Anime Theatrical Features

by Fred Patten

Vampire Hunter D. © Hideyuki Kikuchi/Asahi Sonorama/Vampire Hunter D Production Committee.

On July 21, Japan's second annual (1999) Pokémon theatrical feature was released in America as Pokémon: The Movie 2000, placing number 3 in the weekend nationwide box office ratings. Coincidentally the third Pokémon feature, Pocket Monsters: Lord of the Unknown Tower, hit Japan's theaters on July 8 to also rank number 3 in that country's weekend ratings.

Japanese animation (anime) has exploded into the American consciousness over the past three or four years. There has been animation from Japan in America since the 1960s with movies like Alakazam the Great and TV programs like Astro Boy, but anime as a distinct cultural genre was not noticed until the 1990s. First came the anime video cult market ("Japanese animation isn't just for kids!") in the early 1990s, available only by mail order and through comic-book specialty bookshops. Then in the mid-'90s came a few adolescent and adult animated sci-fi and fantasy dramatic features like Akira and Vampire Hunter D on cable TV's Cartoon Network and Sci-Fi Channel, and young teen TV series like Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, while anime videos began to appear in general video shops.

Then Pokémon hit America in 1998.

Pokemon. © Warner Bros. No other uses are permitted without the prior written consent of owner. Use of the material in violation of the foregoing may result in civil and/or criminal penalties.

By now most Americans -- most American parents whose children watch TV, at least -- know that while Pokémon may have originated as a Japanese video game, its most visible and popular incarnation is as a TV cartoon series. They have seen that the Pokémon TV series has spun off at least two Pokémon theatrical features. The TV industry's dash to cash in on the Pokémon mania has resulted in the importation of such similar Japanese TV cartoons as Digimon, Monster Rancher and Cardcaptors. And there are apparently theatrical features of these as well. Digimon: The Movie hits America's theaters on October 6. Meanwhile, the kids are bringing home new videos of at least three Sailor Moon movies that were theatrical releases in Japan if not here.

A New Question
How popular is theatrical animation in Japan? Can those movies also be popular in America? This is no idle question, especially considering the results of this summer's American theatrical animation releases. Only Chicken Run -- a British production, but strongly supported by its American distributor, DreamWorks -- has been really successful. Most American theatrical animated features so far this year have not earned back their production costs. Pokémon: The Movie 2000, released July 21 as I mentioned, had grosses of over $40,700,000 as of August 13, while 20th Century Fox's Titan A.E., released over a month earlier, only had grosses of $22,640,000 by that same weekend (statistics from the Internet Movie Database). Will it be more practical for the American movie industry to start importing Japanese animated features in a big way, at much lower production costs for just dubbing and minor editing, than to continue to support the productions of completely new American animated features?

It is true that there are many more theatrical animated productions in Japan than in America. A few of them certainly warrant serious consideration for the American theatrical market. But on the whole, Japanese productions are not easily transferable to American theatergoers' tastes.

An average of three or four animated theatrical releases appear in Japan every month. These fall into three main categories: 1. Movies based on popular TV/young children's cartoon series. 2. Original dramatic features for older audiences, usually based upon comic books and sci-fi novels. 3. Foreign imports.

Sailor Moon. © DIC Entertainment. All Rights Reserved.

TV animation for children is extremely popular in Japan, even more so than in America. There is also a much greater prevalence of a popular TV cartoon series spinning off a theatrical feature. This is how the Pokémon, Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z theatrical features came to be made. However movies of this nature are like the Star Trek theatrical features: they are really designed for the fans of the TV series. Movies of this nature will not have much box-office potential until their TV series are established on American TV. For example, the Japanese TV series Card Captor Sakura just began as Cardcaptors in June on the Kids' WB! network in the U.S. and Teletoon in Canada. This may make the Card Captor Sakura: The Movie feature (August 1999 in Japan) viable as an American theatrical release, if the TV series develops sufficient popularity. Another Japanese TV cartoon series with a theatrical feature in reserve, Meitantei Conan (Conan, the Great Detective, about a boy super-detective), is reportedly in development for the Fox Kids Network.


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