Mobile Suit Gundam (©Sotsu AgencySunrise)
THE "JAPANIMATION" PHENOMENON
March 6, 2003
Inspired by a team of two-dimensional heroes, at
least one sector of the Japanese economy is booming. The legendary Astro
Boy, Pokemon, Mazinger Z, Gundam, Sailor Moon, and Martian
Successor Nadesico are just some of the names that have become
familiar around the globe as Japanese cartoons, or anime,
have cemented their place as the world's favorite form of animated entertainment.
Now the national and some local governments are working with the anime
industry to ensure that tomorrow's top animators receive the training
and support they need to maintain this success.
Growing Mainstream Recognition
About 60% of all cartoons watched by people around the world today originate
in Japan. Collectively dubbed "Japanimation," Japanese cartoons
incorporate the broadest range of themes, from action heroes and space
operas to martial arts, monster battles, school life, and fantasy worlds
- with a cast of colorful characters to match.
The full-fledged export of anime titles began
in the 1970s. Astro Boy gained popularity
in Asia and the United States, while Mazinger Z
was a hit in Europe. Non-Japanese have always been a part of the hard
core of anime fans. However, it was Pikachu
and his fellow monsters that really pushed Japanese animation into the
mainstream of global entertainment. Pocket Monsters
(Pokemon) was anime's first major commercial
success outside Japan. Pokemon: The First Movie,
which was released at the end of 1999, was a number-one box office smash
in the United States, and the Pokemon TV series
was eventually broadcast in more than 60 countries. In monetary terms,
some ¥1.2 billion (US$10 million at 120 yen to the dollar) worth of
card games were shipped to every corner of the world, and the franchise
generated merchandising sales of ¥1 trillion ($8.3 billion) in Japan
and another ¥2 trillion ($16.7 billion) abroad.
Anime has been a major component of entertainment
in Japan since World War II. Members of the "first anime
generation," born in the late 1950s and 1960s, absorbed television
anime as children and, now in their thirties
and forties, are passing on their enthusiasm to their own children. Roughly
60 anime programs are broadcast on Japanese
TV every week, not all of them aimed at children; many of them are made
for adult audiences. The value of the domestic market for anime
products, including films, videos, and character merchandise, has been
estimated at ¥3 trillion ($25.0 billion), with foreign sales boosting
the figure closer to ¥10 trillion ($83.3 billion) by some estimates.
Hikaru no go (Shueisha, Yumi Hotta, Takeshi Obata)
Technological Innovation and a Rich Storytelling
"It's impossible for other countries to copy the Japanese success,"
says Emiko Yamane, an overseas sales representative at Studio
Pierrot Co., whose Gensomaden Saiyuki
is currently being broadcast in South Korea, Taiwan, France, Italy, and
the United States. "Japanese productions have had to cover a shortage
of cash by applying innovative ideas to screen composition and camerawork.
That in turn has enriched the genre and given it the uniqueness that is
now highly acclaimed. But technology isn't enough. There is an extra appeal
to Japanese animation that goes beyond technology."
Like any culture with a long history, Japan has its tradition of graphic
storytelling, including elaborately painted scrolls depicting episodes
from the lives of nobles or telling frivolous comic tales. While many
cite such an aesthetic tradition as the origin of Japanese manga
(comics) and anime, academic study on the
topic has only recently begun. Once considered a superfluous subject,
preparations are now underway for the establishment of a Japan Society
for Studies in Cartoon and Comics.
Seika University is currently the only university that offers a manga
course in its curriculum. "Expression using pictures and words as
the basic components has long been produced and accepted by many countries
and regions. The study of comparative culture based on such a theme will
not only involve historic analysis of various phenomena but could
lead to an international dialogue in the near future," the university
says in its introduction to the course.
Yu-Gi-Oh! (Shueisha, Kazuki Takahashi)
Miyazaki Achieves an Historic First
certainly proved its universal appeal in 2002, as the Berlin International
Film Festival's Golden Bear Award went to Sen
to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (English title: Spirited
Away), a story about the adventures of a 10-year old girl in a
fantastic world of spirits. It was the first animated film to receive
the top prize at any of the world's three major film festivals. Director
Hayao Miyazaki, whose previous masterpieces include Tonari
no Totoro (My Neighbor Totoro) and
Mononoke), is undoubtedly the most prominent figure in the anime
world. Upon receiving the Berlin award however, Miyazaki was less than
optimistic about the future of the Japanese animation industry. "I'd
like this to be seen not as an accolade accorded to Japanese animation
as a whole but rather to an individual work," he said, according
to newspaper reports.
There is some justification for Miyazaki's concern. Despite anime's
global success, the domestic animation industry is facing a crisis. Critics
cite a chronic lack of human resources, technology, and funding and point
to the danger that the industry could be left an empty shell as production
moves abroad seeking cheaper labor. Processes such as coloring and animation
- once done completely by hand - are rapidly becoming computerized. While
that in itself saves work and increases efficiency, it has also made it
easier to outsource the process to South Korea, China, or Southeast Asian
Small and medium production companies cannot afford to install expensive
computers, so employees continue to work long hours
at low pay, which in turn causes many young people to seek careers in
other related industries, such as video-game production. Moreover, thanks
to government backing, countries like South Korea are catching up with
Japan in anime-production prowess.
A Bright Future?
There are signs of hope, however. New technologies are being introduced
to further digitize the anime production process, such as computer-graphics
software developed by Sega
Enterprises and the University of Tokyo that runs on ordinary personal computers. And banks are
finding new ways to provide funds to an industry they have traditionally
been reluctant to lend to because of its lack of land or other tangible
collateral assets. Securitization schemes where royalty income is considered
an underlying asset and project finance designed to fund individual anime
titles are among the other ideas being developed to help the industry
to capitalize on its achievements so far.
The anime industry can
now also look to the government for help. Rapid progress in digital communications
technology, such as broadband Internet connections and digital broadcasting,
has alerted the government to anime's potential
as high-quality multimedia content. In 1997 the then Ministry of International
Trade and Industry launched a Digital Animation Study Group to conduct
research on promoting the anime industry.
These moves at the national level are being followed by local governments,
such as the city of Tokyo, where 70% of all anime
production takes place. The Tokyo International Anime Fair 21, held in
February 2002, was the first international trade show for the Japanese
animation business. Some 104 companies from Japan, France, South Korea,
and the United States participated in the three-day event, which attracted
over 50,000 visitors. Anime production companies,
toy manufacturers, video-game makers, and comic-book publishers discussed
business with foreign buyers, while entrepreneurs sought financial and
management advice. And there is good news for Japan's anime
industry and consequently for fans around the world: The fair will take
place again from March 19-22, 2003.
All in all, the spread of Japanese anime worldwide,
the accolades it has received, and the measures that have been taken to
ensure its continued success suggest that anime
has a bright future both as an art and as an industry.
Copyright (c) 2003 Japan
Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese
news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes
and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese