Marc Steinberg’s book discusses the importance of character merchandising on the popularity and cultural influence of anime.
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There have been dozens if not hundreds of studies, both popular and academic, on Japanese comics and animation; on the genre, the industry, and the individual characters, on the cartoonists, on the social phenomenon in Japan and in America, even on the “cosplaying”: the dressing-up as favorite cartoon characters by their fans. Marc Steinberg, an assistant professor of film studies at Montreal’s Concordia University, takes an original approach. He has studied what he calls “the media mix”; the merchandising of the anime characters that he argues has been of equal importance in leading to their popularity and cultural influence.
“According to Steinberg, both anime and the media mix were ignited on January 1, 1963, when Astro Boy hit Japanese TV screens for the first time. Sponsored by a chocolate manufacturer with savvy marketing skills, Astro Boy quickly became a cultural icon in Japan. He was the poster boy (or, in his case, “sticker boy”) both for Meiji Seika’s chocolates and for what could happen when a goggle-eyed cartoon child fell into the eager clutches of creative marketers. It was only a short step, Steinberg makes clear, from Astro Boy to Pokémon and beyond.” (publisher’s blurb).
Anime’s Media Mix is a very academic study. Steinberg first defines his terms. “Otherwise known as transmedia or cross-media seriality, or by the North American media industry terms repurposing or media synergy, the term convergence now refers to the ways in which particular texts are made to proliferate across media forms, from television to novel to comic to video game to toy.” (p. vii). He defines media mix broadly: “The rise of the media mix is thus intimately bound up with social, economic, and cultural transformations that many writers have associated with the term postmodernism or post-Fordism. These changes were facilitated by the rise of the animated character as a central element of media forms, advertising and consumption that began in Japan of the 1960s.” (pgs. xi-xii).
Steinberg focuses upon two models and examines them in depth. First is the cartoon character Tetsuwan Atomu, known in America as Astro Boy. Although he was a popular magazine comic-strip or comic-book character in the 1950s, Steinberg concentrates on the merchandising of his television animation persona beginning on January 1, 1963. The foundations of Japanese cartooning and animation are covered in pages 1 to 36; “Candies, Premiums, and Character Merchandising: The Meiji-Atomu Marketing Campaign” in pages 37 to 86; and “Material Communication and the Mass Media Toy” in pages 87 to 132. In the latter Steinberg traces the merchandising of Japanese popular cartoon characters back to the 1930s with Tagawa Suihō’s Norakuro puppy-dog-soldier in the 1930s Imperial Army, concentrates again upon the Tetsuwan Atomu merchandising around the megapopular 1963-66 TV series, and casually mentions the cartoon character merchandising since then that needs no introduction such as Hello Kitty and Pokémon.
The second is the anime media merchandising of Kadokawa Books, one of Japan’s largest publishing companies. Kadokawa has long been a vigorous promoter of its cartoon characters in manga and both television and theatrical animation. “The impetus for the introduction of American-style marketing was the September 1955 trip of top management executives from Japan to the United States for the purpose of observing and learning from the business practices of U.S. companies.” (pgs. 136-137). After a brief study of the Tetsuwan Atomu comic books and official fan club of the small Mushi Production Company of the 1960s, Steinberg tells of Kadokawa Books’ inheritance in 1975 by Haruhi Kadokawa, the founder’s son, and of his expansion of the company into a modern media empire with live-action and animation film and TV production, not to mention the publication of one of Japan’s largest lines of manga; and of the takeover of the company by Haruhi’s brother Tsuguhiko in 1993.
Steinberg’ emphasis here is not on the merchandising of any of Kadokawa’s individual cartoon properties, but on the corporate attitude toward promoting the popularity of its characters with their fan base versus the restrictions of copyright law. The fans, especially in Japan, have long practiced the unauthorized production of their own amateur comic books, novels, and magazines featuring their favorite characters in incredible combinations, often mixing the characters of two or more copyright holders. There has been a popular semiannual Komiketto (Comic Market) fan market-convention in Tokyo since the 1970s in which literally hundreds of thousands of amateur comic books, some featuring original characters but most featuring the unauthorized use of copyrighted characters, are sold. In the U.S. this would result in the fans getting cease-and-desist letters from the copyright holders’ lawyers. In Japan the corporate copyright holders try to strike an uneasy balance between protecting their copyrights and encouraging their usually-adolescent fans to produce their own self-promotions of their characters. Some publishers have struck up friendly relations with fans that have led to those fans later becoming professional cartoonists for those publishers. (A personal aside: About the only times that the publishers sic their lawyers on the fans is upon their publication of amateur pornographic comics starring the copyrighted characters. You haven’t lived until you have seen the Pokémon or Sonic the Hedgehog anthropomorphic animals engaged in XXX-rated bondage activities.)
There are a few illustrations of pre-1963 media advertising for children’s products (including one of Donald Duck), and lots of images from the 1963-66 Tetsuwan Atomu TV animation and the advertising for its licensed candies, stickers, and inflatable toys. There are over a hundred pages of Notes, a Bibliography, and an Index.
Anime’s Media Mix is invaluable for pointing out that anime characters owe much of their popularity to the advertising of their commercial tie-ins. Some examples of advertising and tie-ins besides the 1963-66 Tetsuwan Atomu would have been nice – the barely-mentioned Hello Kitty or the completely unmentioned Kidō Senshi Gundamu, for instance. I would have also like to have seen some specific examples of Kadokawa Books’s relations with its characters’ fans instead of just talking about them in abstract terms.
Fred Patten has been a fan of animation since the first theatrical rerelease of Pinocchio (1945). He co-founded the first American fan club for Japanese anime in 1977, and was awarded the Comic-Con International's Inkpot Award in 1980 for introducing anime to American fandom. He began writing about anime for Animation World Magazine since its #5, August 1996. A major stroke in 2005 sidelined him for several years, but now he is back. He can be reached at email@example.com.