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Anime enjoys summer homes in Los Angeles

by Roland Kelts

If anime has a hometown in America, it may be somewhere in the metropolitan ooze of Los Angeles, California. Earlier this month, America’s largest anime convention, Anime Expo, hit maximum capacity. Reaching its ceiling of 80,000 unique attendees prompted whispers about the need for a venue even larger than the city’s cavernous convention center.

As a locus for the film, television and video-game industries, the region boasts a constantly replenishing population of actors, directors, writers and engineers, and numerous studios and facilities in which they can make their magic. The West Coast is also home to generations of Japanese immigrants, and has long been closely attuned to cultures across the pond of the Pacific.

I was recently invited to the city to give a keynote address at Project Anime Los Angeles, a trans-cultural conference that connects non-Japanese convention organizers with each other, and with Japanese studios and other creative industries. Biannually held, Project Anime takes place once in LA and once in Tokyo — I wrote about this year’s Tokyo edition in April. Like Anime Expo, Project Anime continues to expand. Organizers from 44 conventions in the United States, Mexico, Canada, Belgium and Chile met with representatives from 23 anime and Japanese pop-culture companies — a vast spike in participants from both camps since last year. Topics addressed included convention safety and security, how to best host Japanese guests, and the tricky task of localization: making Japanese content understandable and palatable to a non-Japanese audience.

For more than two decades, high-end post-production, audio and creative studio Bang Zoom! Entertainment in Burbank, California, has been delivering the anime fix abroad. (Bang Zoom! is named after a trademark line from “The Honeymooners,” a 1950s American sitcom.) Hit titles, such as “Samurai Champloo,” “Madoka Magica,” “K-On!” “Blue Exorcist” and the recent sensation, “Sword Art Online” all pass through Bang Zoom! en route to overseas fans. And the iconic Japanese anime “Doraemon” finally hit airwaves in the U.S. via Bang Zoom!, whose in-house motto is “be faithful to the original.”

But Bang Zoom!, founded in 1993, wasn’t established by an otaku, or even a fan of anime. It was the brainchild of a New York City cab driver.

“I had no money,” says president and CEO Eric P. Sherman. “I drove a cab for one summer, saved every penny, and drove across the country in a Chevy Nova decorated by graffiti artists. I had no idea what I was doing.”

Sherman graduated from film school at New York University and had numerous near-misses with pitches and scripts. In LA, despite being courted by Hollywood royalty, including producers Gene Kirkwood and Gray Frederickson, his track record continued: lots of offers, nothing to show for them.

Fed up with Hollywood, Sherman packed up and shipped to Japan with a Japanese girlfriend in the late 1980s, learning about Japanese film and entertainment during his stint in Tokyo. He returned to Los Angeles in the early 90s. By coincidence, New York-based Media Blasters hired him to write English-language scripts for Japanese films, localizing them for the American audience. In 1993, Sherman and his partner, Kaeko Sakamoto, a radio, broadcasting and voice-acting personality, founded Bang Zoom!, partly to build bridges between Japan and overseas markets.

“We were founded like a Japanese company,” Sherman tells me, surrounded at his desk by figurines of Astro Boy and Anpanman. “But we were also a perfect hybrid: a business combining Jewish New York with Japan.”

For several years, Bang Zoom! was a company based out of a bedroom. But Sherman had the good Californian karma to meet Kenichi Iyadomi of Bandai USA, and their relationship produced connections and results. In 2002, after being booted from a rental studio bought by Hollywood actor Will Smith, Sherman purchased an office and studio space for his company. Now he owns two within a 10-minute drive of each other — sheer convenience in vast LA.

“I really don’t think there’s anyone like us,” Sherman says. “We work directly with Japan, with people who reach out to Japanese companies to build bridges. When we host clients here, we welcome them with aisatsu (Japanese-style greetings) and omotenashi (Japanese-style hospitality), and they respond to that, whether they’re Japanese or American. They say, ‘you know, we really feel like we’re home when we’re here.’ ”

Part of that results from having bilingual and trans-cultural Japanese and Japanese-language speakers on staff. Of the studio’s 24 employees, roughly one-third are Japanese natives. Kobe-born Azusa Kudo, head of International Business Development, says that now is a critical time to be working on globalizing the anime industry.

“Japan is working harder to get content into the U.S. market. They have realized that hard-copy sales (DVD and VHS) are really difficult, so they’re looking into digital services — Hulu, Netflix, Crunchyroll. We are ideally positioned to help them modify and deliver content outside of Japan.”

But localization isn’t easy. On a tour of the Bang Zoom! studios, I learn that matching the English-language voice-overs to the “mouth flaps” of animated characters speaking Japanese sometimes requires “pickups” — when the English-language actor needs to re-record their lines, either remotely or in-studio, to make the linguistic illusion believable. It isn’t cheap. And anime’s Japan-specific cultural references can take some time to translate for non-Japanese audiences.

“The most important thing is to understand as much as you can,” says Sherman. “After that, you can start to re-create.”

For West Coast anime fans, three more events round out the summer: last weekend’s J-Pop Summit in San Francisco, Comic Con International this weekend in San Diego and the second annual Japan Expo USA in San Mateo from Aug. 22 to 24. The East Coast’s largest anime convention, Baltimore’s Otakon, runs from Aug. 8 to 10. This year it will feature a live performance by LA-based Japanese rock star Yoshiki Hayashi (Yoshiki), leader and co-founder of X Japan — whose surviving members will join him for an after-show Q&A session. Otakon will also stage a sumo tournament with top-ranked Japanese wrestler Ryuta Yamamotoyama, who at 265 kg and 1.91 meters tall is allegedly the largest Japanese person ever. The Japan Sumo Association forced him into retirement three years ago after its notorious match-fixing scandal, but that will likely be lost in translation.

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.