TOKYO (AFP) — US entertainment giant Walt Disney said Thursday it would produce cartoons in Japan in tie-ups with the country's famed animation industry in a rare bid to adapt to regional tastes.
The company that turned Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck into global icons has traditionally distributed the same US-made films around the world.
Walt Disney Company (Japan) Ltd. said it would start by making a short children's animation series in Japan using three-dimensional computer graphics.
The series, entitled "Fireball," will feature robots in the distant future and start airing in April, company officials said.
"We aim to provide products that match the taste of the local market," said Mariko Hisamitsu, a Disney Japan official in charge of the television business.
"We have few precedents for localisation," she told AFP. "Disney characters are well recognised in Japan and we believe providing contents catering to consumers is necessary to expand the market."
Joining hands with mid-sized studio Madhouse Ltd., Disney will also launch a Japanese version of the popular US "Lilo and Stitch" series in October, Disney said.
The original series related the bonding between the orphan girl Lilo and a little blue alien named Stitch on the lush Hawaiian island of Kauai.
The adaptation will feature a Japanese girl and be set on a fictional island in Japan's subtropical southern chain of Okinawa.
While the main market is Japan, Hisamitsu said it was possible that the productions would be exported to other Asian countries, although nothing had been decided.
Films will be produced in Japan using local animation creators and computer graphics specialists and will not be outsourced to other Asian countries, she said.
Despite the international reputation of "anime" or "Japanimation," Japan's rank-and-file animators are facing growing workloads and stagnant wages as they face stiff competition from cheaper labour elsewhere in Asia.
Japan's top art school, Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music, is to open a two-year graduate course in April in a bid to "nurture revolutionary creators" for the nation's animation industry.
The course, the first at a state-run Japanese university focused on "manga" cartoons or animation, drew more than twice as many applications as the maximum 16 seats available, according to the university.
The most celebrated maker of Japanimation is Hayao Miyazaki, whose "Spirited Away" won the Academy Award in 2003 for best animated feature, Japan's first Oscar for a full-length work in nearly half a century.
Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli -- which also produced international hits such as "Howl's Moving Castle" -- said it was aware of the move by Disney but had no comment.
Disney has a longstanding fan base in Japan. Tokyo Disneyland opened in 1983 as Disney's first theme park outside the United States and visits there have almost become a rite-of-passage for Japanese children.
Seeking to take advantage of Disney's popularity in Japan, the company entered the tough cellular phone market this month in cooperation with Softbank Corp.
The mobile service, which features Disney characters, comes even though Disney withdrew from the cellular business in the United States.
Hisamitsu said Disney has yet to decide on any cooperation between the localised animation series and mobile business.
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