Japanese animation goes international
By Mark Schilling

Does anyone still need an explanation of "anime"? Japan's distinctive form of animation has spread to every corner of the planet, moving from the cult to the mainstream. Foreign fans who once had to sub their favorite anime themselves, usually without bothering to consult the copyright holder, now have to sort through the ever-growing pile of subbed and dubbed releases for sale over the Internet or at the local mall. Or they can spend hours daily watching the latest shows on Cartoon Network and other of the dozens of outlets for anime around the world.

Even clueless grown-ups have come to know, from their off-spring, the names Pokemon, Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh. And the even the sternest film critics, whose shelves groan with Dreyer, Bresson and Tarkovsky, praise the genius of Hayao Miyazaki.

In Japan, anime is no trendy phenomenon, but an integral part of a media juggernaut that includes TV shows, games, character goods and the inevitable manga. Certain franchises, such as Doraemon (the adventures of a nerdy boy and a blue robot cat), Detective Conan (the cases of a pint-sized sleuth) or Crayon Shinchan (the escapades of a potty-mouthed kindergartner), roll on decade after decade, with new feature installments annually turning tidy profits, like CDs at an unwisely generous bank. Above all rules Miyazaki, whose films, most recently Howl's Moving Castle, steamroller the competition, Pixar included.  

Several of the companies that make these and other animated hits now sell their shares on stock exchanges, operate overseas offices -- and pursue outsized international ambitions. True, they still lag behind Hollywood in terms of not only budgets, but the universal appeal of their products. Miyazaki may rack up huge numbers in Japan ($285 million for Spirited Away, the all-time Japanese box office record), but abroad Pixar still cleans his clock. Even so, more Japanese animators are looking at their compatriots in the electronics and automotive business, who now stand on equal terms with their Western competition, and wondering "Why not us"? Why not indeed?  

The oldest of those companies is Toei Animation, founded in 1956. Long an industry leader, Toei has amassed a library of more than 150 TV series and 180 feature titles, including entries in the Dragonball, Sailormoon, Digimon Adventure and now One Piece series. Its Toei Animation Fair packages -- usually consisting of one feature and two featurettes, or one long feature, based on current TV animated series -- have become spring and summer holiday institutions for generations of Japanese kids.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2006, Toei is planning an original animated feature for both local and international release. "I can't discuss it in detail yet, but we are thinking of reviving one of our animation classics," says Toei Corporate Strategy Department assistant manager Keisuke Shirasaki. This does not mean, however, that Toei is abandoning its profitable One Piece films about the adventures of an intrepid boy pirate and his mates. Of for that matter its traditional 2-D aesthetic, which, he notes, "is still the standard in Japan" -- and still quite acceptable abroad as well.  In 2004, international sales amounted to $43.7 million, or 27% of the $117.3 million total -- down from the 46% in 2003, when the Digimon series was at its peak. "We don't want to do the same sorts of things Pixar and Disney are doing," says Shirasaki. "Instead we stress our differences."

This does not mean that Toei will never make a 3-D film -- but it will do it its own way. "Japanese art has various styles, from the realistic to the comic," says Shirasaki. "Japanese animation is the same way -- we can use different styles and techniques, depending on the material. Animation with strong comic elements, like One Piece, might be suitable for 3-D. But the more realistic films of Miyazaki look better in 2-D."

Japanese animation houses face another hurdle to full 3-D: cost. "Hollywood can recoup the higher budgets of 3-D films in the worldwide market," Shirasaki explains. "Japanese animation is still mainly for domestic consumption." Toei can make a theatrical feature for about Y300 million ($2.8 million). But even if the film grosses Y2.0 billion ($18.7 million) domestically -- a strong if not spectacular performance for an entry in the One Piece series -- Toei's take is only Y500 million ($4.7 million). Making the same film in 3-D would be far more expensive, with no guarantee that the returns would be any greater.

One way to boost those returns is to create a Miyazaki- or Pixar-like brand, but the realities of animation production in Japan make that difficult, Shirasaki notes. "Fans think of One Piece as a Fuji TV animation, since that's where the TV series is broadcast. Our name is on the film, but few people notice it."

Another way forward is to focus on the international market, but that strategy carries its own risks. "If a series doesn't do well in the Japanese market, you can't easily sell it abroad," says Shirasaki. "First you have to have a hit in Japan." 

Where Toei has had success targeting under-twelves, using hit kiddy comics and games as the basis for its shows, rival Madhouse makes animation that often hits the sweet spot with teens and young adults, while using a larger proportion of original material. 

Founded in 1972 and since 2004 a subsidiary of media contents provider Index Corporation, Madhouse has an outstanding stable of Miyazaki-like auteurs, including Rintaro (X, Metropolis), Yoshiaki Kawajiri (Vampire Hunter D, Ninja Scroll), Kon Satoshi (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers),  and Kitaro Kosaka (Nasu -- The Summer of Andalusia), but it is not, like Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli, primarily a maker of feature films. Instead Madhouse produces a diverse range of product that includes TV series and so-called "original video animation" or OVA for DVD release.

Among Madhouse's most popular OVA titles are its contributions to Animatrix -- the compilation of animated shorts released as an accompaniment to The Matrix. The studio also worked on the American TV series Spawn and X-Men Revolution. "Madhouse makes animation for the worldwide market," says general producer Yukiko Futakata. "We always thinking about how it will be received not only in Japan, but outside as well." The reason, Futakata explains, is simple: "We would like to expand our business globally; we doesn't want to be limited to the opportunities in Japan."

Madhouse, Futakata notes, "has a reputation for quality," with its directors winning critical accolades and prizes for their films, both and home abroad, while Kosaka's Nasu -- The Summer of Andalusia was selected for the Cannes Directors' Fortnight section in 1993 -- a rare honor for any animated film, Japanese or no.

Commercial megahits on the Miyazaki scale have been harder to come by, however. Several Madhouse films have done well in theatrical release and video sales, but "our TV series help keep our cash flow steady," says Futakata. "We try to keep a good balance between the TV and film side of our business." The company currently has four feature titles in development, for release in 2006 and 2007.

Among popular Madhouse TV series are Yawara!, Cardcaptor Sakura, Bayblade, Space Pirate Captain Herlock and Monster. New Line recently acquired the rights to make a live-action version of  the last, about a Japanese doctor who saves the life of a genetically altered German boy -- and comes to regret the consequences. Broadcast weekly on the NTV network, Monster is based a hit Naoki Urasawa comic that has sold 20 million copies in paperback editions. Though not involved in the live-action film, Madhouse wants to work more closely with Hollywood in what Futakata describes as "a wide range of areas, " with the proviso that "we keep the quality level high -- that's important to us."

Madhouse is not the only Japanese animation house actively raising its international profile. Tokyo-based Micott & Basara recently joined with John Woo's Lion Rock Productions and US-based Axis Entertainment co-produce CG animation, beginning with Appleseed: Poseidon, a follow-up to Micott & Basara's animated 2004 SF action thriller Appleseed.

The partners will jointly develop and produce a Poseidon Project film and TV series, with the film set for a summer 2006 release. Shinji Aramaki, who also helmed Appleseed, will direct and Woo will produce. Woo will advise us on the story and action choreography designs," says Micott & Basara president Sumiji Miyake. "His sensibility as a director of live-action films will be a big plus." The target, Miyake explains, are not anime fans, but the young general audience: ""We want them to view as they might a live-action film, not an animation."

Based on a Shirow Masamune comic, Appleseed blended traditional anime character design with advanced  motion-capture and 3-D animation technology. It was released in the United States in January by Geneon Entertainment and, despite playing on only 37 screens, "It has been getting a lot of attention," said Miyake. He has high hopes that the DVD, set for US release on May 10, will sell out its 300,000-unit run.

The company also targeting the world market with three other new action features that use animation techniques to create a live-action feeling. One is The Five Shadows, a 3-D animation about discarded robots whose memories have been wiped clean -- and who fight to reclaim them. Based on the creations of CG artist and sculptor Keisuke Kishi, The Five Shadows is being prepared for a summer or autumn 2006 release.

Another is Samuroid Zero, a 3-D animation Micott & Basara is making with Polygon Pictures about a planet where humans and androids co-exist -- a human warrior with a sacred mission is reborn as an android. Still another is Arms, an SF action film about a youth cursed with a monstrous strength that he cannot control. Based on a long-running comic by Ryoji Minagawa and produced by Shirogumi (Returner) the film will be, says Miyake, "a cross between live-action and CG animation."  

For the younger set, the company is making Atagoul, a 3-D animation set in a fantasy land populated by anthropomorphic cats. Based on a popular comic by Hiroshi Matsumura that has been entertaining children for nearly a quarter of a century, Atagoul will open in the spring of 2006, with Digital Frontier handling production.

Launched in 1997, Micott & Basara is, not an animation house, but a self-described "contents management business" that links creators with producers and manages the rights generated from their properties, including theatrical films, TV programs, video software and character goods. The company involves itself at every stage of the production process, from development to distribution.

Also, in addition to conventional theatrical release and TV broadcast, the company is planning to transmit its contents via broadband connections. "There are two possible revenue streams for our broadband business," Miyake explains. "The first is advertising, the second is member subscriptions. We have to work out the right mix."

E v e n   m o r e   i n t e n t   o n   m a k i n g   a n   i n t e r n a t i o n a l   s p l a s h   i s  GDH  (f o r m e r l y   G o n z o   D i g i m a t i o n   H o l d i n g ) ,   a n   a n i m a t i o n   c o n t e n t s   p o w e r h o u s e   f o r m e d   i n   2 0 0 2   a s   a   h o l d i n g   c o m pa n y    f r o m   t h e   m e r g e r   o f   G o n z o   a n d   D i g i m a t i o n .   O n e   o f   t h e   c o m p a n y ' s   c o r porate partners is Fuji TV, which acquired a 7.610% or Y350 million ($3.3 million) stake in GDH in May 2004

GDH's biggest current project is Brave Story, an animation based on a best-selling fantasy novel by Miyuki Miyabe about a troubled boy who enters a new world where he learns magic, accumulates treasures and has various adventures, while searching for a goddess who can make wishes come true. GDH, with veteran director Koichi Chigira (Last Exile, Full Metal Panic, Gatekeepers) at the helm, is producing the film together with Fuji TV for a summer 2006 release. Buena Vista International will distribute internationally -- the first time for the company to handle a major Japanese animated film -- while providing part of the Y1 billion ($9.3 million) budget.

"The story, about a boy's growth as he learns the meaning of friendship and love, has a universality we think will appeal to an international audience," says GDH producer Koji Kajita. The main target, says Kajita, is not anime core fans, "but the audience for Hayao Miyazaki's animations." In Japan, that means any one who can walk or crawl to a theatre. 

Brave Story is the first of what both GDH and Fuji TV hope will be many joint projects, including both animated and live-action films. "We want to use this partnership with GDH to strengthen our position in the animation business, where we are currently weak," comments Fuji TV producer Chihiro Kameyama. In other words, forge the same kind of mutually beneficial bond that  the NTV network has long enjoyed Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli.

If Brave Story is successful, GDH hopes to, not only make a follow-up, but build a profitable business from games, character goods and other spin-offs in both the international and domestic market. "We want to make entertainment the entire world can understand," says Kajita.

GDH president Shinichiro Ishikawa notes that Japan "sets the global standard" in three main entertainment areas: karaoke, games and animation -- and that GDH is already a  "leading edge producer" of the third, including such successful series as Blue Submarine No. 6, Full Metal Panic!, Yukikaze, Gate Keepers, Hellsing, Kaleido Star, Vandread, Samurai 7 and Transformers: Galaxy Force,  "Our business vision," says Ishikawa, "is to become a worldwide brand," utilizing not only conventional means of distribution, but the broadband networks that are rapidly expanding in not only Japan, but around the world.

GDH, Ishikawa explains, is targeting three main markets with its animation: teens, families and kids, much the way Japanese automobile makers produce cars for various consumer niches -- sports cars for young adults, SUVs for families, Accords and Civics for ordinary punters. Having already created many popular titles for the teen market -- the sports cars of the anime world --  GDH is now taking aim at families and kids, just as Japanese car companies expanded into SUVs and economy cars. "Once Honda and Toyota could make global standard cars in Japan, they started sending them to the States," Ishikawa comments. GDH wants to the same sort of exporter, whose products are culturally borderless and competitive anywhere.

Ishikawa rejects the idea that Japanese animators have to sell Japanese exoticism -- supergirls in frilly skirts or fanatically detailed robots  -- to succeed abroad. "Look at the Cowboy Bebop series -- it's about bounty hunters in space," he notes. "A totally Western concept and totally accepted in the West." GDH has its own international successes to point to, including a music video for the band Linkin Park, titled Breaking the Habit, that won the MTV Viewers Choice Award in 2004. "We don't consider ourselves an exporter of Japanese culture," he says. "We are making globally acceptable contents."

Godzilla Is Dead, Long Live Godzilla (The Japan Times, December 15, 2004)

Tokyo International Film Festival 2004, Japanese Eyes (The Japan Times, 11/3/04)

The Lone Samurai -- The Life of Miyamoto Musashi review (Japan Foundation Newsletter)

Animation overview (Stockholm Film Festival catalog, 8/25/04)

Udine Film Festival wrap, 2004 (The Japan Times, 5/12/04)

Movie references in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (Arena magazine, 3/9/04)

Best Films 2003 (The Japan Times, 12/24/03)

Tokyo International Film Festvial 2003 wrap (The Japan Times, 11/12/03)

Fukuoka Film Festival wrap 2003 (The Japan Times, 9/24/03)

Meeting Hollywood Halfway (working on The Last Samurai) (The Japan Times, 9/3/03)

Udine Festival wrap, 2003 (The Japan Times, 5/15/03)

Agitator -- The Cinema of Takashi Miike Agitator review (Cinemaya, 1/27/04)

'The Last Samurai in Japan (Dish magazine, 11/29/03)

What's Hot In Japanese Movies (Arena magazine, 11/25/03)

Comic Culture Is Serious Business (The Japan Times, 3/23/03)