Survey on the Japanese Media Mix, between anime and the character business

Anime’s Media Mix

BOOK REVIEW  by Mathieu GAULÈNE  •  Published 06.11.2013  •  Updated 12.11.2013
Marc Steinberg is carrying out a very interesting study on the economic model of merchandising for Japanese anime.

Title: Anime’s Media Mix

Subhead: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan

Author(s): Marc Steinberg

Editor(s): University of Minnesota Press

Release Date: 23.02.2012


The character and merchandising business for anime series – the character business – represented a turnover of around 17 billion dollars in Japan in 2007. In his thought-provoking book, Marc Steinberg takes a look at this societal phenomenon in Japan, which is characteristic of a media convergence called the media mix. This term refers to the range of media products that exist at the same time for the same character, or even for a particular world. According to Marc Steinberg, this aspect of Japanese culture is specific to the intrinsic characteristics of a particular medium, namely television anime, which were first seen in Japan at the start of the 1960s.
It is by way of case study of the first television anime, Tetsuwan Atomu (better known in English as Astro Boy), that the author, assistant professor of film studies at the University of Concordia in Québec, takes us into the world of anime and the character business. Tetswan Atomu revolutionised the media ecology at that time in Japan with character merchandising, so much so that all brands, towns, public institutions – including the police – now have their own character for communicating with the public. The aim of the book is to provide a thorough definition of anime and to understand its influence on the world marketing industry.

Astro Boy décliné sur des mugs
Astro Boy printed on mugs

From “limited movement” to character

Marc Steinberg endeavours in the first instance to show how the specific aspects of anime – Japanese television cartoons – explain the transmedia phenomenon and in particular the shift to character merchandising. According to him, the ease with which this happens can be explained by “limited movement” or “dynamic immobility”, which is perfectly encapsulated by Tetsuwan Atomu.
Anime are based on two aspects of Japanese popular culture: mangas and kamishibai, whereby a narrator shows a series of images while telling a story using a little portable theatre.  Anime were intended from the outset to have limited movement.  Anime were therefore intended from the outset to have limited movement. Tezuka Osamu put forward a theory in his book on the rules that are specific to anime and applied these rules in his studio, Mushi Productions : “8 images per second”, instead of the usual 12 to 18 images in animated films; “stop motion”, where everything that is not essential to the story is halted; “cell dragging” or the skill of giving the impression of movement with static images; repeating images, or reusing previous images thanks to an image bank; or even repeating sections of a character, only moving part of the body, often the mouth, with just two images.
These great changes to animation techniques brought about a shock at the Toei Animation studio, to the extent that at the end of the 1960s, it gave up on animated films for the cinema and dedicated itself to television anime. Tezuka did not follow the Disney model to make his anime, but Disney greatly influenced the way in which he financed his projects; he threw himself well and truly in to the sale of licences for his characters, which formed the foundation of his economic model.

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Merchandising as an economic model

As Marc Steinberg explains, the economic model of Mushi Productions cannot only rely on the sale of its cartoons: Tezuka sells at a very low price, below the cost of producing the cartoons. The profit therefore has to come from two other channels: the sale of licences and merchandising, on the one hand; and the exploitation of international rights, on the other. This economic model which is specific to the production studio of Tezuka was to become the rule, especially once it was adopted by the main studio in Japan, Toei Animation.
In his book, the author looks at the first avenue of funding the anime Tetsuwan Atomu, namely the sale of licences. This market, better known as kyarakutâ bijinesu in Japan, accounted for around 1,600 billion Yen in 2007, ie a turnover of 17 billion dollars[+] NoteMarc Steinberg, Anime’s media mix: franchising toys and characters in Japan, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, pp. 42-43.X [1].
A sticker campaign for Japanese “Smarties” was launched just after the anime, creating a lasting link between the characters of Tetsuwan Atomu and the largest chocolate brand in Japan, Meiji. In the 1960s, stickers then took off in a big way[+] NoteIdem, p.64.X [2]. Other partnerships were formed: Ôkami Shônen Ken and the confectionary brand Morinaga (2nd confectionary company in Japan), Tetsuji 28 gô and Glico – known in France for its Mikados – and the anime Obake no Q-tarô and Fujiya. The success of the Tetsuwan Atomu characters was to the detriment of the Meiji star of the time, the young idol Uehara Yukari.
It was not by mere chance that this anime character replaced this young idol. Marc Steinberg shows how anime characters can be more easily transferred to other media forms than idols, through their immobile ubiquitousness. We can indeed see this today with characters such as Hello Kitty, created directly for merchandising. Idols do nonetheless have the ability to span various media, as seen by the irrefutable marketing success of the pop band AKB-48 and its substitutes.

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Characters, at the heart of the media mix

According to Marc Steinberg, characters, through their ubiquitous nature and their motion-stillness, become the point of convergence between various media: television, toys, manga, stickers, advertisements, etc. But this convergence does not mean that they merge, as Steinberg explains:
“Each manifestation of the character [in this case Astro Boy] foregrounds the distinct properties of the medium in question: motion-stillness for anime; sequential narrative for manga; interiority and narrative realism for light novels; weight, dimensionality and physical manipulability for toys; and interaction and interface for video games […]”[+] NoteIdem., p.84.X [3].
Part of Marc Steinberg’s work expounds on the character business in Japan and in particular changes in the copyright law. But the author, in addition to the money-making aspect, takes an interest in what the success of these characters reveals about Japanese culture.  According to Marc Steinberg, we moved towards from a “thingification of the media” to a “mediatisation of things”.  Marc Steinberg believes that there is a “thingification of the media” – toys created in the form of characters from Astro Boy for example. We are gradually moving towards the “mediatisation of things”. Steinberg’s idea is that objects – badges, stickers, toys – become media in their own right, creating a link, facilitating communication. He remarked that in the 2000s, the “idea that products representing charactersenabled intra and intergenerational communication became the main explanation for their success”[+] NoteIdem, p. 90.X [4].
Marc Steinberg’s book is interesting thanks to the various approaches that it provides on media convergence in Japan. It offers an original and interesting thesis, explaining this convergence by way of the features that are specific to Japanese anime, namely in this case its motion-stillness which has, in Japan as well as in the rest of the world, revolutionised the media ecology. What is of particular interest is that he looks at the subject from different angles: economic, historic, and philosophical. This book is to be recommended as an introduction to the Japanese media mix or quite simply to the animation industry.

Translated from the French by Peter Moss
Photo credit: ksuyin / Flickr
Back to summary
  • 1. Marc Steinberg, Anime’s media mix: franchising toys and characters in Japan, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2012, pp. 42-43.
  • 2. Idem, p.64.
  • 3. Idem., p.84.
  • 4. Idem, p. 90.

Book title: Anime’s Media Mix
Subhead:  Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan
Author(s): Marc Steinberg
Editor(s): University of Minnesota Press
Release Date: 23/02/2012
N° ISBN: 0816675503
Number of pages: 304 pages

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