The time gap involved in anime exportation is pretty big; it usually happens a few years after a show has reached its popularity peak in Japan. Ubiquitous boys action hits Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh! still garner decent ratings on Japanese TV, but they’re not the powerhouses that they used to be. And Dragonball is no longer in production and hasn’t aired terrestrially since the ’90s.
So without a mega-hit dominating the Japanese dial right now, a few new shows are picking up traction, while last season’s trendsetters and classic properties hold their ground.
On the classic front, there are a handful of children’s shows that have ruled the ratings in Japan for many years, but none of these shows have made their way to the U.S., even though some of them have been successfully exported to other parts of Asia and Europe. These shows tend to be more family-oriented, based on comedic episodes centering around core characters that typically comprise a family, much in the tradition of The Jetsons, The Flintstones or The Simpsons.
The three most prominent shows in this genre are Eiken’s Sazae-san (airing on Fuji TV), Nippon’s Chibi-Maruko-chan (Fuji TV) and Doraemon (TV Asahi), all of which still boast total-audience ratings in the teens, with Sazae-san often coming in over 20%. Featuring a bizarre-looking blue cat from outer space who lives with a Japanese family, Doraemon is probably Japan’s second-most licensed character (after Hello Kitty).
Newer entries in the family-oriented animation category include Atashin-chi (TV Asahi) and Toei’s Ashita no Nadja (TV Asahi). Atashin-chi features an innovative, distorted character look that’s slightly reminiscent of Toei’s Crayon Shin-chan, and its goofy story lines lean heavily on sight gags and silly humor. Ashita no Nadja is a more classically-styled show influenced by a long tradition of European animation in Japan, and resembling the soft touches of Miyazaki’s style.
The boys action category, which is the most successful genre to make the jump into the American market, has a few solid new entries. Sony’s Astro Boy series (Fuji TV) is off to a great start, achieving ratings between 8% and 9% quite regularly, and its U.S. broadcast debut on Kids’ WB! is coming up in early 2004. Toei’s One Piece (Fuji TV) and Studio Pierrot’s Naruto (TV-Tokyo) remain solid and have each spawned a toy line. These shows may be destined to remain grounded in Japan, though, since they have a high level of adult-oriented content (graphic violence, alcohol and cigarette consumption, etc.).
And Toei has two solid hits with live-action boys shows Kamen Rider 555 (TV Asahi) and Bakuryu Sentai Aba-Ranger (TV Asahi). In the Power Rangers tradition, young, good-looking actors and actresses use various gadgets to combat multitudes of grotesque and otherworldly villains with low-budget, effects-enabled powers. Many of Japan’s newest boy-oriented toys center around ‘sentai’ (live-action, costume-based action shows).
On the girls front, two new shows have begun solid runs, with initial merchandise lines that are doing well. Pinku Hanamori and TV Aichi’s Mermaid Melody Pichi-Pichi-Pitch (TV Tokyo) and ShoPro’s Wagamama Fairy Mirumo de Pon (TV Tokyo) both star girls who use special powers to snag the male objects of their puppy-love crushes. While this formula combining elements of comedy, girl power and pre-teen romance seems to strike a chord with young female viewers in Japan, U.S. broadcasters remain unconvinced of its cultural crossover potential.
Last but not least, TMS’s mystery/suspense series Detective Conan (NTV) continues to net ratings in the mid-teens. But because its schoolboy main character solves crimes that involve murder and other activities considered taboo in the U.S., Conan has not yet been picked up for broadcast State-side.
Stu Levy is CEO and chief creative officer of Tokyopop, the leading manga publisher in North America and a producer/distributor of anime on home video and TV.