CANNES: Anime, or Japanese animation, has been a favorite with young Saudis for decades and now the Kingdom is about to star in a feature-length production of its own.
Manga Productions, a subsidiary of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Misk Foundation, will collaborate with Tokyo-based Toei Animation to produce a feature film, “The Journey,” which will be partially set in the Kingdom 1,500 years ago.
Toei, the studio behind animation franchises such as “Dragon Ball Z,” “One Piece” and “Sailor Moon,” will bring top Japanese talent to the project, including character designer Tetsuro Iwamoto (“Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney”) and composer Kaoru Wada (“Inuyasha”).
Manga is keeping many plot and location details secret, but has released a teaser trailer and poster revealing the name of the film’s hero — Aws.
“The film is talking about old civilizations in the Arabian peninsula — a people who are trying to protect their city from a strong enemy,” Manga CEO Bukhary Essam told Arab News. “The hero has a backstory that no one knows and which will affect the destiny of the city.”
Animation work on “The Journey” will be done in both Riyadh and Tokyo, with 12 Saudis involved in story development, character design, preproduction, storyboards and coloring. The film will take two years to complete and will employ a production team of over 330 people.
The joint production will help develop Saudi talent so that an industry can be built in the Kingdom, Essam said.
“Our ultimate goal is to transfer the technology and know-how to Saudi talents so that by 2030 Manga Productions will have the capability to produce animation by itself,” he said.
“Most young Saudis loved Japanese animation when we were kids. We believe it’s time to export our characters and our heroes to Japan and the world. We don’t want to only export oil and petrochemicals, we want to export arts, animation, video gaming and manga to a global audience.”
Essam’s love of anime and Saudis’ passion for the art form helped convince Toei Animation to take on the project.
“It’s not just a movie — it’s about cultural exchange and forming a connection between countries, Shinji Shimizu, Toei’s managing director, said. “Japan is at the top level worldwide, so we can help Saudi Arabia develop its animation industry.
“We Japanese don’t know much about the Middle East or Saudi Arabia, but we know that Saudi people love to watch Japanese animation.”
Manga is employing historical advisers to ensure the film captures Saudi Arabia’s authentic past, while a Japanese team has returned to the Kingdom to scout locations for the production.
According to Shimizu, the Japanese team sometimes gets carried away making designs look “cool.”
“The Saudi team will say, ‘no, it should be real.’ We give honest opinions to each other. Everything is being made with the suggestions and opinions of the Saudi team,” says Shimizu. “Japanese people are not familiar with Middle East culture, but as they make animation together, they learn from the Saudi team about their culture, language and traditions.
“It’s really fun for them, too. We have differences, but I realized from making this animation together that we’re all just human — we are all the same.”
The film will be released in both Japanese and Arabic, with an English version possibly to follow.
Manga and Toei’s first joint production was “The Woodcutter’s Treasure,” a 20-minute animation based on Saudi Arabian folklore. The team is also producing a 13-episode animated TV series.
“We have a number of IPs in the pipeline that might be franchises. It’s just a kickoff. A number of those IP are original and a number are true stories, and inspired by Saudi and Arab folktales,” said Essam.