Toei toons up animation

Japanese animation house exploits library

ANNECY — Few companies made a larger splash at early June’s Annecy Animation Festival than Japan’s Toei Animation.

A billboard proclaiming its flagship anime movie, 3D sci-fi adventure-fantasy “Space Pirate Captain Harlock,” framed the fest’s main Bonville venue entrance.

Leiji Matsumoto, the venerable creator of “Harlock’s” manga and TV series, took to the stage to a standing ovation at a work-in-progress presentation.

The trailer boasted high-octane battles as Captain Harlock, a taciturn renegade, sails vast and void galaxies, battling Earth’s oppressors, both human and alien. The first onscreen incarnation of “Harlock” was a 1978 Toei Animation TV toon series adapting Matsumoto’s manga work, but this rendition features a modern CG movie makeover, directed by Shinji Aramaki (“Appleseed”).

And like Harlock, Toei Animation is exploring its own final frontier: International markets.

“Japanese animation mainly used to target the domestic market,” says Cedric Biscay, prexy-CEO of Shibuya Intl. “Now there are multiple (projects) targeting international audiences, especially ‘Tekken: Blood Vengeance’ and ‘Harlock.’ ”

Toei Animation producer Yoshi Ikezawa say that Europe, as well as Japan, are key markets for “Harlock.” France in particular has a large fan base for anime.

“The old business model,” Ikezawa adds, was to “make a Japanese film in Japan then export it overseas.” Now Toei is listening to what the overseas markets want, and the Japanese giant may make a film overseas, as with live-action robot movie “Gaeking.” “Harlock” will be made in Japan, with overseas distribution in mind.

Biscay says the animated films that are ready to hit globally are faster paced, and very different from past Japanese fare. In fact, one might say that Toei Animation’s international focus has a foreign model.

“Marvel is pretty well going through its entire catalog, DC Comics the same,” says “Captain Harlock” producer Joseph Chou.

Toei, the oldest and biggest Japanese animation studio wants to follow suit.

“It has a lot of intellectual property and relationships with globally famous IP creators,” Chou says. “There’s huge value to be unlocked.”

Chou adds that Japan’s DVD slump is hitting animation particularly hard, and companies are looking for new revenue streams. Total Japanese video spending has fallen 25% from ¥753 billion ($9.3 billion) in 2005 to $6.4 billion last year, IHS-Screen Digest estimates. At home and abroad, anime DVD sales are trending downward as fans access content through streaming and file-sharing sites.

Toei Animation may be in a very good place to exploit its properties more fully; it usually sells its rights directly, unlike other Japanimation producers, who sell through third parties. And it has sales offices in Paris and Los Angeles.

Ikezawa produced “RoboDz,” an original property, for Toei Animation and Disney. Toei and Cartoon Network co-produced “Powerpuff Girls,” a U.S. redo of a Toei property.

“Harlock” was an anime sensation when it was exported to France in 1978, creating a so-called Albator Generation of fans. DVD packaging and merchandizing in Europe has performed steadily ever since, even three decades later, Ikezawa says.

But serious challenges remain.

“Harlock” is 3D CG: Japanese auds still prefer 2D anime, and “Harlock” is well known by older anime fans, not so much by younger ones.

That said, Chou points to the success of CG-made “Final Fantasy Advent Children,” a direct-to-DVD title with global DVD/Blu-ray revenues of more than $70 million, around half of that from Japan.

Another Matsumoto title, “Space Battleship Yamato,” saw a live-action version this year that was a $50 million hit, with domestic megastar Takuya Kimura playing the lead.

Director Aramaki promises to update “Harlock,” referencing social problems that affect younger generations worldwide.

The challenge within Japan’s domestic market is one good reason to take “Harlock” international in the first place. “A lot of people in Japan’s anime industry are sensing the same possibilities and watching how this project (performs in the) world market,” Ikezawa says.

One thing seem certain: If “Harlock” clicks internationally, more cosmopolitan anime will follow.

Anson Woodring contributed to this report.

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