Anime’s evolution in lands down under
For the past quarter century, fans of Japanese pop culture in Australia and New Zealand have been served almost exclusively by a single distributor. Based in Melbourne, Australia, Madman Entertainment boasts over 90 percent of the region’s market share in anime home entertainment, and an even greater share of its anime theatrical business.
Not surprisingly, those statistics drew the attention of the Sony Corporation, whose Aniplex Inc. subsidiary invested in Madman two years ago and bought its anime division outright last year. Sony Pictures Television and Aniplex have now consolidated Madman Anime Group into their other recent anime distribution acquisitions: Funimation in the United States, Wakanim in France, and Manga Entertainment in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
This weekend, March 7 and 8, Madman will host an anticipated 12,000-plus fans at its second Madman Anime Festival in Sydney, Australia’s largest city, after presenting similar events over the past four years in Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth. Each festival reports 10 to 20 percent annual audience growth. In a country whose entire population, 25 million, is smaller than that of the Tokyo metropolitan area, the success of such gatherings across a landmass approximately 20 times the size of Japan suggests that Sony made a good bet.
I first became aware of Madman 10 years ago when I met Dean Prenc, now the company’s general manager of pop culture, during one of my book tour stops in Melbourne. Prenc has been with Madman for 18 years. During my visit to New Zealand last month, he introduced me to marketing and sales executive Andrew Cozens, who gave me a tour of Madman’s Auckland offices, and Melbourne-based co-founder and managing director Tim Anderson.
Anderson recalls his company’s humble beginnings in the early 1990s as a VHS mail-order operation conducted out of his bedroom in a share house. A self-confessed lousy student, he became a fan of classic ’80s imports like “Robotech” and “Battle of the Planets,” though at the time he kept his budding otaku passions to himself. A trip to Japan at age 21 taught Anderson more about the cultural provenance of anime aesthetics, but as an entrepreneur, he focused on other overseas markets like the U.S. and U.K., where anime distributors Central Park Media and Manga Entertainment were hitting their stride.
“I kept an eye on those markets and decided there was an opportunity for official distribution here,” he says. “I was able to get licenses fairy easily because we were such a small market in the early ’90s, when anime was still an undiscovered niche.”
Anderson had a part-time job at a village movie theater when he co-founded Madman in 1996 with his friend Paul Wiegard, who now oversees Madman’s live-action TV and film division — which currently handles the Australian and New Zealand distribution rights for Bong Joon Ho’s Oscar-winning “Parasite,” among other A-list titles.
Madman Anime Group’s first big regional hit was Hideaki Anno’s apocalyptic epic, “Neon Genesis Evangelion,” licensed via Houston-based U.S. distributor A.D. Vision Films (now incorporated into Sentai Filmworks) and currently streaming on Netflix. “Evangelion” remains a favorite of Anderson’s (“I still think it’s fantastic”), who says his personal taste leans toward titles that have crossover appeal, like Makoto Shinkai’s “Your Name.” and the TV series “Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba,” which debuted in 2019.
Earlier this year, Madman Anime Group’s nurturing of Australia’s anime community extended into real-world urgency. The widespread bushfires that ravaged swathes of the country prompted Anderson and his colleagues at AnimeLab, Madman Anime Group’s streaming platform, to launch “Anime Heroes for Aussie Wildlife: Bushfire Appeal” a worldwide dollar-for-dollar fundraising campaign, supported by parent company Funimation, to aid Wildlife Victoria, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping the region’s catastrophically decimated species. (Up to one billion animals are estimated to have perished in the fires.)
The campaign’s mascot, a firefighting koala hefting a water-blasting hose, was created by Shingo Adachi, character designer for the hit anime series “Sword Art Online” and has raised over $90,000 to date.
“We agreed that because our reach into the anime community is so strong, we could use that messaging to raise money for certain charities involved in bushfires,” Anderson says. “Adachi, from (anime studio) A-1 Pictures, very quickly agreed to draw a mascot for us on short turnaround.
“We think of Madman’s activities as a virtuous circle benefiting the whole anime ecosystem. Our desire is to be everything anime in Australia. It may be a relatively small market, but we are heavily invested in this space.”
As elsewhere, the explosion of streaming services in recent years has expanded the anime space in Australia and New Zealand dramatically, coinciding with the spread of live participatory events driven in part by fans’ rising passion for cosplay. Anderson credits his company’s decision six years ago to “disrupt ourselves” by developing video-on-demand (VOD) services as a key to its current success.
“That was not an easy decision to make for a business all about physical products,” he says. “We were very conscious about possibly damaging our own sales. And the whole industry in Japan at the time was very cautious and reluctant to embrace VOD.”
In her essay on anime fandom in Australia and New Zealand published last year, Emerald L. King, a lecturer in Japanese at Melbourne La Trobe University, argues that far from isolating anime fans, the internet has fostered a regionally distinct community of cosplayers and convention-goers in Australia and New Zealand. They used to take their cues from the U.S. and Japan, she writes, but now have their own tastes and unique emphases on craftsmanship and/or performance that differ depending on cultural character.
The trans-Tasman anime ecosystem Madman has almost single-handedly cultivated has taken on a life of its own.
Roland Kelts is the author of “Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the U.S.” and is a visiting lecturer at Waseda University.
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March 2, 2020 at 02:15PM