From Netflix shows to Nintendo: the resurgence of Japanese cool

Linda J. Dodson

TOKYO — Four years ago, Will Ospreay was toiling in the relative backwaters of the U.K. wrestling scene, performing in a red-and-black lucha mask as Dark Britannico — the evil twin of Leon Britannico, “the lion of British wrestling.” His stablemates at the London School of Lucha Libre (tagline: “10,000 volts of sexy mayhem”) were Santeria, the voodoo witch doctor, and Metallico, half man and half machine. “I think people were baffled by these four Essex boys in masks,” Ospreay, 27, said.

Ospreay, who trained as a dancer, specializes in aerial displays, throwing himself from corner poles and ropes, twisting and flipping before thudding onto the canvas. Once, at an industry showcase called Thunderbastard, he backflipped into the ring from the balcony of London’s Electric Ballroom in front of 700 people. That could have been the peak of his career.

Instead, he got his break in Japan. He ditched the mask and the Dark Britannico character and, in 2017, walked out in front of a crowd of 10,000 at the Tokyo Dome. That, he said, was “weird.”

Today, Ospreay is a rising star of New Japan Pro-Wrestling, the largest professional wrestling promotion in Asia. From relative obscurity in Essex, he has had to adapt to a celebrity life in Tokyo.

“British wrestling is like a novelty. If you know about it, you know about it,” he said. “But now, if I’m just out walking with my missis I get stopped on a regular basis. … There’s wrestling stores, there’s museums of wrestlers. It’s so huge.”

Streaming has revolutionized Japanese pro-wrestling, gaining it a huge global following. (Photo by Peter Guest)

For the uninitiated, New Japan Pro-Wrestling is an intense and disconcerting experience. At an event earlier this year at Tokyo’s Korakuen Hall, two men in unadorned black Speedos grappled disconsolately in the ring before launching into a backstage rumble involving a wheelie bin. Later, a psychedelic cowboy fought a man in a tiger mask. The rules are unclear. Sometimes there are two people in the ring, sometimes three; occasionally six. Often the action is in the bleachers, a melee of dyed hair, sequins and folding chairs. The wrestlers are constantly pursued by a pack of videographers, with the action broadcast live onto a big screen above the stage and streamed on the internet.

Streaming has revolutionized NJPW’s business and made Ospreay a global star. The promotion was a fixture on Japanese TV in the 1970s and 1980s but lost its prime-time Friday slot in the 1990s. By 2011, it had slipped down the schedule to 2 a.m. and was on the verge of bankruptcy before toymaker Bushiroad stepped in and bought the brand. Under new CEO Harold Meij, it embraced online media, built its own streaming service and aggressively targeted an international audience. In 2018, its first major U.S. live show sold out New York’s Madison Square Gardens in 20 minutes.

“It wasn’t Elton John who did that, it wasn’t Michael Jackson; it was New Japan Pro-Wrestling,” Meij said.

Countless locked-down people are seeing out their isolation periods with Nintendo’s wildly popular Animal Crossing. (Photo courtesy of Nintendo)

NJPW’s fall and rise has tracked the global appetite for Japanese content. After reaching ubiquity in the 1980s and 1990s, Japan’s influence on international pop culture subsided, leaving islands of subculture that never quite broke into the mainstream. Now, with streaming services and social media connecting those subcultures, Japan’s cultural wave is building again. Netflix is mining back catalogs of cult manga titles to turn into TV series, bidding against Hollywood producers and Chinese studios. Millions of people around the world are seeing out their COVID-19 lockdowns immersed in Nintendo’s Animal Crossing. And NJPW is reaching an audience of hundreds of thousands from Jakarta to New Jersey.

“I definitely think there is a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in subculture. There is [the time] before people were doing this online and on streaming services, and there is after,” said Matt Alt, Tokyo-based localization expert and author of “Pure Invention,” a book about the modern history of Japanese pop culture. “And it’s a huge, ‘epoch-making’ — as the Japanese would say — leap.”

‘Japanese content is global content’

It took Tetsu Fujimura a decade to get “Ghost in the Shell” made in Hollywood. A veteran of the Japanese media industry, Fujimura set up his company Filosophia in 2006 to broker deals between local rights holders and U.S. studios. Masamune Shirow’s cyberpunk manga classic was the first on his list. What followed was a study in the problems he would face in his mission to “build a bridge” between the U.S. movie industry and Japan’s enormous entertainment business. Just securing the rights from the publisher, Kodansha, on behalf of his American partners took three years; pulling together the $110 million budget before shooting started took another five. “At that time … I wasn’t sure if this business model could work,” Fujimura said.

What he very quickly learned was that U.S. studios and Japanese publishers think very differently about their respective products. Hollywood is used to having relatively straightforward, transactional relationships with other rights holders. Visiting American producers would ask Japanese publishers for lists of their available intellectual property, and be met by consternation. “They would say: ‘no, we’re not selling a potato or some common commodity,'” Fujimura said. “‘We are selling the rights of manga written by the most important authors.'”

“Ghost in the Shell” was finally released by Paramount Pictures in 2017, attracting controversy for its casting of white American actor Scarlett Johansson in the leading role.

In the intervening years, the trickle of deals between Hollywood and Japan has become a rush. A third installment of Warner Bros.’ Godzilla adaptations is due next year. The “Sonic the Hedgehog” movie, based around Sega’s flagship character, was released in February by Paramount Pictures, grossing more than $300 million worldwide. Sony Pictures will release “Monster Hunter” in September, using characters from Capcom’s video game franchise. A sequel to 2019 Pokemon spinoff “Detective Pikachu” is in production.

The Pokemon spinoff “Detective Pikachu” was released in 2019, with sequel already in development.

  © AP

Nintendo has signed up with Universal Pictures to produce a Mario Brothers movie with computer-generated imaging. That film, expected in 2022, may finally expunge the memory of the disastrous 1993 “Super Mario Bros.,” a critical and commercial disaster that New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin accused at the time of “plumbing a video game to its depths.” More adaptations are in the pipeline, according to Fujimura. “We are now just in the beginning of the growth phase,” he said.

Fujimura attributes the surge to two factors. Firstly, the relative decline in the importance of the American viewing audience. Ten years ago, Chinese box offices were worth barely 7% of the U.S.; by 2019, that had grown to 70%. Chinese audiences are already very familiar with Japanese content, which has been widely available in pirated form in the country for years. Manga and anime characters are proven quantities for studios looking to tap into that market. “Alita: Battle Angel,” 20th Century Fox’s 2019 adaptation of a manga by Yukito Kishiro, was a bigger draw in Asia than in the U.S., grossing more than $133 million in China alone against $86 million in North America.

The second, related factor is streaming. Netflix Japan launched in September 2015 with a slate of international and local content. Since then it has acquired streaming rights to a number of classic anime movies and series — including those by the Oscar-winning Studio Ghibli, and long-running shows “Neon Genesis Evangelion” and “Dragon Ball Z” — while developing its own shows based on existing IP. It rapidly became clear that, while that content was in Japanese and directed at Japanese, its audience was international.

“They discovered that Japanese animation is not local content, it’s global content,” Fujimura said.

Anime, manga and other genres have had substantial audiences worldwide since the 1980s and 1990s, but they were mostly fragmented, confined to niche communities and sustained by bootlegs, rare imports and specialized shops and events. The internet, however, changed that. Social media, and forum sites like 4Chan connected geographically dispersed communities and joined them up.

Although it has since mutated into a mecca for conspiracy theories and fringe political cultures, 4chan began as a forum to discuss anime and manga, and was modeled on a Japanese site, Futaba Channel — whose founder now owns 4chan. Message boards and forums brought together disparate areas of subculture. Online, those islands were able to merge together.

“You’d have the anime fans and the porn fans and the video game fans and the robot fans … and they’re all sort of swirling and merging into one giant subculture,” Alt said.

Alt also pointed to a more subtle “Japanization” of mainstream communication. The internet’s iconography, including emojis and selfies, has its roots in Japanese teen culture. The Millennial generation grew up at the apogee of Japan’s last wave of cultural influence, when Sonic the Hedgehog and Super Mario Bros. turned video games into mainstream entertainment.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered the surprise announcement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics — now postponed — dressed in Super Mario’s iconic plumber’s cap. (Photo by Takaki Kashiwabara)

“Those video games provided a kind of Rosetta stone to an entire generation for understanding the kinds of tropes and themes and characters and shorthand that were used by Japanese comic book artists and animators,” Alt said. “That is why so much of this stuff is able to attract attention and go sometimes even totally mainstream these days — because we share a common symbology, a common visual and dramatic language.”

Although the market was there, the product was still hard to get hold of. Illegal file sharing and imported DVDs could only fill the gap so much.

“Now, companies like Netflix are jumping in by simply subtitling the stuff and releasing it,” Alt said. “It’s a kind of direct connection between Japanese creators and consumers abroad.”

‘Fighting works everywhere’

Taiki Sakurai has spent 16 years in the anime industry, much of it in committee meetings. Sakurai, who has writing credits on numerous hit TV shows and movies under the name Yoshiki Sakurai, said a typical script meeting could have more than a dozen people, each representing different stakeholders — the original IP holders, advertisers, investors and broadcasters. Although that arrangement does help to spread the financial risk of a show, it can lead to a kind of creativity by committee.

“So a toymaker would obviously want more toys to appear in the shows,” Sakurai said over a video call, positioned in front of a shelf packed with toy dinosaurs and a saber-toothed tiger skull. “Their main interest is about ‘let’s bring in more robots,’ when there is no need for those robots to appear, in terms of the storytelling.”

Sakurai joined Netflix in 2017 as chief producer for anime, taking charge of an enormous slate of content. At any one time, his team has upward of 80 shows and movies under consideration.

He said his new role gives him more latitude to experiment creatively and commercially. Netflix carries 100% of the production budget in its original shows, giving it a license for more daring interpretations of the source material. “Devilman Crybaby,” released in 2018 and directed by Masaaki Yuasa, took Go Nagai’s already dark and violent 1972 manga and turned it into a gore-drenched and sexually explicit 10-part series — to critical acclaim.

It also gives him data about what works, where. With a global audience of nearly 183 million, Netflix is able to collect huge amounts of information about users’ tastes. With budget and control over production, the company can experiment in a way that few anime producers have been able to. What they have discovered challenges the conventional wisdom that some genres, like horror and sci-fi, translate while others, like comedy, don’t.

“Fighting works everywhere,” Sakurai said, but “slice of life” comedies and romances resonate, particularly in other Asian markets. “A Whisker Away,” a romantic movie about a girl who turns into a cat to get close to a boy, has set social media aflutter in the U.S.

Netflix does not share detailed viewing data, but Sakurai told the Nikkei Asian Review that global viewership of its anime output has doubled in the past 12 months. “We’re bringing in new viewers, non-anime viewers, and turning them into anime viewers,” he said. “These are not old fans of anime who love ‘Transformers’ and ‘Star Blazers,’ ‘Godzilla.’ This is probably a new generation that’s coming in.”

“Ghost in the Shell” took off internationally, and was made into a live-action film controversially starring Western actress Scarlett Johansson in 2017. © Shirow Masamune / Production I.G. / Kodansha / Ghost in the Shell Production Committee

Netflix’s demand for content is such that it has started to come up against bottlenecks at the studios that animate its shows, and has signed what it calls “production line deals” with six of them in order to keep the pipeline open.

The company has had successes outside of anime. The reality TV show “Terrace House,” made by Fuji Television Network and distributed on Netflix, was an unexpected sleeper hit across Asia, and even in the U.S., where it was praised for its slower and less combative take on the genre. “The episodes, calm as Quaker meetings, drift along at a naturalistic pace,” New Yorker reviewer Troy Patterson wrote in 2018. “It serves voyeurism of a genial scope.”

That show has now been canceled, following the death of one of its stars, the 22-year-old pro-wrestler Hana Kimura, in May. Kimura’s appeal bridged two large and devoted subcultures, and her death let loose an outpouring of mourning across social media far beyond her homeland.

Competition is growing. Amazon has expanded its local office, and industry players say that Apple and HBO have stepped up their search for Japanese content for their own respective streaming services. Chinese streaming players are also investing. This month, technology giant Tencent Holdings paid 7 billion yen ($65 million) for a 20% stake in Marvelous Inc., a publisher of anime, manga and video games. China’s animated content market was worth nearly 175 billion yuan ($26 billion) in 2018, according to iResearch, a Beijing-based market research company. People with knowledge of the deal said the Chinese company wanted sight of Marvelous’ pipeline, with a view to using its IP for TV shows and video game tie-ins.

Back in Hollywood, the remake market has jolted back to life. Netflix’s U.S. arm is aggressively competing for rights. Filosophia’s Fujimura has helped broker deals for live-action, English-language remakes of “One Piece,” a hugely popular kids’ show, and the cult anime “Cowboy Bebop.”

Illustrations by Shiho Takiguchi

“Some of the things that I’m trying to get the rights to, Netflix is already in negotiations with,” Roy Lee, co-founder of Los Angeles-based studio Vertigo Entertainment, told Nikkei. “I’m a little bummed out about it, because they were things I really liked. … There are a lot of Chinese companies that come and try to buy IP. They have deep pockets and a big film industry. It’s whoever’s the highest bidder.”

Vertigo produced the 2002 U.S. remake of the Japanese horror movie The Ring, and Lee recently secured rights to “The Promised Neverland,” a manga serial written by Kaiu Shirai, previously made into a movie in Japan by Toho.

Streaming platforms are looking for new formats, from reality TV to cop shows, to podcast serials, said Hiroko Stanhope, vice president at Amuse Group USA, the American offshoot of the Japanese talent agency Amuse. “Everybody is hungry,” she said.

Since 2016, Stanhope has been running matching events for U.S. producers and Japanese IP holders, modeled on the South Korean government’s K-Story program, an export plan for the country’s creative industries. She, along with others that Nikkei spoke to, expressed frustration that a lack of coordination in the industry and the absence of meaningful government support has held back Japanese cultural exports.

“Alita: Battle Angel” grossed $133 million in China, far more than in the U.S.

  © Reuters

Government-backed efforts to promote the creative industries have largely been duds. In 2011, the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry launched a fund, All Nippon Entertainment Works, to procure IP from Japan to sell to Hollywood. The fund was largely staffed by government employees, rather than industry professionals. It produced no notable hits, lost money, and was eventually sold to a venture capital firm in 2017. One anime industry insider, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the government’s efforts had been “bureaucratic, fumbling and badly-executed.”

The contrast to South Korea is stark. Seoul knows the soft power and commercial potential of its creative exports, and the hallyu, or Korean wave, has been supported by a full-court press from the government and private sector. Bong Joon-ho’s “Parasite” swept the board at the Oscars, in part thanks to a well-funded lobbying campaign and huge government support.

Stanhope told Nikkei that she went to a recent concert by the K-pop group Blackpink in Los Angeles. “All the big Korean companies and the government were behind them and supporting them to promote them in the U.S. During the show we saw commercials for Hyundai,” she said. By contrast, Babymetal — a “Kawaii metal” all-girl rock trio, which Amuse represents — had to handle all its own costs. “If private companies worked with the government more, we could do amazing things,” she said.

For the entertainment industry, it is not just about missed opportunities; it is also a question of survival.

We’re still in the dinosaur age

In his office in western Tokyo, NJPW’s Harold Meij pointed to a laminated printout of a graph that is the cause of deep concern in many Japanese industries. Japan’s population peaked in the mid-1990s, and now loses more than 250,000 per year. With the domestic audience aging and declining, companies like NJPW need to find new consumers. “I think it stems from this chart,” Meij said. “You have to globalize.”

Meij, a tall, expressive Dutchman with the air of a carnival barker, has lived on and off in Japan since his teens. Before joining NJPW in 2018, he spent more than 30 years in corporate Japan, rising to president and CEO of the toymaker Tomy.

He said that to avoid decline, the entertainment industry, from video games to sports, needs to modernize its thinking about globalization and about how it uses its intellectual property. Only 11% of NJPW’s sales come from digital. Everything else is ticket sales and merchandising. In the U.S., World Wrestling Entertainment makes more than 60% of its revenues online. The same is true for most global sports brands.

“We’re the exception,” Meij said. “We’re still in the dinosaur age here.”

Harold Meij, CEO of New Japan Pro-Wrestling: “This is the kawaii world that nobody else can do.” (Photo by Peter Guest)

Some companies have begun to embrace the multiplatform potential of their characters. Alongside its movie adaptations, Nintendo has signed a deal to open rides based on its games at Universal Studios in the U.S. and Japan. A Studio Ghibli theme park will open in Aichi Prefecture in 2022. Meij is looking outside of the ring for growth.

“We cannot do 150 matches overseas,” he said. “Nor can I double it in Japan. It’s mathematically impossible. I need a different business model. And I’m not the only one. The Nintendos of this world are all hitting that wall.”

At NJPW, that means trading cards and video games, streaming, and putting its 70 wrestlers to work in other fields, from hosting TV shows to starring in movies. Pretty much anything goes, he said, as long as it does not undermine the character of the company. Its appeal is Japanese; if it were to become homogenized, it would wither. It has to stay strange.

“The most important thing is to be authentic,” he said, and bounded out of the room, returning with a teddy bear dressed in lucha gear, the company’s latest merchandising success. The bears — called manekuma — are made for fans to wave above their heads to show their support for their favorite wrestlers.

“You wouldn’t see this in UFC,” Meij said. “It’s important to have that quirkiness and cuteness, while still being very serious. This is the kawaii world that nobody else can do.”

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