TOKYO – Yoko Komazawa had been at the Tokyo International Anime Fair for nearly six hours when she fell in love with a brown-and-white stuffed panda — a character in one of the fair's featured cartoons.
"It's so adorable and interesting," she said, staring into its gleaming pink eyes. "I want it."
Unfortunately, the panda wasn't for sale and Komazawa had to settle for a photo. But she walked away from the small booth impressed by the panda's creators — from China.
"Japan is certainly an amazing anime country," said the 30-something anime fan and collector of all things cute and cuddly. "China has some intriguing characters though. They're different, and that definitely catches my attention."
Komazawa's enthusiasm for something new is a small victory for China's fledgling animation industry, and could well represent a widening crack in Japan's global anime dominance. Japan may be the birthplace of anime, but China is gunning for its future as it mounts an aggressive effort to expand the country's creative prowess and reputation.
In November, the government's cultural arm established the China Animation Comic Group Co. to foster a "great leap forward" in animation production, technology and marketing. Part of the plan includes building a "China Animation Game City" in Beijing that would be a national hub.
With government subsidies, Chinese animation companies tripled their presence at this year's Tokyo anime fair even as the overall number of exhibitors declined. The four-day event through Sunday, one of the world's biggest anime-related trade shows and festivals, featured a "China-Japan Anime Summit" along with multiple China-themed lectures.
"China is a big market, and everybody is trying to get in," said Jimmy Tse, chief executive of Top Art Investment Ltd., which makes the panda Komazawa craved. "And the Chinese people, they are starting to think, 'How come I'm manufacturing for someone else?' Why are we not creating anything ourselves?'"
China's growing ambitions coincide with an ominous industrywide slump in Japan.
After peaking in 2006, the number of anime minutes made for television fell 20 percent to 108,342 in 2009, according to the Association of Japanese Animations. A survey of the group's members shows that overseas anime revenue fell 21 percent between 2006 and 2009.
Matt Alt, a Tokyo-based author, blogger and longtime observer of Japanese pop culture, blames the industry itself for losing its edge. The world's hunger for anime accelerated around 2000, with Hollywood incorporating anime scenes into films and children clamoring for Pokemon.
Since 2006, however, a trend toward adult-oriented (and often sexually explicit) niche titles have turned off the general audience. Moreover, the industry is losing young talent due to persistently low pay and poor working conditions, forcing Japanese animation companies to outsource much of their work.
"The Japanese anime industry basically gave China, Korea and all these countries the keys to the candyshop," Alt said. "By outsourcing so much work to them, they trained this work force of people who are now far more ambitious and far more hungry than a lot of Japanese animators are."
The man behind the Tokyo anime fair acknowledges the global anime boom has waned. But chief producer Hitoshi Suzuki brushes off suggestions that foreign competition poses a threat, expressing confidence that a new boom will emerge in time.
Japanese animation is rooted in a rich 60-year history that cannot be replicated elsewhere, he said, citing the work of Astro Boy creator and "godfather of anime" Osamu Tezuka.
"Everyone tries to copy the surface of Japanese animation," he said. "But real Japanese animation is different."
Different or not, the Japanese anime industry is beginning to realize that it cannot ignore China — as an emerging rival or a potentially lucrative new market. For both countries, cooperating appears to be the best option for now.
One of the most successful joint projects so far is the "Romance of Three Kingdoms," a historical animated series currently airing across China. The program, produced by Japan's Takara Tomy and a subsidiary of China Central Television, will begin airing soon in Japan and elsewhere in Asia.
Chinese startups are also actively courting Japanese content makers for their business. A representative from the online video site
"It's a time of great change right now," said Yuji Nunokawa, chairman of the Association of Japanese Animations and a veteran anime producer. "We need to determine how we can work together to foster the contents business. We've come to a point in time where both sides need to think about how we can do this."
LOS ANGELES – "How to Train Your Dragon" breathed a bit of box-office fire with a $43.3 million opening weekend and a No. 1 debut, according to studio estimates Sunday.
Distributed by Paramount, the DreamWorks Animation adventure came in well behind the studio's last cartoon comedy, "Monsters vs. Aliens," which opened with $59.3 million over the same weekend last year.
With strong reviews and enthusiastic responses from viewers in exit polls, DreamWorks expects "How to Train Your Dragon" to have more staying power than "Monsters vs. Aliens" in subsequent weekends, though.
"People just love the film, so we're really anticipating we'll benefit from strong word of mouth going forward," said Anne Globe, head of marketing for DreamWorks.
"How to Train Your Dragon," featuring the voices of Jay Baruchel and America Ferrera in the tale of a Viking youth who tames a fire-breathing reptile, did outperform some other recent animated movies, among them "Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs," which opened with $30.3 million last September.
Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," which had been No. 1 the previous three weekends, slipped to second place with $17.3 million. It raised its domestic total to $293.1 million and its worldwide haul to $656 million.
John Cusack's raunchy comedy "Hot Tub Time Machine" had a lukewarm No. 3 debut of $13.7 million. Released by MGM, the movie features Cusack as part of a group of losers hurled back by a time-traveling hot tub to the 1980s, where they have a chance to set their lives right.
"How to Train Your Dragon" pulled in 68 percent of its revenue from 3-D presentation, another triumph for the digital technology that allows theaters to show movies in three dimensions.
Yet it also highlights the limits on how much 3-D traffic theaters are equipped to handle. "How to Train Your Dragon" took over the bulk of 3-D theaters at the expense of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland," because the roughly 4,000 screens capable of showing digital 3-D movies is not enough to handle two full wide-release films at the same time.
"There's no question there are not enough screens yet," said Chuck Viane, head of distribution for Disney. "People who want to seek out 'Alice' in 3-D may have to travel a mile or two more than they used to. ... It's competition. I'm used to it."
After a phenomenal 15-week run, James Cameron's blockbuster "Avatar" lost most of its remaining 3-D theaters to "How to Train Your Dragon." The 20th Century Fox release finally fell out of the top 10, taking in $2 million to finish at No. 11, raising its domestic total to $740.4 million. Worldwide, the movie has taken in $2.7 billion.
Another new 3-D release, Warner Bros. action tale "Clash of the Titans," arrives Friday. While the success of 3-D movies has driven theater chains to speed up their conversion to systems that can project digital 3-D films, a screen shortage will remain for the near future.
"There is a limited amount of shelf space. It's like a traffic jam at the multiplex for these 3-D movies," said Paul Dergarabedian, box-office analyst for Hollywood.com. "It's a high-class problem to have, but it's still a problem."
Films playing in 3-D have topped the box office for nine of 13 weekends this year, Dergarabedian said.
Overall revenues were down for the first time in a month. Domestic receipts totaled $127 million, off 13 percent from the same weekend last year, according to Hollywood.com.
For the year, revenues are at $2.6 billion, 8.8 percent ahead of last year.
Results for "Hot Tub Time Machine" came in on the low end of distributor MGM's expectations.
"It's not great, but it's OK," said Erik Lomis, head of distribution for MGM. "It had a lot of Internet buzz, so we thought it might come in a little bit higher."
In narrower release, Sony Pictures Classics' sex thriller "Chloe" opened with $1 million in 350 theaters, averaging a weak $2,863 a cinema. That compared to an average of $10,678 in 4,055 theaters for "How to Train Your Dragon" and $4,956 in 2,754 theaters for "Hot Tub Time Machine."
Directed by Atom Egoyan, "Chloe" stars Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried in a drama about a woman who hires a prostitute to tempt her husband and find out if he's cheating on her.
Estimated ticket sales for Friday through Sunday at U.S. and Canadian theaters, according to Hollywood.com. Final figures will be released Monday.
1. "How to Train Your Dragon," $43.3 million.
2. "Alice in Wonderland," $17.3 million.
3. "Hot Tub Time Machine," $13.7 million.
4. "The Bounty Hunter," $12.4 million.
5. "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," $10 million.
6. "She's Out of My League," $3.5 million.
7. "Green Zone," $3.3 million.
8. "Shutter Island," $3.2 million.
9. "Repo Men," $3 million.
10. "Our Family Wedding," $2.2 million.
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Universal Pictures and Focus Features are owned by NBC Universal, a unit of General Electric Co.; Sony Pictures, Sony Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Classics are units of Sony Corp.; Paramount and Paramount Vantage are divisions of Viacom Inc.; Disney's parent is The Walt Disney Co.; Miramax is a division of The Walt Disney Co.; 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox Atomic are owned by News Corp.; Warner Bros. and New Line are units of Time Warner Inc.; MGM is owned by a consortium of Providence Equity Partners, Texas Pacific Group, Sony Corp., Comcast Corp., DLJ Merchant Banking Partners and Quadrangle Group; Lionsgate is owned by Lions Gate Entertainment Corp.; IFC Films is owned by Rainbow Media Holdings, a subsidiary of Cablevision Systems Corp.; Rogue Pictures is owned by Relativity Media LLC; Overture Films is a subsidiary of Liberty Media Corp.
NEWCASTLE, Wyo. – Grasshopper infestations have taken on mythic tones here on the arid prairie of northeastern Wyoming — they blanket highways, eat T-shirts off clotheslines and devour nearly every scrap of vegetation on ranches and farms.
The myth may come closer to reality this summer than at any time in decades in several states in the West and the Plains.
A federal survey of adult grasshoppers last fall indicated that parts of Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska and Idaho could face costly grasshopper infestations this summer.
Ranchers and farmers as well as federal and municipal pest control agencies are praying for well-timed cool and wet weather to stifle the young grasshoppers when they hatch around May and June.
In the meantime, they're scrambling to line up the millions of dollars it will cost to battle an outbreak with aerial insecticide.
"They're grass eaters," said Tom Wright, a rancher near Newcastle in northeast Wyoming about 20 miles from the South Dakota border. "They'll eat the leaves and leave the stem. And they will eat the stems finally.
"When they're really thick, people say they'll eat T-shirts on a line," he said as he recalled a time in the mid-1980s when the grasshoppers were so thick that you couldn't put your hand on the shady side of a fence post without squashing one.
Grasshoppers are found across the United States, but outbreaks of pest species are most common in the Plains and Western states. Different species range from a length of under an inch to more than 3 inches.
They provide some ecological benefits, serving as a food source for other animals. However, some pest species are capable of eating their body weight daily in vegetation and can waste up to six times more by dropping forage to the ground.
Making matters worse is the prevalence of migratory species in the latest surveys — insects that can fly 60 miles in a day.
The Wyoming acreage infested with 15 or more grasshoppers per square yard increased more than 10-fold from 2008 to 2.9 million acres last summer, according to federal surveys.
Regionwide, surveys predict at least 48 million acres of outbreak-level infestation this summer.
"In some states, we may see some of the most severe grasshopper outbreaks that we've seen in nearly 30 years," said Charles Brown, the national grasshopper suppression program manager at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
No government agency keeps a comprehensive tally of the economic damage from grasshoppers, but the cost of spray programs can exceed a million dollars for a single county.
Last summer, when an outbreak first surfaced in Wyoming, the voracious insects hurt hay production and prompted some ranchers to downsize their herds.
Wright didn't sell any cattle because of grasshoppers, but his calves weighed 30 pounds lighter than normal last fall as a result of the insects eating up forage. The grass damage also forced the ranch to buy extra feed to help its cows through the winter, costing about $10,000, he said.
Paying to participate in a spray program could make sense if it was cheaper than the alternatives, he said.
"At the point that (grasshoppers) eat all the grass, you have to either sell all your cows, lease grass somewhere else or buy hay," he said.
Grasshopper eggs tend to survive better in untilled soil, but that doesn't stop the grown insects from hopping to cropland and eating crops such as corn, alfalfa, sunflowers, soybeans and sugar beets.
"In the past couple of years, we've had some crop damage by grasshoppers, especially alfalfa and soy beans," said Dave Boxler, a research technologist in entomology for the University of Nebraska based in North Platte.
In Wyoming, Gov. Dave Freudenthal announced this month a $2.7 million plan to help local pest districts and to pay for spraying on state lands this summer. Freudenthal and the state's congressional delegation have also urged the federal government to make more money available for treating federal rangeland.
Pest managers combat rangeland grasshoppers by using planes to spray alternating strips of land with an insecticide that kills the bugs in the nymphal stage, meaning it must be applied within a few weeks after eggs hatch.
Entomologist Scott Schell of the University of Wyoming said the insecticide, Dimilin 2L, has a very low toxicity level for mammals, reptiles and birds. It also has little effect on bees, he said.
Gail Mahnke, supervisor of the Niobrara County Weed and Pest Control District, said she expects grasshopper treatment in the eastern Wyoming county to run about $1.2 million this summer. That works out to a cost to landowners of about $1.65 a protected acre. The district plans to spend its $60,000 in emergency reserves on the project, she said.
Mahnke said she's not sure what will happen if weather conditions unexpectedly kill off the grasshoppers.
"When you're talking a $1.2 million deal just in this county, and getting it all set up and having all that money sitting here, and then those conditions just happen to hit perfect, what do you do?" she said.