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LA Anime Expo: Japan focusing anime and manga on foreign audiences

Animation expert Charles Solomon and
Animation expert Charles Solomon and "JapanAmerica" author Roland Kelts.
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As AnimeExpo descends on L.A. this weekend, Off-Ramp animation expert Charles Solomon talked with Japanese culture expert Roland Kelts, author of "Japanamerica," about how shifting demographics in Japan are leading to a change in how anime and manga are developed and marketed.

(Hayao Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro." Image: Studio Ghibli)

The annual Anime Expo, now in its 22nd year, is at the L.A. Convention Center from July 3—July 6, with 100,000 people expected for North America's largest convention focused on anime, manga and Japanese culture.

In addition to the screenings, panels, contests and performances at the Expo, the Society for the Promotion of Japanese Animation will hold serious discussions on the state of animation in Japan, how the American market is affecting production, and the potential for greater international cooperation.

At an Expo-related event, Project Anime, Roland Kelts, the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.,” will deliver the keynote address. He outlined some of his points with Off Ramp animation expert Charles Solomon Tuesday.

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Solomon: Anime seems to be increasing in its popularity in this country. At the same time, it's influencing American animation. When you look at "Avatar: The Last Airbender," "Samurai Jack," there seems to be a real cross-pollination going to appeal to that younger audience.

Kelts: "Oh, there's no question. And, of course, a certain generation of animation and film directors in the U.S. and other parts of the world have grown up with Japanese animation. And so now they're heavily influenced by that work, and they're turning it around. Even a franchise like 'Transformers,' which was originally a Japanese toy that turned into an animation, and now, of course, is a blockbuster Hollywood franchise.

"The industry is starting to think of overseas markets, especially given the demographic situation in Japan. Very low birthrate, aging society. I think most people in the industry in Japan would say that the market has peaked in Japan; it's not going to grow anymore, and so if they want growth, they have to reach out to overseas markets. The market is growing in America, in South America, Europe, and actually the Middle East."

Solomon: If you're downtown this weekend and see people dressed up as Sailor Moon or Edward Elric or Pikachu, these are cosplayers, which we tend to think of as something uniquely Japanese. Yet that isn't the case.

Kelts: "No, not at all. In fact, the story is that Japanese fans were looking through American sci-fi magazines, and in particular the 'Star Trek' conventions. And they thought, 'Wow, what a fantastic idea.' Of course, 'Star Trek' wasn't widely known in Japan at that time, so they began dressing up as their favorite characters from their own home-made animation series and manga series.

"Then the term crosses the Pacific again, back to the United States, and you get young Americans thinking it's a Japanese phenomenon. And stories like that run throughout the animation industry."

Solomon: In America, Japanese animation doesn't seem to be a theatrical experience. When the films are released theatrically here, they generally don't do well. But they do well on disc and through electronic platforms.

Kelts: "Well, in the United States at least, most filmgoers still think of animation as children's fare. If they're going to go to the cinema, they might see a Pixar film — which is usually 3D, CGI, more photorealistic. Anime from Japan is still largely two-dimensional. It's an aesthetic that doesn't necessarily have mainstream appeal in the movie theater.

"And, to be fair, a lot of the animation in Japan is made for television. There are only select filmmakers who actually make feature-length animation for the cinema. Hayao Miyazaki is obviously the most famous, and his films top the box office in Japan."

Visit the Expo's website for more information on the four-day event, including hotel accommodations and programming.