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A Look at TIFFCOM and Tokyo International Anime Festival 2011

by Andrew Osmond,

The last week of October saw a cluster of anime and manga-related events in Tokyo, due to the dovetailing of the Tokyo International Film Festival and a mini-edition of the Tokyo International Anime Festival. For foreign viewers, these events were a chance to look in at Japanese industry professionals who were looking out at the world, asking where anime and manga fitted in 2011.

The venues for the events seemed to reflect anime's split identity. The TIFF events took place in the heights of Roppongi Hills, Tokyo's prestigious cultural and business complex. The public screenings took place in the centre's Toho multiplex (which has an impressive giant water fountain in the foyer), while the business fair, seminars and trade screenings took place forty floors up, overlooking a grand vista of the city.

The TIAF events, meanwhile, were held at the UDX Theater in Akihabara, a perfectly good building in the district which put the “cult” in pop-culture. Nearby establishments include the AKB48 and Gundam cafes, while the UDX Theater itself contains the Tokyo Anime Information Centre, busy promoting the busty heroines of Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere.

The fundamental issue at both sets of events was how you sell anime in the 2010s . As the number of Japanese children continues to fall, foreign audiences become ever-more important. But do you pull them in with anime's Japaneseness, or meet the West midway with a co-production? Do you play to the reputation which anime has abroad, or to some broader idea of Japanese culture, or do you try to leave anime's cultural baggage behind?

These questions were raised directly in Roppongi, at a seminar on the future of anime films in a “Movie Campus” hosted by Japan's Agency for Cultural Affairs. The panelists included Hiroyuki Okiura, director of the Production I.G. films Jin-roh: The Wolf Brigade and Letter to Momo. Momo isn't due to open in Japan until April 2012, but it's already screening around the world. In some basic ways, it follows Studio Ghibli's Totoro and Spirited Away, flaunting its Japanese identity but going for a much wider audience than anime fans. So Momo has a vivid Japanese setting and is steeped in the country's yokai folklore (though actually the island setting is fictional and the yokai creatures, as in Spirited Away, are the director's own invention). On the other side, Momo's main character is a young girl, as sympathetic to foreigners as Mei, Satsuki or Chihiro.

The broad international success of Ghibli was cited by Kanji Kazahaya, director of Toei's global licensing. He contrasted it withthe “edgier” image of anime overseas. “People abroad perceive anime in a prejudiced manner… It is really difficult and it takes energy to convey what Japanese animation is all about,” said Kazahaya. Okiura and other panelists argued that anime should continue to depict Japanese culture strongly, despite past cases such as the ‘70s Heidi anime (set in Europe and embraced by Europeans). At one point, Britain's animated Wallace and Gromit was cited as a representative of an island culture that achieved world success without watering down its roots.

Some of the most interesting comments came from a woman animator, Aya Suzuki, who has worked for Japanese studios and also on Sylvain Chomet's Oscar-nominated The Illusionist (made in Scotland and distributed in Japan by the Ghibli Museum). Suzuki argued that there should be more productions where Japanese animators work alongside foreign artists who, Suzuki argued, did not necessarily have to speak Japanese. On The Illusionist, the animators worked together without a common language.

This led to an involved discussion of the viability of hiring foreign animators, many of whom are highly gifted and desperately short of work in their own countries. The feeling among the other panelists, though, was that Japanese work practices might be too different for a successful mix. For example, the volume of anime production means that Japanese animators are conventionally assigned whole scenes to work on, whereas a film like The Illusionist assigns animators to particular characters. “If I were asked to work on a single bug character, would I be motivated?” objected Okiura, who is an animator as well as a director. Not to mention that a delay on the bug could delay the whole production.

The discussion also showed up two sides of a dilemma – Japanese animators wanting to sell anime abroad, but at the same time worrying about protecting its cultural content. One moment, we were hearing criticisms of the industry's tunnel vision, and its lack of attention to the global market; the next, there were calls for greater cultural protection. “The government should recognize that Japan is an animation superpower,” declared Yuji Nunokawa, the president of Studio Pierrot, who cited Canada's support of animation as an enviable model.

The Japanese government is certainly interested in co-productions. As reported by ANN this October, it announced it will subsidize anime films with foreign investments, including Production I.G's upcoming film of Blood-C (due for release next June), and Tezuka Productions’ The Legend of Budori Gusuko ( Gusukobudori no Denki ).

Under this scheme both live-action and animated projects are eligible for subsidy, with the following provisos: they need a minimum “qualifying expenditure” of 100 million yen (just over US$1 million); a minimum 5% financing from abroad and a minimum 20% from Japan; a “sizeable Japanese creative contribution”; and distribution plans both for Japan and abroad. If granted, the government subsidy is a fifth of the project's qualifying expenditure, up to a maximum of 50 million yen. Both Blood-C and Budori Gusuko are due to receive 50 million, according to the October announcement. Even so, Okiura was skeptical of the prospect of state help, saying he “didn't expect much from the government.”

Another panel on anime co-productions had been held a couple of days earlier. This one featured producers such as Yutaka Akita of Polygon Pictures; the company recently partnered with the National Film Board of Canada on Muybridge's Strings, the new short animation by Koji Yamamura (Mt. Head, The Old Crocodile). The speakers acknowledged that anime co-productions had sometimes failed in the past, but they were needed now because of the increasing quota rules, especially in Europe, which restricted the export of TV anime.

Co-productions could satisfy the European quota criteria - and, of course, make funding easier for the studios, especially with Japanese government support. Not that it would solve all the problems, the speakers warned. As the panel pointed out, it's always vital in a co-production to ensure both sides in a co-production are talking about the same project, and that each knows what the other's expectations are, which may limit the freedom of Japanese animators.

Joseph Chou, president of Sola Digital Arts, pointed out that anime was seen as a genre abroad, and was bought up or rejected on that basis. He brought up the pseudo-anime series being made outside Japan, such as France's Totally Spies! and America's Avatar: The Last Airbender. Chou thought that these series succeeded internationally by diluting the anime “style,” but he also said that Japanese studios couldn't ignore them. The Japanese domestic market was shrinking, he argued, and Japan should be more active in trying to match such successes.

An American perspective on the issues was given over at Akihabara by a guest TIAF speaker, Heather Kenyon. Kenyon is a former director of development at Cartoon Network and now a business consultant (some readers may know her as the former editor-in-chief of the website Animation World Network). Profiling the US TV stations, Kenyon noted the unhealthy trend of live-action cutting into animation programming on the Disney and Cartoon Network channels. Another big concern for exports, she said, was “the alignment and integration of big brands,” especially superhero brands. Disney now owns Marvel, while Cartoon Network shares a common owner with D.C. Comics. This means, Kenyon said, that those stations won't be inclined to buy action-orientated animation from abroad in the future (though Nickelodeon, producer of Airbender, remains a possible buyer).

Kenyon argued that a bigger opportunity for anime sales in America was pre-school programming; channels such as Disney Junior have acres of programming to fill. She is also a believer in co-production, and in the potential for Japan to develop series together with US cable networks. She argued that if a network simply acquires an anime series, then it has no commitment to it, and networks have often shown interest in animation only to go cold later. “If the network has developed a series [with Japan], then it's invested time and money, and it's in the network's interest,” Kenyon said.

While anime may be seen as a genre by foreigners, some screenings at TIFF showed boundaries could still be blurred. The public screenings at Roppongi included the feature film Tatsumi, which isn't technically anime – it's an animation by Singapore's Zhao Wei Films, directed by Eric Khoo (Mee Pok Man, Be With Me). However, the film's subject is the manga pioneer Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and his adult “gegika,” dramatic picture stories. The film retells five of his tales, linked together by Tatsumi's own life-story from his manga, A Drifting Life.

In the TOHO cinema, Khoo introduced his film in unabashedly fannish terms. “I was determined to make this film to show the whole world there is this person,” he said. “If you feel for him in the film, then spread the word!” With its simply-drawn but highly atmospheric recreations of Tatsumi's comics, and its angry political and personal content, Tatsumi may appeal to viewers of world indie animations such as France's Persepolis and Israel's Waltz with Bashir. How much it will interest anime fans is less certain, though the 76-year old Tatsumi gave Tatsumi its blessing at the screening, and has a cameo at the film's end.

There was also a “trade” screening of the live-action film Himizu, adapted from the manga by Minoru Furuya, and directed by Sion Sono (Love Exposure). Though excessively lurid, Himizu is a long way from any “genre” notion of manga. It's a gruelling, cruel drama about a mercilessly abused teenager (Shōta Sometani) who in turn abuses his pathologically obsessed girl stalker (Fumi Nikaidō). The leads give exceptional performances (both won deserved awards at September's Venice Film Festival). However, Himizu will get the most attention for its inclusion of footage filmed at devastated locations, at Ishinomaki City in Miyagi prefecture, following March's tsunami. Sono tries to rework the manga story into a tortuous message for post-disaster Japan. Whether he succeeds is debatable, but there's no doubting his nerve.

Other films being promoted at TIFF are less likely to get an English-language release. One example is the third part of a period-drama trilogy called Always: Sunset on Third Street (San-chōme no Yūhi - Yūyake no Uta) , set in 1964 Tokyo. Based on a manga by Ryohei Saigan, the films have been box office hits in Japan, and part three opens next January; whether we'll ever see it in English is another matter. Among anime, one that we may or may not see exported is Tezuka Production's The Legend of Budori Gusko , from which gorgeous sample animation was being displayed . As mentioned, the film won a government subsidy last month and is likely to interest Western anime fans of a certain generation.

That's because Budori Gusko is directed by veteran Gisaburo Sugii, and it looks for all the world like a sequel to his surreal 1985 Night on the Galactic Railroad, down to the solemn cat hero and his blue-hued picture-book world. In fact, the project was begun by Railroad's studio Group TAC, but taken over by Tezuka Production after TAC's bankruptcy. Budori Gusko, like Railroad, is based on the stories of Kenji Miyazawa, with the new film promoted as “A story of love and courage from Tohoku [the area of Japan hit by the tsunami], with hope for the reconstruction.”

But if there was one anime project which seems to embody the bold aspirations of anime in 2011, it was a 3D CGI film. Friends: Naki on the Monster Island (Friends: Mononoke Shima no Naki) will be released in Japan in December, on a planned 300 screens. It is co-directed by Takashi Yamazaki, who helmed the Sunset on Third Street films, as well as the 2010 live-action remake of Space Battleship Yamato. Few foreign viewers will be able to look at the Friends trailers – in which a two year-old human baby washes up on a monster island and ends up in the care of two demons – without thinking of a certain Pixar film from ten years back. On the other hand, the film's production design and rough-and-tumble comedy feel decidedly less than Hollywood-esque.

Could this computer-animated comedy be the new bridge to the world that the anime industry is looking for? Its success or failure may well have an impact on morale in the business, and on anime's future fortunes. Regardless, the conversation continues and these two events highlighted a wide variety of the attitudes, arguments and challenges guiding the industry as it exists today.

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