Otaku Merchandising: From Lucas to Vegas
Fig. 1. May the Profits Be With You! Famous still from the original Star Wars (1977). Click to enlarge.
|George Lucas. Whether you admire or avoid him, his name is inescapably tied to material consumption and consumerism. Specifically, by unconventionally acquiring the licensing rights to his original and earth-shatteringly successful Star Wars (1977) three decades ago (Fig. 1) — in a time when film studios held the narrow “could care less” belief that secondary spin-off publications or properties were never profitable — the soft-spoken and once-unknown filmmaker and his sudden skyrocketing fortune undeniably proved to them otherwise. Studios had no choice but to take notice. And as a result of his winning gamble, Lucas — whether accidentally or not — gave birth to a revolutionary new form of consumer industry, and is regarded by many as the pioneer of modern-day entertainment-driven merchandising. Ah yes, as a little kid, I still remember sleeping in my sky-blue Star Wars bedsheets!|
Fig. 2. Viva Akihabara! One view of Tokyo’s Akihabara shopping district (2006).
|2006-2007. Three decades later, global merchandising shows no clear signs of stalling. On the contrary, while the free and ever-evolving internet exchange of digital files (MP3, AVI, etc.) may eat away at the conventional sales of DVD titles, CD soundtracks, and disc-based videogames, the industry continues to leap and bound in other branches. Bed sheets may be less common, but toys, models, action figures, dolls, posters, even T-shirts, keychains and cellphone accessories — based on successful and less-than-successful films, shows, tunes and games — have found their way into our everyday consciousness. One can find anything from LEGO Star Wars products to WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) toys to Lost (ABC TV) fan gear to Snakes on a Plane T-shirts, and everything in between!
Tokyo, Japan. Consistently one of the top-two or top-three most-expensive cities in the world over the last two decades. The home of the largest most-recognized electronics-based megacorps — including Sony, Toshiba, and Panasonic — on the globe. And the cutting-edge mecca of anything related to anime, manga, videogames and otaku culture as a whole. Focusing their consuming eyes and ears on Tokyo’s infamous Akihabara shopping district (Fig. 2), the rest of the otaku world waits in anticipation and jumps in enthusiasm at the latest offerings. In terms of merchandising beyond the standard products of disc deliverables (DVDs and CDs) and paper publications (manga and novels), the multi-billion-dollar otaku-entertainment market (as observed in the December 2004 paper by the Nomura Research Institute) further thrives on these aforementioned toys, models, action figures, dolls, posters, T-shirts, keychains, cellphone accessories, and anything else that’s marketable. For example, let’s take a look at three popular titles.
Las Vegas, Nevada. Undoubtedly, the most-famous and most-popular gambling center in the United States. The home of the greatest concentration of casinos — including Caesars Palace, MGM Grand and Mandalay Bay — anywhere in the world. And the town also proudly referred to as “Sin City” and “The Entertainment Capital of the World”. So now, expanding its rippling reach from Tokyo, how strongly does this otaku-powered merchandising phenomenon filter down and find its way to the Las Vegas area? Well, on a partly-rainy and partly-cloudy Saturday, October 14th, I decided to visit a handful of nearby stores in Henderson, the most-populous suburb of Las Vegas. Here’s what I managed to find.
Consequently, while my visits involved just a few stores within just a few hours, I think this hints at the extent to which otaku-related products may be offered throughout the entire Las Vegas region. Depending on your personality, this could be either comforting or scary! But in tracing the rising path from 1977 to 2007, and riding the expanding wave from Tokyo to Las Vegas, two projections seem inevitable: (1) Entertainment-driven merchandising will continue to thrive throughout the international and global otaku communities. (2) And with it, Japan’s exotic appeal and cultural influence will continue to flourish not simply in the East, but especially in the West. Then again, perhaps this was destined to happen. After all, Lucas’ unexpected success originated with his admiration for the legendary Akira Kurosawa, widely regarded as one of the greatest film directors in history. It’s only fitting that their prosperity — borne of the love of Japanese cinema — should ultimately accelerate and foster an otaku-cultural phenomenon — borne of the love of Japanese storytelling.