STONY BROOK, NEW YORK – The other day I asked an executive at Kodansha, Japan’s largest comics publisher, what happened to Hideaki Anno. In the 1990s, Anno created “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” a cartoon series that introduced generations of young people all over the world to Japanese pop culture. “Evangelion” is now a household name all over the world, like “Star Wars” or “Batman,” but in the last decade, Anno hasn’t released any major follow-ups.
The Kodansha executive replied that since Anno is rich, he no longer has to work, and is probably just enjoying life.
That answer could have served as a metaphor for the entire Japanese entertainment industry — including Kodansha itself. Basking in the comfort of a captive domestic market, Japan’s comics and animation producers have passed up huge opportunities to expand into global businesses. As a result, the country is losing out on a key potential export market.
The world is hungry for Japanese entertainment products. Go to any Barnes & Noble and you will see teenagers eagerly browsing the manga section. The website Crunchyroll has enjoyed wild success by showing Japanese cartoons (commonly called “anime”) to English-speaking audiences.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Americans flock to conventions with Japanese entertainment themes, in Baltimore, in Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. In France, too, the fandom is spreading. Critically acclaimed hits like Hayao Miyazaki’s films are just the tip of the iceberg.
The deep hunger in the United States to soak up Japanese culture is clear, especially among millennials who grew up on Japanese cartoons such as “Robotech,” “Evangelion,” “Dragon Ball,” “Bleach,” “Naruto” and “Pokemon.” At the University of Michigan, where I went to grad school, there were whole houses for American students who were interested in Japanese culture. In New York City, “Japan Day” draws thousands of people to Central Park each year — very few of them Japanese.
Why do non-Japanese people hunger for Japanese culture? I can only speculate. Japan is a very safe and friendly country, and as a result, its entertainment often seems to exhibit an innocence and purity that is absent from more violent societies.
Lacking any equivalent of the U.S. Comics Code Authority, Japan was able to develop comics and cartoons that contained adult themes. This combination of innocent and adult themes is missing in the West, where entertainment is divided into anodyne children’s products and aggressively sexual and violent adult products. In other words, Japanese media seem optimized for teenagers and young adults, who exist in a world halfway between childhood and adulthood.
Whether that guess is correct, it seems obvious that there is a huge overseas market for the Japanese entertainment industry. But so far, most of that penetration has been viral.
With serious international marketing efforts, and with production aimed at foreign markets, Japanese publishers such as Kodansha and cartoon producers like Toho and Toei have a shot at becoming Japan’s equivalent of Hollywood — an international entertainment leader.
In doing so, they would follow the example of the Japanese video-game industry, which has enjoyed big successes with games such as the “Mario” and “Final Fantasy” series.
If Japan had its own cartoon-and-comics-driven Hollywood, it would also increase Japan’s cultural clout. Cultural appeal is a key element of the soft power that some international relations experts say is a key determinant of global influence. The U.S. music industry and Hollywood studios have captured the hearts of millions around the globe, increasing the country’s international prestige. Japan could benefit from doing the same.
The Japanese government has tried this, of course, with an initiative called “Cool Japan.” But the ham-handed effort hasn’t been very successful — it is little known outside of Japanese policy circles, and is routinely mocked by journalists. If Japan wants to export its culture, a better approach is to encourage large media companies to seek out market demand, letting international consumers decide which parts of Japanese culture they like.
So far, Japan’s entertainment companies seem to have been lulled by the large domestic market. That market provides a steady if modest income. Why conquer the world when you can have a comfortable salary doing what you’ve always done? But if Japan’s economy is to be revived and its international influence increased, the status quo just isn’t good enough.
Fortunately, there are glimmers of hope. Netflix is acquiring exclusive rights to several anime series, which may be a prelude to a bigger marketing push. More marketing partnerships with Western distribution channels might well be the key to turning Japanese entertainment companies into Hollywood-style powerhouses.
And Hideaki Anno? He just signed up to direct the reboot of the “Godzilla” franchise. The Japanese entertainment industry should follow his example, instead of lapsing into comfortable retirement.
Bloomberg View contributor Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University in New York and a freelance writer for a number of finance and business publications. He maintains a personal blog, called Noahpinion.
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