Character Merchandising in Japan – The First Eight Decades

More people should read academic journals. There’s some interesting stuff going on there. The wonderful thing about giving intelligent people time to read and study, and a platform to think aloud, is that they start ideas haring off in all kinds of fascinating and unexpected directions. These ideas won’t necessarily stand up to proof, and the paths they follow may peter out, but scholarship at its best offers the constant prospect of new journeys into undiscovered countries, or completely new vistas from well-worn vantage points.

The March-May 2009 issue of the respected journal Theory, Culture and Society has an article by Marc Steinberg of Concordia University in Montreal, examining a key issue in the anime and manga market. Character merchandising is the engine that drives the TV anime industry, especially given the financing model set by Osamu Tezuka at Mushi Production in the 1960s. In an effort to secure anime’s place in Japanese TV schedules, then swamped by imported animation, Tezuka offered his shows to sponsors and networks at prices that didn’t even cover production costs. His experience in comics, and knowledge gleaned from years of studying American cartoons, had taught him that there was money to be made in spinoffs and subsidiary rights as well as overseas sales. He set up a department to handle licensing rights at his first company, Mushi Production, following the model established by Disney in the USA.

The title of Steinberg’s article –Anytime, Anywhere: Tetsuwan Atomu Stickers and the Emergence of Character Merchandising – sums up his theory neatly. He argues that Tezuka’s seminal 1963 series Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy was “the point of emergence of the commercial phenomenon of character-based merchandising” – or more precisely, that the insertion of Atom stickers into packs of confectionery from the Meiji Seika company sparked off the character merchandising boom. He says that the key to the success of the concept was that the stickers could be stuck onto anything and seen anytime, and this immediacy led  directly to the current anime environment with its character-driven cross-connections.

I find this idea fascinating.  True, the suggestion in Steinberg’s abstract that Tetsuwan Atom/Astro Boy is “commonly regarded as the first instance of what is now known as ‘anime'” is a little too broad for my liking. The advances in awareness of earlier anime over the past decade makes it easy to find material on the mass of pre-war animation, the post-war Toei theatrical features and the TV anime experiments that preceded Tezuka’s first series. I’m also not convinced that the modern character market can be attributed primarily to the accessibility and instantaneous communication of stickers. Yet the rise of character merchandising in the TV era  owes a great deal to  the combination of inventiveness, determination and poor financial judgement that led Tezuka to set impossible financial parameters for his company and the fledging anime industry; and the function of stickers as instant graffiti, stealth advertising upholding Steinberg’s ‘anytime, anywhere’ theory, is still evident today.

Go Ito’s seminal book Tezuka is Dead: Postmodernist and Modernist Approaches to Japanese Comics made waves on the Japanese critical scene when it appeared in 2005. (For non-linguists and those not lucky enough to have an in-house translator, there is a useful analysis of Ito’s main points in Tamaki Saito’s article Is Manga Space ‘Japanese’?, online in the Nippon Foundation Library.)  One of Ito’s ideas defined a whole new theory of character in manga. The basic argument is that the notion of character, the idea of personality and identification growing from within a manga story to attract fans, has been challenged and replaced by the contemporary concept of ‘chara (kyara)’ in which an image is created purely as an icon, without necessarily having any narrative development or linkage. The ‘personality’ is revealed, not through action or experience/familiarity as with a human, or through familiarity with the character’s story, but purely through the representation of form. This design-driven, visually-led icon has no back-story or overarching narrative, so it can be used just like a sticker, attached to almost any object, attracting purely on the basis of its appearance.

The postwar anime industry definitely gave character merchandising a huge boost. So did the subliminal ubiquity and insistence of the TV, sitting in its own place in the living-room like a trusted family friend, constantly murmuring of a bright new world where images of happy families fuelled by shiny consumer goodies replaced the grim spectres of postwar deprivation. But just as Tetsuwan Atom wasn’t the first anime in Japan, so the little robot’s merchandising boom wasn’t the first character marketing campaign. Character merchandising was big in Japan long before Tezuka created  Atom, let alone before his TV debut.

The first ever Tezuka character merchandising hit the streets of Osaka soon after his professional debut in 1946. Ma-chan’s Diary appeared in the Mainichi Schoolchildren’s Newspaper at the beginning of January 1946, and ran for three months. It was so successful that the newspaper company made and sold wooden Ma-chan dolls to fans. (There’s a photo of one of them in my next book, The Art of Osamu Tezuka: God of Manga, due out in October.) These dolls were, of course, made without Tezuka’s consent – the teenage comic artist only found out about them when he saw them being sold on the streets of Osaka – and he never received a share of the profits. So in 1946, as Occupied Japan emerged from a devastating war with its economic and industrial infrastructure in tatters, there was already an awareness and willingness to exploit characters through merchandising.

This was partly a result of Japan’s exposure to foreign media. Tezuka wasn’t the only Japanese film fan to watch American and European cartoons and devour articles and stories about them. The World Intellectual Property Organisation’s 1994 report on character merchandising credits Disney’s Kay Kamen with creating the modern system of secondary commercial exploitation of characters in the 1930s. The first contracts for merchandising Disney characters date from 1930, and by 1934 Mickey Mouse merchandise was earning around $600,000 a year. Japanese artists like Shishido Sako had visited America and learned from what they found there. But the WIPO also concedes that the concept of secondary exploitation of characters existed much earlier in Europe, with characters like the Michelin Man created to personify and extend the marketing of goods from the 19th century, while writers like Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter had their characters exploited as toys early on.  One could argue that the sale of prints of popular fictional characters and celebrities in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Japan had also helped to prepare the ground for character merchandising. In any event, character merchandising was already well established in Japan before the Pacific War.

Both foreign and local characters were actively merchandised in the 1930s, and although surviving examples are scarce, they can be found. Cartoonist Zack Soto has a picture on his blog of a sheet of Japanese decals featuring characters by Suiho Tagawa, creator of the prewar manga hit Norakuro, alongside American icons. He says they’re “probably from the 30s” and based on the characters involved, plus the fact that as Japan’s militarisation progressed foreign characters like Popeye and Mickey Mouse were demonised rather than shown as child-friendly, I agree.

Tagawa’s anthropomorphic pup Norakuro was the star of his own major merchandising boom in the 1930s. The manga started running in Shonen Club in 1931. Tokyo’s Norakuro Museum has photos and examples of the flood of Norakuro merchandise sold in the 1930s. The character has enjoyed a number of revivals, and the Museum exhibits merchandise covering each of them, giving this character alone an eight-decade history of merchandising success.

Without merchandising, the anime industry is probably unsustainable and the manga industry would be hard hit: yet merchandising has assisted the development of what Go Ito labels ‘chara’, disassociated personality-free icons, whose blandness renders them easily portable from product to product, medium to medium, even culture to culture. It may poison the creative wellsprings of the very media it sustains, but the point is that this process has been going on  for a very long time – long before the beginning of TV anime, and alongside the development of manga and theatrical anime.

So far, anime and manga have managed to survive the mixed blessings of merchandising. It seems likely that they’ll do so for some time to come. The real threat to both industries doesn’t come from marketing and exploitation, but from changes in transmission technology and in society itself.

In 1963, Tetsuwan Atom fans were happy to get stickers free with their candy bars, but willing to pay for the original material in the form of comics and movie tickets. In 2009, the mindset of the audience has shifted. Now fans are perfectly happy to pay for the latest spinoff character merchandise, but increasingly expect to download the anime and manga from which they originate for free.

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