Why are Japanese cartoons a global hit?

In early 1979, a cartoon series about giant robots, Mobile Suit Gundam, made its debut on Japanese television. It was not a hit. Scheduled to run for 12 months, the plug was about to be pulled after just 10 months. But then the show’s creators noticed something unexpected: it had a very loyal, if small, following. Fans were creating encyclopedias about the show and creating timelines of its events. The show was given a new lease on life — and the studio producing it took notice of which elements had proven most popular with its audience. Given a new chance and some creative tweaks, the “Gundam” shows became the basis of a sprawling series of cartoons, movies, comic books, video games, best-selling toys and more.

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“The ‘Gundam’ giant robot series was written off as a failure — except that it got picked up by a few fans,” says Ian Condry, an associate professor of Comparative Media Studies at MIT and head of MIT’s Foreign Languages and Literatures section. “Now it’s an ongoing 30-year-old franchise.” As Condry sees it, there is a lesson in the “Gundam” case for producers of culture everywhere. Japanese anime — animation, usually in the form of hand-drawn cartoons — is a wildly popular global export: According to one estimate, about 60 percent of the world’s animated television shows originate in Japan. They have become popular, as Condry asserts in a new book, “The Soul of Anime,” published today by Duke University Press, by embracing what he calls “collaborative creativity” — by accepting input from a range of artists, and, crucially, feedback and modifications from fans. And when fans get involved, Condry says, it makes a pop-culture product, like a cartoon series, “a living thing for the people who are interested.”

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