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Anime Rules!

29 Jan, 2003 By: Edwin De La Cruz

An all-anime TV network is finally becoming a reality, courtesy of top anime supplier ADV Films.

The Anime Network is the first TV channel in North America dedicated to anime and related content. Programming is available to digital cable customers 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Rumors of an all-anime channel had been circulating since July 2002, inducing a storm of curiosity and speculation from within the anime industry and anime fandom at large. But it wasn't until last December that Houston-based ADV made it official.

With The Anime Network, anime and anime-inspired programming has finally found an outlet to reach millions of viewers across the country. The launch comes after years of strong ratings for anime programming and limited blocks of anime on cable outlets such as the Cartoon Network and Showtime.

“This has been in the works for some time,” said ADV Films founder and CEO John Ledford. “Until now, the market and the culture haven't been ready for it. But today, ever-increasing numbers of Americans are becoming familiar with anime and its distinctive aesthetic.

“They're curious about anime, they're hungry for it, and The Anime Network is going to deliver it right to their televisions.”

The network will go on the air in a series of stepped-up phases. Phase One was launched in the middle of December 2002.

The quick launch, shortly after the initial announcement, is a tribute to ADV Films' vision and Comcast Corp.'s confidence in the market's demand for anime.

“The Anime Network is the next logical step,” Ledford said. “The television outlets that carry anime aren't meeting the potential demand; they offer very limited selections of titles and only during very restricted hours.

“The Anime Network will change all of that, and we're excited to be leading the revolution,” Ledford said.

Comcast, which recently merged with AT&T Broadband, provides digital cable to 6.3 million customers, high-speed data to more than 3.3 million customers and cable phone service to more than 1.3 million customers.

Executives say the deal between ADV Films and Comcast was easy to finalize.

“They were looking for content for their free video-on-demand test market, and we were looking for providers,” said ADV Films marketing director Kenneth Wiatrek.

VOD is one of the complementary strengths of launching The Anime Network.

“We're very excited to have completed this deal with Comcast; their VOD functionality is a perfect fit for our first step,” ADV's Ledford said. “Plus, we believe that on-demand systems are going to be a strong and enduring element of the direct-delivered home entertainment industry.”

The VOD initiative is based in the Philadelphia area, delivering programs directly to viewers, at their request, at any time. After the AT&T acquisition, Comcast is the largest digital cable provider in the nation, with a 41-state network.

Coincidentally, Philadelphia is crucial to the success of the network launch, since the neighboring Baltimore area is home to Otakon, the second-largest anime convention in the United States, which last August hosted 10,000 anime fans over a three-day period. Comcast's VOD service, including The Anime Network, is available to about 1.2 million customers in the Philadelphia area.

There is an untapped nationwide market that is waiting to be exposed to anime, including the upcoming younger generation that has grown up on “Pok?mon,” Wiatrek maintains.

Past market behavior has shown that otaku -- devoted fans of the anime -- tend to have sufficient disposable income to invest in collections of their favorites, he said. And it would be illogical to assume that the new demographics will behave differently than previous generations. “We believe the potential for anime is much larger than the current audience,” Wiatrek said.

In terms of content, The Anime Network model is structured around four categorized content areas: Action Zone, Sci-Fi, Comedy Incorrect and Horror/Martial Arts. These categories were designed to include virtually the entire spectrum of quality anime programming, while providing content for new viewers unfamiliar with specific titles.

For a limited time, Comcast is offering digital cable subscribers in the test market a free trial of The Anime Network. So far, results have been positive. “Overall, I'm happy with the setup,” said a fan in the Philadelphia area who wrote a detailed review of The Anime Network on her Web site. “It's just like being able to rent the first few episodes of a series before you buy them.”

“For our audience, a video-on-demand-based launch is perfect,” Ledford said. “Anime fans are really the ultimate early adopters — they're very tech-savvy and will be quick to appreciate the benefits of on-demand functionality.”

Anime-starved fans in markets outside of Philadelphia will have to wait until further phases of the network's launch are made public to find out when The Anime Network will be available in their area.

There are no rules in the world of anime -- anything goes. That seems to be the motto for Tokyopop. Featuring a more diverse and edgier anime lineup than many other publishers, this Los Angeles-based company is looking at 2003 to be its banner year, with the upcoming much-touted release of Reign: The Conqueror.

Reign is nothing less than an attack on the senses. It uses a postmodern world as a fantasy setting to retell the globetrotting adventures of Alexander the Great. The series is handled with a visual flair that is at once both so rough and breathtakingly elegant that it must be seen to be believed.

Each episode is a feast of cutting-edge animation that follows characters along intricate plots highlighted by grandiose battle sequences.

“The title will be our most heavily promoted anime ever,” said Chad Benesh, Tokyopop's director of marketing. He promises an ambitious four-month advertising campaign across trade and consumer publications.

Benesh credits creator Peter Chung with helping to bring Reign: The Conqueror to the attention of the market.

Chung is an animator whose character design and storyboarding credits include Transformers and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He's directed commercials for Honda and Nike. He also created the character and concept designs of “Aeon Flux,” which became one of MTV's highest-rated programs after it spun off from the animation anthology program “Liquid Television.”

Chung's latest project is the segment titled “Matriculated” for Animatrix, an innovative collection of nine original short films conceived by the Wachowski Brothers, the creators of The Matrix trilogy.

For Reign, the animation itself was developed by some of the most creative and influential forces in anime today. It's produced by Rintaro (Astro Boy, Metropolis) and Masao Murayama (Trigun, Cardcaptor Sakura), while the animation was done by the famed Madhouse studio (Vampire Hunter D).

The 13-episode series will premiere in February on the Cartoon Network as part of its “Adult Swim” lineup. Tokyopop will release the first four episodes of Reign Feb. 25 for $29.99.

Additional volumes of Reign will be released throughout 2003.

After breaking domestic and international DVD sales records, The Matrix franchise has a new target: anime. On June 5, Warner Home Video will release Animatrix, a collection of nine short films conceived by the Wachowski Brothers, creators of the live-action Matrix trilogy.

The omnibus feature, jam-packed with computer-generated animation and anime-style visuals, promises to probe deeper into the mind-bending world of The Matrix. It provides further background on main characters Neo, Morpheus and Trinity, as well as explains the beginnings of The Matrix itself.

An anime “dream team” of animators and directors has been assembled to maintain the innovative look and feel of the Matrix films. Key anime personnel include Yoshiaki Kawajiri (writer-director, Ninja Scroll and Vampire Hunter D), Shinchiro Watanabe (writer-director, Cowboy Bebop) Koji Morimoto (animation supervisor, Akira), Mahiro Maeda (director, Blue Submarine No. 6), Takeshi Koike (lead animator on several of director Kawajiri's films), Peter Chung (creator and director, MTV's “Aeon Flux”) and Andy Jones (animation director, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within).

To generate early awareness, Warner Home Video will offer sneak peeks at one of the short films, beginning on the The Matrix Reloaded Super Bowl Sunday spot airing Jan. 26. Thereafter, Animatrix will be trailered in theaters with the new feature film Stephen King's Dreamcatcher, which opens nationwide April 4.

Buena Vista Home Entertainment is about to grant the wish of many anime lovers. The distributor will launch three anime classics from Studio Ghibli, Japan's most celebrated animation studio.

The three titles are Castle in the Sky, Kiki's Delivery Service and Spirited Away, which became Japan's highest-grossing film ever and is one of last year's most critically acclaimed films. All were directed by Hayao Miyazaki, who is often called the “Disney of Japan” for his compelling characters and breathtaking animation. He directs, writes and produces these features, which have won international acclaim.

Fans can expect these classics April 15 at $19.99 each on VHS and $29.99 as two-DVD sets.

The DVD sets will include a special introduction by John Lasseter, the head of the creative department at Pixar that has championed Miyazaki's films. Other features include a “Behind the Microphone” voice talent featurette, storyboards and original Japanese trailers.

The most recent feature, Spirited Away, will contain additional material such as a making-of documentary and the ability to select a storyboard-to-scene comparison, which has been the most applauded feature on the Japanese editions of these films. This feature allows access to never-before-seen storyboards, many of them drawn by Miyazaki himself.

All DVDs contain beautiful 16x9 widescreen transfers as well as Japanese and English dialog (Dolby Digital 5.1) with optional English subtitles. French- and Spanish-language tracks also are included.

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