Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Japan Has the Best Merchandise

When it comes to covering anime news, there's a lot of different aspects (as I tend to mention whenever I write about something going off the rails). Sometimes it's a trailer or show announcement. Sometimes it's an anniversary or an obituary. And then, a lot of the time, it's merch.

And genuinely, truly, we don't hold a candle to Japan when it comes to marketing the heck out of their stuff.

I have multiple friends who work in Artist Alleys and vendor rooms, or who create (to use the legal term, not the negative connotation) "derivative" works. I've talked about these before: some companies don't want these ever, some are okay provided you're not copying an existing item or making money hand over fist, and others still will go out and hire these makers. The most successful and least legally dubious of these makers are creating things to fill a void: things the brand doesn't make, won't make, or would never think to make.

In some cases, it's a matter of things that are just plain underrepresented (see eras of Doctor Who that aren't 4, 10, or 13). In others, it's things that your typical US or UK marketer doesn't even think to make, unless they are under the umbrella of one very specific conglomerate. That could be enamel pins, pillows, knitted goods, wallets, household wares, what have you.

Japan, meanwhile, is the exact opposite.

Image result for hello kitty merchandise

It's something of a joke to say you can get Hello Kitty anything (and you really can), but the mentality isn't exclusive to this character. You can get Sanrio anything... and the same goes for a lot of other companies. Character goods are a huge deal in Japan; if you as an artist can create one cute character that people like, you are set for life. Because then you can put that character on anything. Give them a style makeover and put them on everything again. Pick a fight with Gundam and put them on everything together. The possibilities are endless.

It's not just Sanrio, either. Popular anime series, if they're clever, do the same thing. The first image in this article is from That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime, an actual good show that also just so happens to have a cute, easy to render protagonist in Rimuru the blue slime. Did you know you needed a Rimuru coffee mug? I didn't. But now I do.

My friend Red Bard has done videos on this exact concept, to the point of showing that you could (if you had a lot of money and access to a back catalog of goods) live entirely on Evangelion-branded merchandise. More such vids are in the works. This is all a very long way of saying: Japan tends to look at marketing very differently from us. And as jokey as it all seems when looked at as a whole, answer me completely honestly: would you turn down a pocket planner or stationery set themed after your favorite show? Or, I don't know, a set of goods that cross over your favorite TV series and your favorite sports team?

Image result for gundam baseball

The closest you're going to get to this in America is Disney properties, really. (And, on a completely related point, Disney properties are the ones fan creators get dinged for fronting on.) Even then, it's done with the same sort of Exacto knife precision we get in most things, where sub-brands are established with care and never strayed from or experimented with. So basically, you'll probably get close to this range of options if you're super into Winnie the Pooh or Disney Princesses.

As sad as I am that I'm never going to see for Western brands the same mad-lad chances that Japanese brands take, I can understand why. There's, at least on the surface, a different philosophy regarding how we interface with our favorite characters... though it's not all that different; we just don't talk about it.

Character loyalty is a huge thing no matter where in the world you are, but it's more readily observed in Japan as a phenomenon among fans. People have favorite characters, but also very specific ones from whom they draw feelings of strength. I think if we're at all into entertainment, we have that. For me, that's certain companions from Doctor Who, or Sailor Mercury from Sailor Moon, or Alex Drake from Ashes to Ashes. Characters whose stories resonate with me because they've been through what I'm going through, or who are the sort of person I want to be.

You'll see a lot of Japanese character merch lines including a subheading of "Together with [Character Name]." That's because a lot of these goods are meant to be a way to take a reminder of them with you. Keychains, jewelry, and housewares all fall under that heading.

I'll give you a personal example. When I get up onstage to do an interview, I get really nervous, no matter how many interviews I've done. My friend Stephanie had the idea of making me a bracelet with the quote "One hell of a bird" on it, going back to the Twelfth Doctor (one of my favorite characters in anything). Putting aside that his show of determination in Heaven Sent was leading toward some really nutty decisions... it was still a show of determination and of inner strength. I wear that bracelet now as a reminder of that.

I'm betting a lot of you have something similar.

Granted, I don't think the ability to buy a Pikachu casserole dish is necessarily some sort of lofty thing. (They're cute as heck, though.) But by playing it safe with logo shirts and action figures, I think a lot of Western merch makers are missing a trick. A lot of anime merch is absolutely ludicrous, but a lot of it also hits that sweet spot of wanting a beloved character at hand. I don't anticipate seeing that mentality taking a much greater hold anytime soon, but dang, I can dream.

In the meantime... imports are expensive.