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Despite Auds’ Dedication to Hand-Drawn Animation, CG Is Slowly Making Inroads in Japan

Ronnia the Robbers Daughter

The Japanese market loves homegrown hand-drawn animation: In 2013, six of the 10 top-earning domestic films were toons, with Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Wind Rises,” at $120 million, topping the list. And while the local biz has maintained its traditional methods, a digital wave is steadily encroaching on the industry, even among the work of Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, the leader of the 2D camp.

One recent sign of this shift was the announcement that Goro Miyazaki, Hayao’s son, director of Studio Ghibli hits “Tales From Earthsea” (2006) and “From Up on Poppy Hill” (2011), will helm a computer-generated animation TV series based on Astrid Lindgren’s kiddy lit classic “Ronia the Robber’s Daughter” as a co-production with Polygon Pictures, Japan’s top digital toon studio. The series is scheduled to air on pubcaster NHK’s BS Premium satellite channel in the fall.

“(Goro Miyazaki) wants to try something different from what he’s done at Studio Ghibli,” says Tokyo-based Polygon Pictures president and CEO Shuzo John Shiota. Yet Polygon, whose credits include U.S. shows “Transformers Prime” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and Japanese TV series “Knights of Sidonia,” isn’t planning to make “Ronia” a U.S.-type series. “Hollywood-style animation is not yet accepted (widely) by viewers here,” explains Shiota. “ ‘Ronia’ will be made digitally, but with a Japanese anime look.”

That includes translating the traditional Japanese anime style typically found in popular comicbooks into 3D digital animation, but also retaining a level of quality that makes the toons look expensive — a challenge given that Shiota says budgets in Japan for animated series are about half what they are in the United States.

Polygon’s president since 2003, the U.S.-raised Shiota runs an international operation, making projects with Americans and other overseas partners, and employing a workforce that is nearly 20% foreign-born. But while vowing to make animation differently than most in the local industry — a biz he describes as extremely conservative — Shiota also wants his 30-year-old company to become “more a part of the Japanese animation community.”

Polygon learned the hard way that except for films from companies like Pixar, Japanese auds prefer local productions to have a traditional anime look; its 2009 CG-animated feature “Oblivion Island: Haruka and the Magic Mirror,” flopped spectacularly at the B.O.

But a digital changeover, he admits, will require a huge investment in infrastructure from production houses — given the large amount of training and price of software involved — an investment many are reluctant to make.

But change may be inevitable. As the retirement of the 72-year-old Hayao Miyazaki in September illustrated, the leaders of the hand-drawn style are becoming fewer. “In Japan not many young people are coming in (to the 2D animation scene) anymore,” Shiota says. “The master animators are not easy to replace.”

Today’s animators simply can’t draw as well as their predecessors did, Shiota maintains, adding that using a computer program to create animated product is the wave of the future. Lacking alternatives, the exec believes Japan shouldn’t wait for the digital wave to ultimately wash over it. “If anybody can change the style of animation here, it should be us,” he says.