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August 6, 2020

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An industry enters its ‘golden age’ with animated enthusiasm

CHINA’S animated movies and TV series are often likened to the dawning of a golden age, though some critics argue the industry still has some way to go in terms of quality.

What is not in contention is the expanding number of domestic animation productions and the records they are setting both at the box office, in TV ratings and in online viewership.

There are indeed more diversified distribution channels, increased government support and expanding job opportunities, buttressed by greater investment from Internet giants like Tencent.

“Anime-related job opportunities have been steadily increasing since around 2017,” Zhang Jie, co-founder of 729 Voice Studio, told Shanghai Daily. “Ten years ago, a good voice actor would probably have two or three jobs in anime and cartoon-related games a year, and now our studio gets some form of those jobs almost every day.”

Japanese animation spurred Zhang’s interest in becoming a voice actor, but most of his early career was spent in dubbing TV dramas at a time when animation projects were still in their infancy.

For the past five years, Zhang has been the voice director and actor at the Tencent-produced animated series “Hu Yao Xiao Hong Niang,” or “Fox Matchmaker,” which collected more than 100 million clicks in the first month of its premiere on Chinese video sites in 2015.

The show, which still continues, has more than 120 episodes and a rating of 9 out of 10 from more than 32,000 viewers on China movie review site Douban.

The series creates a fantasy world in which foxes and humans can fall in love with each other. Humans forget the relationships when they die and are reborn as new people. Fox matchmakers offer a service that reminds them of the love from a previous life.

“It’s an entirely made-in-China production, from its first cartoon to post-production,” said Yang Tianxiang, who voices the show’s protagonist. “It is also rooted in Chinese folk tales of humans falling in love with other creatures. All of these elements bring the show closer to Chinese viewers.”

Yang, in his early 30s, grew up with Japanese animation, like many Chinese anime fans.

“We are in a golden age,” he said. “I can feel it as an anime fan and as a voice actor.”

Tencent attributes the success of the series to its distinctive Chinese elements and says the domestic industry has learned much from Japanese counterparts and is now pursuing its own path, particularly in the development of 3D anime and vertical scrolling webtoons.

Tencent’s anime branch has already produced 36 series, tapping the company’s vast resources and marketing strategies to develop a chain of franchised comics, podcasts, anime and games even before production starts.

“China started scaling up production for Internet anime targeted at teenagers in 2012, so it has matured very quickly in quality and diversity in only eight years,” Li Xiaoting, development director of Tencent Animation & Comics, told Shanghai Daily.

“Viewers have also grown with the industry, increasing demand for higher quality,” she added. “All our successful productions share two similarities — a good story and locally resonate elements.”

Her take on the industry might also be applied overall to successful Chinese anime productions, such as the animated film hit “Ne Zha,” or “I Am Destiny.”

The 2019 feature is inspired a mythic hero of Chinese legend but reinvents the centuries-old story. It became the top-grossing animated film and had the second-highest box office among all films ever released on the Chinese mainland.

“Ne Zha” was one of the two deciding factors that led animator Jeremy Chen to quit a job working on outsourced projects from American and Japanese studios to set up his own studio.

The other reason was the increasing industrialization of domestic anime productions, epitomized by the involvement of big players like Tencent.

“This is an advantage for the Chinese industry, when you have such giants that can integrate vertically from production to distribution and horizontally from comics to games,” Chen said.

He added, “The horizontal integration, particularly, means more influence and cash flow can be generated from single content, and as the environment expands, we get superb quality and more independent anime productions emerging.”

Chen, who is in his 40s, cited the three-episode animated series “Fog Hill of Five Elements,” which was produced by a small studio and premiered online last week. He called it “a thick ray of hope” as he prepares his own studio for a production he has worked in his leisure time for more than five years.

“When I see that such a high-quality production, imitating neither Japanese nor American anime styles and coming from a relatively small studio, can attract more than 2 million viewers in a week, I see a golden age,” he said.

“Fog Hill of Five Elements” features an intriguing combination of fast-paced martial arts with a soothing style reminiscent of Chinese ink painting. The story draws on both common and little-known cultural references. In ancient times, five magic families, each representing one of five elements — metal, wood, water, fire and soil — sealed monsters in cages with magic spells. Then one descendant of the fire family seeks to break the seal in order to save his mother, and the battle is joined.

On the rolling credits at the end, Lin Hun’s name shows up dozens of times, including producer, director, screenwriter, animator, voice actor and singer of the theme song. That reveals the small size of the studio.

“That really motivated me,” animator Chen said. “A dream is in vain when you know it’s impossible to achieve, but it becomes a target when you know it can be done.”


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