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Streaming the new frontier for Japan's anime big-hitter

TOKYO -- Japanese anime company Toei Animation will mark the 60th anniversary of its foundation on Sunday.

Few outside Japan will be familiar with the name, but the stories and characters the company has produced down the years -- "Dragon Ball," "Sailor Moon," "One Piece," "Pretty Cure," to name but a few -- have brought smiles to the faces of legions of fans across the world. 

Thanks to their popularity, particularly outside their home country, group net sales for the year ended March 31 increased 10.9% year-on-year to their second-highest level ever. Operating profit jumped by 91.1% to a record high at 7.6 billion yen ($71.4 million). Growth in overseas sales offset declining revenues from domestic operations.

Chairman Kozo Morishita said that the Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon have virtually become a "common language" among anime fans worldwide.

Masao Takiyama, president of Animax Broadcast Japan, a paid TV channel specializing in anime, respects Toei's long-standing work in providing high-quality, good-value anime. So much so that the channel will broadcast a 29-hour show dedicated to Toei and its many characters this weekend.

In response to the recent anime boom, video streaming services are increasingly looking for top anime content. U.S.-based market leader Netflix, which has some 83 million subscribers worldwide, has approached several Japanese anime producers with regard to tie-ups for creating original stories.

At face value this may seem like a very tempting offer for Toei, with the prospect of reaching out more fans across the world.

But Morishita remains skeptical about the idea of joint production. "It sounds like a big chance for expanding to overseas markets," Morishita said, "but the tie-up could restrict us from working freely. For example, we could be forced to changing storylines."

Anime has been a key driver of the government-led "Cool Japan" initiative, which aims to harness the country's unique youth culture as a promotion tool abroad.

Toei Animation has been at the forefront of the Japanese anime industry for decades. New markets and streaming present unprecedented opportunities for expansion, but Toei is clearly anxious to safeguard the editorial independence behind its countless hits. The company now finds itself at a crossroads.

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