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How the West was won: Japanese art and its impact on kids’ entertainment

Take a look at some of the highest performing animation or properties within the children’s space today and you’ll notice the creeping influence of Eastern culture infiltrating the style and look of so much we experience here in the West.

Spin Master’s Bakugan – to name just one example – has only recently been relaunched to a new generation of kids who, more so than ever, find themselves surrounded by influences and the nuances of anime, whether that’s in the many shows they stream, or in the many products they play with today.

The UK and European audience for anime and Manga has grown exponentially over the last few years. You need only look to the comic book shops and the toy shelves for the physical proof that it has become a growing force among the mainstream populous, as well as trade events, like Brand Licensing Europe where its growing presence has been felt for a number of years, thanks to the likes of Viz Media, Crunchyroll, and more.

Pointing towards the obvious, The Pokémon Company International could perhaps take much credit for bringing anime to the mainstream masses when it landed on UK screens almost 25 years ago. Today, it continues to be one of the biggest and most successful franchises in Western culture having brought in just under the whopping $3bn from toys, games, and mobile apps in 2018 alone.

Its long-standing partnership with Nintendo helped change video gaming of the 2000s, when it played a hand in pioneering the first steps in mobile handset multiplay, all the while building out a franchise from its top-selling Pokémon Trading Card Game. Now, almost a quarter of a century since it first landed in playgrounds, the Pokémon Trading Card Game is the most popular strategic card game in the UK, fuelling continual expansion packs across the market.

It’s true then, that as a sector, it’s an influx of anime and Manga-inspired brands that make up some big business today.

According to financial reports, the anime franchise Dragon Ball brought home more than $1bn in revenue from April 2018 to March 31 2019 for Toei Animation – the Dragon Ball TV rights owner – and its merchandising partner, Bandai. Specifically, the property made Bandai Namco $293 million on the last quarter of 2018, making up 17 per cent of its total sales, and earning it the title of Bandai’s biggest franchise.

For Toei Animation, the $49m made accounted for a third of the animation studio’s total revenue overall.

That, of course, is on the global scale. Here in the UK, and according to Max Arguile, the founder of Reemsborko, a licensing agency specialising in anime and Manga brands, the demand for the art form and the IP it launches “is steadily growing stronger each year.”

“Streaming platforms have given UK audiences almost unfettered access to a wealth of IP coming from the East, and things like Netflix, or Crunchyroll, have played a massive part in feeding and fuelling an appetite for these brands over here,” he tells ToyNews.

Reports from the licensing industry suggest that Dragon Ball is performing well among UK audiences right now, while at The Pokémon Company International, spirits are high at the continued success of the brand, driven in the toy space by Wicked Cool Toys – distributed in the UK by Character Options, and the Pokémon Trading Card Game, with more partnerships in the pipeline.

Looking to catch an anime property at the right point in its predicted upward trajectory in the market, Arguile has turned to Cannon Busters, a new series that, having made its debut in Netflix this year, is already reading strong among audiences.

“Already I have had many discussions with many potential partners for Cannon Busters here in the UK, and there’s an enormous amount of interest in and excitement around, not just this IP, but anime and Manga in general,” says Arguile.

Reportedly, Bioworld – the licensed apparel and accessories specialist – has seen Dragon Ball product ‘fly out of stock,’ while The Pokémon Company is fresh from announcing yet another new partner in Ravensburger for a range of puzzles.

But what is it about this medium that has so captured the imaginations of Western audiences? And why is it resonating with pop culture fans so well?

Dr Nicole Coolidge Rousmaniere is the director of the Sainsbury Institute for the Study of Japanese Arts and Cultures, and the guest curator of exhibitions at The British Museum, currently housing an extensive Manga exhibition exploring the history of the art from its earliest concept to its 21st century impact.

Over the past year, she has observed the growing affinity for Manga and anime from British audiences.

“We have been stealthily collecting Manga for the last 20 years, and felt that we’d like to make it more open, everything that we had been collecting all along,” she explains. “It happened to coincide with
a time in which Manga is gaining a lot of traction here in Britain. Paper sales are up, and people are starting to really appreciate and enjoy it as an art form, as a piece of pop culture, or however.

“We are seeing a lot of students coming through wanting to study Manga or read Japanese, so there really is kind of a groundswell – particularly from Gen Z – of interest in this. From the museum’s perspective, we wanted to reach out and bring in and cater for the younger audiences to show that a museum can be relevant in that way.”

But beyond the aesthetics of Manga and anime – and believe us, having visited the exhibition, there’s a lot of aesthetics to take in, especially when you reach the horror Manga section – its appeal is channelled just as well through the stories that Manga tells; so different are they to the comic book stories you’d likely find from the comic genre’s Western creators.

“Manga tells stories that are democratic stories from people that aren’t represented in other histories,” continues Rousmaniere. “We’re also in a generation that is becoming more and more visual, thanks
to social media, and this cultural move towards Manga is reflective of that; these are audiences engaging with the visual stories of Manga. It’s a 22nd Century visual language, and we are all moving towards it. So… ignore it at your peril.”

If you’re currently reading this, chances are you’re already vaguely interested in the ongoing anime and Manga movement. And if that’s the case, then you’d almost certainly have heard of Crunchyroll by now, arguably one of the biggest players in anime distribution, and one of the first to begin offering UK and US audiences the kind of access to anime and Manga they enjoy so freely today.

Crunchyroll has also been the subject of some big headlines in the sector of late, most notably surrounding its majority stake acquisition in Viz Media Europe, Europe’s best-established licensor and distributor of Japanese animation.

Crunchyroll now boasts 50 million registered users and 2 million subscribers, as well as a slate of some 350 anime titles, including Dr. Stone, Bananya, Black Clover, and The Rising of the Shield Hero, all ripe, it says, for licensor consideration.

Having originated as a streaming and community platform, Crunchyroll now dominates the space, managing the global merchandising, broadcast, videogram and publishing rights to over 100 IPs, much of those already translated in English.

But still, that’s only a fraction of what the anime and Manga industries have to bring to the West, and, interestingly, it’s a business that is expected to explode further still in the coming years.

“I think if the price of Manga in the UK came down, the audience here would grow exponentially,” explains Rousmaniere. “In Japan, Manga is the equivalent of £4 to £5, but here you are paying around £10.

“There are a few factors that might bring that price down, and one of them is the lean towards digital downloads, and reading Manga digitally on your phone or smart device. Another thing is that, pre-war Manga was all in colour, but the majority of the post-war stuff is in black and white. Some artists are re-introducing colour into their Manga, but I personally want it to stay black and white. That keeps is cheaper and more accessible to audiences.

“People are buying Manga in the UK at £10 a pop; they are spending that money. But people would like it if it was cheaper, and if there was a way of bringing that price down, that would make a considerable difference and really grow the Manga market to new levels here in the UK.”

The very idea that there’s still room for this booming business of artwork to grow among Western audiences is a thrilling prospect, and, at a time in which pressure is mounting to find that IP that is resonating best with current consumers, it’s with intrigue that we await a fresh onslaught from Eastern shores.

About Robert Hutchins

Robert Hutchins is the editor of Licensing.biz and ToyNews. Hutchins has worked his way up from Staff Writer to the position of Editor across the two titles, having spent some six years with both ToyNews and Licensing.biz, and what now seems like a lifetime surrounded by toys. You can contact him by emailing robert.hutchins@bizmedia.co.uk or calling him on 0203 143 8780 You can even follow him on Twitter @RobHutchins3 if ranting is your thing...

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