Tôei Animation: a cartoon-production machine

Article  by  Mathieu GAULÈNE  •  Published 30.03.2012  •  Updated 05.04.2012
Tôei Animation, the main studio on the archipelago, has gradually become a cartoon-producing machine, particularly for television. Its business model has thrived on the exportation of copyrights and on licensing sales.


Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, One Piece and even Goldorak and Candy are all cartoons that have helped bring popular Japanese culture to the rest of the world. Something they all have in common is that they were produced by the same studio, Tôei Animation, a pioneer in Japanese animation and the main studio of the archipelago. Tôei gave up its dream to become the “Disney of Asia” and gradually turned into a factory producing television cartoons, basing its business model on exploiting copyright material and selling licences to make tie-in merchandise.

Becoming the “Disney of Asia”

At the start of the 1950s, the success of Disney features films – Fantasia (1940), Bambi (1942), Pinocchio (1940) – aroused interest in Japan, in particular at the cinema studio Tôei. In 1955, by way of an experiment, Tôei entrusted a small independent studio, Nichi Dôeiga, with the production of the film Ukare baiorin, then went on immediately to set up the “Study commission for the production of cartoons”. Despite doubts expressed by this commission on Japan’s ability to make cartoons as good as those made in the United States, Tôei created its own animation studio, bought Nichi Dôeiga, and took on the name of “Tôei Dôga”[+] NoteDôga means “cartoon” in Japanese.X [1]. It first set up in the Chûô district of Tokyo with a starting capital of one million yen, and later moved to Shinjuku.
In the beginning, the studio mostly made television advertisements. This business enabled the company to grow, and in 1957, Tôei built its own studio in Ôchanomizu. At this time, the staff training director was sent on a mission to the United States to study how the Disney studios worked, taking note primarily of colouring techniques and equipment. Through trial and error, the Tôei studio learned the methods of the American school, but started to develop its own style based on mangas.
After making its first series of short films – Kitten’s Doodling (Koneko no rakugaki) - Tôei made its first feature length animated film in 1958 called The Legend of the White Snake (Hakujaden). Taking its inspiration from a Chinese legend, the film received praise from the critics and was even exported. Tôei grew, and employed 270 more people. In 1959, the studio made its first film in Cinemascope®, Magic Boy (Shônen sarutobi sasuke), based on the story of a legendary ninja in Japan.
Kitten’s Doodling (Koneko no rakugaki)

Competition from Disney, however, including in the home video market, remained strong. Sleeping Beauty, for example, came out the same year.
Magic Boy (Shônen sarutobi sasuke)
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The era of television cartoons

During the economic boom of 1963, imported cartoons enjoyed considerable success on Japanese television. In the same year Astro Boy (Tetsuwan atomu) – made by Mushi Production, the studio of Tezuka Osamu – hit the screens. It is against this backdrop that the Tôei studio produced its first animated series, Wolf Boy Ken (Ôkami shônen ken) which achieved great success in Japan. The studio, with only a small team, broadcast the series at a rate of one 30-minute episode per week, and decided to simplify production by only using three images per second. In so doing, Tôei was putting Japanese animated films on the path to mass production at the expense of quality[+] NoteAnimated films are usually made at 12 images per second. Three images per second is a very low figure; Japanese animated series are made with eight images per second. Setting the quality threshold is however difficult because other factors, such as the originality of the storyline and the quality of the images etc., are also important.X [2].

Wolf Boy Ken
In 1963, the company started to concentrate its production on animated films for television. It stopped producing the feature films Gulliver's Space Travels and The 47 Faithful Dogs so that the team could dedicate all its resources to producing Wolf Boy Ken. At the same time, Tôei recycled episodes of this series to make a feature film for the cinema. With the annual screening of a “Tôei Manga Festival” (tôei manga matsuri), – a compilation of various animated films – Tôei’s operations institutionalized the process of turning a profit at low costs. In September 1963, the company’s capital was increased by 4 million yen, then by 16 million the following month. The number of employees reached 450 and the film department was split into two departments: “feature film production” and “animated film production”.
The feature film department itself was subdivided into two separate teams. One was in charge of producing feature films for export, while the other took care of medium-length films for the Japanese public. Tôei then made one film to export in the spring, and two for the Japanese market to release in the summer and the winter. The films for the Japanese public were reduced to 64 minutes, compared to an average of 80 prior to that. The success of these two teams led to the almost total abandonment of the strategy of making feature films.
At the end of July 1968, the film Hols: Prince of the Sun came out in cinemas. Making the film was a laborious task that took three years because of the ambition of young producers in charge of the project, Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao. Despite its qualities, the film was a commercial flop. The following year, with Puss in Boots, Tôei made one of its last large-scale films. Its success prompted the management to choose the cat character, Pero, as the group’s mascot.


Puss in Boots
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Tôei shapes Japanese popular culture

Tôei brought back into style the use of monsters found in Japanese folklore, yôkai, surprisingly reviving the cartoon Gegege no Kitarô in January 1968. Many spinoffs were created from this series, which was very popular in Japan. Another cult cartoon, Tiger Mask, introduced the “combat sport” genre, which has since become an essential part of the world of animation. When the Majinga Z (1972) came out, the Japanese went crazy for the “gigantic robots” or the Mecha genre, soon after taking off in France with Goldorak (UFO Robo Gurendaiza, 1975). A form of this genre was developed for the cinema with “hero battles” such as Majinga Z against Devilman in 1973.

Goldorak (UFO Robo Gurendaiza)

Tôei had a talent for quickly picking up on what was in vogue. In 1972, diplomatic relations were resumed with the People’s Republic of China: the country offered Japan two pandas which were given a home at the Ueno Zoo, in Tokyo. The country suddenly developed a craze for this animal. Tôei decided to milk the “panda boom” for all it was worth, producing the film The Adventures of the Panda, which enjoyed tremendous success.

Tôei also took advantage of the global success of Star Wars in 1978 to relaunch the “space” genre (uchû) with animated films such as Captain Albator and Galaxy Express 999, adaptations of mangas by Matsumoto Reiji.
Captain Albator
In 1993, when Slam Dunk came to the screens in Japan, it started up a basketball frenzy. At the end of the 1970s, animation attained status as the popular film genre in Japan, to such an extent that it became an integral part of Japanese popular culture.
From the 1980s Tôei entered a golden age, enjoying international success with series such as Goldorak, Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, and more recently, Digimon and One Piece.
One Piece

From 1981 to 1994, Tôei created a total of 50 series, amounting to more than three series per year. Akira Toriyama’s 1984 series Dr. Slump was the first real national success, with a leap in audience ratings of 30% in six months. Ken the Survivor also achieved enormous success in Japan. Dragon Ball was broadcast shortly after in 1986, followed by Dragon Ball Z in 1989. In the wake of Goldorak, Tôei enjoyed international renown thanks to this cartoon, with France serving as an entry point for the global market. When Dragon Ball was first released in France, it reached audience ratings figures of almost 60%. Alongside The Knights of the Zodiac, another Tôei product, it was one of the best-loved cartoons in France.
Dragon Ball

Tôei’s capital went from 16 million yen in 1990 to 50 million in 1992. During this same year, it bought the independent company TAVAC which was given the task of editing Tôei’s animated films.
In the 2000s, after a short dry spell, Tôei once again found success with the two productions Digimon and One Piece. The company gradually moved away from Disney’s economic model to create its own, a combination of mass-production animation films, copyright sales and a radical cost-cutting strategy.
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From producing advertisements to copyright business

From the very beginning, the Tôei Animation studio set out to make a profit from non-core business activities, sometimes going as far as forgetting its main purpose of producing animated films. During the early years, the cartoonists in the company worked initially on creating advertising spots for a new form of media: television.
As soon as the first television channel NHK was on air in 1953, private channels such as NTV and Fuji TV were founded and the country became gripped with TV fever. In the span of one year, from 1958 to 1959, advertising production soared from 246 to 331 spots. In 1960, Tôei made 543 advertisements. An advertising department was set up in 1961 to meet its needs in this growing sector, and the company sometimes dealt with unusual requests. The United States embassy, attempting to improve its image in the eyes of the Japanese public, starting with children, commissioned the studio to make short films such as The New Adventure of Hanuman (1958), Let’s sing together (1959) and Interdependency (1959). Due to this agreement, the Nippo-American Security Treaty, renewed in 1960, was increasingly contested in Japan. Nevertheless, advertising production continued to grow to the point where that the department split from Tôei Animation and became Tôei CM.
Tôei was one of the first companies to deal with the matter of copyright. With its first cartoon Wolf Boy Ken (1963) Tôei forged a new economic model based on the exploitation of copyright. The idea was still in its infancy, but the contract signed with the confectionary company Morinaga led to the sales of chocolate-caramels in the shape of the cartoon characters.
The turning point however came with Akko-chan of secrets (Himitsu no akko-chan) and the sale of a character-shaped toy. Little was known about the copyright of characters at the time, especially with regard to animated films. Huge sales figures for the “Kamen Rider” belts for example – for which the company was paid nothing – proved that exploiting the group’s “brands” was still not yet a part of Tôei corporate culture. In the early 1970s, only 10% of the copyright business was connected to animated films.
Everything changed when Mazinger Z (Majingâ zetto) came out in 1972. Two years later, Tôei Animation signed an important contract with the toy manufacturer Bandai to make mecha robots, inspired by the group’s cartoon characters. The “Chogokin” toys which have since become cult items became popular and influenced the way that characters were used for merchandising.
Mazinger Z

The group was awakened to the commercial stakes involved in the exploitation of licences with the “Candy” t-shirt affair: in 1979, the police found 230,000 counterfeit “Candy” t-shirts. Tôei received a two-year prison sentence for the guilty parties. Legislation regarding copyright was then reinforced in Japan, but because counterfeiting continued throughout Asia, Tôei was left powerless.

The group’s entire sales department was restructured in order to concentrate its efforts on its new target, the “Character Business” (Kyarakutâ Bijinesu). From 1981 the company started mass production of derivative products (merchandising): games, erasers, soft toys, calendars, cereal packet gifts, and even Pachinko games incorporating the studio’s heroes – anything could be used to extend its public and to commercially exploit the group’s characters. In addition to toys and other merchandise, the Character Business entailed sending people dressed up as cartoon heroes such as Arare-chan or Kinnikuman to shopping centres and some of the many theme parks in Japan.


Tôei even bought two pavilions at the “Space World” theme park in Kitakyûshû, opened in 1990. Tôei also created musicals, such as 1993’s Sailor Moon, which was met with great success.
The exploitation of copyright on characters in the group became the top objective of Tôei, to such an extent that it encouraged cartoonists to think first about potential commercial opportunities for merchandising, and second, character creation. From the mid-1980s, Tôei started to take an interest in the arrival of Nintendo’s new gaming console. The company released a video game version of Ken the survivor in 1986, selling 450,000 copies in just a few months. The company celebrated its 40th anniversary in 1995, becoming the most merchandising-profitable company in Japan thanks to the success of Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon and Slam Dunk. In total, the copyright business (hanken bijinêsu) became so important that it some years accounted for the group’s main source of income: in 2002 for example, from a turnover of 16.9 billion yen, the sale of derivative products accounted for the largest percentage with 7.6 billion yen, compared with 6.9 billion for the sale of animated films.
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Tôei company results (in billions of yen)

At the final broadcasts of these three series in 1997, Tôei went through a short dry spell, and its income fell considerably for a year. The situation improved from 1998 onwards, and the company started to contemplate floatation on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, changing its name from “Tôei Dôga” to “Toei Animation”. On 8 December, 2000, Tôei became the first animation studio to be quoted on the Japanese stock exchange.
The Tôei model was ultimately based on constantly seeking to reduce costs, staffing costs in particular. In 1972, while the workload continued to grow, the Tôei management adopted a management of “rationalisation” (gôrika): this model of widespread use at the time put enormous pressure on Tôei workers. The plan was implemented in July with two aims: to reduce production – one feature film per year instead of two, and two animated films instead of three – and to reduce staffing levels through redundancies. The unions for Tôei Dôga (employees) and Tôei Dôga Studio (contract workers) reacted immediately with determined opposition, and started the biggest strike in the history of the group. In August, the management closed the studio and 43 employees were made redundant. In just a few months, the number of staff fell from 319 to 220[+] NoteToei Animation, Tôei animêshon gojû nenshi, 1956-2006, 2006, p. 48.X [3]. After the strike, the management decided to turn increasingly to contract workers, paid by the image. It started by outsourcing part of its production. Editing, for example, was given to the company TAVAC. In 1973, Tôei relocated part of its production to South Korea – still under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee – because of the much lower labour costs there. However, after the Seoul Olympic Games in 1980, salaries gradually started to rise, making South Korea less attractive for Tôei[+] NoteIt remained there however because salaries in Korea remained nevertheless lower than in Japan. But it also started to move production to other countries in Southeast Asia such as the Philippines and Malaysia.X [4].
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Expansion on the international market

Expansion to the international market had always been a top priority for Tôei[+] NoteIbid. p. 20X [5]. The first film by Tôei, The Legend of the White Snake was exported to Hong Kong, to Taiwan, to the United States and to Brazil, and received $ 95,000 in takings. The second film by the Tôei studio, Sarutobi Sasuke was also distributed abroad via the American Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). On 3 November, 1963, Tôei signed a contract with Columbia for the distribution of its animated films abroad.
Tôei waited until 1975 however, before instigating a real international growth strategy and setting up a department dedicated to this end. In February, series were sold in South Korea, Hong Kong, and Southeast Asia. In March 1975, UFO robo gurendaizâ was sold to France and Italy before being presented at the MIPTV in Cannes. It was released in France via AB Productions under the name of Goldorak. Sometimes, cartoons were intentionally changed, such as Ryû the young primitive, and Megu the little witch, which were adapted to a South-American public.
 Ryû the young primitive
France, during those years, was a veritable entry point for Tôei into Western markets. The Dragon Ball Z films were shown in 111 cinemas in 1995 and 124 the following year. It is not surprising that when Tôei created “Toei Animation Europe” in 2004, the headquarters were based in Paris.
The combined success of Dragon Ball Z and Sailor Moon in France and elsewhere – Sailor Moon in 1995 in Germany, and in 1997 in South Korea – enabled Tôei to get a foothold in previous Disney territory. These two series, originally broadcast in the United States in 1998, were an immediate hit. In 2000, the videocassette Dragon Ball Z sold 860,000 copies in only six months.
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More diverse public and new forms of media

At the beginning of 1990, the company decided to broaden and diversify its public, creating animated films for girls (shôjô). This is how the series Sailor Moon, which was first shown in Japan in 1992, came about. Its success encouraged Tôei to prolong the show for four more years.
Sailor Moon

Against the backdrop of a growing number of satellite channels and various other 21st century media, Tôei must now face the challenge of reaching an ever more diverse public. Some animated films are, for example, shown after midnight, such as Tetsuya the legendary player, delving into the gambling world of post-war Japan.
Tetsuya the legendary player
At the end of the 1990s, Tôei had decided to invest greatly in the training of future cartoonists and graphic designers, setting up the “Toei Animation Training Institute”. With an original staff of 66 people, the Institute exceeded 1,000 employees by 2006. The second role of this Institute was to brainstorm for potential opportunities to be gleaned from the new medium of the Internet. In 1995, the firm set up its own website. The following year, a “Project team TIP” was put in charge of developing the company through the Internet. Within several years, Tôei had started to sell its videos on line; this venture, however, proved unsuccessful.
In the 1990s, Tôei introduced some of its first computer-generated graphics, and digitalised its old films. After the 1995 creation of an office within the Research Institute dedicated to this technology, Tôei released its first computer-generated film, Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy. Tôei first combined 2D and 3D, however, with its cartoon Digimon. In 2005, Tôei even tried its hand at 3D animation with the Digital Monster X-Evolution. But unlike Disney, Tôei remains fond of classic 2D animation films.

Translation from French by Peter Moss

Photo credits :
-Main picture : Kitsuney / Flickr

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  • 1. Dôga means “cartoon” in Japanese.
  • 2. Animated films are usually made at 12 images per second. Three images per second is a very low figure; Japanese animated series are made with eight images per second. Setting the quality threshold is however difficult because other factors, such as the originality of the storyline and the quality of the images etc., are also important.
  • 3. Toei Animation, Tôei animêshon gojû nenshi, 1956-2006, 2006, p. 48.
  • 4. It remained there however because salaries in Korea remained nevertheless lower than in Japan. But it also started to move production to other countries in Southeast Asia such as the Philippines and Malaysia.
  • 5. Ibid. p. 20
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