Geeks and toys...it seems that you can’t have one without the other, and otaku are perhaps one of the most rabid subgroup when it comes to collecting and displaying their love for shows with pride. The usual cycle of anime and merchandising involves the anime being shown, then official merchandise appearing at stores at the same time or shortly afterwards, the same as most US movies and TV shows aimed at kids. However, sometimes the toy or video game comes first, and the anime hits the tube to increase sales.
Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon are the two names that spring to mind when it comes to anime created after the commercial product. Just about anyone who has turned on a TV during the Saturday morning or after school hours in the last ten years has stumbled across these two anime shows on the WB, Cartoon Network, and the 4Kids programming block, and these series are still thriving where most anime shows only last for one season or two on US TV.
The Yu-Gi-Oh! franchise was built upon a simplified version of the Magic: The Gathering CCG called Magic & Wizards by creator Kazuki Takahashi. The game was originally meant to be phased out of the manga series, existing merely as an interest to initially bring the characters together. Reader response for more information about the game drove Takahashi to alter the storyline of the manga to include more of the game, renamed Duel Monsters, probably because of the original name being too close to that of a certain popular card game. As the manga has gone on, the game’s rules have become more and more complex, although the card designs and descriptions are quite familiar to any early Magic player.
Yu-Gi-Oh! also introduced another RPG game, Dungeon Dice Monsters. Although it had nothing near the popularity of the CCG, the Dungeon Dice Monsters board game dungeon crawl had a video game based on it, as well as featuring in the second Yu-Gi-Oh! anime series. The game is floundering in the water, with the first and last booster released in the US in 2003.
Pokemon, now in its twelfth year, is a multi-billion dollar franchise that spans the otaku marketplace, although children are definitely the targeted audience. Creator Satoshi Tajira came up with the idea from his childhood hobby of insect collecting, where children would catch, collect and train “monsters” to battle each other, aiming to evolve their Pokemon monsters into more powerful monsters with more special powers. Tajira was careful to ensure that the monsters only faint in combat, making the video games family-friendly. The first two Pokemon Game Boy games, Pokemon Red and Blue, were released in the US in 1998, touching off the Pokemon craze in the US. The Pokemon series is the second greatest selling franchise in video game history, only behind the Mario series, with the latest games, Pokemon Diamond and Pearl released in September 2006.
The anime series debuted in Japan in 1997, and it follows an entirely separate storyline than the video games (except for Pokemon Yellow, which was based on the anime). As it turned out, US audiences first experienced Pokemon through the TV show, and then the video game, the opposite to its Japanese release. Currently, Pokemon is the fifth longest running animated show in the US (The Simpsons, King of the Hill, Arthur, and South Park filling out the list), however, it has the most episodes of all of these shows, coming in with over 450 episodes. There are also Pokemon movies, as well as specials. The first Pokemon movie, Pokemon: The First Movie - Mewtwo Strikes Back, is the highest grossing anime film in the US, as well as the most successful of the Pokemon movies.
Incidentally, Pokemon gave us the standard “Don’t Watch TV With No Lights On Or Sit Too Close” warning with the banned “Electric Soldier Porygon” episode, featuring a strobe-like light that caused 685 children to have seizures or seizure symptoms. The light effect was removed, but the episode has never been re-aired or translated into English.
On the other end of the spectrum, many anime with high levels of fanservice originate from H-games (hentai computer games) and lovesims (romantic simulation computer games). Comic Party was originally a girl-get game/visual novel, where you, playing the male main character, interact and attempt to hook up with girls with various personality types, all while trying to make doujinshi (independent original and fan comics). Tsukihime was also a visual novel with a dark erotic tone before it became an anime and manga series. In more recent history, Fate/stay night originated also as an H-game visual novel, with an all-age version of the game to be released for the PS2 sometime this year.
Gundam is perhaps the first merchandise-supported anime series, and is rather the odd man out. The plastic model kits first appeared in Japan in 1980...and they haven’t stopped since then. It was these hobbyists who kept Gundam alive in Japan and in the US, with their model shows and contests at conventions and their support of the franchise financially. Gundam is a prime example of the fans creating demand for more story and more mecha, instead of anime studios and media corporations artificially creating demand.
You will find beside most otaku computer monitors action figures (in basic plastic and the more expensive PVC), LEGO-like Kubricks, and for the more wealthy and devoted, statues and busts, although those tend to stay at home in places of honor on high shelves. Like our comic book brethren, the anime specialty market abounds in collectible figures and statues, although the majority of these products are available by order only. You can’t expect to pick up a Naru resin statue at Borders, although I have seen the odd action figure and wallscroll in the manga section. For that, you need to find your local anime store or order from a reliable online dealer with a talent for packaging fragile items.
Once you step outside of figures and statues, the world of anime merchandise spreads wide and far. Clothing, cups and calendars. Jewelry, stationary, key chains and cellphone straps. Lighters, watches and knapsacks. Plushies and UFO catchers (claw games in the US). Not to mention the replica swords, guns and accessories worn by characters. Clothing, bags and stationary are moving into mainstream stories, such as Hot Topic and Borders. The cool anime goodies are starting to be available everyone, not just the otaku in the dealers’ room or browsing the ‘Net. Although anime merchandise focuses on popular shows (such as Full Metal Alchemist, Inu Yasha, FLCL) and shows with fanservice (Ikki Tousen, Love Hina, Girls Bravo), fans of lesser known and unlicensed titles can usually find merchandise on eBay or order direct from Japan.
Everyone loves toys, especially ones that are bright and exotic that you just know the other kids in the class or in the office will never own. Does it really matter if an anime series is created to market a product? Does it make it any less in terms of entertainment value? What matters is that people enjoy shows like Yu-Gi-Oh! and Pokemon and the games they promote, that they inspire the same spark of excited creativity that playing with He-Man, She-Ra and the Transformers did in folks like myself when we were kids. Don’t feel ashamed to want a Ryoko action figure by your keyboard! Give in to the otaku side!