Winners and Losers in Exporting Anime and Manga

Numerous articles have been written about the depressed state of the North American market in terms of anime and manga from Japan. The situation is so bad, many Japanese publishers and companies question if it is even worth while to attempt to market something to the US. I believe this is going too far, as I remember a time, just 20 years ago, when there was no real market in North America. There were a few titles released in English back then, but they were far and few in between.

But on the ground here in Tokyo, the pessimism is very strong. Many creators, producers and publishers talk about France and China as their best targets for export. France and China are not huge markets in themselves, but Europe’s market has not tanked as badly compared to the US and while its hard to make money out of China with its numerous regulatory barriers and rampant piracy, East Asia overall represents a market that is growing and the prospect of consumers with more disposable income is very good.

And even still, the US gets special attention by the Japanese. Specifically, Hollywood, as you can see in this article here: http://www.asahi.com/culture/update/1103/TKY201111020748.html
[Update 2011/11/14 English Asahi Shinbun has featured an article here. Thank you, Roland, for pointing it out!]

This Asahi article talks about a new joint venture named “All Nippon Entertainment Works” being established in October of this year (2011) aimed toward promoting and licensing Japanese entertainment IP products into Hollywood. Financing this undertaking will be made possible by the Sangyo Kakushin Kiko (Innovation Network Corporation of Japan), a quasi government investment fund that gets 90% of its funding from the Japanese government.

The aim of this enterprise is to construct an IP management scheme that would make licensing Japanese movies, manga, anime, games and toys more streamlined and thereby making them more attractive to prospective buyers in the US. In the eyes of many, Hollywood is the entertainment capital of the world, so there would no better place to promote Japanese properties. Anything Hollywood buys up will sprout wings and expand globally, and thereby help increase the Japanese footprint in the world, or so the logic goes.

This is a very short article and I do not know all the details of this endeavor, but I have two major concerns over this project.

First of all, depending on US companies to help export your own cultural product overseas seems rather timid and overdependent on others. Leaving aside the questions of ownership and creative control, anything the US makes will be for the benefit of the US creators, first and foremost. I am not saying US collaboration in Japanese IP works is a bad thing. Sometimes it turns out wonderfully. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’ll leave you to think of appropriate examples. I’m sure you can think of many.

The point is, creative agency of a given property should not be something taken lightly.

And while the article does not say specifically All Nippon Entertainment Works is devoted solely to adapting Japanese properties to meet US needs, the lack of emphasis of trying to promote Japanese works in the original form is very saddening. Many American never think twice about complementing a foreign films by stating, “Hey that was a great movie. It should be remade in Hollywood.” To the people who were making that original movie, that can be taken as a slap in the face.

I am well aware the US market is not very welcoming of foreign entertainment products. History has shown that many Hollywood remakes can be successful. But at the same time, no one predicted Japanese anime and manga would hit it so big in the US. I cannot think of a single non-English language cultural product that has achieved such a notable footprint in US culture while still largely retaining its foreign elements.

Some titles may work well adapted by Hollywood. Some works may not. I just hope copyright holders of Japanese properties suffer from what I refer to as the Hollywood syndrome. Hollywood syndrome is the mental state where people are willing to sellout unimaginable of personal and / or creative integrity in their desire to make it big at Hollywood, or any other focal point of creative endeavor. Fame can be a very powerful allure to lead many toward accepting normally unacceptable revisions.

Second of all, the selection of properties that this organization will promote and license is something that really needs to be examined closely. As a general rule, government does lousy job at picking winners in any given market. Did you know the Japanese government initially actively discouraged the Japanese automobile industry? The procurement process for ordinary products of the Pentagon has been target of much ridicule. How certain titles will be chosen by this organization needs to be carefully monitored.

Whenever government funding is available over a given project, those with strong political and industry connections stand to be in an advantageous position.

Frankly, most of the titles that are listed in the article are properties that belong to big Japanese business that can afford to promote their titles overseas. I would much prefer creative works that do not enjoy the support of big business to be given a helping hand from tax payers.

It’s never easy to figure out which titles will be successful in the open market, but entrusting a bureaucracy with picking winners and losers for entertainment properties may only complicate the process.

I am glad the Japanese are acting more assertively in promoting their properties, but I just feel there might be some other things that should have been done before doing soemthing like this.

PS: I’ll try to make updates more frequent, but its not always easy.

This entry was posted in bureaucracy, translation and intercultural issues. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Winners and Losers in Exporting Anime and Manga

  1. This is the first I’ve heard of (and I’m really surprised by it) such pessimism about the state of the North American anime/manga market from the Japanese side. From an American fan’s perspective things there isn’t a hint of these troubles you refer to. To our eyes after years and years of pleading and hoping, Japanese companies are finally reaching out and answering our wishes with more and more simulcasts, digital manga, and English releases closer and closer to the Japanese release dates. These feel like serious efforts to curb online piracy with satisfactory legal alternatives that are often free or very cheap (though the manga is still a little expensive). It feels like things couldn’t be better for us English speaking fans and manga and anime becomes more popular and gaining more mainstream acceptance by the day so it’s very disheartening to hear things aren’t working out as well as Japanese companies had hoped.

    I’d be curious to hear the things the Japanese think about the North American market. And welcome back, I’m glad you are blogging again.

  2. Maxim says:

    Thank you Mr. Dan for explaining all of this! I always wondered about why so little japanese creative property made it to America (or in my case, Europe). Especially because I estimate that about 30% (a rough estimate) of the students on the university where I study, are actively reading manga and watching anime and deviated products. I completely understand that people are really dissapointed when they get to hear their movie should be remade by Hollywood. I prefer the original ‘as it is meant to be’.
    And I have a question: Do you perhaps have some information on the status of the witches of africa novel translation (the light novels in witches of africa and tiger in desert 1 and 2 that didn’t come out in English)?
    I just bought the africa compilation and the three witches of the sphinx volumes (waiting for them to arrive).

  3. Anonymous says:

    Question: will all Nippon Entertainment recruit Hollywood scriptwriters to write more original anime stories?

    P.S. I think you should lead All Nippon Entertainment Works.

  4. Excellent article as to why Japanese anime studios and showbiz entities are facing great hurdles in exporting entertainment properties (I believe they’re mostly made for a largely domesticated, homogenized and closed market); it’s quite a sharp contrast to the successful South Korean cultural Hallyu (or “wave”), in which Korean entertainment industries are aggressively marketing their products almost everywhere (that I see them now as the “Hollywood of the East”).

    • Another thing, however, after reading more about the so-called “Korean wave”: even the South Korean entertainment machine has its share of hits and misses, as not everyone outside that country embraces their pop culture.

  5. V_Otaku says:

    I think the problem is how Hollywood make an adaption.
    It seems to me that almost every adaptions from them tend to turn into some kind of super hero genre, like Superman, if I must say.
    Dragon Ball, King of Fighters, Street Fighters…. you name it.
    Don’t know if I get it right, but look like people in US like that kind of movies too much, so they have to make them like that, in order to attract customers?
    The same for romantic movies, comedy or not. In the end, it’s the same: always a girl, normal or abnormal, meet some “Mr. Perfect Man” who’s handsome, attractive….bla bla bla…., fall in love with him, try everything, even foolish things…blah blah blah… to gain his attention…. and then…blah blah blah, some kind of serious situation, and in the end, they’re with each other.
    No idea why there are too many of them? Romantic anime/manga is MUCH MUCH MORE than that. But I guess it’s fair enough, since you can’t just put everything in 2-hours-longs movies.
    So in the end, I suppose it’s impossible for franchise like Toaru Majutsu no Index or Zero no Tsukaima, which is far beyond ‘Hollywood adaption’, to be a Hollywood movie.

  6. OtakuAnthony says:

    A bit late here to the party with my response but I will give my .02 here. If things were truly that bad here in the US anime industry we would barely see any titles being licensed. More titles are being licensed and more shows are available for legal streaming each season. Sure not every show is being officially licensed and this will never happen since some of the shows would never sell in R1 land.

    I do not agree with using tax payer money to help something out. All that does is convinces those groups that we do not have to make something hugely successful since we are getting help anyways. All this leads is to making bad titles or okay titles and not taking a chance with making something completely different in the market. If the titles do not become big hits on their own then the market is telling them something.

While I may not be able to respond to all comments, I always welcome feedback. Thank you.

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