A history of anime in Australia - by Michael Heins

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Having been involved in the anime scene in Australia since the first videos were released here in 1992, I thought it might be fun to include my own small history and reflections on how the market has developed over the years.

In May 1992, I started publication of my own colour newsletter, called Toon Art Times, a quarterly publication which I mailed out to subscribers and people who were interested in what I was selling in my retail store. At that time, I was selling Western animation art and comic strips. My awareness of modern anime was mainly due to one particular client, Peter Maitland, who kept pestering me – in the nicest possible way – about these new videos which were being released in the UK. Peter, if you are out there in the universe somewhere, please get in touch!

The first appearance of anime in that newsletter was in the 2nd issue, September 1992, in which I speak about the VHS release of Akira in Australia:
“At last, this amazing Japanese animated feature film has been released on video in Australia! Costing over one billion yen to make, with 2,212 shots and 160,000 individual cels, this is probably the most dynamic animated feature film I have ever seen. The director, Katsuhiro Otomo, used 327 separate colours in the film, with 50 of them being specially created. The cels are magnificent, due in no small part to these extraordinary colours! You won’t see anything else like them. We have the largest selection of cels and posters from this film in Australia.
This is what we have:

the feature-length animated video (dubbed into English): $69.95 ($10 off RRP)
the orchestral soundtrack on CD: $29.95
the one-sheet theatrical poster: $14.95
a limited edition 5 poster set: $40.00
5 official Akira Tshirts: $30.00 each
Original production cels, ranging from $100 - $895.”

It is impossible to overstate the impact of Akira when it comes to recent Western awareness of anime. The movie played for years and years in art house cinemas around Australia. Word of mouth about the movie was huge. I saw it several times at the Valhalla Cinema in Glebe, Sydney (sadly now an office/retail complex). It was unlike any other cartoon I had ever seen. The futuristic setting, the dark mood, the huge scope of the storyline, was a real eye opener for me.

I was also selling Kimba, Astro Boy and Gigantor Tshirts, along with cloisonné pins at that stage, but nothing else that was related to anime.
March 1993 – I talked about us having the largest selection of Akira cels for sale in the world, plus some more anime art from shows such as Guyver, Robot Carnival, Old Man Z and Samurai Pizza Cats. I’m also excited by the imminent arrival of VHS PAL anime videos, with English dubs, which will be arriving shortly.

July 1993 – great excitement in the newsletter as I talk about the availability of these PAL VHS anime videos. Titles include: Project A-KO, Dominion Tank Police, 3 x 3 Eyes, Legend of the Overfiend, Odin, Fist of the North Star, Venus Wars and the Akira Collector’s Edition (with subtitles!).

Here’s a piece of trivia for you: what was the name of the first anime title released by Manga UK?
Answer: Fist of the North Star.

Ah, what memories! At this time, there were no companies in Australia releasing anime on a regular basis. These imports came from the Manga Entertainment people in the UK. I had to find a distributor in the UK who would sell to me, then organize getting them shipped here. This was all rather new at that stage, and getting overseas companies to deal with me required some persistence (and many faxes – no emails or world wide web at that time).

I thought then – and still do – that Fist of the North Star was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen. All those steroid-abusing evil doers with bad hair cuts fighting in a stone quarry against Ken, the man with a limitless supply of Tshirts. Great fun.

Certainly the most notorious video of its day was Legend of the Overfiend, a title which was carefully marketed by the Manga people to get as many headlines as possible. The idea of a cartoon having this much sex and violence was something new to us Westerners.
I remember the first visit of the Manga UK marketing guy, who came over here for one of the first Ozcon conventions. I bought everything he had left over after the convention, which included several boxes of LotO. They were all gone in a few days once word got out. I also remember talking with Carl Macek in the US about Overfiend. This was at the time when I was buying a lot of Akira cels from Carl. He had his own anime distribution company operating at that time – Streamline Pictures – which was possibly the first anime distribution company in the US. He knew of, but hated, the Overfiend series. He hated the sexual exploitation in the series, and the probability that this title would cause a misunderstanding from the public about what anime was about.

In retrospect, Carl’s concerns proved valid, since Manga UK seemed to do all it could to become “notorious” in the media, and so create awareness of this new-to-the-West form of entertainment. I remember stories of English dubs having swear words inserted where there was none in the original Japanese, the purpose being to attract a more adult rating and so making them more marketable.

Despite the fact that some Western fans have little time for Carl Macek, for what he is meant to have done to Robotech etc., Carl always struck me as both a business man, and someone who genuinely liked anime. Also located in the Streamline Picture offices in those days were Fred Patten (possibly the West’s all-time greatest anime and manga fan), and Jerry Beck (author of several books about Western animation). It was always interesting to visit their offices, located near the red light district of Los Angeles.

September 1993 – more excitement as another 7 anime titles have been released in the UK: Crying Freeman, Doomed Megalopolis, Heroic Legend of Arislan, Lensman, Legend of the Demon Womb, R.G. Veda and Vampire Hunter D.

February 1994 – the floodgates are beginning to open now, with another 10 titles being released. New ones include Fire Tripper (anyone remember that?), Judge, Ultimate Teacher and Wicked City. What a wonderful mixture that is!

May 1994 – new titles include Laughing Target, Golgo 13 and Battle Angel Alita.

August 1994 – now there is an Australian distributor for Manga UK’s titles, Siren Entertainment, based in Victoria. Siren’s release schedule for the remainder of 1994 reads:
5/9/94 – Wicked City, Cyber City Oedo (part 1), Crying Freeman (part 2)
3/10/94 – Golgo 13, Crying Freeman (part 3), Cyber City Oedo (part 2)
7/11/94 – Venus Wars, Tokyo Babylon (part 2), Crying Freeman (part 4)
5/12/94 – Fist of the North Star, Crying Freeman (part 5), Cyber City Oedo (part 3)

Those of you raised on the idea of 12-20 new titles coming out each month would have had a hard time coping with only 3, but most of us felt lucky to be getting anything at all.
In addition, the infamous Kiseki label was now releasing anime in the UK. Here is a list of their first titles:
Black Magic M-66, Macross 2, Return of the Overfiend, Urusei Yatsura (Only You) and Urusei Yatsura (Remember My Love).
November 1994 – I talk about a new Australian anime distributor, Kiseki Australia, who is now releasing most of the UK parent’s titles here. In addition, the following have been released in the UK:
Bubblegum Crisis, Clash of the Bionoids, Gunbuster, Gunhed (very weird), Moldiver, Riding Bean, Tenchi Muyo and a few more of the Urusei Yatsura movies.

So, by the end of 1994, there were two anime distributors in Australia who were sourcing all their product from the license holders in the UK.
You might be wondering why I wasn’t getting titles from the US at this time? Mainly because of the fact that they use the NTSC format, and there weren’t a lot of NTSC-compatible VHS players in Australia at that time. The UK ones were fine, since they use PAL. Keep in mind that there were no DVDs back then. The really fancy latest and greatest piece of equipment which you could own was a laser disc player, and even that couldn’t play both PAL and NTSC discs.

It was at about this time that I started publishing a separate newsletter, just for anime and manga items, called Manga (imaginative, yes?). This eventually grew into a quarterly 24 page newsletter, listing just about all anime titles available in Australia, the UK and the USA. I used to manually type in all the new releases, and delete the old ones, using a Word document which couldn’t sort alphabetically by title. Ah, many hours of fun there.

From 1995 onwards, the anime market began to show signs of serious growth in the West. Siren Entertainment morphed into Madman Entertainment, run by two of the original founders, Tim Anderson and Paul Wiegard, who made a risky but profitable decision to concentrate on this new – to the West – form of entertainment. They spent some serious money on DVD authoring equipment and ramped up their activities to be much more than just another video distribution company. Funtastic bought them out for a pot-full of money and the company is now listed on the stock exchange, as well as having exclusive distribution rights to the Cartoon Network and SBS. I dips me lid to both Tim and Paul!
Kiseki Australia disappeared in 1999, which was no loss to anyone. For some info, type Kiseki Australia into Wikipedia and have a laugh. I have memories of VHS tapes which had all sorts of programs appearing after the anime had finished. A personal favourite was one anime, which, after the end credits, showed the Richmond vs. North Melbourne AFL grand final from 1974, a game I remember quite well, since I was a Richmond fan back then. Maybe this was considered “bonus” content, although I think it more likely that it was yet another example of Kiseki using 2nd hand tapes to record their programs onto.

Back in the days before Madman distributed their anime product to major retailers, the only shops which stocked anime were generally comic book shops, fantasy shops, and weird niche shops like my own. It was a very small market, with many clients being university nerds who felt that they “owned” this new form of entertainment. I well remember the mindless debates about subs vs. dubs, with most of the commentators being unable to read, speak or write Japanese. Yet, these self-righteous geeks knew what was true and they’d bludgeon you to death with words if you dared to differ from them.

Anime clubs started at the various universities and colleges; popular culture exhibitions started to include a sizable anime component; mainstream media caught onto this “new” craze. It was, and is, all good fun.

Now you have the Internet, with more information about anime and manga than you know what to do with. Major companies are making anime-inspired movies; you can download pretty much whatever you like; anime is now a large and serious business. It is both predictable and a bit sad.
For me, I first remember what I now know to be anime when I was a kid. Having been born at about the time television started in Australia, I spent a lot of my childhood glued to the box and watched whatever I could get away with. I watched Kimba and Astro Boy and Gigantor because they were fun. I watched live action Japanese programs like The Samurai and The Phantom Agents with great interest. They were so unusual and mysterious, plus the English dubs were so corny.

It is one of the great surprises to learn that both these Japanese programs were huge ratings hits in Australia in the mid 1960s, whilst in other Western countries they didn’t do so well. Did you know that The Samurai was the first Japanese TV show to be aired in Australia, and that in 1965 it was Channel 9’s highest-rating program, surpassing even the Mickey Mouse Club?! It is reported that more people turned out to meet the show’s star, Ose Koichi, when he arrived in Melbourne, than turned out to greet The Beatles when they appeared in 1964. And keep in mind that this happened only 20 years after the end of World War 2. Quite amazing.

The Phantom Agents could jump backwards, up into trees and make themselves disappear by holding up a sheet of cloth so that they merged into whatever background they happened to be standing against. Thinking about it now, that was my first exposure to ninjas, and I loved it. My family had some banana trees in our suburban Sydney backyard when I was a kid, and I remember torturing the trunks of those poor trees with my homemade “star knives.” Unfortunately, I never managed to make myself disappear or master the art of jumping backwards into the branches of trees, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.

As we all know, anime and manga comes in all shapes and sizes and tastes. If you can’t find a genre of anime which you like, then you are either seriously straight or seriously bent. My two teenage sons, when they hit their 20s and 30s and start to get a bit nostalgic about what they were viewing when they were kids, will mainly remember Japanese animated shows (plus The Simpsons, of course!). They have never seen the Mickey Mouse Club and probably never will, and if they do, they will consider it to be impossibly cute and lame. As long as there’s an audience, you can bet that companies will continue to import these strange programs to the West, and that they will be seen by an ever-increasing number of bemused, interested and occasionally besotted viewers.

At its worst, anime is no worse than 90% of what passes for entertainment these days: a bit of eye candy or perhaps a time vampire as you work your way through a seemingly-endless series. At its best, it can entertain, surprise and confront your expectations of what an animated film can be. My hat goes off to all those talented story tellers, who have chosen animation as the form through which they will express their ideas about the world and who we are. It can be a very exciting, imaginative ride.

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