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Manga Productions Chief Essam Bukhary on Saudi Manga Craze and How Partnership With Japanese Studios Is the ‘Future of the Anime Industry’

Saudi Arabia, where popular anime characters such as “Captain Tsubasa” and “Dragon Ball” protagonist Son Goku have been engrained in the culture for decades, is taking its love affair with Japanese manga content to the next level.

In late March, just a few weeks after the death of “Dragon Ball” creator Akira Toriyama, it was announced that the world’s first theme park dedicated to the megahit Japanese manga and animation franchise will be built in Qiddiya, the massive entertainment and tourism project outside the Saudi capital of Riyadh through a joint venture between Qiddiya and Japan’s Toei Animation.

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In January, Saudi animation studio Manga Productions premiered anime movie “Great Pretender Rzbliuto,” made in partnership with Japanese studio Production I.G., at the Muvi Cinemas multiplex in central Riyadh with director Hiro Kaburagi and producer Hitoshi Ito in tow. The event marked the first time a Japanese helmer attended the launch of their anime movie in the Middle East.

“Even for the director and the producer, it was a good experience to know that ‘Great Pretender’ is having a great impact in a region that is geographically pretty far away from Japan,” said Manga Productions CEO Essam Bukhary (pictured above with Kaburagi and Ito).

Saudi Arabia has “a huge population of people who like manga and adore the great talents and experts working behind the scenes to make it,” Bukhary sayas. The Manga Productions chief is himself a fervent anime fan who has worked in Tokyo as the Saudi cultural attaché.

More broadly, Bukhary points out that the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has become a fast-growing manga market and is set for further growth.

Ever since the government in late 2017 removed its 35-year-old religion-related ban on cinemas, prompting its ongoing effort to build an entertainment industry, Saudi has been making manga-related movies, series and video games a priority.

Manga Productions, which is is a subsidiary of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s MiSK Foundation, has trained over 4,000 talents in all aspects of manga productions in a bid to lead the industry in the region.

Bukhary recently traveled to Japan to salute the second batch of Saudi graduates from the Kadokawa Contents Academy, a subsidiary of Kadokawa, which is a major Japanese manga and anime player.

“We are investing in these young talents because they are the secret of our power and our capability to compete in the global market,” he says.

A major milestone in Saudi’s ambitions to become a manga player was the 2021 animation feature “The Journey,” an epic based on Saudi folklore involving a battle over the city of Mecca co-produced by Manga Productions and Japan’s Toei Animation and directed by Shizuno Kobun, whose credits include “Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle.”

“The Journey,” on which Japanese and Saudi artists worked in tandem – and which Manga distributed itself around the world – now plays on more than 52 platforms globally, including in China, according to Bukhary. A UCLA alum, he is particularly proud that the movie had its U.S. premiere in Hollywood’s TCL Chinese Theatre.

After successfully releasing “The Journey,” Manga Productions entered the global manga distribution arena big time by striking a deal with Japanese company Dynamic Planning to license in MENA “Grendizer,” the iconic anime series featuring a super robot with shiny golden helmet horns, an IP that has been massively popular in the Arab world since the 1980s.

Manga Productions now also holds global rights, excluding Japan, to “Grendizer U,” the hotly anticipated reboot of the classic super robot series that will be released later this year. And the companies’ “Grendizer” marketing strategy includes using the anime’s characters in amusement parks and events across the Middle East, starting with Saudi, where a life-size statue of the Grendizer robot from the Mazinger franchise was unveiled in 2022 in Ryadh. The statue has been acknowledged by Guinness World Records as the world’s largest metal sculpture of a fictional character.

As Bukhary puts it, “this is only the beginning” of their work with different aspects of the “Grendizer” IP.

On the production side, following “The Journey,” Manga Productions have “various types of anime projects in the pipeline targeting different ages,” Bukhary says. One is “Asateer: Future’s Folktales,” the Saudi Arabian/Japanese animated series set in 2050 Riyadh co-produced by Manga Productions and Toei Animation that will soon see a second season, on which the character design “was done in-house.”

Another is “Mercury Girls,” a series in advanced development that targets a 15-plus audience and takes place in a fantasy world where every firstborn girl gets infected with a mutation caused by red mercury.

“We can bring something unique to the market,” Bukhary says. “And, if you ask me, I think what Manga Productions is doing with Japanese studios is the future of the anime industry.”

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