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"It's a family thing," Sherman explains. "Something parents can get into with their kids. They watch the animes together, they collect the books together, which is something you never see with U.S. comics."

Sherman's point was echoed by 40-year-old Frans Alkemade, who runs an anime company nearby, in San Diego.

"Hentai has been around for a long time. It's been lurking around under the radar and gradually making its way up to the surface of pop culture," Alkemade told me when I asked him about the form.

I'd contacted Alkemade after seeing that his business, the Supreme Anime, carried a seal of approval from a prominent Catholic website. According to Catholic Online, it's "the only anime store with Catholic values."

"Is hentai going to dilute anime?" Alkemade asked. "Is it going to give anime a bad name? In America, where awareness is just growing? Well, we've got an anime channel on TV, and we've got anime-on-demand on TV as well. They're pushing to present anime to the American public in the way that it's supposed to be shown: as entertaining, and as something that's suitable for family viewing."

As of this writing, Alkemade's company includes an e-commerce site called supremeanime.com, a community site called animeoasis.com, and a developing line of original anime, called "The Lost Line." It employs over 100 people. Before Alkemede started it, in 2003, he was a director of operations on the business side of Apple Computers, Inc. Wanting to branch out into online commerce, he began searching Google and found that the most popular search subjects seemed to revolve around Japanese animation.

"Top news stories would be popular for a month here and there," Alkemade told me. "Osama bin Laden would take over number one for a time, or the tsunamis, but then they would always fade, and Dragonball Z would take their place."

When Alkemade's own son started becoming obsessed with anime, Alkemade began to run test groups, hired a staff, and jumped in with both feet.

We'd made a date to talk about the company, and a few days later Alkemade ambled up my walkway, looking relaxed and youthful in khaki shorts, leather sandals, and button-down short-sleeve shirt, toting a little trove of books and DVDs with him. Tagging behind him were two of his employees: "Jeff Preston can clarify a few things, and Sergio Kajirian should liven the conversation up a bit," Alkemade said.

While Alkemade had stocked his company with MBAs, he'd also made it a requirement that his staff familiarize itself with anime and other aspects of Japanese culture. "Even the guys who maybe weren't so much into it at the beginning are a lot more into it now," he said. "That's important -- you have to know your product to be a good businessman."

If so, Preston and Kajirian must be excellent businessmen, indeed. Preston, who is 37 and has an MBA from USD, spent six years teaching high school English to students in Osaka, Japan. Preston's wife is Japanese, and his brother-in-law was as instrumental as Preston's students at getting the teacher into anime. Kajirian, who is 30 and unmarried, also with a USD MBA, has been into anime since childhood and still watches five or six anime films a week. "Especially now," he says, "since it ties in with making a living as well."

Kajirian told me that anime films are livelier than American animations, in part, because anime illustrators have far more freedom than their American counterparts. "There's a depth of issues and themes they can explore," he said, "and that's a surface we can barely scratch over here. Take the G.I. Joe cartoon we saw when we were growing up. That was about war. It had battle scenes. But no one was allowed to die. Can you imagine a war where no one dies? I mean, they had some kind of thing worked out with American censors so that if a plane blew up in midair, and there were people on board, they had to show parachutes coming out of the wreckage. Morality is so immature, here in the West. In Japan, businessmen coming home from work read hentai on the train, and no one even looks twice."

Kajirian was so passionate about the subject, I wondered if he'd given drawing a try. "I went to fashion school in London," he said. "There was a guy called Lee there who'd been going to school since the age of 3 to be a fashion designer. That's how they do it in Japan. Your parents send you to school to do a particular thing, right from the start. By the time I met Lee, he was 19 or 20. He could take a napkin and draw his assignments in a few seconds. I thought, 'That's it. I'm going to fail this class.' And I said to myself, 'You know, I think I'm going to go do business.' "

Nevertheless, Kajirian had a solid grasp on the step-by-step process by which anime is produced: The work is done on an artists' assembly line -- or "studio pipeline" -- in which one person might devote herself to character design, another to coloring, a third to backgrounds, a fourth to layout, a fifth to the shading. "Most anime is eventually scanned into Photoshop and manipulated," Kajirian explained, "but, first, it's hand-drawn by artists who sit at storyboards using India ink and a stylus." In the finished product, drawn material blends so well with computer-generated effects that few amateurs could distinguish between the two.

Kajirian knew this, in part, because of his work, the Supreme Anime's own anime film, The Lost Line. A brainchild of Bay Area artist Darren Haggard, The Lost Line is about five people who are saved from Armageddon only to live throughout eternity and battle evil. The film is meant to be broadcast online as a Flash animation.

"In the early days of the company, when we tested the market for e-commerce, we also worked through the idea of creating an anime series," Alkemade told me. "The test series we did was getting something like 5 million unique hits a month -- we didn't have the bandwidth for that, we weren't making any money at it, and we eventually shut it down -- but it did give us some big ideas. We now understand that this stuff is so popular that even if the movie itself doesn't take off, and you can't sell a DVD or T-shirt, the popularity of an online series could drive a lot of traffic to an e-commerce site or community site. But while we hope The Lost Line is popular, it's also intended to bolster the Supreme Anime's reputation. To let people know we're more than businessmen and to influence the world of anime."

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