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Why Are Anime-Based Stage Plays So Popular?

by Justin Sevakis, Feb 8th 2017

MIchael asks:

I've read numerous stories on ANN about various popular anime/manga franchises getting stage play adaptations, most recently Attack on Titan, and this prompts lots of questions. Who's commisioning these - is it a cashgrab by the publisher, or opportunism by some theatre company (or both, I guess)? Do the actors appearing in such productions specialise to these types of show? What sort of audience do these show attract, in terms of demographic as well as numbers? (I imagine it's aimed at people who have already met the source material). And are these productions critically well-respected? Because I have no idea how a theatre company could do justice to the 3DMG or collossal titan for instance, and I can imagine that occasionally the comprimises a production might have to make might not go down well with some fans of the anime.

Musical theater adaptations of well-known anime and manga go back a very long time. The famous all-female theatrical troupe Takarazuka Revue had a smash hit in 1974 with its adaptation of Rose of Versailles, and there may be earlier ones that I'm unaware of. There have been plenty of adaptations since, many of them aimed at children and families. Sometimes they're elaborate theatrical events, other times they're smaller productions, like the infamous "Powertron" sentai event at the beginning of Perfect Blue.

The recent boom of anime stage musicals really started in 2003 with the wildly successful adaptation of Prince of Tennis. If you see a video clip of this musical it becomes abundantly clear who the audience is: every major event in the show is met with a chorus of screaming female voices. And the production knew who the audience was, too: there were even completely unnecessary "locker room" scenes that seemed to exist just so protagonist Ryoma could be seen taking off his shirt. Repeatedly. Prince of Tennis was already an epoch-making fujoshi magnet, and the musical arguably made it into a phenomenon. New productions of Prince of Tennis (usually with a new cast) were staged into 2007 are still being performed.

The Sailor Moon musical (Sailor-Myu, as it's known to its fans) was also a big deal when it came out. Bleach, Death Note and Blue Exorcist have also been recently adapted. Again, most fans are female, but there is at least a little bit of cross-over appeal with some of these shows. Nonetheless, anime with large numbers of women fans are more likely to get stage adaptations than male-skewing franchises.

Unlike traditional stand-alone plays, the successful anime-related plays are series unto themselves. Every year is essentially a new "chapter" of the long-running story, with new merchandise, new commemorative DVD releases, new soundtrack CDs, and new program guides. These shows usually travel to a few cities around Japan, and can become quite lucrative for the companies involved. A few publishing companies even have specialized offices set up to facilitate production of these musicals, although they're not quite common enough that they play a major role in the anime business.

I'll be honest: most of these stage plays are quite cheesy looking, especially if you're used to the high budget extravaganzas of Broadway, London's West End, or other mainstream fare. These are small, almost community theater-level productions, and nobody is expecting gigantic set-pieces or Tony Award-level acting. They represent an aspect of Japanese pop culture that's missing from the West, and that's of charming accessibility. The actors aren't big names, and much like up and coming idol stars, they seem like someone you might conceivably be able to meet in real life, and that's part of the draw. At the same time, these stage adaptations give flesh and blood form to popular characters. It's not hard to see why some fans find that very appealing.

I sat through some of The Prince of Tennis and Sailor Moon musicals, and was struck by how low budget the whole affair seemed. The matches in Prince of Tennis used a spotlight to symbolize the ball going back and forth as two boyish actors wildly swung rackets in the air. The musical numbers were nothing I would consider memorable, or even good. I recalled an old VHS fansub of Revolutionary Girl Utena that included a bit of that show's stage play, featuring a grown man playing the miniature monkey mascot character Chu-Chu. I remembered thinking that it seemed like something I'd be forced to sit through in elementary school.

But these plays clearly require a suspension of disbelief, one that I imagine is very easy to achieve if you're a super-fan of that franchise. It's not a level of suspension that is often asked of us as Westerners if you're not into low budget fantasy-themed theater. But as with so many other parts of Japanese pop culture, the fans get obsessive, they buy lots of merchandise, and the fervor elevates the whole property and makes every part of the franchise sell even more. If a show is popular enough with the target demographic, and a theater troupe is interested in putting together a production, it's common sense at this point for a manga artist's management to do what it can to help it along. It's simply good business.


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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for nearly 20 years. He's the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.


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