Japan may be on a slow decline as far as being a global economic force, but the “soft power” of its modern entertainment genres, from manga to “anime,” has global appeal, especially among young people.
Why and how did this entertainment media thrive? How popular is it overseas?
Following are basic questions and answers regarding anime, as animation has come to be known:
Where does anime trace its domestic popularity?
The industry started gaining a mass audience with the debut of a weekly TV series created by manga genius Osamu Tezuka.
Osaka-born Tezuka, the “god of manga,” used comic strips to show dramatic movements in sequence as if they were film frames. He also revolutionized the genre by offering a wide range of stories, from science fiction to serious drama, just like a film or novel.
Tezuka and his followers created the foundation of the manga culture that today is recognized and popular worldwide.
He also pioneered Japanese TV animation and created its business model.
Tezuka launched “Tetsuwan Atom” in 1963, the nation’s first weekly TV anime series, and it was a huge hit. The series is known as “Astro Boy” in English.
Because of the high costs associated with producing animated films, Tezuka limited the characters’ movements as much as possible.
Instead, he placed emphasis on the quality of the story line, another possible reason that many ensuing Japanese anime works had complex plots.
What are other contributing factors?
Along with Tezuka, Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki is famous for helping put anime on the global map.
According to “Nihon Animation no Chikara” (“Power of Japanese Animation”) written by Nobuyuki Tsugata in 2004, Miyazaki’s film “Nausicaa of the Wind,” which was released in 1984, changed the way anime was viewed.
Because of its smooth artistic animation and elaborate, deep story, the production was considered more a movie than merely anime and raised the status of its creators.
Although there had been adult-oriented TV anime series, “Nausicaa” widened the audience across generational lines, Tsugata writes.
Miyazaki’s pieces have been praised overseas as well, particularly “Spirited Away,” which won an Academy Award.
Japan’s rich manga culture has served as the springboard for many anime creators, including Tezuka. A popular print manga can quickly be animated for television or for cinemas.
Why have exported anime been so successful overseas?
Japanese animators have been aggressively selling their products overseas, including Tezuka, who reached out to markets abroad because revenues at home, like the production budgets, were low.
His “Tetsuwan Atom” was widely viewed in other countries. Its huge success spurred many Japanese counterparts to jump on the bandwagon and market their works abroad, spreading the anime culture, according to “Nihon no Anime Zenshi” (“History of Japanese Anime”) written by Yasuo Yamaguchi in 2004.
Takamasa Sakurai, an anime expert who has given lectures in many countries, said the genre has been widely accepted because of its unconventional nature.
“Japanese anime broke the convention that anime is something that kids watch,” he said.
He pointed out that Japanese anime have more elaborate story lines and character evolvement.
Many fans overseas fans of anime say the story lines in Japanese works are hard to predict, in a good way, according to Sakurai.
“Because foreign anime content is created for children, they can’t really make stories that complicated,” he said.
Unlike comic books in other countries, manga in large part are geared toward adult readers, and anime is targeted at pretty much the same audiences.
In the beginning, in the 1950s, manga were designed for small kids. But as the baby boomers grew up, so did the manga content to keep in step with the readers.
Tezuka also proved that comics can be a tool for serious expression in long stories.
Just how popular is anime overseas?
According to the Association of Japanese Animations, 60 member anime production companies now provide products in 112 countries, reaching some 87.2 percent of the world’s population.
Total overseas sales in 2008 reached ¥13.3 billion.
Sakurai said many Japanese probably are not aware just how popular anime is overseas.
“Many young people in other countries grow up with Japan’s anime,” said Sakurai. For instance, he said there is a bookstore near Lac Leman in Geneva that has about 11,000 Japanese comic books.
“You don’t see a lot of bookstores with 11,000 comics, even in Japan,” he said.
He recounts his world lecture tour on anime in his book “Anime Bunka Gaiko” (“Anime Culture Diplomacy”), in which he writes how surprised he was in Saudi Arabia to find a strong turnout and a passion for anime among the people in the very conservative Muslim country.
What are the latest trends in the Japanese anime industry?
According to a report by Tokyo-based Teikoku Databank Ltd., a market researcher, the domestic anime market has been shrinking despite the growing popularity overseas.
The report says combined sales of 118 anime production companies in fiscal 2009 saw a two-year consecutive decline to ¥164.8 billion, down from ¥179.1 billion in fiscal 2007.
The decline is partly blamed on the illegal free uploading of anime files flooding cyberspace, new entertainment venues, including the Internet, and the nation’s long-standing economic slump.
As a result, creators are having a tough time finding investors to support their work, the report says.
The industry has seen anime movie hits in recent years, but the market for TV viewers continues to shrink. Anime film successes include “Evangelion,” “One Piece” and “Summer Wars” as well as works by anime giant Miyazaki.
What anime titles are making a buzz lately in Japan?
Anime have become more diverse in recent years, and there have been many titles targeting core fans. Particularly popular are animations featuring cute female characters.
“K-on!!” is probably the most successful anime TV title these days. Tokyo Broadcast System Television and its network affiliates are running its second series late at night.
The anime is about five cute high school girls who play in a band at school, and the story lines revolve around their daily lives and how they improve as musicians.
The production team has promoted the anime wisely by actually releasing tunes the band plays on the show, both at record stores and online. The CDs use the same band name as the anime.
The anime band has sold more than 1 million CDs and has scored No. 1 in weekly sales, a first for anime characters.
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