A gaggle of seven- and eight-year-olds of my acquaintance were recently overheard discussing an ‘awesome lineup.’ I was surprised to hear the word `lineup’ being bandied about, but was unfazed that they were blissing out over the anime-laden Saturday morning.
Anime-animation from Japan-was novel in America when Speed Racer and Astro Boy hit in the `60s. By the time Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z accustomed a new generation of kids to big-eyed, spiky-haired toons, anime and manga (the comics from Japan on which much anime is premised) had made their mark on pop culture. The genre is so close to the mainstream, in fact, that Disney picked up Hayao Miyazaki’s Kiki’s Delivery Service for video in North America. Today the anime video business in the U.S. is pegged at US$80 million a year.
Now, in children’s TV programming circles, life imitates a trainer battle, and pocket monster mania is causing all manner of North American product to faint off the air (ironically, comic-based Rusty the Boy Robot and Spider-Man Unlimited are among the carnage) in a Pokémon-driven competitive programming frenzy.
The phenom syndrome happens every year. With Pokémon, the franchise came to North America intact with a full-fledged merch program kid-tested in Japan, and was an immediate hit as an export. Pokémon revenue worldwide is around US$6 billion and counting (fast). Heading towards its second Christmas, product was still selling out, even prior to November’s box office-breaking toon movie release. With many of the past toy and show hits, once the initial furor died down, the long-term impact was negligible.
The difference with Pokémon is that rarely have past hits had a legion of legit, similar-yet-distinct product waiting in the wings to coast in on the coattails of widespread acceptance. Scanning for similar scenarios in which youth glommed onto something that some parents found slightly alarming, the only thing that pops to mind is the British music invasion of the `60s.
Whether anime will have such long-term impact on the industry remains to be seen, but in the short term, Digimon and Monster Rancher are the tip of an anime iceberg. Brian Goldner, executive VP and COO of Bandai America, which launched the Digimon toy line into the U.S. last month, says the franchise has done US$300 to US$400 million in Japan in the last six months in its new TV/video/toy/cards incarnation. The folks responsible for spinning the digital monsters (born of the Tamagotchi franchise) into a series with Toei Animation, have had pond-jumping success before. Goldner says Bandai’s franchises can do the same level in the U.S. as in Japan, or more, as was the case with Power Rangers, which doubled its take in the U.S. ‘I think you will see from now to Toy Fair, the resounding word from retailers is that Japanese product is hot.’ Goldner says next year, Bandai America will have several Japanese products on air in the U.S.-including Digimon and another anime series Gundam Wing, and adds there is potential to add a few more. With Bandai having a majority interest in two prodcos with libraries containing ‘great portfolio brands,’ Goldner says the question is ‘which ones and when.’
And then there’s the attractive economics of it all. If you can keep the same visual story and work on new ADR, there are ‘significant cost implications.’
As to how much is too much, and how long anime will stay hot, Goldner says kids don’t think about the origin-it’s about liking the characters and story. In our MIP Asia report this issue, Tokyo correspondent Robert Cameron looks at some of the kid anime titles popular in Japan. (‘Hot new anime vies to ride Pokémon wave,’ page 38).