In partnership with JNTO
A black samurai fights in feudal Japan’s civil war. How’s that for an elevator pitch? It worked on Netflix, whose upcoming anime series Yasuke tells the tale of a historical African man who came to Japan in the 16th century and was swiftly inducted into its warrior elite. Although animated at MAPPA in Tokyo, the series is created and directed by LeSean Thomas, an American. Although he is – like his protagonist – an outsider in his Japanese milieu, the globalised set-up of his show is fast becoming a norm in the country’s animation industry.
Anime is booming, fuelled by skyrocketing investment from abroad. Its overseas market nearly doubled between 2015 and 2018, reaching a record £7.5 billion, and is poised to outstrip the stagnant domestic market. The most conspicuous drivers of this boom are streaming platforms, of which Netflix is the most aggressive. It faces stiffening competition from dedicated anime streamers Crunchyroll and Funimation, which have been acquired by WarnerMedia and Sony respectively, turning the American market into a major corporate battleground.
Our Summer 2020 issue
This feature is part of our Summer 2020 anime special issue.See more
Meanwhile, Chinese producers and financiers are rivalling their American counterparts in spending. Even Saudi Arabia is joining in, lavishly funding the feature film The Journey in a co-production with Japan’s storied Toei Animation.
Foreign investment in Japanese animation is nothing new: it has been happening since before the medium was known as ‘anime’. From the 1960s, many American and European producers outsourced animation work to Japanese studios, while obscuring this origin in the final product.
The advent of home video and the success of Akira in the late 1980s revealed an audience for Japanese animation in and of itself; suddenly the origin was the selling point. Cue the first global anime boom, during which Western distributors fed their nascent market by snapping up existing Japanese titles, then helped to finance new ones in return for exclusive rights. Sometimes they got a hit: Disney won’t have regretted contributing to the budget of Spirited Away (2001). More often, in their rush to fill their catalogues, they ended up with works whose value they had drastically overestimated. The bubble burst in 2006 and foreign spending slumped.
- The trailer for Netflix’s Chinese-made Scissor Seven
The overseas anime market has since bounced back to twice its 2006 size. Essentially, this is demographic potential being realised: there are simply far more people outside than inside Japan, whose market is close to saturation anyway. Foreign revenue covers everything from remake rights to merchandise, but this new boom is centred on a massive resurgence of international co-productions, which are increasingly driven from overseas.
One Netflix executive calls this “anime with global travel prospects”: shows commissioned by non-Japanese companies with an international audience in mind. The companies heavily promote the contributions of Japanese artists and studios – after all, a Japanese pedigree is important when marketing anime. But a growing number of these shows are creatively led by foreigners like Thomas, many of whom will have discovered anime during the first boom.
- The trailer for Netflix’s US-made Castlevania
As conventionally defined, the term ‘anime’ only applies to works made in Japan, and fans will argue over whether such international co-productions meet this criterion. Meanwhile, producers and distributors abroad are busy trying to stretch the definition even further. Many are branding shows that ape a Japanese aesthetic, yet are entirely produced elsewhere, as anime; Netflix’s Scissor Seven (China) and Castlevania (US) are just two examples.
This is about more than mere semantic quibbling, however. Studios in territories like China and the US have advantages, be they cheap labour or cultural and geographic proximity. If producers find that they can satisfy the broadening demand for ‘anime’ while bypassing Japan, the country’s industry may suffer. Like the last anime boom, this one could yet end up in a bust.
About Japan National Tourism Organization
Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) promotes travel to, in and around the country. Check out the JNTO site for bucket list itineraries, the ‘old normal’, travel on a budget and endless ways to escape into rural Japan.
Visit japan.travel and plan your adventure today.
Five contemporary Japanese films to watch on BFI Player
BFI Player has teamed up with the Japan National Tourism Organization (JNTO) to bring you some of the best of Japanese cinema, and a serious dose of wanderlust. These five gems offer viewers a tour of the finest contemporary Japanese films and a chance to sample the country’s breathtaking landscapes.
Kitano Takeshi, 1993
A masterful gangster film about a yakuza sent to the beautiful beaches of Okinawa where he has time to ruminate on his fate.
Koreeda Hirokazu, 2003
A heartbreaking study of neglect about four children left to fend for themselves.
Naomi Kawase, 2007
A haunting tale about an elderly widower and his young nurse who get lost in a forest.
Okita Shûichi, 2011
A lumberjack in the Kiso mountains is roped into the shooting of a zombie film.
Kurosawa Kiyoshi, 2015
The living and the dead coexist in this beautiful meditation on love and loss.
The seeds of anime: how Japanese animation arose
By Jonathan Clements
A short history of small-screen anime
By Helen McCarthy
Women make anime
By Ren Scateni
Beyond anime: a short history of independent Japanese animation
By Jasper Sharp
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