How Do Japanese Producers Factor Cultural Differences Into Their Sales Plans?

by Justin Sevakis,

Matt asked:

I've been curious about how certain shows Japanese licensors think will be massive hits in North America end up getting cult status at best due to those shows being so ingrained into their culture; some examples being Yōkai Watch (and the RPG it was based on) from Level-5 and the classic character Doraemon. Why do some of these companies have the mindset that success in Japan will also mean success overseas?

Cultural differences between Japan and the international market are something that most Japanese companies still have a tough time figuring out. From their point of view, it's a bit confusing what makes a title "too Japanese" for Western audiences. To be honest, even I'm not sure where the line is.

Consider this: one of the most beloved anime ever released in the West, and to-date, the only anime to ever win an Academy Award, is Spirited Away. Spirited Away deals almost exclusively in Japanese mythology (it literally takes place in an onsen for yokai). It makes symbolic reference to Japanese history old and new (the economic boom of the 80s, Edo period bath houses, etc.) and even features characters eating loads of amazing-looking food that many Westerners would be completely unfamiliar with.

On the face of it, that sounds WAY more "foreign" and difficult for Westerners than Yōkai Watch or Doraemon. But Westerners love it, because it doesn't demand that you know anything about any of those -- it's an easily relatable story from the point of view of someone who actually IS lost in an unfamiliar world and has to muddle through.

On the flip side, look at Detective Conan. That's a simple murder mystery show, barely removed from the sorts that have been extremely popular in the West centuries, and it's one of the most popular franchises in the Japanese anime market. But it's never found legs in North America. I've heard all sorts of explanations why, from the fact that it looks quite juvenile while having gruesome murders; to the notion that its character designs aren't appealing to Western otaku. But nobody really knows for sure why it never connected -- these are all just educated guesses.

In determining a show's potential overseas, everyone -- the Japanese producers, the Western publishers, and even the fans -- are completely guessing. Japanese producers will naturally base their expectations in part on how the show did in Japan. They know that the two markets aren't identical, and that plenty of domestic bombs have found success overseas, and vice versa. But it's extremely hard to identify why that happens in any broad sense. Western publishers may have more of an instinct in this regard -- being Westerners themselves, they'd be able to have a more natural feel for what will appeal to their countrymen. And also, they have sales data from other similar shows.

Back in the day, producers were far more conservative in what they thought international audiences would be interested in. When American VHS anime publishers started approaching anime producers for their initial handful of titles back in the early 90s, the reaction they got was often along the lines of, "uh, you guys... want this stuff over there? Huh. Let me get back to you." That was eons ago, of course, and the anime business is now quite dependent on international fans for much of its income. They have to put a value on their product in order to sell it, and in most cases, domestic performance is their only data point.

Yōkai Watch may have disappointed overseas, but most people working in licensing offices in the anime business know that some shows are a harder sell than others. One challenge in particular is older, long-running franchises that weren't introduced overseas when they were new, and therefore don't have the nostalgia value they do in Japan. While Sho-Pro may have successfully sold some episodes of Doraemon to Disney a few years back, I don't think they had any illusions that it would be as massive a hit in the US as it is in Asia.

But judging a series' value based on cultural differences is something of a fool's errand. After all... Dragon Ball Z is based on the ancient Chinese legend of The Monkey King. Bleach plays with Shinto and Buddhist concepts of death and the after life. The list goes on.

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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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