Japan animation losing its draw

Gaming, sport, crowded TV skeds all playing a part

Sgt. Frog has been demoted. Until April, the outer-space star of the "Keroro Gunso" children's animated program commanded a primetime slot on the Friday-evening schedule in Japan, but his platoon has been forced to retreat to Sunday mornings.

Sgt. Frog is not the only casualty of an apparent offensive against kids' cartoons caused by growing competition for their attention.

"In general, there is a decline in the population of children in Japan, but there is also a whole range of after-school activities — from piano classes to sport — which means that kids are at home less in the evenings than they used to be even a few years ago," says Tom Oki, a spokesman for TV Tokyo Corp., which airs "Keroro Gunso."

"The competition between TV stations in this sector is much tighter than when I was a child, and that's affecting all the channels," he says.

Arguably the largest factor, however, has been the meteoric increase in the number of portable or console game machines in Japanese homes. In a study in November by the National Congress of the Parents and Teachers Association of Japan, fully 92% of all fifth-grade students in the country have game systems.

And when they're bowling on their Wii or racing the Super Mario Bros. on their Nintendo DS, Japanese children are not watching TV.

"Kids' animated shows are being squeezed out because there is not enough time in the day, and we're seeing variety shows moving into the time slots that used to be pretty much solely for these programs — the prime viewing hours of between 5 p.m. and 10 p.m.," Philip Brasor, television critic for the Japan Times newspaper, says.

"Some shows that started out as kids' programs could be stretched into adolescent programs, but those kids aren't watching anymore," he says.

And instead of putting shows that are not going to be watched in primetime, Brasor says, TV companies have learned that it does not really matter when they air because children are adept at setting the VCR for the programs they do want to see.

In reaction, TV Asahi shifted its shows around, moving "Atash-inichi" from 7:30 p.m. on Fridays to Saturday mornings, and tried a couple of Saturday-morning slots for "Boboboobo Boobobo" after pushing it out of its 7:20 p.m. seat. Those maneuvers were in vain, however, and the show was taken off the air in late 2005.

Fuji Television Network also did some shuffling, deciding on a major revamp of its animated shows late last year and moving the once hugely popular "One Piece" to Sunday mornings. A spokeswoman for Fuji refused to comment on the changes, describing the issue as "sensitive."

According to Video Research Ltd., animated shows in the late 1970s and '80s regularly attracted audience ratings in the 30% bracket and above — with titles such as "Speed Racer," "Atom Boy" and "Gundam" leading the pack — but that percentage had fallen to a mere 6.2% in 2001 and just 3.6% last year.

Tetsutaro Umeda, head of the public relations department at Video Research, believes that sponsors have realized that ratings are falling off alarmingly and are demanding that schedules be changed.

But Japan's overall love for cartoon entertainment is not in total decline, as evidenced by the booming demand for animated movies. Studio Ghibli is among the most famous animation studios, and the news in March that Hayao Miyazaki would be releasing his latest movie in 2008 was greeted with delight here.

Similarly, the hugely popular "Pocket Monsters" movies continue to do well on the big screen, along with the "Bleach," "Doraemon" and "Detective Conan" series, as well as the slightly risque antics of "Crayon Shin-Chan."

With a smaller pool of viewers and more competition for their time, studios are hedging their bets by simultaneously stepping up their output of animated titles aimed at older age groups, usually screen versions of manga comic books that have proved popular with readers. Recent hits have included "Death Note" and "Nana," which became major movie hits.

Yet two animated shows remain institutions of Sunday-evening TV in Japan, both on the Fuji channel. "Chibi Maruko Chan," about the tales of a 9-year-old schoolgirl, first went to air in January 1990 and has been impossible to shift ever since. It is followed by "Sazae-san," which is the second-longest-running TV series in history, having first been broadcast in October 1969.

"The main character in 'Chibi Maruko Chan' is a very funny and cheeky child," says Teppei Yamashita of Nippon Animation Co. Ltd.'s international sales and production division. "She's not always adorable and is quite grown up. Children can relate to her and adults find her funny."

Because the series is set in the 1970s and makes reference to bands and shows that were popular at the time, a lot of the viewers watching the show alongside their children are nostalgic adults, he says.

"It's just good old, family entertainment," he says. "It's a program that anyone can enjoy."