Mohammed Saeed Harib's popular Emirati cartoon Freej is set to make history next month as the first Arab-produced animation to ever be exported to the Japanese market. In fact, the show has a strong claim to be the first content of any kind from the region to be picked up by a major international market.
We caught up with Harib ahead of the show's official launch at the UAE Embassy in Tokyo on Wednesday – episodes will begin airing on Japanese TV in January – and the writer/director was understandably excited: "This has been simmering for a while, so I'm just relieved I can finally talk about it," he laughs. "Like the show itself, it really just popped up from nowhere. It all started few months ago when Sony Japan visited the UAE on a tour to discover more about the country and the content it has to offer and whether there's anything they want to invest in and take over to Japan. They saw Freej and, knowing the Japanese appetite for anything quirky in cartoons, they thought they could find a market for it there."
At first glance, Freej may seem a strange choice for international export. The show, about a group of elderly Emirati women living in a traditional community in Dubai as the 21st century grows up around them, is so steeped in Emirati culture, it could prove challenging for global audiences. Harib admits that he took some convincing himself initially: "I was personally doubtful, given the kind of humour, but they came back and said they've tweaked the scripts to make the humour closer to Japanese humour, and the cast that voiced it said they'd really liked it," he explains. "Also, they've been selective on which episodes they've taken and picked a bouquet that's relevant to Japanese people. Like if you have an episode with Umm Saeed going 'poetry, poetry, poetry,' they'll be totally lost, so they've been selective."
In another major coup, the show’s Japanese producers have secured the voice talents of leading Japanese actress and anime giant, Atsuko Takahata, to play the lead role of Umm Saeed, which should ensure plenty of interest from Japanese audiences when the show goes on air.
Like many who grew up in the UAE, Harib says he grew up immersed in Japanese anime culture. Japanese cartoons were ubiquitous on local TV schedules in the nineties and it was hugely popular among local children. Harib isn’t oblivious to the significance of an animation being the first local content to be exported back to Japan: “We grew up watching Japanese cartoons and learning about that culture. It was very confusing as a child at first, to see them eating sushi and the way they dress. It was a totally alien culture to us, but we learnt a lot about their culture from the anime we watched here as kids, so it’s very fitting that the first content from the region to be exported to Japan should be another animation,” he says. “It’s never been done before. Not live TV or films, or animation, so I’m really happy that this has been exported to Japan. It’s really pleasing too that this is Sony, a huge company, that are taking it. I think if it was any other territory we were exporting to, the news wouldn’t be this big, but because we grew up on such culture and we know how important cartoons are to that culture, for a company like Sony to take notice of our little animation is just amazing.”
Japanese culture may have been alien to a young Harib, but in fact he notes that if you scratch beneath the surface, the two cultures have more in common than you might first think: “There are actually many parallels between Japan and UAE, the director insists. “They’re very disciplined and respectful of their traditions, even though it’s a super modern society and that’s very much what the show stands for too, these ordinary women who are very traditional but are trying to cope with modern life in a fast growing country. You still have to translate it in the right way, but there are definite parallels there.”
Freej has run for a total of five seasons since it launched here 13 years ago, and so far Sony has picked up a selection of episodes from seasons one and two, with the option to pick up more if the show is a success. Harib won't be waiting around idly to find out what happens though – he's currently in the studio working on the soundtrack for his debut feature with Abu Dhabi production house Image Nation. Rashid and Rajab is a body swap comedy about a wealthy young Emirati entrepreneur and an Egyptian delivery boy who wish for each other's' lives and are magically transformed. He has five days of reshoots in January, with the film slated for a summer 2019 release.
Unsurprisingly, Harib tells us the film is “really good.” We’ll have to wait till next year to find out, but you can rest assured we’ll be there to find out when it hits cinemas in 2019.