Anime draws a crowd in UAE

An anime fan club that was launched in Dubai in 2006 has watched its membership boom as the internet made meetings easy. The group built on a long-standing interest in Japanese cartoons and culture in this country.
Akira Nagaoka, director of product planning for Cultures Factory at ANI:ME – the Traditional Japanese Culture Festival in Abu Dhabi last month. Vidhyaa for The National
Akira Nagaoka, director of product planning for Cultures Factory at ANI:ME – the Traditional Japanese Culture Festival in Abu Dhabi last month. Vidhyaa for The National

As soon as she moved to Dubai 10 years ago, Diana Santos looked for an anime fan club similar to the one that she joined in the Philippines.

When she couldn’t find one, she started the Dubai Anime Club (Dac) internet forum.

“In 2006, Facebook wasn’t as well-accepted as it is now,” says Ms Santos. “At that time people were also wary of meeting people over the internet.”

In 2007, the group started to host meetings, but over the next two years only five or six people would turn up regularly. However, when Facebook hit the region the numbers boomed.

“We reached our peak around 2010, which was a time where at one meetup we would get around 30 or 40 members joining us at a coffee shop,” she says.

There are various communities in the UAE devoted to anime, such as the Abu Dhabi Anime Club and the regional Anime Manga Cosplay Middle East, but Ms Santos’s group remains the largest.

Despite anime’s emergence into the mainstream of the UAE’s pop culture, Japanese animation has long had a presence in the Middle East with cartoons such as Grendizer and Kimba the White Lion airing decades ago in Arabic.

Arafaat Ali Khan, co-founder of the annual Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai, organised the first Anime Expo at the end of last month at du Forum on Yas Island. He says it was only a matter of time before the event took place.

“People in this part of the world absolutely love anime and manga, and that’s mainly because back in the day – I’m talking about the early 1980s – we received tonnes of original anime series on our televisions.”

Emirati artist and animator Hessa Butaweel was introduced to anime in Grade 7 by her brother, Hassan. At the time, the hit ninja show Naruto was one of the most popular, although she soon moved on to Fairy Tale.

“First, it wasn’t very welcome,” says Ms Butaweel, 24. “Everyone thought of it as children’s cartoons and they made fun of anyone who watched anime.

“But it started getting popular and even if they don’t like anime, people will come to the events or watch the shows with their friends.”

Anime was her prime motivation to study animation at Sharjah Higher Colleges of Technology. While some of her friends’ parents dissuaded them from drawing, her family always supported it.

“I started drawing when I was in middle school and my mother used to get me pictures from the internet and she would say, ‘If you got to this point, I would be so proud of you’.”

For an artist, dedicated anime events provide a breath of fresh air. While meetings and conventions have helped to boost anime’s profile in the UAE, Anime Abu Dhabi is the first dedicated anime show she has attended.

It fell on the same weekend as the first PopCon Dubai, an event dedicated to pop culture with a hint of anime.

Ms Butaweel’s brother Hassan, 27, designs and sells clothing and is dressed to impress, wearing a homemade Team Rocket costume inspired by Pokemon, complete with three homemade Poke Balls.

He considers himself “officially a geek” and an otaku – a fan of manga and anime – and enjoys writing stories for his sister to illustrate.

“Anime was popular much earlier here in the UAE than anyone believes,” Mr Butaweel says. “If you ask anyone who’s old enough, ‘Who is Grendizer?’, they will say, ‘Oh yeah, we know them’. But they believe it’s an Arabic cartoon.”

He says the first anime he and his sister ever saw was Samurai X, or Rurouni Kenshin.

“We went crazy over it. We knew exactly which channel and what time it would show, and we would beg our parents to go home at that time.”

More than 150 Japanese guests travelled to Abu Dhabi for the event in October. They included legendary animator Yoshitaka Amano, 64, known for his work on the classic anime Gatchaman and the Final Fantasy video game series.

He has worked in the industry for nearly half a century, but when he started out he never imagined the anime industry would spread so far.

“It was a huge surprise for us that in a country so far from Japan, the people would enjoy our animation,” Mr Amano says.

Technology, he says, has helped the industry to spread beyond its traditional television format and across the planet.

In 1963, only seven anime shows were broadcast on television in Japan, compared with 322 in 2014. International anime sales now rake in almost US$2 billion (Dh7.34bn) a year.

Although it is a Japanese art form, anime is not a reflection of Japanese culture,” says Mr Amano. “It is an expression of the imagination, which anyone can appreciate, regardless of their background.

“The worlds in anime are something completely different. It’s a fantasy.”

One of his earliest shows, Hakushon Daimyo, began airing in the late 1960s and was inspired by Arabian mythology.

“There is a young boy and when he sneezes, a giant comes out of this bottle and talks to him and makes his dreams come true.”

Akira Nagaoka, who goes by the name Shams Qamar, dedicates himself to connecting Arab and Japanese cultures.

During the day, Mr Qamar dons a UAE kandura. He first studied Ottoman and Arabic history at school and later worked in Saudi Arabia. He says there are strong similarities between Arab and Japanese cultures.

“Arabic hospitality is very strong – and it’s easy to gain weight,” he laughs. “I only stayed in Qatar for four days and gained four kilograms. I was surprised – if I stayed 30 days I would have gained 30 kilograms.”

While the younger generation of Emiratis are more interested in anime and manga, he says older Emiratis are interested in Japanese culture – and manufacturing.

Some Muslims, he adds, are curious about Japanese spiritual beliefs. For Japanese people, he says, “personality is personality”.

An exhibition at Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Modern Art Gallery in November was based on anime cels – hand-drawn animation frames – from classic pre-digital titles. Next year’s comic con, meanwhile, will be held from April 6 to 8.

Comic con, cofounded by Ali Khan and Ben Caddy, was launched in 2012 with 15,000 in attendance.

This year’s edition had 60,000 visitors. Back in its infancy, Mr Khan approached Ms Santos and asked her to help promote the event to Dac members.

The club became very active, up until 2014 – even organising the 2012 Animayhem event, when 400 people poured into a 250-person venue.

“At that point, we were like, ‘OK, it has gained its ground here in the Middle East – we’ve established the anime culture here,” says Ms Santos.

Although Dac no longer hosts events, many of its members still meet up – and some have even found their partners and best friends through the community. One fan, who just started university, wrote to the club recently to express thanks for its support.

“He was a very unsocial kid, and he just played on his console most weekends. Having a community allowed him to he establish friends, go out and develop his social skills, which prepared him for college.

“I think over the space of 10 years, it’s grown to a point where, nowadays, if kids and teenagers are into anime, they have a channel.”

Moreover, there is now an abundance of shops catering to the fan base, she adds.

“Before, you had to order online to get your action figures, and now they’re all over City Walk, Dubai Mall or even some of the smaller malls.”

Ten years ago, most otaku had to buy anime, manga graphic novels and collectibles online – enduring long waits and extensive shipping costs. Today, the Japanese book shop, Kinokuniya, boasts an enormous collection of graphic novels in both Japanese and English.

Virgin Megastores also stocks manga, such as One Punch Man, Death Note and Naruto. Kit Clothier, senior books buyer, says the shop maintains a collection of 15 to 20 titles – about a fifth of the size of its overall graphic novel collection. “We try to add two new titles every one to two months,” he adds.

Netflix in the UAE has a small but growing collection of anime titles, augmented by competitors such as iTunes, Amazon Prime and the homegrown Icflix.

Virgin also stocks some Studio Ghibli films. Jonathan Defante, movie and DVD buyer, says there is a huge market for anime in the region, though distribution remains an obstacle.

“For now, we have been focusing on offering toys and figurines,” Mr Defante says.

For niche collectors, there are also shops such as Just DK, which stocks a wide array of Japanese mech kits – large robot figures that fans assemble themselves.

“It’s grown to such lengths,” says Ms Santos, “and it just makes you happy that you have so many things going on here in the UAE, where before it only happened in Asia, the US or Europe.”

Check out Hessa Butaweel’s art on Instagram @Hessa_Butaweel.

See Hassan’s designs on Instagram @Thebighdesigns

Published: November 27, 2016 04:00 AM


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