Animation in the United States once meant Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Winnie the Pooh.
Nowadays, it’s just as likely to mean fighting cyborgs, doe-eyed schoolgirls and sinister monsters — thanks to people like John Ledford. The 36-year-old American is one of the top foreign distributors of Japanese “manga” comics and animation, or “anime,” building his fortune on a genre that is rapidly changing from a niche market to a mass phenomenon.
Ledford, who is so busy that his dubbing studio in Houston is running 24 hours a day, said the key to the success of manga and anime in the U.S. is its widely varied, cutting-edge subject matter.
“We’re kind of like the anti-Disney,” Ledford, a bespectacled, fast-talker with a friendly smile, said during a recent visit to Tokyo. “Disney is very family type. We are appealing to the video game, PlayStation, Generation X, Generation Y kind of crowd in America.”
Although U.S. animation releases, including “Toy Story,” “Shrek” and “The Incredibles,” continue to wow audiences, they are largely aimed at kids.
Japanese anime spans a wide range of genres, including science fiction, horror thrillers and melodrama — all without the constraints of massive computer-graphics funding required for films starring actors, Ledford said.
Kathie Borders, who runs Wizzywig Collectibles, a store devoted to manga and anime in Ann Arbor, Mich., that carries Ledford’s videos and books, said the popularity of Pokemon and YuGiOh! has propelled a boom in anime that’s not only for the usually male 20-something, video-game-loving crowd, but all ages and increasingly women.
“They’re fascinated by the difference in the culture,” Borders said in a telephone interview. “They like reading something that’s not the normal, run-of-the-mill story that they might have been used to.”
Ledford, who speaks a little Japanese, started out by bringing video games from Japan to the United States after dropping out of college. He later expanded into manga and anime.
His first anime deal was in 1992 for the cartoon version of his best-selling video game “Devil Hunter Yoko,” about a teenager who defeats goblins. His investment was returned in full in just three months.
More recently, Ledford’s A.D. Vision Inc. has been taking part in funding for anime. His film unit now records $150 million in annual sales.
Ledford also has 1,000 manga books under license and publishes Newtype USA, the English-language version of a top manga and animation monthly magazine. His Anime Network moved from video-on-demand to a national cable network in July.
Manga and anime with their heavy doses of corny romanticism, blood-splattering violence and pubescent sense of erotica may not be for everyone. But both are clearly no longer just for Japanese geeks, as their counterparts in the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia simply cannot get enough.
Shoji Udagawa, vice president at Kadokawa Pictures Inc., a major Japanese film studio, enjoys working with Ledford because he understands anime and can help create works that will appeal to Americans as well as to Japanese. Americans tend to like anime with darker themes, including those with robots, he said.
“I feel so comfortable working with him,” Udagawa said. “He fits in well with Japanese, but he has something that Japanese don’t have.”
Bandai Co., a major Japanese toy maker, and electronics and entertainment giant Sony Corp. also distribute anime in the U.S. But the established names tend to look for sure winners, Ledford says, while he offers a broader lineup.
“There’s love, relationships, character development. There’s life, death. There’s profanity, there’s sexuality, there’s love, hate, war. You don’t see this type of stuff, the type of reality, in cartoons in America. Everything you can find that Hollywood makes exists in Japanese anime,” he said.
Dozens of anime are being offered at U.S. video-rental shops, where whole shelves are taken up by titles like “Ghost in the Shell,” “Ninja Resurrection,” “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and “Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040.”
“Pokemon” alone earned about 3 trillion yen around the world, and the U.S. anime business, including licensed character goods and box-office revenue, is estimated at $4 billion a year, according to the Japanese government.
Works like “Spirited Away” by Hayao Miyazaki, which won an Oscar and the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, are helping raise anime’s reputation.
Kelly Lamb, a 14-year-old Ann Arbor high school student, has never been to Japan but is an avid anime fan and sometimes makes her own anime-inspired costumes.
“It’s so funny and so hysterical,” she said of “Excel Saga,” one of her favorites. “If you’re really feeling down, it’s so funny it cheers you up.”