Tezuka Productions is threatening to flog off Astro Boy to a number of emerging markets, not as a cartoon for dubbing, but as an idea to be entirely remade.
According to Variety, Tezuka’s general manager Yoshihiro Shimizu is already in talks with Nigeria’s Channel TV, as the first of several possible markets that might buy Astro Boy the idea, rather than the cartoon itself. So Swahili telly gets a superhero called Nyota Mvulana or something similar, and nobody knows it was Japanese to begin with.
Why are they doing this? This is a concerted effort by Tezuka Pro to get its nose into a Cool Japan trough of arts funding for a minimum amount of effort. Making an all-new cartoon will still cost money. But emailing old scripts to a new business partner will cost nothing, and still counts on some level as a form of cultural production. So let the Nigerians do all the work, and you can collect your 5% licensing fee, and your government grant without having to lift a finger.
But this also offers fantastic chances for true localisation. Just as Suraj the Rising Star threw away the baseball and the Japanese setting to turn Star of the Giants into an Indian rags-to-riches story about cricket, a whole bunch of anime storylines can be rendered entirely local. This helps remove a Japanese identity that, in some countries, would be unwelcome, ungracious or ill-advised.
The Japanese-ness of Japanese animation has been obscured from much of its viewing public for much of its existence. Maybe we’ll look on the period from 1989-2019 as an anomaly, where people actually noticed it. Torajiro, the pre-school tiger who forms the epicentre of a media mix including daycare franchises and language schools, already has a large following in China, but under a Chinese name.
I wonder where this will end up? An Islamic Naruto set in medieval Spain? Ghost in the Shell relocated to a future Argentina? Rose of Versailles repurposed for 19th century Arabia? How about pretending everyone in Science Ninja-team Gatchaman is actually American? Oh, wait…
Jonathan Clements is the author of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis: Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade. This article first appeared in NEO #114, 2013.