For the past few years, the beginning of July has found me on a flight from Tokyo to Los Angeles to attend Anime Expo (AX), the largest annual North American convention devoted to Japanese popular culture, and its related industry-only event, Project Anime (PA). Both continue to break attendance records. This year, AX tallied 100,420 unique attendees, while PA brought together 102 international anime convention organizers with studio executives and their staff from Japan.
But aside from the personal encounters with the latest crop of cosplayers (anime and manga fans dressed in costume) and other fans, the events afford valuable opportunities to network with industry players and learn how the cultures and their media are changing.
Among first-time participants this year was Progressive Animation Works (P.A. Works), an anime studio unusually based in rural Nanto, Toyama Prefecture. The president and two other employees from P.A. Works were on hand to celebrate the company’s 15th anniversary, promote the July 4 Netflix worldwide debut of its first mecha robot series, “Kuromukuro” (Black Corpse), and see what anime’s future may look like outside of Japan.
According to the Association of Japanese Animations (AJA), 87 percent of the country’s anime studios are located in the Tokyo metropolitan region. The so-called god of manga, Osamu Tezuka, moved from Osaka to Tokyo in the 1950s to launch his career, creating a community of artists in a now legendary apartment building called Tokiwa-so in Toshima Ward.
Over the decades, a herd of studios, including Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, has bought real estate in the relatively inexpensive suburban neighborhoods west and northwest of Tokyo. But Kenji Horikawa, 51, the founder and president of P.A. Works, and a veteran of Tokyo-based industry giants such as Production I.G. and Tatsunoko Productions, had promised his wife that they would move to her hometown in Toyama Prefecture when her parents grew old enough to need their care.
I sat down with Horikawa in his suite overlooking the Staples Center in downtown LA. It was Horikawa’s first visit to an anime convention in the United States, and he was equal parts rueful and hopeful about the conditions in his industry. He has seen bankruptcy and bubbles, he says. Now he’s focused on anime’s global audience.
“Only one person came with me to Toyama when I opened (the studio),” Horikawa recalls. “Everything was focused on Tokyo, but I didn’t want to follow the trend. I wanted artists to go to rural Japan and do their work there. My idea was to break down the barriers between anime artists and staffers, to create continuity and concentration. I wanted to centralize the creation of anime under one roof.”
At first, no one wanted to leave behind the opportunities of Japan’s dense capital city for an enclave in the countryside. Toyama is on what is known as Japan’s “other coast” — the western shore at the Sea of Japan. Just three applications were submitted.
But as the studio slowly gained traction, two key subcontracts helped the studio garner respect: Ten years ago, it was commissioned to work on the hit titles “Fullmetal Alchemist” and “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex.” In 2008, it released a successful original series, “True Tears,” its first as the primary creative studio. Suddenly Toyama was on the anime map.
“Our artists know that they’re going to a rural region in Japan,” Horikawa says. “If they fail there, they can’t just move to another company in Tokyo. So they have to be committed to making it work. I think that makes our studio superior.”
A more recent effort, the award-winning “Shirobako” (“White Box”), is an anime about anime — a story about five female artists and friends who navigate the daily trials and triumphs of the craft and business. Despite its inside-baseball world, the show has proven surprisingly popular, granting fans a behind-the-scenes look at the challenges of an often difficult business.
According to Horikawa, “the biggest problem right now is that our industry lacks artists with skills. It takes five to 10 years to train a good animator. Right now, the demand from domestic and overseas markets is overwhelming us. We have lots of passion, but too little talent.”
As the market expands abroad, P.A. Works is focused on the local: stories that highlight the character of rural Japan and make the tradition-bound regions outside of Tokyo attractive and meaningful. One such series, “Hanasuka Iroha” (“Blossoms for Tomorrow”), features a fictional autumn festival called the Bonbori Matsuri (Paper Lamp Festival) that spawned a real-life counterpart in the Kanazawa seaside hot springs village where the anime is set. The first actual festival, held in October 2010, welcomed 3,000 visitors. For this, its sixth year, organizers expect 10,000.
“Most anime studios are hired guns. They work more like a machine to serve some business goal,” says Miles Thomas, brand data analyst at Crunchyroll, a global streaming site that hosts several titles by P.A. Works and had a prominent presence at this month’s Anime Expo. “But the heads of P.A. Works are intimately involved in what anime they make and why. They demand that the setting be just as much of a character as the people who live in it. It’s clear that they love what they’re making, just as much as we do.”
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” He is a visiting scholar at Keio University in Tokyo.