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The Future of Japanese Cool

part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


We're in Mitaka in the western suburbs in an area that they call Anime Alley, walking through what is billed as the Silicon Valley of Japan's new entertainment industrial complex.

But in Silicon Valley you have these office towers, these giant campuses - this is no Silicon Valley.

This is very kind of sleepy, suburban, residential community here. This is like Menlo Park before the dot-com boom.

But we're excited. We're on our way from the train station to Studio Ghibli. It's the studio founded by Hayao Miyazaki. He's the animated filmmaker who made "Spirited Away," the Oscar winning film of a few years ago, among many others that have been hits and got raves around the world.

And we got the directions and we're following the directions and we walk up this quiet street, and we just don't see any studio.

We call the studio again and it becomes clear that we had walked right past the place.

Think about that. Here's a world-famous studio-ranks with Disney, Pixar. And it's in this nondescript, three-story building in a suburb, surrounded by a bunch of trees, and the walls are covered with vines.

"Ninety-nine percent of the people who pass by this building don't give it a second thought. It doesn't really look like anything," says Steve Alpert. He's an American. He's in charge of international distribution for Studio Ghibli, and he's one of only 150 employees in the whole company. Lots of the others are the artists, the people who draw these gorgeous images and paint them on thousands and thousands of plastic cells.

There are computers and state-of-the-art cameras. But the offices are cramped. And there are these small wooden drawing desks.

"This studio that you're sitting in," says Alpert, "compared to a facility of the same type in the United States, is incredibly small, and it doesn't seem that we have a lot of resources, relatively speaking. But yet we're able to create pretty good feature films."

We've talked about the huge size of the entertainment sector in Japan-and in the video game business, you do have huge players. Sony, Nintendo. But in these businesses, animated films, TV shows, manga comic books, there is no Sony. There's no Toyota or Toshiba.

These creative industries are made up of thousands of tiny companies. A cottage industry. And they're all trying to make a living producing niche products.

"Now the studio has made 15 films," says Alpert. "You talk about other studios, probably the most anybody else has made, notable animated films, is five at the most."

In other words, most of the animation made in Japan is done in far smaller shops than Studio Ghibli. And yet, if you add up all these little companies, is it a huge pop culture industry?

Absolutely! Gamers go for Japanese video games on their Playstations and GameCubes. Manga publishers are selling millions overseas. More than half the world's animation comes out of Tokyo. And over the past 15 years, the Japanese economy went nowhere. However, Japanese pop culture, particularly Japanese pop culture exports, did well.

So the salary man in the blue suit, whom we've heard so much about for so long - the guy who works in the big bank or at the auto company - that worker is being joined, or even somewhat replaced by a new kind of Japanese worker.


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