My one-stop shop for Japanese culture, The Wall Street Journal, delivers again. A Page One story yesterday was "Cartoon Characters Get Big Makeover for Overseas Fans." (The WSJ always has one quirky front-page story. I think this is the third in a month about Japan, after the air conditioning story and the cellphone novel report.) I excerpt at length for those who don't have subscriptions:
Characters occasionally thrive despite their foreignness. When Nickelodeon looked into bringing SpongeBob SquarePants to Japan, market research said the show was bound to flop. Japanese viewers were believed to favor characters whose appearance exudes warmth and comfort, a concept known in Japanese as iyashi. Iyashi characters -- typically round, with no mouth and small eyes -- rose to prominence in Japan during the long-running economic slump that began in the early 1990s, when people were anxious and uncertain about the future.
SpongeBob, with his square body, huge mouth, buckteeth, big bug eyes and somewhat annoying personality, was the antithesis of iyashi. But viewers didn't mind: Nearly two million households soon tuned into the show every day. One thing that may have helped is that SpongeBob lives in an undersea world without humans and overt cultural references. "There is very little about SpongeBob that is 'American,'" says Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeon MTV Networks Kids and Family Group.
When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a "Japanese look." But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters to boost its appeal in Japan, an idea Mr. McCracken welcomed.
In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students. Since Japanese kids like to dress up like their favorite characters, the girls got more realistic outfits, with miniskirts, matching vests and hip-hugging belts.
Toei Co., the Japanese animation house brought in to help rework the characters, kept the original Powerpuff premise of crime-fighting girls with superhuman powers. To appeal to a preference among Japanese children for longer, more dramatic plots, it made the seven- to 11-minute shows 15 to 20 minutes long. It also gave them a common Japanese theme: accepting people who are different.
"Monsters can be anyone who is different from us. If we change our attitude, they can become our friends," says Hiromi Seki, a producer at Toei who helped create the show. That's a particularly relevant message in Japan, where the pressures among children to conform are very intense.
In one episode, an evil character threatens to bring about an eruption of Mount Fuji that would make Tokyo unbearably hot and spark global climate change. In another episode, a heartbroken performer of traditional kabuki theater turns into a monster and wreaks havoc on his community.
"In Japan, girly love themes are a must," Ms. Seki says. When "Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z" was launched in Japan a year ago, the executives at Cartoon Network soon realized that the revamped plots and skimpier outfits not only attracted young girls, they also broadened the audience to include animation-obsessed adult men known in Japan as otaku, or geeks, who were also fans of the original.
So the network came out with special consumer goods like bookmarks, limited-edition DVDs and pop music targeted at viewers like Hironobu Kamata, a 42-year-old manager of a copyright office in Tokyo. Mr. Kamata wakes up every Saturday morning to watch the Powerpuff Girls.
His favorite character is Miyako Goutokuji, the blond girl known as Bubbles in the U.S. "I love it all! The characters are so cute," says Mr. Kamata.