Japan’s kingdom of animation characters

Monzurul Huq
Thursday, March 12th, 2015

Tottori governor Shinji Hirai posing Conan gesture for the media.

Japanese animation these days has a true global dimension. More than 50 percent of cartoons watched by people around the world originate in Japan and fans of Japanese animation films and characters can be traced everywhere in the world – from the sleepy Tibetan city of Lhasa to the bustling metropolitan centres like New York or Paris. And if we include video game characters to the list, the presence of Japanese cartoon figures turns simply ubiquitous.


If Pokemon or Sailor Moon are capable of spinning easily the heads of Western kids, our children too have their own share of that same glued attraction for Japanese animation, as we have seen in the recent past with the real life drama surrounding the transmission of TV serial Doraemon. Not only the juvenile world of kids and adolescents of Europe and Americas are going crazy over Japanese animation characters, we too have become a part of that craze as had been reflected by Doraemon incident. The TV serial, that went on air dubbed in Hindi, influenced kids to such an extent that many of those youngsters started speaking the language of the film better than the vernacular they were taught at schools. The authorities, worried on the negative impact such a disturbing trend might have in the long run, had to order the broadcaster to terminate transmission of the animation series.


This craze over Japanese animations, however, has an added attraction for Japanese corporate world as we know it opens business opportunities worth trillions of yen in sales figure. So, it is obvious that many in Japan are trying to use this unprecedented popularity of Japanese animation to their advantage.


Japanese comics and animation make up a fascinating world of storytelling and it has a rich historical past of its own. Comics, known in Japanese language as manga, is said to have originated in Kyoto at around twelfth century in the form of scroll paintings. By the beginning of eighteenth century they came to be known as giga or funny pictures and had already become a commodity sold and bought in the market. Later we see a gradual evolution of giga as it went through various phases like that of Ukiyo-e wood block paintings and few other genres and eventually turning into comic books during the interwar period of the last century. The post World War II economic boom and technological advancement paved the way for Japanese comics to join the rich and diverse world of animation films.


The true pioneer of Japanese manga and animation is considered to be Osamu Tezuka. One of his early works, Shin Takarajima, incorporated cinematic action sequences to manga, and thus opened the door for animated films or what the Japanese call anime. Osamu Tezuka is acclaimed in Japan as the father of TV anime. His legendary series Astro Boy was the first anime to be produced for television and also was the first to ignite a real craze for characters fictitious in all account.


Beside TV serials, single animated films are also produced in Japan on a regular basis by leading film studios. For more than two decades this market had been dominated by Hayao Miyazaki. He has produced a number of internationally acclaimed and box office success animations, including Spirited Away that received the Golden Bear award at the 2002 Berlin Film Festival. It was also honoured with the Academy Award in the same year for best animated feature film. To the dismay of many of his fans around the world, Miyazaki has announced his retirement from film making last year.


Along with the two leading masters, there are also a number of animation film makers in Japan who had achieved the status of cult figures for their wonderful creations that win the hearts of millions. Incidentally, a number of them hail from the smallest prefecture of Japan in terms of population. Though almost all of them now live in big cities like Tokyo; Tottori prefecture honours them as fellow citizens who helped lifting the image of the place of their birth and there are number of installations that carry either their names or names of characters they have created. And these creations are also attracting tourists to remote localities and thus playing an important role in helping the economy of such remote areas.


The small town of Sakai Minato situated at the western tip of Tottori prefecture has a population of less than 40,000 and the town is attracting more than 2 million visitors annually. Many go there to visit a unique museum that displays items related to the works of one of Japan’s leading anime creators, Shigeru Mizuki. There is also a road running from the station to city centre that carries his name and is decorated with figures from his animations. The airport of the adjacent Yanago town has also been named after one of his most famous characters. All these are attracting Mizuki fans from all over Japan to Sakai Minato, and as Japanese comics are gaining ground in many East and Southeast Asian countries, the area has also been able to attract tourists from Taiwan and few other places.


The success of Sakai Minato has inspired the city of Tottori to try the same method of attracting tourists. Like Shigeru Mizuki in Sakai Minato, Tottori has its own son of the soil involved in creating animation and his main character too is well known all over Japan. Unlike Mizuki’s ghostly characters, Gosho Aoyama focuses on detective stories and the central figure of his stories is a school-boy detective named Conan. Interestingly, the author has picked-up the name from the creator of Sherlock Holmes and made him his own cute looking detective. The city of Tottori has recently renamed the airport as Tottori Sand Dunes Conan airport that the local authorities now feel would attract more tourists, both from Japan and overseas. Tottori has Japan’s only desert territory that too has its own added attraction.


The opening ceremony of the renovated and renamed airport was held on March 1, featuring special attractions centred on Conan and his creator, Gosho Aoyama. A commemorative chartered flight from Shanghai arrived at the airport and was welcomed by the governor of Tottori, Shinji Hirai, and prefecture officials. A boy wearing a Conan mask and dressed like the animation character was also present to greet the visitors. Governor Hirai addressed the opening ceremony, saying that with the presence of members of the media from around the world, Tottori Sand Dunes Conan Airport was starting its journey into history under full global attention. He hoped that by utilizing the power of manga as a tool, Tottori will be able to attract more visitors and revitalize the local economy. As Tottori’s connection with manga runs deep, the prefecture is also known as “Manga Kingdom”.


At the end of the ceremony an 18-meter long and 8-meter wide three-dimension trick art showing Conan riding a camel at the Tottori Sand Dunes and stepping right inside the airport terminal building was unveiled. Though Gosho Aoyama himself was not present for the occasion, in a video message played during the event the artist hoped that visitors from around the world will visit Tottori Prefecture using the new airport. A number of spots within the airport facilities have been redecorated with drawings and objects featuring characters of Detective Conan series.


(Tokyo, March 7, 2015)

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