First-ever Arabic anime feature film playing now in UAE

Dubai - 'The Journey' which was inspired by Arabian folktales is a collaborative effort of Saudi Arabia and Japan

By Husain Rizvi

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Nassar Alnassar, Toni El Massih, Essam Bukhary, Farah Arif.
Nassar Alnassar, Toni El Massih, Essam Bukhary, Farah Arif.

Published: Sun 20 Jun 2021, 12:47 PM

Last updated: Wed 23 Jun 2021, 9:26 AM

Seeking to be a global pioneer, Manga Productions, a subsidiary of Saudi Arabia’s MiSK Foundation, led by its CEO, Essam Bukhary, has collaborated with Japan’s TOEI Animation to produce the first-ever Arabic anime feature film, The Journey.

Inspired by Arabian folktales, The Journey is set 1500 years ago in Mecca. It centers around Aws, a potter with a dark past, who, along with fellow Meccans, is forced to take up arms and stop Mecca from being enslaved by a ruthless conqueror, Abraha.

Abraha, the main antagonist, has sworn to destroy Mecca and the religious sentiment it holds. It is up to Aws and Mecca’s small army to fight Abraha’s superior force that also consists of elephants. This would remind you of a certain Islamic tale that involves birds and elephants.

Talking about Islamic tales, the creators add their own touch to such stories of the Islamic prophets that were portrayed in the film as chronicles to remember during one’s hardships. Some of the tales portrayed in the movie include Prophet Nuh’s (Noah) Ark and the story of Musa (Moses) and the Pharaohs.

Ahead of the film’s official release, the team behind The Journey was present at the Mall of the Emirates, Dubai where a panel discussion was held. Among the panelists was Essam Bukhary, Executive Producer along with Farah Arif, Associate Art Director of The Journey, Nassar Alnassar, the voice of Aws, the hero in The Journey, and Toni El Massih, Chief Content Officer of VOX Cinemas.

In collaboration with Japan’s TOEI Animation, over 330 individuals, including the aforementioned team, the Saudi writers, artists, production and post-production crews came together with the sole purpose of creating this milestone project inspired by the Arabian Peninsula with international standards. And, this is only the beginning of the cinematic and animation journey as Manga Productions believes that there are many stories that have not been told yet.

Inspired by Japanese anime

But why anime? Bukhary, the executive producer of The Journey reveals what inspired him to create Arabic content in a Japanese-dominated market. “In our childhood, we mostly spent time watching Japanese anime. I was inspired by such shows,” Bukhary told City Times at the panel discussion. “For a long time we have been consuming the content, now it is our time to export the content. We are now, not only exporting oil and gas, but also our creativity to Japan and the world.”

With the release of The Journey, the Saudi industry is ready to make an impact in anime. “Three months ago, we released the trailer for The Journey, and the likeability was 99 per cent,” Bukhary said, adding that it appealed to the global audience. “It’s only the beginning and it is part of the Saudi 2030 vision.”

In a one-on-one with City Times, Essam Bukhary described what it feels like to pioneer such a milestone project. “At Manga Productions, we are not producing comics, video games, or animations. We are investing in the next generation. We exist to inspire the heroes of tomorrow,” he said. “The Journey is a unique journey, not only in having it as a co-production between Saudi and Japan, not only in terms of quality but also in terms of regional and global distribution.”

Future of anime

Last year, at the Berlinale film festival in Germany, VOX Cinemas bagged the deal to distribute the film across the MENA region. Toni El Massih, the Chief Content Officer of VOX said, “It is a great opportunity for us as distributors. It is going to expose Saudi talent, creativity, and content globally. As distributors, we are bringing in a diverse audience that will open a lot of doors for such content.”

But of course, creating the first-ever Arabic anime feature film had its challenges. Farah Arif, the Associate Art Director of The Journey, explained to us the process of creating the Arab anime characters. “In anime, there is a specific way of drawing characters. Of course, our characters are Arabian, so we had to bring in the character designer to Saudi Arabia,” she said. “We wanted our characters to look more Arabian (the skin colour, the hair, and the face) so it was a challenge to draw the Arabian characters. The most challenging part was drawing the Arabian clothes, and, of course, the setting of Mecca, but we got through it and it was a very good experience.”

The future of Arabic anime, however, looks huge to Nassar Alnassar, the voice of The Journey’s Aws. “This is a big opportunity because we have a lot of fans of anime. Manga Productions’ The Journey has opened the gates for all production houses in the industry. That said, I hope it grows faster than I imagine,” he told City Times.

Helmed by animation director Shizuno Kobun, whose credits include Godzilla: City on the Edge of Battle, The Journey is playing now in UAE cinemas, and it can be viewed in Arabic with English subtitles.

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