Being different makes Japanese animated films recognizable
-Interview with Francesco Prandoni, International Operations Manager at Production I.G

Born in Milan, Italy. He spent the first half of his career buying Japanese anime for distribution in Italy, and the second half selling Japanese anime around the world. He joined Production I.G in 2005, and he’s still there.


CFM: You are in charge of overseas market for Mr. Hara’s film Miss Hokusai. How are the overseas markets performing of the film? What do western audiences think about it? What strategies are effectively used when promoting it overseas?

FP: At first, marketing a film like Miss Hokusai internationally may sound like a Pandora box full of challenges. It’s a period drama. It’s animation, but not family-friendly. It doesn’t even have a conventional narrative structure, to the extent that no synopsis could properly explain what the film is really about. And it looks like a strongly culturally-specific film. But that’s only the surface.

The film itself is a true labour of love, and this translates into its beauty. But from a marketing standpoint, Miss Hokusai had two major hooks, namely director Keiichi Hara, and the name Hokusai. If you allow me, I would like to add that the name Production I.G was a guarantee of quality for buyers and moviegoers alike. Interestingly, Asian distributors focused mainly on Hara as a well-known and respected director, because Hokusai is a rather obscure name in the region.

On the opposite, Western audiences and media are well aware about Hokusai, they were excited at the idea that a director like Keiichi Hara was taking on the subject, and they got immediately intrigued when they saw “Hokusai” in the title, associated with that “Miss” that apparently contradicted everything they knew about the author of the iconic Great Wave. The mere existence of his real-life daughter -and her great talent- were virtually ignored. At the end of 2014, Paris had hosted a hugely successful Hokusai exhibition that attracted more than 200,000 people, and yet, O-Ei (A main character of Miss Hokusai, one of the four daughters of the painter Tetsuzo, who later became known as Hokusai) would never be mentioned once. The thrill of this uncovering truth was certainly used at promotion level, but at that point, the press had fully realized that Miss Hokusai was not necessarily about a famous painter, but rather a complex, delicate and only apparently disconnected ensemble of subtexts about creativity and the joy and sadness we experience in our lives, all told by portraying a dysfunctional family of eccentric artists throughout the changing seasons. And last but not least, it depicted a woman who was not afraid to be unconventional and follow her daemon. Without falling into the usual narrative clichés, and without being a stuffy period drama. This made the film universally relatable. It was Hara-san’s filmmaking at its best. The film received excellent reviews, won eleven awards, and was loved by the audience.


CFM: Japanese animation has great influence in overseas market. What do you think is the key to the successful promotion for Japanese animation overseas?

FP: The Japanese animation industry releases a wide array of very different products, so it shouldn’t be considered a single genre for which the same rules apply. You certainly have world-famous franchise-related productions that would just sell themselves. You have character-driven properties aimed to children or tech-savvy millennials. But for a director-driven film like Miss Hokusai, you need to build up the reputation of the film step by step like you would do for a live-action film. This means screening at the right festivals and taking home recognitions and positive press reviews in order to intrigue moviegoers, rather than the anime fan base.

If you think of it, this is almost unique to Japan, because unlike American-made animation, in which the studio’s name is the brand used to sell the film, Japanese animated films are able to stand on their feet with the director’s name. Audiences around the world would go to see the next film directed by Keiichi Hara, Makoto Shinkai or Mamoru Hosoda. It is no small feat, although it can only be achieved when a studio strongly believes in a creator on a long-term basis.



CFM: What are overseas market looking for and expecting in Asian animated films? What strategies would you suggest for Asian animated films when promoting overseas?

FP: I couldn’t say about productions coming from countries other than Japan, as I never had the opportunity to represent such properties in my professional experience. In general, my impression is that most Asian studios converted to CG animation and followed Hollywood tropes without a second thought, while Japan alone remained self-confined in a Galapagos-like world dominated by hand-drawn animation. The former is definitely one possible strategic choice. The latter is perhaps dictated by the impossibility to change. But being different makes you recognizable and competitive. It all depends on what your approach to animation is. Mass-market family entertainment? Action and technology for teens? Or simply a technique used by a filmmaker to tell a poignant and meaningful story? I personally have great respect for filmmakers such as Yeon Sang-ho, who is pursuing socially thought-provoking projects with great courage.


CFM: What feature and advantages do Japanese animated films have when competing in overseas market?

FP: Japan has a hugely rich and diverse culture of comic books. Manga are being read by children, teenagers and adults alike. This does not mean that adults in Japan love reading comic books originally intended for children, but that an important segment of Japanese comics covers a range of complex and mature topics, that can be enjoyed by adults. As animation has evolved along with this comic culture, unsurprisingly animation has reached the same levels of complexity and maturity in terms of storytelling, which is a phenomenon very specific to this country, at least to such degree. Many creators here find it natural to tell stories using drawings, while in other countries they would rather make the same stories into live-action dramas and films. Mamoru Oshii once said that films are films, regardless the technique being used. I could but agree. Animation is not a genre, but a technique. This different approach is a primary component of Japanese animation’s competitive edge in the international arena.