonarhes

    I think this depends on where you go and how the market is saturated. The NYAF is held in Oct. Keep in mind that just 2 months before that is only the largest anime event on the east coast, Otakon. If anime fans don’t have the disposable income to spend on NYAF it’s because they spent most of it already at Otakon. Which will be moving into a larger venue in Washington DC in 2017. As a similar example the Pittsburgh Comic Con is much smaller than what it use to be, and it had anime rooms and dealers to boot, however it’s anime part started dieing off. Not because it didn’t offer anime fans anything, but because 2 weeks prior to the PCC was the anime con Tekkoshocon. Which started to eat up any anime business the PCC had.

    So what we might be seeing here is a saturated market for comic and anime conventions.

  • krazehh

    People who say Anime is dying in the U.S clearly are lying to themselves or live under a rock. With AX being the highest attended anime convention as well as Otakon doing extremely well. The fans will always love Anime. And There will always be NEW anime people will latch onto. SnK, Free and Kill la Kill are INSANELY popular at the moment. It’s true, like any other fanbase, the anime fans can have interests outside of Anime. But Anime is STILL a market.

  • aefj

    You know America is a huge country that exists outside of New York, have you even been outside of New York for conventions??

  • lasolitaria

    It’s actually an analogy rather than a simile.

    Anyway, the implication -which you’re so sloppily attempting to weasel out of- all over your comment is that both NYCCC and Walmart share the characteristics of being mainstream (no niches) and mundane (no high art), as opposed to anime. Yet anime does too.

    I must confess that I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what “great anime experience” means or how is it any different from whatever NYCCC offers. I can only say that, whatever it is, it’s also not even remotely comparable to high art.