Cartoon Characters Get Big Makeover for Overseas Fans
by Geoffery A. Fowler & Amy Chozick

  Big round heads and tiny bodies make the Powerpuff Girls instantly identifiable to their fans in America. The preteen karate superheroes star in one of the top-rated shows on cables' Cartoon Network.
  Last year, though, the "Powerpuff Girls" showed up in Japan with whole new look. On "Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z," the heroines have grown up, sprouted long legs and wear skirts well above their knees. In the original American storyline, the girls were created of sugar, spice and everything nice; their Japanese counterparts are normal girls who acquire superpowers from a chemical reaction initiated by a rice cake.
  Once, American entertainment companies exporting characters just dubbed them into other languages. But in recent years, Asia has become the testing ground for character reinvention, a process called "transcreation."
  The idea is to help characters designed with on audience in mind to really resonate in another culture.
  Marvel Entertainment Inc. and Gotham Entertainment introduced a transcreated "Spider-Man" to the Indian market in 2004, although the original had been familiar there for a long time.
  There, Spider’s alter ego, Peter Parker, is know as Pavitr Prabhaker. Spider gains his powers from a mysterious yogi rather than a radioactive spider. When fighting crime, he sports a traditional loincloth.
  Spider also inspired one of the region's first transcreations. In 1978, the Japanese media company Toei turned Peter  Parker into a racing champion named Yamashiro Takuya, who wears a bracelet that gives him the powers of a spider. His alter ego "Supaidah Man " controls a giant transforming robot to battle an enemy named Professor Monster.
  Disney has had a hit in China with its "Cuties" line of Mickey Mouse and friends featuring tiny eyes, button noses and the almost-not-there mouths of Japan's Hello Kitty. Sometimes the cutie Minnie even carries as cell phone. Disney came up with the design six years ago in Japan, and now it's a top seller among preteens in China who didn't grow up with original Mickey.
  Adults like Sarah Chen, a 23-year-old graduate student in Shanghai, like them, too. "They are so cute and sweet, just like a little baby," says Ms. Chen, who first discovered the Disney cuties
online and eventually purchased a sweater with the modified Mickey Mouse on it.
  While there's still a global audience for "Tom and Jerry" reruns and Hollywood blockbusters, American imports don't top the TV ratings in most non-English-speaking markets. Transcreation nods to that need for local relevance.
  "There are very few thin that work everywhere," says Orion Ross, a vice president of creative at Time Warner's Turner Networks in Asia. "Places with strong national identities, like Japan and India, need adaptation and change," he says.
  For some time-tested characters, change doesn't come easily. Disney tweaked Mickey into "Cutie" form, but still insists that only Western women can play Cinderella and Snow With at Tokyo and Hong Kong Disneylands. A Disney spokeswoman says, "There performers bring the animated roles to life and are therefore cast to most closely resemble the onscreen characters.... It's about remaining true to the original animated feature."
  The family of Charles M. Schulz, the creator of "Peanuts" who died in 2000, forbids any changes to his comic strip. "There is no adoption Peanuts," says a spokeswoman for United Media, the New York Company that distributes the feature to newspapers around the world.
  Sometimes, though, changes slip in under the radar. The Times of India printed the Peanuts strip with the dog Snoopy painted brown. After the Wall Street Journal asked about that, a United Media spokeswoman said it was a "coloring error" that would be corrected. Now Snoopy is white in the Indian newspaper, as he is in the U.S.
  Ratan Barua, senior cartoon colorist for the Times in Nes Delpi, says coloring Snoopy brown was his idea. "I thought he should be brown," he says. While he has complied with the distributor’s request to adhere to white, he says the result is "not very good."
  Characters occasionally thrive despite their foreignness. When Nickelodeon looked into bringing SpongeBob SquarePants to Japan, market research said the snow was bound to flop. Japanese viewers were believed to favor characters whose appearance exudes warmth and comfort, a concept known in Japanese as iyashi. Iyashi characters -- typically round, with no mouth and small eyes -- rose to prominence in Japan during the long-running economic slump that began in the early 1990s, when people were anxious and uncertain about the future.
  SpongeBob, with his square body, huge mouth, buckteeth, big bug eyes and somewhat annoying personality, was the antithesis of iyashi. But viewers didn't mind: Nearly two million households soon tuned into the show every day. One thing that may have helped is that SpongeBob lives in an undersea world without humans and overt cultural references. "There is very little about SpongeBob that is 'American,'" says Cyma Zarghami, president of the Nickelodeo MTV Networks Kids and Family Group.
  When Craig McCracken created the Powerpuff Girls show, he deliberately gave it what he thought was a "Japanese look." But when the show first aired in Japan in 2001, it failed to attract a wide audience. So Cartoon Network decided to reinvent the characters to boost its appeal in Japan, an idea Mr. McCracken welcomed.
  In their transcreation, Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles got Japanese names and the lives of typical Japanese junior-high-school students. Since Japanese kids like to dress up like their favorite characters, the girls got more realistic outfits, with miniskirts, matching vests and hip-hugging belts.
  Toei Co., Japanese animation house brought in to help rework the characters, kept the original Powerpuff premise of crime-fighting girls with superman powers. To appeal to a preference among Japanese children for longer, more dramatic plots, it mad the seven-to 11-minute show 15 to 20 minutes long. It also gave them a common Japanese theme: accepting people who are different.
  "Monsters can be anyone who is different from us. If we change our attitude, they can become our friends," says Hiromi Seki, a producer at Toei who helped create the show. That's a particularly relevant message in Japan, where the pressures among children to conform are very intense.
  In one episode, an evil character threatens to bring about an eruption of Mount Fuji that would make Tokyo unbearably hot and spark global climate change. In another episode, a heartbroken performer of traditional kabuki theater turns into a monster and wreaks havoc on his community.
  "In Japan, girly love themes are a must," Ms. Seki says. When "Demashita! Powerpuff Girls Z" was launched in Japan a year ago, the executives at Cartoon Network soon realized that the revamped plots and skimpier outfits not only attracted young girls, they also broadened the audience to include animation-obsessed adult men known in Japan as otaku, or geeks, who were also fans of the original.
  So the network came out with special consumer goods like bookmarks, limited-edition DVDs and pop music targeted at viewers like Hironobu Kamata, a 42-year-old manager of a copyright office in Tokyo. Mr. Kamata wakes up every Saturday morning to watch the Powerpuff Girls.
  His favorite character is Miyoko Goutokuji, the blond girl known as Bubbles in the U.S. "I love it all! The characters are so cute," says Mr. Kamata.
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