5 Embarrassing Moments in Western Anime Marketing

If you’re an anime fan, you’ve probably sat back and thought to yourself, “wouldn’t it be great if there was an accessible documentary about the history of the medium, or the history of western fandom, that I could point to as an introductory text rather than sending people down a dozen wiki holes?”

“Interesting notion,” said Netflix, before putting out their feature-length documentary Enter the Anime. The production’s decision to focus on a white person’s journey to the land of Weird Japan has been dragged for its orientalism and its not-so-subtle attempt to structure its narrative around Netflix’s brand: would you believe that only one of the dozens of series discussed in this history lesson, only one (mentioned in an on-the-street interview) hasn’t been licensed by Netflix in some capacity? It’s an absolutely wild coincidence, that.

This is all pretty much par for the course for Netflix’s approach to anime. While most streaming companies like Sentai and Crunchyroll buy the rights to a show and stream it online concurrently to its Japanese release, Netflix instead picks one or two shows a season and sits on them until the entire season has aired. They are then branded as “Netflix originals” whether or not Netflix had any hand in the production process and dumped onto the site for binge-watching, usually sans any marketing push that would make more casual anime fans aware of their existence and thus make up for the audience loss of people who turned to piracy to watch the show week-to-week.

Shows that Netflix has been involved in funding, like 7seeds, Aggretsuko, and DEVILMAN crybaby, fare a little better in terms of visibility, though several creators have been public about the fact that Netflix’s millions haven’t gone toward alleviating the devastating and sometimes literally fatal working conditions of the anime industry.

In fact, everything about Netflix’s approach to anime takes me back to the old days of anime fandom, when those involved in the American side of the industry were setting a very particular narrative that’s pretty embarrassing in hindsight. Here are five of the most embarrassing moments in Western anime marketing.

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1. Brock’s Donuts

Only 90s kids remember the infamous children’s anime distributor 4Kids, because they bottomed out with not one but two bankruptcies and no longer exist. While it was common practice at the time to edit blood and mentions of death out of anime designed to be aired on Saturday mornings — a practice that only really began to change with the rising success of Toonami — 4Kids went above and beyond. It wasn’t just the occasional low-grade swear or a little fatal mouth blood that kids needed to be protected from. Or even the queer relationships in both Sailor Moon and Cardcaptor Sakura. No, no. I’m talking about their attempts to protect kids from Japanese culture itself.

Enter Brock from Pokemon. While far from the only case of this phenomenon — Hamtaro, for example, completely recontextualized an episode around the Doll Festival Hinamatsuri — it’s stayed in fan memory because of its flagrant laziness. Brock points to a trio of what are clearly rice balls, completely unedited, while insisting to the camera, “THESE DONUTS ARE GREAT. JELLY-FILLED ARE MY FAVORITE.” It’s like “there are four lights,” but for kids. These kinds of changes are thankfully the stuff of the past, but Brock’s donuts live on as a testament to the very, very low opinion that marketing executives held of America’s children.

2. Real Fans of Genius

People outside of anime fandom might not be aware of voice actor Vic Mignogna. You lucky bastards. While I hate to burst that bubble of sweet, sweet obliviousness, I hate the idea of people not knowing what a scumbag he is a whole lot more. In brief, multiple voice actors and fans recently came forward with allegations of inappropriate conduct and sexual harassment — the type of incidents that have been the subject of rumor in the community for over a decade but only recently been given voice. Most dubbing companies cut ties with Mignogna once they realized it might be bad for their bottom line; while many in this position would slink away from the limelight, Mignogna instead elected to bring a lawsuit against his accusers, the details of which could fill multiple articles. You can read a breakdown of the deposition here.

But rest assured, before he was outed as an alleged sexual predator, Mignogna was always an asshole. Basically inescapable if you were watching an anime dub made in the 2000s, he also created several side projects, including an ongoing fanclub that I’m sure will send lovingly crafted death threats if they see this article. There was also the Fullmetal Alchemist fan film Mignogna was involved in and had shown at several anime conventions.

But for my money, nothing sums up the slightly snide and painfully embarrassing feeling of those days quite like “Real Fans of Genius.” Based on a then-popular series of Budweiser ads, they truly need to be seen to be believed. My only explanation is that the concept of Abridged Series hadn’t taken off yet, and fandom was real hard-up for YouTube content. Anyway, I’m not sure exactly on the timelines, so I couldn’t tell you if he was making these videos making fun of convention-goers before or after he allegedly tried to talk a pair of twins into incest.

3. Sakuracon 2009

I actually need you all to click on this one before we go any further. It’s only thirty seconds long, and the subject just cannot be discussed without a shared sense of suffering. Once you’ve retrieved any skin that sloughed off from secondhand embarrassment, we can continue.

Nothing quite sums up the 2000s approach to marketing anime to Americans quite like this ad. The manga bubble hadn’t yet burst and convention culture owned the summer. Companies had figured out that anime fans had a lot of money to buy merch, but also kind of thought of them exclusively as sloppy weirdos who were overwhelmingly white. Pronouncing the names of products correctly is still an optional consideration (this is how we get NaROOdo, folks).

Don’t get me wrong, 2000s anime fans were embarrassing. We let yaoi paddles and Fate/Stay Night’s sex scenes happen. But it wasn’t embarrassing like this, with both an undercurrent of fishbowl-leering contempt and a final soupçon of that same orientalism that would carry Enter the Anime merrily into production. It’s like the distilled essence of yikes. And the director is probably a creep.

4. Robotech Licensing

Once upon a time, in the far-off land of the 1980s, a company called Harmony Gold was looking to capitalize on the success of Voltron by putting out another space mech series. They’d gotten their hands on three different anime — The Super Dimension Fortress Macross, Super Dimension Cavalry Southern Cross, and Genesis Climber MOSPEADA — but all of those were shorter than 65 episodes, the minimum needed to sell a show into syndication. It was at this point that Carl Macek, a name spoken with only the most hushed of whispers lest he rise from the grave and make you more suitable for American audiences, came up with the idea to write an entirely new multi-generational space opera called Robotech, recontextualizing the available footage into an original story.

This entry isn’t actually about Robotech’s creation. Honestly, its existence is kind of fascinating and something that could’ve only existed at that point in time, and the show’s narrative has a respectable number of passionate defenders. That it holds a fond place in the hearts of many an 80s nerd is worth remembering.

No, what’s upsetting is that Harmony Gold intends to keep this farce up well into the 2020s. Fans had originally hoped that the original 2021 sell-by date on the Robotech-adjacent licenses would mean that those classic series could finally come to the United States, especially since Discotek Media has based its catalogue predominantly on rescuing anime classics. Macross fans in particular were crossing their fingers, as the juggernaut franchise has been held back from US release (with one or two streaming exceptions) because of that one repurposed series.

The extension of this deal seems to be because of a proposed live-action Robotech film; so access to an entire history of existing media is just going to have to take a backseat until that’s finished flopping. 

5. American AKIRA

Speaking of, this list wouldn’t be complete without a mention of the decades-long discussion of an American adaptation of AKIRA. A beloved manga and film, AKIRA focuses on themes that were very specific and relevant to Japanese culture in the late 20th century: nuclear anxiety in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, roving motorcycle gangs, and so on. That’s not to say that the story lacks universal themes or ones that lack potency today — after all, it’s a story about a country’s disenfranchised youth struggling against a government happy to exploit and kill them for the slimmest potential gain, one that quashes their personhood before they’re even grown up. Yeah, you can definitely make that movie now.

But the fact that remake talks rested on the presumption of relocating the story to an All-American (read: white) setting naturally upset people. There’ve been jokes about it for years, and no less a name than George Takei weighed in on the damage a white-washed rendition would cause. It’s hardly an off-base concern, either; Netflix’s “I can’t believe this somehow escaped from Hot Topic in 2007” remake of Death Note is only two years old.

It seemed like Hollywood was actually listening to concerns for a brief and blissful second, with new director Taika Waititi announcing his intent to cast Asian actors. And then, two months later, the film was shelved, with rumor being that it’s “a difficult film to cast ethnically at its high budget, in this moment of political correctness.” And that’s not just embarrassing. That’s shameful. 

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