Bandai, Gunpla, and the World

25 10 2006

Today, I attended the panel presentation “Toy As Media: Bandai, Giant Robots, and Future Entertainment” organized by Prof. Ian Condry of MIT. The panelists were Katsuhiro Izumi, who’s a Chief Producer in the Boy Toys department of Bandai, and Adam Newman of Bandai’s International Business Strategy wing. The lecture room was packed, the presentation was interesting, and I learned a lot of interesting facts and tidbits I would like to share with you.

The panel started with Prof. Condry’s introduction to giant robots. He said that it all started with Ozamu Tezuka’s Astroboy in the 1960s, and I would imagine that Mazinger Z and Getter Robo follow suit. Robot anime in that period were for kids, but, as those kids grow up, they became tired of the childishness of the overall plot, and demanded something more complicated. Their call for sophistication was answered Space Battleship Yamato in the ’70s, which became so popular that the mainstream actually paid a lot of attention to it. Then came the original Gundam series in the ’80s, which, despite being not very successful as an anime at first, toys related to it were immediate success and made Bandai one of the biggest toy company in the world it is today. Condry then discussed the dichotomy between “Super Robots” and “Real Robots,” where the former are basically robots for kids, and the latter are robots for adults: while Super Robots animes tend to a have clear lines between good and evil, and feature victimless violence and extraterrestrial villains, Real Robots animes tend to focus on complex plots and human characters’ emotion, and feature atrocities of wars and struggles between conflicting groups of humans. He ended his presentation by noting that the Giant Robots genre is still evolving. In particular, Code Geass: Lelouch the Rebellion, featuring Clamp’s character designs, is Sunrise’s and Bandai’s attempt to create a new kind of fandom in the genre.

Katsuhiro Izumi gives the next presentation in Japanese, and his words were translated to English by Adam Newman. Izumi started by giving a brief introduction to the company and himself. Right now, Bandai holds more than 60% of the toy market share in Japan, and revenue over 70 billion Yen (I’m not very sure about the number, so don’t quote me on this.) Izumi’s work focuses on “high target” toys, which are toys for 20 years old or older males, and include Gunpla, Super Robot figurines, and bishoujo figurines. The high target toy market’s size has been growing since 1960, when it only contributed to less than 1% of Bandai’s revenue, and to about 10% or so right now. (These numbers resulted from my eyeballing of two unlabeled pie charts shown in Izumi’s presentation.)

Izumi then told the audience that the reason why Gundam was so successful back in the ’80s was because Bandai chose to market it to the right target, adult mens. Clover, a big toy manufacturer back then, was trying to sell Gundams to kids, but its effort was not met with success. Then, Bandai bought the right to manufacture Gundam-related toys, chose adult mens as their target group, and you know what happened later.

The most interesting part of Izumi’s presentation was his opinion on why Gundam is successful in Japan but not in the US. He thinks that Gundam is appealing to the Japanese because:

  1. They have been growing up watching Super Robot shows. In short, they are programmed to like robots.
  2. They are also familiar with other kinds of big heroes like Ultraman.
  3. By portraying Gundams as vehicles, viewers can identify with heroism in Gundam and other real robot animes more easily.

And his reasons on why Gundam is not so popular in the US are:

  1. Adults in the US still think that toys and animes are for kids.
  2. US people are not programmed to like robots like the Japanese. However, he thinks that, as children growing up watching Power Rangers become adults, the situation here will change.
  3. It’s hard to buy Gunplas here.

Next, Adam Newman took the microphone and gave an eclectic presentation on Bandai’s market strategy, Power Rangers, and Tamagotchi. I remembered his presentation as a collection of lots of interesting facts, so here are some that I managed to remember.

  • Bandai has been using many forms of advertisements for Gunplas. They hold an annually international Gundam model competition with participants from all over East and Southeast Asia. They also have a masked man character (whose name I cannot remember, but I remember that his hobby is surfing) who appears in various events and try to get people interested in Gunplas. They also do “Gunpla Caravan,” in which they visit schools and teach kids to build Gundam models. (Very ebil indeed.) And, yes, they are going to hold one at MIT next year.
  • Among Bandai’s characters, Gundam (all reincarnations combined) generates the most revenue. If I remember correctly, it’s 80% of revenues from character goods. (Don’t quote me on this.)
  • Regarding Power Rangers, last year, Bandai earned $90 million dollars from from the US, $50 million dollars from Europe, and only $45 million dollars from domestic sales. Apparently, the big market for Power Rangers is not Japan any more.
  • After a Super Sentai show airs in Japan, it will become the new Power Ranger in the US one year later, in Europe two years later, and in Asia three years later. Man, I have always thought that Asia is the big market for this type of Japanese media.
  • Unlike other characters and toys in Bandai’s portfolio, Tamagotchi and Frog Style were originated within Bandai itself. Tamagotchi was very popular around 1996, and disappeared from the public’s conciousness two or three years later. It made a comeback around 2004(?) due to the advent of advanced handheld game consoles, and massively multiplayer games. Well, I don’t know what Frog Style is about, but Newman said that it was very successful in Taiwan at present, and was adopted as a maskot of a TV program.
  • A new Gundam series will hit the TV in 2007. I saw Shin Asuka in the presentation, so I guess it means SEED Destiny will air in the US next year?

I also managed to collect a number of interesting facts from the Q&A sessions:

  • Bandai is now working on constructing Doraemon, and the goal is to complete it by 2010. They now have a miniature Doraemon working. Of course, they haven’t managed to build the 4-dimentional pocket yet.
  • Girl toys are also very big in Bandai, and their flagship series right now are Fushigi Boshi no Futago Hime and Pretty Cure. Interestingly enough, girls do not buy dolls or figurines from these series, but they buy electronic gadgets like watches that tell fortunes and stuffs like that.
  • Bandai has its own ethics committee that dictates whether products are ethical enough to be put on the market, or how to modify the product so that its ethically acceptable. One example of the committee’s exercise of power is the removal of halos over a dead Tamagochi’s head from the US edition of Tamagotchi.
  • Bandai is now targeting fujoshi! After noticing a surprising number of Bleach fangirls, they have started making Bleach toys for adult women!

I also asked three questions myself:

  • Why are toys and anime not so successful in Southeast Asia, but manga is so widespread?
  • Why are there so few Gundams in Wanfesu?
  • Is Bandai trying to make Gundams more appealing to kids? After all, Gundams nowadays come in various colors. They tranforms. Moreover, Kira Yamato just goes into SEED mode, shoots a gazillion beams of laser, and manages not to kill anyone.

The first question was never really answered because I asked it and the second question together, so the attention all went to the second one. Again, it seemed like I didn’t ask the right question. What I would like to know was Bandai’s attitude on doujin Gunpla, and whether licensing and legal stuffs had anything to do with the small number of Gundams in doujin figurine conventions. Izumi-san first answered that, well, Bandai can’t make risque bishoujo figurines that are on display in Wanfesu, and then Prof. Condry went on to explain what Wanfesu to other audiences, which took quite a lot of time. Then, Adam Newman said Gundam also had its own conventions. Oh well, I guessed I went to the wrong convention then. (LOL)

I asked the last question to Izumi-san directly, and he answered yes. Gundam’s target audiences are boys from 15 years old up, but not below. Well, I guess it means that I should expect the next Gundam series to have red, green, sky blue, and black mobile suits that can transform, piloted by angsty bishounen with such uber skills that he can flip out and not kill anyone? Dude! Bring back my 08th MS Team. (Please understand that this paragraph is more of a rant of a rabid 08th MS Team fanboy.)


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6 responses

25 10 2006
DrmChsr0

South East Asians are cheap bastards, me included.

Yes, I’m from that part of the world.

Also, moar IGLOO and 08th MS Team and War in the Pocket, less of SEED :V

25 10 2006
Tsubaki

Wow, this is an interesting read. Thanks for sharing it.

25 10 2006
tj han

Yeah good job. Btw 08th and Igloo ftw.

25 10 2006
super rats

Even though I don’t collect robot toys, I would have loved to sit in on that presentation. I’m surprised the “high target” toys segment isn’t a little larger.

25 10 2006
omo

Informative. Did they go into the kind of bishoujo figurines they market? Whenever people talk about Bandai’s Gundam stuff … people talk about gunpla and usually only gunpla, and maybe SEED, as you pointed out.

The presentation sounds more like a marketing pitch, but I’m more curious about the limitation of the US market when it comes to Gunpla sales and penetration into the mainstream (it’s not). The factors he listed seems right but I’m not sure about how to support them.

25 10 2006
cardcaptor

They didn’t talk about what kind of bishoujo figures they sell. They own the rights to Evangelion figures though, and one figure they brought with were Asuka in her red plug suit.

Well, the three reasons were opinions of Izumi-san himself, and we don’t know whether they are based on any market research or not. However, Bandai is making an effort to market Gunpla and other toys to the US. They list the new Evangelion movie, the new Gundam show, and state-side Gunpla Caravan as parts of it. If we were to be very optimistic, it might take only 10 more years before the US become a larger Gunpla market than Japan, just like in the Power Ranger case. But again, who knows.

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