Japan may not appear to be a particularly surprising choice for the spotlight nation at the 2019 Annecy International Animated Film Festival. But since 1999, when Annecy last so honored Japan, much has changed, and 2019 finds Japanese animation bursting with creative and commercial potential and sitting on the verge of a global breakout.
“The focus on Japan makes sense from an industry perspective in terms of just the level of productions and global audience,” says Dave Jesteadt, president of GKIDS, U.S. distributor for many Japanese animated films, including the oeuvre of Hayao Miyazaki and several of the films playing the festival. “The Annecy team has done a great job in terms of matching that focus with films to back it up.”
This year, four of the 18 films in the feature competitions hail from Japan — more than any other nation and far from a rare occurrence. The festival’s most anticipated event is the work-in-progress presentation of “Weathering With You,” the follow-up to global smash “Your Name” from Makoto Shinkai. And the future of the Japanese animation industry, where an upsurge in productions has made it hard for studios to find and hire qualified animators, will be discussed in a panel titled “Japanese Animation on the International Stage: On the Eve of a New Boom?”
Fueling interest in Japanese animation is the global success of features such as “Your Name,” which set box office records at home and earned more than $120 million abroad, and streaming services bringing anime titles to new viewers across the globe.
“Anime traditionally had challenges for distribution real estate because maybe in certain markets it wasn’t quite big enough to secure meaningful, broad funnel distribution,” says John Derderian, head of Japan and anime for Netflix, which has partnered with Japanese companies for anime co-productions and will highlight its original anime slate at Annecy. “We can help [viewers] discover anime, and we’re seeing that happen.”
The widespread success of anime is far from an overnight sensation. “It’s a hard-to-find phenomenon, rooted in the discovery of Japanese animation through television in the 1970s,” says Marcel Jean, artistic director of the Annecy festival, citing TV series such as “Astro Boy,” “Speed Racer” and “Gatchaman” (a.k.a. “Battle of the Planets”). “There are now several generations of animation fans who grew up with these shows.”
Fans of that generation are finding themselves in decision-making positions in not just animation, but live action as well — a phenomenon previously seen in the rise of die-hard comic-book fans to entertainment executive offices.
The attention from Annecy is well received in Japan. “Many of the films nominated from Japan in the past were from well-known directors, so as a young director like myself, I was a bit surprised to hear that my film was nominated,” says Yuhei Sakuragi, director of the competition feature “The Relative Worlds.”
And Japan’s example is rubbing off, with the features coming out of South Korea and China rapidly getting better and finding bigger audiences.
“Asia’s rich culture and long history are valuable resources,” says Haipeng Sun, director of the competition feature from China, “Kung Food.” “By making good use of animation as a form of expression, Asian animation can bring extraordinary feelings to the audience.”