Fascination with Japanese anime grows

The fascination with Japanese animation continues to grow as the genre seeks to create fresh storylines using new technology

There are animated characters everywhere you turn in Tokyo.

Posters trumpet the latest anime series. Popular characters pop up on all manner of merchandise, even grin at you merrily atop a giant cloud of candy floss.

Cartoon mascots adorn everything from bus stops to the earthquake emergency use lane.

The love affair with all things anime is a long-running one in Japan and has also spread far and wide beyond its shores.

The success of anime lies in showing audiences the world of the imagination. What I need to focus on is delving into worlds that people have not imagined before.

MR GO NAKANISHI, an anime producer whose recent hits include Fafner Exodus

Animax, a Japanese television network dedicated to anime, launched in South-east Asia in 2004.

It is among the top three international general entertainment channels collectively in Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan for audiences aged 10 to 24. This is based on information by market research firms Kantar, for Singapore and the Philippines, and Nielsen, for Malaysia and Taiwan, and is based on ratings for January to September this year for the primetime slot of 6pm to 1am.

Starting from Dec 17, 9am, Animax (StarHub TV Channel 532) will be available in high definition.

The inaugural Anime Festival Asia, for all things to do with Japanese pop culture, drew 29,000 visitors in Singapore in 2008. That figure has more than tripled to around 90,000 for last year and this year's editions.

Hit anime producer Go Nakanishi, 41, points out a key reason for the genre's growth in popularity worldwide and its potential to grow further.

He says: "With word-of-mouth spreading and sharing over the Internet, there are a lot more people who can enjoy anime who were not exposed to it previously."

He is speaking to Asian media on the premises of King Records. Mr Nakanishi is also the general manager of its anime music arm, Starchild.

The industry veteran also pinpoints the reason for anime's success, while J-pop seems to have floundered overseas in recent years.

He says: "You can substitute K-pop, hip-hop, Brit pop and so on for J-pop as there are lots of choices in music. But there isn't a direct substitute for anime."

While other countries produce their own animation series, it is hard to compete with the breadth and depth of Japan's output.

In just one season alone, there can be 50 new titles to savour - ranging from cutesy child-friendly fare to darker opuses dealing with death and destruction.

Two of Mr Nakanishi's recent hits include Fafner Exodus, the sequel to 2004's Fafner In The Azure, about children piloting the titular Fafners in a war against giant aliens, as well as the sequel to 2012's K, action fantasy K: Return Of Kings, in which modern-day kings clash in an urban setting.

Fafner Exodus premiered on Animax yesterday, while a full season marathon of K: Return Of Kings will air on Dec 27.

A producer needs to be something of a fortune-teller, given that it takes two years to put together a series of 13 episodes, from the scripting and illustration to the voice dubbing, editing and final checks, before the series is aired.

For a major production, more than 1,000 people can be involved in the process.

Still, Mr Nakanishi is in the enviable position of deciding which of the thousands of manga published every year get the anime treatment.

It is with a mix of pragmatism and idealism that he approaches this task.

Firstly, it depends on whether the manga is a big hit based on sales. And secondly, whether there are fans clamouring for a small-screen adaptation of the work on social media channels.

"Ultimately, it is whether I want to see it as an anime or not," adds Mr Nakanishi.

He also needs to have his finger on the pulse of popular culture.

He notes that the science-fiction genre took off in the mid-1990s, thanks to the success of Neon Genesis Evangelion, and then waned as slice-of-life themes came into demand. But it is once again gaining popularity.

But rather than simply riding the wave, Mr Nakanishi tries to find a fresh angle.

"I'll look at what's available in the market and see what the missing piece is and then do that."

He adds with a laugh: "I want to be a trendsetter, but that's difficult."

In order to lead rather than follow, one needs to surprise the audience. He says: "We need something new, be it a surprising storyline or the technology of the animation - something that will excite viewers."

One of his upcoming titles might do just that. The anime adaptation Showa Genroku Rakugo Shinju, centred on the theme of rakugo, or traditional story-telling, is slated to air in Japan next month.

In terms of subject matter, it is already very different from the high-tech, science-fiction titles out there.

Twenty years on the job and Mr Nakanishi remains enthralled by the possibilities of animation.

He says: "The success of anime lies in showing audiences the world of the imagination.

"What I need to focus on is delving into worlds that people have not imagined before."

•Fafner Exodus airs on Mondays and Tuesdays at 10pm on Animax (StarHub Channel 532).

•K: Return Of Kings airs on Saturdays at 11pm on Animax. There will be a 13-episode marathon of the entire season on Dec 27 from 4pm.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 09, 2015, with the headline 'Still in love with anime'. Print Edition | Subscribe