National / Media

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.”.