Japanese film giants Toei and Toho probably cast nervous looks over their backs in September, when film-distribution and kabuki-theater conglomerate Shochiku established an animation division to increase its share of Japan’s $18 billion annual animation market.
“We now have the ability to expand our animation business,” says division general manager Ichiro Seki.
Shochiku, which has animation experience with the “Gundam” robots and “Ultraman,” will now have the increased flexibility needed to commission a larger selection of features and provide unique marketing options.
Seki believes that his company’s strong relationship with some of Japan’s top animation studios will be important.
Features to be distributed this year include Sunrise Animation’s “Mobile Suit Z Gundam,” a film sequel to the popular TV series, and Gonzo’s “Fullmetal Alchemist,” a post-WWI adventure story set in Germany.
“The Glass Mask,” based on Suzue Miuchi’s two-decade long coming-of-age manga series popular among young women, became the division’s first weekly terrestrial TV series when it began last month on TV Tokyo.
Over the next three years Shochiku expects to release 10 weekly TV series and 13 feature-length films.
Such an unprecedented plan, Seki says, is made possible due to a new ability to give priority to particular projects and financial freedom.
“Prior to the division’s formation, animation films had equal priority with live-action films when it came to financing, but now the Animation Division has its own budget,” says Seki.
While skeptics may scratch their heads at Shochiku’s old-fashioned kabuki pedigree, the 115-year old company, known in recent years primarily for distributing live-action films (“The Twilight Samurai,” for example), sees its diversity as an advantage.
In addition to merchandising and distribution of animation oeuvres, it plans to host special promotional events and stage plays based on some of its new features. “The Prince of Tennis,” a teenage tennis movie nearing the end of its theater run in Japan, is scheduled to become a theater musical.
The 14-employee division will also be expanding into developing characters, a niche that the company thinks will make it more competitive.
“Our goal is to create a trading company in character goods,” Seki says, adding that this is a contrast to Toho, which focuses primarily on distributing feature films.
This will involve acquiring character licenses and merchandising rights, in some cases for characters not specifically related to animation. Sanrio’s Hello Kitty would be a model for the latter.
To tap the booming international animation market, “Grenadier,” the adventures of a sexy buxom blonde, will be released in a series of DVDs in the U.S. “Karas,” the story of an armored ninja, and “Spirit,” a futuristic adventure amid world environmental decline, are both currently in negotiations for overseas distribution.
Peter Brinham, a Tokyo-based media finance specialist, says that Shochiku was late to cash in on the surprise groundswell in animation’s global popularity.
The challenge for the company, Brinham adds, will be in making smart hiring choices. “Since the Japanese animation business is very fragmented,” he says, “personal relationships and individual know-how remain at a premium.”
Seki remains confident. Though he doesn’t expect the division to have an immediate impact on the company’s pursuit of top distributor Toho, he foresees a noticeable improvement in perhaps five years.
Establishing an in-house animation studio similar to that of its rival Toei is not in Shochiku’s immediate plans. Instead, the creative focus of the division will be in teaming up with the next Hayao Miyazaki (director of “Spirited Away”) or Katsuhiro Otomo (“Akira”) from outside Shochiku.
“While fostering and working with new-comers,” Seki says, “we would like the Shochiku Animation Division to grow up along with them.”
Note: This story was originally featured in Variety as a part of a package commemorating Shochiku’s 110th anniversary.