“The Commercial distribution of Anime in Japan and America; the ‘cultural filtering’ of Western commerce.”
In addition to the distribution methods detailed in part one of this series in which dedicated Anime fans worldwide access and distribute Japanese animation today via fansubs, the primary means of dissemination and accessibility to Japanese animation for western public consumption is via commercial distributors in the form of DVDs, cable television and the like.
In the Western world, like it or not, commercial market forces, often with the primary interest in maximizing profits, attempt to push products on the public which are calculated to appeal to the greatest common denominator. Often, this entails a 'dumbing down' of a concept to ensure maximum demand. The smarter creators of intellectual properties try to ‘layer’ their product with various aspects and nuances that will appeal to different groups of the audience for differing reasons while at the same time serve to keep them all loyal to the product. Niche and specialty markets do exist, and arguably Anime is one such niche market, however it is a multi-million dollar market with a potential audience of millions in America.
From concept to manga to anime; the bottom-up method of shaping a concept in Japan
As mentioned in part one, the birth of an anime series is often a long and careful road as Japanese distributors want to put their money on the winning horse if they can help it. What has developed over the decades is a vetting process for a concept which begins as a weekly comic strip in one of the highly cutthroat manga anthologies which account for 40% of the entire magazine and publishing market in Japan.
An artist’s work has to be really compelling if it's going to appeal week-after-week to the 5 million plus circulation in Japan for publications like Shonen Jump. If a manga is worth it's salt, it gets picked up as a compiled manga book and may even make the transition to a one-shot anime OVA (Original Video Animation), a mini series, or even a season run on national television in Japan. While it’s made to sound rather straightforward here, many manga fall by the wayside and never make it to screen. The most marketable concepts are what get the financial backing for production into anime.
What this system in Japan achieves is this: any anime that makes it to commercial distribution already has a grass roots appeal on the street by an established fan base that already followed the story as a weekly manga title. This means that any adjustments or social filtering of the commercial product is done while it is still in its manga run; a much cheaper endeavor for book publishers to change gears over what an animation house with dozens or hundreds of cell animators on staff could do mid-project. Therefore, the creator of the manga has a very quick feedback system with the fan base; if they don't like where he is taking the story, they stop reading and his work is pulled from publication.
Put simply, market forces are more a ‘bottom-up’ phenomenon rather than a ‘top-down’ one seen in the United States in Hollywood. Japanese artists have a finger on the pulse of Japanese society, or at least there readership, and thus are better able to create works that appeal to their target audience with much less guesswork and quicker adjustment when things don't work. In sociological terms, the anime has been already socially filtered by it's fan base, vetted for commercial viability by the manga publisher, and arrives on television screens relatively untouched as an anime.
The top-down method of Hollywood creative conceptualization
In contrast, Hollywood operates in a ‘top-down’ method of shaping its product for market. Hollywood concept creation appears to be an elite closed off system of scriptwriters, directors and studios all feeding off one another in a bubble oblivious to what the public might desire. Often the decision is made from the top to execute a safe yet clichéd story trope, fill it with big name movie stars to pull the audiences into the theater, and then, after the work is in a final cut, show it to advanced screening audiences and see what their reaction to the almost finished work might be. This bubble world of Hollywood feeding on itself might also explain why so often three comet-hitting-the earth type movies come out in one summer by three different Hollywood studios. The problem with this form of concept management is that, by the time it reaches an advance screening audience, the story is already solidified bases on what may have been an awkward untenable concept to begin with by Hollywood types out of touch with the audience.
Consider this: Hollywood spends millions of dollars advertising their movies to the public to try and woo them into the theater; In Japan the public pays every week for the 'advertising'—the manga— a market which earns about 6 billion US-dollars annually in domestic sales. Japanese fans know quite well what is due to come out on screen as anime and often flock to the theater with very little in the way of big budget advertising.
This top-down attitude by the media conglomerates in the United States means that when a western distributor acquires an anime series from a Japanese production company, rather than just dubbing in English voices and release the product in the US markets, there seems to be an overwhelming tendency to 'tinker' with the anime formula in order to make it 'salable' to Western audiences. These alterations done by US distributors are, in effect, a form of cultural filtering.
Next in part three: Studio Ghibli and Disney; The filtering process laid bare.