TOKYO - Animation in America once meant Mickey Mouse, Snow White and Winnie the Pooh. These days, it's just as likely to mean Japanese fighting cyborgs, doe-eyed schoolgirls and sinister monsters - thanks in large part to people like John Ledford.
The 36-year-old American is one of the top foreign distributors of Japanese "manga" comics and animation, known as "anime," building his fortune on a genre that is rapidly changing from a niche market to a mass phenomenon.
Ledford, who's so busy his dubbing studio in Houston runs 24 hours a day, says the key to the success of Japanese manga and anime in the United States is their widely varied, cutting-edge subject matter.
"We're kind of like the anti-Disney," Ledford, a bespectacled, fast-talking man with a friendly smile, said during a recent visit to Tokyo. "Disney is very family type. We are appealing to the video-game, PlayStation, Generation X, Generation Y kind of crowd in America."
Although American animation releases, such as "Toy Story," "Shrek" and "The Incredibles," continue to wow audiences, they are largely aimed at children. Japanese anime and manga spans a wide range of topics, including science fiction, horror-thrillers and soap-operatic melodrama. At American video-rental shops, whole shelves are taken up by titles like "Ninja Resurrection," "Neon Genesis Evangelion" and "Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040."
One animation, "Ghost in the Shell" takes place in a futuristic world, where memories become individual identities that jump like spirits from one mechanical body to another, a dark science fiction that raises questions about death and the metaphysical threat from technology.
Another, "Apocalpyse Meow," chronicles the adventures of three brave rabbits fighting as American soldiers in the Vietnam War. The rabbits tromp through jungles dressed in camouflage and wielding machine guns, taking part in nightmarish battles amid smoking explosions and hovering helicopters.
Kathie Borders, who runs Wizzywig Collectibles, a store devoted to manga and anime in Ann Arbor, Mich., which carries Ledford's videos and books, says the popularity of Pokemon and YuGiOh! - perhaps the best-known characters - has propelled a boom in anime that's not only for the usually male, 20-something video-game-loving crowd. It's now drawing fans of all ages, and increasingly, women.
"They're fascinated by the difference in the culture," Borders said in a telephone interview, giving as an example stories starring Japanese schoolgirls. "They like reading something that's not the normal, run-of-the-mill story that they might have been used to."
The heroines may wear uniforms and go to schools that have strict rules compared to American schools, but universal themes, such as falling in love and growing up, transcend cultural boundaries, she said.
Ledford, who speaks a little Japanese, started out by bringing video games from Japan to the United States after dropping out of college. He later expanded into manga and anime.
His first anime deal was in 1992 for the cartoon version of his best-selling video-game "Devil Hunter Yoko," about a teenager who defeats goblins - an investment returned in full in just three months. More recently, Ledford's A.D. Vision Inc. has been taking part in funding for Japanese animation. His film unit now records $150 million in annual sales.
Ledford also has 1,000 manga books under license and publishes Newtype USA, the English-language version of a top manga and animation monthly magazine. His Anime Network moved from video-on-demand to a national cable network in July.
Manga and anime may not be for everyone with their heavy dosage of corny romanticism, blood-splattering violence and pubescent sense of erotica. But both are clearly no longer just for Japanese geeks as their counterparts in the United States, Europe and other parts of Asia simply can't get enough.
Shoji Udagawa, vice president at Kadokawa Pictures Inc., a major Japanese film studio, said Ledford understands anime and can help create works that will appeal to Americans as well as to Japanese. Americans tend to like anime with a darker ambiance such as those with robots, he said.
"He fits in well with Japanese but he has something that Japanese don't have," Udagawa said.
Bandai Co. Ltd., a major Japanese toymaker, and electronics and entertainment giant Sony Corp. also distribute anime in the United States, such as "Gundam," "Astro Boy" and "Cowboy Bebop." But the established companies tend to look for sure winners, Ledford says, while he offers a broader lineup.
Pokemon alone earned about $29 billion around the world since 1997, and the U.S. anime business, including licensed character goods and box-office revenue, is estimated at $4 billion a year, according to the Japanese government.
Works like "Spirited Away" by Hayao Miyazaki, which won an Oscar and the Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival, are helping raise anime's reputation.
Kelly Lamb, a 14-year-old Ann Arbor high school student, has never been to Japan but is an avid anime fan and sometimes makes her own anime-inspired costumes.
"It's so funny and so hysterical," she said of "Excel Saga," one of her favorites. "If you're really feeling down, it's so funny it cheers you up."
On the Net:
ADV Films: www.advfilms.com/
Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli: www.onlineghibli.com/
Bandai Entertainment: www.bandai-ent.com/
"Astro Boy": www.astro-boy.net/