‘Anime’ biz taps new inspiration

by Minoru Matsutani

Astro Boy, created by animation pioneer Osamu Tezuka, is a superhero robot with a soft, adorable face, a feature that partly explains his global fame.

But the robot, called Tetsuwan (Iron Arm) Atomu in Japanese, might be even better if he had a soft body to go along with the face. At least that may have been what a Web animator who goes by the name Rarecho was thinking when he came up with Yawaraka (Soft) Atomu, a character unveiled at the first Japan Animation Content Meeting, or JAM, last October.

Yawaraka Atomu now appears in an animated DVD series and on T-shirts.

The Association of Japanese Animations, beset by unstable sales figures, is searching out new sources of merchandising revenue by collecting similar works of inspiration from ordinary individuals taking advantage of the stock of Japanese animated content, undoubtedly the largest and arguably the best in the world.

“What JAM is about is taking the creativity of ordinary people and matching it with toy makers and other industries that want ideas,” association official Daisuke Masaki said.

JAM 2008 is being held in Akiba Square on the second floor of the Akihabara UDX commercial building in Tokyo’s mecca of “anime” culture for three days through Saturday. Admission is free.

Thirty-two merchandising ideas selected from the public, including a chair designed after the Tezuka anime character Hinotori (Phoenix), are on display. For potential buyers, the association invited people in the animation and other entertainment sectors as well as officials in charge of product planning at world-famous companies such as Sony and Panasonic.

There are no prizes for the people who came up with the 32 ideas, but they may land a business deal with buyers who visit the event, Masaki said.

In last year’s JAM, for example, a woman who developed a pendant identical to the one worn by the main character in the hero robot animation “Armored Trooper Votoms” scored a deal with Questioners Co., a Tokyo-based entertainment planning company. Questioners pays her and Tokyo-based Sunrise Inc., the owner of the Votoms copyright, for the right to make and sell the pendant.

This effort stems from the fluctuations in the industry’s sales and the association’s search for sources of revenue, Masaki said.

The industry’s sales, which include those from TV series, DVDs, merchandising and music, came to ¥168 billion in 2003 and climbed steadily to ¥259 billion in 2006 but dropped to ¥240 billion in 2007, according to the association made up of 55 animation-related companies. Walt Disney Co. and other foreign companies are not members.

Merchandising sales, which have accounted for 8.9 percent to 9.9 percent of the industry’s sales for the five years to 2007, could have more potential if the popularity of animation and world-renowned brands are combined.

Last year, people from Sony, Panasonic, Casio Computer, Toppan Printing and other major makers came to the event, Masaki said.

“We especially welcome these people because we want JAM to be the place where the anime industry can meet people they do not normally meet,” he said.

The association collected 85 ideas from July 1 to Aug. 11 by posting on the Web, putting up posters on streets and shops in Akihabara and in schools, and placing ads in magazines. The field was narrowed down to 32 for display at JAM 2008.

Last year, it collected 45 ideas and displayed 11.

JAM 2007, which took place at the same venue, had 9,600 visitors during its four-day run. While this year’s version is only open for three days, the association expects 10,000 visitors because its name recognition is on the rise.