Otaku Merchandising: From Lucas to Vegas

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).

Fig. 3. Got Jedi?
Star Wars and WWE action figures at Wal-Mart.

Fig. 4. A Higher Power!
Power Rangers action figures at Wal-Mart.

Fig. 5. Figured It Out?
Naruto and Tenjho Tenge figures at Borders.

Fig. 6. Bearing Fruit!
A Fullmetal Alchemist wall scroll and Fruits Basket plush doll at Borders.

Fig. 7. Hitting the Books!
Fruits Basket and InuYasha bookmarks at Borders.

Fig. 8. Coastal Wave!
A wide variety of wall scrolls, figures, plush dolls, and other goodies at Suncoast.

Fig. 9. T-ing Off!
Snakes on a Plane, Samurai Champloo, Fullmetal Alchemist and Trigun T-shirts at Suncoast.

Fig. 10. Got the Munchies?
Pocky, Pucca, and other snacks at Suncoast.

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.

  • First, the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime (1995-1996). Built upon this classic post-apocalyptic and psychological anime series, one Japanese “Evangelion Store” — http://www.evastore.jp/index.cgi — embraces a more adult-tailored, but nonetheless broad, spectrum of products. Not only does it offer T-shirts and 2007 calendars, but also PVC figures, 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles, white-and-red “NERV” coffee mugs, silver “Angel” rings and pendants, black-and-gold Zippo lighters with etched “Rei Ayanami” dog-tags, silver-and-red “EVA 02” wristwatches, and even “EVA 01” bikes!
  • Next, the Fruits Basket manga (1999-ongoing) and anime (2001). Revolving around this endearing mystery-laced and zodiac-based story, the “Fruits Basket Store” at FUNimation‘s Z-Store — http://everything.zstore.com/fruitsbasket.cfm — takes a younger, more school-kid-oriented approach, displaying not only buttons, posters, wall scrolls, T-shirts and 2007 calendars, but also cellphone straps, PVC keychains, Velcro wallets, Bobble Heads of “Tohru”, “Shigure” and “Yuki”, as well as animal-shaped “Kyo”, “Shigure” and “Momiji” backpacks!
  • Finally, the NANA manga (2002-ongoing) and anime (2006). Based upon the emotional soul-searching tale of two very different 20-year-old women, the “Goods” section of Nippon Television‘s “NANA TV Animation” website — http://www.ntv.co.jp/nana/goods.html — boldly targets the cellphone generation. There are several artistic styles of semi-transparent cellphone screen stickers, including one which acts like a mirror when the back-light is turned off. There is one cellphone strap with a crystallized design, which uses a solar battery to cause it to glitter. Even more, there are cellphone surface-cover stickers, cellphone charms, as well as cellphone face-plates for the Panasonic FOMA P902iS model! Meanwhile, the non-cellphone-related products include strawberry-flavored candy, rose-shaped and lotus-shaped bubble-bath drops, rose-scented “Black Stones” pocket tissue, and keychains of thumbnail-sized “NANA”, “Black Stones”, and “Trapnest” CD cases with miniature CDs inside them! Intriguingly but not surprisingly, according to the “NANA” fansite at http://www.nana-nana.net, these goods can be purchased at either general stores or vending machines throughout Japan. For Westerners, this is certainly a cultural wonder to behold!

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.

  • At the Wal-Mart on Lake Mead Drive and Boulder Highway, next to the colorful rows of Star Wars and WWE action figures (Fig. 3), there are even more rows of Power Rangers (Fig. 4) and G.I. Joe Sigma 6 action figures and toy gadgets.
  • Next, at the Borders bookstore on Sunset Road and Stephanie Street, amongst the manga aisles, a Naruto statue and Tenjho Tenge figure of “Maya” stand ready on one bookshelf (Fig. 5), while a Fullmetal Alchemist wall scroll and Fruits Basket plush doll of “Shigure” hang quietly from another (Fig. 6). And just outside the check-out counters, a Fruits Basket bookmark of “Yuki” and InuYasha bookmark of “Sesshomaru” wait patiently on a rotating tower (Fig. 7).
  • Lastly, at the Suncoast store in the Galleria Mall at Sunset Road, behind the racks of movies and videogames, a diverse array of anime-, manga-, and gaming-related items are on display towards the rear of the establishment. A Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex wall scroll hangs from above. In one corner (Fig. 8), additional wall scrolls of Tenjho Tenge, Sonic X, Burst Angel, and Samurai Champloo are unfurled, as Final Fantasy X action figures are squeezed beneath them. Flanking these, Monsieur Bome‘s PVC figures for “Jingai Makyo: Chaos Gate” and “Jungle Emi” are displayed on one side, while Last Exile plushies of “Lavie” and “Alvis” are dangled on the other. In another corner (Fig. 9), beside the Snakes on a Plane pile, additional T-shirts of Samurai Champloo and Trigun are stacked. And in the middle of the floor (Fig. 10), stands a snack-food display featuring the chocolate-, strawberry-, and almond-flavored biscuit sticks known as Pocky, alongside the chocolate-centered wafer candy called Pucca Chocolate. In fact, on that visit, I bought my first box of chocolate-covered Pocky to give it a try. It’s no wonder Mizuho-sensei from Please Teacher! is so addicted to those things!

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.

xJAYMANx joined Las Vegas Otaku.org in May 2006. (Sadly, LVO disbanded in July 2007.) Exposed to the classics — Speed Racer (1967), Battle of the Planets (1978), Star Blazers (1979), The Transformers (1984), Robotech (1985) and Thundercats (1985) — as a child in the 1980s, he attributes his triggered rediscovery as an otaku to The Matrix (1999) and The Animatrix (2003).