The production house of late Japanese manga legend Osamu Tezuka is to make its first film specifically for China, employing local talent, in a bid to grow Japan's star cultural export in its huge and sometimes hostile neighbor.
The two-hour animated film, Rest on Your Shoulder, will be the debut work of Beijing Xiele Art Co, a Chinese subsidiary set up by Tezuka Productions.
While Japan has seen a growing international market for its animated films, the producers say the upcoming film will target Chinese tastes by basing the plot in part on Chinese fairy tales.
A Chinese-language fantasy of a man who continues to love a woman even after she turns into a butterfly, the film will be made by Hong Kong director Jacob Cheung using both Chinese and Japanese creative staff.
``The political relationship between Japan and China is not necessarily good. That's why cultural exchanges should be promoted on the private level,'' said Hiroyuki Yumoto, chief producer at Tezuka Productions.
``Tezuka used to say that manga is a universal language. People can communicate through manga pictures regardless of nationality or language. Manga is one of the best tools for communication,'' Yumoto said.
Osamu Tezuka was a pioneer of Japanese manga cartoons and is best known for his Astro Boy series, which debuted in 1951 featuring a robot boy who flies through the future.
Tezuka grew interested in China through his respect for the work of a Chinese animator, Wan Raimin, who made a celebrated film based on the Chinese literary classic Journey to the West.
Beijing Xiele Art was established in 1990, a year after Tezuka's death as per his will, with the aim of training Chinese people in animation.
``This is a big stride forward,'' Yumoto said of the upcoming film, the release date of which has not been decided.
``Tezuka's will calling for cultural exchanges has evolved into a business operation. But this is just the beginning to see whether it can be a success.''
Yumoto said the film could reinforce the idea that animation is not ``only for children.''
``The time has ripened for Chinese talents and for the Chinese market,'' he said.
Statistics also indicate that animated films, as with so many consumer products, could have a vibrant future in the growing Chinese market.
The Japan External Trade Organization says China's market for sales in animated films and programs total 19.5 million yuan (US$2.36 million) annually, with no domestically made shows holding any dominance in the market.
Japan's share is around 3.9 million yuan (US$470,000), with US animation also popular in China, the trade body said.
China in April witnessed major street protests and said that relations with Japan were at a 30-year low after Tokyo approved a history textbook written by avowed nationalists.
With Japan's relations with its neighbors haunted by its militarist past, a panel of experts in December advised Koizumi to turn anime into foreign policy.
``These cultural assets are now considered a part of Japan's strength, as is evident from the expression now being bandied about: `Japan's Gross National Cool,''' said the report by the Japan Forum on International Relations.
The Chinese government itself has recognized the draw of anime. Last year its culture ministry started a university program to boost China's animation industry -- in part through ties with Japan.