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Anime's Media Mix: Franchising Toys & Characters in Japan

Sunday 8th April 2012

Jonathan Clements reviews a new book on Anime’s Media Mix

Media MixI’d love to have been a fly on the wall at the University of Minnesota Press when the staff began debating what to put on the cover of Anime’s Media Mix. Someone, surely, must have argued for Astro Boy, that ubiquitous icon of Japanese animation, whose arrival on television author Marc Steinberg identifies as the true beginning of everything that “anime” would become. Someone else might have suggested Haruhi Suzumiya, that perky goddess and fanboy muse, whose fragmented, multi-media misadventures are Steinberg’s touchstone for the first decade of the 21st century. For him, Haruhi Suzumiya is the lens through which we can see just how much (or how little) has changed in the forty years since Astro Boy first sat up in his father’s lab. And I wonder if there wasn’t a dissenting voice from someone in the corner, perhaps, who had read Steinberg’s book right the way through, and hence suggested an iconic image from outside the anime world. If UMP had an infinite budget and a hotline to a cartoonist, they might perhaps have drawn some variant of that scene from Ring, when you-know-who comes clambering straight out of the you-know-what.

Steinberg’s book speaks of an ever-spreading consumer virus that expands first geographically, and then into other spaces. The final stage, like some scene from a Japanese horror movie, is one of cultural products “colonising” our very homes, climbing out of the television set and grabbing onto every aspect of our daily lives. Steinberg contends that while there were precedents for many decades beforehand, the 1st January 1963 inaugural broadcast of Astro Boy was the crucial tipping point when it all became more than just a trend, with Astro Boy making his way onto stickers, and thence onto lunch boxes and shoes, fridges and unwary grandparents. Astro Boy became the first step in a new form of fandom: a “convergence” in which audiences oscillate between different forms of consumption, each making the brand more powerful and more all-encompassing. The road to Pokemon, to Yugi-oh, to “anime” itself Steinberg contends, started on 1st January 1963.

Unlike those critics who discuss what happens in Japanese cartoons, Steinberg is more interested in what happens around them – the playground badge-swapping; the birthday wishlist; the moment in the 1960s that transformed audiences from viewers of a show into participants in an entire “media ecology” of spin-offs, sequels, games and playdates. For Steinberg, anime was different because viewers brought with them their preconceptions from the pre-existing manga, which helped distract them from the low-quality animation. Astro Boy wasn’t just a cartoon on telly once a week – he was a vibrant, ever-present part of his fans’ everyday world – the face on their toothbrush handle, the sticker on their lunchbox, or the doll under the sofa. Astro BoyPerhaps more importantly, he wasn’t real. Astro Boy started out as a drawn image, and that made him immensely easier to repurpose him elsewhere. He was a celebrity who never got old, never asked for a raise, and never got arrested on Sunset Boulevard. And when he appeared on a lunchbox, he looked exactly like he did in on the TV.

I knew what to expect when I opened Anime’s Media Mix, because I have already read two of its Astro Boy chapters as academic journal articles. But Steinberg carries the story on for the rest of the 20th century, detailing how cunning marketing decisions at the Kadokawa publishers established major, game-changing alterations to the way media are sold in Japan. It was Kadokawa who adapted anime tricks and tropes and used them for selling movies, records, packaged pop bands, computer games and lucky gonks, often all at once.

I devoured my copy of Anime’s Media Mix in one sitting. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, but comes with impeccable references and citations sufficient to keep any interested reader busy for months. Although I can’t help but wonder if Steinberg isn’t already plotting a coda in which he writes about his direct experience of the dark side of Japanese intellectual property. Could he and his publishers really not find a Japanese image for the cover? Or did they find one, only to discover that the Japanese were demanding a prohibitively high usage fee?

It speaks volumes that in a book about anime, centred largely on Tezuka’s Astro Boy, the cover displays a non-existent pseudo-manga character by a gaijin artist (hey, it's what I'd do). Did Tezuka Productions refuse to hand over an Astro Boy cover image, one wonders, or did the publishers simply not want to pay whatever licence fee was demanded for the very same branded image about which Steinberg writes? Steinberg’s book makes a strong and persuasive case for the publishers of Haruhi Suzumiya as the prime movers of Japanese media in the last thirty years, and points out the company’s canny use of every available surface for advertising and reinforcement of its message…. In which case, Kadokawa missed a real trick by not letting UMP stick Haruhi Suzumiya on the cover of this book. Now that would have been a nice little bit of marketing synergy.

Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan is out now from the University Press of Minnesota.

Anime's Media Mix: Franchising Toys & Characters in Japan


Robotics Notes Part 1 (episodes 1-11)

was £24.99
Kai and Aki dream of building a giant fighting robot based on a super-popular anime, but that's going to be impossible if they don't get more members into their school's Robot Research Club. They'll take anyone they can talk - or force - into joining them, including an eccentric robotics champion with a secret identity and a l33t video-game designer who's spent one too many late nights online. Finally, their goal looks like it's within reach.
But when a sentient AI program tells Kai about mysterious documents hidden on the internet, things start to get strange for everyone. As the club members track down the secret messages, they realize that the information might be far bigger - and more dangerous - than they expected.
Contains episodes 1-11
Spoken Languages: English, Japanese, English subtitles.


Robotics Notes

Andrew Osmond tries to build his own robot…
Robotics;Notes could be called You Can Build Your Own Giant Robot! It’s about geeks engaged in a preposterous project; building the mecha they’ve seen in anime for real. The show’s aimed at viewers who might think they really could. After all, they’d probably heard of otaku who have built oversized robots for real.


Keiichi Hara Interview

Andrew Osmond talks to the director of Shin-chan and Colorful
As the eleventh Japan Touring Film Programme heads through Britain (see here for venues and here for our write-up), we took the opportunity to speak to the director of the anime entry, the feature film Colorful. Keiichi Hara has been working in anime for thirty-odd years, gaining experience through working with two of Japan’s most popular kids’ characters, Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan. He then graduated to his own projects, and is now a freelancer who pushes at the boundaries of what anime can be.
Some of you may have heard that the US release of the hotly anticipated Evangelion 3.33: You Can (Not) Redo has been delayed. Unfortunately we can now confirm that this has had a knock-on effect for the UK DVD and Blu-ray release and as a result we have been forced to amend the release date. We are very sorry for this but it is beyond our control.

Tales of Vesperia Cosplay: Yuri Lowell

Paul Jacques finds an Imperial Knight at the Birmingham Comic Con
Melissa Joy dresses as Yuri Lowell, the Imperial Knight from Tales of Vesperia. Justice!

Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere

Andrew Osmond tries to make sense of Sunrise's mad new anime
As regular subscribers to Manga Entertainment’s podcast and twitter feed will know, there was some confusion about whether Sunrise’s new comedy-fantasy-action-fanservice series was called (deep breath) Horizon on the Middle of Nowhere or Horizon in the Middle of Nowhere. We’re calling it the former in the UK, although releases elsewhere have plumped for the “in” option. Either way, it sounds less weird and Escheresque once you know that Horizon is the name of a pivotal female character in the series. But it reflects the inescapable fact that Horizon is, well, confusing.

Fam, the Silver Wing 2

Andrew Osmond finds Emperor Hirohito in Japanese animation
The Sara storyline in Fam the Silver Wing seems to echo a view – many would say a myth – of Hirohito, encouraged not just by the Japanese but also by the victorious Americans when they rebuilt the country. Namely, it was the story that Hirohito was a helpless figurehead, at the mercy of his warmongering government.

London Ghibli Season

BFI announce a festival of Miyazaki, Takahata, et al...
The BFI South Bank cinema in London will be screening a Studio Ghibli season throughout April and May. Curator Justin Johnson will be giving an introduction to Ghibli on the 2nd April, followed by screenings of all the major Ghibli works and a number of relative obscurities

The King and the Mockingbird

Andrew Osmond on Miyazaki’s love for a French classic
The King and the Mockingbird was one of the films which taught Miyazaki and Takahata that you could make an animated feature without following studio formulae – something they strove for themselves as early as Takahata’s 1968 Marxist epic The Little Norse Prince.

Dragon Radar GT 1

It’s going to be a tough journey – but who’s along for the ride?
Dragon Ball GT presents an all new adventure for Goku and his allies, sending them on an interplanetary quest to find the mysterious Black Star Dragon Balls and save the Earth! It’s going to be a tough journey – but who’s along for the ride?

Eureka Seven Ao

Kicking it old-school, with giant robots
Pacific Rim opened a new gateway to ’bot sagas for youngsters, and for oldsters too. They’ll see del Toro’s film, learn how much he was inspired by Japanese cartoons, and then check out the originals. If they choose Eureka Seven Ao, they’ll find elements also seen in Pacific Rim, embedded in a very different show.

Unspinning Fairy Tail

Hugh David argues that the treasure is in the detail
The biggest influence on this anime is not tabletop RPGs or even the long-standing fantasy fiction genre itself. No, the stamp of numerous Japanese role-playing videogames is all over Fairy Tail, from the Atelier series to the Final Fantasy franchise, in particular Final Fantasy XII
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