Tokyo gives a toast to its hit toons

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Tokyo gives a toast to its hit toons

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Any visitor to the Tokyo Anime Fair could see that after four decades of ups and downs, Japan’s animation industry has become something of an international cultural force.
Japanese animation, known as anime, once popular only among a small subculture, can today be found on mainstream TV networks and in movie theaters around the world. “Pokemon,” “Yu-Gi-Oh!” “Dragon Ball” and “Naruto” are world renowned ― and extremely lucrative ― franchises among children, while more adult TV series such as “Cowboy Bebop,” “FLCL” and “Ghost in the Shell” have secured an older audience on American television. The Oscar win for Best Animated Feature of Hayao Miyazaki’s “Spirited Away” in 2003 perhaps marked the genre’s coming of age in the United States. And even though the ban on Japanese films in Korean theaters was only lifted two years ago, anime has already gripped Korea, so much so that the Japanese Embassy here is making it a cornerstone of its public outreach program.
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That global confidence was on display at the Tokyo Anime Fair, where Japanese animation studios gather each year alongside a sprinkling of Korean and Chinese outfits to sell their wares to the international market. This is where anime artists and their fans ― typically nerdy, informal types ― meet the businesspeople that turn their beloved hobby into hundreds of millions of dollars in international licensing and merchandising fees.
Given that Japan’s economic recovery is still tenuous, any booming domestic industry earns the government’s attention. Even to Tokyo’s outspoken mayor, Shintaro Ishihara, cartoons are a serious business.
“I hate Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse has none of the unique characteristics of Japanese animation,” Ishihara proclaimed in a speech at the festival. He expressed his supreme confidence in Japanese creativity, though that didn’t keep him from browbeating the artists to make anime more like haiku ― expressing terse beauty.
Whatever one thinks of the governor’s problem with Walt Disney’s venerable rodent, anime’s unique appeal has led studios around the world to try to replicate the style. From France to the United States, studios are branding their works with the magic words “anime-style.” “Oban Star Racers,” one such computer-generated French series, has been picked up for worldwide distribution by Disney. “Avatar: The Last Airbender,” which uses anime action techniques and Chinese idegrams to tell its serialized fantasy story, is one of Nickelodeon’s biggest new hits. There’s even an “anime-style” rendering of the all-American superhero sidekick Robin fighting crime on the Cartoon Network. A direct-to-video movie in which Robin and his crew fight a Tokyo ninja kingpin is now in production.
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Even better than labeling a show “anime-style” is making it a Japanese co-production. That’s just what American studios are doing, in larger and larger numbers. In past years, Quentin Tarantino contracted the Tokyo-based company Production I.G. to animate a sequence in “Kill Bill,” and the Wachowski Brothers worked with some of the top anime directors, including Shinichiro Watanabe of “Cowboy Bebop,” to create an animated anthology based on their “Matrix” films. This year at the fair, Toei Animation presented the fruit of a co-production with Cartoon Network: “Powerpuff Girls Z,” a Japanese take on the American action toon, set to start airing in Japan in July.
Toei is also one of the first anime studios to attempt to produce its own DVDs for foreign markets, something few studios have since tried. Studio Pierrot, for example, produces “Naruto,” the international hit currently showing on Cartoon Network in the United States, and “Bleach,” the show about samurai that many fans say will be the next big action cartoon to hit foreign shores. But are they going to try to cut out the middlemen?
“We’re just a small studio. We couldn’t think of releasing our own work directly,” said Emiko Iijima, the head of overseas sales at Pierrot.
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The American Nickelodeon network showed off what it called “the only anime television series created and produced in the United States”: “Kappa Mikey,” which revolves around a struggling anime voice actor on a fictional anime series called “LilyMu.” The network also recently inked deals to co-produce anime based on the popular “Domo-kun” character and on the “Akihabara @ Deep” comic book series.
“Nickelodeon is not just ‘Rugrats’ anymore,” said Ed Wells, the general manager of Viacom International Japan, the parent company of Nickelodeon Japan. “Our goal is to find great content, and it doesn’t matter if it’s a pre-exisiting series or whether it’s something a big edgier.”
Japanese franchises based on anime’s written equivalent, manga comic books, rival Korea’s vaunted hallyu boom. “Great Teacher Onizuka” started out as a comic book and became a smash hit live action drama across Asia ― its season finale was the highest-rated broadcast in Japanese television history ― before being adapted as an anime, which was then licensed for overseas markets.
The more recent story “NANA,” based on the comic book about two friends with the same name, followed a similar pattern. The successful live action movie is now playing in Korean theaters, and that led to an anime, which premiered April 5 to startling primetime-level ratings despite its midnight time slot. At the fair, a set from the apartment from the show, built to scale, sprawled across one section of the floor, just one of dozens of booths that filled the three convention halls.
A statue of a dragon’s head towered over the booth of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, in anticipation of “Tales from Earthsea,” the studio’s latest theatrical project and the directorial debut of Miyazaki’s son Goro. The film is based on a novel by Ursula K. LeGuin and opens in Japanese theaters in July.
Is there any way Korean studios can replicate the success of their Japanese counterparts? They’re certainly trying, though with mixed success. “My Beautiful Girl Mari” and “Doggy Poo” found licensors and critical success in the United States, but “Wonderful Days,” the most expensive Korean animated film ever produced, fizzled in American theaters, and foreign licensors seem equally hesitant to touch Nelson Shin’s “Empress Chung,” the animated adaptation of the Korean folk tale that was a North Korean coproduction.
The American animation historian and former anime licensor Jerry Beck blames history. “Japan was cut off from the rest of the world, both from World War II and from other factors later on, and that allowed their own style to develop in terms of cartooning and animation in a way that hasn’t been done anywhere else,” he said. “You could possibly look at a Russian cartoon or a French cartoon and you can kind of tell it’s from those countries, but it’s all off-Disney. Whereas with anime they really came up with their own thing.”
What about Korea? “It comes down to whether Korea has its own voice or if it’s just an anime wannabe,” Mr. Beck said.


by Ben Applegate
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