China and the Anime Industry

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The People’s Republic of China is a major country that is the second largest economy by nominal GDP in the world after the USA. It features a huge population with fittingly big industries. As a significant international player it also has an impact on the Japanese anime industry.

A desirable market

When Your Name released in China, it earned about $76.7 million within 14 weeks of release, with an opening of $41 million, becoming the highest grossing Japanese movie in China. The highest grossing movie, not just anime movie. To put this into perspective, the opening weekend in Japan was $9.1 million, in North America was about $1.7 million, 1.4 in France and in Germany 0.9 million. The pre-sale tickets alone amounted to $4.4 million – more than North America, France and Germany earned in their collective opening weekends together.

There are several factors that make the Chinese market immensely appealing to companies looking to sell their products internationally. The most obvious factors is the population. With an ever growing population of over 1.4 billion people Chinese citizens take the biggest share of the world’s population of more than 7.7 billion people. Even if only a small part of the Chinese audience watches a movie, they would still outmatch most countries overall population.

And here comes the next aspect into play. The Chinese market is very restricted for foreign movies. There is a hard cap on movies. In 2016 there were 38 and in 2017 40 foreign movies that were allowed into the country per year. This is not inherently bad for big international companies. While it may be difficult to get into the market in the first place, once you’re in, you have to fight a lot less competition.

As such companies, that aim to have their movies play in China, try to cater to the country as much as they can to be allowed into the limited list of movies that are allowed to run. This starts with avoiding sensitive topics such as the status of territory such as Tibet (e.g. Disney’s Dr. Strange), setting the movie or part of the movie directly in China (Pacific Rim) and trying to not offend China on a meta level. Chinese actress Liu Yifei made negative comments on the Hong Kong protests, but Disney basically ignored that, after being very trigger happy to fire James Gunn for negative comments.

As far as anime goes, we have yet to see direct Chinese influence that change the anime themselves. There is the occasional odd Chinese character, but that was the case for decades and is not really that out there, given that the two countries are geographically close to each other.

Most of the growth of the anime industry comes from foreign countries. When looking at the Anime Industry Report of 2018 we can clearly see in the bar chart how much space foreign money takes compared to the avenues of the domestic market.

In 2017 the Chinese anime market was estimated to be worth $21 billion.

If you want to see a first-hand impression of a Chinese anime fan, I recommend looking at this post by u/888888Zombies.

If you can’t fight them

China initially resisted anime and manga, viewing most of them as anti-social and attempted to create their own equivalent, only to find that Chinese consumers still prefer Japanese anime. The Chinese creations, in their attempt to recreate the feeling of anime and manga, were neither Chinese nor Japanese and didn’t land with its target audience.[1][2]

China created the 5155 project which included several state-sponsored comics, publishers, series and magazines. The companies of the 5155 broke apart bit by bit until the last comic company had to lose after creating a big deficit.[1]

Chinese attempts in animation fared better, but still turned out derivative of Japanese anime. On one hand, thanks to the creators copying popular Japanese anime, on the other, because a lot of Chinese animators learned their craft by doing outsourcing work for Japan, thus inherently learning the Japanese style.[1]

Measures of banning and pursuing anime and manga fell flat with the young audience that knows how to circumvent them to get what they desire and that also happily consumed the Japanese anime that legally made it into the country. The actual market value for Japanese companies wasn’t that high, as most of the consumption was piracy. [1]

Although that exact piracy led to the growth of a strong, dedicated fanbase that ultimately led to bilibili and other efforts to licence anime legally, as the Chinese government realized that it couldn’t win a straight-up fight against Japanese content.

For further reading on the development of anime in China I recommend China and the Anime Industry by u/Jonlxh

Censorship

As previously mentioned, foreign media when entering the Chinese market try to appeal to be one of the few that make it there. But what does that mean?

Well, first and foremost, there is a critique of the Chinese government. Mentioning the certain actions of the regime and particularly specific incidents like the Tiananmen Square massacre or the “re-education camps” is an obvious no-go.

Secondly, there are aspects that are seen by the Ministry of Culture as harmful to the mind. Multiplayer-Shooter Rainbow Six Siege once briefly censored blood splatters, sexual content, gambling, knives and skulls in all versions of the game. These and similar things were also removed from Chinese versions of other games. Siege was just notable, because it, at the time, didn’t bother to create a dedicated version for the Chinese market for easier maintenance.

Techinasia lists things the Chinese Ministry of Culture officially forbids:

  • Gambling-related content or game features
  • Anything that violates China’s constitution
  • Anything that threatens China’s national unity, sovereignty, or territorial integrity.
  • Anything that harms the nation’s reputation, security, or interests.
  • Anything that instigates racial/ethnic hatred, or harms ethnic traditions and cultures.
  • Anything that violates China’s policy on religion by promoting cults or superstitions.
  • Anything that promotes or incites obscenity, drug use, violence, or gambling.
  • Anything that harms public ethics or China’s culture and traditions.
  • Anything that insults, slanders, or violates the rights of others.
  • Other content that violates the law

Though it’s sometimes hard to understand when what applies. Techinasia mentions that no blanket ban on skulls and skeletons exist, for example, and that there is Chinese media involving reanimated skeletons. Yet foreign games remove them.

Maybe the Ministry of Culture just arbitrarily does what it wants and uses these partially vague censorship rules as a blanket card to justify any possible banning, making companies victims of the grace of the Ministry.

Here’s a list of anime and manga banned at some point in 2015, just to give you an idea what kinds of contents is not suited to the taste of the Ministry: https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/news/2015-06-09/china-blacklists-attack-on-titan-death-note-36-more-anime-manga/.89055

Chinese Investments

Other than being an extremely appealing market, Chinese companies also invested into the Japanese anime industry directly.

The Japanese Studio Emon is a subsidiary of the Haoliners Animation League, a Chinese animation company. ANN wrote in 2016 that Haoliners delivers more than 80% of net animation in China.

In 2018 Makoto Shinkai’s ComMix Wave Films collaborated with Haoliners to create three shorts set in three Chinese cities that became the anthology movie Flavors of Youth.

In the same year Chinese video sharing platform bilibili announced to also produce anime, in March 2019 they partnered up with American anime licensing company Funimation to jointly acquire licenses.

Japanese Studio DLE Inc. partnered in 2016 with Chinese film company Shanghai Griffin Film Corporation to create a $100 million dollar “Chinese-Japanese Anime Fund” to provide a pipeline into the Chinese market.

China created animation for some time, but it is inferior to the strong and long polished Japanese animation, as is most animation anywhere. You can see how unrefined some of the Haoliners anime look like. However, China has ambitions and with projects such as The King’s Avatar and Big Fish and Begonia it already presented well done animation and directing.

In Short

China has yet to directly influence the anime industry at large, as far as I know. However, the money is there and we have seen Chinese companies lying dormant in other industries until they felt the need and the power to pull the strings.

Criticizing the Chinese government is not much of a problem, that’s not something anime usually do, but when it comes to the other restrictions and rules of the Ministry of Culture, some anime would lose a lot.

If that time comes, can the Japanese anime industry even hope to stand against China? What is the small, moody circle of wealthy otaku against the power of a billion people market?

What is a man against a tank?

Thanks to u/Taiboss, u/Nazenn and u/Lynxiusk for proof reading this post

Sources

Most sources are linked in the paragraph they belong to. Although I used some non-publicly accessible articles that are listed here:

[1] Moe and Internet Memes: The Resistance and Accommodation of Japanese Popular Culture in China, Asako P. Saito, Cultural Studies Review Vol. 23, No. 1, March 2017 [2] Reading border-crossing Japanese comics/anime in China: Cultural consumption, fandom, and imagination, Anthony Fung, Boris Pun and Yoshitaka Mori, March 2019

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