Japanese juggernauts compete at box office

TOKYO — The Japanese anime scene is like an artsy tourist village at the base of an active volcano. Everyone goes about their business for years, steadily building their brands or trying out new products until a volcano named Hayao Miyazaki goes off and buries them all at the box office.

Miyazaki’s biggest eruption was in 2001, when his “Spirited Away” earned nearly $292 million in Japan alone — an all-time record for any pic released in the territory. His last, “Howl’s Moving Castle,” grossed $192 million after its November 2004 release.

B.O. analysts says Miyazaki’s newest pic, “Ponyo on a Cliff,” which opens in July, will sweep all before it, Indiana Jones included.

Who would dare go head to head with this Vesuvius? On July 19, Toho will release the 11th Pocket Monsters toon, “Giratina and the Sky’s Bouquet: Shaymin,” opposite “Ponyo.” This scheduling, says Toho publicist Hiroe Warita, “just sort of happened.”

The decision may seem suicidally cavalier, but the Pokemon series has more than held its own at the Japanese B.O. since its bow in 1998, when “Pokemon: The First Movie” finished fourth on the year’s B.O. chart, with a gross of nearly $80 million. The Pokemon toons have topped the annual B.O. for domestic pics three times and ranked second four times. Also, instead of losing steam with time, they have chugged along, regularly scoring $40 million or more in the current decade, with the most recent entry reaching $48 million in 2007. Other venerable franchise series, such as Doraemon, Detective Conan and Crayon Shinchan, have also been steady earners, though hardly at Pokemon levels.

The secret, Wakita says, is the synergy between the pics and the Nintendo Game Boy game on which they’re based, as well as TV toons and character goods. “We’ve also varied the target of the films,” she adds. “The last one was aimed more at boys, while the new one has a cute main character more appealing to girls.”

Still, Pokemon is an anomaly. Widely hyped all-CG sci-fi toons targeted at older auds, such as “Vexille” and “Appleseed: Ex Machina,” have mostly disappointed at the Japanese B.O. Even “Sky Crawlers,” the air combat pic from “Ghost in the Shell’s” Mamoru Oshii that sent early viewers into ecstacy over its gorgeously realistic flight scenes, is expected to earn figures in the $10 million-$20 million range by distrib Warner following its Aug. 2 bow. For Japan, such figures are OK to good, but not great.

What sets Pokemon apart? “The most recent Pokemon games series, Diamond and Pearl, has been very popular,” Warita notes. (Worldwide sales in the first year since its late-2006 release totaled more than 14 million units.) “Also, our audience keeps changing — some old fans keep watching into their teens, but most are in elementary school.”

In other words, for each year’s crop of 8-year-olds, Pokemon is ever fresh and ever profitable.

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