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Budding anime firms in conservative Saudi Arabia tap Japanese knowhow

Members of the anime production staff at Hrakat Production. (Photo courtesy of Hrakat Production)

RIYADH -- Change is in the air here in Saudi Arabia, where strict adherence to Islamic traditions is a given, and limitations on creating or enjoying entertainment are the rule rather than the exception. Moves to collaborate with Japanese corporations to create Saudi animation are now in the works, as part of the Saudi government's economic reform efforts including loosening restrictions on entertainment.

The new developments are believed to be linked to the appointment of deputy crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, 31 -- known to be an anime buff -- as crown prince on June 21.

One day in late May at the office of Hrakat Production, an animation production company in northern Riyadh, the walls were covered with illustrations of the Japanese soccer anime "Captain Tsubasa" and other titles. Saudi youth grow up on a healthy dose of Japanese anime that they view on video-sharing sites online. "But," Hrakat Production's 32-year-old chief Mazen Adarrab said, "it's our turn to shift from being 'consumers' to 'producers.'"

In the name of protecting its citizens' morals, Saudi Arabia instituted a ban on movie theaters, and few animated works have ever been produced. Because of such restrictions, Saudis had often traveled elsewhere in search of entertainment, such as the United Arab Emirates, taking their riyals with them. Hoping to turn around a budget deficit resulting from low oil prices, the Saudi government announced a reform package in April last year. It established the General Authority for Entertainment the following month, and began cultivating a domestic entertainment industry.

Saudi Arabia is a young nation, with people 30 and under comprising over 60 percent of the population. According to public opinion polls, 90 percent of young people say they like anime, and 70 percent say that anime has had an impact on their lives -- showing what a large market there potentially is for homegrown animation. And the new crown prince's relative youth and preference for freer access to entertainment is believed to be aimed at maintaining young people's support for the government.

Adarrab has begun a project to make anime out of Saudi folk stories, and is currently undergoing negotiations with a Japanese anime production company that has shown interest in the project. He says he likes the films of world-renowned Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and that he hopes to learn from Japanese animation technology and techniques and apply them to his original works in the future.

Last October, Gainax Co., a Japanese animation studio known for the hit "Neon Genesis Evangelion," along with a Saudi company, produced and released a short anime portraying a Saudi hero. That piece is unlikely to be the last Japan-Saudi anime collaboration.

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