JAPAN and ANIME: Its Triumphs and Troubles Today

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Japan is the home of anime; everybody in the world knows it. It’s so quintessentially Japanese in its appropriation of Western stylistic conventions while making it their very own. From this genre came some of the most popular, and occasionally award-winning, media exports of the country, anime productions for both television and the big screen, several of which became powerful cult classics to Western and other Eastern audiences. Titles from the 80s and 90s, like “Akira” and “Ghost in the Shell” (which now has an upcoming Hollywood adaptation), are held as masterpieces of audiovisual media for instance. And more recently the 2016 feature film “Kimi no Na Wa” (“Your Name”) by Makoto Shinkai is earning international accolades for its story and cinematography. One could assume that the animation industry in Japan remains at an all-time successful run. But dark shadows have been running under the surface for several years now.

One of the more prominent general feature news items about Japan is the sobering fact that its population is both getting smaller and older. More Japanese of marriageable age eschew getting together and forming families, be it due to nigh-impossible romantic ideals or preferring to live single for their own selves. As a result, there are progressively smaller numbers of children and youth in comparison to adults and the elderly in Japan, and as a whole their population is already shrinking. This affects the anime industry by both the departure of older production personnel and the slow entry of junior animators and artists into the business because of low mandatory wages for their extremely vital job positions. Coupled with the fact that earnings for domestic broadcasts of anime TV series is at an all-new low, there’s a feeling that the animal industry seems set to collapse under its latest success.

But there’s still a way for Japanese anime to continue being profitable for Japan’s industry. This however means that certain changes needed to be made in animation companies regarding the encouragement of fresh talent coming in; the better to make more productions that could very see success (and revenues) on the world media market. As mentioned earlier, the anime film “Your Name” is currently the highest-grossing Japanese animation of all time internationally. Part of which can be attributed to the adorably charming story: that of two teenagers, a boy and a girl, who find themselves on occasion inhabiting each other’s bodies. Using this to their mutual advantage the two use their time “switched” to help improve one another’s lot in their respective lives, and ultimately avert the tragic loss of many lives in a calamity. The global box office intake of “Your Name” is at present an impressive $330 million.

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The Association of Japanese Animations (AJA) would report that the anime revenue sector grew in 2015 by 12%, totaling $16 billion in all. This is thanks to their increasing presence on online streaming services along with other prime programming choices; it should be noted that streaming of anime from China was up by 79 percent that year. And in 2016 the theatrical box office returns for anime films was $2.1 billion, hailed as a record of sorts. Even better, the current popularity of “Your Name” has encouraged global content markets to make plenty of inquiries about other anime features and shows from a prominent Japanese entertainment company. Despite more somber opinions from anime company insiders believing that this is but a temporary “special case” windfall that will ultimately not change the market greatly, it’s still quite telling that of Japan’s top 10 movies for 2016, six were anime feature films.

Despite the other stumbling blocks that are plaguing the anime industry today – the disparity of wages between longtime animators and their junior assistants, and the difficulty of production companies raising revenue from TV broadcasting alone (they need merchandise sales and licenses to keep falling in the red) – there are still some bright and positive developments happening for the popular Japanese medium. The increase in anime streaming from China is but a facet of the larger renewed interest the country has towards Japanese animation, including several deals for join co-production between animation outfits of their respective countries. Granted this is due to the current political tensions with South Korea leading to the Chinese government cutting imports of programming from there, and needing to fill their loss by acquiring shows from Japan; but it’s still something of a win.

Meanwhile, Hollywood is on the verge of globally releasing their adaptation of “Ghost in the Shell” this end of March, starring Scarlett Johansson. Finally, internationally renowned and multi-awarded anime creator Hayao Miyazaki is conceptualizing one more motion picture masterpiece, ostensibly his last of his career before retiring for good. And the rest of the world continues consuming anime. There may be problems along the way, but perhaps they too will eventually be overcome.

Photo courtesy of japanator.com

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