ANIME IN THE UK: A FLASHBACK TO 1994 AND BBC’S “MANGA!” DOCUMENTARY

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In December 1993 I was 13 years old and I had been into anime and manga for around six months or so. Everything was still a learning experience as far as this exciting new artform was concerned. I used to read Dark Horse Publishing’s magazine Manga Mania to keep up to date with what was happening in the UK anime and manga scene since these were the pre-internet days. In the January 1994 issue (published in December) the cover image showed the poster for Akira and said “Do not adjust your sets: the revolution will be televised”. Excitedly I flipped to the news section to see if I had understood correctly and it confirmed that yes, Akira would be shown on TV! I hadn’t seen Otomo’s classic at the time although it had been released in 1991 as the first title of the relatively new UK label Manga Video. I owned a couple of their tapes and their releases were how I found out about anime in the first place, yet my local video retailers never seemed to have Akira in stock.

In addition to Akira the news section also confirmed that there would be an anime and manga documentary shown on the BBC to accompany the screening. For a young fledgling Otaku wanting to know more about Japanese culture and craving any new information on my new favourite interest this was exciting news indeed.

So the night before Akira was screened the following January, I sat down with BBC2 on, a cup of tea in hand and a blank VHS tape to watch (and record) a little documentary hosted by Jonathan Ross simply titled “Manga!”. It looked at fandom in the UK which had recently been boosted by the arrival of the first dedicated British video labels and more specialist comic stores stocking manga among the regular American superhero stuff. It also made an attempt to trace the origins of manga back to Japanese picture scrolls and talked about other subjects like Akhibara and Japanese video games. In short for a 30 min documentary it certainly covered a lot of ground. I got thinking about this documentary recently and how I’d like to see it again and thanks to the good old internet I found it on Youtube. I have not seen it since the 90’s . A lot has changed since this documentary was made so I thought looking back at it would make for an interesting “snapshot in time” to compare with how things are today.

You can watch it on Youtube just search for: “BBC Manga Documentary”.

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If you’re not British you may not be familiar with Jonathan Ross but he’s a well known TV host who has been involved with all manner of programs for decades here in the UK. He’s also a well known geek, avid comic collector and a big otaku to boot. I’m guessing since he travelled all over the world with his career he probably noticed anime and manga earlier than the UK scene exploding in the early 90’s. Anyway in this doc he appears to have been filmed in a Japanese arcade and narrates us on a journey meant to help westerners understand exactly what anime and manga is, while also focusing on its growing popularity in the UK. The documentary is successful in that regard but it does feature a little bit of cultural bias and a few head slapping moments.

One of the first things discussed is a convention called “Contanime 93” apparently according to the doc this was only the 5th British convention dedicated solely to Japanese animation. The footage shows what seems to be quite a small event, maybe just in one room with not a great deal of merchandise, a few model kits, some VHS tapes and a few figures, and most of it looks like its Japanese import stuff rather than domestic. Obviously now we have a wealth of US and UK releases and even quite a bit of merchandise is repackaged for the English language market. Of course there are far more dedicated, bigger conventions nationwide now and a lot more anime related merchandise seems to make its way into regular comic conventions as well. We even have anime directors and manga authors attending UK cons for the first time when until very recently the only guests we got to such cons were US dub actors.

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Early on it discusses Akira‘s VHS sales figures at the time of the documentary being produced. It says that Akira sold 70,000 copies in the UK. Considering the tape was released in 91 and the doc was filmed in 93 that’s pretty good going for a niche video label.

It’d be interesting to know what sales of DVDs and Blu rays are like in the UK these days. We have a decent number of video labels now, however with online streaming services available people are no longer limited to having to buy their anime like we were back then.

Helen Mccarthy is interviewed for the documentary and she expresses a bit of disappointment at the UK scene not having more female fans. Boy has that changed for the better! I’d say I probably know of as many female fans as I do male ones these days. That probably has a lot to do with the wealth of different genres that are available today now that the market is so much bigger.

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Her points are really interesting and having lived through that time of fandom I can 100% see where she was coming from. She cites the fact that much of the marketing for UK titles were male dominated and ads appeared in computer game magazines like Mean Machines Sega and Super Play and the tapes themselves were often on sale in computer game shops.

It likely didn’t help that a lot of Manga Video’s titles were often heavily promoted as adult fare full of sex and violence and often they tended to pimp the fact that they were pushing the envelope and releasing stuff that was edgy and/or controversial. Check out the below magazine adverts to see what I mean.

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This was the sort of thing that probably got them into trouble with so called “Newspapers” like the Daily Mail’s brand of fear mongering journalism telling the UK public to “Ban these sick cartoons now!”. I honestly think Manga Video’s marketing combined with the sensationalist crap spread by the UK press did a lot of damage. So much so that its only in maybe the last ten years or so with the rise of popularity of stuff like the films of Ghibli and recent cinema successes like Your Name and A Silent Voice that the perception is starting to change for the better.

The documentary has a few eye rolling moments such as the repeated use of “Turning Japanese” by The Vapours. I’m sure I’ve seen at least 3 UK documentaries about Japanese culture that used it quite extensively. Some of the talking heads segments don’t exactly feature experts either. I was left thinking on more than one occasion that some of what was being said was either a bit one sided or out of context. There’s a clip where they ask a group of fans why they like anime and one responds with the well thought out answer “I like the violence…..it’s what drew me to it”.

Thankfully another more sensible fan mentions the creativity of a lot of anime and the fact that with animation you’re not bound by any limits, only the limits of your imagination which is definitely one of many reasons I became interested in it at the age I did.

They address the controversial nature of some of the adult titles and Mccarthy, always the voice of reason, points out that adult rated tapes falling into the wrong hands isn’t an argument against the sale of 18 rated videos but rather an argument for better parenting and retailers to be more strict in what they sell to minors.

There are some great interviews in this documentary though. Hayao Miyazaki is featured quite a bit, believe it or not he wasn’t actually known to the west much back then. Only hardcore anime fans had really heard of him and none of his films except for a butchered version of Naussica (retitled Warriors of the Wind) were available on video here at the time. Ross mentions Miyazaki had the biggest hit of 1992 at the Japanese box office with Porco Rosso, a film I had not had the opportunity to see at the time but which I love now. It may seem strange to newer fans to think that obscure films and OVAs were released on a regular basis to the UK video market yet the work of a giant of the medium like Miyazaki went unreleased at the time. ┬áThis may have been due to the licencing costs of the films of the bigger studios or that a lot of Japanese animation studios could be quite fussy about what they would agree to licence for western markets.

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Miyazaki says the 60’s were the era when comics began to be read by adults in Japan. He seems to have been a lot less grumpy in those days. Even as early as this documentary he is described as “the Walt Disney of Japan”, a name I thought had been popularised by the English speaking press much later in his career.

Buichi Terasawa is also interviewed and is referred to as one of the most successful manga artists today. Despite being hugely successful all over the rest of the world Terasawa never quite broke into the mainstream in English language speaking countries. He has his fans sure but most of his manga output has went out of print in English in the decades since this doc was filmed and have never been re-released. His most popular manga work Cobra unfortunately remains unavailable in collected editions in English with only some single issue monthlies printed in the 90’s and his later works have never been released at all. Unfortunately this seems to be a common problem with a lot of industry legends these days. Comic stores are full of whatever new manga is currently hot but a lot of the classics are being neglected with only the most dedicated companies picking up older releases.

Terasawa discusses the digital manga he is currently creating and how he is selling it on CD-Rom instead of paper. He seems hopeful it will become a popular new form of media, I guess we can safely say that particular trend never took off but hopefully his digital manga Takeru will be made available at some point to English speaking fans in good old physical book format.

Yes some elements of the documentary have dated a little and it occasionally verges close to expressing opinion as fact but it also does a great job of summarising a lot of different elements of Japanese pop culture and talking about a variety of different mediums. The chats with legends like Miyazaki, Buchi Terasawa and Katsuhiro Otomo don’t hurt it either.

This programme really does feel quite a bit like a time machine, if you grew up in the UK or even if you didn’t it’s an interesting glimpse back in time to the beginning of British fandom. It’s also a great insight into historically how anime and manga’s image and our knowledge of it has changed dramatically in the last twenty four years.

If you enjoyed this article please let me know in the comments, I really appreciate the feedback. Feel free to share your memories of the beginning of anime fandom either in the UK or whichever country you live in. I hope you found this little trip back in time interesting.

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