TOKYO -- Animation in America once meant Mickey Mouse 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 cutting-edge subject matter.
"We're kind of like the anti-Disney," Ledford said of his firm, ADV Films. "Disney is very family type. We are appealing to the video-game, PlayStation, Generation X, Generation Y kind of crowd in America."
American animations such as "Toy Story" and "Shrek" wow audiences, but are largely aimed at children. Japanese anime and manga span a wide range of topics, including science fiction, horror, and soap opera.
"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 technology. Another, "Apocalpyse Meow," chronicles the adventures of three brave rabbits fighting as American soldiers in the Vietnam War.
Kathie Borders of Wizzywig Collectibles in Ann Arbor, Mich., said the popularity of Pokemon and YuGiOh! -- perhaps the best-known characters -- propelled a boom in anime. It's now drawing fans of all ages, and increasingly, women. "They're fascinated by the difference in the culture," Borders said.