"Tokyo is the mecca for anime
fans around the world," Makoto Tsumita said in a conversation with de-VICE last week. Tsumita should know - he's the
marketing manager for the international division of essential anime production house GDH - and, if Tokyo is a mecca, then
the Tokyo International Anime Fair, better known as TAF, is the goal of this city's new annual pilgrimage.
Last year's event drew close to 100,000 people over four days.
TAF2007 will feature 270 companies, including 55 from overseas, and will have a Canadian Pavilion for the second time.
"It's the best place for foreign buyers to find everything
under the same roof," Canadian Embassy spokesman Stephane-Enric Beaulieu said.
Anime fuel domestic film boom
In 2006, for the first time in 21 years, domestic Japanese
films outstripped their foreign brethren at the box office, capturing 53 percent of this country's cinema earnings, according
to the Motion Picture Producers Association of Japan, Inc. (MPPA). Further, four of the 10 top-grossing movies last year were
Japanese anime productions, each of which outsold Pixar's computer graphics flagship, Cars.
It was quite a turnaround on the previous year's figures, when
half that number of anime made the top 10, and foreign movie takings dominated by a margin exceeding 15 percent.
Thus 2006 was a banner year for anime - a welcome reversal
of the medium's declining fortunes.
Two years ago, the Japan External Trade Organization reported
that, despite strong continuing domestic returns for anime and their comic book siblings, manga, there was a significant decline
in sales of both media in the years leading up to 2004.
Manga alone had dropped 20 percent over the previous decade.
In light of last year's MPPA figures, it would seem that some
progress has been made toward redressing the predicament, yet disquiet remains regarding the health of what has been a huge
cash cow for decades.
Anime companies have also been coming to grips with production
cost cutbacks and growing dependence on outsourcing to China, South Korea and the Philippines, along with a dearth of experienced
animators: In an industry plagued by underpaid creative staff, there has been a significant exodus of these people to the
greener pastures of the more lucrative video game business.
Francesco Prandoni, one of the heads of international operations
at eminent anime producers Production I.G, remains positive.
"That the industry is suffering from overproduction is nothing
new," he said. "Too many series are biased by budget restrictions, and a shortage of enough qualified staff. Yet we're still
reaching the highest standards thus far."
Production I.G, which is responsible for the innovative Kokaku
Kidotai (Ghost in the Shell) franchise, as well as the animation sequences in Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill:
Vol. 1, keep their assembly processes in-house as one means of ensuring a higher-quality outcome.
They also keep an open eye on international licensing, marketing
and accessibility, a refreshing change in an industry that often struggles to see beyond the veil of domestic sales.
It would appear that the notion of successfully marketing the
dozens of feature-length films and TV titles produced in Japan each year - to key financial growth markets like the United
States, Europe and the rest of Asia - just hasn't occurred to some companies.
Moreover, overseas inroads for anime, while on the increase,
are constrained by bureaucratic obstacles imposed by many of these same businesses - impediments that border on the xenophobic.
Bamboozling copyright issues, communication problems and draconian
principles of product control are likely to leave foreign media representatives flummoxed.
"Some Japanese anime companies limit their international coverage
by imposing a great many restrictions, or try to have control over that coverage themselves," said Robert Bricken, the former
editor of American magazine Anime Insider and current editor-in-chief of animeOnline.com, a new anime news site and
online community. "That's a major problem for exposure in the American press, which has always had an emphasis on editorial
All of which marks this year's sixth annual TAF, billed
as "the world's largest anime exhibition," as essential to nurturing the resurgence in the medium's fortunes, and also to
building a better understanding between anime companies and the new international customers clamoring to buy, and write about,
More international exposure
As it stands, Japan currently produces almost two-thirds of
the animation watched around the globe, "and 70 percent of this is produced in Tokyo," a spokesman for the TAF Executive Committee
Secretariat told de-VICE, making the argument that this city is the natural and most attractive setting for the hugely successful
anime trade fair.
"Canada has long been a powerhouse of animation software,"
said Beaulieu, from the Canadian Embassy. "Our involvement at TAF allows Canadian companies to explore the Japanese market
and make contact with the right partners."
The yearly event suits not only embassies and foreign buyers
looking out for new, cutting-edge anime content, but also those occasionally alienated foreign journalists, as Bricken is
quick to point out.
"TAF provides a central location for the Japanese animation
industry. Foreign markets come to them; it's convenient and informative; and in the few years since its inception, I think
it's become integral to the worldwide anime industry. We also get to discuss overseas editorial coverage of their properties
face to face," he says.
These properties - upcoming anime feature movies and TV titles
- are the true focal point of each year's TAF.
According to I.G's Prandoni, this year looks like no exception.
"Our spring 2007 lineup includes three outstanding new TV shows," he enthused.
One of these is Seirei no Moribito (Guardian of
the Sacred Spirit), helmed by Kenji Kamiyama - the director of the hugely successful series Ghost in the Shell: Stand
Fellow company GDH - the people behind the recent anime hit
Afro Samurai, which utilized Samuel L. Jackson's vocal work so well - also has three fresh shows in the pipeline,
including Romeo x Juliet, a futuristic revamp of the Shakespeare classic, due to air in Japan next month.
"TAF is vital," says Tsumita from GDH, "because we get to make
presentations of the new shows. We can gauge first impressions from the market, and have the opportunity to discuss the business
of new acquisitions and coproductions."
Prandoni had a similar view: "It's the only event in Japan
exclusively dedicated to animation that combines business-to-business and business-to-customer. You get a chance to have direct
contact with potential partners, press and fans from Japan and the rest of the world."
As these ruminations suggest, TAF is more than just highbrow
industry money brokering.
While the first two days cater exclusively to business interests,
TAF is open to the general public over the weekend when the parent anime companies tout their new goods, show sneak previews
of upcoming titles, hold special commemorative screenings and tied-in J-Pop performances, and vend new-fangled merchandise.
"It's a fantastic event for anime enthusiasts from all quarters,"
Summing up, Prandoni quipped: "Japanese people do like their
Tokyo International Anime Fair 2007 was held March
22-25 at Tokyo Big Sight. For more information, visit www.tokyoanime.jp