I’ll start this one with a bit of a warning. This post is largely opinion based, and once or twice I swear. If you’re the kind of person who is offended by the errant swear word, or the fact that anime fans posses emotions other than worship for Japan then I bid you adieu here. If however you aren’t so feebly inclined, then I invite you to add your voice to the discussion after reading my poorly phrased post. Enjoy.
I started kicking around online anime shops like Tokyo Otaku Mode and AmiAmi some months ago, and since then I’ve been enjoying the absolute shite out of all the amazing merchandise that is now available to us western fans. Gone are the days where we could only look through the proverbial anime toy store window like a 19th century orphan, constantly wondering when our day would come to bask in glorious anime goods. Not only are we privy to owning copies of our favorite anime on Blu-Ray and DVD, but we are also offered a plethora of anime loot that would have been unheard of outside of Japan just a few years ago. Yes dear reader, Japan finally realized how incredibly consumer centric our culture is and have decided to capitalize on it. With this slew of new and exciting items on the market comes questions about the consumer culture that comes from Japan, as well as a few noticeably disturbing trends that arise from it.
During my many bored and or drunken trips to websites like the ones mentioned above, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the shear amount of items up for sale. Figures, wall scrolls, clothing, and small knickknacks are par for the course of any anime convention merchandise. Where the online store really starts to lose me is some of the more unique items. For example one bored unemployed afternoon I went to amiami and checked the Love Live tab to see if any cool Nico stuff was out. Low and behold to my bewildered eyes was a set of aluminum buttons, supposedly compatible with apple’s touch ID feature, that are apparently in the guise of each μ’s girl’s insignia. Now maybe this is due to my not being Japanese, but from what I can recall from the show/game there are no insignias for the girls. Furthermore the insignia they chose for Nico is simply a white smiley face on a pink background, which to me smacks of a lazy money grab.
There were more tawdry examples of this, like character themed pass cases and even military style medals. It’s not just limited to Love Live either, every major brand in the industry is inundated with useless marketing ploys from companies that somehow are licensing the characters. I’m not saying Japanese production companies should go the Disney route with their proprietary licensing, whereby anyone who so much as hints at a Disney character without the requisite “Heil Walt” gets a jackboot to the gut followed by a lengthy lawsuit. Still it seems that any two bit company can make anime merchandise for a pittance, but then Japan is in the middle of a rather nasty economic recession. Who knows maybe the money they get from selling merchandising rights is keeping most or the prominent anime production studios afloat. It could also be that much of what is flooding the west is off brand knockoffs from China, as they still haven’t quite forgiven Japan for the whole “Rape of Nanking” thing.
Now all this seemingly pointless pondering isn’t entirely to condemn this sort of consumerist culture we have. I’d be a complete hypocrite if I said I wasn’t part of it, as I myself have recently prerecord a Nico Yazawa phone stand. Why? Because I wan’t my phone to be near to Nico you fool, why else? When I stop to think about it I’m forced into the shameful admission that it’s simply because these are products from a beloved franchise featuring my favorite characters. Too often do we as fans see these items bearing the images of adored characters, and purchase them with a sigh of relief for pre-ordering before the release date. This is the trap animation studios and merchandising companies have laid out for years in Japan, and it is (or was) one of the key difference between Japanese and western otaku culture.
Allow me to elaborate. Previously I mentioned that I have only recently discovered these online paradises of anime goods. This is partially because I’m slow on the uptake, but also because they are relatively new to the western otaku scene. Japan on the other hand is the anime merchandising epicenter, like an impact crater of mechs and idol costumes. While we in the west were loving our favored shows from a far, Japanese fans were buying up anime goods like they were life rafts on the Titanic. With years of market analysis, companies like Good Smile and Aquamarine have plenty of research on how to navigate a consumer driven market. Limited editions, special bonuses, and quick stock depletion means that your customer base will forever be vigilant for the next big deal or release on the market. Now that international online shopping is available you see many a western fan flaunting their collections, much like their Japanese counterparts have been doing for years.
The problem with all the merchandising, and chest beating over collections is that sooner or later companies realize they can release sub-par items for more money. After all people will buy a Racing Miku Foldable Container for $50 (before shipping), so why not market other vaguely character themed merchandise. If you think I’m kidding look at Japan, as they’re in the thick of useless anime merchandise and marketing. Everything from Lawson (convenience store) dlc costumes for video game characters, to Doritos with anime characters on the bag. It even effects some anime production companies like Aniplex, who found out long ago that fans will pay just as much for half (or a third) of a season as they would for a whole one. This kind of piecemeal marketing is the most transparent plot to wring an intellectual property for all it’s worth. It seems to punish the fans who support anime for the wrongs committed by internet pirates. Forgive me for being blunt, but that’s a fucked up way to treat your paying fans.
Another danger that comes with the flood of money anime merchandising brings is the ever present threat of knockoffs. For instance if you see a figure on eBay or some other auction site. This figure is sold out elsewhere, and when you buy it from this “totally reputable” vendor on eBay the product you receive is more shoddy than a teenage vow of celibacy. Knockoffs aren’t big on the major anime retail sites, but once those items are sold out on the big site, the only other place to find them is auction sites where you have at least a 50/50 shot of getting what you wanted. There’s no end of shady characters from all countries looking to profit from the success of anime, so be vigilant about what you’re getting and where it comes from. Sure it might look the same, but in the end it doesn’t support the creator of the series or the production company.
In the end if we want our favorite anime creators, studios, and production companies to stop treating us like clothed ATM’s then we must send a clear message to the people at the top. Rewarding excellence in terms of merchandising like full blu-ray releases (Sentai Filmworks), or brilliantly crafted figures will send a message to them that this is what we as fans want. What won’t help is buying into every underhanded cash grab that comes out around a popular show so that you can show off to your fellow otaku. I get that you really like Kancolle (I do too), but do you really need the masking tape? I know this issue isn’t going anywhere, and by and large the anime community will keep right on frivolously spending its money despite my pleas to the contrary. If I managed to make one person look at their anime spending in a new light, it will have been worth the time spent though.
Arigatō my fellow BrOtaku!