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

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

I’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 Boy

Perhaps 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.

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