An Overview of Anime in the Mecha Body of Japan’s Economy
Within five minutes of turning on my hotel television in Tokyo I had seen two commercials for water bottles sold by One Piece characters and a McDonalds anime-style ad for jobs.
Anime’s seamless integration throughout Japan extends from the sprawling hub of Tokyo’s anime district Akihabara, to the anime packaged food at the local conbini in Tokushima. While the commercialization of anime reflects both Marvel and Disney in the western market – from branded alphagetti to t-shirts.
It is undeniable that anime’s influence has helped to shape the foreign market through overseas distribution. Also due to its integration it has followed the rollercoaster rise and fall of the domestic market. This mimicry is thanks mainly to anime’s historical and current existence as a cornerstone of Japanese media. Thanks to this interconnectivity the future of anime in the Japanese economy even against in the face of rising competition through internet distribution is cautiously optimistic.
Anime’s Place Historically and Beyond
While Japan itself began producing silent animation in 1917 through cutout animation techniques imported from France and the United States, televised anime did not begin until 1963. Osamu Tezuka created Tetsuwan Atom (or Astro Boy in English) in 1963 and it became the nation’s first weekly TV anime series. At the infancy of animation broadcasting only seven animated programs, including Tetsuwan Atom, were broadcasted.
Originally anime was quite stilted and used fewer frames due to terribly low funds. Tezuka’s company was forced to offset the losses and low income with copyright income. The Atom character was placed on chocolates by confectionary maker Meiji Seika, which began the deep and long-held connection between merchandising, the Japanese economy, and anime.
It was not until Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki began to create the smooth, high-budget animated movies that anime was truly put on the global map as a contender for awards and on par with American animation. In particular, Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away raked in a worldwide total domestic revenue of $289 million, with North American earnings of $10 million and a further $29 million from other foreign countries. It also received the prestigious academy award for best animated feature film.
Since the original seven broadcasted animations, anime has grown exponentially. In 2014 alone 322 animes were broadcasted of which 232 were new. This shattered the record of 279 animes in 2006. There is no doubt that anime has grown since its inception and that with it so has its influence on the Japanese economy. What remains to be seen is its place in the future of Japan’s economy.
Historically Japan’s domestic anime market had three sectors: feature length films, TV shows, and DVDs. With the recent shift in media distribution to more internet based services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon, televised anime must compete in order to survive. Some of the previous market sectors will soon cease to exist, something that is occurring not only in anime in Japan, but globally. In fact, in 2014 the animation distribution market through the Internet was $40.8 billion yen, a 20% increase from the previous years, rivalling that of the theatrical animation market.
Anime has thankfully begun to shift towards internet distribution, with upcoming Netflix original animes like Perfect Bones and Blame! on the horizon and the popular Crunchyroll streaming service.
Anime Consumption and the Economy
Just as digitalization has begun to shape how people access anime and how distribution channel filter anime, anime has often followed the general Japanese economic trends. This connection shows a direct correlation between anime consumption and the economy.
Proving this correlation are the following facts: (1) In 2006 – well before the worldwide 2008 market crash – anime consumption hit its peak; (2) in that same year – with the exclusion of panchinko machines and “other revenue” – anime had a domestic revenue of 194.7 billion yen; and, (3) during the recession, consumption hit its lowest at 129.5 yen (again with the exclusion of panchinko and other revenue).
One reason for this mimicry is consumer buying patterns during good and bad economic times. When Japan’s economy does well, anime consumption has followed suit as people have disposable income to spend on figures and DVDs. Similarly, as the economy continues to struggle to recapture the glory of pre-economic crash – with the accompanying slump in advertising and birthrates in Japan – anime also faces both a weaker market and increased competition from rival entertainment forms such as video games and cell phones.
To combat both increased entertainment-dollar competition and stagnant overseas markets, a $500 million fund, “Cool Japan,” promotes cultural items abroad hoping to mimick South Korea’s successful entertainment industry-investment, putting the lucrative kpop on the global entertainment map. The “Cool Japan” fund has resulted in anime localization projects, pop culture exporting, and the Anime Consortium Japan—a media company streamlining anime distribution.
During the economic recovery of 2009, Japanese prime minister, Taro Aso, said, “Japanese content, such as anime and video games, and fashion draw attention from consumers around the world.” Knowing the economic strength of anime, Japan hoped to use it at that time to stimulate its post-crash economy.
And anime consumption has increased – in spite of increased competition from digital media – helping to bolster Japan’s economy. That Japan’s leaders recognize the strong tie between anime and the economy is a hopeful sign for anime, increasing Japan’s investment in anime as a media export even in the face of a poor economy and competition from other forms of Japanese “cultural media.”
Japan’s faith in anime’s marketability is justified by the multiple smash hits generating huge amounts of domestic and foreign revenue. While Japan’s economic health often seems to dictate the sales of anime and its related products, often anime stimulates and feeds Japan’s economy.
In 2014 a 9.5% growth in anime sales (655.2 billion yen) from the previous year seems largely due to Yo-Kai Watch, a children’s supernatural anime debuting January 2014. The show was an instant smash hit, leading to extensive cross-platform marketing of products, games, manga, and more.
In its profitability, Yo-Kai Watch is not rare, Tetsuwan Atom‘s success and Attack on Titan‘s consequent media empire being similar. Attack on Titan generated $60.5 million in manga, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, CDs and novels, not including other merchandise. It even generated an astronomical sales jump – for the first time in 18 years – of 107.3% for Japanese publisher Kodansha.
Attack on Titan was a breath of fresh air from the more “pandering” animes – created after the recession due likely to economic instability. These animes, including harem and idol animes, were usually geared towards otaku fans typically doing well by catering to an established and devoted fan base.
With its success, Attack on Titan helped revitalize the anime industry and, due to its popularity both domestically and overseas, attracted new anime fans. Because of its increased revenue, anime has continued to be an imposing force in Japan’s economy.
Integrating Anime into Consumerism
Anime seems unique due to its seamlessness and common integration it is marketed into daily life in Japan. Everyday items – such as noodles, soda pop, and soap – are often branded with instantly recognizable anime characters.
While in the West sponsored-products and -merchandise exist, it is less prevalent than in Japan. In Japan the economic reach of anime extends past anime television shows and anime merchandise – such as figures and wearable goods – and into every commercial area of society.
Perhaps this is because animes are, by nature, meant to be assimilated into various parts of society. The theme songs for most anime shows are not created specifically for the shows, as are many familiar tunes in the West. Often songs by an already a popular band these are chosen, simultaneously promoting both band and tv show. Likewise, anime voice actors are stars in Japan because of their anime work, unlike the voice actors of western cartoons, selected because of their already-existing star power.
Usually quite blatant product placement is commonplace as well. Pizza Hut appears in Code Geass is like an omnipresent god, and Tiger and Bunny took it a step farther, having real companies sponsor their “sponsored superheroes.” Anime’s symbiotic relationship with product placement is an integration of real world media into anime and, in return, placement in real world media.
Akihabara, Tokyo’s anime center, shows the prevalence of anime branding. Akihabara expands streets with endless merchandise stores, anime panchinko machines, anime-themed sex toys (a tie-in mostly exclusive to anime media that Marvel or Disney will likely not recreate in New York or Los Angeles), and anime CD stores.
With such a large presence in the everyday life of Japanese people – from food to music to TV – it is understandable that anime’s powerful reach and economic power in Japan.
Anime At a Crossroad
Overall, it is clear that regardless of extent, there is a strong relationship between the economy and anime of Japan. While anime has been affected by Japan’s current and past economic cycles, it has also added significantly to the Japanese economy.
Perhaps most fascinating is anime’s current position: Japan supporting anime in its quest to become an economic superpower while anime simultaneously competes against ever-expanding competition. If anime can find its niche in the changing world cultural industry, perhaps it can claim much of the predicted 40% surge in the cultural industry by 2020.
Because of its proven resilience, even if other forms of entertainment claim some anime revenue, it seems highly unlikely that anime will ever be greatly diminished from Japan’s economy. Anime is so thoroughly integrated into Japan’s culture that removing it would be akin to removing armour from a giant mecha robot – inconceivable.
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