"Media Mix Is Anime's Life Support System": A Conversation with Ian Condry and Marc Steinberg (Part Three)

The term, “character goods,” is often attached to cultural productions from Japan. What does this term suggest about the centrality of character to Japanese media mix? What ideas about character shape these productions? What factors led to this focus on character (as opposed to, say, story or world, or simply style) in the Anime system?

Ian: I see characters as operating in a space somewhere between celebrities and brands. Pikachu can act like a brand logo, standing for the Pokemon franchise when it’s plastered on the side of an airplane. Pikachu is also a character that can be active, like a celebrity, doing things in the Pokemon universe.

I think the dominance of Hollywood in the US makes Americans like myself more accustomed to viewing celebrities as pinnacles of human renown. Yet in Japan, characters, more than brand logos, are commonly used for even very serious organizations. I feel I know the FBI logo from all those DVD warnings to stop illegal copying. But Japan’s National Police Agency has a cutesy character.

In the end, maybe the ubiquity of logos in the US and characters in Japan have the same cause. In the US, if I was starting a new company, or trying to rename my academic department, I would naturally think: What should our new logo be? In Japan, I’d have to ask, what should our character look like?

Popularity breeds more popularity, and we learn those forms from all around us.

In the United States, there’s a tendency to speak of toys, candy, and other tie-in products as “ancillary” yet they seem to have at times exerted very strong influences on Japanese popular culture. How would you define their roles here?

Marc: The more I looked into the practices around the media mix, the more it seemed that every part played an important role. The work “ancillary” just doesn’t do justice to the significance of the sticker in the popularity of Astro Boy in the 1960s.

Or, to take a more contemporary example, Pokémon is not first a game, and only secondarily comics and animation series. It is all of these. Sure, some media have more weight than others, but what’s so fascinating about the media mix is the way the addition of each new element reconfigures the entire ensemble.

Jonathan Gray does a great job of pointing out the centrality of the “ancillary” in the North American context in the wittily titled Show Sold Separately. I think we have to do the same for the Japanese context where actually it’s more difficult to say what is primary to begin with.

Again, taking the case of Astro Boy, the TV show acts back on and influences the comic, the logic of replication found in the stickers work their way back into the theme of replication in the comic, character designs developed for the anime inform the toys, and so on. There’s a way you can write the history of Japanese pop culture from the point of view of candy makers (I was initially tempted to do this), or toys (with video games flowing naturally out of the character-centrism of manga and anime, and toy makers like Bandai becoming major anime producers), or freebees.

Marc, you especially make a point in your book that practices of fragmentation, multiplication, and dispersal, central to the media mix practices, precede the emergence of digital networks. What are some of the roots of these practices then and why do you think that these logics have been so influential on Japanese media?

Marc: The roots of these practices are difficult to pin down exactly. But I’d say the most two important elements here are an intensified serialization and transmediation that occur in the early 1960s.

First, we have a serialized narrative running in a monthly comic magazine. The long-form narrative serial really started in the 1950s. (There were pre-war and wartime serialized manga, but these were more like what television studies calls “series”: sit-com like formats that don’t have any narrative progression.) Then this narrative is transposed to another medium like television, or the character is transposed to another medium like the metal or plastic toy. So there is a further fragmentation of an already fragmented narrative. The more series develop out of the initial one, the harder the consumer has to work to chase after them all.

Granted, 1960s serials hadn’t yet formalized the transmedia storytelling approach where different narratives were told in different media. It’s really not until the 1980s that this approach becomes formalized. But still, I see the early transmedia serialization of 1960s TV anime as an important precursor to the fragmentation and dispersal we find with digital media.

Some media mix producers like Otsuka Eiji have even remarked on this, saying digital tools make the narrative experiments they were doing in the 80s all the more easy to pull off. So while there is an intensification of the fragmentation and dispersal with the rise of digital networks, the serial and transmedial format of the anime media mix already contains the logic of digital networks in nascent form.


Ian Condry is professor of media and cultural studies in Comparative Media Studies at MIT.  He is the author of The Soul of Anime:  Collaborative Creativity and Japan's Media Success Story (Duke U Press, 2013).  The book explores ethnographically the global spread of Japanese animation, from fieldwork in Tokyo's studios to participation in fan conventions in the US.  His first book, Hip-Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization (Duke U Press, 2006), analyzes the way rap music took root in Japan.  His research focuses on "globalization from below," that is, cultural movements that succeed, despite skepticism from elites.  He is the founder and organizer of the MIT/Harvard Cool Japan research project, which examines the cultural connections, dangerous distortions and critical potential of popular culture.  More info:  http://iancondry.com

Marc Steinberg is assistant professor of Film Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. He is the author of Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), and has published essays on anime, franchising and digital media in Japan ForumAnimation: An Interdisciplinary Journal,ParachuteJournal of Visual CultureTheory, Culture & Society, Mechademia, and Canadian Journal of Film Studies. Continuing the study of the media mix, his current research project explores the close relation between “contents” and “platforms” in Japanese media industry discourse and practice, from the 1980s to the present.