Frans Alkemade's Super Anime, a Japanese cartoon site with Catholic values

Former director of operations at Apple Computers hires MBAs for San Diego anime business

In Roman times, the word "animare" meant "to give breath to." In the Biblical record, the first act of animation was performed by God, who created Adam by breathing life into a lump of clay. But it wasn't until the 1880s that the word "animation" was first used in reference to moving pictures, and it wasn't until 1908 that Frenchman Emile Cohl released what is considered to be the first animated film. From that point onwards, animation advanced by leaps and bounds: In 1910 artists began to cut out and reuse images for every new frame of film; in 1914, the technique of overlapping transparent layers of celluloid -- or "cels" -- was patented. By the time World War I broke out, the animation industry was off and running, and for much of the next century, its centers of power would be located in America.

Today, however, Japanese companies have moved to the foreground of animated art and technology, and Japanese animation -- or "anime," which is pronounced in such a way as to rhyme with "Fannie Mae" -- is quickly becoming an international phenomenon. In Japan itself, the form is as popular as live-action movies are here in the United States, and in Tokyo, it's not unusual for anime films to take up eight or nine screens at the local multiplex.

While Japanese animation has been around since 1910 or so, it wasn't until the late '50s that the Walt Disney of Japan, an animator named Osamu Tezuka, created a distinctive national style. Having adapted, translated, and drawn Disney's Bambi for Japanese audiences, Tezuka went on to produce and illustrate Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. In doing so, he instilled the idea that cartoons weren't necessarily child's play and could encompass the raunchy humor, violence, and kind of adult themes you'd find in films by Akira Kurosawa or Seijan Suzuki. In Japan, that idea holds true to this day.

When Tezuka opened Japan's first animation studio, in 1961, he avoided Disney's formula of recycling old folk tales and struck out instead for new artistic territories. Along the way, he created anime's futuristic feel and its immediately recognizable visual style. He employed flamboyant visual effects, from tracking shots and unexpected lens flares to striking close-ups and the oddest camera angles imaginable. By the time of Tezuka's death, in 1989, dozens of anime artists stood ready to inherit his mantle and bring the art form to an international audience.

The following year, Akira -- an anime film set in 2019 and designed to appeal to fans of post-industrial thrillers like Blade Runner and The Terminator -- found a small but dedicated audience in the West. By the mid-'90s, dubbed anime videos were appearing in American stores, and cable channels like MTV were beginning to feature anime in their programs. In 2003, an anime feature film, Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. And, this spring, Akira's creator, Katsuhiro Otomo, released a new film called Steamboy -- with a budget of over $20 million, it's said to be the most expensive anime film of all time.

As it developed, anime combined elements of the Warner Bros. cartoon with those of the independent art-house film; at its best, it became a smart, fast-paced, thought-provoking, and eerily beautiful genre. By common misperception, anime is often equated with pornography. But while hentai, or animated porn, is indeed a subset of anime, it's hardly the only one. There are also historical anime, sci-fi anime, fantasy anime, horror anime, cyber anime, mecha anime (which is geared towards techies), shoujo anime (which is aimed at girls), shounen anime (which appeals to boys), and sentai anime (in which color-coded warriors battle evil monsters). Anime's comic-book equivalent -- which is called manga -- is considered an art form unto itself and has an equal number of subsets.

"They have kind of a bad reputation," Ed Sherman says, when I ask about American perceptions of the forms. Sherman is the owner of Rising Sun Creations, a Southern California chain that specializes in anime and manga, and a note of exasperation seems to creep into his voice whenever the subject comes up. "In the early days here in the United States, pretty much the only thing that was getting translated into English and brought over was hentai -- which is nasty stuff, triple-X stuff. And it got so that a lot of people, whenever they hear about Japanese animation, all they think is hentai. But it's not that at all. It's just that that was the popular stuff in the early '90s, when it was first starting to hit here."

Sherman, who grew up attending comic swap meets, entered the industry in 1989 and switched from American comics to anime and manga six years later. Even then, he says, the writing on the wall was easy to read.

"The popularity of anime, I think, is based on the fact that it appeals to everyone. The U.S. comic market is aimed primarily at young teenage males. But in Japanese animation and manga, there is subject matter for everybody. You know, there's stuff for little girls, families, all the way to triple-X, and everything in between.

"The subject matter covers so many different aspects of real life. There's a lot of martial arts in it, but that's not all there is. There are teen-angst storylines young readers identify with. There's comedy, and Japanese horror is just incredible. Even in their live-action films, the Japanese are starting to dominate the horror market worldwide. Take the movie we call The Ring; the Japanese original is so much better than the remake, and most Americans don't even know it."

Sherman is a fan of most things Japanese -- his inventory at his stores includes Japanese action figures, anime DVDs and posters, Japanese keychains, plenty of manga comics, stuffed toys of anime characters, Japanese candy and snacks, and (in the case of a store I visited), a two-foot-tall, remote-controlled model of Godzilla, which sells for $700. The store looked more like a toy store than, say, an art gallery.

"It's a family thing," Sherman explains. "Something parents can get into with their kids. They watch the animes together, they collect the books together, which is something you never see with U.S. comics."


Sherman's point was echoed by 40-year-old Frans Alkemade, who runs an anime company nearby, in San Diego.

"Hentai has been around for a long time. It's been lurking around under the radar and gradually making its way up to the surface of pop culture," Alkemade told me when I asked him about the form.

I'd contacted Alkemade after seeing that his business, the Supreme Anime, carried a seal of approval from a prominent Catholic website. According to Catholic Online, it's "the only anime store with Catholic values."

"Is hentai going to dilute anime?" Alkemade asked. "Is it going to give anime a bad name? In America, where awareness is just growing? Well, we've got an anime channel on TV, and we've got anime-on-demand on TV as well. They're pushing to present anime to the American public in the way that it's supposed to be shown: as entertaining, and as something that's suitable for family viewing."

As of this writing, Alkemade's company includes an e-commerce site called supremeanime.com, a community site called animeoasis.com, and a developing line of original anime, called "The Lost Line." It employs over 100 people. Before Alkemede started it, in 2003, he was a director of operations on the business side of Apple Computers, Inc. Wanting to branch out into online commerce, he began searching Google and found that the most popular search subjects seemed to revolve around Japanese animation.

"Top news stories would be popular for a month here and there," Alkemade told me. "Osama bin Laden would take over number one for a time, or the tsunamis, but then they would always fade, and Dragonball Z would take their place."

When Alkemade's own son started becoming obsessed with anime, Alkemade began to run test groups, hired a staff, and jumped in with both feet.

We'd made a date to talk about the company, and a few days later Alkemade ambled up my walkway, looking relaxed and youthful in khaki shorts, leather sandals, and button-down short-sleeve shirt, toting a little trove of books and DVDs with him. Tagging behind him were two of his employees: "Jeff Preston can clarify a few things, and Sergio Kajirian should liven the conversation up a bit," Alkemade said.

While Alkemade had stocked his company with MBAs, he'd also made it a requirement that his staff familiarize itself with anime and other aspects of Japanese culture. "Even the guys who maybe weren't so much into it at the beginning are a lot more into it now," he said. "That's important -- you have to know your product to be a good businessman."

If so, Preston and Kajirian must be excellent businessmen, indeed. Preston, who is 37 and has an MBA from USD, spent six years teaching high school English to students in Osaka, Japan. Preston's wife is Japanese, and his brother-in-law was as instrumental as Preston's students at getting the teacher into anime. Kajirian, who is 30 and unmarried, also with a USD MBA, has been into anime since childhood and still watches five or six anime films a week. "Especially now," he says, "since it ties in with making a living as well."

Kajirian told me that anime films are livelier than American animations, in part, because anime illustrators have far more freedom than their American counterparts. "There's a depth of issues and themes they can explore," he said, "and that's a surface we can barely scratch over here. Take the G.I. Joe cartoon we saw when we were growing up. That was about war. It had battle scenes. But no one was allowed to die. Can you imagine a war where no one dies? I mean, they had some kind of thing worked out with American censors so that if a plane blew up in midair, and there were people on board, they had to show parachutes coming out of the wreckage. Morality is so immature, here in the West. In Japan, businessmen coming home from work read hentai on the train, and no one even looks twice."

Kajirian was so passionate about the subject, I wondered if he'd given drawing a try. "I went to fashion school in London," he said. "There was a guy called Lee there who'd been going to school since the age of 3 to be a fashion designer. That's how they do it in Japan. Your parents send you to school to do a particular thing, right from the start. By the time I met Lee, he was 19 or 20. He could take a napkin and draw his assignments in a few seconds. I thought, 'That's it. I'm going to fail this class.' And I said to myself, 'You know, I think I'm going to go do business.' "

Nevertheless, Kajirian had a solid grasp on the step-by-step process by which anime is produced: The work is done on an artists' assembly line -- or "studio pipeline" -- in which one person might devote herself to character design, another to coloring, a third to backgrounds, a fourth to layout, a fifth to the shading. "Most anime is eventually scanned into Photoshop and manipulated," Kajirian explained, "but, first, it's hand-drawn by artists who sit at storyboards using India ink and a stylus." In the finished product, drawn material blends so well with computer-generated effects that few amateurs could distinguish between the two.

Kajirian knew this, in part, because of his work, the Supreme Anime's own anime film, The Lost Line. A brainchild of Bay Area artist Darren Haggard, The Lost Line is about five people who are saved from Armageddon only to live throughout eternity and battle evil. The film is meant to be broadcast online as a Flash animation.

"In the early days of the company, when we tested the market for e-commerce, we also worked through the idea of creating an anime series," Alkemade told me. "The test series we did was getting something like 5 million unique hits a month -- we didn't have the bandwidth for that, we weren't making any money at it, and we eventually shut it down -- but it did give us some big ideas. We now understand that this stuff is so popular that even if the movie itself doesn't take off, and you can't sell a DVD or T-shirt, the popularity of an online series could drive a lot of traffic to an e-commerce site or community site. But while we hope The Lost Line is popular, it's also intended to bolster the Supreme Anime's reputation. To let people know we're more than businessmen and to influence the world of anime."

"These are not just comics about superheroes," Kajirian added as he, Preston, and Alkemade prepared to depart. "These are stories about everyday people with big-time problems, with human depth. The main characters might hate themselves; their souls might be in turmoil. But the story lines bring out the heroic aspects of these tortured, everyday-type people."


A few weeks later, I found myself sitting at a table in the Green Teahouse cafe, where the lighting's too bright to provide much in the way of ambiance, the multicolored drinks feature floating balls of something called koba, and pop music blares from tiny, tinny speakers strewn around the room. Off in the corner, at a reserved banquet table, the San Diego Anime and Manga Meetup Group was discussing the finer points of their favorite art form.

"What's so great about Japanese anime?" one man asked.

"It's not kid's stuff, like it is here in the States," a woman named Rebecca answered.

"It's about sharing," a middle-school English teacher named Laura added. "You're excited about something new that's being released. You want to be able to go up to someone and say, 'Kenjin 5 is coming out this week!' and have them know what you're talking about."

Here, a woman named Reese gained the floor and delivered an oration on the breadth of anime's stories, its pushing of cultural envelopes, its fantastical mythos and cutting-edge animation, and, finally, "visual techniques we've seen in movies like The Matrix but that were done in anime over 20 years ago." She finished by saying, "Anime's really a reflection of life, but like a more intense life than we can live because we have actual bodies to deal with."

"I don't know about all that," another man said, midway through this monologue. "I just like to see everything bloodied and blown up."

In Japanese, the word otaku describes an anime fanatic. Once a derogatory term, it has long since evolved into a compliment. "Cosplay" is short for "costume play," in which anime fans dress up and act out the roles of their favorite anime characters. Most cosplay participants wait for the big conventions to dress up, though some groups will use any excuse to get into character. Kawaii is Japanese for "cute" (it's obvious to anyone who's seen even a single anime film that cuteness is an important characteristic in Japanese culture). "Con" is short for "convention" -- an official gathering of anime vendors and fans. And, as it happens, San Diego is the home of Comic-Con -- the largest, most venerable comic-related event in the world.

Comic-Con has been drawing comic book enthusiasts to the city since 1970, but the "Japanese Invasion" of Comic-Con didn't begin until 1980, when a delegation of Japanese cartoonists, animators, and business agents attended. Last year's Comic-Con, which hosted over 87,000 people, featured four days of anime screenings. And the 2005 version, which took place the week of July 14, devoted even more space to anime.

In preparation for the event, I sat down to watch some of the anime films the anime fans I'd been talking to never failed to mention. In the course of a single week, I watched Ghost in the Shell, Akira, Cowboy Bebop, and Samurai Champion. I caught an episode of Full Metal Alchemist on late-night TV and saw a children's anime called The Daichis: Earth's Defense Family, which I took to be the inspiration for America's own movie The Incredibles. I got used to the sight of cartoon characters smoking cigarettes, to the archetypal anime character's outsized eyes and too-small mouths. I came to notice that hair in anime actually looks so real that it's practically a character unto itself.

I hadn't become an otaku yet -- not quite, at least. But by the time you read this, I should be well on my way.

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