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Jasper Sharp on the oddest anime export yet

Coming up with exact definitions of what “anime” actually is can be a complicated business. Whether one wants to describe it in terms of its subject matter, industrial model or a particular graphic style, there are plenty of exceptions that can be found to every rule.

The one thing most people would agree upon, however, is anime’s inherent “Japaneseness” – its tangible cultural fragrance, even if Japan itself is not explicitly referenced within the film or series under discussion, and even if, as is increasingly the case, a lot of the production-process donkey work has been farmed out to overseas animators based in places such as China, South Korea and India.

To this list, we might now add Africa. By the time you’ve read this, the eight 15-minute episodes of Robot Atom will have been aired by the Nigerian broadcast network Channels TV. Based on one of anime’s most iconic creations, Tezuka Productions’ Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu), this Nigerian-Japanese co-production brings a new slant to glocalization – taking a global product and tailoring it to the cultural specificities of a local market – and provides an indicator of just how thorough the expansion of anime across the globe has been.

This particular cross-cultural collaboration also represents the industry coming something of a full-circle; Osamu Tezuka’s baby was not only the first major star of domestic television animation in Japan, with the first series broadcast on Fuji TV between 1963-66, but also the first with any international clout, when its rights were acquired by NBC Enterprises and the series was syndicated across North America. It was this source of revenue that played such a large part in bankrolling Tezuka’s production of further episodes, while the overseas demand for more shaped the breakneck, cut-price practices that would define so much of Japanese TV animation.

Two TV series (in 1980 and 2003) and one US-Hong Kong co-produced CG movie in 2009 later, the Nigerian deal represents perhaps the breaching of the final frontier in anime’s expansion into territories as yet unpenetrated. Surprisingly, the initiative came from the Nigerian side, after Channels TV approached Tezuka Productions and subsequently dispatched three interns to its Tokyo offices in November 2013 to learn the tricks of the trade.

The 1960s US version of Astro Boy was edited and redubbed so as to remove all vestiges of local colour (i.e. the balance of power was weighted away from the creators of meaning to the target audience). By contrast, Robot Atom is actually made in Nigeria by Nigerians and targeted at a local audience. Many of the supporting characters who appear alongside the young robot boy Atom and his surrogate father figure, Dr. Ochanomizu, have been created explicitly with this young African viewership, aged six and under, in mind.

On a purely financial level, for a company such as Tezuka Productions, this still all makes a great deal of sense. Nigeria alone boasts a population of 170 million, the biggest on the continent. Furthermore, a larger proportion of these are children.

The shifting demographics and falling demographics of anime’s traditional consumer bases is one of the explanations given for the severe decline in export revenues from Japanese animation, more than halving from its 2005 peak of around $300 million to $140 million in 2012. The other is piracy, particularly in large potential markets such as China, where a lot of anime is consumed for free over the internet.

Selling the “anime brand” as production know-how as opposed to a standalone product therefore presents a logical step forward, although it is reported that Channels TV is also considering launching Nigeria’s first channel specifically for Japanese animation by the end of the year.

Robot Boy is not the first case of what Jonathan Clements, in Anime: A History, terms “post-anime”– which is not the selling of specific animated series, but of particular narratives or characters, and of the means and skills of bring them to life. Last year, Suraj the Rising Star, a rejigging of the 1960s classic sports anime series Star of the Giants, played on India’s new Sonic Nickelodeon TV channel. Transposing its tale of a young baseball star’s rise to the top to the specificities of the Mumbai cricket scene, Suraj provides a perfect case study of how there’s plenty of money to be made from old rope rather than new animation, with an estimated 5% going back to the intellectual property owners of the original.

While Suraj was aimed purely at an Indian audience, little appears to have been made so far of the significance of Robot Atom being aired in English. Although English is Nigeria’s official language, alongside the three main native ones of Igbo, Hausa and Yoruba, it is not the mother tongue of the vast majority of its inhabitants. It is, nevertheless, the lingua franca of the country, and crucially also across much of the continent and among the sizeable diasporic African communities (a French-language version of the series has also been mooted).

One only has to look at Nigeria’s own burgeoning “contents” industry, Nollywood, to see how this might work. A recent UNESCO report highlighted that in 2009, the levels of production of five film-producing nations far outstretched those of the rest of the world, between them accounting for 54.4% of all film production. These were India, Nigeria, the United States, China and Japan, in that order, with Nigeria’s output of about a thousand films a year roughly double that of Japan’s.

Now, it should be emphasised these production statistics do not equate to the number of films actually released theatrically, nor to their quality. But they do highlight the report’s conclusion, that while ‘the highly-visible, big-budget, English-language, franchise feature film represents one strata or tier of popular global film culture’, there is an active international film culture beyond Hollywood that originates in production centres concentrated in a select number of countries with their own significant spheres of influence.

While Robot Atom is not a film per se (although with Nollywood essentially a straight-to-video industry, the distinction between film, video and television is a moot one), its genesis is the fruit of two of these major cultural spheres of influence overlapping.

The pan-African impact of Nollywood is a recent phenomenon, made possible by the affordability of video production technology and DVD as a distribution medium. One just has to stroll past any of the African grocers in an area like Peckham in London to see just how far its influence reaches, and while the production values of Nollywood films may seem a little raw, their appeal is obvious: these are African stories, set in Africa with African characters and made for African audiences.

Historically, it would appear that Nigeria has little tradition of its own animation, and while the American broadcasters Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network have subsidiary channels in Africa, none of what is shown is tailored towards an African viewership. This too appears to be changing, with one new Nigerian series, Bino and Fino, aimed at presenting African pre-schoolers with a more accurate depiction of what it means to grow up on their own continent. According to the show’s creator Adamu Waziri “When Disney does something about Africa, you get singing animals, safari. You don’t see any buildings, you don’t see any people in a house, you don’t see people living a normal urban life, like in Lagos, Abuja, wherever in Africa you are.”

And yet this is exactly the world in which Robot Atom is set. So is this the greatest irony about this African anime, that a Japan-born franchise will be giving young viewers – and not just those physically based on the continent – a more faithful representation of their environment and culture? Though at present there is some conjecture as to whether the Nigerian incarnation of Astro Boy will be screened in Japan, could it perhaps perform the double feat of bringing a more vivid depiction of life in Africa to a new generation of Southeast Asian youngsters? And will Kimba the White Lion be the next Tezuka Pro title up for a Nigerian makeover?

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