Made in Japan and exported to the rest of the world, anime is growing in popularity and is now invading SA. By Benji Pienaar
South African television viewers would be hard-pressed not to recognise the wide-eyed, wild-haired stars of the anime universe. They may assume, incorrectly, that these illustrated characters are the stuff of children’s entertainment as they make an appearance on television shows such as Pokémon and Dragon Ball Z. But anime’s history in the country goes back to the eighties, with much-loved shows such as Maya the Bee, Robotech and the short-lived Thundercats, all of which now have an adult following, firmly entrenching the art of anime, or Japanese animation, as a reputable, if somewhat fringe pastime. Manga, its comic book counterpart, is often the inspiration for anime, along with light novels, movies and video games.
Rumours persist that anime has been around since 1917 in Japan, but there is no concrete proof of this. Rather, the history of anime only becomes truly significant from the seventies onwards. At the time, television was becoming much more common and profitable than the Japanese film market, so young animators ventured to new studios or founded their own to take advantage of this opportunity. These studios and fledgling directors experimented with a variety of ideas and techniques, and in doing so, created a whole new entertainment art form – television anime.
The eighties are commonly believed to be the start of the anime Golden Age, when anime was accepted as a mainstream entertainment form in Japan, and subsequently experienced huge growth in production. That was when several iconic series, including Macross, more commonly known to us as Robotech, were produced. Robotech was translated into English and screened in America, Europe and South Africa.
Anime productions in the eighties gained such devout followings that a genuine subculture was formed. In response to this, many anime-focused magazines were published, and followers of the subculture eventually became known as otaku , a Japanese slang term for a fanatic. This otaku subculture influenced emerging studios, such as Gainax and Ghibli, in the anime industry. Both studios are still producing anime to this day, and Studio Ghibli even went on to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Spirited Away in 2002. The movie also garnered a Golden Bear for Best Animated Feature at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival.
Anime production slowed down a bit following the failures of many late eighties’ films. This prompted anime studios to find ways to produce lower budget anime television series, ushering in the now infamous Dragon Ball Z, Pokémon and Sailor Moon – all of which kickstarted new genres and major franchises, and spawned video games, trading cards and movies — even live action ones.
The nineties saw the release of some great anime titles, the most significant of which, Ghost in the Shell, hugely influenced The Matrix. Ghost in the Shell became a cult classic, both in Japan and internationally, and was so successful that an anime TV series and a second anime movie were eventually produced.
In 1997, Hayao Miyazaki from Studio Ghibli produced the most expensive anime film ever up to that point. Princess Mononoke cost 20 million to produce, but was so well received that it was dubbed into English and featured the vocal talents of Claire Danes, Billy Bob Thornton and Gillian Anderson.
While anime in Japan is now firmly mainstream, South Africa’s anime following only started showing signs of life in the late nineties. The entertainment form remained strictly fringe, with fans desperate to get their hands on a steady supply, and it was only in the noughties that the scattered anime fanbase really began to form a community.
This was achieved primarily by the growing number of fans starting their own anime clubs to host promotional events. Usually, these events included anime screenings, but some also catered for cosplay (dressing up as anime characters), AMVs (anime music videos), and fanart competitions.
Before anime was widely available in South Africa, many a South African fan was introduced to the genre on DStv’s Sci-fi channel on Saturday nights. Fans then tried to source anime locally, prompting enterprising entrepreneurs to open individual anime stores in Gauteng. Over the years, they have started popping up nationwide.
The Internet also played a huge, if not pivotal role in growing the local and international anime scene.
While events and fan networks played a large part in strengthening the anime community, nothing contributed so greatly to anime awareness as fansubbing. Fansubs are anime episodes or movies recorded in Japan, which have amateur subtitles (fan subtitles) added to them. These movies are then released on the Internet for fans to download for free.
Copyright laws are violated in most countries by the distribution of fansubs. In most countries, and specifically in those that subscribe to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, fansubs are illegal. The fansubbers’ response to this is that their fansubs are free, and that there are no licence holders for the anime to which they add subtitles. Or if they are licensed in Japanese only, then they simply provide a free English alternative.
Despite this, fansubs are illegal, but they are everywhere. In some cases, it is simpler to visit a movie download website and download anime than it is to buy it online. This obviously makes things very difficult for the licence holders. Nonetheless, fansubs are hugely responsible for spreading the word on anime.
The most significant growth of anime and its community in South Africa has happened in the last couple of years, prompting large retailers such as Look & Listen, Musica and TopCD to stock small anime catalogues.
OTAKU magazine, South Africa’s first magazine dedicated to anime and its fans’ Japanese lifestyle, has been running for more than three years now, and is the first and only anime print magazine published in Africa. Its popularity has grown to such an extent that it now has international subscribers, and has even caught the eyes of the Japanese, with a Japanese TV crew recently interviewing the magazine’s creators.
Jack Chen, the editor-in-chief at OTAKU magazine, thinks that the biggest contributors to the growth of South Africa’s anime community are ADSL and Sony’s ANIMAX channel on DStv.
ANIMAX has single-handedly reached more people in South Africa, and so spread more anime awareness than any other platform. ANIMAX celebrated its first year of broadcasting in South Africa in November 2008, and it doesn’t plan on going anywhere, according to Philipp Schmidt, a manager at Sony Pictures Television International (SPTI).
Schmidt says the goal in launching ANIMAX was “to establish the channel as the destination for anime programming in South Africa, giving viewers an opportunity to sample the extensive range of genres that define anime, including comedy, romance, crime and sci-fi”. He further states that they wanted to tap into South Africa’s younger population with ANIMAX, and that the feedback to date shows they are making an impact.
Even though South Africa has its own 24/7 anime TV channel, a bi-monthly anime magazine and retailers selling anime, its fan events simply cannot compare to the international giants. There are numerous anime events and expos all over the world, from Australia to London — even Jamaica has one — but the biggest are those held in the US and Japan.
The biggest anime expo in North America, Anime Expo, more commonly known by its abbreviated form, AX, is hosted by the non-profit Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation (SPJA). An annual event at the Los Angeles Convention Center, California, around the weekend closest to the 4th of July, AX started in San Jose, California in 1992, attracting a crowd of 1750 people. It has since grown astronomically with attendants numbering 43 000 this year.
A variety of factors, including collaboration between AX, the anime industry and the expo’s industry sponsors, contributed to this growth, but the expo owes its success, above all, to what it has to offer to the growing number of anime fans.
There is a variety of competitions, such as those for the best cosplay and anime music videos (AMVs), and numerous anime industry guests from Japan make every AX well worth the fans’ while.
In 1984, “cosplay” was coined from the English term “costume play” to describe anime fans dressing up as their favourite characters. The hobby is not limited to anime, though, and cosplayers also dress up as manga, video game, or even book and movie characters. This is a lot more intense than the usual Halloween dress-up, with most cosplayers making their own costumes, meticulously crafting them to simulate the original character. Extreme cosplayers will grow their hair to resemble their favourite character, while others opt for coloured contact lenses, cutting their hair and even making their own shoes. Internationally, cosplay has become a popular pastime, with a number of annual events dedicated to it. In South Africa there are only a handful cosplayers, but it is clear that the trend is growing.
Another anime-related pastime is producing anime music videos — music videos made with anime footage. These music videos are not official, and the fans make them without the consent of the songwriters or the anime studios. They are, however, allowed to continue doing so as the videos promote anime. In fact, fans are encouraged to make AMVs, so much so that there is an annual international AMV competition, the Anime Weekend Atlanta, held in Atlanta, USA, which attracted 11 000 attendants last year.
As the genre’s motherland, Japan is saturated with anime and now sports Comiket, the largest comic convention in the world. Surprisingly, Comiket doesn’t offer much original manga. Rather, fans make doujinshi about their favourite anime or manga and then sell them at the convention. Doujinshi are “magazines published as a co-operative effort by a group of individuals who share a common ideology or goals, with the aim of establishing a medium through which their works can be presented”. These amateur works, which are an important form of self-expression for the various subcultures that centre on anime and manga, have experienced phenomenal growth in Japan.
The first Comiket, held in December 1975, attracted just 600 people. It has since moved to the Tokyo Big Sight convention centre near Ariake in Odaiba, Koutou, Tokyo, where it is held twice a year, in August and December. Here, 555000 attendants find a massive variety of activities and competitions to meet their anime appetite.
Comparing anime’s popularity in South Africa to that of Japan and America, it is clear that we have a long way to go, but the South African anime community is on the rise. The growth explosion in the last two years has been impressive, and all that remains is to see if the market has reached a critical mass , or if the South African anime community will continue to grow.