Mobile Suit Gundam (©Sotsu Agency•Sunrise)

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
Hikaru no go (Shueisha, Yumi Hotta, Takeshi Obata)

Technological Innovation and a Rich Storytelling Tradition
"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.

Kyoto 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
Anime 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-hime (Princess 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 countries.

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 Government.
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