Will China or Korea Ever Compete With Anime?
by Justin Sevakis,
It seems that the Chinese and South Koreas want to have their own equivalent of the anime/manga market. With their webtoons and such, Chinese investors seem to be putting a lot into forming their own market like Japan, even licensing or creating their own “anime”. For South Korea, there seems to be an influx of comics and such (some NSFW) that are getting some attention, such as the Gamer and the God of High School. Can they be just as successful as Japan is, if they can compete? Are they as well known as I think they are (especially in Japan or how they feel about them) or is it too early to tell or too niche even for most anime/manga fans?
This question comes up every few years or so, but enough has changed since the last time I got asked this question that I think it's time to revisit it.
Let's start with South Korea. Korea is known for its animation services industry, with a decades-long history of work-for-hire animation duties for both Japanese and American productions. Nearly every anime production has at least SOME work done in Korea (although Japan has started outsourcing more and more work to less developed, cheaper Asian countries).
Unfortunately Korea's home-grown animation efforts have very seldom bore any fruit. It's not for lack of trying -- every few years the country's animation studios turn out an ambitious animated feature, but they basically never make much of an impact overseas, and usually even local consumers don't turn out to support it. Many traditional US anime distributors have tried releasing Korean animation, usually with little success. (Manga Entertainment released Red Hawk and Armageddon; Central Park Media released Hammerboy and Doggy Poo; ADV Films released Bastof Syndrome, Michel and My Beautiful Girl Mari.)
There are a few bright spots: Kids' series Pororo the Little Penguin and Origami Warriors have done well in other parts of Asia (and have aired in Japan). Director Yeon Sang-ho has released three acclaimed, dark, mature animated films, including The King of Pigs, The Fake, and most recently Seoul Station. These have gotten critical acclaim and a few film festival awards, but as of yet, no Stateside release. Children's film Leafie, a Hen Into the Wild, did very well both domestically and was the first Korean animation to be distributed in China. (It got a small direct-to-video release in North America.)
None of those films look like anime, or appeal to the same general market, so it's hard to say that they're competing directly with anime. However, after years of toiling the country is finally producing some noteworthy films, so for animation fans it's probably worth keeping an eye in Korea's direction.
Chinese animation, meanwhile, is at a bit of a crossroads. China in general has been throwing a lot of money at film production. However, virtually none of their films are well regarded overseas these days, and Hollywood's attempts at working with China creatively have resulted in stuff like The Great Wall, a critical and commercial failure starring Matt Damon.
And that's the problem, really: since the Chinese government controls what films get made and distributed, there's really very little in terms of challenging filmmaking going on over there, animated or otherwise. China has produced quite a list of animated films and TV series in the past few years, and almost all of them are subpar CG cartoons. Period/fantasy dramas are a big exception: Big Fish & Begonia, a historical fantasy epic for teens that came out last year, looks pretty decent and is very clearly made to look like anime. I can't find evidence it was released outside of China, but it grossed US$83M domestically. And on television, The King's Avatar has been an unexpected hit this season, garnering a worldwide fanbase with Chinese production colossus Tencent making English-subtitled episodes available free on their Youtube channel. It's a legitimate success story - keep an eye on that show.
But once the topics get even slightly modern and controversial, things get weird. A promising Chinese gangster dark comedy animation, entitled Have A Nice Day, was supposed to screen at Annecy Film Festival in France this week, but the film had to be pulled after the Chinese government denied the film clearance to be shown internationally. There is something of a boom in Chinese art house animation (Have A Nice Day's director Liu Jian is said to be one of the movement's leaders), but we have yet to see much of it, or how much the Chinese government allows to even be seen overseas.
Things are clearly changing in Asia, as maturing digital techniques and a wealthier middle class means that more interesting and independent animation can be made. It's still rare to see other countries try to make something that looks and feels like anime, and even rarer yet for them to succeed. But whether or not it looks like anime, when these emerging creative teams can make some genuinely good, original animation, you can bet I'll be paying attention.
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Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original 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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