TOKYO -- The animated film that took Japan by storm last week had nothing to do with sponges in square pants or incredible suburban superheroes in tights.
Instead, "Howl's Moving Castle," a glittering homegrown epic of an 18-year-old girl transformed into a 90-year-old woman, roared into theaters, breaking box office records in the world's second-largest movie market. On the back of its success at home, the film created by acclaimed director Hayao Miyazaki, whose "Spirited Away" won the 2002 Academy Award for best animated picture, is set for the widest release ever of any Japanese-made movie. Scheduled to open in 50 countries over the next year, the latest film by the man whose magic touch has earned him a reputation as Japan's Walt Disney is generating the kind of international buzz once reserved strictly for the big-budget animated offerings from Hollywood.
"Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" about Japanese pop stars Yumi, left, and Ami, had the Cartoon Network's highest-ever rating among children for a debut last month.
"The release of a Miyazaki movie has become like an event -- the excitement surrounding his movies is as big as Disney for us now," said Frederic Toutlemonde, cultural officer at the French Embassy in Tokyo. "Yet they are seen as something different. To our moviegoers, they are also seen as being, well, more like works of art."
The anticipation surrounding the release of "Howl's Moving Castle" underscores what many industry experts are calling the rise of Japanese animation -- known simply as anime -- into a global force that is changing the look and content of cartoons.
Once a fringe genre whose appeal was limited to an adoring but relatively small subculture, Japanese anime -- at least in terms of sheer volume -- is challenging the domination of U.S. animation. Although Hollywood still rules the big screens -- particularly with computer-generated blockbusters such as Pixar's "The Incredibles" -- the still mostly hand-drawn anime accounts for more than 60 percent of all TV cartoons worldwide, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. On the Internet, hits for the Japanese anime character Sailor Moon totaled 3,335,000, compared with 491,000 for Mickey Mouse, according to Tokyo-based Marubeni Research Institute.
Doe-eyed characters from Japan, particularly the spiky-haired hero from the TV anime "Yu-Gi-Oh!," are vying internationally with Bugs Bunny and Scooby-Doo for children's affections, not to mention for lunchbox covers and space on toy store shelves. At the same time, the anime boom has brought more action and mature themes to cartoons. Relying less on slapstick comedy and musical elements -- long the hallmarks of U.S. cartoons -- Japanese anime strives to create elaborate fantasy worlds and, more controversially, often includes sexual innuendo and choreographed violence hinting at anime's roots as a product that in Japan is made for teens and adults as much as for children.
The surge in Japanese anime has dramatically influenced U.S. cartoons. A new crop of popular, made-in-America cartoons, including "Samurai Jack" and "The Powerpuff Girls," draw heavily from the design and style of Japanese animators. "Hi Hi Puffy Ami Yumi" -- a new U.S.-made cartoon about two Japanese female pop stars -- launched last month on the Cartoon Network with the station's highest debut ratings for kids 2 to 11.
"Japanese anime has entered a renaissance," said Sean Akins, creative director of action franchising for the Cartoon Network. When the channel was launched in 1992, Akins said it was devoid of Japanese anime -- relying instead on Hanna-Barbera's American classics including "The Flintstones" and "The Jetsons." Today, he said, about 40 percent of the networks programs are Japanese anime or "anime-inspired" U.S. cartoons.
"You can see anime's impact in all sorts of new programs being made in the States," he said. "You can see it in the increasing detail of the storylines and the drawing and development of the characters. You just look at them and go, 'Hey, there's no way that guy didn't think of Japanese anime when he drew that.' "
To be sure, the surfacing of mature themes in anime has sparked international criticism of anime's global reach, leading to censorship on some Japanese-imported animation in numerous countries, including the United States. Such themes are driving up the average age of cartoon fans. For instance, the Cartoon Network's late-night "Adult Swim" segment -- which heavily features Japanese anime -- is now the most watched cable block in its time slot for men between 18 and 34, beating out Jon Stewart's "Daily Show," "The Tonight Show" and "Late Show With David Letterman."
Japanese anime is hardly new -- first going global in the 1960s with "Speed Racer" and "Astro Boy," shows that introduced the world to the Japanese fascination for robots and electronic gadgets. Anime gained critical acclaim with landmark films such as 1988's post-atomic "Akira," an international cult hit credited with inspiring American and European animated and live-action film directors, including the makers of the "Matrix" series.
But in recent years, anime has won unparalleled mass appeal. A South African company is in the midst of launching a 24-hour anime channel. Since its inception in Japan in 1997, "Pokemon" has become one of the most viewed cartoons in the world, now broadcast in 68 countries -- 69 when it debuts in China next year. Royalties and merchandising from Japanese anime in America reached a record $4.35 billion last year -- more than three times greater than Japan's steel exports to the United States, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
Anime has particularly captured the minds of American youth. A decade ago, no Japanese anime ranked in the Top 10 children's programming in the United States. Today, however, "Yu-Gi-Oh!" ranks No. 3 while "Pokemon" clocks in at No. 6, according to Nielsen ratings.
Part of anime's growing popularity is based on economics. With more and more cable channels searching for more and more content, anime still represents a bargain. It typically uses fewer frames per cartoon than U.S. animation, dramatically cutting production costs. This year's movie version of "Yu-Gi-Oh!," for instance, was made for about $5 million and has pulled in about $20 million in U.S. receipts. By comparison, "The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie" has pulled in far more viewers -- with a U.S. gross of more than $68 million -- but had production costs of about $30 million.