Why Isn't Korean Anime More Of A Thing?

by Justin Sevakis,

Mantaray59 asks:

My question is about Korean animation. I remember back in 2009 there being an anime ‘Winter Sonata’ that was a Korean production and aired in Japan with Japanese subtitles, and how rare this was. Now I know South Korea and Japan don't exactly get along so there may not be much cultural exchange, but in the US with the K-pop craze, why don't we hear more about Korean animation?

For all of the posturing, old war grudges and racism inherent in the relationship between Japan and South Korea, the two countries actually share a lot more culture than you might think. Their relationship is like a more acrimonious version of England and France: there's constant travel and business investment between the two countries, and despite a language barrier, people in one country regularly fall in love with the culture of the other country, and there's a lot of ways in which the two countries are intertwined. They are deeply dysfunctional siblings.

That relationship extends to the anime industry as well. Korean animation existed in fits and starts as early as the 1960s, but didn't become its own industry until the 1980s, when Japan started outsourcing some of the grunt work to the country, where labor was cheaper. Several Japanese anime studios even invested in Korean animation studios, who gradually started becoming proficient at most steps of the animation process. As Korea has a thriving PC gaming industry, the country was able to transition well to digital animation techniques. But nearly all of the work being done is being produced by Japan or America, with the creative heavy lifting being done outside of Korea. (For a few years in the 80s, Korea "remixed" some of the work they did on Japanese productions -- mostly mecha TV series -- into their own feature films for domestic release. I've never gotten a clear answer as to whether this was authorized or not.)

In the 80s and 90s, Korea imported a lot of Japanese pop culture (though music and TV dramas were -- and still are -- banned from the public airwaves). However, until the late 90s, it was purely a one-way exchange. But then, with Korea's entertainment industry experiencing rapid growth, the "halyu wave" -- a boom of K-pop, Korean dramas and movies -- hit huge in Japan. K-pop singers like Boa and boy band TVXQ became household names in Japan. But perhaps the biggest hit was the K-drama series Winter Sonata, which aired on NHK in 2003 and became a sensation. Before long, organized Japanese tours of filming locations from the show in Korea were booked for years in advance, and K-pop acts were selling out huge stadiums. The Korean Wave hit all across Asia, and continues to make inroads in the West as well. It's been speculated that recent issues with anti-Korean sentiment in Japan are likely a reaction to all of this attention.

But the success of Korean content has largely passed the animation industry by. For all of the outsourced animation the country's 120-some studios produce for Japan and America, and for all of the millions of Won in funding the Korean government has spent trying to prop the industry up, their own original productions have been failures nearly across the board. Funding for these productions has generally been hard to come by, and when one does get funded, the storytelling is often no match for the Japanese and American productions that Korean fans have been watching for decades -- and as a result, even Koreans don't show up to support them. As such, most Korean productions have focused on either very young children or on character goods, both of which are easy to export and have low expectations placed on their filmic qualities. Some of these franchises, like Pororo the Penguin and Pucca, have found some success in other parts of Asia. Occasionally you get an esoteric or teen-orientied piece of animation from Korea, but it's quite rare.

Before and during the 2000s anime bubble, several American anime publishers tried their hand at releasing Korean-produced anime-style animation. Manga Video had Red Hawk and Armageddon. ADV had Michel, BASToF Syndrome (nee Bastof Lemon) and My Beautiful Girl Mari. Central Park Media had Hammerboy and Doggy Poo. A short-lived company called Digiview released a bunch of the terrible hacked-together stock footage Korean anime from the 80s, which were briefly on the shelves of Walmart for $1 each. Sky Blue (Wonderful Days), a hugely expensive 2003 sci-fi epic got a small worldwide release, but didn't make an impact. Aachi and Ssipak, a gonzo 2006 feature about sci-fi street thugs, didn't show up on American shores until 2013. A few of these have found a small cult following, but pretty much all of them were gigantic failures.

I've watched a lot of Korean animation over the years, and while there have been some incredible highlights (such as the Flash cartoon There She Is!!, and the previously mentioned My Beautiful Girl Mari), the vast majority have been clumsy, ungainly pieces of cinema. The failure of Korean animation, both artistically and financially, is baffling to me. The country makes world-class action blockbuster films, the best of their manhwa is every bit as good as what Japan produces, and their TV dramas are popular around the world. But with no clear market for what their animation industry is capable of making now, it will never mature, and Korean animation directors will never refine their craft. Perhaps that'll change in the future, but it's where things are now.

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Anime News Network founder Justin Sevakis wrote Answerman between July 2013 and August 2019, and had over 20 years of experience in the anime business at the time. These days, he's the owner of the video production company MediaOCD, where he produces many anime Blu-rays. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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