Anime Rising: Adapting the genre for foreign market success

With global interest in anime continuing to soar to new heights, producers and buyers discuss how its essential elements can cross borders and cultures.
November 2, 2022

While anime is deeply and distinctly Japanese in origin, its exploding popularity means that, in many ways, it now belongs to the world. But when you take the anime out of Japan, is it still anime? Does it work when it’s adapted to stories from other cultures? Or, to start with a simpler query, why are we all so interested? 

With reports pegging the genre’s market worth in the billions and global appetites only growing, these questions deserve some exploration. 

Uttam Pal Singh, head of kids for Warner Bros. Discovery in South Asia, says the versatility of the anime’s tropes make it widely accessible across different demographics, cultures and geographies. “We’ve observed that the popular shōnen [boy] anime, in particular, appeals to a wider Indian audience, including kids,” he says, referring to the sub-genre that blends themes of friendship, action, comedy and science fiction.

India’s relationship with anime can be traced back to 1993’s Ramayana: The Legend of Prince Rama, a feature film adapted from an ancient Indian epic. It was produced and animated by Japan’s Nippon Ramayana Film and financed by Tokyo’s TEM, the IP’s current rights holder. Ramayana is an early example of true cross-cultural storytelling—a team in India prepared the script and storyboards, while a team in Japan handled animation and brought the story to life. This collaborative process helped ensure that all aspects—including the traditions, attire, customs and architecture in the film—depicted Indian culture, while still retaining the defining look of anime. 

Anime’s place in India was cemented when Cartoon Network’s Toonami programming block brought series such as Dragon Ball Z, Cardcaptors and Beyblade to local audiences, building a fan base that was later picked up by Animax, an anime-dedicated linear channel launched by Sony Pictures Entertainment in 2004. 

But there’s more room for anime to grow in India and develop a homegrown style, says Pal Singh, adding that he’s interested in local, anime-based stories for Cartoon Network, POGO and Discovery Kids. “We would love to bring an amalgamation of Indian storytelling in the anime genre to our audience and reconnect with the new generation by presenting timeless stories,” he says. 

Rorisang & The Gurlz, from South Africa’s Cabblow Studios, uses anime to help tell broader emotional stories

The scenario is similar in South Africa, where the genre has captured the interest of Kabelo Maaka, creative director of Cabblow Studios. “Anime gets to tell playful stories for kids that are brightly colored, fun and wacky. But it also gets to tell serious stories with maybe heavier issues,” she says. “It gets to cover the full spectrum. That kind of approach to animation is quite freeing, and it’s the way that we approach our projects.”

Cabblow has two anime-inspired series in the works—The Mom & Daughter Clean Up Crew (26 x 24 minutes) and Rorisang & The Gurlz (22-minute episodes, volume pending).

While Clean Up Crew targets a girl-skewing audience ages eight and up, it is also designed for family viewing. The series is about a mother-and-daughter duo who have the ability to make people switch bodies—and in the process, learn empathy. “They don’t save the day; they save relationships,” Maaka says.

Using anime allows for a broad tonal range in the series, from the wacky humor of the premise to the more in-depth emotions of relationship conflicts, she notes, adding that the daughter has a bright red afro, while the mother has purple eyes and hair—visual choices inspired by the strikingly colorful wardrobes and hairstyles often seen in anime. “Somebody will just casually have pink eyes, pink eyebrows and pink hair, and it’s fine,” Maaka notes. “It’s totally normal in the story world of anime.” 

Meanwhile, Rorisang & The Gurlz is a musical series aimed at tweens and teens, centering on a high school K-pop superfan who starts an Afro-pop band with her best friends. The only problem? The regressive choir mistress at their all-girls school is disdainful of pop music.

Such “slice of life” stories about the daily lives of students are common in anime. Afro-pop music accompanies the visuals, bringing a blend of cultures to the show’s storytelling.  

Over in Europe, one prodco currently exploring anime is Belgium-based Squarefish, which conceived Mekka Nikki (10 x 30 minutes) (pictured) and set it up as a co-pro with French studio Dada! Animation. “It’s really interesting how we can mix the European feeling with the design and techniques from Japan,” says Squarefish co-founder Valentin Grégoire

Aimed at a 12-plus audience, Mekka Nikki is a 2D/CG-animated adaptation of a same-name French comic book series by Exaheva and Félix Laurent. The authors were influenced by manga style, and the TV series retains the same look, says Grégoire. Set in a distant galaxy, Mekka Nikki tells the story of a rebel­lious teenag­er who must defeat a tech-savvy tyrant named Mekka. Her journey to find the cure for a mysterious disease is complicated when she falls in love with a cyborg girl who works for Mekka.

The advancement of animation technology has played a role in drawing more international studios and artists to the challenge of creating content around this style, notes Grégoire. “Traditionally, anime in Japan was made on paper by very efficient artists,” he says. “Now, you have software like TVPaint and Toon Boom Harmony that speeds up the process.”

That accessibility also extends to audiences. In the past, Indian viewers could only watch anime in Japanese with English subtitles or dubbed in English, but kids channels are actively making an effort these days to add more dubbing in some of India’s 100-plus regional languages, notes Pal Singh. In May 2022, for instance, Cartoon Network launched Dragon Ball Super in three regional languages: Hindi, Telugu and Tamil.

Similarly, Cabblow’s Maaka points to the creative potential of “the African perspective and the African voice” in anime. Animation in general is experiencing a boom on the continent, and she has observed anime’s influence on younger animators in a popular local Facebook group dedicated to the craft. “Every now and then, you’ll see a high schooler or a recent graduate saying something like, ‘I want to make my own African anime.’ It’s a sentiment that I can appreciate,” she says. 

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