Just a couple decades ago, anime fans would pore over Japanese dictionaries to hand-translate subtitles for their favorite anime films, which they’d disseminate over IRCs and password-protected forums. Over the last couple of years, those same fans to see marquee displays for “SPIRITED AWAY” and “YOUR NAME” hanging above their local brick-and-mortar movie theater. More and more American theaters are screening new and old anime movies, a welcome change for fans tired of pirating anime on their tiny MacBooks.
It’s true that in 1999, kids lined up outside theaters for the 75-minute feature film Pokemon: The First Movie, a viewing experience my mother cites as the number one most challenging thing she did as a parent next to giving birth. Also, in 2002, Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away—with meagre marketing—was shown at 151 theaters a year after its Japanese release, but grossed $5.5 million. Yet between the big releases, anime films used to be a rare sight to see in a U.S. theater—outside of film hubs like New York or Los Angeles. What we got was almost always accompanied by the words “limited release.”
Things are different now. After the enormous success of anime films like Your Name, which earned $1.7 million its opening weekend in 2017, the floodgates have been opened. Along with the excitement of participating in a cultural moment—the release of a movie to a large audience—fans can experience a lot of these films the way they’re meant to be seen: with booming sound, high-quality video and the cinema atmosphere.
In 2019, we’re getting spoiled. The 2018 love story Mirai, a critical hit, is still showing in theaters across the country, and at its peak was showing in 700 theaters. Dragon Ball Super: Broly earned $7 million at the box office on January 16, the day it was released. Soon, we’re getting I Want To Eat Your Pancreas, Fate/Stay Night: Heaven’s Feel II, Okko’s Inn, and Anemone: Eureka Seven Hi-Evolution. We’ll have yet another year of the Studio Ghibli Fest, a nationwide event that will bring nine Studio Ghibli movies—Ponyo, Pom Poko, Princess Mononoke—to middle America as well as the big cities. (There was a listing for The Cat Returns in The Idaho Statesman last year.)
Fathom is one of the major companies behind the flood of anime movies to theaters and is also spearheading the Studio Ghibli Fest. “We initially premiered several anime titles 6-7 years ago, however in more recent years, we have increased our focus on this type of programming,” said senior director of programming Brian Deulley. “This focus mainly stems from overwhelming fan response and demand, both domestically as well as internationally.” In 2017, the Ghibli fest earn $5.29 million at the box office. In 2018, that number grew to $6.78 million.
“For so long, many titles could only be viewed on imported VHS/ DVD/ Blu rays, or fan sites that people may or may not have stumbled across,” Deulley continued. Theatrical releases allow audiences to “enjoy their favorite characters or relive classic scenes on the big screen in a packed auditorium with other fans.”
It’s not just that there’s a greater hunger for anime movies in theaters. American distributors are also getting the rights to more anime. In 2017, boutique animation distributor GKIDS took over most of Studio Ghibli’s distribution rights from Disney (GKIDS had acquired theatrical rights in 2011). Disney got worldwide distribution rights in 1996, a little before the release of soon-to-be-classics Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away. In 2017, GKIDS released half of Hayao Miyazaki’s film output on Blu-Ray.
GKIDS president David Jesteadt was managing a video store before he began working in GKIDS’ distribution department. At that time, it was a tiny company distributing foreign animated films. Ten years later, at age 33, Jesteadt is helping to head some of the biggest theatrical and home theater anime releases the U.S. has ever seen. Studio Ghibli, he said, trusts GKIDS to do things right. “We started theatrically re-releasing a lot of their films which were previously unavailable,” he explained over the phone. Studio Ghibli values theatrical experiences above all else, he said, because “that’s how the films were made to be seen.” If you’ve ever seen Nausicaa in theaters, you know what the booming techno soundtrack does for its skyglider chase scenes.
Studio Ghibli also cares about film format, according to Jesteadt. “They wanted [us] to show the films in 35mm. It was very important for them to have the opportunity for the audience to see those like that on a large screen… They’re a company that deeply respects how things are done, not just being commercially or financially oriented. They want their films treated with care and thought and with a unique appreciation for what makes them special.”
Jesteadt said that while he has “nothing but respect for Disney and what they were able to do for the Ghibli catalog,” they’re a large studio that has multiple blockbuster films every year. “They have a lot going on. Being able to build from the ground up and say how are we going to get these films seen in theaters has been an interesting challenge for us.”
Ghibli isn’t the only name on the block at GKIDS, but it is the most mainstream. Another of the company’s special projects has been theatrically releasing the films of mastermind director Masaaki Yuasa. Last year, Yuasa made both Lu Over The Wall and Night Is Short Walk On Girl, the latter of which I have described as “the best anime movie in memory.” Both movies had theatrical releases. It was a spectacular thing for fans of the lesser-known but beloved director, especially since his 2004 psychedelic masterpiece Mind Game didn’t get a U.S. theatrical release until last year (again, thanks to GKIDS). Sadly, a lot of these events only last a couple of days.
“It’s a golden age of anime generally and that includes access,” said Jesteadt. His mission now, though, is to pave the way for smaller projects’ theatrical welcomes overseas. “Often, in the past, there were gatekeepers—people maybe like me or a distributor who has to bring over one thing. It’s easier than ever to say, ‘We’re gonna bring over a lot of things and let natural fanbases develop.’ It can be tougher for smaller projects or films that don’t always have that high level of attention and exposure before they release. We want to play a small part in helping to curate and draw attention to titles that may not necessarily be the best known always but have a strong quality thread running through them.”