Japanese Animation Turns 100 and Remains Vital Force in Film, Television

Mark Schilling

As Mipcom’s 2016 country of honor, Japan has been selected for its “spirit of imagination.” And a big reason is the upcoming centennial of Japanese animation.

The Japanimation industry has a long history — locally made animated shorts began appearing in theaters in 1917 — as well as a huge fan base at home and abroad. The highest-earning film ever released in Japan was an animation, 2001’s “Spirited Away,” with domestic box office of $230 million. Its Oscar-winning director, Hayao Miyazaki, has retired from feature filmmaking, but remains an international icon in his field.

Japanese animation for television boasts similar market dominance — foreign shows have rarely been more than a niche phenomenon — and a towering figure in the form of the late Osamu Tezuka.

In the postwar years Tezuka single-handedly elevated Japanese comics or manga from lightly regarded entertainment for children to a massive media industry that serves a wide range of ages and interests. Series such as “The Phoenix” and “Buddha” tackled adult themes — the former was about the quest for immortality, the latter was a deeply researched life of Buddhism’s founder — and earned Tezuka the title “god of manga.”

He also had his share of popular hits aimed at kids, such as “Princess Knight” a series about a spunky young princess posing as a male knight to save her kingdom, which spawned an entire genre of comics for girls.

For Tezuka, the move to television was a logical next step, since as the medium took off in Japan in the early 1960s, his under-12 readership started spending more time in front of the tube. Tezuka’s first show, “Astro Boy,” which debuted in 1963, was also the first locally made animation regularly broadcast on Japanese television. Produced by Tezuka’s Mushi Production animation house and based on a Tezuka manga, this series, with its atomic-powered boy robot hero, was also widely distributed abroad.

To make “Astro Boy,” Tezuka developed a limited animation style that used fewer images per second than conventional full animation — an average of eight for the former compared to as many as 18 for the latter. This not only sped up the production process, but made animated series financially viable for Japanese television, which earned far less advertising income than its U.S. counterpart and could accordingly pay far less for product.

This development had a huge impact throughout the Japanese animation industry, which was then using the full animation style adopted by Kenzo Masaoka, a prewar animator who had been hailed as “Japan’s Disney” for the quality of his work. “He’s the man who taught the men who taught Miyazaki,” says Jonathan Clements, author of  “Anime: A History.” “You can trace a lot of the creative genealogies of the anime business back to him.”

Toei Animation, which had its corporate roots in Masaoka’s postwar Japanese Animation Film Co. and had released the country’s first color animated feature, 1958’s “The Tale of the White Serpent,” was soon churning out limited animation shows for the local market. Some became hits abroad, such as “Cyborg 009,” a 1968 robot show based on the manga of Tezuka disciple Shotaro Ishinomori, and “Space Pirate Captain Harlock,” a 1978-79 series based on a manga by Leiji Matsumoto.

Meanwhile, Tatsunoko Production, founded in 1962 by animation pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida and his two brothers, had an international hit with 1967’s “Speed Racer,” an action anime derived from Yoshida’s manga.

But as game-changing as limited animated shows were, the format created what Clements describes as “Tezuka’s Curse.” Tezuka, he explains, “decided to charge less for [‘Astro Boy’] than it cost to make,” which became the industry standard.

The result, Clements adds, is that “no anime TV show can go into production without a committee of sponsors, and that has steered the very nature of television anime ever since. The toy company wants a cute mascot; the record company wants to push their new single. .. anime is born out of that creative compromise, for good or ill.”

Similar to manga, TV anime began appealing to viewers of all ages. The most enduringly popular was “Sazae-san,” an animated sitcom based on Machiko Hasegawa’s phenomenally successful comic. Starting in 1969, the show presented the title heroine, a sassy young Tokyo housewife, and her three-generation family in situations that may have been silly, but reflected realities of life in postwar Japan.

Hitting a peak audience share of 39.4% in 1979, the show set a Guinness record for longevity and is still on the air, though its ratings have sunk to the 8% range. “That’s still amazing for a cartoon, but it’s not great for primetime,” Clements says.

The decline of “Sazae-san” reflects the general ratings slump affecting the TV anime industry. One problem is that the Japanese baby boomers who drove the first anime boom have not been succeeded in sufficient numbers by their children and grandchildren. The birth rate — now at 1.4 children per woman — has been below replacement level for decades and the population as a whole is shrinking. There are now 1 million fewer Japanese than there were five years ago.

The industry has tried to compensate by making more shows for adults that, because of their content, can only be broadcast in the late hours. But their low ratings, by primetime standards, often means relatively less income for their makers, even after sales of DVD box sets and foreign broadcast rights are factored in.

Despite these negatives, Clements believes the industry is in “a boom, of sorts.” The reason: “There is a lot of money floating around in digital enclosures. The Netflixes and the Amazons are paying for libraries of TV content, which means new bidders in the field who are prepared to up the prices, and that’s good for the sellers.”

And anime is still a major TV genre, if one not seen much in primetime. In October, when the new TV season starts in Japan, 34 animated shows will debut on public broadcaster NHK and the five major national networks. In addition, 23 will bow on MX Tokyo and other independent stations.

Many are in the above-mentioned late-night category, while others are re-broadcasts of older series and still others, such as the pro-wrestling-themed “Tiger Mask W,” are reboots of classic programs (the last “Tiger Mask” show aired 35 years ago). A popular toy (“Heybot”), game (“Magic of Stella”), manga app (“The Numbers”), “light novel” (“Gi(a)rlish Number”), and character goods line (“Show by Rock!!”) have all inspired new shows, while that traditional source, manga, still generates the most new TV anime, such as the rugby-themed “All Out.”

The most popular of these shows may well be made into feature films, but the anime box office winners, year in and year out, tend to be series that, like “Doraemon,” “Pokemon,” “Detective Conan,” and “One Piece,” have been around for decades.

One big exception: Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” Based on Shinkai’s original story and script, this romantic fantasy about a teenage girl and boy who swap genders in their dreams has earned nearly $127 million since its Aug. 27 release, topping the take of Miyazaki’s last film, 2013’s “The Wind Rises.” As of the Oct. 1-2 weekend, it still tops the box office.

Shinkai, at age 43, still has a lot of films left in him, as do such other Miyazaki successors as Mamoru Hosoda (“The Boy and the Beast”), Hideaki Anno (the “Evangelion” series), and Hiromasa Yonebayashi, the director of the last Ghibli film, the 2014 “When Marnie Was There.”

Japan itself may shrink, but Japanimation looks likely to last. Watch for a follow-up piece in 2117.

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