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To survive, anime must adapt, but not too much

by Kazuaki Nagata

Staff Writer

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first TV broadcast of anime in Japan, which kicked off with “Astro Boy” created by the “god of manga” Osamu Tezuka.

With anime gaining popularity around the world over the past half century, it has become one of the symbols of Japanese culture. But whether Japanese anime is really bringing enough profits to its creators is a different matter.

“It is really great that Japanese anime is being watched all over the world, but the sales are not really growing,” said Hiromichi Masuda, director of Video Market Corp., which provides video services to mobile phones, at a seminar on March 21, during the Tokyo International Anime Fair 2013.

In 2006, overseas sales of Japanese anime hit ¥16.8 billion but that has since plunged due to sluggish sales of DVDs — a direct result of pirated videos online and video-on-demand services. In 2011, global sales were a mere ¥8.55 billion.

These figures show how tough it is to not only sell anime through proper channels but also promote related businesses such as anime merchandising in foreign markets.

But it’s not just the overseas market that is flailing. The domestic market doesn’t have a beaming outlook, either, with the country facing an aging and shrinking population.

At the Anime Fair, however, some people, from both here and abroad, seemed rather hopeful that Japanese anime companies still have the chance to take fresh approaches to business, such as strategically coproducing content with domestic and overseas partners.

One project that has recently caught the attention of the media and the industry is the Indian version of “Kyojin no Hoshi,” which was aired during the 1960s and ’70s and is considered a classic among baseball-anime programs in Japan.

The Indian version is called “Suraj: The Rising Star,” and pretty much sticks to the original plot, except baseball has been switched to cricket.

Traditionally, Japanese anime makers have focused on producing content for the Japanese market, but when bringing titles to overseas broadcasters, it can be hard to sell due to stricter censorship. This makes it a good idea to work with foreign partners in the first place by plotting more elaborate marketing strategies.

As many Japanese anime makers are small or midsize firms, “it’s not easy for them to go overseas and sell their product by themselves,” said Masuda. “It’s important that they find distribution networks and partners to jointly produce (content).”

Another coproduction is “Scan2Go,” created by Tokyo-based d-rights, a subsidiary of Mitsubishi, South Korean broadcasting firm SBS and New Boy, a toy maker based in the United Arab Emirates.

They jointly produced the series and its merchandise, and first aired the show in Europe, Asia and Middle East in 2011, where it has reportedly been well-received. They also started broadcasting the program in the United States last September.

While many anime programs are made to air and be marketed in the Japan first, “Scan2Go” has yet to debut here.

Foreign buyers at the Anime Fair appeared to welcome the opportunity to coproduce programs and related goods in their home regions, saying that Japanese anime has great potential to cultivate more overseas markets.

Amer Bitar, managing director of the satellite-TV channel Spacetoon International in UAE, said that Japanese anime could be hugely popular in the Middle East and North Africa regions, due to the high population of young people there.

To cultivate that market, though, Arabic content is needed, so coproduction between local and Japanese firms will be key, said Bitar, adding that the UAE government is financially supporting such creative projects.

While coproducing may be one approach to help boost overseas marketing, some foreign buyers pointed out that Japanese anime makers should not be too keen to adjust their content to such markets.

“(The content) has to stay original,” said German buyer Daniel Otto, who is Vice President of Acquisitions and Sales at AV Visionen. He said that in the past Japanese anime makers tried to create content that targeted European viewers, but apparently it was not so successful.

“Programs that are, from their heart, really dedicated and made for the Japanese market are the kind of programs that the German fans, for example, really want to see.”.

  • http://twitter.com/XelestialWriter A.J. Celestin-Greer

    It’s when creativity driven businesses start trying to cater to specific audiences that they end up ultimately failing and producing soulless stuff (see: the games industry). If people fell in love with anime despite the fact it wasn’t catered to them, then they still will now.

    There are animes that have a worldwide appeal and some that seem very Japanese, but I’m sure these authors and artists simply had their own ideas and went with it, therefore creating quality, passionate content. People can’t just expect to copy off one aspect of that and be successful.

  • Sanbai

    An interesting article! I’m a devout anime fan, so I’ve always been interested in the pitfalls that keep the “good stuff” out of my distribution area (I live in Midwest USA). I have to admit, Funimation releasing paid streaming of subs being released concurrently in Japan is a great idea – even if subbing groups are screen-taping their shows and releasing them for free. (I’m looking at you, Horriblesubs!) If Amazon would get on the ball and release high-quality paid streaming of older anime shows (Revolutionary Girl Utena, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hajime No Ippo, etc.) they’d get a helluva lot more business! For now they just stream crappy 360p and expect good money for it. It really sucks that so often in the anime industry, the pirates have the goods in high definition, easy availability and at a great price (read FREE). Modern anime publishers/localizers just need to get on the ball and make it EASY to buy and access good content. I’ve even heard of people paying for an Amazon subscription to a show just to relieve their guilt, then going to a pirate site to watch the show in higher definition and without dropped connections! There’s really something wrong with that… XD!

    Thanks for the article!

  • YourMessageHere

    It seems like business is busy completely missing the point and jumping to mistaken conclusions as usual.

    The reason for Anime’s spread overseas in the first place is the combination of its unique look and the wide spread of its appeal – things for kids, teenagers and adults. Part of that is interesting and unusual stories.

    Adults, not kids, are the ones who have the money to buy anime, but they are increasinly poorly served by anime industry. Formulaic, unadventurous series that are designed to follow fan tastes – rather than create them – are being churned out at reduced cost. They are simply not worth buying.

    More than that, there’s a classic triple of mistaken assumption in here:

    “In 2006, overseas sales of Japanese anime hit ¥16.8 billion but that has since plunged due to sluggish sales of DVDs — a direct result of pirated videos online and video-on-demand services. In 2011, global sales were a mere ¥8.55 billion.

    These figures show how tough it is to not only sell anime through proper channels but also promote related businesses such as anime merchandising in foreign markets.”

    1) piracy and DVD sales are not necessarily linked. Many overseas fans download episodes illegally and then buy DVDs legally – if the shows are good enough, that is. You know, like watching on TV then buying the DVD.

    2) video-on-demand services often charge subscriptions and/or integrate advertising; they create revenue.

    3) these figures do not show anything of the sort; they show that anime companies don’t know how to profitably sell anime through the limited channels they consider proper, or don’t dare to change their approach, not that it’s tough.

    As it stands, a fan of One Piece in the US can download an episode subbed to a high standard, illegally, on the same day it is broadcast, or wait months to buy a legitimate release, which often is of a lower standard with regard to translations. So, why buy? This is the underlying problem, and one that the anime industry seems unwilling to acknowledge, let alone fix.

    The thing is, fans like me want to support the industry. I want to reward the creators of anime. I want their work to be paid for and I want them to continue to make fantastic works. My choice currently is to support them by paying a lot for things I don’t like much or which I don’t consider remotely good value, or not pay anything. I’m far from alone in this.

    The world of media is changing. Music, game and book publishers have grasped this. Anime companies need to understand this too. They need a way to legally compete with the fansubs – they need to work together, all of them, to find an Anime analogue to iTunes or Steam or Kindle. They need a hub for digital distribution with subtitles, globally, within a week of airing in Japan, for a low price. They need the ability to add dubs and extras later. Without these basic things, which amateurs can and do currently do for free, they have nowhere to go but downhill.