Thursday, April 22, 2010

Culture Shock 04.22.10: Carl Macek, the man who turned America Japanese, dies

You'll seldom see his name mentioned along with the likes of Walt Disney and Chuck Jones, but no one influenced animation during the past 25 years more than Carl Macek.

Macek, more than anyone else, is responsible for bringing Japanese animation, or anime, into the mainstream of American popular culture.

He died of a heart attack Saturday at age 58.

Macek's animation revolution started in 1985, when he produced the 85-episode sci-fi epic "Robotech," a sprawling saga in which humanity must fend off three successive alien invasions that threaten to destroy the Earth.

Macek created "Robotech" by cobbling together three unrelated Japanese series, rewriting each so that it became one chapter in a multi-generational story. He edited out the brief nudity and mild profanity that was fine by Japanese standards but would never fly for a cartoon on American broadcast television. But what he didn't do was tone down the story.

As a result, "Robotech" was, at the time, unique among animated programs on American TV. Major characters aged over time, learned from their experiences and sometimes even died defending their home planet. "Robotech" was a cartoon in which war was real and violence had consequences. As a result, it gained a strong cult following that continues today.

Even so, "Robotech" wasn't quite popular enough for Macek to find stable financial backing for his proposed sequel series, "Robotech II: The Sentinels." So he moved on, co-founding Streamline Pictures along with animation historian Jerry Beck.

Streamline was one of the first companies to dub popular Japanese movies into English for release theatrically and on home video in America. Its films included "Lensman," the adult-themed "Wicked City," the apocalyptic classic "Akira" and director Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro."

It was the first time mainstream American audiences were exposed to anime more sophisticated than cartoons like "Speed Racer" and "Gigantor." Macek had opened the floodgates for what was to come, both good and bad. By the late 1990s, anime was a fixture on U.S. television, to the delight of children and the horror of parents who found themselves spending hundreds of dollars on their children's Pokémon cards.

Then in 2002, Miyazaki's "Spirited Away" — distributed by Disney — won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, besting the first installment in the seemingly never-ending "Ice Age" series and cementing anime's place in the U.S.

But not everyone was pleased with Macek's efforts at the time. Purist anime fans criticized "Robotech," claiming it ruined three perfectly good Japanese series by combining them into one. And many disliked even more Streamline's policy of releasing only dubbed versions of Japanese films, rather than more faithful, subtitled versions.

What those critics failed to appreciate, however, was the financial environment Macek faced in the '80s and early '90s.

In order to place an animated series into weekday syndication, he needed a show with at least 65 episodes, and none of the three series he incorporated into "Robotech" met that number on its own. Also, anime was still this strange, new import from the Far East. Yet Macek was hoping to reach a broad audience, which meant making compromises.

Love it or hate it, his strategy was successful, and it helped create a market that would eventually make even the purists happy.

By now, an entire generation of Americans has grown up with Japanese animation, helping foster a new appreciation here for Japanese culture in general. And it all started with Carl Macek.

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