The huge untapped opportunity for American superheroes in Japan
Analysis by Numhom Techalapanarasme, Linnah Tan
Data analysis by Aakash Gupta
Design by Eeza Sheren
Illustrations by Sophia Sena
In April 2019, Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame swept global box office charts to become the highest grossing film of all time.
Yet there was one country where the battle for the Infinity Stones failed to hold the top spot for long. In its second week of release in Japan, Endgame was toppled from its perch by Detective Conan’s 23rd movie The Fist of the Blue Sapphire, an incredibly popular franchise in its home market.
This is more noteworthy given Japan’s love for the cinema, in 2019 box office receipts there totaled US$2.4bn, making Japan the 4th biggest cinema goer in the world, only topped by much bigger countries like China and the US.
Today, the most enthusiastic fandom for superhero franchises is reserved for homegrown content. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), X-Men and DC Extended Universe, or ‘Amecomi’ (アメコミ) as they’re more commonly referred, are sidelined. This difference is most clearly observed when looking at two major fan events: Comiket and Tokyo Comic Con.
Nowhere is the vibrant fan community more prominently on display than at the biannual Comiket event, a celebration of doujinshi (fan-created comics) and otaku culture. With more than 187,500 attendees in 2019, Comiket is not just the biggest fan convention in Japan, but in the world.
[Note: this is a conservative estimate of attendees, as Comiket’s official report of 750,000 visits over four days counts someone coming for two days as two visits. In the case where all attendees went for all four days, the minimum unique attendance would be 187,500 unique visitors.]
The American superhero equivalent of Comiket is the legendary San Diego Comic-Con, which was brought to Tokyo in 2016 as Tokyo Comic Con. Yet, Tokyo Comic Con has failed to reach the popularity of its anime counterpart. With only 69,731 attendees in 2019, less than 40% of conservative Comiket estimate, it’s clear that American superheroes don’t attract the same level of fan participation in Japan, yet.
In this piece, we explain why and how American Superheroes might win the hearts and minds of Japanese audiences.
What we did, how we did it...
To understand what draws Japanese audiences to engage with American superhero content and the potential routes for international producers looking to unlock new audiences in Japan, we analysed Twitter activity of fans attending these two events in 2019.
To find these fans, we pulled all public Twitter posts from the weekend of the 2019 Comiket (コミケ) & Comic Con (コミコン) events that used the event hashtags, and identified accounts that tweeted about either or both events.
For each distinct account that tweeted, we build a network of the list of accounts they followed. By looking at the connections in a network visualization, we’re able to understand the distinct groups of fans based on who they follow and by extension, what interests they share.
We identified six distinct groups of Comiket attendees whose interests stretch into the world of American superheroes as well to identify the hook driving engagement for Japanese audiences. Let’s meet three of the audiences: the 2.5D Idol, Anime Girl, and Boys' Love Fans.
Distinct Audience 1: '2.5D Idol Fans'
I love idol music! I'm obsessed with idol game franchises on my mobile. The voice actors bring to life my favourite characters, and they are IRL idols to me, too.
My top followed accounts include:
Distinct Audience 2: 'Anime Girl Fans'
I love the creativity in illustrated characters - all kinds of character settings and stories can be imagined and re-imagined! When I'm not drawing fanart of franchises I enjoy, I actively support my favourite artists online and offline, purchasing their doujins and original works.
My top followed accounts include:
- People: Illustrators of NSFW fanart
- Media: Mobile games with attractive female characters such as Fate/Grand Order, Azurlane
Distinct Audience 3: 'Boys' Love Fans'
It brings me so much joy to see my favourite characters being happy! I ship pairings that bring out the cutest parts of the characters 🥺
I really invest in these fictional characters - e.g. through merchandise, and cosplaying with my friends.
My top followed accounts include:
- People: Sugita Tomokazu (voice actor who shares memes and has merch)
- Media: Mobile games with attractive male characters such as Touken Ranbu
Looking at the distinct audiences above, we’re able to surface two strong, though seemingly unexpected, hooks for American Superhero content.
Broadening appeal via shipping
BL fans are all about escaping into fantasies about character pairings. In this analysis we found particular engagement in relationships where there are strong emotions and tension present between two memorable male personalities.
The love for characters and their relationships stretches beyond anime to Western franchises - particularly those driven by male leads and bromance (Thor x Loki, Capt’ x Bucky). Anything that lends itself to shipping is fair game, and shared through hashtags like #MinorAmeComiPairings.
Shipping behaviour (fantasising about non-realised character pairings) becomes a creative outlet, where fans express and fantasise about character love through fanart and conversation with other fans. Picturing their favourite characters interacting in different scenarios lets them explore different aspects of characters’ personalities, including a softer side often un-shown on screen. This helps them feel closer to the characters.
We spoke to Nao Oe, a member of the anime fan community, who shared:
“Sometimes these ‘amecomi shippers’ are hard to find on social media as they tend to hide in closed communities/accounts. They consider the genre to be more ‘sensitive’ than anime/manga as it involves actual actors - they call this category hnnm or han-nama, 半生. I think a big part of this fandom is ‘hidden’ and overlaps with Boys' Love Fans.”
In this analysis we’re able to uncover the prevalence of interest through behavioural data and what people follow.
To increase the appeal of Western franchises to BL fans today, continue showcasing wholesome male characters with different personalities and high chemistry friendships with other men.
The more diverse and rich in nuance these relationships are, the more creative BL fans can be in expressing character love through shipping, fanart, and merch.
Turbocharge the SFX
2.5 Idol Fans and Anime Girl Fans share a love for technology. Camera gear, sound production equipment, or gaming rigs - to them there’s something undeniably cool about the latest gadgets - this is especially clear in the types of brands and media they follow.
Their passion for the cutting-edge extends to the media they consume. Their love for tokusatsu films - a genre of Japanese cinema defined by its use of special effects - extends to the big-budget visual spectacles produced by Marvel and DC, with their amazing effects and high production value.
These fans express their passion by building their knowledge around and discussing the finest details of their favourite content. Discussing a movie’s directorial approach and techniques is a source of lively debate for these fans. Collecting rare and limited edition comics and merch also satisfies their desire to know and own everything about their favourite series.
To appeal to these fans, promotional materials and movie trailers can emphasize the technical details and lush visual effects that go into superhero films rather than highlight pure action. Behind-the-scenes glimpses and interviews with the technical artists who make the magic happen tap into their love for the movie-making process.
The future of convention culture may be uncertain in a post COVID-19 world.
But what’s clear is that there’s a larger audience of Japanese fans to be pulled into American superhero franchises if the hooks were just made more obvious to them.
Even without physical meet-ups, audiences will find a way to show up for what they love - as seen by Demon Slayer: Infinity Train smashing Japan’s box office statistics when it launched in October. Like other popular anime films, it has hooks for multiple audiences, from shippable characters and lovable waifus, to beautiful colours and smooth integration of CGI animation techniques.
These hooks are already there in American superhero and fantasy content - they just need to be emphasized. Take a look at Into The Spider-Verse’s stunning technical finesse, tokusatsu-like elements in Stranger Things’ demogorgon, or the bromance between Klaus and Ben in Netflix’s Umbrella Academy.
Dialing up the presence of the hooks outlined in this piece can pave the way for comic adaptations to grow with Japanese fans. And maybe when Marvel’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier hits theatres in 2021 (or whenever the pandemic settles), Steve x Bucky may be trending under #MinorAmeComiPairings.
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