Helen McCarthy has been working in and writing about the anime industry for over 20 years. Noted for her published works such as Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation, The Anime! Movie Guide, and co-authored works The Anime Encyclopedia, The Erotic Anime Movie Guide, she has also dabbled in magazine publishing and video production. When not a slave to her typewriter, she attends various anime and sci-fi conventions around the world and has been very active and supportive in the U.K. sci-fi/anime fandom. It was during the summer of 2002 that I caught up with Ms. McCarthy and had this conversation.
Glenn Schmall: Could you please introduce yourself and give a quick bio for our audience?
Helen McCarthy: I'm Helen McCarthy, and I began to write about anime because nobody else was doing it at the time. Back in the 1980s when I first became interested, there were quite a number of small fan publications in America but there was nothing in Britain. And the fan publications in America were really hard to track down. They circulated in circles of maybe 30-50 people. People outside their circle rarely knew about them. So, there was next to no real information about anime that was widely available. I thought, one has to do something about this. Because nobody was doing it, I started a little newsletter, and that became a magazine, and eventually that led to my writing my first book.
GS: What was the magazine that came out of the newsletter?
HM: The newsletter was called Anime UK because we wanted to say that this was a British look at Japanese animation, and we carried the name over into the magazine.
GS: You produced the U.K. release of Beast Warriors. What was it like on the other side of the anime reel, and do you have any advice for anyone who would like to go in this direction?
HM: It was absolutely wonderful. Again, we did it because we thought that Beast Warriors was a wonderful little show that really deserved a release and nobody was buying it. So, we had the opportunity through KSS, who then ran a London office, to pick up the rights for a couple of years. We thought that we would just try it. Peter Gold, who was the executive producer and now publisher at Anime UK, was always willing to let us have enough money as he could to try new things. He was the perfect publisher.
Sadly, because the British video market is not particularly receptive to anime, you tend to make slow or no sales, and we didn't have the money for marketing. We did not make any money on Ko Century Beast Warriors, so we weren't able to go on and do Beast Warriors 2, which we would have loved to do because V-Darn in a beaver skin is worth seeing.
We recruited a combination of professional actors whom we had worked with and contacted through various more professional video setups. Jonathan Clements had done some work with various video people in Britain, and we'd done some work on the Urotsukidoji dubs. So, we had some good contacts there and we could pull in voice actors who gave us great performances. Our great discovery was that Jim Swallow, the U.K. anime writer who has gone on to write a series of children's science fiction novels called Sundowners for Scholastic, turned out to be an old-fashioned American movie heartthrob. Jim played Bud Mint with a slow California accent, dripping like honey. No American we've met believes that he isn't American. Everybody says, "You got a guy from California to do this. He had to be a guy from California." Jim was just superb. That was a side -- I've known Jim for many years -- of Jim that I had never seen before.
GS: So, there were raised eyebrows in the booth that day?
HM: Oh, very raised eyebrows in the booth, and we were all saying, "Jim, that voice is a babe magnet. You should use that more often at home." Not that his girlfriend would approve.
I think the thing that we learned most from it: It was a really fun experience, but it would have worked better if we had put the same amount of care into our financial planning and marketing as we did into the making the video. Certainly, if I were ever offered the opportunity to do that again, I would think an awful lot more about the business, the marketing, and the advertising plans. The main thing to bear in mind is that when you are working in the studio, you need to be very, very disciplined because every second of the engineer's time is costing you money. The engineer's [time] and the studio time are the biggest thief of cash that you have. Your actors you can get very cheaply. Actors, god love them, if they like the work that you are offering them will usually do it for a very reasonable price. Sometimes an unreasonable price as far as they are concerned. Most actors like to work. They like to do new work. So, if you offer them something interesting, they will say "Okay."
GS: Especially, something they haven't seen before [that] would be a challenge as well.
HM: For the actor, voice-acting work is a wonderful thing. Movie work pays really well but it usually means that you are off at some godforsaken location somewhere for weeks on time and you don't see your family and you work all the time. It is dull. Theater work, you have to be in in the morning for rehearsal and notes. You have to be in in the evening for performance. You don't see your family. It is dull. Theater work pays peanuts, but voice over work is wonderful even if you are only paying the actors union minimum rate. You get a lunch break. You get snacks brought in. And you are home by 5:30. It is good work for an actor. Remember that.
GS: So your advice would be to watch the money, pay attention to the business details, and have your plan in place before you actually race to the studio.
What about the quality of your translations for your scripts?
HM: The single thing that you must spend money on is a good translation. A translator who can write is god's gift and you should be down on your knees thanking heaven for them.
We were very fortunate in having Jonathan Clements. He is both a very gifted translator and a wonderful dialogue writer. If you don't have a translator who can write, then get a good translation and hand it over to -- if you are very lucky as Miyazaki was -- someone like Neil Gaiman. Someone who can do a great script that stays true to the spirit of the translation. If you don't spend the money on getting something that your actors can work with, you have really handicapped your project from the start.
GS: Your interpretation is only as good as the material that you have to work with. I have frequent conversations with Taliesin Jaffe, who is a voice director. He does a lot of the interpretation and works closely with the translators. I've seen some of his rough scripts and addition to the translation, they will have notes pointing to notes pointing to notes.
HM: Yesterday, Nov Takahashi (from Raijin Comics) was talking about the translation of comics for the American market. From the discussion around that, it emerged that there seem to be two schools of thought in fandom. One school of thought says, "We want the translation to say what the Japanese actually says, regardless of whether it makes sense to a general audience or not." The other school says, "We want a translation that says what this would mean, but then we want copious liner notes." Of course, neither works in the commercial market. What a mass audience wants is to understand that text as if it were written for them. So, a truly great translator can do a translation that is true to the spirit of the Japanese, but lets an American or Chinese or French audience enjoy that text as though it was written for them. They just think, "Of course that is what Japanese people mean," because it speaks to them in their own language and they are not aware of any cultural dissonance at all.
GS: What is the current project that you are working on right now?
HM: I am not working on a writing project. My other half and I moved house in January. As always with a house. . . you look at the house and think, "Nice house, it just needs a couple of little things to fix it up." We've been virtually rebuilding the house around us.
What I am most focused on at present is that we are doing, well, we are planning an expanded and revised version of the Anime Encyclopedia in 2004/2005. We left out about a thousand titles and we were very short for space in this edition. What we are hoping to do, if Stone Bridge will allow us (and they have been very supportive so far), is not only bring it up to date to the end of 2004 but also add in some of the titles that we missed out on and possibly expand the index a little more -- do some more work on creators and studios and that type of thing.
As you know, anime information is a self-expanding field. The more that you know, the more you know that there is to know. Although Jonathan and I are extremely proud of that book, we are also both very aware that there is another book inside of it that we would like to bring out and develop.
GS: Any thoughts of converting the Encyclopedia to a digital medium?
HM: We would really welcome it, and I think that Stone Bridge would welcome an approach to put it into a digital format, but this has been a very big investment for them. This has been the most expensive book that they have ever done. I think that when people look at the range of material on Japan and Japanese culture that they publish, they don't realize what a small publisher Stone Bridge is. So, to make things work for them, a digital format would have to be something that would give them a reasonable return for the input that they have in it. I believe that they have had tentative approaches on a digital format, but none of them have been the kind that would give them a return.
This is something that an awful lot of fans don't appreciate. Stone Bridge and publishers like them literally put their mortgages and their lives on the line every time they support a major project. They really need to make a return back. It is necessary for them so that other people can be encouraged. More publishers are starting to bring out books and new areas are being opened up, areas of study like Susan Napier's Anime: From Akira to Princess Mononoke.
GS: Yes, there are more critical writings these days. The first wave of published works was informational in nature: indices, guides, and things of that nature. I think that your Encyclopedia was the peak of that wave and now we are seeing -- as you started with your Miyazaki book -- a much more critical, in-depth analysis of the industry. I think that as anime matures as an industry in the U.S. -- and it is still very much an immature industry in the U.S. -- there is certainly a market for that type of writing.
HM: Our biggest sales of the Encyclopedia have been to libraries and academic institutions. Obviously every book that goes into a library is read by -- one hopes -- by 30 to 40 more people than every book that goes to a fan. So for us as writers and for Stone Bridge as a publisher, the return from a library sale is the same as the return from an individual sale. It is better for us because it means that more people who would otherwise say, "Why should I spring $25 bucks on a book about a subject that I don't know much about" may read it and think not only, "I like this subject, I want to know more about anime and I want to buy more videos." They may also say, "This is a good book. I want my own copy," and go out and spring $25 bucks for it.
Library sales are really optimistic. We are getting library sales because the medium is moving out of its niche instead of just being something that those crazy comic kids buy. It is becoming something that serious people, people like Susan Napier, spend intellectual academic time on. And that means that libraries respect it. As libraries respect it, parents will worry less about it. From, "I wish that you wouldn't watch that Cartoon Network stuff all the time" it will become "Oh, your teacher says that you can do a project on Japanese culture and animation." Anime moves into the mainstream and becomes accepted. That is what we all hope for. I think that most of us don't want to see anime as this special niche that you have to have magic key words and cultural understanding to go into. Most of us want to see anime as part of world culture, which is where it belongs. It was created by Japan and it is Japan's gift to the world. As writers we want to help the world unwrap that gift.
GS: It is interesting that you touch on that; because it is my impression that a lot of the Japanese don't realize that it is a world gift.
HM: This may be a psychological thing, culturally. I think that it is difficult, perhaps for Americans, because you live in a very successful country, probably the most politically successful country for the last two centuries. To appreciate the impact that failure has had on Japan in this century -- I mean WWII was devastating for the losing nations. Germany still hasn't fully recovered, although it is making considerable strides. Japan, I think, still hasn't recovered, or so it seems to me.
The psychological blow to a nation that has always been very self-contained, of walking on to the world stage and being crushed, is massive. For that reason it seems to me -- I am not a psychologist, this is just a personal view -- for that reason it has taken quite a while for most Japanese to come around to the idea that Japanese culture per se has any value for other nations. Now that they are beginning to realize it, I hope that they will see the uniqueness of what they have to offer and preserve the uniqueness of what they have to offer to the world.
I think that Miyazaki-san takes a very sensible view. He says that he works as a Japanese filmmaker, and because he is a Japanese filmmaker, he understands Japanese audiences. So, he makes his films for Japanese audiences. If other audiences like them, that is fantastic. However, he is working in the idiom that he understands, in the same way that Steven Spielberg is an American filmmaker. There are millions of people all over the world who love Steven Spielberg movies. He doesn't -- I am sure -- think, "How is this going to play in Thailand?" He makes movies from his own experience, from his own culture, in his own cultural language.
What worries me about the fact that so much foreign money is beginning to go into anime is that I don't want anyone in Japan to be persuaded that they should make movies aimed at what the American or the British or the French audiences want. I want them to get the best collaboration with American and British and French and German and Turkish filmmakers, but to make Japanese movies, because that is what they do best.
GS: You clearly see yourself as an ambassador to help European and American audiences to realize that anime is no longer a niche. Do you also feel that the reverse is true?
HM: You are right, especially in TV and in the smaller companies that make videos. There are an awful lot of Japanese filmmakers, and many studio executives, who don't realize that it is the unique thing that they have to offer that we value. They think, "Gosh, I have some American people coming in to try to buy some stuff from me. What can I show them that they will like?" That is a natural reaction, but what I hope we can all encourage them to do is show American moviemakers and buyers and British buyers and French buyers, the things that Japanese audiences are falling for. If you look at any teenager in the developed world, they have the same interests and the same likes.
GS:The language may change, but how we go about our lives remains constant.
HM: Exactly. If you look at a series like Kare Kano or FLCL, those emotions are fairly common to teenagers anywhere. They are going to latch on to those characters in an instant. They don't care that it was made in Japan. In the same way, there is a lot of anime that is shown in the Middle East, in the Muslim countries. Very often, the names of the characters are changed and the people who watch them in Kuwait or the United Arab Emirates don't know that they are Japanese because there is nothing in them that looks particularly Japanese. Particularly some of the old heroic series. They don't care whether they were made by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Shinto believers or what. They just think, "This is a really cool series, with giant robots kicking ass. I like it."
GS: What do you think is the future of anime outside of Japan? As we rush towards mainstream, what do you think is the next big hurdle for anime?
In Japan, the process has been very organic. Partly dictated by Japanese financial and social circumstances, they had a lot of animation on TV from '63 and that generation loved animation and wanted to go on working in it. The economic circumstances of the Japanese TV industry made animation a good bet. So, that generation was able to grow up and see stuff for fourteen-year-olds when they ceased watching stuff for nine-year-olds. And those fourteen-year-olds were able to see stuff for seventeen-year-olds. And those seventeen-year-olds were able to leave high school and go and work in the industry. Naturally, they began to make things for people of their own age.
So now people in Japan can sit down and watch Sazae-san, which is a soap opera loved by sixty-year-old women, fifty-five-year-old men, and seventeen-year-olds who are watching it to see what their grannies tell them about Japanese family values. That sort of organic growth is what we need. So what we need is for distribution companies over here to be visionary enough to buy series that will appeal to the people that have just outgrown Dragonball. To buy a series that will keep the girl audience that Sailor Moon has brought in and to keep developing those audiences. So that we have the kind of continuum in the West of kids who will watch Ultraman Kids at 3 years old and watch Pokemon or whatever the latest is at 5 years old and watch the hero series and the magical girls and then go on to the comedy and the romances. That is what we need.
GS: You've been writing about the anime industry for many years. What changes have you noticed over time? Were they good or bad?
HM: I don't think changes are necessarily good or bad per se. Often it's what we make of them or how they impact on our world that affects our perception.
The Japanese anime industry has a lot to teach the West. Europe has already learned quite a few of the lessons and the U.S. is beginning to follow. For instance, it's obvious that television and merchandising are the two biggest ways to increase sales and exposure, yet it's only recently that Anglophone anime companies seem to have really grasped this and started to profit from it. Of course, there were a lot of constraints like the attitude of the TV companies to overcome, but without overcoming those constraints the industry couldn't go mainstream. Now it's started to expand into the wider world outside fandom, which is where it belongs.
I suppose the biggest change for fandom is the realization that otaku [hardcore anime fans] don't own anime, in Japan or anywhere else. It's becoming part of the mass entertainment market in America, exactly as it is in Japan. Some fans see that as a loss, and want to keep anime a ghetto toy, but I can't agree.
The advance into the mass market is positive because while the mass market is making money, some of it will spill out to fund higher quality material or ideas that are closer to the cutting edge. Also, when a huge range of children are exposed to animation via mass market media, some of them will want to make it their career, and one or two of them will become great designers or directors. One day America or France may have its Studio Ghibli, and it will be born of both the market and the creative impulse.
GS: We have seen TV executives decide via market research that their anime market is a boys' market and they want to ignore the potential girls' market. What do you think about this?
HM: If you look at what Mattel is doing with Barbie at the moment, with their Barbie in the Nutcracker video, and now they are doing another Barbie as Rapunzel video. They have managed to move Barbie into another dimension, into moving pictures. That is a very good signal for people who want to bring in girls' anime or who are wondering about girls' anime. And little girls who love Barbie are now able to experience Barbie in a different way.
GS: But, it is not only the little girls; it is all the mothers of the little girls who grew up..
HM: Who remember Barbie. . .
GS: Who remember Barbie or actually have passed on their Barbies. I've known people who have done that, who say, "Oh look, honey, this is new for me too." So now they can, mother and daughter enjoy. . .
HM: Can enjoy Barbie together.
GS: There is that continuity.
HM: In Japan, Bandai, which has links with Mattel, is promoting Barbie. They actually have a 4-stage plan that starts with little girls and moves on to pre-teen girls. They create merchandise for teen girls, so that they can carry on loving Barbie in the same way that they love Hello Kitty. Then they create high-end collector dolls for those girls' mothers and older sisters, so that Barbie will stay part of their lives in the same way that Hello Kitty has stayed part of their lives.
In fact, Hello Kitty is a perfect brand model if you look at the way that she has crossed the age gap, and purely for girls. So, there is a huge girls' market out there. Hello Kitty generates megabucks for Sanrio, year in year out.
That could happen with anime characters in America if a company has the courage, because it is going to take massive losses over 4 or 5 years. But if a company has the courage to establish that market, they could be reaping gains for 3, 4, 5 generations to come.
GS: All too often, I think that American businesses are too shortsighted. They don't tend to take the long view in terms of investment.
HM: I had the same conversation with Toren Smith a few years ago about girls' comics, and we were talking about what it would take to establish a girl's comics line in the U.S. Toren said that he had done some research and his conclusion was that you had to be prepared to lose 5 million over 5 years. After that you would have your market. And I must admit, everything that I have looked at it indicates the same thing. I don't think that it has gone up that much. Maybe now it is 7 million for 5 years.
If you look at the dollars that girls have to spend, girls have as much money as boys have. And girls think very clearly about where they want their money to go. You can actually make a big market, just catering to pre-teen and teenage girls
This is an argument for my view that fans and industry have a lot to give each other. The industry could use the bigger, wider-based conventions like A-Kon and AWA to do some serious research on the demographics of the female audience and see what kind of girl or woman likes anime, what kind of anime she likes, and what other stuff she's into. They would help build a solid base of information from which one could plan how to develop the female anime market in particular age bands. Work at a specialist event like Yaoi-con would be on a very small sample demographically, but it would help to gauge the potential of small niche markets in anime, as well as giving some pointers to related markets like J-pop.
GS: You've been going to anime conventions for a number of years. How have they changed? What would you like to see changed that hasn't? Is there a difference in fandom (U.S. vs. U.K.)?
HM: The biggest difference is the increasing involvement of the industry. That's not so marked in the U.K., where our local anime industry has declined. (Actually it would be fair to say the U.K. industry has always supported local conventions, in the sense of taking stands in the dealers' room and providing items to screen when requested.) But it seems to me that in the U.S., the local industry sponsors stuff and encourages actors and translators to come to conventions, and the Japanese industry gets involved because the U.S. is the English-speaking market. In Europe, a number of major conventions get a broader spectrum of the entertainment industry involved or work as part of the wider market -- Belgium's FACTS convention has anime as one of five equally important strands alongside comics, toy collecting, SF and fantasy, and the BD Expo in France shows anime and manga alongside other comics and animation.
I know there are a few fans that get worried that corporate involvement will dilute some arcane notion of fannish purity, as though corporate involvement is bad of itself. Given that America's wealth and influence in the world stems so strongly from the success of its corporations in the marketplace, that seems a crazy attitude for U.S. fans to take! There's nothing to lose and everything to gain from learning, and any successful organization has some things to teach us. The industry relies on the wider marketplace for its success, so corporations can't just consider the "otaku type" fan base, and that has caused some bad feeling among fans; but fans and industry have a lot to teach each other and co-operation between them can be very productive.
I'd like to see more industry involvement on the educational and charity side -- sponsorship and participation in skills sessions like demos and workshops at conventions, panels that look at how the industry works, and so on. And I'd like to see the industry doing more research at conventions, especially at US conventions like A-Kon where the demographic is so broad. As for convention staff, the best of them have and use many skills that would make them successful in a corporate environment -- problem-solving abilities, creativity, tenacity, the ability to plan and bring others on board with their plans. Both parties should cooperate to keep the anime industry strong and growing. That's what we all want, isn't it?
To me, the biggest difference between U.S. and U.K. fandom is the breadth of the demographic. Most U.S. conventions I've attended have roughly 40% or more female attendees, a wide age range, a wide ethnic range, a wide economic range and a significant number of people with visible disabilities. I don't know why, but that isn't the case in the U.K. Maybe that's why U.K. fandom, though very active and dedicated, has declined in numbers since it got going in 1990/91.
GS: What is your opinion of fan subtitling? Does it work as advertising or does it undercut legitimate productions?
HM: Both, both. There is no point in saying that fans only sub[title] material that they can't get elsewhere. Because they don't. Fans sub anything that they can get their hands on. I know from talking to fans that many of them will say, "I can't afford the commercial dub of XYZ. Why should I buy it when my friend will do me 8 episodes on fan subbed tape, and the tape only costs me $3?"
Fan subbing is piracy. There is no point in dressing it up any other way. That is exactly what it is. I am not saying that I don't understand the reasons why people fan sub. I think that whether or not you support pirated products is a personal decision. But fan subbing is piracy. There is no other argument. That is the law, which is the truth, which is the moral argument. So, fans have to decide for themselves, and fan subbers have to decide for themselves, whether they are going to keep the pure spirit of fan subbing which is, "This is to help people get access to material that is not available commercially and therefore we will do this until it is licensed," or whether they are going to say, "This is a cheap way for people who don't want to pay the commercial money to get cheap tapes." There are those two poles and there are people at both ends of them and everybody makes their own decision.
Fan subbing does work as advertising to an extent, in that somebody who wouldn't spring for $15 bucks for a tape or $25 for a DVD that they don't know that they are going to like would go along with a friend to a local fan sub showing or be sent a tape by their friend and maybe think that this anime stuff is good, lets see some more of it. But in just the same way, a huge number of fan subbers have huge collections that they could not afford or would not divert the money from other interests for, if it wasn't for fan subbing. The main impetus for them for fan subbing is to get tapes cheap. That is never going to grow the market.
GS: I know that the studios would howl at this prospect but I think that they should take the first one is free approach. Maybe not give the whole episode away for free, but perhaps maybe give the first ten minutes and let people preview it. The music industry has been very keen on this. You can go into most venues now and actually listen to the music to see if you want to purchase the album.
HM: Of course, with the spread of the personal computer, which has been the biggest change in how these things are done, it is very easy for a company to put a five minute segment on their Web site and say, "Here, you can download it."
GS: "Please, give it to all your friends. We want you to look at our product."
HM: That I think is great, but that is the company's choice. I know of a couple of companies who have decided not to buy a series because the fan-subbed market in that series is so large that they are not going to sell tapes.
This means that the original creator of that work is never going to get any money for it. Ever. And that I think is a very sad thing. Also that original creator of that work may be deprived of the opportunity to get their work on TV in the English language, because often a successful video sale will spark the interest of TV executives. So in some cases, fan subbers are actively damaging the careers of the artists that they claim to support. That is something that everybody has to think about.
I have fan subs. I have fan subs that people gave me many, many years ago. Without them, I would not have developed my interest in anime to the level that I did, and I would not be here. And I am very grateful to those people. But, both of us were students in the days when it cost us a fortune to buy a tape. The context then was slightly different. Now, I think that the questions to be asked are a lot harder and the answers have to be individual.
GS: On that note we are going to have to end the interview. I thank you very much for being with us today.
HM: Thank you. It was fun.
Copyright © 2002 Glenn Schmall
Glenn Schmall has been volunteering and organizing anime conventions for almost 10 years. He is a currently an executive member (meaning he gets to make some of the decisions) for two conventions and is the process of starting a third. In addition to running conventions, he runs a successful news site called Anime Tourist that reports on the business and fandom of anime. His previous article in Strange Horizons can be found in our Archive.
1. Not long after we did this interview, Bandai released their annual trailer disc with the first episode of Arjuna on it. This was a free disc given away by the armload at various conventions around the U.S. over the summer.